28th May 1871 – the end of ‘Bloody Week’ of the Paris Commune

Summary execution of a petroleuse - note the vicious bourgeosie on the left

Summary execution of a petroleuse – note the vicious bourgeoisie on the left

On the 18th March 1871, the Parisian working class gave a lesson to the international proletariat that it was possible for the oppressed and exploited of the world to take the future into their own hands. On the 28th May, the last day of slaughter of those very revolutionaries, coming only 71 days after that momentous spring day of hope, through their martyrdom, they taught the working class of the world that the audacity of challenging the power of the ruling class came with a price. For the 28th May 1871 marked the end of ‘Bloody Week’, the end of the Paris Commune.

The Paris Commune of 1871 started when a group of washer-women thwarted a pre-dawn raid by the capitulationist and pusillanimous government forces who sought to rob the people of the artillery they had paid for in their attempts to prevent the fall of their city to the invading Prussians. What began as a self-defence action in the hills of Montemartre soon spread throughout the city and by the afternoon of March 18th barricades were being constructed and the revolution had begun.

18th March - Avenue Jean-Jaures

18th March – Avenue Jean-Jaures

In the post on the anniversary of the start of the Commune I listed what I consider to be some of the achievements of that, literally, world-changing event. For it was both in their achievements and failures of the Communards that later revolutionaries were to learn so much and which determined the manner in which they pursued the revolutions in their own countries, especially in Russia, Albania and China.

In studying revolutions there are both positive and negative lessons that need to be learnt. Failure to do so will lead to the same mistakes being made resulting in similar consequences. As the conditions in which a revolution takes place are always specific to the times and the conditions in a particular country it is inevitable that new mistakes will be made. That’s not a problem.

As Chairman Mao stated a revolution is not a dinner party (Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, FLP, Peking, p8). Revolutions are uncontrollable, it becomes almost a living organism which has a mind of its own. An organised revolutionary party might be able, at times, to direct the flow of events but they are no more than desperate men and women trying to control a river in spate. Dig the channels in the right place at the right time and the water can be controlled. Make one slight mistake and the water will break the banks and all bets are off – until the next crucial moment is reached. If a revolution can be controlled it is not a revolution. This makes the achievements of the Communists in Russia, Albania and China all the more remarkable.

Before going on to the mistakes made by the Communards it’s worthwhile re-iterating some of the achievements in that short two and a bit months. In the first few days:

  • rents for dwellings abolished
  • articles that had been pawned declared not for sale
  • the wage differentials between men and women were abolished
  • officials would not get any more than a ‘working-man’s wages’
  • the church was separated from the state
  • church property was to be national property
  • religious iconography was to be removed from schools
  • the guillotine to be publicly burnt, as a symbol of the old regime
  • night work for bakers was abolished
  • planned the reopening of factories closed by owners and these to be run on a collective basis

Although many of these were in response to the grievances of the Parisian working class after decades of living under a corrupt system, added to which were the hardships as a consequence of a more than four-month siege of the city – during a hard winter – by the Prussian army many of those decrees would have resonance in Britain (and most other countries throughout the world) even now.

Housing is still a problem – highlighted in Britain by the Grenfell fire of a year ago; wage differentials and the ‘gender pay gap’ have long been contentious issues (however, paying everyone the same, more or less, is an easier solution to crashing through ‘glass ceilings’ and has more rationale to it than paying over-paid women as much as even more over-paid men and would have a direct impact upon the poorest in our society who, nowadays, don’t even get the crumbs that fall from the table of the rich); recent events in the Republic of Ireland demonstrates how society can be distorted when the Church has a hand in controlling civil society – not to mention the role of religion in various parts of the world and the death and destruction that comes with it; general working conditions have become worse not better in the last couple of decades in most countries even though the Gross Domestic Product might be rising – the poor ALWAYS get proportionately less in such circumstances; employment is an issue which capitalism finds so difficult to deal with it’s not even considered of any importance in the political debate; and elected representatives of the Commune could be replaced at any time if they failed to live up to their promises – so no chance of the development of a so-called ‘Political Class’, a group of self-selected, self-serving, over-important opportunists who have gained control in too many countries.

The representative structure was for the working class and it was run by the working class. At the same time it’s important to make clear that the Commune was not a state of all the people. The bourgeoisie had run society for years and had failed – a bit like now – so the Parisian working class decided that it was time for a new class to be in control and purposely excluded certain sections of society. This was the first time in history where the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was in action – something which Marx, Engels and, later, Lenin picked up and developed in their post 1871 theoretical writings and which Lenin sought to put into practice after the Great October Proletarian Revolution of 1917.

Did the proposals and declarations of the Commune always work out as it was intended? No. Did they get some things wrong and follow an incorrect direction on some policies? Yes. But give them a break, many hadn’t had much formal education and it takes time for people to learn to do things in a new way – they weren’t given that time. Did opportunists and renegades from the working class get into positions of power which they then abused? Yes. These parasites exist in all societies and it will take decades of a new society before we can say that they definitely have been eliminated. Seventy one days was not long enough. Were they divided when unity was necessary? Yes. But that’s how things go. Either honestly or dishonestly people in such circumstances come to different conclusions over crucial matters. Here, again, time would have allowed the Commune to overcome (at least in part) some of these differences. But time there wasn’t.

