An American Tourist in North Korea, 2007

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					                         An American Tourist in North Korea, 2007
While the U.S. government permits its citizens to go             our journey, some of us were issued individual visas
to North Korea, the DPRK’s ever-changing                         while seven of us were put on a single “group” visa. I
restrictions on Americans makes such a visit difficult.          now am told that I was randomly designated the
My twelve-day trip scheduled for 2006 was shortened              “leader” on the group visa and that had I failed to
to ten days, then to six days, then nixed altogether. In         show up at the airport in Beijing, none of the other six
2007 I was scheduled to be in the country for six                travelers would’ve been admitted into the country.
days, but a week prior to departure it was cut to a
                                                                 As we wait for our luggage, a large color TV set that
mere three days.
                                                                 a North Korean passenger apparently purchased in
                                                                 Beijing glides by on the carousel. Metal detectors and
Orientation Meeting
                                                                 luggage x-ray machines are ubiquitous in airports, but
Shortly before our flight is scheduled to depart from            where else are they used on passengers getting off
Beijing for Pyongyang, the company that has put the              arriving planes? We’re asked to hand over all cell
tour together holds an orientation session. We are               phones (not they would actually work in the DPRK).
urged to obey the rules because it is our North Korean           Most travelers are waved through, but I’m asked to
guides who will get in trouble if we misbehave. The              open my duffle bag. An official fans through the
two cardinal sins are disrespecting Kim Il-Sung or               books I’ve brought with me and, seeing the gifts I’ve
Kim Jong-Il and wandering off from the tour group                packed for our guides, mutters “chocolate, so much
unsupervised. A lesser infraction is taking an                   chocolate.” He is gruff and impersonal, but when
unauthorized snapshot, which includes photographing              finished breaks out into a warm smile. “I am so sorry
“anything that might embarrass the regime.” An                   for opening your suitcase!”
example we’re given is “an overflowing trash can…
not that you’ll actually see one during your trip.”              Arch of Triumph
The tour company rep offers some suggestions on                  Built in 1982 and modeled after the Arc de Triomphe
what gifts to bring for our guides – chocolate,                  in Paris, this one is a few feet taller and thus lays
cigarettes, makeup for women, “and whatever you do,              claim to being the tallest arch in the world. But while
please don’t give them a Bible, it will only offend              Paris’s is a swirling beehive of cars and people, here
them and end up in the trash, and please don’t do                the structure’s impressive size exaggerates the odd
what someone did last time, can you believe she                  quiet and lack of human activity.
wrote them a thank you note and signed it ‘Jesus
loves you.’” The rep tells us that the handful of                Youth Fun Fair
Christian houses of worship in Pyongyang are not                 There’s more life at the nearby youth funfair. Most
“propaganda” churches. He mentions a pastor from                 wear school uniforms and red Kim Il-Sung pins over
New Zealand who, after two decades of visits, says               their hearts. They seem to be having a great time,
that if the congregants he worships with aren’t real             oblivious to how precarious it is: one spinning/tilting
Christians, then they’re the world’s best actors.                ride we nickname the “wheel of death” has no
                                                                 seatbelts, the rocket ride has kids getting on after it’s
Arriving in Pyongyang                                            already started, and the roller coaster is badly rusted.
In Beijing we board a 1970s era Russian plane,                   A shooting gallery has kids aiming at a weasel in a
Americans seated in the back, North Koreans in the               uniform – intended I’m sure to represent a U.S.
front. There are no doors on the overhead luggage                soldier. The park operates on the honor system –
compartments to prevent items from falling out                   when exiting we’re simply asked to report how many
during turbulence, but the flight is smooth. When we             rides we went on and pay accordingly.
cross into North Korean air space, there’s something
                                                                 One in our group tries unsuccessfully to persuade
on the PA system that I don’t quite catch except for
                                                                 some kids to pose with him for a photo. Instead of
“thanks to our Great Leader Kim Il-Sung.” Toto,
                                                                 taking no for an answer, he asks again and again, and
we’re not in Kansas anymore…
                                                                 at that point I’m glad they don’t know we’re
The Pyongyang airport terminal is the smallest I’ve              Americans. I’ve been told that North Koreans are
ever seen. For reasons unknown even to the                       reluctant to have their pictures taken – few citizens
experienced tour company rep that accompanies us on              own cameras and the whole notion of photography is

                                                       Page 1 of 10
more related in their minds to law enforcement than              difficult for paying foreign tourists like me to enter
to tourism. Who knows if a photograph will document              the country.
some unintended infraction? Being a free Westerner I
                                                                 With a lull in the rain, hundreds of people dry the
don’t mind having my picture taken. But by the end
                                                                 field using only towels and squeegees. On the
of the trip the tables will be turned and I’ll see the
                                                                 opposite side of the stadium bowl sit 20,000 school
downside to having a camera pointed at me.
