North Korea trip (part 4): getting the phone back but not the visa

Part 4, the conclusion of my May 2010 North Korea trip (see parts 1, 2 and 3).

Next up was the grand, Soviet-style Pyongyang Metro.  The long, long, long escalator into the void unfolded into a dim but elegant station called Rehabilitation.  Tourists are only permitted to travel one stop, to Glory station, giving rise to rumors in lean times that none of the other stops work, but there certainly was heavy local traffic coming from other stations, though I have no idea the condition of them.  Glory was the real standout, beautiful pastel mosaics of Pyongyang and brilliant lighting suggesting fireworks.  The carriages were old and charming with wood paneling, and the smart uniforms and signaling paddles of the exclusively female attendants made quite the display.

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Glory Sation mural of Pyongyang Metro

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Back on the road, lines like this for public buses are common

Reluctantly walking out, to my side Miss Kim waved a quick hello to a young woman.  “Who is that?”  “My friend.”  “You can have friends here?” (with a wink).  “Why NOT?” (with feigned shock).  It was only at that moment that I realized, with some exceptions, that in several days of zipping about, I had not seen any public displays of friendship, affection, not even any smiles I could remember, no women walking arm in arm, but instead people walking slowly, sullenly, separate.

The only significant change I negotiated to the itinerary was to drop the stamp shop and handicraft exhibition hall (presumably the same overpriced ginseng and dolls I had seen everywhere else) and instead went to the national library, the Grand People’s Study House.  This was the first place on my itinerary where I saw many locals coming and going, lending credence to the claim that it is open to all.  I was ushered in the side entrance for tourists and guests, with, surprise, surprise, a huge Kim Il Sung statue in a resplendent setting.  The “local guide,” names never given unless pressed, turned out to be a real treat, superb English and a playful sense of humor.  She showed me several huge reading halls, categorized by subject, also the “answer rooms” where subject matter experts field inquiries, and various other rooms such as language labs and even a music lab where she put on a Madonna CD.  All were in use and this was the one place that I felt was not fully staged.  Whether it is really open to all is impossible for me to know, but clearly a lot of people were using the facilities, particularly intranet access to technical treatises.  The computer catalog was also quite impressive.  I saw some of the English collection, most with donation stamps such as from The Asia Society, but Chinese technical texts dominated the new arrivals digital scoreboard.  She even dangled out that one room has access to The New York Times and Washington Post, but no charm or inducement I could think of could convince her to show me.  If it exists, I would not expect to be admitted anyway, but the banter was fun.

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Welcome to my humble library

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Russian language lab

A visit to the June 09 Secondary school followed, no surprise that the school on show had excellent though antiquated facilities, diligent students in science labs, and stern teachers.  At this point in the trip it was almost a surprise to see a few boys happily, freely kicking a ball around in the yard.  It was recital time in the Kim Jong Il studies class, though I was spared the further honor of a Kim Il Sung studies class.  A couple other tourists were arranged for the same time and we were led over to the auditorium. As we entered the room exploded in song and dance, the students putting on quite a show ranging from a dance number in sailor uniforms to a gaggle of accordions, and a jazz trio to keep things moving, ending in a traditional dance with us tourists pulled in.  North Korea knows how to put on a show.

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Kim Jong Il study class

Speaking of shows, the sightseeing concluded with a performance at the Pyongyang Circus, one of the few places with both tourists and locals, including some huge student groups.  The performance was excellent, similar to Chinese acrobatics.  The highlight for me a comedy routine with plate spinning that enlisted an audience member, obviously a plant, but to see this man in his dark suit with Kim Il Sung pin stumble around in slapstick seemed almost subversive after what I had seen on the streets for several days, and I laughed and laughed.

Dinner was a bittersweet conclusion to a trip I wished could have been extended (not a chance at that!).  We had a running joke on noisy Chinese tourists in a nearly silent country. Driver Kim, watching one group nearby, said, “Now they are making their driver drink.  Crazy!”  Mr. Kim proudly said that in the lean times of the 1990s he had been able to help out that restaurant, evinced by the effusive attention from the manager and staff, and the prized extra portion of duck meat served us.  I failed in the test of might that is drinking the entire, spicy broth of the cold noodles, blaming the good natured waitress for giving me the “Anti-American extra spice.”