But what is important is that they tried. They did not surrender when the going got tough – which happened very soon after the heady days of the recovery of the guns from the government troops. Many persisted, tried to make a difference to their community and many of them died for their tenacity and determination.

'The sacred revolt of the poor, the exploited and the oppressed'

‘The sacred revolt of the poor, the exploited and the oppressed’

Not only were working men involved in running society in a new way so were women – who also established women only debating clubs which used to meet in expropriated churches and which was a revival of a practice from the bourgeois French Revolution of 1789. They took up arms and enrolled in the National Guard and also played a major role in attempting to delay the entrance into the city of the murderous Versailles troops during ‘Bloody Week’. They were never ‘victims’ (as too many women claim today). They asked for nothing – they demanded and took.

But mistakes were made which led directly to the events of ‘Bloody Week’ from the 21st-28th May 1871.

Probably the most serious was that the Parisian Communards were too magnanimous – they didn’t recognise the viper they had in the nest, the government supporters and the bourgeoisie in general who would do any and everything to see the destruction of the new workers power. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the great Russian Marxist and Revolutionary, took this particular lesson of the Paris Commune on board and his seminal work on proletarian revolution, The State and Revolution, FLP, Peking, 1970, takes as its starting point the experience of the Parisians workers.

It’s strange that this soft approach towards the enemy within persisted throughout the period of the Commune. In the Declaration of the Commune, dated 29th March 1871, reference was made to the fact that if the people of the Commune didn’t deal severely with their enemies then they would become powerful enough to destroy the revolution or, at least, be able to undermine its advances. But little was done practically to avoid the counter-revolution.

However, in all revolutionary circumstances there will be those who call for leniency towards the deposed ruling class, either out of opportunism – in an effort to protect their own class interests under the guise of being revolutionary – or, more usually, out of naivete as many don’t realise what challenging power entails and that the deposed ruling class will never accept their loss of power and will wreak vengeance on all those that try. The naïve were to learn their lesson – but when it was too late to do anything about it.

Lax security meant that bourgeois counter-revolutionaries were able to allow the entry of the government, Versailles, forces inside the walls of the city on May 21st. Once inside the forces of reaction, composed mainly of ignorant and easily manipulated peasants, just carried out a blood-lust campaign of slaughter. One of the failings of the Commune was seen in the very instrument of their destruction – the workers of Paris had failed to communicate to the vast majority of the population of France the true importance of what they were trying to achieve in the capital. The interests of the peasants were with the workers but the reaction was able to convince these soldiers that they should stick with the theocratic, capitalist state.

Once the defences had been breached the Commune was reduced to fighting a rear-guard action. It was soon evident that with the actions of the government troops there was literally nothing to be lost in fighting to the death. No quarter was being given so none was asked. Many of those who surrendered were subject to summary execution – the vicious and degenerate bourgeoisie egging on the executioners. History often mentions the women knitting on the occasion of the execution of the aristocrats during the bourgeois French Revolution of the late 18th century but there is little mention the finely dressed bourgeois harridans who cackled and spat as young men, women and even children, were stood against a wall and shot.

Execution of a trumpeter

Execution of a trumpeter

The workers did fight and most notable, and for the bourgeois reaction the most notorious, were Les Petroleuses, the women who set fire to buildings in the city centre to slow down the advance of the murderous government forces. In this action there was also an idea of ‘if we can’t have these properties then neither shall you’. This was branded as mindless destruction by bourgeois commentators and the press.

The writer Emile Zola condemned the Communards for what he saw as pointless destruction of a beautiful city. He changed his mind slightly on learning of the scale of slaughter in subsequent days but at the same time his attitude that property was sacrosanct pervaded the ideas of many opponents of the activity of Les Petroleuses. Such an attitude exists to this day and can be seen whenever there are riots against the present capitalist system – whether politically motivated or just out of sheer frustration and anger about injustices in the society – where property is destroyed. Many, including the working class, in capitalist societies have an idea of the sanctity of property and no concept at all about the reasons for the ownership of such property.

Despite all efforts to hold them back the government troops were soon in control of increasingly large areas of the city and the slaughter continued. By the end of the week the ‘conservative’ estimate was that around 30,000 men women and children were murdered by the peasant Versailles troops. No proof was needed for active participation in the Commune, being in the wrong place and the wrong time was enough to merit the bullet or the bayonet of the soldiers.

But this was the aim of the reactionary forces. They were not concerned about capturing, taking to trial, convicting and punishing those who might have been elected members or active supporters of the Commune. The vary fact that the working class had permitted such an organisation and structure to exist in the first place was enough to deserve the death sentence. The reaction were not just thinking of those 70 days when the working class of Paris had taken control from their traditional rulers they were concerned that the working class of France (and indeed, the rest of the capitalist world) would be aware of the penalties for acting above their ‘station’.

