Four Days in North Korea – Escaping from Freedom
27th-30th August 2013
“All you need is your health, your wealth and your passport”
Our plane took off from Beijing International Airport through the soupy smog that hangs over the city. Screens dropped on the Air Koryo flight and were soon filled with films from the propaganda machine that dominates the images of the North Korean population. Shots of the mighty DPRK army fighting the imperialist American enemy, tanks entering occupied ground, helicopters flying overhead, boats crashing against nameless coastlines, while the army runs ashore and of course ended with North Korean flags flown in a victory parade and speeches from the Eternal President Kim Il-sung. Air Koryo is the only one star rated airline in the world and banned by the EU from landing there. A North Korean newspaper was offered so this was the first impression I had of their side of reality. Every page had images of Kim Jong-un in official capacity. Its obvious there is a strong movement to make Kim Jong-un look powerful and strong, especially as he is only just 30. He wants to be the leader that makes the US come to the negotiating table on North Korean terms to admit that North Korea is a nuclear weapon state and preferably to give large amounts of aid.
We were politely given inedible plastic hamburgers and a bottle of water mid flight and after two bumpy hours eventually started our descent to Pyongyang International Airport. First impressions as we came in were of an extremely beautiful country. Lack of development and infrastructure certainly did wonders for nature and wildlife. A large flock of cranes took off from the runway as we touched down at sunset and I saw several brown cows sat just off the tarmac while farmers tended to their fields there. We walked into the arrival terminal greeted by two large pictures of the great leaders at the far end of the hall. I was snapping away on my camera as I waited in line and was told firmly to not take any photos by a guard on duty. Scott was stood with his friend Rosie behind me. They were in the brass section of the Macau Symphony Orchestra and were looking at me with nervous little smiles. I said, “All you need is your health, your wealth and your passport!” which a good friend of mine had once told me. Although in North Korea not entirely true as the customs officials don’t stamp passports but rather a ‘Travel Tourist Card’ separately. After picking up my bag I made my way to the far end of the hall. I had come with Young Pioneer Tours one of only three tour companies that brings Western travellers into the country. We congregated into our different groups jumped in a minivan and were on our way to downtown Pyongyang.
Coming into the capital I noticed there was no rubbish anywhere to be seen, the trees were all beautifully kept and I noticed there was a great civic pride that the people had in keeping their country looking beautiful. Unlike China where it is common to hoik and spit on the pavement everywhere, this is unheard of in North Korea where it would be like spitting on your own mother. The eight of us were meeting another twelve travellers who had come down from the Chinese border on a different tour schedule and we were joining them for the remainder. We were all introduced and into the KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) restaurant we filed. On my right sat Alex Hill, in his early twenties, who had grown up Mormon from Salt Lake City and had been teaching English in Turkey for the past couple of years. He was asking me “You think the chicken’s ok here?” To my left was Josh from Hawaii who had flown with me on the plane from Beijing. The décor was cheap and plastic and the whole place had a sense of going back in time. It was what I imagined China to be like in the 70’s. I was trying to take in the surroundings and observing the everyday Koreans eating in the other section of the restaurant. All dressed in very similar attire, white shirts and green-beige trousers are the look. All with at least one of several pins of the deceased great leaders that are mandatory to wear. Not a sign of a designer label, Nike t-shirt or Addidas tracksuit anywhere. After our not so succulent chicken we slowly left the Korean Fried Chicken restaurant. I bought a bottle of So Ju on the way out only 25% but I thought a good drink to kill any germs that might of been lingering on the chicken that had been sitting around for god knows how long. Waiting outside I wandered down to the edge of the boulevard with Scott and Rosie and saw the Arch of Triumph in the distance lit up beautifully and bigger than the Arch de Triomph in Paris by design. Where was I again? Pyongyang? It all seemed so clean, with fresh air, no neon signs and no noise pollution.
