A Snapshot of Pyongyang

By Major General W. C. Gregson, U.S. Marine Corps and Captain Bruce Lemkin, U.S. Navy

If the Agreed Framework survives and realizes its vision, the peninsula will be a safer place, with a more open, less dangerous, and less (perhaps even non-) nuclear North Korea. Like the armistice, the Agreed Framework is vulnerable. Unlike the armistice, it is controversial. Negotiations among all parties continue.

As part of these negotiations, a U.S. delegation (of which the authors were part) traveled to Pyongyang in November 1998. Some other Americans, including officials from the State Department, visit North Korea relatively often, but visits by U.S. military officers are relatively exceptional. We found it interesting that our North Korean hosts waived the entry and exit visa fees for all in our delegation—except for the military members.

What We Found

We arrived on board two military aircraft based in Yokota. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea does not allow aircraft to fly directly from the Republic of Korea. The farmland around the airport appeared to be sparsely populated. Many workers labored on flood-control channels that were being reinforced or repaired. Some bystanders showed curiosity about our arrival, but such visits are not nearly as unusual now as they were prior to 1994. In fact, Congressman Tony Hall (D-OH) had just completed a visit.

Few vehicles were on the roads. A number of civilian aircraft—Soviet era, Soviet-built—with North Korean insignia were at the airport, but the arrival/departure board inside the terminal listed only one flight, to Vladivostok. No other passengers were in the terminal. A DHL air-delivery-service sign attested to a Western business presence in Pyongyang.

After a short stay at the airport for the processing inherent in all bureaucracies, we left for downtown Pyongyang and the Koryo Hotel. The senior members of our delegation embarked in two Mercedes late-model sedans—Mercedes is the vehicle of choice for the elite—while the rest boarded a small bus. We observed many people walking, and more than a few, yet a minority, on bicycles. According to our experienced State colleagues, bicycles had been banned for years under the Great Leader, Kim II Sung, in an effort to enhance the appearance of the capital. This restriction reportedly has been lifted by Kim Jong II.

Pyongyang is a serious city. Traffic at every intersection is controlled by a uniformed officer, with precise military facing movements and signals worthy of the most ceremonial military police at a U.S. military base. At the edges of the city, the officers tended to be male. In the center of the city, they were all female, outfitted in well-tailored uniforms designed personally, we were told, by Kim Jong II. Traffic lights were in place at the intersections but not turned on. Apparently, Siemens Corporation installed the system but had not turned it on because of a contract dispute.

The Koryo Hotel itself recalls the architecture of some Eastern European hotels. It features lots of mirrors on the walls and ceilings of the public areas, giving the image of lots of space, and no doubt facilitating tactful "people watching." A disco, a collection of tourist shops, and at least three restaurants complete the amenities. The small number of guests in the cavernous public areas lent a particularly eerie tone to the already surreal environment.

Prefabricated concrete apartments, of the type often seen in other Communist and formerly Communist cities, dominate the city's architecture. The structures look similar to those in Beijing, but what was on the apartment balconies differed. In Beijing, virtually every balcony serves to air laundry, and quite a few sport satellite dishes. In Pyongyang there were no satellite dishes, of course, and virtually every balcony was being used to store vegetables, primarily cabbage.

Many uniforms were visible, although very few weapons were in evidence, limited to guards at clearly important facilities. The weapons and the few military vehicles we observed were all well maintained and serviceable. The adults not in uniform dressed conservatively, generally in gray, brown, or black. Many of the youngsters, up to about age eight, wore bright colors.

The day starts before dawn for many in the city. Street sweepers are out early, cleaning the sidewalks and the boulevards with straw whisk brooms. The trolleys—electrically powered from overhead lines—were packed with folks, getting on and off at every stop. It was, by far, the largest group of humanity that we observed during our visit. The commuter trains, similarly powered, run on obviously well-tended and well-used rails. Every major intersection has an elevated walkway, so pedestrians will not interfere with the flow of vehicular traffic, presumably the official and elite in Mercedes sedans and an occasional truck.

Official monuments are everywhere. As with militaries everywhere, dots and numbers on the pavement mark the precise spots where troops are to stand for ceremonies.

Two radio stations playing martial music were available. Two television stations broadcasting the same patriotic program were available for about five hours each evening. Fortunately, there were some in our delegation who served as simultaneous translators/commentators while we watched a show.

We will leave the details of our negotiations to other venues, but suffice it to say that dealings with the North Koreans are never easy, and progress often is measured not in great steps but in millimeters. By that metric, we made progress, and the process continues. We can only hope that some day, through the nurturing environment of peace and stability, the North Korean people will join their cousins to the South in enjoying life in the modern world.

Reflections On Departing

On our return flight, we flew directly over Hungnam, the scene of the final move of the 1st Marine Division's operational maneuver to the sea, after the breakout from encirclement at Chosin Reservoir. That breakout was covered and supported all the way by the projection ashore of fleet-based combat power and logistics from the Seventh Fleet units commanding the seas. On just one typical day during that march to the sea, for example, 83 sorties were flown in direct support by both Navy and Marine Corps pilots, from both aircraft carriers and shore bases. The breakout and the "attack in a different direction" from Chosin to Hungnam also were built on a sea base. Perhaps there is a lesson here.

Hungnam appears to be little changed from the pictures and descriptions in the battle histories. We could see only a short distance up the valley to the north, but the harbor and the limited view of that extraordinarily tough terrain were enough to recall our debt to those who served there nearly 50 years ago.

General Gregson is Director, Asia-Pacific/International Security Affairs/Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; Captain Lemkin serves as Assistant Deputy Director for Political-Military Affairs for Asia-Pacific/Mideast on the Joint Staff.



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