Marx wrote about the importance of the working class being an independent armed force even before the blood of the Communards had been washed from the city’s streets;

All this chorus of calumny, which the Party of Order never fail, in their orgies of blood, to raise against their victims, only proves that the bourgeois of our days considers himself the legitimate successor to the baron of old, who thought every weapon in his own hand fair against the plebeian, while in the hands of the plebeian a weapon of any kind constituted in itself a crime. Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, FLPH, Peking, 1966, p99

The workers had taken up arms to better their condition and they were crushed by superior arms so that in future workers would be content to act within the bounds set by the ruling class itself. Fights and struggles around who should rule by depending upon the ballot box was to be the norm. It didn’t matter if people were to die in such internecine and tribal struggles (which is happening in many parts of the world even into the 21st century) as long as such fighting doesn’t challenge parliamentary cretinism – the belief that only by a cross on a piece of paper can society ever move forward.

By the 28th May the only fighting combatants of the Commune found themselves surrounded at the Père Lachaise cemetery, to the east of the city. One hundred and forty-seven were summary shot and buried in a trench – beside which today exists a simple monument to those murdered in that Bloody Week.

Communard's Wall - Pere Lachaise

Communard’s Wall – Pere Lachaise

The repression didn’t finish when the shooting stopped. Thousands were arrested and about another 100 were shot ‘after due process. Many workers were imprisoned in various parts of France and 4,000 or so transported to New Caledonia, one of a group of islands that was part of the French Empire in the Pacific, 1,200 kilometres east of Australia, which at the time was a penal colony. (It’s still a French dependency to this day.) Included in their number was Louise Michel – probably the only ever decent anarchist.

Women of the Commune at Chantiers prison

Women of the Commune at Chantiers prison

Many lessons were taught in that short period of time in the spring of 1871 – both positive and negative – but, unfortunately, the example of the wrath and brutality of the ruling class has had a greater influence over the proletariat of the world than the shining example of courage, audacity and true freedom.

Only in a few cases have the workers (and this time in an alliance with the peasantry) got off their knees and attempted to establish a new world order. Internal problems and mistakes in those countries (and here I specifically talking about Russia, China, Albania – and perhaps Vietnam) led to the eventual demise of the socialist goal but the lack of proper, meaningful support in, especially, the so-called ‘advanced’ industrial countries meant that the burden, which would have been light if spread more widely, had to be taken on a relatively few shoulders.

Nonetheless, the same issues which caused the Parisian workers to take up arms and establish the Commune are the same under which most workers and peasants throughout the world still have to endure. There is no doubt they will rise and take control, but they will have to do so in a position of weakness, as did the Communards, as history has shown us that revolutions only occur at times of severe crisis – which inevitably mean not the best of circumstances under which to build socialism.

In 1848 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote:

The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. (Karl Marx and Frederick Engels,The Manifesto of the Communist Party, FLP, Peking, 1968, p76).

What was true 160 years ago is as true today as it was then.

Eternal glory to the martyrs of the Paris Commune!

What sort of future for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?

Korean Reunification

Korean Reunification

When I was in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) at the end of last year (2017) the international situation was very different from what it is now – at least on the surface. So many negotiations go on in the background that the rhetoric of leaders has to be taken with a sizeable pinch of salt. Unfortunately the world-wide capitalist media concentrates on such outlandish statements and in the process present a picture that confuses rather than informs. What will come out of the meeting on June 12th 2018 between the DPRK leader Kim Jong-un and the US President Trump remains to be seen but it might be worth while reminding people of the historical background to these talks and the complex international situation that will follow whatever happens in Singapore.

Some historical background

The ‘Korean War’, known by the people of the DPRK as the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, took place between the 25th June 1950 and 27th July 1953. I don’t intend to discuss who started that war here as, at the moment, it’s not really relevant. All I’ll say here is that the decision taken at the United Nations meant that all the resources of the capitalist world (21 countries took part on the side of US imperialism) were mobilised against the North. It might also be worthwhile reminding readers that the decision taken by the UN Security Council – where all permanent members have the right of veto – was taken when the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN in support of the People’s Republic of China being the proper representative of the Chinese People and not the tiny island of Taiwan – a fascist regime at the time and the mere puppet of the US. I’m sure that the aggression against the North at a time when both its principal allies were absent from the supposedly representative international organisation of the UN is just a mere coincidence. (In 1950 the population of China was about a quarter of the total throughout the world and the USSR covered one sixth of the world’s land mass.)

That relatively short war caused millions of deaths and untold destruction on the Korean peninsula. As in the Vietnam War – another war of aggression promoted by the US and its sycophantic allies – the main reason the struggle didn’t end in ignominious defeat for the United Nations’ forces was due to the overwhelming superiority the US had in air power. Again as history is often forgotten in these circumstances, its worth remembering that the war broke out less than a year after Chairman Mao’s Declaration of the People’s Republic of China (after almost 20 years of warfare) and only five years after the end of the Second World War – known by the Soviet People as the Great Patriotic War – where the USSR had suffered unbelievable losses, both in people and material.

If the US wanted to achieve its aims then there was no better time to attempt to gain control of the Korean Peninsula. They failed.

One of the true facts that have been widely disseminated in the last few months when it comes to Korea Is the fact that the war didn’t end with a treaty but with an armistice. That armistice was signed in a rapidly constructed hut just outside one of the command bunkers in the virtually razed to the ground city of Pyongyang, in the DPRK. In politics the location of the signing of such agreements is important and making the UN commanders come to the North to agree that they would cease hostilities says a lot.

Since the armistice

But all imperialisms don’t like losing and after the armistice and the end of open hostilities they set about given the maximum support to the fascist regime in Seoul and have maintained an aggressive and threatening stance against the DPRK ever since.

