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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 4 April2015
16 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 4 APRIL 2015 DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM A Greek in N A personal account of Fragkiska Megaloudi’s FRAGKISKA MEGALOUDI North Korea (or DPRK) remains misunderstood by the outside world, partly due to the lack of access by foreign journalists and researchers but also because public opinion about the country has been shaped by overused stereotyping narratives and images. I lived in Pyongyang for almost two years, from June 2012 to March 2014. I arrived in the country together with my fouryear-old son without knowing what to expect. Before I went to North Korea, I read numerous analyses and watched endless documentaries on the country that left me with the impression that I was about to enter a world of brainwashed ‘robots’. But what I experienced during those two years in DPRK had nothing to do with the standard stereotypes. I discovered a poor but proud country and friendly people whose worries and dreams would not differ much from the rest of the world. The Sunan International Airport of DPRK is situated approximately 24km north of Pyongyang. Large areas were hidden behind a giant purple sheet with red banners painted with the slogan ‘at a breath’ inciting workers to work harder in the building of the new international terminal. A smiling police officer and a man in uniform take me and my son to customs. Everything seems to work pretty fast - the police officer checks our passports and hands over our documents, wishing us a nice stay in DPRK. Three young women in uniform play joyfully with my son while we wait for custom clearance. Definitely this was not the image of the DPRK that one would have in mind. As we enter the capital the traffic becomes denser. Expensive cars with tinted windows occasionally pass crowded public buses and trucks crammed with soldiers, prompting traffic officers to raise their hands in a military salute. In DPRK, I was able to witness its constant transformation. In Pyongyang, the military barracks and shabby cottages on the banks of the Taedong River have been replaced by roller-coasters, playgrounds, and tennis and basketball courts. The facades of the residential buildings have been repainted in vivid green, orange and red, broken pavements have been repaired and ageing buildings are being upgraded. People have adopted a more relaxed attitude towards foreigners, often coming spontaneously to chat with me as I was enjoying the beautiful sunsets in the city. In downtown Pyongyang, department stores are filled with goods from all over the world: Swiss chocolates, packets of Doritos, Coca-Cola and Italian wine. Clothes from the Spanish Zara stores, Chanel makeup kits and perfumes, watches and jewellery stock the shelves. Chinese middlemen, who serve as brokers between North Korean trading firms and Chinabased companies, secure a continuous flow of goods and equipment into the country. Mobile phones and elegant handbags lie on the tables of smartly-dressed young women who sip drinks at Sunrise Coffee and Bakery on Chongjin Street. Waitresses roam the tables with iPads, ready to place customers' orders. On the ground floor of the building, a chef dressed in white prepares lunch-boxes of sashimi that are sold next to French cheese and Italian salami. The floor is undergoing renovation and the staff is preparing for the grand opening of a new beerhouse that will serve imported beers, beef entrecotes and German sausages. In the ‘new era of prosperity’ that the leadership has promised, leisure activities are becoming equally important. Sundays are an official day off but North Koreans traditionally participate in collective labour such as paving sidewalks, gardening of public spaces or planting fields. But over the past couple of years, a more relaxed approach has resulted in a growing number of people taking days off during the weekends. The new parks are full of joyful teenagers playing basketball or volleyball or practicing roller skating; along the river young couples take romantic walks holding hands amidst families enjoying picnics on its banks. Outside the playgrounds children line up to get marshmallows and candy floss from street vendors. Contrary to what state media claim, playgrounds and parks in Pyongyang are not free of charge. The I discovered a poor but proud country and friendly people whose worries and dreams would not differ much from the rest of the world.
28 March 2015
11 April 2015