In the summer of 2012 I spent a month in Asia, the highlight of which was a tour in the DPRK, or as most people call it, North Korea. Phil and I were part of a group of English-speaking travelers from various civilized countries, along with our western tour guide, three North Korean guides and a driver, all sharing the same bus for our six-day adventure. We were never allowed to wander off on our own; the entire tour was scripted by the government. I am glad to have visited, and very glad to have returned to the free world. What follows is my story, as seen through rose-colored, government-issued, pinhole glasses.
My adventure began when Phil invited me to join him to view the Mass Games in DPRK. We were also intrigued by the prospect of visiting a member of the Axis of Evil. Unless you are good at climbing fences and dodging bullets, the best way to get to the DPRK is with an authorized tour. Without joining such a tour or having diplomatic status, you are not allowed into this country. The three approved points of embarkation are Beijing, Vladivostock and Kuala Lumpur. The easiest location for us was Beijing, so we signed up with the Koryo Group for their six-day tour.
Since the tour actually embarks from Beijing, we overnighted there, where we had just under 24 hours to enjoy a rare blue sky in this highly polluted mega-city. We stayed at the Opposite House in the Sanlitun district, which is a modern and edgy hotel buzzing with business travelers in Beijing’s upscale embassy neighborhood. There is a pink Ferrari parked in front of our hotel.
This is not your grandmother’s Peking. The rickshaws and bamboo shacks are mostly gone, replaced with Bentley dealerships, massive traffic and every retail store imaginable. KFC has over one hundred outlets in this capital city; certainly not what Chairman Mao intended when he became a party planner back in 1949.
After lunch at Duck de Chine (we had the Mongolian lamb), we go to the Koryo Group offices for an orientation. About 60 of us crowd into a small room in an older one-story building, decorated with military propaganda, circa 1960’s, from the DPRK. Nancy, an American living in Beijing, is one of the Koryo’s guides and she spends the next two hours providing information about what to expect. She covers all of the basics, from the mundane to the political. This is the moment where we begin to shift gears from our familiar world of consumer-centric individualism, to the strange new world of devout, leader-centric totalitarianism, where each person is trained to see himself as a dutiful cog in their bizarre wheel of misfortune. We get a few sound bytes of world views from the perspective of DPRK citizens, plus a list of things not to say. The session amounts to the totalitarian version of a Miss Manners lesson.
Nancy starts by noting that we will be visiting “the most oppressive regime in the world.” She cautions us to not argue with the Korean guides when they explain that the United States underwent a period of extreme poverty after WWII. We should simply nod and show appreciation for their generosity in teaching us about world history. We are repeatedly reminded to make small talk, ask questions, and to not argue, debate or evangelize. We are assured that it is nearly impossible for tourists to get in trouble, but our misbehavior could get our Korean guides in trouble. So the Koryo staff implores us to behave for the sake of our guides, and of course so Koryo can continue its relationship and privileges with the DPRK government.
There is a long explanation about photos and we are told we can never take pictures of the military or certain sites outside of Pyongyang. Most frustratingly, we are not supposed to take pictures of civilians either. The best policy is to always ask the Korean guide first before taking a picture, then comply with their answers. If we do take pictures that we’re not supposed to, there are government ‘watchers’ who will simply ask to see our cameras, then delete the offending images.
The orientation continues and covers what not to say while in North Korea. First on the list is not to say ‘North Korea’. They think of their country as DPRK or sometimes just Korea. We are not to bring any music or other items from South Korea, and it’s best not to mention existence of that country. Apparently it’s a sensitive topic. The Koreans are forced to hold their leader in the highest esteem, with a cult-like devotion. So we should never discuss the leader or leader’s family in any way, shape or form. Just avoid that topic. If we have a magazine or newspaper with a photograph of the leader, we must never fold the paper or toss it into the trash. Doing so would actually get us into trouble. Finally, we should never say anything about the prisons, concentration camps, refugees or defectors. And it would be bad form to ask where they hide their WMD. These are all taboo topics that will only serve to upset our Korean guides at best, and get them fired at worst.
So our initial impression one day before the tour begins is that we should be pleasant, curious, express no opinions, say very little and at all times stay with our guides. On the technology front, we cannot bring in any devices with GPS capabilities, no cell phones and no video cameras. Regular cameras are okay, as are laptops, although Internet is not available (other than inside embassies). We decide that this is actually a good thing, giving us a rare tech-free period for the next six days.
Properly briefed, the next morning we gather with our group, make new friends, and ride to the Beijing airport. The anticipation is palpable as we venture into the unknown and unadvised. True travelers live for this stuff. It’s why they ride horses through Mongolia, hitchhike across Africa, or hang out with gun-runners in Pakistan. You just can’t reproduce that strain of adrenalin with a bunjee jump. Only a few thousand tourists visit the DPRK each year, of which most are from China, partly due to proximity, but also because of China’s supportive policies toward this country (plus China does not worry that any of its citizens will defect there). That leaves a fairly small number of visitors from the other 200+ countries.
First impressions of this rogue nation are of the striking contrast between the two countries as seen from the air. In China as we fly east out of Beijing, there are mega cities and sprawling suburbs, roads, factories and developments of every kind. The air is thick with pollution. But once we pass the implied bright yellow line that separates the two countries, the landscape suddenly changes. Paved roads become winding dirt paths, huge industrial buildings become small farm houses. As the mega-structures and traffic disappear, so does the smog.
