How Does Turkmenistan ACTUALLY compare to North Korea?
This summer, I paid a short visit to Turkmenistan. In fact, one of the big reasons that I wanted to travel on Oasis’ overland trip was the opportunity to visit Turkmenistan and view the Aral sea in Uzbekistan. In preparation for the trip, I tried to do some reading. Many travel websites compared Turkmenistan to North Korea. Documentaries or short videos on Turkmenistan were mostly from the mid-2000s and centered around the bizarre dictatorship of Niyazov, a.k.a Turkmenbashi. As the trip approached, I became nervous. I would be joining the trip in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. Travel websites warned of individuals who had been denied visas or how notoriously difficult it was to obtain a visa. What if I was not allowed entry? What if my visa upon arrival was denied? I would spend my first day or two alone. What if I accidentally broke a law? The information provided in travel websites, books, and videos warned of laws such as a city wide curfew, travel restrictions, restrictions on photographs, bans on circuses or women wearing makeup on television, bans on gold teeth and beards, etc. If indeed, the country was like North Korea, how safe would I be during the time period I spent alone?
There are some important differences between Turkmenistan and North Korea. While Turkmenistan has been called the North Korea of Central Asia or North Korea with oil, a major difference between the countries is how they relate to the United States. As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, during the Korean war, the United States bombed North Korea into oblivion. More bombs were dropped on Korea than all of the Pacific during WWII and unexploded bombs are still found in the country. Thousands of schools, hospitals, and factories were bombed by the U.S.- and when there were but a few buildings standing in the whole country, the United States bombed dams- flooding the country’s agricultural land and threatening the populace with starvation. Civilians were specifically targeted by the U.S., which destroyed 20% of the population in the war. This created a deep fear and bitterness towards the United States which is used to sustain the repressive Kim dynasty. Turkmenistan does not have that same destructive and antagonistic history with the United States. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Niyazov proclaimed that the country was neutral. In fact, there is an enormous monument to neutrality in Ashgabat. Despite this official neutrality, Turkemistan provided tax and duty free gas/oil to NATO countries engaged in the war in Afghanistan and has allowed NATO to use its airspace and land aircraft at Ashgabat airport. Furthermore, U.S. corporations such as John Deere, Caterpillar, and Boeing conduct business in Turkmenistan. Niyazov’s successor, Berdymukhamedov, even sent a personal congratulation to President Obama upon his election. So, while Turkemistan is viewed as a country that lacks basic rights to organizing, freedom of press, freedom of speech, and a criminal justice system with torture and abuse, a key difference is that this authoritarian regime is a strategic ally of the United States whereas North Korea is viewed as an enemy. Consequently, the United States is less inclined to call out human rights abuses in Turkmenistan or call for regime change. In fact, very few Americans know the first thing about Turkmenistan. Why not? Well, fear mongering and villainizing Turkmenistan simply isn’t a matter of importance to American foreign policy in the same way North Korea is. While the United States was an enemy of the Soviet Union and certainly some suspicion may persist, I think it is very unlikely that an American would be kept in Turkmenistan or imprisoned there for political reasons. The Peace Corps operated in Turkmenistan until 2012 and there is a U.S. embassy in Ashgabat (along with embassies for at least 20 other countries). In short, despite its reputation as a very authoritarian country, Turkmenistan has fairly “normal” relations with the West.
Neutrality Monument in Ashgabat
Upon arrival in Ashgabat, I applied for my tourist visa by presenting a letter of invitation. In contrast, my visa for North Korea was arranged ahead of time in Beijing and was contingent upon travel with North Korean guides and an organized tour. My arrival in Pyongyang was heralded by a power outage at the airport- itself a modest building. Ashgabat’s airport is a much larger white building in the shape of a giant bird. Tourists in Turkmenistan are free to explore the capital on their own, but a guide is needed for travel outside of the capital. We were joined by a local guide who stayed with us during our visit through the country. In Pyongyang, I turned in my cellphone at the airport. This was not the case in Turkmenistan, where it was common to see satellite dishes and the main indicator of a lack of freedom of information/communication was that I could not access social media. Because it was expected that tourists are always accompanied by guides and our accommodations were at the Yanggakdo Hotel (on an island), there were no opportunities for independent exploration in North Korea. In Turkmenistan, I spent two days exploring Ashgabat all by myself. While traveling around the Ashgabat, no one avoided me but no one went out of their way to talk to me either. It was common to see police, but they also seemed fairly indifferent to me. At least on the surface, it seemed that the level of control of tourists or the populace was not the same between the countries. As of September 2017, U.S. citizens are no longer allowed to travel to North Korea. This ban does not come from North Korea, but rather our own state department, so a major difference between the two countries at this point in time is that Americans can’t enter North Korea!