                                                                 children who, by flipping color pages of large books,
                                                                 will form the images that illustrate the pageant’s
Mansudae Monument
                                                                 story. They begin their warm-ups, and though I had
On their first day in Pyongyang tourists are always              previously seen a great deal of Mass Games footage
taken to pay their respects at the Kim Il-Sung                   on TV, I’m unprepared for the incredible sound of
“Mansudae” monument. Its 60-meter height makes it                20,000 pages flipping simultaneously – one massive
the world’s tallest statue of any head of state and              percussion instrument. As if that’s not enough, every
significantly bigger than Lady Liberty. It was                   once in a while they let out a unison group yell. We
originally gilded, and the widely accepted rumor is              tell one of our guides how impressive this is, but he
that visiting Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping quipped               shakes his head: “They seem to be a bit off tonight.”
that a country that can afford to erect such a large
gold statue does not need foreign aid, whereupon the             For the next ninety minutes we’re dazzled by
North Koreans quietly redid it in bronze.                        gymnasts and dancers in tightly geometric
                                                                 synchronized formations. The rain starts up again.
We were warned long ago that we’d be asked to bow                Spectators are protected by a canopy, but the
here and that failure to do so would seriously sour              performers are getting soaked and carry on
relations with our guides. It’s not a moment I’m                 nonetheless. A high wire act includes acrobats flung
looking forward to, but our tour rep had explained to            the length of a football field by long bungee cords.
us that for North Koreans, it’s not a matter of showing          Most impressive are the small children effortlessly
respect but rather not showing disrespect – a                    doing synchronized back flips on the slippery grass.
distinction without a difference I wondered. But then            Every one of them seems to be smiling. Based on
I remembered some of my atheist relatives who                    their applause, the North Korean audience members
stayed at our home and who bowed their heads and                 seem to be as taken with the children as we are. They
closed their eyes when we said grace, simply to be               applaud too whenever a picture of the Great Leader
courteous. North Koreans similarly view a tourist’s              appears, enthusiastically to be sure, but not with the
bow as nothing more than a polite gesture.                       wild, cult-like fervor I was half expecting.
But now an added wrinkle from our guides: “It would              The words to the pageant are all in Korean, and so I
also be good if you purchase some flowers to lay                 understand nothing beyond what has been explained
before the statue of our Great Leader.” I and a few              to me. “Arirang” is a traditional Korean tale about
others oblige before we bow in unison. As if the scene           two separated lovers, and in this show also serves as a
weren’t strange enough already, rain starts to come              metaphor for the two halves of the country longing to
down and flashes of lightning fill the sky. At least we          be reunited. Depicted visually are important events in
got that over with I tell myself, no more bowing to              North Korean history as well as a sequences
Kim Il-Sung. But I will end up bowing three more                 celebrating hydroelectric power and bountiful
times before the trip is over.                                   harvests. The funniest part for me is a giant image of
                                                                 smiling pigs, no doubt being fattened for eventual
Mass Games                                                       slaughter but nevertheless thrilled to be living in a
With a reported seating capacity of around 150,000,              socialist paradise.
the May Day Stadium is, you guessed it, the largest in
the world. And the Mass Games is the largest pageant             Kim Jong-Il typically attends the Mass Games on
the world has ever seen. The stadium is not filled to            important occasions, though he failed to make an
capacity, and weak ticket sales will eventually                  appearance this year on April 15th, the birthday of his
precipitate the abrupt cancellation of the last ten              deceased father. Absent a lot of hard information
performances. Hardly surprising – few local citizens             coming out of the DPRK, minor incidents such this
can afford the full $65-250 ticket price (I presume              one will fuel rumors about his deteriorating health.
they’re given tickets through their workplace or
school), and yet the DPRK has made it maddeningly

                                                       Page 2 of 10
Dak-Ho                                                               heaven, but before opening the pearly gates he asks
Throughout the trip, interactions with our four guides,              them to demonstrate whatever it is they were most
two of whom are trainees, are more revealing about                   known for doing on earth. Leonardo Da Vinci steps
North Korean society than any of the sightseeing                     up and St. Peter says, “What were you famous for?”
experiences. They are easy to get along with. They                   and Da Vinci whips out a paintbrush and creates a
never bark out orders but instead offer suggestions,                 masterpiece. “Very good,” St. Peter smiles and lets
e.g., “it is better not to,” and we get the message.                 him in. Albert Einstein steps up, produces a complex
                                                                     mathematical equation, and St. Peter smiles and lets
Our head guide Dak-Ho still has his guard up on the                  him in. George W. Bush appears and St. Peter asks
first day. I try to ask him what North Koreans believe               him to demonstrate what he was most famous for. “I
about the afterlife. I suspect he fears I’m gearing up to            don’t understand what you’re asking” Bush replies.
talk to him about Christianity because he employs a                  “Well,” St. Peter says, “Da Vinci made us a painting
tactic I will see on a few occasions when our guides                 and Albert Einstein produced a mathematical
want to change the subject: a long and completely                    equation.” “Da Vinci? Einstein? Who are they?” Bush
irrelevant reply. He tells me about Kim Il-Sung and                  asks. St. Peter smiles and lets him in.
how the country struggled to defeat the Japanese and
Americans and what a great tragedy his death was to                  It seems a bit contradictory to hear this from the same
the nation. Huh? The next day I reframe the question                 person who had earlier warned us not to disrespect
around ancestor worship in Korean culture. He’s                      Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il or fold a newspaper
become more comfortable with us by now. Yes he                       across one of their photos. Still, I find this gentle
says, in North Korea people do maintain and visit the                ribbing preferable to the angry anti-American
graves of their ancestors. And do their spirits live on              diatribes I’d expected to hear. As we get back on the
after their bodies die? Yes. And President Kim Il-                   bus after visiting a museum documenting America’s
Sung? He lives on in our hearts.                                     “crimes” he jokingly asks us, “So have you all gotten
                                                                     a good brain washing?”