After our 90-minute flight from Beijing, we land at the Pyongyang airport, surprised mostly by its small size, especially for a city of 3 million. Surrounded by farmland and smaller than many regional airports, we deplane onto the tarmac and walk right into a building that includes ticketing, baggage claim, security, customs – everything under one roof and in a single room, not much bigger than a high school gymnasium. There are only four or five daily flights from this airport, so it’s more than ample to handle the load.
The military guards look bored, although I judge this is not yet the time to test their mettle. I inspect the plumbing: there is a non-working electric hand-dryer, which goes well with the non-working faucet. There are no paper towels. The door to the bathroom doesn’t close, so like everything else in a socialist nation, the view belongs to the people. It is 6 pm as we go through customs, then finally board our bus for a 40 minute ride through Pyongyang. We head straight for the huge stadium where we will watch the Mass Games.
Throughout our tour we are accompanied by our western guide Hannah, and three Korean tour guides. I’ll call them Sally, Curly and Mo. Sally is a young, energetic and professional employee of the government, trained in tourism and relatively fluent in English, though sometimes difficult to understand with her heavy accent. She does most of the talking, while Curly and Mo help keep our flock from wandering off. All three come from privileged families in some way, otherwise they would not have been rewarded with the desirable job of tour guide.
From our bus we are introduced to this capital city. The most striking observations are of things we don’t see. As we roll down one of the main thoroughfares, there is almost no traffic, though there are plenty of pedestrians and bicyclists. There are no retail stores; no Starbucks, no California Pizza Kitchen, no Gap; in fact no brand names at all, not even local ones. Later we learn that there are small unmarked grocery stores. Since food is rationed here, these stores operate on the binary business model: eat or don’t eat. There are no advertisements of any kind, save for the stylized military posters, and no artwork other than photos of nature. The only human images are photos of the founder, Kim Il Sung and his recently departed son, Kim Jong Il. Later we learn that there are also no churches. The streets are clean, well-landscaped and the people dress simply and conservatively. The apartment buildings are mostly old, plain concrete structures, though some are various pastel shades of green or pink or tan. Many of the balconies are decorated with small potted plants. There is a small area of newer and more attractive apartment buildings.
Perhaps it is just the heat and humidity, but everyone seems to move slowly and without that sense of hurried purpose so common in similarly sized capitalist cities. Also, there are very few people with cell phones. At first glance, DPRK appears by all measures to be a minimalist’s paradise. It is important to note that we are seeing the best that this country has to offer – we will never be able to view the vast majority of the conditions here, and never be allowed to interview any DPRK citizens.
After our ride through the city, we finally arrive at the Mass Games, which are the primary draw for most travelers to DPRK this time of year. The Koreans have performed this show regularly since 2007, and a few times before that. The scale and awe of the performance is impressive. On a stadium field before thousands of mostly Chinese spectators, thousands of performers dressed in colorful costumes perform highly choreographed dances, marches and acrobatics. It is part dance, part circus and primarily a tribute to Korea’s departed leaders and industrial successes. There are also some routines paying tribute to China in recognition of that country’s support. The music is no doubt Korean, but could have easily been written by John Philip Sousa. The acrobatics are impressive and typical of most circuses. For the majority of the performances however, the ‘wow’ is produced not by the difficulty of the routines, but by the accomplishment of getting 5,000 performers to do the right thing at the right time and in the right place. With the colorful costumes and overpowering music, it’s a crowd-pleasing effect, delighting all of our senses.
The show lasts for ninety minutes, after which we go to the Yanggakdo Hotel, have a simple buffet dinner, and retire for the evening. Tomorrow will begin our first full day in DPRK.
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The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War
Our first full day in DPRK begins with a buffet breakfast, which is strikingly similar to dinner from last night. Radish, rice, potato, cucumber, bean paste, bean sprouts, bean curd, and fried flat fish (don’t say it three times quickly – once is enough) seem to be standard fare here. Eggs and white toast are also available. I wouldn’t say that the food is bad, but it’s certainly a country where one eats to live rather than lives to eat. If you like fruit, DPRK is not for you: that food group does not exist here. I must also mention that at no time during our visit were we ever in danger of eating dessert. They never serve sweets. I lost five pounds here, although later I found them.
After breakfast we board our bus and ride to a large square where two huge bronze statues sit atop a sprawling concrete plaza. The two statues are of Kim Il Sung, founder of DPRK, and Kim Jong Il , president until his death in December 2011. Before arriving at the plaza we are briefed on proper etiquette. The viewing goes like this: we stop to buy flowers, then carry those flowers as we walk up the steps to the plaza. When we get to within about 50 feet of the tall sculptures, we bow slightly, then walk directly to the base of the sculptures, leave our flowers, then walk away. The locals follow the same procedure and we see hundreds of them visiting on this sunny morning.