If we look at the DPRK we see that although the aggressive rhetoric increased throughout 2017, and the first few months of 2018, the situation has been on a knife-edge ever since the end of the Geneva Conference in June 1954.

The openly fascist government of Syngman Rhee, supported by the Americans after the end of hostilities, was more than happy to accept the permanent placement of foreign soldiers on South Korean soil – local security forces could suppress any opposition from the people whilst the border along the Demilitarised Zone would be patrolled by US forces. This presence has not diminished in the more than 50 years since the fighting stopped and now there are something like 30,000 US troops in various parts of South Korea – most close to the border, the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

Most people just lap up the pap that’s fed to them by the various media in their respective countries when reference is made to the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the DPRK. They see it as an aggressive and belligerent stance by a ‘desperate and unstable dictatorship’ – the sort of descriptions used by their ‘democratic’ leaders. However, how many of them will know that it was the Americans, not satisfied with the number of conventional weapons that they had in South Korea, were the ones to break the Armistice Agreement by first introducing nuclear weapons into the Korean Peninsula in January 1958?

There was a partial withdrawal of these weapons in October 1991, when the US administration of George Bush decided to remove all land based nuclear weapons. However at the same time weapons which could be deployed from aircraft, from air bases in South Korea, were excluded. And, anyway, the fact that the US nuclear arsenal is so huge, and distributed throughout the world in a manner unique to any other country, this means that the nuclear threat is only slightly mitigated – aircraft or submarines, based in other submissive countries close by, could be close to the DPRK within a matter of hours.

The situation now

So that’s now 50 years when the people of the DPRK have been under threat of nuclear annihilation from the most powerful (militarily) country on the planet – and this doesn’t even take into account the massive ‘war games’ that take place a couple of times each year, on land, sea and in the air right next to the border. Although classified as exercises these are obviously no more than acts of intimidation, the classic tactic of a bully which the US has assumed with even more openness since the (temporary) weakening of Russia when the people accepted the full-scale restoration of capitalism in their country.

If the American workers who have supported (and still support) Trump had half a brain between them they might start to question why, even in times of ‘austerity’, there is always money made to feed into the bottomless maw of the military-industrial complex.

No other country in the world has to experience this implied military threat on a regular and ongoing basis. For decades. And not knowing if or when the exercise might turn into a full-scale military attack.

It’s the hypocrisy of the west that is astounding in these situations. Those in Britain only have to think back to October 2016 when a small Russian naval fleet passed through (in international waters) the ‘English’ Channel. It was treated in some quarters as tantamount to a threat to the security of the country but when huge war games are taking place on the border of another sovereign country it’s OK if they are carried out by the US and its allies.

Added to this (up to a couple of months ago) for the best part of a year, with Trump trying to establish his credentials as a ‘hard man’, the world has had to listen to the threats of the bully in the White House declare that the DPRK should expect ‘fire and fury’ if it does not abide by the wishes of the US; that the country ‘would regret it fast’ if it carries along its chosen path; going as far as to state, earlier in 2018 that the region was close to war.

Faced with all this what is the DPRK to do? Back down and then suffer the humiliation that all bullies shower on their victims or stand up and face the aggression with dignity? Their development, therefore, of a nuclear capability makes sense in the face of such continued hostility. Their level of technological expertise has long been known, and they have successfully launched satellites in Earth orbit – something the British have been unable to do alone.

The capitalist countries argue that the DPRK shouldn’t have the right to develop and possess nuclear weapons. They argue about non-proliferation treaties and try to force such a stance on all nations, especially ones that are prepared to stand up and refuse to do what they are told. But at the same time the major nuclear powers openly develop and improve their nuclear stocks (with the UK and the renewal of Trident and with Trump’s recent statements about a similar upgrade of the massive stocks the US already holds) which goes in direct contravention of the same non-proliferation treaties they so espouse.

Trump is going to the meeting on the 12th June claiming the only reason such a meeting has been possible is due to his own hard line. Like many others he forgets history and doesn’t seem to accept that there has long been desire within the south of the peninsula for an easing of tensions – which have been exacerbated by the attitude of various United States administrations in the past. The US might also underestimate that there’s a growing feeling in the south that being virtually occupied by a foreign power, who not only lives in your country but carries out actions that might – one day – lead to a devastating civil war, has gone passed its sell by date. Although there are US bases in Japan and have been there since the end of the Second World War they don’t play the same aggressive role as they are, and have been, in South Korea.

The US President also has already declared that he will not accept anything less than total submission from the DPRK on the matter of de-nuclearisation – a somewhat strange negotiating stance but not a surprise taking into account the individual concerned. That would be a hard one for Kim Jong-un to sell back home as there was definitely a sense of pride from the few people I had the opportunity to talk to during my short visit to the country. If nothing else the people in the DPRK have, and value, their independence. Relying on the goodwill of a President who continually reneges on past agreements could be a bit dodgy – whatever the assurances.

