The North Korean capital, Pyongyang, is a city consecrated to the worship of a father-son dynasty. (I came to think of them, with their nuclear-family implications, as 'Fat Man and Little Boy.') And a river runs through it. And on this river, the Taedong River, is moored the only American naval vessel in captivity. It was in January 1968 that the U.S.S. Pueblo strayed into North Korean waters, and was boarded and captured. One sailor was killed; the rest were held for nearly a year before being released. I looked over the spy ship, its radio antennae and surveillance equipment still intact, and found photographs of the captain and crew with their hands on their heads in gestures of abject surrender. Copies of their groveling 'confessions,' written in tremulous script, were also on show. So was a humiliating document from the United States government, admitting wrongdoing in the penetration of North Korean waters and petitioning the 'D.P.R.K.' (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) for 'lenience.' Kim Il Sung ('Fat Man') was eventually lenient about the men, but not about the ship. Madeleine Albright didn't ask to see the vessel on her visit last October, during which she described the gruesome, depopulated vistas of Pyongyang as 'beautiful.' As I got back onto the wharf, I noticed a refreshment cart, staffed by two women under a frayed umbrella. It didn't look like much—one of its three wheels was missing and a piece of brick was propping it up—but it was the only such cart I'd see. What toothsome local snacks might the ladies be offering? The choices turned out to be slices of dry bread and cups of warm water.Nor did Madeleine Albright visit the absurdly misnamed 'Demilitarized Zone,' one of the most heavily militarized strips of land on earth. Across the waist of the Korean peninsula lies a wasteland, roughly following the 38th parallel, and packed with a titanic concentration of potential violence. It is four kilometers wide (I have now looked apprehensively at it from both sides) and very near to the capital cities of both North and South. On the day I spent on the northern side, I met a group of aging Chinese veterans, all from Szechuan, touring the old battlefields and reliving a war they helped North Korea nearly win (China sacrificed perhaps a million soldiers in that campaign, including Mao Anying, son of Mao himself). Across the frontier are 37,000 United States soldiers. Their arsenal, which has included undeclared nuclear weapons, is the reason given by Washington for its refusal to sign the land-mines treaty. In August 1976, U.S. officers entered the neutral zone to trim a tree that was obscuring the view of an observation post. A posse of North Koreans came after them, and one, seizing the ax with which the trimming was to be done, hacked two U.S. servicemen to death with it. I visited the ax also; it's proudly displayed in a glass case on the North Korean side.
I saw exactly one picture of Marx and one of Lenin in my whole stay, but it's been a long time since ideology had anything to do with it. Not without cunning, Fat Man and Little Boy gradually mutated the whole state belief system into a debased form of Confucianism, in which traditional ancestor worship and respect for order become blended with extreme nationalism and xenophobia. Near the southernmost city of Kaesong, captured by the North in 1951, I was taken to see the beautifully preserved tombs of King and Queen Kongmin. Their significance in F.M.-L.B. cosmology is that they reigned over a then unified Korea in the 14th century, and that they were Confucian and dynastic and left many lavish memorials to themselves. The tombs are built on one hillside, and legend has it that the king sent one of his courtiers to pick the site. Second-guessing his underling, he then climbed the opposite hill. He gave instructions that if the chosen site did not please him he would wave his white handkerchief. On this signal, the courtier was to be slain. The king actually found that the site was ideal. But it was a warm day and he forgetfully mopped his brow with the white handkerchief. On coming downhill he was confronted with the courtier's fresh cadaver and exclaimed, 'Oh dear.' And ever since, my escorts told me, the opposite peak has been known as 'Oh Dear Hill.'I thought this was a perfect illustration of the caprice and cruelty of absolute leadership, and began to phrase a little pun about Kim Jong Il being the 'Oh Dear Leader,' but it died on my lips.
Sooner or later, all talk among foreigners in Pyongyang turns to one imponderable subject. Do the locals really believe what they are told, and do they truly revere Fat Man and Little Boy? I have been a visiting writer in several authoritarian and totalitarian states, and usually the question answers itself. Someone in a café makes an offhand remark. A piece of ironic graffiti is scrawled in the men's room. Some group at the university issues some improvised leaflet. The glacier begins to melt; a joke makes the rounds and the apparently immovable regime suddenly looks vulnerable and absurd. But it's almost impossible to convey the extent to which North Korea just isn't like that. South Koreans who met with long-lost family members after the June rapprochement were thunderstruck at the way their shabby and thin northern relatives extolled Fat Man and Little Boy. Of course, they had been handpicked, but they stuck to their line.There's a possible reason for the existence of this level of denial, which is backed up by an indescribable degree of surveillance and indoctrination. A North Korean citizen who decided that it was all a lie and a waste would have to face the fact that his life had been a lie and a waste also. The scenes of hysterical grief when Fat Man died were not all feigned; there might be a collective nervous breakdown if it was suddenly announced that the Great Leader had been a verbose and arrogant fraud. Picture, if you will, the abrupt deprogramming of more than 20 million Moonies or Jonestowners, who are suddenly informed that it was all a cruel joke and there's no longer anybody to tell them what to do. There wouldn't be enough Kool-Aid to go round. I often wondered how my guides kept straight faces. The streetlights are turned out all over Pyongyang—which is the most favored city in the country—every night. And the most prominent building on the skyline, in a town committed to hysterical architectural excess, is the Ryugyong Hotel. It's 105 floors high, and from a distance looks like a grotesquely enlarged version of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco (or like a vast and cumbersome missile on a launchpad). The crane at its summit hasn't moved in years; it's a grandiose and incomplete ruin in the making. 'Under construction,' say the guides without a trace of irony. I suppose they just keep two sets of mental books and live with the contradiction for now.