by Rob Outterside
It’s 5 am. The sanctuary of sleep regretfully fades and awareness rudely smashes its way in as music blasts out from speakers, reminding you – and everyone else in Pyongyang – that it is time to get up. Your morning ablutions are awkward to say the least as soap, razor blades and other commonplace items are difficult to come by. The klaxon sounds at 7 am and it’s time to go to work. You make your way to the train station and you wonder how badly late the train will be today. Far from the carefully controlled showcase regions of the city (intended for foreign visitors) the standards are somewhat laxer and even here in the capital you still have to step over a few dead bodies sprawled on the street. You’ve seen it so many times that you don’t even wonder how they died. Malnutrition most likely, but disease is possible too. As you approach the station a wooden cart stacked with dead bodies is pushed by. One of them groans weakly as you walk on. He’s not dead. Yet. But in all likelihood he soon will be and the porters have decided to save time and just get rid of him in advance. Just another day in the workers paradise, eh?
Okay, so this may be exaggerated. But the excellent book Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick explores this and I’ve no reason to doubt the accounts of dead bodies in the streets in places like Chongjin – where foreigners are never allowed to go.
This episode of Panorama gives us an extraordinary glimpse not just into North Korea but into an even more extraordinary school – The Pyongyang University of Science & Technology (henceforth PUST) – which educates the hand picked children of some of the countries most powerful. Run by an American, Dr. James Kim, and funded by the west the student body is introduced to the wider world in a controlled way, which the regime plainly hopes will separate the west’s technology from its ideas of freedom, rule of law, democracy and anything else that could damage them. Chris Rogers is allowed to live on campus (but only after 18 months of negotiations) and observe first hand.
Even though the crew are shadowed by government minders non-stop, what we see (and infer) is still massively enlightening. Classes at PUST in English, Business studies and more are given by foreign teachers. Censored though the curriculum is, the classes themselves don’t seem to be monitored and it’s anyone’s guess what western ideas are subtly transferred. You wonder is the regime aware of the danger to itself? In the short term some gain might be had. But as these bright ambitious youngsters develop they’re almost certain to feel restricted – the kind of things they want to build and achieve, because of what they’ve been taught at PUST, are simply not possible in North Korea without giving offence to the regime. As someone observes in the programme, that’s how revolutions kick off.
Some interviews are allowed with the student body and it’s just heart breaking to listen to these intelligent people, quite literally, quoting the party line on this subject and that. Not that I blame them. Big Brother is watching and at least one interview is curtailed when a government minder escorts a student away. I’ve no doubt these youngsters feel constricted and are curious about the outside world and many of them loathe the entire thing in the privacy of their own minds. But you’d have your work cut out for you getting them to voice it – especially to a western journalist.
In the end you wonder what the regime hoped to accomplish by allowing the programme to be made in the first place. Was it some sort of clumsy PR effort or was it a case of the left hand not knowing what the right was doing? As one of the foreign teachers observes it does give you an appreciation of how valuable freedom is – the freedom to speak your mind, to read and watch what you like, the freedom to look up whatever you want on the net without anyone but yourself (and the NSA) knowing.
The program also leaves us with the impression that change, if and when it comes, may come from the top – of all places – as this is a crafty way of working to win over the next generation of North Korea’s leadership. Nothing humans make lasts forever – North Korea included. And when the whole thing caves in I do wonder what role the PUST class of 2014 will play in what comes after.