Two men in a rowing boat
DPRK,  Friendly Friday,  People

Keeping North Korea clean and beautiful

It was the morning after the storm in Pyongyang, and even quite small children, dressed ready for school, assembled on street corners armed with buckets, mops, brooms. All doing their bit to keep the city clean. They were engaged in a civic duty that will be theirs for the rest of their lives.

Elsewhere, on the Taedong River that runs through the centre of the city, a flotilla of small boats was gathering weeds that had accumulated, washed down by the heavy rain of yesterday. Our young guide told me that the piles of weed would be used as animal fodder; nothing is wasted here.

Wide river with small boats, lined with tall buildings
Boats clearing weed from the Taedong
Men unloading green weed from a small boat
Clearing weed from the Taedong

If not clearing up after a storm, there will be plenty of other tasks. In North Korea every citizen has a responsibility to contribute to keeping their local area looking the best it can. Everyone belongs to their neighbourhood organisation, known as an inminban. This is in part a security body (members monitor each other for transgressions) and in part a community action group. As a result, armies of volunteers / conscripts (depending on your perspective) can be seen sweeping the streets; cutting the grass (sometimes with scissors!); planting flowers; painting kerbs and walls; and as we saw, even mopping up puddles.

I was going to include, picking up litter. But looking back, I don’t recall seeing a single bit of litter either on the city’s streets or anywhere else in the country. I suspect the punishment for littering is quite severe. But I also suspect that it’s an incredibly rare crime, for two reasons. For one thing, North Koreans are brought up to put the good of the wider community before their own. The priority order is: first, the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un; second, the country as a whole; third, their local community; fourth, their family and themselves.

But also, the objects of litter are rarer here. People buy and consume far less. There are no weekly deliveries of luxury items from Amazon (other retailers are available!) in layers and layers of packaging. And no imported fruit and vegetables, carefully packed to avoid bruising en route. In the countryside they grow most of what they eat. In the towns and cities they shop for food but in a style we might recognise from the 1950s, with minimal packaging if any.

The newspaper ‘DPRK Today’ (published in Korean and English by the state) recently reported on a growing interest in recycling. This is perhaps unsurprising given a) the shortage of resources in the country; and b) this desire to keep public spaces clean and attractive. It said:

People’s committees in Pyongyang City, all provinces, cities and counties have mapped out recycling projects. They also pay attention to environmental protection in recycling. This accelerates regional economic development.

A city beautification station in Moranbong District of Pyongyang City makes plastic goods, blocks and cardboard products through recycling.

A furniture manufacturers’ cooperative in Yonthan County of North Hwanghae Province makes plywood by recycling sawdust and wood pieces. Its workers also operate a boiler by recycling waste materials.

A paper factory in Hyangsan County of North Phyongan Province also benefits from recycling. An essential plastic goods factory in the county makes a variety of plastic goods by recycling waste materials.

A public campaign for collecting materials lying idle is also brisk. Citizens in Chongnam-dong of Sunam District in Chongjin City of North Hamgyong Province and Rangnang District of Pyongyang City collected a large amount of materials lying idle such as wastepaper and scrap glass, and sent them to factories and enterprises.

DPRK Today, November 2020

[Note the role of citizens in collecting that wastepaper and scrap glass.]

So that’s it for clean – what about beautiful?

Cosmos flowers

One of the country’s patriotic slogans is ‘Let the cosmos flowers bloom all along the roads and railways!’. It is usually said that the Cosmos flowers are planted every year by the people along all the roadsides and railways, so that Kim Jong Un’s travels around the country will be brightened by them; a sign of gratitude for the ‘field guidance’ he offers on these visits, working untiringly for his people, as did his father and grandfather before him.

Whether or not they are planted primarily for Kim Jong Un’s benefit, the flowers certainly brightened our journeys around the country. Now, whenever I see a Cosmos, I am transported directly back to North Korea. I spare a thought for those diligent citizens who plant them. And not just those, but all the people there who play their part (willingly or not) in keeping the cities, towns, villages and countryside clean and beautiful.

Amanda’s Friendly Friday question about how recycling is approached in different parts of the world prompted these reflections of my visit to North Korea, where ensuring the country looks its best is the responsibility of all citizens. Whether that will include a commitment to recycling or any embracing of positive environmental developments is perhaps less certain, despite the claims made by DPRK Today. The Hermit Kingdom is unsurprisingly isolated from global initiatives on climate change and, both through choice and international action, marches to the beat of its own drum.

I visited North Korea in 2019


  • Ju-Lyn

    I don’t think I’ve either had conversation with anyone who has visited North Korea. Thank you for taking us along for a peel.

      • Ju-Lyn

        I appreciate that everyone feels a responsibility towards keeping their environment clean & beautiful – not always the case; a lot of folks will take great pains to beautify & care for their homes, but couldn’t be bothered with what goes on outside it.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Thank you Ju-Lyn 🙂 I have a couple of friends who have been to NK – one who inspired us to go and one I only learned had been there after our trip. But it is unusual, I grant you! Yes, this attention to making their environment pleasant for everyone is admirable, although to what extent they do it because they believe it is important and what because they have to is unclear and probably varies from person to person. I also suspect that in poorer communities the environment ends up looking a lot better then their individual homes, unfortunately.