We all jumped on the bus proudly driven by Che a short, friendly, leathery skinned fellow with beady little eyes and were charging south out through the city on our way to Kaesong close to the South Korean border. At the edge of the city our Western tour guide Chris from Oregon ran over the road to a gas station with Mr. Kim one of our Korean guides to grab some beers for the journey. I was watching out of the bus window intently, fascinated with the comings and goings of the city at night. As I saw Chris and Mr. Kim disappear down the subway to cross the road there was a black out or brown out as they refer to them in Korea. As far as I could see the city suddenly went dark. Miss Pak the head guide and Mr. Crazy Kim at the front of the bus didn’t seem to flinch at all and laughing told us that this was common and the lights will come back on shortly. As 70% of the power is supplied from China over the border in the north its not surprising that blackouts were a regular occurrence.
As we set off again one of the Dutch travellers Florentine jumped up, plugged his iPhone into the bus stereo system and started playing ‘Passenger’ by Iggy Pop followed by some Elvis and Jonny Cash, followed by Gangnam Style the South Korean pop song that had taken the world by storm. Placing number 1 on a record breaking number of billboard charts globally and being the most liked video on YouTube. Of course there is no billboard chart in North Korea, no outside music and certainly no YouTube or Internet to the general public, so I was fairly surprised when Mr. Crazy Kim and Mr. Kim jumped up and started dancing away and singing the lyrics.
Mid journey we stopped for a toilet break and as I let fly into the Korean wilderness noticed there was absolutely no light pollution anywhere, in fact no lights as far as I could make out. The stars above were bright and clearly visible. As I gazed out the window on the way south through the random military checkpoints along the road noticed men sleeping from time to time and a few farmers catching insects in the fields under torch light. I made my way to the front and chatted with Mr. Kim who had been in the Army for nine years before joining Korean International Travel Service (KITS) who work in cooperation with Young Pioneer Tours to escort us around the country. He showed me a photo of his son and told me he was married and was busy playing games on the iPad that he had borrowed off someone on the tour with us.
We eventually found the Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel and were led to our rooms around a small central courtyard by Miss Pak. Each courtyard had a tree in the middle and three rooms around it. I had a room to myself, which was decorated with cheap floral wallpaper on the wooden walls, a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net draped over it and a fan at the foot of the bed. I went outside for a cigarette before bed looking up at the bright stars in the sky and listened to the loud cicadas surrounding me in the courtyard then slid the wooden paneled door behind me and turned in for bed.
Don wrapped at the door early the next morning and let me know “We gotta be on the bus at 8.30”
“What time is it now?” I groaned back.
“Around 8!” Don was a retired millionaire from Canada who had worked in the oil industry and travelled together with Josh who he had met at the Four Seasons Hotel beach club that Josh worked at in Hawaii and befriended. They were staying in the room next door. Josh advised me the shower wasn’t any good and I’d be better off filling the bucket from the sink next to the bathtub and throwing it over me as he left with his backpack on. He was absolutely right the dribble from the shower wasn’t going to wake me so I took his advice.
Too late for breakfast the door closed behind me as I stepped onto the bus and we were on our way out to the tomb of the 31st Emperor of Korea in an area of secluded farmland and hills. The very Pagan looking tomb was extremely well maintained and Miss Pak told us a story of the Emperor killing hundreds of geomancers trying to find the perfect burial spot for him and his wife the Empress. Eventually this location was found and the Emperor walked up to the top of the adjacent mountain to view the site. Word was given to the guards watching the geomancer that when the Emperor was at the summit he would only flag with his white cloth if the site was not suitable. When he reached the summit of course he was extremely tired and hot and not thinking took the white cloth out of his pocket to wipe the sweat from his brow. Taking this as their sign the guards executed the geomancer immediately and when the Emperor arrived asked where he was, as he wanted to congratulate him for his excellent work at finding the perfect spot. Only to find the guards had killed him by mistake.
As we drove back into Kaesong I couldn’t help admiring the simplicity of the design of everything in the country. There are no neon signs, no advertising, the buildings are austere and are decorated with only a few plants on the balconies. The colours are all very similar, uninterrupted, there is no rubbish on the pavements, no traffic on the roads and therefore no pollution.