After everyone in our group has deposited their flowers, Sally speaks briefly about the statues and elaborates on the two large bronze reliefs flanking them. These are of military scenes honoring what she refers to as the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, or what you and I know as the Korean War which lasted from 1950 to 1953. She tells us about how in 1945, Kim Il Sung liberated Korea from 35 years of Japanese occupation and she somehow manages to give the impression that he did this single-handedly. She never mentions WWII or involvement by the two super-powers at the time, or any of the other players on the geo-political chessboard. She skips over the 5-year period between this liberation and the beginning of the Korean war, then states that her country must still defend against the aggressive imperialist Americans, who want only to divide the Korean people and isolate the DPRK from the rest of the world. She manages to use the phrase ‘imperialist Americans’ several times, though at no point does she mention nuclear weapons, labor camps, or a number of other sticky issues. Her tone is serious and, as an American, I suddenly feel like a crocodile at a pool party – no one will want to be my friend. Then, sensing my reaction, she softens the blow by assuring us that they have no problem with the American people, just the policy of the American government. It takes every ounce of my considerable self-discipline to suppress an urge to yell ‘liar-liar-pants-on-fire.’
But it would be pointless to debate with Sally. She is trapped inside the most oppressive regime in the world, so she either doesn’t realize that her own government is her true oppressor, or worse yet, she just might realize it and have no way out. Clearly the fence surrounding Sally’s country is to keep the natives in, not to keep the outsiders out. I realize that I won’t learn about world history from her (that’s Wikipedia’s job), but I will gain a peekaboo look at her socialist perceptions via lies and omissions. This is a place where one needs to read between the lines.
At this point I must mention that without failure, whenever Sally refers to Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, she states their full title as ‘The Great Leader Generalismo Kim Jong Il’, or ‘The Great Dear Leader Kim Il Sung.’ On the single occasion that she mentions the new leader, he is referred to as ‘the respected leader Kim Jong-Un.” At no time during our six-day visit did Sally slack off with nicknames or other endearments. I kept waiting for a reference to ‘KJ’ or ‘Uncle Kim’ or even just Kim Jong Il without the ‘Great leader’ part. But Sally never faltered. While her consistency was admirable, I simultaneously became annoyed with her relentless formality, yet sympathetic for what must surely be a tortured mind. With instinctive irreverence, I decide that henceforth Kim Jong Il should be called ‘Smiley’ and his father, founder Kim Il Sung should be called ‘Pops.’
Students of advertising are taught about the science of brand awareness, and that it requires X impressions per day spread over a period of Y days before a brand becomes permanently fixed in the minds of the potential customer. Producers of commercials from the early days of T.V. learned these lessons well, and hundreds of millions of people still remember commercial jingles from that era. From this perspective, the DPRK government has been wildly successful in transforming the images of Smiley and Pops into icons of wisdom, military might and industrial success. Of course it helps to have a monopoly in which you don’t have competition or pesky political opponents raising inconvenient truths.
Throughout the country there are images of Smiley and Pops everywhere. Other than some stylized military posters which glorify the role of their military, there are almost no other images of faces anywhere. In fact, we learn that all citizens are required to hang photographs of the two leaders in their homes, and are also encouraged (though not strictly required) to wear lapel pins with images of the leaders. We are told that there are police who regularly inspect homes to make sure the photographs are on the wall and kept clean. In every room of every school, museum, and buildings of every kind, we see these same two photographs – Smiley and Pops, beaming with pride and sharing their Kodak moment with us. In one museum we are surprised to see some untouched photographs of both leaders, and note that they appear much heavier than in their statues and popular photos. Clearly the goiter and ample weight of the leaders were edited out for the mass-production versions.
As with the ubiquitous images, the stories we are told also give the impression that the DPRK consists of two infinitely wise and talented men, plus 25 million others who simply do as they are told. In one such instance, we tour a dam built in the western port town of Nampo. We are shown a 10-minute video of the design and construction of the dam. The video has the same dramatic John Philip Sousa music as everything else. Suddenly it’s the cold war all over again, and I feel as though at any moment, Stalin himself might walk into the room, sit down next to me and share his popcorn.
The video clip has many images of Smiley looking visionary and instructing the engineers. We are told the dam was Smiley’s idea, and he is shown advising the designers on some of the finer points of civil engineering – an unusual skill for a student of political economy. The dam is indeed real, and despite their portrayal of Smiley and Pops as the sole sources of inspiration and knowledge, the mere existence of the dam is one of many examples that demonstrate that the DPRK is not without talent.
We see another such example in Pyongyang. We ride an escalator to their metro system, descending about 100 meters for some much needed downtime. There are 17 stations in the system, all without commercial advertisement. Of course there are the requisite photo’s of Smiley instructing the builders of this project, and of course we are told that the whole thing was his idea. We ride through 4 of the stations, moderately crowded with commuters. Newspapers are posted bulletin-board style for people to read, since that method is far less costly than printing millions of pages of newsprint. Each station has a slightly different style and each is decorated with tile murals depicting various scenes, mostly of people working or of our friends Smiley and Pops. The trains are old and plain, though seem to work well enough. Sally tells us that the system carries 700,000 passengers daily.
And so it goes with many more visits to museums, monuments and such. We tour the metro museum, which displays photos and other memorabilia from that project. We see a tram used during construction with a special red cushion on one of the benches on which Smiley reportedly sat. In another room there is a display of a simple table with an ash tray. We inquire and are told that Pops once sat at this table. He did not smoke or use the ash tray and it was not in his office or home – he just sat there on one occasion. Apparently this fact was enough to merit inclusion in the museum. At this point we are sufficiently convinced that we are in the midst of a bonafide personality cult with 25 million involuntary adherents.