In a sense the DPRK has little to lose in these ‘negotiations’. Obviously sanctions hurt – even more when they are enforced by the erstwhile friend of the People’s Republic of China. China signing up to the most recent round of sanctions hurt, not just economically but also as the Chinese People’s Volunteers had played such a fraternal role during the Fatherland Liberation War. In Dandong, at the Chinese end of the Friendship Bridge across the Yalu River in the north-west of the DPRK, there are a couple of monuments celebrating the sacrifice of the people of China who went to fight on the side of their comrades in North Korea.

If Trump doesn’t get what he wants then as far as the US goes the situation hasn’t changed. He might ramp up the rhetoric to the same level as the end of last year but unless he can prove that Kim has been totally unreasonable this will give both China and Russia a get out clause in the continued imposition of sanctions.

International politics are getting even more complicated at the moment with allies bring pushed away, as was seen in the G7 summit that has just finished in Canada. China and Russia have been getting closer in certain economic and military fields and if the US is not careful they might find that they are the ones who are being isolated internationally.

The US is not the power it once was and even though Russia isn’t in the same situation as it once was as the revisionist and renegade country to Socialism during its latter days as the USSR it is not the sick man it was even ten years ago. And China’s economy is such a threat to the US that trade wars are very much on the cards.

American arrogance, which is merely being personified by its present President, might lead to the country’s comeuppance. Empires fall when their leaders, and possibly many of their population, think they are invincible.

The consequences of the meeting in Singapore might be different from Trump might think – whether he is smiling when he gets back on Air Force One or not.

Pyongyang to Moscow by train – with comments and observations along the way – Part 3

Train on the east coast of the DPRK

Train on the east coast of the DPRK

No longer alone

Although there were people getting on at the various stations not many were coming into the carriage at the end of the train – and I don’t think it was ever full at any time during the journey. It was probably about two to three hours into the journey before a couple of men came along the corridor (some time after the most recent station stop) and joined me in the compartment that housed berths 5 – 8. We soon realised that we had no common language with which we could communicate but that didn’t really become a problem.

Being by myself for the first part of the morning I wasn’t really as much aware of the general protocol of travelling in the sleeper carriage of the train. The majority of the passengers were male (in the whole 33 hours of the journey no more than a couple of female passenger in the carriage – not so in the rest of the train) and as soon as they had settled down, having found their berth and stowed any luggage the first task was to strip off the outdoor clothes.

I learnt on this journey that the majority of men in the DPRK seem to wear one-piece thermal underwear (that used to be called ‘long-johns’ but as they have come into fashion again in the west recently – for all, men, women and children – they are now known as ‘onesies’) and many of them would spend the journey dressed like that, even when it came to getting off the train at some of the longer stops. Others, perhaps with a different attitude to modesty, would take off their street wear and spend the journey in a track suit. Many of the men were dressed in suits and this was to keep these in a good condition but as well it was just mirroring what they would do at home. It might be moving across country but these compartments were effectively our home for the duration of the journey. Street shoes were replaced by some sort of slipper or flip-flops – again just as they would at home. This reluctance on behalf of many in Britain to leave the dirt of the streets on the margins of their homes is one of the reasons the British are considered ‘dirty’ in some countries of Europe, especially the further east you go.

Although they didn’t have a lot of luggage but what they did have was a medium-sized, cardboard box which was placed underneath the table by the window. I was to find out what was in that in a matter of a couple of hours.

How to cater for a long journey

When it comes to food planning it is a necessity on this route from Pyongyang to Moscow, especially if you are going straight through and not planning to stop off en route. I could have done better in my planning but was saved by serendipity. If I were to make the journey again I would plan for the worst case scenario as the greatest disaster in such a situation is that you arrive in Moscow with a lot of food which you didn’t need.

One stand-by (although far from providing a memorable gastronomic experience) are dried noodles, these are especially popular for long distance travellers on Chinese trains. It was for this reason that I had initial concerns about the samovar taking a long time to heat up after departing from Pyongyang. Really the only thing that can be said for instant noodles is that they are light in weight and will keep you alive – and at the end of your journey will swear never to touch them again for the rest of your life.

Due to DPRK restrictions on tourist, as it stands at the moment you won’t be able to make this trip unless it’s tagged on to the end of another pre-booked, organised trip. This means your official tour guides will be able to get you to a supermarket to stock up before you get on the train. I had to shop taking into account the longer stretch on to Moscow but I ended up hitting it lucky on that stretch as well (more in a later post) – so my errors were covered over. Obviously, if you make this trip with a group of people you can turn it into a gastronomic extravaganza if you so wish. Travelling alone means that the responsibility falls on yourself but at the same time opportunities open up to a lone traveller that will denied a group.

The more I think about it the more I don’t understand why the food trolley didn’t come to the last carriage. As far as I could tell the door was locked between the sleeper carriage and the rest of the train – but I might have got things wrong there. Before boarding I thought this trolley would have been a useful fall back option. On the other hand there might have been the problem with currency. Chinese Yuan might have been accepted as on the train from Dandong (on entering the country) but I don’t if that would have been the same with Euros. Presenting US Dollars might well, rightfully, have resulted in you being thrown off the train – before it stopped at a station.

