Vietnam set up diplomatic ties with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in early 1950. Over the past nearly seven decades, the close-knit ties between the two countries have been tightened.
Vietnam News Agency (VNA)’s reporters, who were in the DPRK from 1988 to 2002, shared their experiences in the peaceful but mysterious East Asian nation.
Focus on national defence
In September 1988, President of the State Council Vo Chi Cong visited and presented the Golden Star Order to DPRK leader Kim Il-sung. Minh Dien, an experienced photo-journalist of the VNA who was lucky to join the delegation accompanying President Cong, said he was impressed by the host country’s focus on national defence.
Minh Dien wrinkled his eyebrow and said that“DPRK people keep disciplined and do not elbow their way through a crowd, even when they meet foreigners. Locals, even farmers working in fieldsstop working and wave their hands to say hello to foreign visitors.”
The Vietnamese guests were impressed most by the locals’ keen focus onnational defence.
Road similar to Vietnam’s 17th parallel in the past
Minh Dien took a sip of his tea and said“Ancient trees along the about 40-km roadfrom Panmunjom to the city we travelled through were cut on one side so that they could fall down onto the roadway as obstacles. The path was similar to Vietnam’s 17th parallel in the past.
“The delegation was warmly welcomed by the host side. DPRK leader Kim Il-sung met with President Vo Chi Cong and the Vietnamese officials three or four times, including the reception, talks and the ceremony to hand over the Golden Star Order,” Minh Dien said.
Enigmatic but peaceful nation
Following the visit by President of the State Council Vo Chi Cong in 1988, State President Tran Duc Luong paid an official visit to the DPRK in May 2002. As one of the reporters accompanying the leader, Trong Nghiep from the VNA stayed in Pyongyang for four days. The short trip made a sizeable impression on him, especially in terms of the country’s mysteriousness, peace and hospitality.
“Before the trip, I tried to study the country through documents, which were limited in the 2000s”he said.
Following welcome ritualsffter arriving at Sunan international airport, the delegation headed towards Pyongyang – an enigmatic capital as Trong Nghiep said.
“It is a strange city as there were very few people and vehicles in the street. Most of the vehicles were produced by the former Soviet Union. No shops were open at night. The hotel where the Vietnamese delegation was staying had only a counter offering only wine and ginseng candy, no foreign products,” the journalist recalled.
It was hard to communicate with locals in 2002. Trong Nghiep said the hotel’s staff did not talk with foreigners and only shook their heads when asked a question in English.
Even the roads were strange 17 years ago.
“Travelling from Pyongyang to the memorial site dedicated to late President Kim Il-sung, we recognised that the country’s transport system was very good, since the about 100-km road was asphalt. However, during the trip, we saw only one or two trucks and some people wearing backpacks and riding bikes leisurely,” he said.
Working as a foreign journalist in the DPRK wasnot normal or easy.
Trong Nghiep stopped for a while and continued to say that “Unlike talks in other countries, photo-journalists were not allowed to gonear the leaders. A group of guards kept journalists distance from the meeting of the two countries’ leaders. We took their photos from outside and got all information from the department of foreign relations under the Presidential Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
Local views reminiscent of Vietnam’s northern countryside in the 1970s
The DPRK seemed somewhat familiar to the Vietnamese guests. Through car windows, they could see small farms located on hills and rows of box-shaped houses with windows open and old people sunbathing. Nghiep said, the views reminded him of Vietnam’s northern countryside in the 1970s.
A modernising DPRK
Five years after Trong Nghiep’s trip to Pyongyang, another photo-journalist from the VNA visited the country. In October 2007, Xuan Tuan accompanied Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh and a high-ranking Vietnamese delegation during an official visit to the country at the invitation of Kim Jong-il, General Secretary of the Workers’ Party and Chairman of the National Defence Commission of the DPRK.
The visit took place amid progress in the reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula through the six-party talks. The freshly-finished second inter-Korean summit also reaped positive results.
Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh’s visit aimed to enhance the traditional friendship and showedthat Vietnam treasures and wishes to develop its friendship and traditional cooperation with the DPRK Party, Government and people so to take the bilateral ties to the next level.
After arriving in Pyongyang, he was stunned to see a modenising DPRK
Like other journalists, before the trip, Xuan Tuan pictured a DPRK which was facing a range of difficulties. However, after arriving in Pyongyang, he was surprised to see a modernising DPRK.
“Pyongyang people in traditional clothes gathered at the airport and lined up on both sides of the street from the airport to the Government’s Guest House, waving flowers and flags to welcome Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh and his entourage. I felt that we were welcomed by all people in Pyongyang as close friends and guests. From the welcome ceremony to the reception and see-off ceremony, the Vietnamese delegation was held in high esteem by the hosts. President Kim Jong Il was also present at the events,” he said.
Xuan Tuan said at that time, infrastructure in Pyongyang was planned scientifically. The streets had pavements andthe public transport network was very good.
“Thanks to local people’s high awareness, and good management and operation methods, all things were in order although the equipment was rather outdated,” he said.
Pyongyang in particular and the DPRK in general did not appear to be desolate as he had thought. On the contrary, he saw modern urban areas and peaceful rural areas. He still remembers an ancient village he visited during the trip. Houses and courtyards stood next to the others without fences or walls. Local people arranged their agricultural products in fields after harvesting, without worrying about thieves.
“Local people treated each other wholeheartedly. Their lifestyle changed our views on the land and people of the DPRK,” Xuan Tuan said.