Michael Totten

Welcome to North Korea, Part I

I would love to visit North Korea and write about it, but I can’t. Journalists are almost never allowed into the country. I would need to be one of the lucky few who are given a visa or I’ll have to wait for the government to reform or collapse.

In the meantime, a man I sort of know—Kyle B. Smith—was allowed in as a tourist this summer because he isn’t a journalist. He invited me to go with him, but I was denied permission before I could even fill out the paperwork.

He sent me postcards from the capital city of Pyongyang and wrote a long email describing his trip upon his return. I asked him if he’d be willing to expand that email into a dispatch for this Web site, and he agreed. Here is part one. All the photos are his.

Welcome to North Korea

Kyle B. Smith

North Korea is on hardly anybody’s must-visit list, but it was on mine.

“Welcome aboard Air Koryo,” the hostess said on one of the small television screens that had descended from the ceiling every few rows, “where we strive to fulfill the socialist ideals of our Dear Leader General Kim Jong Il.”

My heart jumped a little as I realized that this was finally happening. After years of planning the details, researching the important things to see and do, investigating how to actually get there, and worrying that as an American I might be getting myself in over my head, I was finally on my way to North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as it is formally called.

I sat in a rather new, Russian-built plane and tried making out what the Cyrillic letters said on the trays, aisles, and overhead compartments. As Air Koryo had been banned from European Union airspace for safety reasons, North Korean pride forced the airline to update at least some of its aging Soviet fleet.

I took my camera out and started snapping some photos. “No pictures!” I was politely, but firmly, admonished by a pretty young flight attendant. Though still sitting on the tarmac in Beijing, I figured it would be best to follow DPRK rules as being inside the Air Koryo plane already made me feel like I was under the watchful eye of the Dear Leader.

You could easily tell who the North Korean citizens were. Each had a pin on his or her shirt, right over the heart, featuring either the beaming smile of Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader and Eternal President of Korea—the only official head of state who is dead—or a more innocuous pin with the North Korean flag on it.

I put my camera away and picked up a copy of the complimentary and unintentionally amusing Pyongyang Times that had been left on everyone’s seats. “Kim Jong Il Gives Field Guidance” was the front page headline. There was a picture of Kim Jong Il wearing dark sunglasses with a pack of wildly-cheering supporters in the background. The story was about how the Dear Leader visited a factory and “solved many problems,” thereby carrying the DPRK to the forefront of global innovation and technology. I turned the page and read about visiting delegations of old-school Western European Communist parties who all had fantastic things to say about the Dear Leader, the electoral system, the international respect it had, and the progress the nation said it had made.

The plane was filled with mostly Europeans. Some were tourists, others were visiting on business. There were some families with children. I wondered what on earth a family would be doing in North Korea. I looked around at all the Westerners on board the plane and I wondered what their stories and reasons were for traveling to this isolated country.

The flight arrived in Pyongyang around two hours later, landing at Sunan International Airport. As the door opened, I looked out the plane and I saw the first of many recognizable sights from the years of picture-stalking of other people’s trips I had done.

I walked off the airplane onto the tarmac and saw the giant, smiling face of Kim Il Sung greeting me. The excitement as everyone rushed off the plane was palpable. Most of us snapped photographs until the airport staffed shuffled all the passengers into immigration and customs.

We all turned over the multitude of forms given to us to fill out on the plane. “Are you carrying a cellular telephone with you?” If so, those need to be surrendered at the airport until you leave the country. You could bring a computer, but there was no Internet in the country. “Are you carrying any published material?” You cannot bring in materials about the DPRK published outside the DPRK. “Do you have a cough?” I guess they didn’t want any sick people spreading germs.