After another folk museum and state run shop where I bought some traditional art onto the DMZ (de-militarized zone) we journeyed. Not far south of Kaesong we stopped at the DMZ induction center under the huge propaganda posters painted to the walls that dominate the meeting point outside. We were debriefed and the topography of the area explained and lined up in four rows and then back onto the bus we marched. We dove down to the hut where the North and the UN signed the armistice agreement in 1953 after the war that has divided the two Korea’s since. Mr. Crazy Kim asked me to take a photo of him pretending to sign the Armistice agreement on the North Korean table as our soldier guide was explaining their nuclear capacity was so strong that all major cities in North America could be crushed and destroyed in a matter of hours. I asked if Miss Pak could translate something “I am from England. Can you hit England as well in a matter of hours?”
“Of Course” came the reply with a broad smile teeth shining back at me “But don’t worry I will let you and your family know beforehand if this is ever going to happen!”
“Thank you,” I said relieved with a big thumbs up to raptures of laughter. I couldn’t help thinking that North Korea certainly get taken a lot more seriously on the political stage armed with Nuclear weapons than not. Next to the agreement they point out that their flag is still intact whereas the UN flag has faded and had to be replaced. Everywhere official that we went countless photos of the great leaders were all over the walls with official comments underneath in English and Korean explaining in depth the details.
The DMZ was relaxed and very beautiful on the northern side of the boundary. I had been several years earlier to the south that is heavily watched over by US troops and extremely tense. The North with its tree lined roads, abundant wildlife, neatly kept flower beds dotted everywhere to give the impression of an English country garden in the summer not one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Miss Pak showed us as we entered the DMZ building that overlooks the south the monument of the last signature that Kim Il-sung wrote the day before he died with a date underneath. We were told how it stands 8 feet high and 94 feet long to represent the date of his death on the 8th July 1994. I was coming to understand that when talking about the great leaders everything had to have great significance. The viewing platform overlooks an empty southern side as the north and south agree to certain times when they each have visitors and keep the viewings separate. We did notice a blue van stop with soldiers peering at us from behind binoculars, which our guide Chris commented, “I’ve never seen that before. In fact I’ve never seen any kind of movement from that side ever!” I noticed Miss Pak’s firm explanation to the soldiers that we are not enemies and are here to enjoy and appreciated North Korea. After this they cordially joined us in the middle for a group photo. I also got a shot with one of the soldiers myself, as did Florentine who gave him several packets of Camels with English Cancer warnings on them. Apparently they only appreciate English warning signs on the packets as this means they are genuinely from the west and higher quality instead of the Chinese packets that flood in. On the bus back Chris mentioned to me that the soldiers were friendlier this time then they had ever been before and each time the barrier is broken down little by little. I told Chris that I had bought a bottle of Jonnie Walker with me in my bag as a present for the guides but if he thought appropriate I would give it to the soldiers as a token of gratitude. He thought this a great idea so I gave him my camera and jumped off the bus and as officially as possible presented the head soldier guiding us with a bottle of Jonnie Walker to great appreciation, smiles and hand shaking.
I think it would be better if the US left the Korean peninsula they have no right to be there and with drones now used if there ever was a threat why would they need 60,000 troops stationed within firing distance anyway. Surely this is more of a risk than a benefit. I think that the South Koreans feel threatened without the US there and support their presence. The US also wants to have a station close to China to keep force in that area of the world. If they did leave the peninsula the north and south could talk to each other and reach their own agreement I believe but until then I think there will just be a stale mate with strong influence from China alone.
Lunch was Pan Sang Gi back in central Kaesong. A traditional meal comprising of sixteen different small brass bowls in front of us that we de-lid and eat with sweet brown rice. Dog soup that I hate to say was delicious and eaten in the country for thousands of years was also served to those with enough fortitude. Afterwards we headed to a hill just outside the center that overlooked the small city. We were greeted by a hundred or so people all dancing to folk music, eating and drinking So Ju and beer. As some of our tour went to dance with the local’s one man walked over to the stereo drunkenly and ripped the chord out of the speaker. Miss Pak explained to the group that we were foreign tourists visiting and are just trying to enjoy the moment together. The drunken man was swiftly led away while the music and dancing resumed. I asked Miss Pak what the catchy tune was that everyone was dancing to with gay abandon “Mission complete!” she returned as if I should know the popular title.
