North Korea – a blast TO the past

Recently, North Korea has been in the news. I visited the country in May 2009 as a FINA water polo lecturer. It was interesting to see what was going on inside one of the most closed societies in the world. I discovered that it was not completely unfamiliar to me. It was reminiscent of the old Soviet Union in the 50-60s. I even felt a bit nostalgic as some things were painfully familiar: the architecture, the policemen & women uniforms, and the way people went about their business.

There were only 6-8 passengers aboard a China Airlines plane that took me there. Upon arrival at the Pyongyang airport my mobile phone was confiscated. I got it back when I was leaving the country. It did not work there anyway. The only way to contact the outside world would have been via a pre-ordered telephone call from a special outlet. The cost per minute that was quoted was 25 Euros per minute. The Internet was not available. A supervised limited Internet access was allowed to certain government officials at a rather high level.

The swimming pools and other facilities, where practical & theoretical sessions were held, were not modern but solidly built and clean. The age of the coaches, athletes and administrators, who attended the clinic, varied from very young to old ones. Everybody was attentive and eager to learn new things. I received a lot of questions as to what was happening in water polo in the outside world. In particular, they were interested in the neighboring Asian countries. They asked to download most of the stuff that I had on my USB as well as copied the video & printed material that I was using.

Prior to the clinic, when asked, I advised that I could do it either in English or Russian. They preferred for the lectures to be conducted in English. Two female interpreters had a very good command of the language. The explanations during an excursion to one of the “revolutionary” sites, conceived by then leader, Kim Jong-Il, were given by a young female guide with nearly perfect Russian pronunciation. She also offered to purchase Kim Il-Sung’s works about his self-developed ideology of Juche but the asking price was very high and I did not.

Most foreigners are asked to pay respect to the DPRK’s founder, Kim Il-sung. His mummified body is lying in state in a specially built room with climate control amid a monumental memorial complex. An elaborate access system is used to put through hundreds if not thousands of the country’s citizens attending the shrine daily compulsorily. It is an important element of the population’s indoctrination and the maintenance of personality cult that is cultivated around the ruling dynasty. All visiting men were dressed in similar black suits and white shirts with ties. The women had identical traditional Korean dresses on.

Overall, my impression of the people was that of very disciplined and industrious. Given these traits of its population, I have no doubts that, when it opens up, the nation’s economic rise would be rapid and successful, as it has been in the Southern part of the Korean peninsula.

I felt sad when leaving as the people with whom I got acquainted were friendly and warm. On the way back to the airport, as we were saying goodbye, I said to one of my new friends that the state managed and centrally planned economy without the incentives of free enterprise and market based industrial relations would not succeed in the long run. As in the end it did not in the former Soviet Union. But then I thought to myself that I should shut up as I might get arrested “for engaging into subversive activities aimed at undermining the existing order”. The thought that Bill Clinton would not be coming to my rescue also crossed my mind. I was not arrested on that occasion. We hugged, wished each other well and I left the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

About Erkin Эркин Shagaev Шагаев
European, world, Olympic champion, two times World Cup winner Чемпион Европы, мира, Олимпийских игр, двукратный обладатель Кубка мира

4 Responses to North Korea – a blast TO the past

  1. Pingback: Wasserball und Juche-Ideologie – Nord Korea einmal sportlich |

  2. Cathy says:

    Erkin , this is a very interesting article. Good to hear from someone who has experienced this society first hand.

  3. Nick Seale says:

    I met some of the players and coaches in your photographs at the recent Panasonic Asia Pacific Waterpolo tournament in Hong Kong! They mentioned your name and your clinics paid off as they are a well drilled side, only going down to Hong Kong in the final.

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