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.
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, perhaps unsurprising given a) the shortage of resources in the country; and b) this desire to keep their 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?
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, and 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