Dak-Ho says that Chandoism is the “national religion
of Korea” and that there is a Chandoist political party              Yanggakdo Hotel
in addition to the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea. The
                                                                     Opened in 1995, the Yanggakdo Hotel where we stay
odd part is that, despite it being the national religion,
                                                                     each night is one of the two hotels, along with the
there only a few thousand believers – fewer than the
                                                                     Koryo Hotel, where all Pyongyang’s foreign tourists
10,000 Christians that the DPRK claims to have. I tell
                                                                     are housed. From what I understand, neither is ever
him “but I thought Juche was the national religion of
                                                                     close to being filled to capacity. The Yanggakdo sits
the DPRK.” From his reaction I can tell he thinks I’ve
                                                                     on a small island in the middle of the Taedong river
said something foolish. “Juche is the national
                                                                     that runs through Pyongyang. Also on the island is a
philosophy. Religion, it is about the God.”
                                                                     nine-hole golf course and a cinematheque that houses
I ask him whether he is a WPK member. “No…” For                      the biennial Pyongyang international film festival that
someone who has a pretty good poker face, a fair                     has screened Western films such as Bend it Like
amount of frustration has been expressed in his                      Beckham, though no U.S. films so far. With access on
delivery of that word. It’s clear this is something he               and off the island limited to one road, it’s easy to
wants very badly. He tells me membership is by                       ensure that foreigners don’t wander into the city
invitation only, for people who do good things for the               without permission. But perhaps equally significant is
country and demonstrate their loyalty to General Kim                 that it discourages local North Koreans from coming
Jong-Il. I can’t tell whether he blames himself or the               onto the island to mingle with foreigners.
Party over not being invited.
                                                                     Below the hotel lobby is a three-lane bowling alley
Nevertheless, this guy has sense of humor. As we go                  and a karaoke bar. The floor below that, leased by a
to an area famous for the locally grown ginseng, he                  Macau businessman, is off-limits to all North
tells us all the health benefits of the herb – good for              Koreans, even our guides. My roommate and I
liver, blood pressure, etc. And then with a straight                 venture down here around 11:00 pm to find dance
face adds “it is also beneficial for the nightly                     music blaring and a host bidding us to enter. But the
activities” just to see if we’re paying attention. Later             disco turns out to be completely deserted.
on he says he has a joke he shouldn’t tell us but feels
                                                                     The hotel, considered the most luxurious in the
he has to anyway. St. Peter is admitting people into
                                                                     DPRK, is in many respects comparable in quality to a

                                                           Page 3 of 10
good American hotel, but with a few wrinkles: if two            close and one of the guards claps his hands loudly as
people are staying in a room, they must share a single          a warning to step back. The southern side appears
key; married couples still get a room with two twin             deserted until an American soldier in camouflage
beds; and of course the water is undrinkable. One               fatigues and dark glasses shows up with a large
member of our group mixes whiskey and hotel tap                 camera and starts photographing us. It’s unclear why
water, thinking the alcohol will kill any bacteria, and         he’s doing that, as there are already numerous
he pays for his mistake the next morning. He’s too              mounted security cameras. We conclude this is done
sick to join the group, and one of our guides has to            to send some a message to the North Koreans – we’re
stay behind that day to check in on him once an hour            watching how you treat your guests.
to ensure he hasn’t wandered off the premises.
                                                                We then go into a multi-story building for a better
                                                                view from the balcony. There has been much
Tower of the Juche Idea
                                                                speculation that the structures on the northern side of
North Korea’s Juche ideology blends Marxism,                    the border are just “propaganda facades” like those
Korean nationalism, Confucianism, and of course                 you’d find on a movie set, intended to make North
worship of the Great Leader. We ride the elevator up            Korea look more developed than it really is. But it’s
the Juche tower which is topped with an artificial              easy to see as we walk up its marble-clad steps that
flame. The observation deck offers a panoramic view             this building is very real. Google earth satellite photos
of Pyongyang, including something not visible from              I will later look up suggest that the nearby buildings
the street below – a decaying building complex only a           are also real.
few blocks away. The only graffiti I will see on my
trip is up here, some Chinese characters various                Downtown Pyongyang
visitors seem to have etched into the gold-painted
                                                                A visit to a stamp shop takes us past the Koryo Hotel
base of the flame with their fingernails.
                                                                and what appears to be one of the main boulevards in
                                                                Pyongyang. It’s just after dark, and in any other city
Demilitarized Zone/Panmunjom
                                                                such a place would be teeming with activity. But here
Panmunjom and the adjacent “Joint Security Area” at             the streets and sidewalks are empty. From each
the southern border is not holy ground like the                 deserted window on the multistory buildings that line
Mansudae monument, and despite the heavy military               the street comes the faint greenish/white glow of a
presence, the mood is surprisingly casual. The older            compact fluorescent bulb. The only large groups of
soldier who shows us around is good-natured, and                people we see are crammed inside streetcars or
when a slender blonde asks if she can pose for a photo          waiting at streetcar stations.
with him, he replies “I normally don’t like to pose
with Americans, but when I see a woman as beautiful             U.S.S. Pueblo
as you...” In fact he’s quite happy to pose with
                                                                Our guide on the ship, a slender older man in military
Americans and hopes we can later send him prints of
                                                                uniform, is one of the sailors who captured the U.S.S.
our photos with him.