Kaesong was under southern control during the Korean War and therefore not bombed by the Americans leaving behind a beautiful vista of traditional courtyard houses that dominate the view underneath. The city has a population of just over 300,000 people and as I stood on the rock gazing down in the misty sun on the daily lives of the citizens of Kaesong thought to myself how stunning the city was.
Soon we were on the road again back to Pyongyang stopping just north in a city called Sariwon for a drink of homebrewed Makkoli made with rice, barley and sugar. An extremely sweet and tasty beverage sipping the milky drink from a bowl I noticed an old truck with black smoke billowing from its engine on the roof that doesn’t run on petrol but uses corn stock to trap the methane gas to power itself. I walked down the road and took in the local life and the hundreds of people standing around happily going about their lives in this hermit country so cut off from the rest of the word. Children ran around us giggling at our foreign faces that they had never seen the likes of before as we stuck out our hands to which only the brave children returned the shake in hysterics.
On the bus back I over heard an interesting conversation between our tour leader Chris and Miss Pak. Miss Pak thought you could get AIDS from sharing water or a drink and most foreigners actually have AIDS. Chris had to convince her for a good ten minutes it wasn’t true and had to explain you could only get AIDS from sex and sharing needles. She eventually was persuaded and shared Chris’s drink probably admitting to herself that her information could possibly not be from the best sources. Miss Pak was always turned out immaculately every morning no matter what time everyone went to bed and was the real ambassador for the country leading us everywhere and explaining anything we wanted to know. Of course always with a touch of the DPRK party line. Mr. Kim and Mr. Crazy Kim would handle the other things like getting through the military check points, making sure we didn’t wander off too far by ourselves or making sure that we all got back on the bus in time. The conversation continued with Chris and Miss Pak, as she started to explain that her state made Koryolink mobile phone could send text messages, has an answer phone and could take a waiting call.
As we entered Pyongyang I noticed my first advert crossing the river. Samchonri – the North Korean car company the only car manufacturers and producers in the DPRK. After a very quick dinner back in the city we entered the Rungnado May Day Stadium for the annual Airiang Mass Games. I would have to say it is one of the greatest shows on earth. The festival is held from August until October since 2002-2005, and 2007 until the present. The Mass Games possess an important ideological character praising the Workers Party of Korea, its armed forces, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. These messages may not be clear to foreign spectators who are not aware of North Korean iconography: a rising sun symbolizes Kim Il-sung. When a gun is shown, it signifies the gun, which Kim Il-sung gave to his son Kim Jong-il. The colour red, particularly in flowers, stands for the working class. And the colour purple and red flowers represent Kim Il-sung. A snowy mountain with a lake represents Mount Paektu where Kim Jong-il is said to have been born in a log cabin. There are over 100,000 performers. We were told that 20,000 were children and 80,000 were adult performers. 2,000 “human pixels” flip pages in a book to create huge background pictures and text while the rest perform flawlessly. From as young as 5 years old, citizens are selected based on skill level to serve for the Arirang Festival for many years. In most cases this will be the way of life for them until retirement. The show is about two hours long every other day of the week and is like performing an Olympic opening ceremony. In August 2007, the Arirang Mass Games were recognized by Guinness World Records as the biggest event of its kind in the world. It was truly a marvel not to be missed in ones travel life. Seats range from 80 to 300 Euros.
Adrenaline was pumping after the show and we went back to the Yanggakdo International Hotel where all foreign guests to the country stay while in Pyongyang. A four star hotel by western standards and the only place that foreigners are allowed access to internet or phones in the country for a hefty sum. I was sharing a room with Peter Dunner a middle-aged man from Florida, very polite and politically minded. He took Americans on trips into Cuba and had worked at several NGO’s throughout his life. We discussed the pros and cons of the fact that Dennis Rodman a tattooed and pierced ex-basketballer was the only American adviser to the current man in power Kim Jung-un. I was personally in favour and explained to Peter that in this day and age you have to look past the tattoos and the piercings and that he is trying to understand the very misunderstood country and this can only be a force for good. After all it was a Ping-Pong match between China and America under President Nixon and Chairman Mao that started ties between the countries again in the 70’s maybe basketball is the way forward. Kim Jung-un is said to be a huge basketball fan.