One morning we viewed a brand new museum, opened only within the past few weeks. The building was attractive, with lots of marble, modern elevators and so on. Very few citizens here will ever see it. The entire structure, some twenty large rooms, was dedicated to showcasing the tens of thousands of foreign gifts that Smiley and Pops allegedly received over the years, as is customary when political dignitaries visit foreign countries. As usual we could not take pictures. I found the collection mildly interesting and otherwise predictable. One unexpected item was the original brightly colored iMac (blueberry, tangerine, etc.). We saw two instances of large globes of the earth, positioned such that the United States was at the top of the globe. In both cases, there was a carved tiger crouching on top of the globe, clearly depicting the Korean fantasy of conquering America. To insure that no one missed these sculptures, Sally made sure to bring them to our attention. She could not suppress a slight guilty smile, almost a giggle, as she explained these pieces.
The Philosopher’s Stone
At one point along our journey our group asked Sally to explain the Juche concept. Smiley wrote books about this topic that have been translated into many languages. I browsed through some of these texts and found them incomprehensible. Sally gave it her best shot, though her explanations didn’t help – no one in the group could seem to grasp what all the fuss was about. However it did become apparent that the idea is quite important in the DPRK. They built a tall stone tower as a monument to Juche ideals, placing it prominently in the center of town adjacent to the river. At the bottom of the monument are small plaques donated by presumed Juche groups from around the world. We ride the elevator to the top of the monument, 150 meters above Pyongyang. It’s a bright sunny day so we snap pictures and enjoy an otherwise unavailable view of the city. We see students marching in the main square, very light traffic on a few streets, a nearby neighborhood of modern, attractive apartment buildings, large expanses of older, drab, concrete apartments buildings. The city is surrounded by farmland and is not very big considering it’s population. They do not yet have the issue of suburban sprawl.
Despite all of their efforts to impress us, our hosts unwittingly reveal the unintended. If you’ve spent time in Asia, or just about anywhere rice is eaten, you know that rice is served early in a meal so you can enjoy it with other dishes. But in the DPRK rice is always served last. Because of their shortage of food, and particularly from the famine that became part of their consciousness in the mid-90’s, North Koreans always serve rice last. They do this to avoid giving the impression that they are trying to fill you up on cheap carbohydrates, only to then skimp on the more nutritious foods. But their tactic has the opposite effect: their deviation from normal procedure only calls attention to their culinary self-consciousness.
I get the same feeling from their camera-shy policies. We are allowed to photograph most buildings, but rarely people and rarely inside museums. Their controlling policies and complete lack of openness only confirm their oppressive nature. Curious tourists enter DPRK to glimpse its current realties, but instead are shown only selected portions of the capital, the DMZ and a few other sites. My own read is that in trying to put their best foot forward, they create the unintended consequence of portraying themselves exactly as they are: a totalitarian regime trying to obscure the fact of their poverty and shortcomings.
Somewhere along the ride we ask about medical care in DPRK. Sally mentions that there are three hospitals in Pyongyang and that the care is always free. This prompted Hannah to relay a story about when she toured the general hospital one afternoon about a year ago. The equipment was all quite old, circa 1960’s and conditions were not impressive. Very strange however was the fact that there were NO patients. Here they were in the only general hospital a city with three million residents, yet there were no sick people. She inquired and was told that the patients only come here in the morning. Thus we can conclude that the only illness in Pyongyang is morning sickness.
When we drove to the western port town of Nampo, we stayed in an unusual place, even by DPRK standards. This was an alleged resort, originally built to entertain foreign dignitaries, now rarely used and like most of the country, somewhat in disrepair. To get there we had to drive on a massively wide highway of about 10 lanes (unpainted) with almost zero traffic. We might have seen another vehicle every five or ten minutes. Along the way Sally tells the story of the thousands of volunteers who built this highway by hand. She reports that one thousand of these workers were blinded in various construction accidents, and as compensation for their sacrifice they were each awarded a beautiful wife. In the universe where I come from, this would have prompted a series of probing questions. But in DPRK, there is no point is such interrogation. We accepted the story for what it was and moved on.
Eventually this highway ended and we continued on a narrow road crowded with bicyclists and pedestrians, many carrying sacks of produce or grain, rolling past small farms. As we near the resort, Sally reads a description of alleged benefits from the spring water, sparing no detail in the long list of feminine ailments and common diseases that the water can allegedly cure. She blushes, embarrassed by the list, at one point laughing so hard she could not read the brochure; and in the process reassuring us that under her socialist armor stands an individual woman. We finally arrive at the resort. There are no public spaces here – no pool or grounds to wander through. Just a main building with a dining room and a few game rooms, plus a dozen or so multi-room guest cottages. The springs are available every night for two hours, piped into each private room. We took advantage of the opportunity and soaked in the spring water.
If Only We Could Bottle It
After our spa experience, we visit the Nampo dam (discussed earlier) then drive a bit out of our way to visit a mineral water bottling factory. When we get there, we are told the factory is not operating today due to a national holiday. We enter anyway and the watchman lets us into the bottling room. All the evidence suggests that this room is not really in production, having been shuttered some time ago. Hannah tells us that she did see the facility in use about two years ago, though every time she has visited since then, there is always some excuse for why they are ‘not operating today.’ Even more strangely, we later find that another tour group visited this same facility earlier today, where they viewed a different room that was in full operation. Again, the authorities in DPRK seem unable to tell a straight story. Had they simply told us that this room has not been in use for a while, we would not have thought less of them. Instead they inadvertently conveyed that we can’t trust anything they say. We guess that the real reason for shuttering this one production room is that no one in the country has any money, so they can’t afford the costs of production.