The process to get the visas before the trip was rather thorough so I was surprised we were all individually held up for what felt like a long time at passport control. Maybe it felt like a long time to me because back in the corner of my head I still wasn’t fully convinced that at some point they’d look at my American passport and scream, “imperialist bastard!” and arrest me in order to create another international incident, perhaps one requiring another top US statesman to come over and bail me out. At least I could get to meet Bill Clinton, I laughed to myself as I tried to remain calm. But after a brief time with the official at passport control, my passport was handed back to me without much fanfare. My concern was little more than paranoia. Upon leaving the airport, I looked behind me and realized that North Korea’s main airport terminal was just one large room the size of half of a high school gymnasium. It reminded me of how some of the earliest airports in the rest of the world must have appeared.

The first thing I noticed outside was the oppressive heat. It hadn’t been nearly as hot in Beijing just a few hours earlier. Next I noticed two young guides, a man and a woman, waiting for me. After my brief paranoid ideation with the stone-faced airport personnel, they were a breath of fresh air in the Korean heat. I had been warned that I’d have a no-nonsense, no-humor tour guide. These two looked, by contrast, pretty damn cool. One wore a pin with the Great Leader’s face on it. The other donned a pin with the North Korean flag.

On the ride into downtown Pyongyang, I saw people walking along the road, people in the fields, and some trucks passing by. “May I take pictures?,” I asked the female guide. “Sure,” she said.

I was pleasantly surprised since I had heard rumors that my camera would be next to useless in North Korea. That had turned out to be another unfounded fear. Except for military personnel, I was allowed to take pictures of anything and everything.

As the tour van got closer to the city center, I began to see more signs of life. The cars on the road were never as numerous as in Midtown Manhattan, but I did see decent traffic. Judging from the looks of the vehicles, many were from fellow tour groups, however. To visit North Korea meant I had to book my trip through a foreign travel agency.

I had made my arrangements with Korea Konsult, one of the largest travel agencies specializing in tours to the DPRK, which is based in Stockholm, Sweden. Korea Konsult coordinated my tour through the Korean International Tourism Company (KITC), a governmental body that handles virtually all of the nation’s tourism. You can’t buy a ticket to Pyongyang and just arrive at the airport and flag down a taxi. There is no independent tourism in the nation. The KITC will pick you up from the airport, take you to your hotel, feed you (quite well, to be honest), guide you, and drop you off at the airport or train station for your departure. And I liked that. For once, it was nice to have a trip where I didn’t have to do any of the planning myself and I could just be shuttled around.

During my stay, though, I wasn’t allowed any time alone outside the hotel. I had no opportunity to stroll the streets of Pyongyang. I definitely wasn’t allowed to talk to average North Koreans. I didn’t like that. One of my favorite things to do when going to a new city is to spend hours just aimlessly wandering the streets, learning the layout of the city, and seeing how people go about their daily lives. There would be none of that here.

The propaganda on the road to my hotel was ubiquitous and colorful. Half of it depicted artistic visages of heroic military exploits or hard work by the people. The other half showed the leadership. Of that latter group, almost all were of Kim Il Sung, the “Great Leader” who died in 1994. Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader,” though he presently runs the country, appeared to be a little more camera shy as he was not on display nearly as much as his father, though I still saw his picture.

I was surprised to see the number of “nice” cars on the streets. Though I had already been lectured on how the state owns “everything” in North Korea, my guides told me that different color license plates indicated different ownership. One color represented government-owned vehicles. They told me there were in fact some privately-owned vehicles, identifiable, they said, by the color of the plates. They were also identifiable, I thought, by the relative opulence of the car in the otherwise drab panoply of vehicles on the road. I was expecting no cars in Pyongyang, but there is some life and movement. Rush hour there may not resemble Beijing, Istanbul, or Los Angeles at close of business time, but there are numerous buses, trams, cars, and bicycles which ferry people around.

“Look to your left and you’ll see the Ryugyong Hotel!” the tour guide said excitedly. I looked out the window and I saw another recognizable sight: an unfinished pyramid or missile-looking hotel with glass and steel covering part of a concrete shell. Its odd shape would stand out anywhere in the world, and especially did so in otherwise short and Soviet-looking Pyongyang.