The North Korean threat in my view is strongly overplayed I don’t think they are nearly as threatening as they are made out to be. They are not really a rouge state they are a very threatened state, they feel very threatened by the United States, having war games every year with the South Koreans and with Japan. I think what they really want is to have a peace agreement which goes back to the Armistice and cancels that out with a peace treaty and some reassurances from the US and from Western countries in general that they are not going to be attacked. It is a very difficult country to live in, the average citizen has a terrible time in comparison to the modern world and countries directly surrounding it. This however is made worse by the embargo against them. This is of course partly their fault because of lack of information from high up in the DPRK the west natural fears the unknown and fear breeds more fear and feeds into itself. The more they are threatened the more they are like a porcupine. They will get their quills out and when the South Koreans send up a three stage missile and when the Japanese do as they often do, is this regarded as a provocative action? They still use technology just as the North Koreans. But it seems that North Korea is the country that cops the flack every time and if countries were only less suspicious and had a much more relaxed, careful and intelligent approach to North Korea I think that those quills would go down and as they have in the past demonstrated they might become more cooperative.
I made my way down to the lobby. We had agreed to meet in the micro-brewery for a few beers with the group and other groups on different tours that had all come for the mass games. I was early so decided to see the facilities and went down to the basement to check out the bowling alley, karaoke rooms, hairdressers, tailors, Ping-Pong rooms, billiards room, massage rooms and sauna all filled with North Korean army officials young and old and staffed by gorgeous girls in uniform. Back at the bar people were respectively giving thoughts and opinions on the different things they had seen on their trips. Two German lads in their early twenties were sitting to my right talking to Miss Che who I introduced myself to. They were talking about kidnapping Miss Che and taking her to October Fest in Munich to get her drunk on German beer. She seemed rather keen and I asked if I could have a photo with her.
The next morning first on the agenda was the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, formerly the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, and sometimes referred to as the Kim Il-sung Mausoleum. It is a building located near the northeast corner of the city and serves as the mausoleum for Kim Il-sung, the founder and eternal president of North Korea, and for his son Kim Jong-il who succeeded him as the country’s ruler. The palace was built in 1976, and served as Kim Il-sung’s official residence. Following the elder Kim’s death in 1994, Kim Jong-il had the building renovated and transformed into his father’s mausoleum. Despite hundreds of thousands starving to death in a famine at the time, it is believed that the conversion cost at least $100 million. Inside the palace, Kim Il-sung’s embalmed body lies inside a clear glass sarcophagus. His head rests on a Korean-style pillow and he is covered by the flag of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Kumsusan is the largest mausoleum dedicated to a Communist leader, and the only one to house the remains of multiple people. Security is extreme and we were kept away from the Korean’s visiting. After we handed in everything we had in our pockets, went through x-ray machines and finally through a wind tunnel to blow off any dust on us. We were greeted by a towering statue of Kim Il-sung and then under strict guidance entered his mausoleum and bowed on all four sides of his tomb in silence. Security guards that most probably guarded him during life and now death surrounded us. Adjoining rooms are filled with some of Kim Il-sung’s possessions, as well as gifts and awards he received from around the world. There are no signs or information in Korean here. Awards include a number of degree certificates, only one of which is from a Western university, specifically Kensington University in California. Kensington was an unaccredited university, typically considered to be a diploma mill, which, following several years of attempts to close it, was finally dissolved by a Hawaiian court in 2003. Depressingly there is a gift from Derby county council that I have no idea how, made its way to this corner of the earth.
The identical process follows for Kim Jong-il and in the adjoining rooms you can even see the bombproof train carriage weighing 52 tonnes that he died in on his chair in front of his Apple computer. This is the most holy site in the whole of North Korea and a bit like going to see the body of God and Jesus together. We eventually made our way to the square outside the official residence to have a group photo and we were on our way again to the The Mansudae Grand Monument with two giant statues of the two great leaders in bronze. “Miss Pak are these solid bronze?” I asked. “Of course!” came her reply proudly. Chris pointed out to the group on one of the vast statues either side of the two leaders soldiers standing on a US flag and helmet.