Lets Make a Deal
Being a socialist/totalitarian regime, there are limited market forces at work in DPRK. The local currency is so useless that even government-run souvenir shops quote prices in Euro or RMB. They also readily accept U.S. dollars. There is an active black market, and some typical items for barter include whiskey, cigarettes, chocolate and hand-creams or lotion. Many of the tourists bring these items into the country as gifts for our guides, which they can easily trade for other goods. When I presented Curly with a bottle of Johnny Walker Red, he knew the exact dollar value. He became my friend. Having entered the country stocked with cigarettes, chocolates and whiskey, I also presented gifts to Sally, Mo, and our driver. They expressed mild appreciation. In this part of the world, effusive ‘thank-you’s’ are not part of the culture.
The Won, which is the official currency here, is essentially worthless and ignored by most citizens. The official exchange rate is about 100 WON per USD, though the market rate is about 5,000 to 1. Two months ago it was 3,000 to 1. For their basic needs, workers receive coupons, so all of the essential goods are rationed, leaving luxuries to the black market. This leaves world currencies as one of few relatively safe ways for citizens here to preserve value.
At one point, while standing in one of the metro stations, Sally surreptitiously approached me, certain that no one was watching, and quietly asked me a question. I expected she was going to ask to hide in my suitcase and be smuggled out of the country. But she surprised me by asking if I could trade U.S. dollars for her $2 worth of Hong Kong coins. I said ‘of course’ and began to reach for my wallet, but she stopped me and said we could do this later. Then on the last day of the tour, while eating in the hotel restaurant and just before boarding the bus for the airport, Sally again approached me. She sat down next to me, looked around, then literally slid a small plastic bag with some coins under the table. I handed her two U.S. dollars to fulfill my end of the bargain, as if we had just shared the quiet thrill of completing a big, illicit deal. Later I counted the coins, which were all there as promised, though they were old, pre-handover Hong Kong money bearing the image of Queen Elizabeth. Not part of the black market here, Sally had limited opportunities to convert them into more useful currency. Of course it was her secretiveness that was most telling.
One evening around 6 pm in Pyongyang, we drove to a large public plaza to attend what we were told was a regularly held gala dance. Some of our group suspected that it was really a staged event for our benefit, though we had no way to really know. I estimated at least one thousand Koreans in the plaza, the men dressed in black or gray slacks, white shirts and ties, the women in long, poofy, brightly-colored chiffon dresses, all dancing practiced steps to loud, stodgy music. Some seemed to be having fun, though many did not show the joyous faces one would expect from a dancing crowd, but rather the bored, slightly annoyed look of students who must write one hundred times on the blackboard, ‘I will not step on his toes.’
At this festive event we were allowed unlimited use of our cameras. We watched the dancing for a few minutes, then one-by-one, Sally, Curly and Mo grabbed us, dragged us into the crowd and found us each a Korean dance partner. Suddenly I was a dancing fool, pitying the unfortunate young woman assigned the unenviable task of teaching me the totalitarian two-step. But my arhythmic legs could not adapt. No matter how hard I tried, the best I could do was the mashed potato. She waltzed, I twisted. There was even one number that was remarkably similar to Hava Nagila, creating the unlikely image of a thousand socialist Koreans celebrating a bar mitzvah. Finally, having had enough fun, I thanked my dance partner and returned to the sidelines. The whole experience, most likely planned by the Korean tourist agency, was nonetheless charming.
After the dance event we boarded our bus and headed south. We rode along a straight, wide and empty road for 2 1/2 hours, occasionally passing bicyclists and people walking along the road. We could spot villages set far back from the main road, housing the farm workers that probably make up most of this country’s population. We saw no farm machines however, and very few farm work animals. So it appeared that most of the agricultural work here is done by hand.
We finally arrive in Kaesong, which is a small industrial city, fairly close to the DMZ. Just outside of the city, we get a glimpse of a modern building that Hannah tells us is a partnership with a company from South Korea. Apparently there are a number of such experiments in which companies from South Korea have built factories, employing low-cost North Korean labor. These are good jobs for the North Koreans, earning slightly more than is otherwise available, plus getting a tiny glimpse of South Korean business culture. We are curious to hear more, but those are the only details provided. Interestingly, neither Sally, Curly or Mo mention this factory.
The city of Kaesong is notably less developed than the showcase city of Pyongyang, with a reported population of 300,000. The buildings appear of lesser quality, and there is no traffic. In fact the locals are so unaccustomed to vehicles, they don’t bother to look either way before crossing the street. Our bus driver must constantly honk the horn, and only after several toots do the pedestrians bother to look up and saunter out of the path of our bus. This makes me wonder why they bother to have paved streets.