“It’s 105 stories and when it’s finished soon it will be one of the world’s tallest hotels. It’s already one of the world’s tallest buildings.” Everything she said was correct, except for the “finished soon” part. This hotel has been under construction since the 1980s, but due to the financial collapse brought on by the fall of the Soviet Union, the building has been in a perpetual state of to be “finished soon.”

We made a quick stop at the Arch of Triumph, Pyongyang’s answer to Paris’. North Korea’s is a little bigger and has more Asian architectural influences. The dates 1925 and 1945 are prominently displayed. The first date, according to North Korean sources, is when Kim Il Sung joined the resistance against the Japanese. The second date, again according to North Korean sources, is when the Great Leader drove them out.

The tour van continued on its way past some apartment buildings dotting the city. They weren’t avant-garde, but they had an undeniable charm to them. Many could use a touch-up, but the people had applied an array of colors to the otherwise plain communist-looking buildings. There were pastel-hued buildings all over the city, something I wasn’t expecting.

And I was hard-pressed to find many balconies that weren’t overflowing with flowers. The streets were clean and nondescript. There were few if any street signs, just revolutionary slogans. I couldn’t read them, but I knew what they were trying to express. I was here, in the nerve center of one of the most closed-off countries and a perpetual thorn in the side of the United States for six decades. And I loved it.

“Your hotel is up ahead,” my guide said.

I looked and saw a sleek modern tower on an island in the river hovering over the rest of the city. Up close the hotel looked a little more faded than it did from a distance, but it wasn’t in shambles. The lobby was interestingly gaudy, with a sloped ceiling that was trying to dazzle with many windows and lights. But it was bustling and lively with many tourists and with an inviting bar nearby. The basement had a massage parlor and a casino where dozens of Chinese visitors noisily and excitedly spent their money. The hotel also had a small communications center where you could call abroad for several euros per minute. There were also computers and for several euros you could send an email from the hotel’s email account (not your own).

“May I have your passport, please?,” my guide said.

I knew they would take my passport until I left. I was curious, though, what my guide said the reason would be. Asking questions like this was part of the fun of the trip.

“It’s so you don’t lose it,” she said.

I wouldn’t lose my passport so easily. I knew that and she knew that but I appreciated the elusive answer and smiled as I handed it over.

After settling in to my room, I got back in the van and the mysterious charm of the city was pulling me in further. “I love Pyongyang,” I whispered to another traveler in the van with me. “So do I,” he whispered back.

I looked out the window as we passed vehicles and pedestrians going about their lives. Some walked. Some were crammed into city buses. Others were working to cut down trees and clear up weeds. What were they thinking? Did they actually like it here? Were they happy? Were they scared? I didn’t know. There was no way I could find out. I had no opportunity to talk to ordinary citizens, and they wouldn’t have talked to me anyway. So I had no choice but to not worry about what they were thinking and pretended that they were all happy, just as I was strangely happy to be in this unusual city.

“We’re here,” the guide said.

I got out of the van and was on my first sidewalk in Pyongyang. I stood on the sidewalk and relished the few seconds I had to be on the streets, just like all the people I saw just minutes ago. I looked up at the restaurant. There was no flashy sign. I looked at the windows. There were no menus posted. I had never seen a restaurant so nondescript.

The Chogryu Hot Pot Restaurant served up traditional Korean hot pot food in a sweltering building. The air conditioning was out, most likely because of a power outage. And it was hot. Very hot.

“I will show you how to cook the traditional Korean hot pot,” my guide said.

The waitress lit the gas below the pot. When I thought the restaurant couldn’t possibly get any hotter, with the open flame mere inches from my face, it did.

First put in the something, then the something else. Then you will add the other thing. Finally, mix it around with the final thing.

I was sweating too much to listen carefully to her instructions regarding the order and timing in which I was to add each ingredient from the dozen or so plates piled with raw meat, assorted vegetables, spices, and chili paste. I feared my lapse of attention would ruin my dinner, but she assured me she’d guide me through the process. Kamsa hamnida, I told her. I had learned my first Korean phrase: thank you.