On the bus, in between each of the sites we were playing the traffic girl game. 1 point for a smile, 2 points for a wave and 3 points for a salute which should only be given to military vehicles with black number plates. A salute was difficult to squeeze out of them as we drove past on the bus all waving and saluting in unison trying to get them to respond. We did get one during the day very quickly with a look on the girls face ‘oopps what have I just done’. I asked miss Pak why all the traffic police were beautiful young girls. She said, “Because the men driving pay more attention!” We walked to the foreign bookshop filled with all the regime’s books translated and published in English as well as posters, stamps and other DPRK paraphernalia. I was taken by a print of three North Korean sailors looking out onto an industrial city from their Naval vessel. Unlike China there is no negotiating with the hard-nosed women working there. After all this is state run and state owned and it matters very little if they sell the items or not. None of it goes into their pocket at the end of the day.
After lunch we went to the military museum and had a excellent female guide that went to University with Miss Pak in full military attire that I loved listening to about defeating the imperialist Americans. I asked her if she was actually in the army to which she snapped back “You think I don’t look like I’m in the army?” Looking at her dainty in her makeup and high heels I thought to myself – well no not exactly. She led us to the USS Pueblo still held by North Korea today, officially it remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy. It was moored along the Taedong River and used there as a museum ship. Pueblo is the only ship of the U.S. Navy currently being held captive.
The military museum was choreographed so that we were away from the North Koreans like with the mausoleum and only met at the top of the museum in a revolving room with the whole wall painted explaining the Korean War. It was the most impressive military museum I have ever seen although not factually. The museum fails to mention any assistance from the Russian’s or the Chinese during the war.
In the afternoon we were taken to the Children’s Palace for a performance I remember very little of. I recall a child walking out on stage doing an elaborate dance and then waking up to applause at the end and the children bowing. Josh sitting next to me said “Don’t worry half the audience was asleep” Knocked out by the intensity of the day. Outside as we left I noticed large bands of people walking holding long poles around the bus as we were leaving. I asked Miss Pak what they were doing. “They are practicing for a national holiday next month!” The population is constantly kept busy with work, meetings, rallies and volunteer after hours labor. There is very little crime or none officially, no homelessness, almost free housing, free education, and free medical care. They have been referred to as a nation of “racial dwarves” with no possibility of dating or intermarriage with foreigners. Any questions of a more sensitive nature concerning sex are shuffled off with the most absurd answers (there is no premarital sex and the boys in the army from age 18-26 are too busy training to think of such things). Perhaps the DPRK is the land that is forgotten by human physiology. I was also told there are no gays in North Korea or disabled people as North Korean people are all born fit and healthy.
Dinner was at a Korean BBQ restaurant. I asked Chris as I sat down “What is the difference between North Korean BBQ and South Korean BBQ?”
He smiled at me and replied, “Absolutely nothing, just smaller portions!” with a wink. During the meal we were sung to with great pride by the girls waiting our tables, then Mr. Crazy Kim got up and gave us a gut wrenching performance of his favourite song ‘Unify Korea’ throwing the mic around his back and catching it, under his legs and even ended by sliding on his knees to the songs climax. Miss Pak was up next and much more elegantly I have to say than Mr. Crazy Kim sang a well known folk song and then back to the restaurant singers and accordions player.
A highlight of the trip was the fun park in the center of Pyongyang over looking the Arch of Triumph that we were on our way to next as the mic was being offered around to tell jokes. Mr. Crazy Kim never shy of the limelight was encouraged by Chris and so told us our first North Korean joke, which goes something like this….. “A soldier really liked this girl and asked her out on a date saying that I bet you I can read your mind and tell you what colour panties you are wearing. Not believing that he could read her mind she asked him to tell her. Of course a North Korean soldiers shoes are as shiny as a mirror so sliding his boots under her dress saw that she was wearing red panties and told her to her astonishment. Another date soon followed and again the same question was posed to which the soldier did the same routine and said that she was wearing yellow panties – again astonishment. A third date followed and the girl thought that she would out fox the soldier and not wear any panties, again the question was posed and with the same routine slid his boot under the dress and shouted – You’ve split my boot open!”
