Mass Games in Biggest Arena in World Placards in the Background
Food Including Mystery Meat
Fran Practicing for NK Army
USS Pueblo War Trophy in Pyongyangs River
Great Leader and Dear Leader
Pyongyang Empty Main Street
Tallest building in Pyongyang but still empty
NK Youth Group
Ancient Korean Royalty
Important Ladies Visiting National Monument
Citizens Gathered to Hear Announcements
K&Q in North Korea
Privileged Prisoners in “Alcatraz East”, How Fran Was Almost Arrested, and Other True Stories
At the Pyongyang, North Korea, airport immigration counter, the unsmiling guard states: “Give us your cell phone. You will get it back when you leave.”
At the hotel, checking in, the unsmiling front desk clerk requests: “Give us your passport. You will get it back when you leave.”
So went the worrisome entry into the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. Yes, they inspected our luggage at the airport, which is why we didn’t bring any books describing people escaping from North Korea, or its repressive government. Surprisingly, we were allowed to keep our I-pads or other computers. Reason: there is no internet access in North Korea. The medieval name ascribed to all of Korea, the “Hermit Kingdom”, is equally applicable to North Korea today.
This memoir cannot begin to describe life for the citizens of North Korea. Even though this is the most isolated nation in the world, definitive word has seeped out describing in detail the concentration camps, the widespread famine, and the overall misery that burdens most of the inhabitants of this unfortunate land. All we can attempt here is to report what we saw and learned about this country and its people during our 8 day visit in August, 2012.
Our guides met us and we drove to the Yanggakdo International Hotel, shaped like a triangle, 47 stories high with 1001 rooms and a revolving restaurant on top. It did have a beautiful lobby, but the small, dingy rooms were more like those in a 20 year old Motel 6. We did have a private bath, but the amenities were six small plastic bottles of shampoo and body wash – but they were about half empty, apparently partly used up by the previous occupants. There was a small TV, but the only English language channel was a Japanese news station. That channel was our only source of news from the outside world, but even it is not available to ordinary citizens in their homes (if they even have a TV). There were five restaurants: Japanese, Chinese, Revolving, Restaurant #1, and the one where we ate: Restaurant #2. I’m not sure why we only dined in Restaurant #2, but even Fran didn’t argue about it.
Our guides told us, “Please do NOT leave the hotel on your own”. Fran and I have been to about 140 countries, and have NEVER been told that. When asked why, they said it was for our safety, but like other totalitarian dictatorships, there are no issues of personal safety in North Korea. But when tourists start walking out of the hotel, they are immediately stopped by guides or hotel staff, asking, “Where are you going?” John, one of the other two Americans in our little group, then commented to us: “This place is like Alcatraz East.” A foreigner who has done his homework, and we all had, does not start an argument with any official in this country.
One morning, just to see what would happen, I hobbled outside the hotel. No one seemed to care, probably because I was barely walking due to my very severely injured right ankle. I guess they figured I was a harmless old man, unlikely to meet up with any insurgents or defectors. They were right. Still, I was pleased to be an exception to the rule, especially in North Korea.
What was Pyongyang, the capital of the country, like? A city of 3,000,000 people, most of whom are from the upper stratum of North Korean society, that is, high-ranking Communist Party and army officials and their top functionaries. There are lots of tall buildings, lots of new construction, and lots of wide streets. The two most distinctive structures are both hotels. One hotel has two 37-story twin towers, and became our home several days later. The other is huge, “about 105 stories, built about 15 years ago,” according to Su Yong, our female national guide. Called the Koryo (Korea)Hotel, its the tallest building in Pyongyang, a beautiful pyramid-shaped edifice set by itself on a large lot near the river. However, there were no lights on, nor cars in the parking lot. This hotel has never been finished, and, even Su Yong admitted, probably never will be. Why? Like so many other absurdities in North Korea, we would never learn the answer.
Pyongyang has many broad avenues and boulevards. Yet there is very little traffic, as privately-owned vehicles are forbidden to all but a few of the very top officials. Su Yung explained: “Cars very expensive, and they would contribute to air pollution.” Yet some of the army trucks have been converted to carbon-producing, air-polluting, wood-burning engines because of the lack of petroleum. One of the questions Su Yung asked us concerned the quality of air in our home city versus Pyongyang; she was visibly disappointed when we said Omaha’s air is equally clean and fresh.
There is also an extensive underground metro system that is the main method that locals get around the city. The little traffic in the streets consisted of crowded public buses, army vehicles, lots of bicycles, a few motorbikes, a few taxis, vans making public announcements, and trucks holding 20-30 people crouching in back being transported to their workplace. In a whole week, the only negative thought expressed by Su Yung was that the P.A. vans blaring patriotic songs, political propaganda, and uplifting thoughts were actually “noise pollution”. Patriotic movies are also shown in the evening on huge screens in the large public squares, but I’m not sure what happens during the cold winter season.