Shopping in the DPRK

It seems appropriate here to make a bit of an aside and talk about shopping in the DPRK. Shopping is something I do only when I have to so won’t be talking about what might or might not be good value in the DPRK. Here I want to concentrate on some of the practicalities that any foreign tourist might find useful on a visit to the country. This is even more important as one of the few English language guide books about the DPRK (Bradt’s ‘North Korea’, 3rd edition, published 2016) is so out of touch with present day reality it is even more than useless. The author is more intent on making negative comments (as he does throughout) that he forgets that a guide book is useful only if it provides a visitor with up to date and accurate information. Virtually all his references to shopping are inaccurate. In fact, if he took out his childish ‘political analysis’ the whole book would be half as long and twice as useful.

What is true, which I’ve stated a number of times in previous posts and which many people are aware, is that you don’t have the same freedom to walk into any shop that is the case in most countries. That aside for shopaholics or just the curious it is possible to get an idea of how this works in the country as well as an indication of what ‘s available to buyers. Whether or not every citizen of the DPRK can actually purchase these items or not is totally irrelevant. Shops are full to bursting with all kinds of items many places throughout the world but that doesn’t mean that all citizens of those countries can take advantage of what’s on sale. I don’t know how much a Rolls Royce car might cost but as the saying goes ‘if you need to ask the price you can’t afford it’.

I suppose for a foreign visitor the number of places where they might be able to shop are limited to a small number of categories.

Those places which are a common part of the itinerary and where there will always be a slot in the timetable. One of these is the Stamp Shop – which is just to the left of the main entrance to the Hotel Koryo on Changgwang Street (not far from the main railway station). As the name implies there are a lot of collectors postage stamps here. These are interesting for people other than stamp collectors as since the very beginning postage stamps have told the story of the political situation internationally, commemorating events that might be taking place nationally or internationally (where there’s a DPRK presence) or celebrating an idea, an achievement or individuals within North Korean culture. (Even, bizarrely, a series of commemorative stamps in 1982 for the birth of William Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.) For those interested in DPRK Socialist Realism some of these are miniature art works of the genre.

Also on sale in the Stamp Shop are small, poster reproductions of some of the stamps. My group was told that the ones that depict the US being destroyed by soldiers of the DPRK are especially popular. A paper version of these would cost about the equivalent of £3.00 and one printed on cloth about £10.00. Here both Yuan and Euros are happily accepted.

The other place that is on the itinerary of virtually all tours is a visit to the Foreign Languages Bookshop on Sungri Street, just a block away north from Kim Il Sung Square. This is only a small, one room bookshop but it has a reasonable selection of books that cover the spectrum from the political to the cultural. The most common languages will be Russian, English, French and German, many books (especially picture books and albums) being in two or three languages in the same edition. These will be of various prices and probably more expensive than was normally the case in such bookshops in Socialist countries in the past. Here, again, Yuan and Euros are accepted without any problem.

Sanctions mean that it’s not easy for the country to export its publications and it’s even difficult for foreigners to subscribe to magazines from the DPRK. This probably has had an impact on the prices requested. However, technology has become a sanctions buster here with much historical and contemporary political material (including the monthly magazines ‘Korea Today’ and ‘DPRK Pictorial’ – in various languages) available as a download – in pdf – from Korean Books.

Visitors might want to buy drinks in their hotels at the end of the (what is normally a very long) day. I have no interest in other country’s beers when I’m travelling and stick to whatever is the local brew. In the Koryo Hotel a local made beer, 660ml, cost the equivalent of about £1.20. Stay local with the spirits and the prices are still very low (taking into account these are hotel prices and much more expensive than they would be in a local supermarket). Go pretentious and international and the prices will probably start to get to what you’d pay in any international hotel. Why anyone would do that is beyond me but there’s no accounting for taste.

All the international tourist hotels will also have a small supermarket somewhere in the building. These are rarely very busy and have a selection of both local produce as well as international products – almost certainly from China. Here it is the case that you have to pay via the system of getting a chit of you purchases, paying for them and then returning to the first counter. This, for people who are used to going to a supermarket and then paying for their goods via the self check-out, does seem (and in fact it is) somewhat archaic. But why do people who go to other countries demand that everything is the same there as in their home country? It’s different but once you know the system it’s no more complicated than queuing in any major department store in Europe. Even there things have changed – remember when cash tills were everywhere but now there’s a common queue? Anyhow, my limited experience at the hotel shop was easy enough the staff, knowing that their system might be strange for foreigners, making the process as easy as possible. Why this constant search for tiny inconveniences to make a negative point about a society?

The other shopping opportunity – that might only be normally available to those tourists on some of the longer tours – is a visit to a ‘normal’ department store in the centre of Pyongyang where foreign currency could be exchanged for DPRK won and used to buy whatever was available to the local population. This was a three storey store along one of the main streets of the capital – unfortunately I didn’t get the name or the address, but I’m sure it would be the same one used for tourists each time.

The idea here is that the visitor is allowed to wander around and see what is there and after a pre-arranged time meet up with the guides and then the process of currency exchange and purchase would go from there.

This store was similar to many in any other reasonably well-developed city. On the ground floor food and household goods. The range of food was extensive and prices by European standards were cheap – but then the cost of living in general is much less than in Europe. Most of the goods on sale in this store appeared to be local, DPRK produce. The food hall took up most of the ground floor and the household goods section was relatively small – specialised stores for such goods holding a bigger selection.