Maybe it was mostly an act, maybe just another performance, but unless Mr. Kim and Miss Kim are superb actors, during the long days together and varied conversations, I felt a strong connection with them.  They were proud of their country and wanted me to have a happy time, but they did not try to sell me on anything political, generally they avoided the topic of their country’s politics except in connection with the tourist sites.  They had a job to do with strict constraints and did not deviate, but were understanding and permissive with reasonable requests.  They were well informed and open-minded.  I cannot imagine what it took for them to secure such prized jobs, perhaps they are from highly politically connected families.  If the collapse comes, I worried what would happen to them, their language skills and global exposure would give them a leg up compared to their countrymen, but one of many perversities of that reprehensible system is that even they are woefully unprepared for the gathering storm.

The happy personal memories of meeting some extraordinary people make the pain of glimpses of everyday life all the more heartrending.  The nightmare is self-imposed, if a Deng Xiaoping could flip a switch like in China, the jammed, antiquated public transport, dreary housing blocks, empty stores with no customers, regimented life, that I could see, and the horrors that were hidden to me, could be swept away and this industrious people could achieve great things.  I kept thinking of the DMZ guard’s plaintive words, “We want to be prosperous and develop, too.”

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Mr Kim and I in our hot shoes

Early the next morning we were back on the airport road, Miss Kim back in her serious suit and everyone was quiet.  Heavy fog made me doubt whether we would fly but Mr. and Miss Kim had no doubts, and anyway, if not, they said, half jokingly, half ominously, “Special arrangements would be made.”  Not the turn of phrase you want to hear in the DPRK.  But the lady at the check-in counter said, through translation, “No problem,” my phone was returned to me by customs, and though I pleaded to keep the visa (which was on a separate paper, not in my passport) it was snatched away at immigration (“No souvenir!”).

Air Koryo made its thrice-weekly journey four decades back to the future.

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My guides, Miss Kim and Mr Kim. We stopped for a stroll while the driver went to a state secret facility off limits to foreigners (gas station). The guides have to escort tourists every minute of the day, but do it in good cheer.

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  • Great Trip Report, thanks for sharing! The secrecy of their society makes DPRK such an enticing places for those of us that can’t go, thanks!

  • Scottrick

    Excellent series of posts. It makes me want to go there, too!

  • Chris L.

    Great trip report Stefan. Very interesting perspective – I enjoyed it.

  • I agree. Great posts: very nicely written too!

  • ikonos

    Thanks Stefan. Appreciate your report. I also hope their eventual transition is sooner and smoother.

  • tonyims

    Finally, a real travel blog. Just as i am about to swear off boarding area.com for all the never ending credit card pitches, Something like this comes along to remind me why i love travel blogs in the first place. Thanks!

  • Great report. Very timely.

  • Oliver

    What tonyims said! Excellent reporting. Great pictures.

  • LIH Prem

    Thank you Stefan for republishing your masterpiece of a trip report.

    -David

  • PedroNY

    Great report, thank you for publishing it, I enjoyed reading all of it.

    Cheers,

    PedroNY

  • Thank you all for reading and the words of praise. I will do trip reports as often as I can, they take a lot of work but are a pleasure, especially for little-visited destinations that many unfortunately will not otherwise be able to see.

  • aadvantagegeek

    This may have been the most fascinating trip report I’ve ready all year. Thanks for sharing!

  • Anders

    Great articles, Stefan. Really an excellent read.

  • Justin

    Great series, thanks for posting. Would you care to estimate what a prospective tourist would pay for a trip of this nature?

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  • Sean

    I wonder why North Korea had to issue visa on a piece of pepper instead. Does that mean they don’t recognize US passport?

  • Sean

    On KITC’s website, the tour was separated in US and non-US group. What’s the logic behind this?

  • @Sean – several years ago there were more restrictions on US passport holders such as time of year and places to visit. That is mostly gone and I do not see the tour companies making a distinction. KITC is not a reliable source, best to consult the specialist agents that run tours.

  • @Sean – this is their standard practice for all nationalities, Cuba does something similar with it’s tourist cards, it avoids geopolitical issues that can get complicated.

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