Ironically, despite the small amount of vehicles, there were numerous pedestrian underpasses connecting all 4 corners of many intersections. And there were many white-uniformed, baton-wielding young traffic ladies, even at intersections that had traffic lights. These young women directed the few vehicles with robotic arm movements, and motioned pedestrians to use the pedestrian subways. One of the few disobedient acts performed by some citizens was crossing the street rather than using the underpass, but this only happened when the traffic lady was standing on the far side of the street. On my unescorted walk outside the hotel, I became a keen observer of this surprising noncompliance. However, I think it was convenience rather than insubordination that inspired the errant behavior. The young traffic ladies became the favorite photo subject of our two traveling companions. I suggested that these attractive young women might be a future “Playboy” pictorial feature. As both John and Bucky, our two fellow tourists, have Asian wives, they naturally thought that was a great idea.
Citizens who work together are encouraged to do “team games”. It was not unusual to see small groups on the sidewalk jumping rope, singing or exercising together. It seemed to be an enjoyable activity, but the American phrase “Thank God It’s Friday” is definitely not applicable in Pyongyang. Every Friday afternoon all the workers in the city head out to toil on the collective farms. Su Yung said the office staffers “like to help the farmers”, but we were a little skeptical of this claim.
Throughout Pyongyang there are huge statues of Kim Il Sung, the founder of modern North Korea, and his son, Kim Jong-Il, who ran the country from 1994 until his death late last year in 2011. One is referred to as the Great Leader, the other as the Dear Leader, along with many other laudatory phrases and titles. Every important building or landmark has an outsized picture or sculpture of one or both, depending on which one is credited with designing, building, or inaugurating the project. Virtually every North Korean wears a lapel pin with the picture of the Dear Leader.
According to their history books, Kim Il Sung spent World War II fighting against the Japanese who had occupied all of Korea since 1905. He then led the newly independent country from 1948-1994. The North Korean people, of course, never find out that Kim Il Sung actually spent most of WWII in Moscow learning from Josef Stalin how to organize a Communist Party and set up a totalitarian dictatorship. Kim Il Sung even outdid Stalin, Mao, and other Communist leaders by continuing his legacy and setting up his own son as the next leader. Kim Jong Il followed his father’s teachings by maintaining the million man army (out of only 20 million inhabitants), concentration camps, informant networks, collective farms, and other accoutrements of a completely isolated socialist autocracy. In turn, after his death, Kim Jong Il has been succeeded as head of state and Army by his #3 son, Kim Jong Un.
Fran was well-behaved during most of the journey, but the nationally required reverence for the Dear Leader almost got her arrested. We were at one of the parks with big concrete steps leading up to a massive statue of Kim Il Sung. It was a hot day. Pointing to my ankle, I asked to be excused from walking up the steps. Su Yung mercifully indicated that I could stay below with the driver. Although our driver’s English was limited, we got along well, but I never did learn to play the Korean version of chess that he sometimes played with other drivers. Meanwhile, Fran climbed up and was dutifully looking at the statue, but was wearing sunglasses due to the bright sun. Su Yung by now was calling Fran “Grandma”, and I was “Grandpa”.
Su Yung said, “Grandma, please take off your sunglasses”.
Fran replied, “Why?”
Su Yung: “Its disrespectful to the Dear Leader.”
So Fran took off the sunglasses and put on a visor.
Su Yung: “Grandma, please take off the visor. Its also disrespectful.”
Fran: “OK, but I’ll put up my umbrella for shade.”
Su Yung: “No, umbrellas are disrespectful too.”
Fran: “That’s ridiculous! And besides, the local guide over there is holding an umbrella, and her guests are wearing hats.”
Su Yung, who is only 23 but a national guide and thus outranks the local guide, promptly went over to the other group and had them take down their umbrellas and remove their hats. Fran then complied also, and an international crisis was averted.
Fran has gotten into arguments with cops, soldiers, and other local officials in Ethiopia, Uganda, and other less-developed countries, but has so far avoided being arrested. Thankfully, her clean record is still intact even after the North Korean incident. (I like to tell the North Korea story, adding that if Fran had been arrested, the police would have paid me to take her back, ala the O. Henry story, “The Ransom of Red Chief”.)
Our other guide was a 21 year old university student, and we were his first tourists. We just called him Mr. Lee, as his other names were difficult for us to pronounce. His English was excellent, and he had a good sense of humor, so when we asked him if he were descended from the Li Dynasty that governed all of Korea for several centuries, he just laughed. We did not joke about the Dear Leader, the Great Leader, or even about the new leader. Mr. Lee’s father and grandfather were both major generals, and his goal is to run an international business in a foreign country. He is one of the few North Koreans to have lived abroad, as he grew up in Nigeria as a young boy when his father was living (stationed?) there. Mr. Lee also spent a couple of years in China with his aunt running a North Korean enterprise.
