A Jog in the Forbidden City

Touring North Korea

Volume CVIII, No. 5May, 2008

Peter Kenote

Photos by David Finlayson

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Peter Kenote, violist in the New York Philharmonic, may be the only American who has ever jogged through the streets of Pyongyang and seen a street’s-eye perspective of this “forbidden city.” The weather was in the 20’s and 30’s with a brisk wind. 

I love running while on tour because you can see a lot more of a city. But here, there’s no visible signs of an economy whatsoever. There’s no visible signs of employment and very drab architecture and clothing.

The electric trolleys hardly go faster than a walk, probably to save electricity. And you could tell that even when people ride their bikes they’re just barely have enough energy to keep the bikes moving. They’re just shuffling along.

And it was really very depressing. I stopped at one point watching about 30 or 40 workers building a stone wall by hand — no power tools. They were using hammers and chisels and lifting huge stone blocks by hand and from piles of rubble.

There were a lot of people that were wearing winter clothing, huddling together in the lobbies of buildings. I very rarely saw lights on in those buildings. I could tell one was a hair salon, and people were in there all wearing winter coats, waiting to have their hair cut by daylight — no electric lights.

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When I was jogging, people would look at me aghast at times because here are people that hardly have enough food to survive and here I am running: I obviously have an excess of calories.

I remember at one point hearing a military band practicing in a building. So I just stopped and just stood there and listened for a while. They were playing marches and they sounded good. 

Once I arrived at an intersection. Instead of traffic signals, the intersections have these young women who direct traffic. And they use very sharp, succinct movements — like ballet choreography — to direct traffic, if there is any. In most cities when I run, if there’s no traffic, I just cross the street. But here, I started crossing and this particular girl blew her whistle at me and pointed directly at me, and then she pointed to the underpass, which I hadn’t seen. For a young girl, she really communicated an incredible amount of authority. It was like, “Don’t cross the street: use the underpass!” So I did. 

I saw endless numbers of people waiting at bus stops or trolley stops. I didn’t see any real shops.

When people are walking around in, say, New York City or any other city, you can tell that they’re going places: they have a sense of purpose. They have a sense of a destiny. They have something to do: shop, work, whatever. But the North Koreans just walked around — strolling almost — aimlessly. Few people had a brisk walk.

One interesting thing was that a truck, a big old truck, had about four or five guys in it. It came at me, crossing the bridge, as I was going back to the hotel. And I just waved at the guys in the truck and they started cheering. I couldn’t believe it. They were cheering and clapping. They thought, “An American guy running — that’s great!”

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I didn’t see any overweight North Koreans, but the fattest people, the healthiest North Koreans you’ll see are pictures of the leaders. All of our handlers, all the employees of the hotel, the employees at the concert hall, bus drivers, and the people I saw on the street — all were extremely trim.

The city is falling apart, the whole infrastructure. Everything. The only things that were really first-class architecture and in the best shape were the monuments and the concert halls. Even our hotel was not in great shape. It would be a two-star hotel by our standards. 

We were served lavish meals: a 16-course dinner on our first night. At one point I was able to speak to one of our North Korean translators alone. I told her that we don’t eat like this. And it’s very embarrassing for us, particularly because we know that there are people starving in this country. And she acknowledged that. I was quite surprised. And then she said, “But you have to understand that you are our honored guests.” And so it really sends the message to us or to me that we had a lot of responsibility not to embarrass them, but at the same time to try to communicate to them that we’re not what they have been told we are.

It’s very hard to realize the suffering and oppression that North Koreans have to live with and are forced to accept. At the same time we realized that we were in a unique position to try to reach out to them in a way that’s not possible with political negotiation.