With our noses pressed to the windows of the bus, we could see festive garlands of lights twinkling along the main road as though it were Christmas. The soaring monuments to the late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung were illuminated by floodlights, giving this city’s skyline a warm glow.
We arrived at our hotel, where cellphones were available for rent from a counter in the lobby. Journalists were directed to a filing center with broadband Internet access.
Over the course of 48 hours touring with the New York Philharmonic, a delegation of 300 musicians, journalists and orchestra benefactors was whisked between our overheated hotel and theaters and banquet halls.
We were feted with multi-course dinners of salmon, crab gratin, lamb and pheasant. Our breakfast buffet was decorated with ice sculptures and included foods meant to cater to American palates.
OK, some of it was a little weird, like the banana and tomato sandwich. But the overall impression was that the North Koreans were trying hard to please and had the means to do so. Even if you were a cynical journalist, it was hard not to be impressed.
Within hours after our plane left, the lights went out. The cellphone kiosk closed down and the broadband was disconnected.
Pyongyang looked again like what it really is: the capital of the one of the world’s most desperately poor and dysfunctional countries. As is often the case, the best show was the city itself, which had been displayed to create an illusion of prosperity.
“As soon as you guys left, it was pitch dark again,” said Jean-Pierre de Margerie, country director of the United Nations World Food Program here and a resident of Pyongyang for the last 18 months.
The North Koreans “are very good at putting on a show,” he said in a telephone interview from Pyongyang.
In fact, people working in North Korea say the situation is as grim as ever.
The Buddhist charity Good Friends reported last month that food is as scarce this year as in the mid-1990s, when famine killed an estimated 2 million people. The World Food Program says that last summer’s flooding had destroyed more cropland than previously estimated and that only 10% to 20% of the population had enough to eat.
An agronomist working in North Korea said Pyongyang was eager to conceal the extent of its economic woes because it was hoping to attract foreign investment.
The philharmonic’s trip Feb. 25 and 26 brought by far the largest delegation of Americans to visit Pyongyang since the Korean War more than 50 years ago. The capital of the aptly named Hermit Kingdom gets few visitors.
We stayed in a hotel called the Yanggakdo, a 47-story pile of 1970s modernism. Among frequent visitors to Pyongyang, the hotel is nicknamed Alcatraz; its location on an island on the Taedong River discourages visitors from wandering off.
To the extent that reporters saw Pyongyang, it was mostly through the windows of the bus. Facades of apartments had been recently painted in bright hues of lilac, apricot and wintergreen that imparted a hint of Austro-Hungarian romanticism on an architectural style more often described as Stalinist.
Along the main street, the storefronts displayed clothing and appliances, but it was unclear whether the merchandise was for sale. Reporters who asked to visit a regular store where North Koreans shopped were taken to a foreign-currency store charging about $140 for a pair of gloves and $290 for a bottle of champagne. A South Korean expert last week estimated North Koreans’ average income at $1 per day. Needless to say, there were few shoppers.
It is almost impossible to distinguish the reality from the illusion in Pyongyang, which is as much a theatrical set as it is a city. It was rebuilt in the 1960s out of the wreckage of the Korean War as a showpiece to rival Seoul, the South Korean capital.
“Kim Il Sung needed an exemplary communist city for pure propaganda reasons to show that North Korea is a rich, prosperous nation, a perfect society under a wise leader,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar of North Korea.
With so much money poured into the capital, it was indeed a marvel of modernism by the standards of the 1970s and 1980s, with its towering monuments, wide boulevards and plazas. But almost nothing has been built since.
Even today, residency in Pyongyang is reserved for citizens with top rating under a complicated system in which grades are assigned based on loyalty. Regular North Koreans aren’t allowed to visit without a permit. And the disabled are banned from the city lest their appearance mar the perfection.
North Korean efforts to disguise their poverty are in fact counterproductive, Lankov said, because they undermine attempts to get sorely needed humanitarian aid.
“It is a question of national pride and acquired habit,” he said. “They cannot really admit to themselves that they are a destitute Third World nation.”