                                                                Pueblo in 1968. At the time the U.S. insisted it was
We’re shown the room where the Korean War                       merely a research vessel but the North Koreans
armistice was negotiated and another room where it              claimed was a spy ship. It’s generally accepted the
was formally agreed to. Details that seem                       ship was indeed gathering military intelligence, the
insignificant to us hold great significance for the             only real dispute being whether it was in international
North Koreans. For example, the fact that the                   or DPRK waters at the time of its capture. A copy of
Americans were willing to hold the signing ceremony             the letter the U.S. signed admitting it was 100% guilty
in a tent and that the North Koreans insisted on                of spying and trespassing is mounted on the ship’s
building a permanent structure. Or the fact that the            wall. That the U.S. signed this order to win release of
American representative got confused and had to flip            its imprisoned sailors matters not to the man showing
through the document before being told where to sign            us around – as far as he’s concerned, this is slam dunk
– apparently proof to the North Koreans that, in                proof that the DPRK was in the right.
addition to being diabolical imperialists, Americans
                                                                Outside the ship, newly on display, is something that
are also hapless morons.
                                                                looks to me like a big torpedo but which the ship’s
When we actually get to the divide between north and            guide claims is a U.S. unmanned spy submarine
south, one member of our group strays a little too              captured in 2005.

                                                      Page 4 of 10
Chul-Moo                                                          distance from that point to Kim Il-Sung Square in
Chul-Moo’s eyes communicate little and his small                  Pyongyang.
frame never seems at ease. Either his English is poor             In North Korea you aren’t permitted to pass another
or he doesn’t like Americans or he’s just shy.                    car on the left. A slow moving jeep with military men
Training to become a guide, he doesn’t seem at all cut            inside in the far left lane thus prevents our bus from
out for it. But in a country like this, what choice does          passing him in any of the empty three right lanes. Our
he have?                                                          driver is getting annoyed. He pulls up behind the
One member of our group decides he needs to be                    soldiers and honks his horn repeatedly. They stand
challenged. “Who is going to run the country after                their ground, refusing to speed up or change lanes.
Kim Jong-Il dies? Where does Kim Jong-Il live? How                This goes on for about five minutes before our
many children does he have?” This makes poor Chul-                exasperated driver passes them on the right.
Moo visibly uncomfortable. Were he more
experienced, he could easily flick these questions                Kaesong
aside. But he seems stuck between a rock and a hard               If Pyongyang is the DPRK’s showcase city, then
place: a candid answer could get him in serious                   Kaesong is closer to how most North Koreans live.
trouble but professing ignorance would cause him to               There is one large Kim Il-Sung statue, and as we start
lose face. He says “I don’t know” and walks away. I               up the steps to get a closer look our guides ask us not
don’t feel I can approach him, and he never shows an              to go any closer. The tour company rep tells us that at
inclination to make conversation with me. I also will             night a power outage can darken the whole city, but
realize after the trip is over how camera shy he is, as I         the monument will remain lit. The statue stares down
don’t see him in a single one of my hundreds of                   at a wide boulevard below. Pedestrians freely walk
snapshots.                                                        across it as there are no cars. Bicycles nevertheless
                                                                  stay inside the bike lanes painted on the sidewalks.
On the Road                                                       When our tour bus finally goes down this road, the
Contrary to what I’d read about a bicycling ban in                driver has to repeatedly honk before the pedestrians
Pyongyang, I see many cyclists, including one being               realize there is a vehicle that needs to get past them.
given a ticket from a female traffic cop on a motor
scooter. While there isn’t exactly a crush of traffic             Food, Pigs, and Dogs
during the day, on some streets at least there are                I had been told to expect unremarkable food and
enough cars to occupy the female traffic cops                     lousy service. Wrong on both counts. The food is
stationed at intersections. We’re told they work in two           delicious and plentiful, and the service is always
hour shifts during the day, and then at night the traffic         friendly. At one restaurant the waitresses even sing
lights take over.                                                 for us and pull some of us out of our seats to dance
                                                                  with them. Only the coffee leaves something to be
As our tour bus heads to the coastal city of Nampo,
                                                                  desired – it appears that all the North Koreans have is
we’re told that the number of meters of this eight-
                                                                  instant powder.
lane, deserted highway is somehow related to the
Great Leader’s birthday. We see a surprising number               Outside one restaurant I hear horrific squeals and turn
of military people by the road. They’re on bicycle or             around to see an arriving cyclist with a squirming pig
on foot, in the middle of nowhere, and don’t seem to              strapped down sideways to her bike rack – hardly the
be doing anything in particular. We get to see a lot of           blissed out swine depicted at the Mass Games
the Korean countryside, and it’s pretty much all the              performance. Needless to say this strange sight to my
same: lots of undeveloped land and occasional farms               eyes raised doesn’t merit a second glance from any of
that only rarely have mechanized equipment. We                    the locals.