Every North Korean business, from the largest power plant to the smallest food kiosk, from the smallest farm to the largest firm, is owned by the state. Every abode, from the smallest mud and straw hovel to the largest apartments in the city, is owned by the government (they are all rent-free, but where you get to live depends on who you know more than what you know). Each business is called a company, so when you meet someone who says they work for a restaurant, a store, or even a tourism concern, they are actually employed by the government. Mr. Lee stated: “My goal is to work in a foreign country, but under the auspices of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” With his superior pedigree, his university education, and his excellent language skills, Mr. Lee is destined to be as successful as one can be in the NK system. However, his rise will depend on how much he learns about the outside world without questioning the legitimacy and wisdom of the whole Communist government. This can be perilous. For example, one day he said that the socialist system was the best. We told him that when farmers are given the chance to sell part of their crop themselves, production immediately skyrockets. The farmer is incentivized to raise more than the state requires so that he can sell the excess and buy other things for his family. Then we told Mr. Lee that former socialist economies like China, Vietnam, and Eastern Europe were now market-based even if still run by the Communist Party. These countries are now much more successful, with their people better-fed and happier. Mr. Lee’s only answer: “The socialist economy is best because it gives people an ideological reason to work harder,” but we perceived that later he might be re-thinking the discussion.
There have been a few news articles lately saying that the new leader, Kim Jung Un, may allow farmers to have small personal gardens to feed themselves better and sell some on the open market. Time will tell whether this is just talk to impress China, their big neighbor and benefactor, or whether it really happens.
How do people get food to eat and cook at home? First Su Yung said, “They just go to the food store,” but she wouldn’t point out any such place. Later she admitted that everyone is given ration tickets that are taken to a food distribution center where you exchange them for eggs, pasta, veggies, etc. As the daughter of a prominent physicist, we think her family received plenty of tickets. Fran told Su Yung that we were in the grocery business and would love to see where she shopped, but she never would take us there. Similarly, John and Bucky, our two fellow tourists, both worked for Amtrak, and expressed a keen desire to visit the big train station, but that never happened either.
Our guides would discuss social customs. Like most North Korean men, Mr. Lee and our driver loved to smoke, but no women did. Both sexes like candy and alcohol, and although both Su Yung and Mr. Lee would take drinks if offered, we were pleased that our driver never indulged, at least while on the job. Marriages used to be arranged by the parents, but Su Yung said that now most young people choose their life partners by falling in love. We jokingly suggested to Su Yung that Mr. Lee might be a wonderful husband, but she said romance between them would be impossible because he was two years younger than her. When we asked our guides whether women had equal opportunity to become senior managers, Mr. Lee said “yes”, but Su Yung quietly told us “no”.
We set out early one morning to visit the infamous Demilitarized Zone, the area between North and South Korea that was set as the border in 1953 at the conclusion of the Korean War. The highway from Pyongyang to the DMZ, as it is known, is usually 7-10 lanes wide with no median. There is good pavement, which is a result of no traffic. The only vehicles we saw were a few old inter-city busses, army vehicles, and a rare tourist van. We saw no private vehicles (even though there wasn’t much possibility of air pollution here). There were numerous checkpoints that we had to stop at. North Koreans must carry ID and are not allowed to travel from city to city without permission. However, the soldiers at most barriers, seeing the insignia of the Korean National Tourist Company on our van, just waved us through. Wisely, we refrained from taking pictures of the soldiers at the checkpoints.
Arriving at the buildings just outside the Demilitarized Zone, we waited with an assortment of other foreign tourists while our guides submitted our documents for inspection. It’s amazing how friendly one can get in a short time with people from around the world who you meet in a unique setting. There are not many tourists in North Korea. The majority are from China, followed by Japan, with a smattering from Europe, Southeast Asia, and a very few from the USA and Canada. I was sitting in front of an official DMZ souvenir store when the North Korean border guard sternly indicated that I had to get up and move further away from the entry gate. Noticing the large brace I was wearing on my ankle, a few of the Chinese tourists empathized with me and smilingly tried to help me rise. And when I showed them that my metal cane changes into a 1-legged seat, they laughed and approved, especially a couple of the older folks who were a little envious. We then spoke pleasantries in broken English, exchanged home cities, and soon clambered onto the same big bus to enter the DMZ together.