We were ushered through the gates by our guides and fixer there at the park getting us directly onto any ride that we wanted as we watched the North Koreans wait in line without any complaint. I didn’t think this very fair but what was fair in this country at the end of the day. Life was tough for these people they just looked happy to be at the party. I have to say the rides were excellent and stood up to anything I have been on in the west. The big swinging arm was a thrill and the superman ride, which I got on next to Alex, was just jaw dropping adrenaline. As we came back around to the end of the ride Alex next to me shouted out “We’ve just had a near death experience!” As I walked back to the group watching on I heard my name being excitedly yelled “Nick?! Nick?! Nick?!” as I looked back Alex had forgotten to get out of the ride and stretched out in the superman position was going around again surrounded by three military men in full uniform grinning from ear to ear. “Nick?! What are you doing? I thought you were still next to me!”
Back at the hotel most of our group took over the karaoke room and sang alternately, us singing Western songs very badly as Miss Pak, Mr. Kim and Mr. Crazy Kim sang us Korean songs very well. Mr. Crazy Kim “Shouted to me Chu-pei! Cheers!” to which I clinked my glass to his. He then joyfully shouted “When I am really happy I take my shirt off!” And ripped it off and sat on the floor chain-smoking cigarettes. By around 3.30am the staff had had enough of our antics and as most of the group had sauntered off to bed we decided to leave as well. There were lots of full bottles of beer still left on the tables from people over ordering so I asked Chris if there was anywhere else to go and drink he said “Follow me!” and took us to just outside the hotel entrance to a ledge down by the river that the survivors sat on and finished the beer under the hazy full moon above. Naoki the Japanese fellow on our trip politely said that he had too much to drink and was off to bed. Mr. Crazy Kim agreed that it was late and he had to work in the morning so left with him. About 20 minutes later we had a flashlight in our faces and were being yelled at by a Korean “Hey what are you doing here? All of you arrested! Show me your ID’s!” As Chris was leading the tour he felt obliged to get up and try and diffuse the situation to which the flashlight was put under Mr. Crazy Kim’s chin as he shouted in hysterics “It’s Mr. Crazy Kim, hahahahaha, I got you all!”
The next morning everyone feeling the effects from the night before we met in the breakfast room and were soon on our way to the birth place of Kim Il-sung just outside the center of the city. Here I saw on one of the various photos that Kim Jong-suk who was Kim Il-sung’s wife died in 1949 unofficially in childbirth. “How did she die?” I asked our guide dressed in a colourful traditional Korea dress called a Hanbok. “She died due to the hardships she had endured during the years as a guerrilla fighter!” came the reply with a mournful insincere tone.
“And did he ever remarry?” I asked again to which Miss Pak stepped in and said,
“We don’t mention those things.” This is North Korea where nothing is quite true and don’t let the truth get in the way of the party line anyway.
A visit to yet another museum displays lavish gifts to Kim Jong-il from foreign governments and dignitaries including a Spalding basketball from a US negotiator. I muse why a complete entertainment center from South Korea is in the museum rather than being used. Perhaps one of the Kim’s was holding out for a larger flat panel. Apple computers, leather sofas, clocks, watches, fishing rods, jewelry, jade stones and all kinds of other items are on display. As the group walked on I hung back to look at a full set of Ping golf clubs with used golf gloves neatly placed next to them. Then onto the national film studios where most of the propaganda films were made for the past 60 years including films directed by Kim Jong-il himself. I had bought ‘Destiny of the Nation’ on DVD in the foreign bookshop which he is said to have written. Then onto the Pyongyang metro station to ride the subway with a few rather bemused everyday North Korean’s going about their business probably as bewildered as I was at the grandiose stations that we saw. Each decorated in elaborate marble with images of the Eternal President surrounded by huge harvests and eager eyed comrades looking on in wonder.
