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The world’s gaze is rapt on North Korea today, hoping the best, fearing the worst. Could this odious regime finally fall or will it continue cheating oft-foretold death?
A visit to the DPRK is entirely on the DPRK’s terms, unless you sneak across the forested border with China, in which case you are not likely to be given the song and dance show at the secondary school. What this entails:
- All tours go through the government-run Korea International Travel Company (KITC).
- The money goes to the government.
- No freedom of movement. Every group, in my case a group of one, is assigned a female guide with foreign language skills, a male guide to supervise, and a driver to quietly watch everyone. Their job is to show tourists the exact itinerary and keep tourists in line. They do this with sugar, not spice, and as long as tourists behave, things work smoothly. Tourists who do not behave are deported. The guides escort tourists every step and tourists cannot leave the hotel compound on their own at any time.
- Even something as minor as walking in a park near an approved tourist site requires negotiation as it entails risk for the guides, who, it is intimated, suffer much worse than deportation if things do not go as ordained.
- Interaction with locals is extremely limited and only with the guides acting as intermediary. Very few locals are willing to engage at all with foreigners because of the real/perceived risk.
- Glimpses of everyday life come from the back seat of the car while whizzing through the nearly empty streets. Conclusions drawn from such a blur are highly speculative.
Go or no go?
There are many good arguments to not go, but being closed for half a century has not helped anyone but the corrupt elites. Even with these severe limitations, I was able to engage with some locals, and hope that I contributed in a small way to mutual understanding. Morally justified? Probably not. But I went.
Check-in at Beijing Airport was much like any other, scattered Western tourists with enough gear to scale Everest, a few diplomats and UN passport holders, and massive Chinese tour groups surging to the counter. But the sign said “Pyongyang” and the largest group was of serious men in dark suits with Kim Il Sung pins. Not a North Korean woman to be seen. I later learned that it is extremely rare for North Korean women to be able to travel overseas, usually only in connection with their husband, such as an overseas diplomatic posting, or as part of the highest elite.
The crowd around the boarding gate similarly was dominated by the stoic North Koreans, while tourists were gawking at the Air Koryo plane. There was an American group, all roughly 30 years old, with the confident air of newly minted MBAs, the men with their Ralph Lauren button-downs rolled midway up the forearm in textbook yuppie technique, and all, men and women alike, raising aloft the torch of the intrepid American, the huge Starbucks cup.
No surprise that the duty-free outpost did a brisk business. I was armed with Johnny Walker Red Label for my male guide, Lancôme for my female guide, and Gauloise Blondes for my driver. However, I was eclipsed by the North Korean gentleman in front of me, struggling with at least three dozen cartons of smokes, saying with a broad smile “I don’t smoke. Gifts!”
North Korean revolutionary music and white-gloved flight attendants welcomed passengers on board the gleaming red and chrome of the new Russian plane. A thorough safety video played during the high-speed sprint around Beijing’s enormous runways, and soon we were up in the air and treated to a brief propaganda video on Air Koryo before settling in to rousing patriotic karaoke songs. The girl next to me, her family scattered across several rows, was the daughter of an Egyptian diplomat on his way to a two-year posting in Pyongyang. I could not imagine being in her shoes in high school. The aural patriotic fervor did not hold up long and the rest of the flight I spent reading and sipping a kind of flat, slightly fruity ginger ale without much ginger or much ale. My window seat was a bust as there was little to see upon landing in the gray haze.
Immigration and customs was smooth. True to advance warning, mobile phones were confiscated, but inspection was cursory and soon I emerged and was greeted by a woman in a conservative navy blue suit, not carrying the typical sign with my name but instead asking, “What country are you from? What is your name?” Having received satisfactory answers, she announced, “I am Miss Kim. I am your guide. Come.” Outside I met my male guide, a Mr. Kim, and my driver, also a Mr. Kim. I stifled the urge to make a tired joke about what their telephone books must be like. The appointed vehicle was a battered, black Mercedes sedan, the envy of other tourists throughout my trip with their dowdy buses and vans.
The ride into Pyongyang provided glimpses into bleak countryside life, the weather cool but farmers shin-deep in rice patties. Few vehicles were on the roads, even few bicycles, with many people walking for what appeared to be long distances. Dress varied somewhat, but was generally dark and serious, enlivened occasionally by candy green galoshes. Most men wore black or shiny gray suits, some in traditional Mao suits, some in military dress. Women were similarly dour, but some sported elegant traditional hanbok dresses in austere white top and navy bottom. The only colorful hanboks I saw were service staff at restaurants, theaters, etc.
“Can we stop there for a look,” I asked about a large square with uniformed schoolchildren performing mass callisthenic routines in rehearsal for the Arirang spectacle of 100,000 performers, held every August-September. “No,” Miss Kim curtly replied. And so my formal introduction to the almost unbending insistence to stick to the exact itinerary. One of the great challenges of the trip was taking pictures from the speeding car, I actually wished for some traffic to occasionally slow us.
The only appointed stop for the first evening was the Triumphal Arch, slightly larger than Paris’ and rather stern, it was one of many monuments that were interesting only in their extravagance. But the adjacent square had more children practicing for Arirang and in a first, small break with plan, Miss Kim permitted me to stroll through the square, though I had to keep a distance from the students, who put their heads down or looked away when I passed. The greenland was nearly empty, Saturday being a work day, though the “fun park” amusement park did have what appeared to be some domestic tourists, the first and last time I saw what looked like local tourism.
Pyongyang is bifurcated by the Taedong River, the Yanggakdo Hotel, the main base for foreigners, placed on an island in the river, insulated from the populace. A handful of other hotels handle some businessmen and overflow in the Arirang season, but it was the off-season and most of the forty-plus floors at the Yanggakdo were closed and dark. The only independent freedom of movement for tourists is on the Yanggakdo’s grounds, which includes a small nine-hole golf course and a bunker-like cinema used for the biennial international film festival. The Yanggakdo is a typical hotel in most respects, though the basement has two totally separate recreation areas. One has ping pong, billiards, spa, karaoke and is open to all guests. The other side is run through a casino group from Macau, has a restaurant, nightclub, casino and spa (the “special services” kind, I was told), all staffed entirely by Chinese, entry to which North Korean patrons are forbidden by government order. The guides stay at the hotel on special floors, only having local TV channels, while the foreigners have only a few overseas channels, like BBC, but no local channels, on their floors.
The day closed with a hot pot dinner, the food simple and the meat portion very small. The scarcity of meat hinted at by the only servings given to me and the male guide, while Miss Kim and Driver Kim had only vegetables. Dining is at KITC-run restaurants, so no chance to see what feeble options locals have for eating out.
With no phone, no internet, nowhere to go, and a deserted revolving restaurant/bar that did not revolve, I called it an early night.
Sunday breakfast began without even needing to show my key, the waitress seeing me and checking off my room number, hinting both at the small number of guests and the observation under which guests are placed.
First stop was Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Kim Il Sung’s palace in life and mausoleum in death, though officially he is still president. In the week prior to my trip I was severely disappointed to learn that Kumsusan had just been closed for two months for a pre-Arirang renovation, but after much negotiation it was finally permitted for me to walk the grounds, though I failed to add Kim to my’ dictators under glass’ collection that so far includes Mao and Ho.
Soon we were hurtling down the expressway to Kaesong, and on to the DMZ to stare down the US and Republic of Korea armies.