frequently see small dirt pyramids, perhaps two feet
                                                                  At another restaurant we’re offered dog stew, but
tall, with a square white protrusion in the middle
                                                                  after a long wait the offer is withdrawn when the staff
perhaps eight inches tall. These mounds are
                                                                  determine that their dog is “not of sufficient quality”
sometimes spaced only a few dozen feet apart,
                                                                  for their foreign patrons. Outside I see a mutt tied
sometimes miles apart. We speculate that these are
                                                                  down to a stake and try to pet it. Growling, it lunges
used to mark boundaries between plots of land. But
                                                                  at me, and I realize this is perhaps what we were to
then our guide explains that each marker measures the
                                                                  have eaten. My foolhardy effort at least elicits a
                                                                  chuckle from our otherwise inscrutable guide Chul-

                                                        Page 5 of 10
Moo. I’ve been on the lookout for dogs, because a                 tells us that the construction materials were being
society that can afford to have pets is a society with            provided by fellow communist countries. When
adequate food. But during our trip I will only see one            communism ended in eastern Europe in 1989, that cut
dog being walked on a leash, a German Shepherd and                off the supply of those materials to the DPRK, and
presumably a guard dog.                                           “due to U.S. economic sanctions, we could not
                                                                  continue.” It is one of several times that he will tell us
Circus                                                            of how U.S. policies have hurt his country. Even the
The circus is old-fashioned, and its production values            DPRK’s recent floods are “a result of global
unsophisticated. Still, the performers are first rate and         warming” and I’m pretty sure I know which country
there’s even a surprisingly good live orchestra.                  the North Koreans blame most for that.
Pyongyang has a military circus that’s supposed to be
even better, but Americans currently aren’t admitted              Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
there.                                                            The name says it all. The Korean War, which
                                                                  Americans consider to have ended in a draw, is
In addition to the standard jugglers, trapeze artists,
                                                                  portrayed by the North Koreans as a great victory. As
etc., there is priceless bit by a clown done entirely in
                                                                  we hear them describe themselves as a
pantomime. Dressed up as a movie director, he grabs
                                                                  technologically inferior country, I’m reminded of
two volunteers from the crowd (I later learn they are
                                                                  Rocky Balboa’s first bout with Apollo Creed, where
setups) and instructs them on how to perform a scene
                                                                  he is technically the loser but nonetheless achieves a
in his martial arts film. One puts on a white
                                                                  moral victory. As far as the North Koreans are
taekwondo outfit. The other is given a white head
                                                                  concerned, their failure to conquer and hold the
scarf with a red sun on it, a long black wig, a
                                                                  southern half of the peninsula is secondary to the fact
mustache, and a black outfit. The audience howls with
                                                                  that they “went the distance” with the U.S.
laughter at this Japanese caricature, and of course the
scene ends with him being humiliated by several                   Everything we’re told underscores the notion of North
kicks from his opponent.                                          Korea as courageous underdog. We learn about when
                                                                  Kim Il-Sung told his pilots that the North Korean
Ryugyong Hotel                                                    planes clearly were not as fast as the American ones,
At 105 stories, the triangular Ryugyong Hotel                     and that the North Korean pilots should therefore not
dominates the Pyongyang skyline. Slated to be                     attempt to chase the Americans from behind but
completed in 1989, construction was abandoned long                instead should engage them head-on. We’re shown
ago, leaving a construction crane stranded atop its               the stump of a tree that was said to have hidden
pinnacle. As we drive close by, we see that window                revolutionary fighters from the view of U.S. airplanes
panes were never installed. I mention to my                       until the Americans finally destroyed it. We see an
roommate that the insides must be infested with                   array of U.S. military equipment, planes and vehicles
pigeons. Then he points out that we have yet to see a             that the North Koreans captured. One plane we’re told
single pigeon in Pyongyang. Urban pigeons live off                was shot down by a unit of women using only small
the food that people discard, and I guess there isn’t             arms fire.
much of that in North Korea.
                                                                  Moran Hill Park
There are many rumors about why the hotel was
                                                                  Sunday is the one day a week that North Koreans
never finished, including that the elevator shafts were
                                                                  don’t have to work. In the beautiful Moran Hill Park
built crooked. Concrete heats and distorts as it sets,
                                                                  we see a number of amateur artists painting nature
and only recently has its use been perfected in the
                                                                  scenes. We pass by a circle of standing men and
construction of tall skyscrapers. It seems foolhardy
                                                                  seated women. The men have stripped down to their
for the DPRK to have opted for concrete instead of
                                                                  undershirts and are clapping and singing. They’ve
steel back in the 1980s. But even more foolhardy is
                                                                  obviously had a few beers and are having a very good
the notion of building a 3,000-room hotel in a city
                                                                  time of it. Our guides suggest we should not
which gets so few visitors. And I wonder how a
                                                                  photograph this scene.
government that can’t pull this off could be capable of
building nuclear weapons.                                         At the top of the hill we come to a wooden pavilion
                                                                  where people dressed more formally are folk dancing.
Out of politeness none of us asks about the building,
                                                                  Before I know it, an older women in a green silk dress
but to my surprise Dak-Ho brings it up himself. He

                                                        Page 6 of 10
has grabbed my hand and is dancing with me. Other                 Hyun
members of our group are grabbed as well. She                     Hyun is very polite and professional. He inspires
discreetly holds up four fingers which, it turns out,             enough confidence that when he draws us water from
means I am to twirl her around four times. It’s then              a well and assures us it’s safe to drink, we do so.
her turn to twirl me four times and, given the nearly             When we first meet, our tour company rep mentions
two foot difference in our height, this gets a lot of             that some North Korean guides don’t like to lead
laughs from the onlookers. Having come into the                   American groups and asks him how he feels about
country expecting suspicion of foreigners, this                   this. He says he doesn’t mind. What else can he say, I
unscripted show of friendship makes a big impression              wonder, knowing that I’m listening in? But by the end
upon me. But in the back of my mind I wonder,                     of the trip I become convinced he really feels this
would they still have done it if they knew we were                way.