On our way back to the hotel for our last meal before flying out I thought how fascinating it would be to live in Pyongyang officially and asked Miss Pak how many foreigners lived in the city. “There are 400 foreigners living in North Korea and four English teachers. The rest are diplomats of some sort.” She replied. Who were these foreigners and how did they get into North Korea to teach English? I said that I would love to live in Pyongyang and if she knew of any way possible “I would even clean Kim Jong-un’s underpants!” She looked at me with a confused smile and shook her head. DPRK is a very safe country with very little crime, rape or pedophilia. I saw countless children on the streets playing by themselves very happily until late with no threat from anyone or anything. People may say that tourists going to the DPRK are supporting an evil and redundant regime that causes huge human rights abuses. I feel that at some level we are ambassadors for the outside world and we are pioneering a crucial industry and understanding. We were shown a certain side to North Korea of course a little white washed, but who would go to England or the US and look at the prisons and council estates or affordable housing? North Korea is a country unspoilt by advertising, neon signs, LCD screens, Starbucks, rubbish, pollution and traffic. It is opening up slowly and for good or bad with more influence from China than anywhere else. Will the people feel transported into the future? Will they feel ready for the modern world having never used a computer before? Or having no reference point in terms of modern culture like films or music or never even meeting a foreigner? Maybe so or maybe it will curl up like a porcupine again.
Back at the hotel I packed and made my way up to the revolving restaurant on the top floor where lunch was waiting with a delicious array of delicacies a bit like a Korean tapas bar. After eating only Christian and myself stayed to finish our beers. Christian was half Dominican and half Mexican from San Francisco and we talked about our different lives as the view of the city rotated in front of us.
On the bus leaving the hotel we gave our gifts to our guides together from the group and we were soon at the departure terminal at Pyongyang International Airport waiting for our Air China flight back to Beijing. We hugged Miss Pak, Mr. Kim and Mr. Crazy Kim and with a touch of sadness said our goodbyes. I had left Mr. Crazy Kim with a sim card full of photos of the trip as he said that he had a computer to show his family. I hoped he would and I hoped I would see them again in this fascinating, singular minded, humble and beautiful country that had made such an impression in such a short time.
The problem and the physiological landscape that confronts you in North Korea is their lack of dedication to truth. Or should I say their misinformation of the truth. It should be obvious that truth is reality. That which is false is unreal. The more clearly we see the reality of the world the better equipped we are to deal with the world. The less clear we see the reality of the world the more our minds are befuddled by falsehood, misperceptions and illusions. The less able we will be to determine correct courses of action and make wise decisions. Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.
While this is obvious, it is something that North Korea to a greater or lesser degree choose to ignore. They ignore it because the path to reality is not easy. First of all, we are not born with maps, we have to make them, and the making requires effort. The more effort we make to appreciate and perceive reality, the larger and more accurate our maps will be. But many do not want to make this effort. Their maps are small and sketchy, their views of the world narrow and misleading. They feel certain their maps are complete and correct and they are no longer interested in new information. The biggest problem of map making is not that we have to start from scratch, but that if our maps are to be accurate that we have to continually revise them. We are daily bombarded with new information as to the nature of reality. If we are to incorporate this information we must continually revise our maps and make revisions. The process of making revisions, particularly major revisions, is painful, sometimes excruciatingly painful. And herin lies the major source of many of the ills of mankind.
What happens when North Korea has striven long and hard to develop a working view of the world, a seemingly useful, workable map, and then is confronted with new information suggesting that their view is wrong and the map needs to be largely redrawn? The painful effort required seems frightening, almost overwhelming. What happens more often than not is to ignore the new information. This act of ignoring is much more than passive. New information is denounced as false, dangerous, heretical, the work of the devil or Imperialist Americans. They crusade against it, and even attempt to manipulate the world so as to make it conform to their view of reality. Rather than trying to change the map, they try to destroy the new reality. Sadly, they may expend much more energy ultimately in defending an outmoded view of the world than would have been required to revise and correct it in the first place. There is little outside influence so they therefore rebreathe only their own fetid air.
Image cover: Austrian Pavilion, #BiennaleArchitettura2016 (ph. DM)