In N. Korea, Eccentricity Well Off the Scale

Billboards in Pyongyang show the orchid Kimilsungia, left, and a second national flower, a red begonia called Kimjongilia, right, named for the two leaders.
Billboards in Pyongyang show the orchid Kimilsungia, left, and a second national flower, a red begonia called Kimjongilia, right, named for the two leaders. (Photos By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)
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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 29, 2008

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- In closed communist dictatorships, land-use planning often edges toward the far side of eccentricity.

In Albania under Enver Hoxha, the countryside was pimpled with more than 700,000 concrete bunkers. Built to ward off invaders, most became outhouses.

In Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu, a historic quarter of old Bucharest was bulldozed to build a Parisian-style boulevard, an artificial river and a 13-story neo-Stalinist palace that was used for, well, nothing. Before Ceausescu could move in, he was overthrown, lined up against a wall and shot.

Here in North Korea, with a father-and-son dictatorship ruling the roost, eccentricity in land planning has gone unchecked for 60 years. It has gone to the far side, and beyond.

Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea in 1948, built stupendously large structures to honor himself. So has his son, Kim Jong Il, who took over when his father died in 1994.

And so this week, when the New York Philharmonic flew into Pyongyang for a first-of-its-kind concert, the government offered bus tours to show musicians and attending journalists what the two Kims have wrought.

To explain it in English, the government provided intense men with worried faces. They called themselves "guides." The musicians called them "minders." Their job was to answer questions and prevent foreign visitors from wandering off to see a city that, from a moving bus, appeared to be poor, dark and cold.

The tour buses stopped only in front of the gleaming edifices that are the pride of the personality cult of the two Kims.

First on the tour was a statue of Kim Il Sung, known here as the Great Leader.

The statue is shockingly big and commands a vast concrete plaza on a hill overlooking the capital. Large speakers broadcast martial music. When North Koreans visit, as they often do in sizable, highly organized groups, they bow to the statue.

For foreign visitors, snapping pictures of what may well be the world's tallest statue of a dead dictator, the first question that comes to mind is:

"How tall is it?"


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