                                                                  At the karaoke bar we learn that he used to manage a
Pyongyang Metro                                                   sports hall. “So what made you change your
                                                                  professions?” someone asks. He gives a long answer
We’re taken into a subway station. Everyone is
                                                                  about how his parents are getting old and he will need
coming or going except one woman in rags, standing
                                                                  to look after them. Here we go again, he’s changing
like a silent statue tucked into a corner. None of the
                                                                  the subject because this is a sensitive question. “So
locals pay any attention to her. I’m so used to seeing
                                                                  how did your need to look after your parents cause
homeless people back home, it takes a moment for
                                                                  you to become a tour guide?” He stares back blankly
this to register with me. This is exactly one of those
                                                                  and shakes his head, pretending not to understand the
“embarrassing to the regime” photos I’d been warned
                                                                  question. And we all finally get it – he can’t answer.
not to take. I have a brief chance to get a snapshot of
                                                                  He’s got the same puzzled look on his face as that of
this helpless soul without being noticed, but I wait too
                                                                  another guide in the National Geographic
long. For the rest of the trip I will kick myself for
                                                                  documentary Inside North Korea, when asked by
missing out on the one truly important photo
                                                                  journalist Lisa Ling “Does Kim Jong-Il ever makes
Our group gets on a subway car and stands for the
ride. An older North Korean man offers me his seat. I             Kim Il-Sung Mausoleum
know the proper thing is to politely refuse. But I am             We’re informed that the North Koreans are this year
not going to pass up my one opportunity to sit next to            for the first time ever permitting Americans to visit
a North Korean on a subway car. And sure enough, as               the Kumsusan Palace mausoleum where the Great
soon as I sit next to a young couple, the woman asks              Leader Kim Il-Sung’s body lies in state. The tour
me in English, “Where are you from?” I tell her “the              company rep warns us that in their “holiest of holies”
United States.” She seems puzzled. She looks at her               the North Koreans will not tolerate the slightest show
husband. “Where?” “United States of America.” I’m                 of disrespect. For those who didn’t pack formal wear,
tempted to add “the imperialist bastards” as I know               he has brought along a bag of second-hand ties. One
this is our nickname in the DPRK. She and her                     member from our group adds the following insight:
husband discuss my response. He seems to                          we should realize that a visit to the remains of Kim Il-
understand me but she seems skeptical. “Say again,                Sung are “as sacred to the North Koreans as a visit to
where are you from?” I’m getting a bit nervous but                the bones of Jesus would be to Christians.” It takes
trying my best to make a good impression because                  me a few moments to realize he’s being serious.
I’m realizing she’s never met one of us before.
“United States of America.” I can see from her face               Unlike the more mundane tombs of Mao and Lenin
that she finally gets it. She seems nervous now too.              where visitors have sneaked photographs, this is
“Where are you staying?” “Yanggakdo Hotel” “Ah                    perhaps the only tourist spot in the world that has
yes!” She thinks about what to say next. “I hope you              never been photographed. We’re told to give up our
have a good day in Pyongyang!” A few simple words                 cameras as well as all metal objects, including ball
from a North Korean making an effort to reach out to              point pens. We go through a metal detector and are
me even after learning where I’m from – this is why I             instructed to stand still on a conveyor belt that guides
came to North Korea and this is what I was hoping to              us alongside a large black box. We’re given no
find. Our train is pulling into the next station and it’s         indication of what’s going on, but I can only assume
already time to shake hands and say goodbye.                      my body is now being blasted with x-rays. We walk

                                                        Page 7 of 10
through a small chamber where puffs of air shoot at                Korean people like a thunderbolt!” Uniformed high
us from all directions. Our best guess is that it’s a              school children stand in formation while a woman,
bomb-sniffing device. We step onto rotating brushes                choked with emotion, tells them the same story in
that clean the soles of our shoes. We walk past a                  Korean. Several of the kids are in tears.
large, porcelain-like statue of the Great Leader. We
                                                                   After an equally long journey back, we are finally
go up and down escalators and stand on numerous
                                                                   outside. We pass a line of stone-faced North Koreans
moving walkways. Recorded patriotic orchestral
                                                                   waiting to enter. One older American woman decides
music plays continuously.