The first floor was mainly clothing and other items of personal use. Here there was a requirement to deposit any bags at a counter before going through a turn-stile to enter the sales area at the top of the stairs. I would have no idea of the incidence of shop lifting in the DPRK but I suppose there will always be someone who wants something for nothing. I’m the worst one to ask about what might be on sale but all the (very few) items I inspected looked of reasonable quality. There was nothing I needed but I’m sure that many tourists taken to this shop would buy a small something just to say they handled DPRK currency and that they had something authentically North Korean.

The top floor was dominated by a huge canteen. I was there at lunch time and the place was full and very busy. There seemed to be a wide selection of dishes, some similar to what we had been served in various restaurants at previous meal times and other more esoteric dishes which would be the norm for Koreans but which I really only came across when I was on the train journey from Pyongyang to Rajin – on my way to Moscow. This included a wide selection of sweets and desserts, that section full with children. I would have preferred to have eaten here rather than the fancy restaurant somewhere in the depths of the same building but that was not possible.

I suppose I should have decided to buy something, just to experience the actual process of currency exchange, but there’s nothing to be gained by knowing the process as it would only take place with the involvement of the official guides so the role of the visitor would be to merely pull out the foreign notes. When I met with my two female guides and I said there was nothing I wanted they neither expressed surprise nor suggested that surely there must be something I would want – i.e., there was no pressure to spend foreign currency. This was the case in all the places that we did any shopping, you could spend as much or as little as you wanted and all the guides would do would be to make the transaction as trouble-free and quick as possible – there nearly always being time constraints.

A whistle salute as the train departed

There was an interesting ritual when the train left one of the stations after about 3 hours into the journey (possibly Sudok or Sinsongchon) which didn’t occur anywhere else. As the train started to move out of the station a number of female station staff, all immaculately dressed in dark blue uniforms, blew their whistles as the train moved away. There were quite a few of them as if they were at each of the carriages along the whole length of the train. As my carriage was the last the whistling stopped after we passed and can only surmise it was to make people aware that a train was moving away from the station. I can’t recall this happening anywhere else which makes it all the stranger as I would have thought these procedures would have been standardised throughout the network.

My concerns about food came to nothing and Korean hospitality

Before getting on the train in Pyongyang I had been given a take-away, packed Korean lunch as the meal was considered to be part of my tour package. This sort of multi compartment, plastic container is common in many countries of South-east Asia. They have a time scale of a couple of days outside of refrigeration, there are and six or seven sections in the base with a number of local dishes, a mixture of meat/fish and vegetables, as well as the ubiquitous rice. When I had been handed this I decided that if other food options didn’t present themselves I could have survived on this for the length of the journey, it being easy for me (a relatively small eater) to spread the contents over a couple of meals. However, that didn’t become necessary.

From my experience North Koreans (reinforced by the almost 12 days I spent on trains with citizens of the DPRK) tend to have quite regular habits when it comes to eating, when they have the opportunity to choose when to eat. That’s basically 06.00 for breakfast, 12.00 for lunch and then 18.00 for the evening meal. Obviously it could, and did, slip from time to time but unless something major interfered (such as a longer stop at a station occurring at one of these times if travelling) it would rarely slip more than 30 minutes or so.

Around about 12.30 the question I had asked myself about what was in the cardboard box that my two compartment companions had brought with them was answered. It was their picnic for the duration of the journey. This was not home-made food but different dishes that had been prepared on a commercial basis and which local people would have bought in the stalls, stores or supermarkets before getting on the train.

Obviously there are no take-away places that have become like a virus in most countries, culturally homogenised but dominated by the fast-food that has spawned around the world from the United States. One of the great joys of being in the DPRK was that it was a Coca Cola/McDonalds/KFC/etc., free zone. Not only was the country not poisoned by the food itself, neither was the eye continually assaulted by their garish advertising and promotion. Also the country was free from the pollution of the streets which always comes with these businesses and the attitude of those who eat there of the throw away nature of what they had paid for.

Back to the compartment at lunch time. Slowly, out of the cardboard box came a number of these small, clear, plastic containers. They were talking amongst themselves about what to bring out, deciding how to spread the different dishes over the meals when they were on the train. The small semi-circular table that was fitted beneath the window was soon full of different containers. Also making an appearance was a bottle of a reddish coloured liquid in a bottle that was first used to store iced tea. The bottle was followed by a small stack of shot sized, clear, plastic cups.

Next to appear was a plastic bag which held a number of packs of use once and throw away chopsticks. These are, again, common throughout this part of the world. The chopsticks are made from flimsy wood and are shaped to about a centimetre or two from the end you hold in your hands. When released from their plastic wrapping (plastic is dominating so many aspects of life in the DPRK as well as other parts of the world) you just pull them apart and after the meal throw them away. (For anyone making a long journey by rail it would be useful to have some of these little packs as washing facilities are basic and the disposable sticks are a better option – although that might horrify many environmentalists.)

There had been little communication between us since they had joined the train apart from the nod of the head and a smile at the beginning and I just sat and watched this all play out. I was thinking that I, too, would start on my lunch – such an early start had meant I hadn’t had any breakfast.

The next thing to happen was that one of them handed me a pair of the chopsticks and indicated with his hand that I should help myself to what was on the table. Thinking that I should at least attempt to bring something to the feast I brought out and opened my commercially prepared lunch pack and found space for it on the edge of the table, indicating that – if they wished – that was available for the table.