The hot Pyongyang air felt arctic compared to the steaming restaurant, so I felt comfortable when I made it outside after dinner. Back in the van, it wasn’t long before I heard loud cheers and saw light fill the otherwise dark city sky as the van pulled up next to the May Day Stadium. The Arirang Mass Games were to be performed that night.

I spent 100 euros for a second-class ticket, and I walked inside the stadium after having my ticket checked by a woman in traditional Korean garb. The Mass Games were popular in many Communist nations during the Cold War, but North Korea still has them. They are not “games” at all, but rather an artistic, acrobatic, and dance performance designed to broadcast the success of the regime and dazzle the audience. At least on the second count, they succeeded brilliantly. 100,000 people take part in the show which is performed almost every night from August to October.

The performers include hundreds of dancers who would impress even Broadway audiences, tightrope walkers who effortlessly walk about the audiences and then fall in sync into a net, and, most impressively, thousands of schoolchildren who all flash colored placards on cue, creating a series of moving images for the audience to see. If you didn’t know there were children controlling the “pixels” by rapidly switching placards, you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at the world’s largest television screen.

I saw pictures of factories, dams, and industrial achievements over the years. They were a lot like photographs in the Pyongyang Times of large factories spitting out large quantities of everything from food to yarn. It reminded me of orthodox communism’s relation to heavy industry. The factory workers were to be the vanguard of the Marxist revolution, and many 20th century communist societies liked to show off their enormous factories and massive output as indices of their success.

One of the reasons the Soviet bloc fell behind the West was because the USSR and its allies were so preoccupied with producing the biggest, and thus showiest, items to demonstrate their superiority over the West that they neglected to see that by the 1980s, the West was being revolutionized by electronics, a field where engineers worked not to produce the biggest things, but labored instead to make their products smaller and at times even almost invisible. The colossal fruits of labor that could be displayed and flaunted to the masses were being eschewed by the West for electronics and information technology while the communist nations were stuck in an early and mid-20th century model of industrial prowess that was quickly growing outdated. North Korea still values large, showy displays while their cousins in the south showcase their own achievements in decidedly 21st century ways: banking, high-tech innovation, and international trade.

The Pyongyang air cooled down on my way back to hotel. When all the visitors arrived, we were told that several tourists in our group needed to give the guides another passport. Some people traveling to the DPRK had second passports with their Chinese visas in them. That meant they could leave North Korea. Our guides wanted to hold on to them along with their first passports. Why they didn’t ask before was beyond me, but what could be done? Those affected offered up some futile resistance, but they eventually caved. Well, all but one of them did. We now had a missing tourist on our hands.

“Where is he?,” our guides asked. We shrugged our shoulders. We tried calling his room, but there was no answer. We looked in the bar, but he wasn’t there either.

Our guides first looked worried, then panicked. If anything goes “wrong” in the DPRK, they are the ones who will be blamed. I didn’t know what would happen to them, exactly, but by the look on their fear-stricken faces, I didn’t want them to find out. I also didn’t want to risk the rest of us getting in trouble.

I looked around everywhere I could for the missing tourist. I passed the hotel bookstore. I had heard somewhere that North Korean bookshops only carried titles by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I didn’t have time to verify that, but I did see some framed quotes by the nation’s leaders.

“The book is a silent teacher and a companion in life – Kim Il Sung.”

“Books are treasure-houses of knowledge and the textbooks for a person’s life – Kim Jong Il.”

I couldn’t find our missing companion and I let the guides know when I got back to the lobby.

“Please, can you check the basement?,” one guide pleaded.

I figured the guide would have already looked down there himself.

“We are not allowed in the basement,” he said.

Odd, I thought. Our missing travel companion was, in fact, enjoying the entertainment venues in the basement. We brought him upstairs and trying not to rip his head off for threatening to get everybody into trouble.

The color returned to our guides faces immediately.

“I am so very sorry about this,” I said, hoping to show them that I understood the gravity of the situation.

“Please speak with him so this doesn’t happen again.”

“I will,” I said. Then I needed a drink.

To be continued.