                                                                   to walk over to an older North Korean woman,
Most moving walkways zip along at a decent pace,                   embrace her, and kiss her on each cheek. I cringe at
but I expect these are deliberately slow because the               what I assume is a terrible faux pas – because North
long journey only heightens the drama and promotes                 Koreans aren’t exactly touchy-feely, because they’re
a quiet, reflective mood. Departing North Korean                   not comfortable with foreigners, but most of all
pilgrims move past us on a parallel walkway going                  because her gesture seems so at odds with their
the opposite direction. It’s hard to describe their                somber mood. So I’m surprised to see the North
expressions – somber, perhaps a bit puzzled by our                 Korean women oohing and aahing in delight over this
presence, reluctant to make eye contact but also a bit             spontaneous show of affection. As we go farther
curious. With our oddly-matched ties, corduroy pants,              down the line, the American woman repeats the
and sneakers, we are quite a contrast to the dressed-up            gesture and gets the same warm response. I stand
North Koreans. Having been told how superior their                 corrected.
country is to the rest of the world, they are perhaps
now pitying us poor foreigners who can’t afford any                Karaoke
better clothes.                                                    To my surprise, even after a very long day of
We’d earlier been told to bow four times, once at each             sightseeing our guides are happy to join us for drinks
side of the Great Leader’s casket. But later we were               and karaoke at the hotel. That is until one of Dak-
told not to bow at his head. We finally reach our                  Ho’s “girlfriends” shows up, at which point he moves
destination, a large square room clad in gray and                  off to another table and acts like he doesn’t know us.
white marble. By lifting his arm up and down, a                    Most of the songs on the screen are famous Western
soldier divides our line into groups of four and                   pop songs – “Country Roads,” “Bohemian
indicates when the next group is to make its approach.             Rhapsody,” “How Deep Is Your Love?” As I’d heard
The Great Leader’s face, under a plate of glass, is                about North Koreans even being imprisoned for
saturated with a bright spotlight. As our group walks              singing foreign pop tunes, I’m surprised to find our
around his casket, bowing at each side, we reach his               guides know a lot of these melodies quite well. We
head. One of my fellow travelers worries I’ve                      have some conversations about the songs themselves.
forgotten the change in instructions and frantically               For instance, our guides seem interested to learn the
whispers “Don’t bow! Don’t bow!”                                   meaning of the song “Ebony and Ivory” – it’s more
We exit into a large hall which displays the hundreds              than just a song extolling the virtues of the materials
of medals and awards bestowed upon Kim Il-Sung                     ebony and ivory! When a Michael Jackson song
that, to North Koreans, are an indication of just how              comes up, our guides already know all about the
greatly admired this man is around the world. Many                 troubles he’s had with young boys and that he’s living
of the honors are from communist-era governments.                  somewhere in the Middle East.
Two catch my eye. A Japanese metal plaque saying                   Hyun skillfully and expressively sings a tune in
“World Peace Day” or something similar has nothing                 Korean. We clap, and he tells us it is a song is about
to indicate it was specifically awarded to Kim Il-                 the people’s love for General Kim Jong-Il. Two songs
Sung. Then there’s the award from the U.S.’s                       our guides seem especially fond of are “Edelweiss”
“Kensington University.” A google search will later                from The Sound of Music and “My Heart Will Go
indicate that this was a Glendale, California diploma              On” from Titanic. Speaking of which, they point out
mill shut down by court order in 2003.                             that the ship sank on April 15, 1912 – “the very same
We exit into another large room and are given                      day our Great Leader Kim Il-Sung was born. On one
personal English-language audio devices where a                    side of the earth things went down, on the other side
narrator, in hyper-dramatic voice, tells us “The death             they went up.” And so the cosmic equilibrium was
of President Kim Il-Sung struck the hearts of the                  maintained.

                                                         Page 8 of 10
On the last night, around 1:00 am everyone except me              Returning to Beijing
and Chul-Moo has left. I go to the bar to settle my tab           To my surprise, on the flight back to Beijing I’m
when they inform me that no one else in the bar paid              seated next to two North Koreans. I start fiddling with
for their drinks or for the 100 songs they claim we               my iPod to see if it will pique their interest, but they
listened to. As the last person to leave, I will have to          don’t seem to notice. When disembarking from the
pay for everyone. I’m now getting a better sense of               plane, the thirty or so North Korean passengers
the North Korean notion of collective responsibility. I           cluster in a group away from everyone else.
try to explain that I am happy to pay for what I
ordered – two beers and two songs, but nothing more.              I’ve heard people say that as North Koreans become
I’m a bit worried how this is going to turn out. Earlier          exposed to the economic development in China, they
a tourist, after learning his father had suddenly died,           will come to realize that their country is backwards
made a phone call back home, only to be told the                  and inferior. But my one day in Beijing makes me
international call would cost him $500. Our                       wonder. I am followed by a man for an entire block
discussion is polite, but they are insistent. I guess             offering to set me up with a prostitute. Outside the
having staked out a position, they would lose face by             Forbidden City, in the span of thirty minutes two
backing down now. And I’m having foolish thoughts:                different locals pretend to engage me in friendly
if they threaten me that I can’t leave the country until          conversation as part of the infamous “tea house scam”
I pay, maybe this is a way I can extend my stay and               intended lighten my wallet by a hundred dollars.
see more.                                                         When one of my fellow returning tourists questions
                                                                  the cab driver as to why the fare he’s asking for is
Then Chul-Moo tells me it’s time for us to go. He                 higher than what it says on the meter, he responds by
probably realizes this is an argument I’m not going to            driving off with the man’s luggage. At Beijing
win. But I don’t want to be the Ugly American who                 International, an airport employee gives me directions
walks out on a bill. Chul-Moo finally puts his hands              and then suggests I give him a tip. All I can think to
on my back and gently pushes me out the door. The                 myself is that this stuff doesn’t happen in Pyongyang.
people behind the bar say nothing. Chul-Moo is the
last person I expected to take my side in a dispute               From inside the bubble of a tour group it’s easy to fall
with a fellow North Korean. The entire evening ends               in love with North Korea. Entire sections of the
up costing me nothing.                                            country, not to mention its concentration camps, are
                                                                  off limits. Entire topics of conversation are taboo.