          • Ju-Lyn

            I hear you. One of my pet peeves is this idea of doing something (no matter its own merits) just because it is required. Maybe there is this rebellious part of me which rathers a semblance of choice & good sense as opposed to blindly following rules & herd.

          • Sarah Wilkie

            I don’t think you’d be happy living in N Korea in that case – but nor would any of us who have grown up in a country with personal freedoms!

  • wetanddustyroads

    “Cutting grass with scissors” … now, there’s a way to keep my husband busy for the whole of a Saturday 😁. I’ve read your post with amazement … and then loved the pictures of the cosmos flowers towards the end!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Now that’s an idea 😂 The flowers are pretty, aren’t they? In fact, the countryside generally there is lovely and they have some wonderful landscapes, which surprises some people 🙂

  • Forestwood

    A fascinating peek into another lifestyle and way of thinking about the world, Sarah. Thanks ever so much for participating and sharing your visit with us. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the lovely tradition of planting cosmos, whether it is blind obedience to the traditional perspective on life, or a wish to beautify their countryside or both, it would be most enjoyable for all who pass by.
    Whilst authoritarian, the culture seems respectful of nature and being community oriented is not such a bad thing.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Amanda 🙂 I totally agree about the cosmos flowers and I think the people are genuinely proud of them even if they plant them through obligation rather than choice. It’s hard to know how they feel about their leaders because they can’t possibly ever be critical. But our UK guide (who’s been there 20+ times and is a real expert on the country) told me that many of them are genuine in their love of the Kims, even if that is because it has been instilled in them from birth. He has observed many crying real tears and looking really upset when visiting the mausoleum, the Palace of the Sun.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Totally fascinating Jo! An Australian friend from Virtual Tourist went there in 2014 and wrote some reviews for the site. When VT closed he adapted those for a blog and wrote more extensively about his trip and I got intrigued. I mentioned it to my husband who loved the idea of going somewhere that would so different from other places we’d visited. And given that we were going, we decided to book the longest tour available to see as much as possible, which was definitely a great decision as we got well off the beaten track 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Anna 😘 I had a bit of luck as far as the flower photos were concerned. I’d been trying to photograph them from the bus, with limited success because they were too close to come out unblurry from a moving vehicle. But then we had a breakdown in the middle of nowhere and were stuck for an hour while the driver did some repairs to the engine! We weren’t allowed to take photos standing outside the bus (initially we weren’t even allowed to get off the bus!) but I was able to get much better shots from my seat while we were stationary!

        • Sarah Wilkie

          It could! For a while they insisted we stayed on the bus but it was really hot – in full sun and the a/c not working because of the engine breakdown. So we were allowed to get out and stand by the side of the road, but had to leave our cameras inside (no logic to that, as so often there!) Thee was a replacement bus being sent from the nearest town but then our clever driver managed to fix ours 😀

  • margaret21

    As you know, it’s the south I’ve visited. Though many people there still live very simple traditional lives, technology and consumerism are very much on the march. But litter? No, never. It’s not just a northern thing to put others before yourself either. Anybody younger than us would automatically leap up to offer a seat on the metro, and we would be bowed to respectfully by younger citizens too, after forming the most casual of relationships. Bus drivers on inter-city buses also introduced themselves at the beginning of a journey before – yes, bowing to us all. And there were always people with carts in market areas, scouring the streets for anything that might be regarded as recyclable.. Their livelihood, of course, but also contributing to keeping the streets clean. I’d be interested by the way for you to visit the post I’ll publish on Monday morning about aspects of shopping. I’d like to know whether what I show is true of North Korea too. Thanks!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Always great to hear your perspective from your South Korea trip Margaret 🙂 What strikes me in your comments is not a similarity but a difference. In the North they put the whole country or community before themselves but I don’t know that they do so in the same way for individuals. We didn’t travel on public transport (apart from a carefully managed ride on the Metro to see the magnificent stations) so I’m not sure whether or not they would stand up for an elder – I think probably yes. But I didn’t see the respectful bowing you talk about, although I definitely did so in Japan 🙂 I think in the North, with all the hardships they’ve had, people are more inwardly focused and reserved. That said, those we met and had the chance to engage with were all friendly and polite. And when they loosened up over a drink in the evening, our guides and driver were good company.

      I’ll definitely take a look at Monday’s post – I’m really enjoying being able to make these comparisons with you 🙂 I’m guessing there will be a lot of differences when it comes to shopping but I’ll be curious to see if that’s the case!

  • maristravels

    So interesting to read your comments on what you saw and experienced while in N. Korea and your thoughts on how the country was presented to you do you credit. An open mind is the only way to approach the ways of life, or the politics, of other countries.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you so much Mari, I really appreciate your kind comment 🙂 Yes, travelling with an open mind is absolutely essential if you’re to get the best out of your experiences!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Claus 🙂 I hope I can give a balanced perspective on the country based on real observations while there, as you say – although I’m conscious that like all visitors I was only shown an edited view based on what the authorities want us to see.

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