Food for foreign tourists

This food was unlike any that had been presented at the something like 20 meals in the different restaurants during the first ten days or so of my visit. This was ‘Korean’ food but very different from the ‘Korean’ food that’s presented in the places where tourists go to eat. These restaurants are a mix of KITC (the official Korean Tourist company) owned restaurants or those attached to hotels. In many respects these are the up-market type of restaurants that aren’t in normal use. Those attached to hotels are the sort of places that would be used for large, family celebrations, such as weddings, so are close to a normal restaurant as they would be in any country.

I also feel that, although there’s no total pandering to foreign tastes, many of these places have a ‘westernised’ menu. It takes the fundamental of local cuisine but then twists it slightly to take in influences from the capitalist west. This is yet another impact, which affects virtually all countries – a sign of ‘wealth and prosperity’ is defined by the consumption habits of those in the richer countries of the world. A consequence of this is that meat, of all varieties, appears in quantities that aren’t the norm in the local cuisine. This is done not taking into consideration the negative effects that this change in diet might have on both the economy, ecology and health of a country.

On the other hand to have provided typical North Korean cuisine to foreign visitors on all occasions would have caused riots. I have been in circumstances (especially in Spain) where tourist hotels, catering for those from northern Europe, have tried to introduce local dishes in all meals but have soon changed back to a more homogenised menu (perhaps having a ‘local’ menu on one night of the week) as what people say and how they react when presented with a different menu is very often not the same – especially if this goes on for a number of consecutive days.

At the same time reject all the rubbish you’ll read on other sites where people claim that eating in these restaurants is all to do with a separation of foreigners from the rest of the population. If these people had travelled anywhere in any other part of the world they would have experienced a situation where the places to eat are not chosen for the benefit of the tourist themselves but of another self-interest – whether that be of a guide (who will get some commission) or a place that has an agreed relationship with a tour company. So on virtually all organised tours, in all countries of the world, the choice is no choice whatsoever. The only way you could do that is when you travel independently – but those who the most vocal in their criticism of the DPRK are the very ones who would be like fish out of water if they had to depend upon their own wits.

I agree it’s unfortunate that independent travel is not possible in the DPRK but that has historic reasons – which anyone with a modicum of political analytical ability will understand. The biased and prejudiced attitude of some travellers being a prime example of what this has produced. If you want to find fault when visiting another country then no country would be omitted – including the country from where these complainers come. It’s a case of people in glass houses. But hypocrisy is not confined to political so-called ‘leaders’.

It’s also not true that no Korean can enter the restaurants where groups of foreign tourists are eating. It would be difficult to place a percentage upon it (I wasn’t thinking in that strangely constrained manner when I was eating) but I would say that about a third of the places I ate in during the 11 days I was in the country there were a few local people also having a meal. This was especially so in the restaurants attached to any of the hotels in the centre of Pyongyang. If there was a limiting factor it was probably down to cost, making the realistic assumption that the hotel restaurants would have been more expensive than those regular eating places along all the streets.

I personally would have preferred to have eaten on those more ‘local’ sorts of places as well as at some of the street stalls that existed on occasions. There seemed to be some semi-permanent places in the centre of Pyongyang that only seemed to be open at weekends – which seemed to be attracting a regular stream of customers whenever I passed them.

But back to what the locals had for their lunch – which I was now sharing.

There must have been a half a dozen different dishes, with a mixture of meat, fish and vegetables. The fish, in such circumstances, is almost invariably the small, dried fish (which I learnt more about when on the next stage of my journey from Tumangang to Moscow). The meat was pork and this was in a spicy thick sauce. (Knowing that many foreigners are used to bland and flavourless food probably the most frequent questions about food preferences was whether you liked spicy food or not.) And, of course, there was always plenty of rice together with a container of kimchi. (There seems to be as many recipes for kimchi as the number of people who make it and I probably never ate the same version twice.) The fresh veg was provided by a small cucumber that was handed to me and which was eaten by biting off a chunk – having the effect of refreshing the mouth from the spicy cooked vegetable and meat dishes.

Soon after we had started eating the little plastic cups began to be passed around. This was their version of the local, home-made alcohol, possibly soju (rice wine) but this version had a slight reddish tint so was almost certainly flavoured by some fruit – perhaps to soften the impact (although I didn’t think it too harsh). Again the awful Bradt guidebook ‘warns’ visitors off this tasting these home-made versions for some reason.

As I was eating I was aware that the train staff were passing past the door taking food they had prepared and cooked to other passengers who weren’t as organised as my companions. This is useful to know for anyone who might like to try what could be produced on a tiny stove in an equally tiny kitchen. I stored this idea away for possible back-up when I was on the Tumangang-Moscow train – but that was before I knew the actual logistics of that part of the journey. There would still be the problem of communication but I’m sure that, if necessary, the problem could have been overcome with body language and a few selected words of Korean. As always, if I had known then what I know now.

After the meal the unfinished dishes were put away in their cardboard box and any debris from the meal thrown into the rubbish. Then my two companions went to sleep. In fact, virtually everyone in the carriage, passengers and staff, disappeared for at least an hour or so for the afternoon siesta.

Apart from me. The corridor was quiet as I watched the world go by.

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