Recorded for Posterity                                            And so I like what I see because I’ve been seeing
                                                                  through their filter. I like not having to worry about
We are accompanied on all our excursions by a North
                                                                  the hotel maid stealing my wallet. I like streets
Korean man with a video camera, and on our final
                                                                  without a scrap of litter on them. I enjoy the civility
night he shows us a few excerpts of the video disc he
                                                                  people accord each other in public spaces. The
wants to sell us of the trip. There is a collective groan
                                                                  ubiquitous monuments and murals to Kim Il-Sung are
when we realize that he videotaped us bowing to the
                                                                  frankly a lot more appealing than the wall-to-wall
statue of the Great Leader. Not to mention a close-up
                                                                  advertising back home. So I think I can understand
of me laying flowers at his feet. If any of us had
                                                                  how people from Pyongyang visiting Beijing could
hopes of someday running for political office, these
                                                                  see the place, not as modern and prosperous, but as
few seconds of footage have forever dashed them.
                                                                  chaotic and decadent. They may be about as
Now every time I show this to someone, I will have to
                                                                  impressed with it as an Amish person with a Las
go into a long explanation about how I’m not a traitor
                                                                  Vegas casino.
to my country.
Amusing to me is that our humble photographer                     Iseul
certainly believed he was doing us a big favor by                 As the other trainee guide, Iseul’s personality is the
memorializing this special moment for us. Anyway,                 opposite of Chul-Moo’s. He’s looks barely 20 and is
after returning home I will find a youtube clip from              completely comfortable in his own skin. I ask him
another tour group’s video and shake my head in                   how long he’s been doing this. With a broad grin
disgust – their bow was much lamer than ours.                     showing off his perfectly aligned teeth he says “This
                                                                  is my first year doing this. I’m a rookie!” He and I go
                                                                  bowling, and never did I imagine my trip would
                                                                  include high-fiving a North Korean after getting a

                                                        Page 9 of 10
strike. “Shit!” Iseul has just bowled a gutter ball, and           comment is the most remarkable thing any North
I’m finding out that not all of his English has been               Korean has said to me.
learned at language school.
                                                                   As we go to the airport, I overhear Iseul mention he
I know how important family is in North Korea, so                  has e-mail. I hand him a pen so he can write down his
my first question is about his parents. “My mother                 address, but he hands it back apologetically. “My e-
died eight years ago.” His relaxed smile seems to say              mail only works within the DPRK.” As we say our
don’t pity me. Iseul still has a compulsory five-year              goodbyes, Iseul tells us that we should be sure to
military stint which he will begin in a few years. I tell          come back and visit the DPRK again some day. One
him I have a nephew who recently joined the U.S.                   of us tells him “We’ve visited you. Now it’s your turn
Army. “What about Iraq?” He seems genuinely                        to visit us in America.” Ever-friendly, Iseul nods and
worried for my nephew’s safety. He knows the war is                smiles. And I suddenly find myself becoming very
currently unpopular in the U.S. I tell him that “In                sad. Because all of us know this will never happen,
2009 we will get a new president and our Iraq policy               and none of us will ever again see this remarkable
may change.” That I’m so sure we’re getting a new                  young person who gives me reason to hope for North
leader seems to surprise him.                                      Korea’s future.
When I tell him I had to reschedule my jury duty to                After returning to the U.S. I find someone who will
accommodate the trip, he seems quite interested in                 be going to Pyongyang later in the year. I give him
knowing more about the American jury system. To                    some classical and pop CD’s along with a letter and
my surprise, he’s not only seen family movies like                 some photos of the trip, which he promises to
The Lion King but also the R-rated legal thriller The              smuggle in and deliver to Iseul some day. 
Firm. “Yes, with Tom Cruise” he says knowingly.
We pass a multi-story building in Pyongyang and he
tells me “that’s where we do animation – just like
your Walt Disney studios.”
He wants to know, was The Sound of Music a British
or American film? He’s heard Beethoven’s Fifth
Symphony and has been told that the four notes that
open it represent fate or death knocking at the door.
But he says he still doesn’t get what the music is
saying. I suggest it doesn’t mean anything at all, that
music just exists in its own separate world. He looks
at me quite skeptically. I can only guess that all the art
and music his country produces is so infused with
Juche and worship of the Great Leader that the very
idea of art lacking an ideological underpinning is
alien to him.
I ask about the floods that hit the DPRK in 2006. He
doesn’t seem to eager to talk about it, so I change the
subject to California earthquakes. And I ask whether
Korea gets earthquakes. “Not many. I think what
happens is when the earthquakes come in from the
east, they hit Japan and Japan absorbs the shock, and
so Korea is protected. But I don’t know, that’s just
my guess.” I resist the temptation to explain how
tectonic plates work, and in hindsight I’m glad I did.
He’s improvised a theory of his own – he’s a free
thinker rather than someone who parrots what he’s
been told. And he’s casually admitted to a foreigner
he could be wrong in a country where that just isn’t
done. Though technically incorrect, his earthquake

                                                        Page 10 of 10