In Kaesong we stay in an old, traditional Korean building, complete with tatami mats, sliding shoji screens and bamboo floor mats. The pillows are stuffed with adzuki beans – all very similar to old Japanese-style architecture. This building was either spared by American bombers in the Korean war, or was rebuilt in the 60’s. Without traffic, the city is very quiet, and the ponds and oriental gardens of this small facility are a just the thing after our long bus ride. That evening our group sits on floor mats at a long table where we are served mostly the same food that we are served everywhere else. The exception tonight is that for an extra five Euro we are offered dog soup. Hannah takes a head-count of the more adventurous souls and collects the money. Then Sally barks the order to the kitchen staff. About half of our group tries this canine dish. Though normally adventurous, I decline. I cannot seem to shake the image of a young boy asking his mother “hey Mom, where did Fluffy go?”
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We awake in our traditional Korean compound in Kaesong. After a restful sleep on our adzuki bean pillows and tatami mats, which are marginally more comfortable than a slab of granite, we enjoy a traditional North Korean breakfast, which is essentially dinner severed with eggs. Thankfully there is no canine option this morning. We gather near the bus and watch Kaesong’s morning commute outside our walled compound. There are no motorized vehicles, not even one. People walk or ride bicycles on this quiet, peaceful Saturday morning (all workers have a six-day workweek). As we pack our bags to leave the hotel, Phil leaves behind his Condé Nast travel magazine. Ever diligent to keep contraband out of the hands of her comrades, Sally inspects each room, finds the offending tome and returns it to Phil. When we finally left DPRK at the end of our visit, he left the magazine at the Yanggakdo hotel. So if Turkish beach style ever becomes popular in DPRK, we’ll know why.
We board our bus for what is advertised as a city tour. This consists of driving to a small hill overlooking part of the city where we can survey the lay of the land, then a visit to an ancient tomb of the 31st king of the Koryo dynasty from about 1,000 years ago. That era lasted 500 years, but this happens to be one of its few surviving remnants. It might be an interesting site for an archaeologist to visit, but our group is primarily interested in the current conditions of this country. We never actually saw evidence of any industry in Kaesong, and Sally continually takes us to places where we cannot see the real DPRK.
Finally we leave Kaesong and head to the DMZ. In a curiosity of nomenclature, the demilitarized zone is the location of one of the world’s larger concentrations of military personnel. Viewing this popular tourist attraction from the south is a very different experience than viewing it from the north. From the south, the powers-that-be want to give you the impression that you are entering harm’s way. Marines accompany you on your bus, acting serious. Barbed wire is everywhere and the whole experience is portrayed as a war waiting to happen. To be fair, it is the southern border which faces the possibility that hordes of escaped North Koreans could one day try to run across this border. And as advertised by western media, it is the north that most frequently rattles their saber. Considering the combined fire-power along the 38th parallel, it’s no wonder that most defectors cross the Chinese border instead.
We take the much less common tour by viewing this famous zone from the north. The atmosphere is much more relaxed here, and while we expected serious-looking, trigger-happy guards to inspire fear and trepidation, we actually see quite the opposite. First stop is the DMZ souvenir shop, where I am relieved to see that the DPRK government has not lost all of their marbles; they still occasionally strive to earn a buck. We buy t-shirts and some local ginseng root.
After the souvenir shop, we are ushered into a small room where one wall is covered with a map showing the various buildings and demarcations of the DMZ. A uniformed though unarmed military guide, speaking Korean and using a pointer, explains each of the buildings on the map, gives a bit of history and explains how the DMZ works. Sally acts as interpreter for this lesson. During the explanation we are allowed to take as many photos as we like. The guide even poses for photos with many of the tourists, shaking hands, answering questions, seeming to embrace his diplomatic role. Such friendliness is no accident: the relatively relaxed atmosphere is exactly what the DPRK government wants us to see.
After the guide’s explanation we get back on the bus for a short ride along a one-lane concrete road to the actual building where the North Koreans presumably watch their southern opponents, day after day, trying to not blink. We’ve heard rumors that some westerners believe this building is fake; just a facade. But we walk through the building, through several rooms and confirm that it is indeed real. It seems like a good photo op, so even though we have been told to not take photos of the military, as disobedient westerners we simply cannot help ourselves: we begin to photograph the guards standing with military precision outside of the small wooden buildings between north and south. No one starts shooting at us, so we snap more photos.
Then we walk into the small wood structure where we are told that negotiations were held between north and south back in 1953. Outside the building is a small concrete curb separating north and south. Two guards stand rigidly at attention on the north side. We can see the much larger building on the south, where presumably the good guys are watching us. We photograph the military in and outside our building and again, nobody shoot us. I get the feeling that as soon as our bus leaves, the guards will relax and play Yahtzee.
When All Else Fails, Go Bowling
One night we went to the Pyongyang Gold Lane bowling alley, where I found it odd that the name was written on the building in English. It was a normal bowling facility filled with young Koreans enjoying a pleasant diversion. We learned that most likely this was a reward for their work groups. The way the system here rewards individuals is that each person belongs to a work group. Groups in every industry are given production goals, and the most successful groups, if they achieve or exceed their goals, are given perks such as a night of bowling. We were not able to get more information on this, so we just relaxed for an hour or so of watching the locals enjoy something other than marching. Several in our group also bowled.
One of DRPK’s industrial accomplishments is the production of textiles. The Koreans are relatively adept in this area and claim to have actually made fabric from limestone. The nation is short on arable land and long on minerals, so this adaptation fits nicely with their available resources. They won’t explain how they do this, but presumably there are citizens wandering about wearing undergarments made from stone. Could this explain there glum demeanor?