An amusement park in Ashgabat
Both Pyongyang and Ashgabat are showcase capitals. Ashgabat was hit by a massive earthquake in 1948, which leveled the city and killed 110,000 people. During the Korean war, only two buildings stood in Pyongyang. Suffice to say, both capitals are newly constructed since the 1950s. Nevertheless, Ashgabat has undergone an extensive and expensive renovation since the 2000s, which has transformed the city into a white marble wonderland of fountains and gold. In this sense, Ashgabat is certainly more luxuriant…as natural gas revenues have been used to remodel the capital. Even the apartment buildings are marble. Pyongyang is certainly clean and resplendent with monuments that celebrate the Kim family and Juche, but it is not characterized by the same parks, neon lights, clusters of monuments, and marble. While Ashgabat is lit up at night, Pyongyang seemed fairly dark. I think a major difference is that North Korea devotes more resources to the military and developing weapons (20% of the GDP goes to the military). Because North Korea is embargoed and Turkmenistan is free to sell its natural gas, Niyazev had more money to play with in reshaping the capital (Turkmenistan spends about 3.5% of its GDP on military). At the same time, North Korea is more developed than Turkmenistan. Outside of Ashgabat, 80% of the country is desert. The Karakorum Canal provides irrigation to agriculture (albeit wastefully), but the country, at least from what I could see- is very rural and agrarian where this is possible. This underdevelopment is attributed to the fact that Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic mainly supplied the USSR with natural gas. Its economy was not and continues to not be very diverse (though the fact that 80% of the country is desert puts a major geographical limit on development… USSR history and transition to capitalism not withstanding). The legacy of Soviet gas exploration makes for interesting tourist attractions. There are three large collapsed craters left behind by Soviet gas drilling. One is filled with water, the other flaming mud, and finally, there is the Darvaza gas pit, giant flaming crater in the desert- which has been burning since 1971! North Korea is a country that is industrial enough to…well, have a nuclear program.
Darvaza Gas Crater
Both countries share a strong sense of nationalism, which plays an important part of the personality cults established by their respective dictators. Niyazov invented the Ruhnama, a book that outlined the history of the Turkmen people, but also was a spiritual, literary, and moral guide. It was required reading for all students and government workers and the book was to be read with the Koran by imams. Since Niyazov’s death, the book is no longer required reading- but it was meant to help develop Turkmen identity. Berdymukhamedev has sought to connect Turkmen identity to horses- and Ashgabat features a Ministry of Horses as well as horse head shaped stadium built for the Asian games. He also built a nearly 70 foot statue of himself on a horse and wrote a book about horses. Turkmenistan does not have a long history as a nation state with a national identity. Prior to the Bolshevik revolution, Turkmenistan didn’t really exist. It was a region of nomadic people who spoke various related Turkic languages, lacked common political institutions, and often in conflict with one another. This is not to disparage the people of Turkmenistan, as all nationalities are social constructs in one way or another. It is simply to say that they had not organized themselves into a united people with a common identity and sense of political nationhood. Despite the seemingly new and artificial construction of Turkmen nationalism, this seems to be the foundation of Niyazov and Berdymukhamedev’s regimes.
The stadium built for the Asia Games.
Korean nationalism has been around much longer. The Korean language is one of the oldest living languages, which has had its own unique script since the 15th century. Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula sparked a modern nationalist, independence movement. Various kingdoms existed on the Korean peninsula over history, but Korean culture and norms were united by a singular political administration since the Joseon Kingdom of the 1300s- late 1800s. In North Korea, the juche ideology was used to support self-reliance, self-defense, the leadership of the Kims, and independence. This is complimented by songun- or the ideology of military first. Pursuit of military build-up at the expense of social programs or social welfare is undertaken to protect the DPRK from the United States. So, while it seems irrational and cruel, it does serve the function of deterring direct U.S. military intervention- which has happened in many other countries.
The USS Pueblo is a tourist attraction in Pyongyang. It is a captured American spy boat which is a proud trophy in the nearly seventy year conflict between our countries.
There are certainly similarities between Turkmenistan and North Korea. Both countries are disparaged for human rights abuses and lack of freedoms. Both are viewed as among the most repressive countries in the world. But, I think that travel websites overstate the similarities. There is one major difference- this main difference is how these countries relate to the West (or the United States in particular). This makes a world of difference in terms of travel, but also in terms of how these countries orient their economies, state ideologies, and social priorities. It also means that Turkmenistan is largely ignored by the United States, whereas North Korea is on the news daily. Of course, this could be blamed on North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs- but how much do we know about our own missile testing or nuclear history? How much do we know about who and what we bombed today? Because Turkmenistan does not actively defy the United States or our allies, it is forgotten and unknown. And, because Turkmenistan’s government is not legitimized by a six and a half decade long conflict- it does look differently and act differently. Thus, as a traveler to both countries, I tend to disagree with the comparison.