One of our outings in Pyongyang is to view the alleged spy ship USS Pueblo, currently the only vessel of the U.S. navy in enemy hands. We walk along the Taedong river, passing thousands of Korean children, resting and just hanging out, taking a break from their socialist day. We reach the Pueblo, berthed along the bank of the Taedong adjacent to a small memorial. The Koreans are very proud of this event, capturing this U.S. naval ship that allegedly patrolled their waters in 1968. It is docked at the same spot where 100 years earlier the Koreans had destroyed another American ship, the merchant vessel General Sherman (google it). We take a brief tour aboard the Pueblo, see the signed confessions of the crew, and hear the Korean side of the story as told in a ten minute propaganda DVD. A military guide poses for pictures with the tourists.
On several occasions the DPRK government expresses their hope to re-unite with the south, forming a united Korean nation. I suspect they are genuine in this wish, though quite deluded about its reality. They explain that the only thing standing between them and their dream of a united Korea is the imperialist Americans who continually block reunification. When I use the phrase “they explain”, I’m referring to the five-page essay that Sally read to us on the bus ride to the DMZ. When she started droning on about reunification, I thought it would be another tourist guide sound byte. But I glanced over at her and saw that she was actually reading from a type-written, five page essay. This brought me back more than a few years: I haven’t had that much fun since high school civics class. In this text the DPRK government outlined its suggestions for how such a reunion might happen. They didn’t seem to see nuclear weapons, vastly different political ideologies, poverty or near starvation as big stumbling blocks, nor the interests of the elephants in the room – China and the U.S. No one on our bus made even the slightest comment on the essay. Neither Sally, Curly or Mo solicited a response, either because it was so bizarre there could be no reasonable response, or because the whole thing put everyone to sleep.
Fun and Games
Occasionally we did things just for fun. We were taken one day to view what was called a ‘military circus’. This event was just pure entertainment and without regard to political ideology. For about an hour we were entertained by talented acrobats, clowns, and jugglers in a large auditorium. Entry fee was about $20 USD. The talent was excellent and a thousand or so lucky students were allowed to join us for the show, though I suspect they didn’t have to pay a fee. On another occasion we watched a performance by students that was part music, part dance, and also well done. That one was free.
One morning we went to a museum of the Workers Party of Korea. This was the building in which Kim Il Sung (Pops) started that organization, shortly after liberating Korea from Japanese rule in 1945. It is a small building with many photographs of Pops and various others from those heady days. In one large meeting room, we were surprised to see large photographs of Stalin, Lenin, Engels and Karl Marx displayed prominently on two walls. Neither Sally nor the museum tour guide drew any attention to the photos, though to us they were obvious reminders of the critically important role played by the Soviets in supporting DPRK in the years immediately following WWII. Still, we were surprised that the authorities here would continue to display any pictures other than Pops and Smiley, especially since the USSR gave only limited support of DPRK during the Korean War, and of course since that empire fell in 1990, has provided no support. Yet there they were, the original party animals, peering down at us from their place in history.
Throughout the tour Sally was in high-socialist form. At monuments and museums, she never went off-script and was diligent in her duties. But she is after all human, and she revealed this side of herself through humor. Most days she shared some naughty jokes, and on one occasion sang a song. The normally quiet and passive Mo also sang to us on several occasions, as did our bus driver. These were good reminders that people everywhere have the important things in common. Curly was not much of a story-teller, though on one occasion we were able to engage him in a discussion on nuclear disarmament. Sadly, his views were not promising.
At one point early in the tour there was a rumor of some real restaurants in Pyongyang, where presumably the very small number of diplomats, businessmen and party elite that live here can get a brief respite from the totalitarian blues. Already bored with our lackluster meals, we collectively lobbied for a visit to one of these restaurants. Sally agreed and so one day we rode to what she referred to as ‘Pizza Hut.’ There was no signage on the building nor in the restaurant, and the reference was really just to the fact that this was an Italian-style restaurant that served pizza, located on the third floor of an unmarked building. So we all had the socialist Korean interpretation of pizza. There were in fact a few non-tourist westerners enjoying a meal, though our group of 22 dominated the room. When one of the Korean employees turned on a karaoke machine and started singing ‘Edelweiss’ in their accented English, I turned on my video camera to capture the moment. It was a pleasant afternoon, with a glimpse of normalcy in this otherwise atypical place.
Things are slowly changing in DPRK. Ten years ago Pyongyang would be nearly dark every night. Much of it is still dark, but the number of lit buildings is growing. There is some traffic, and in our four days there I counted exactly two taxi cabs, one of which sat outside our hotel, waiting for the world to change. People may now have cell phones, though of course most citizens are too poor to afford these. The cell system is restricted to DPRK, so callers cannot connect internationally. Computers are allowed and they have a limited intranet system, though still no connection to the outside world. Their intranet system has email and a few web sites and we see citizens at the public library using computers. They even experimented with a dating web site, which was shut down after people complained that everyone on the site lied about their age, status and even height. You’d think they would have been suspicious when so many ads read “SKF, blond, 6′ tall, likes marching and ping pong.”
During the Mass Games on our first night here, there was one dance routine that honored one of DPRK’s recent accomplishments, namely the use of CNC, or ‘computer numerical control.’ You might not expect the progress of a few geeky engineers to inspire such passion, but this widely used system of computer-controlled robotic machines has created a stir among the youngsters here. No big deal for most of the world, but in the isolated DPRK, use of CNC is a point of pride. The Koreans have written a song about it that has reportedly become very popular. Some western music is enjoyed here as well. In a library we listened to Beatles music, and unexpectedly to a knock-off rendition of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie.’ I see Madonna CDs and we hear that Celine Dion is also popular.
Optimists like to find silver linings, so for you glass-half-full types out there, I will list the upside of DPRK. For starters, other than the leader no one in North Korea is overweight. No one here uses food as a coping mechanism for other problems. Without cars, they all get plenty of exercise. There is no fruit, no sugar and no desserts, so the incidence of diabetes is probably low. It’s a quiet place, without the roar of traffic or heavy industry. There are no freeways. There is no consumer culture, so when you’re not busy marching, there is little to distract you from the soulful task of spiritual connection. The green-eyed monster of jealousy rarely surfaces in DPRK as almost everyone is equally poor. There is probably not much crime, if you don’t count the crime of imprisoning the minds of 25 million people. The streets are clean and pollution is moderate. The currency is worthless, so their central bankers cannot manipulate it. There is no income tax since there is no income, and citizens need not endure election seasons or empty campaign promises since there are no elections. There are no telemarketers. And finally, the leader has a terrific smile. So there; now you cannot accuse me of being a bad-news bear.
If you carry a non-U.S. passport, then at the end of your tour you are taken to the train station in Pyongyang, where you will spend the next 22 hours riding to Beijing. For those carrying U.S. passports, you take the much quicker route of flying to Beijing. Pointlessly, we asked the reason for this policy. We never received an answer.
Who should travel to DPRK? If you’re looking for fun, relaxation, archaeological points of interest or social interaction, DPRK is not for you. If you’re a beach person, party animal, skydiver or love to shop, you can scratch this country off your list. However if you’re curious about conditions in a totalitarian personality cult and good at reading between the lines, then you should consider visiting DPRK. It is not the poorest country and not the most dangerous, though it is quite possibly the most oppressive. As for Koryo, they did an excellent job escorting us through a difficult location. Our own guide Hannah was fantastic.
We Hold These Truths to be Self Evident
In the free world, we are born with certain inalienable rights. Americans mostly know these as the Bill of Rights, and we mostly take them for granted. But absence makes the heart grow fonder: when we lose these rights, our perspective changes. So I should not have been surprised when we finally left DPRK that I would be so glad to leave. But I was. After six days of listening to Sally’s scripted monologue and after suppressing my own instinct to engage in real discussion, after viewing thousands of children marching day and night to honor their dead oppressors, I was delighted to once again breathe free (though polluted) air.
Upon arriving in Beijing, which itself is an absurdly crowded and over-stimulated city in a communist country, I noticed none of the detractions and felt only relief to hear the normal banter of unedited citizens. I rejoiced at the freedom of expression, unencumbered by DPRK restrictions. Yes, China blocks some web sites and restrains the press, but it is minor compared to the total blackout that occurs in DPRK. Had it not been so disgustingly filthy, I could have kissed the ground in Beijing.
After we left DPRK and spent one night in Beijing, we took an early morning flight to Hong Kong which, strangely, felt like coming home. Two nights later we met with a friend for dinner. He was traveling on business with his co-worker and both were very curious about our visit to DPRK. When I started to describe some of our trip, their responses caught me off-guard, as they smiled and nodded knowingly, even though neither had ever been to North Korea. Suddenly I remembered that Matthias was born and raised in the GDR, or what many knew as East Germany. So was his friend Barnhardt.
When the wall came down, Matthias was about 12, so he remembers well growing up in a totalitarian-socialist regime. He recalled the October day in 1989 when all GDR citizens were given a bit of West German cash (D-marks). First order of business was to cross over to the west to buy chocolate and bananas, two commodities that ordinary GDR citizens could not afford. Meanwhile their West German counterparts were crossing the fallen border in the other direction, taking advantage of the GDR’s going-out-of-business-sale, buying entire city blocks, earning handsome fortunes in the process. Such is the game of geopolitics. Today Matthias is a lawyer and has spent his entire adult life in the free world, as has his friend Barnhardt, who was 18 when the wall came down.
They elaborated a bit by noting the way in which ignorance contributes to bliss. They did not know any differently as children in GDR, so they did not know to be unhappy. With full knowledge of life today in the free world, they both reflect fondly on their happy childhoods in the GDR. They also pointed out that the adults who had tasted freedom before the creation of GDR and drew the short straws when the line was drawn between east and west, suffered much more both during that long socialist experiment and afterwards. When the wall came down, many adults had a difficult time adjusting to the new capitalist world, and the capitalist side had an equally difficult time absorbing the socialist population. The children however fared much better. Thank goodness for the children.
Thanks to Phil for inviting me on this trip, to our sixteen fellow travelers who helped make this a memorable experience, and to Hannah and Koryo Group for their steady guidance. This adventure gave me a renewed appreciation for the words of Thomas Jefferson, who so eloquently memorialized the tenets of a free society. I’ve now seen where we would be without them.
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Photo at top of page: street corner in Kaesong.