The DMZ is five miles wide, and stretches from sea to sea across the middle of the Korean peninsula. North Korea controls 2 ½ miles on the northern side of the actual border, and South Korea the southern half. The road leading from North Korea into the DMZ is hemmed in on both sides by large slabs of boulders. These huge rocks are balanced with a hair-trigger switch so that they will fall on the road on a moment’s notice and block tanks should the North Koreans think the South Koreans are invading. Off the road are cornfields, but we also know that the whole DMZ was full of land mines.
We were not supposed to take pictures while on the bus, presumably so we couldn’t show them to the South Koreans later. Most of us did anyway, hoping the soldier on board wouldn’t notice and confiscate our cameras. He was repaid later for his inaction with many packs of cigarettes. By re-selling them, that soldier is probably one of the highest earners in the Army. We assume he got his position by being closely related to a major general, or at least to the commander of that area. The workers and officials throughout the socialist paradise are not above expecting tips for actions rendered (or, in this case, deliberately not rendered).
After a short, bumpy ride, we arrived at the complex of buildings where the armistice talks to end the Korean War were held. Touring the structures, we were taught, in movies, photographs, and lectures, how the brave North Koreans held off the imperialist Americans and their South Korean lackeys. The only indication that there were other troops besides the aggressor Yankees was in the armistice hall. The two flags sitting on the desk where the truce was finally signed in 1953 were the North Korean and that of the United Nations. Those of us who watched the classic TV sitcom M*A*S*H know that there were troops from Turkey, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe fighting under the UN flag, but obviously the North Koreans never were able to watch that iconic show.
To complete the anti-American day, upon our arrival back in Pyongyang, we were taken to the river berth of the ill-famed “USS Pueblo”. According to the North Koreans (again via film, photos, and local guide), in 1968 the Pueblo was engaged in aggression by spying on the NK army while in North Korean waters. The “heroic” NK military was able to subdue the American Navy ship and force it to shore. Of course, whether the Pueblo was actually in NK waters is debatable, and the ship was armed only with one small machine gun on the prow. In due course, the American captain and his crew “confessed” to spying, and were returned alive to the USA. The North Koreans are very proud to have the only written formal apology ever given by American authorities to a foreign country. The Pueblo is kept docked in Pyongyang’s river as a trophy.
Generally, American tourists like us are treated with hospitality, but the US Government is feared and loathed. Most of this abhorrence is probably based on our 60 years of support of South Korea. More recently, the official hatred was amplified by President G.W. Bush’s inclusion of North Korea with Iraq and Iran in the “Axis of Evil”. Never acknowledged is the thousands of tons of food that we have given to North Korea to alleviate their periodic famines. Most of the food apparently went to feed the NK Army.
We made a visit to an ancient Buddhist monastery, built hundreds of years ago in a secluded woodland. Korea was traditionally a stronghold of Tibetan or Mahayana Buddhism. A solitary monk in a saffron robe guided us through the beautiful grounds and ornately carved wooden buildings. When Kim Il-Sung and his Communist regime took over after WWII, traditional religions were abolished. It has been gradually replaced by “Juche”, a concept which combines complete respect for the state with veneration for the Dear Leader and his principles. For example, the new North Korean calendar is based on the date of birth of Kim Il-Sung in early 1912. Hence, our visit in August, 2012, was in the Juche year 101. Although there are only a few elderly practicing Buddhists, this monastery with its lovely setting is visited by many families. We would call it a picnic outing.
We also had an overnight journey to the seaport city of Nampo and the Ryonggang Hot Springs Hotel. Driving for several hours through country roads, we passed through miles and miles of fields of corn, rice, beans, potatoes, etc. Every few hundred yards there was a little elevated straw hut, which apparently was for the farm workers to take naps during the hot midday. There were no tractors or other mechanized equipment. There were a few water buffaloes and oxen, but mainly it appeared that the hard labor of farming was done by hand by the local men and women. We visited one collective farm, but even at this “show” farm, there were almost no mechanical aids. The top administrator was not a farm manager but rather a Communist party official. Apparently the idea was to inspire the farmers spiritually to mold them into working hard for minimal material rewards. Even here there was a large statue of the Great Leader, as he had visited this cooperative.
We spent the night at a unique hot springs hotel. We could turn the bathtub tap and the natural boiling hot thermal spring water would fill it. It’s supposed to be very therapeutic, but it didn’t cure my bad ankle. This was the only hotel where we could walk the grounds unaccompanied by hotel staff. Disappointingly, we found out that the entire area was surrounded by a 12 foot wall. But we were glad to see that many of the hotel guests were North Koreans, albeit high-ranking ones, who were there for conferences or just for R&R. In the morning, we were awakened by the ubiquitous P.A. vans, stridently urging everyone to do their patriotic duty and get to work.
After breakfast, we drove to Nampo to see a major feat of engineering: the wide outlet where the Taedong River meets the sea had been barraged, so that salty ocean water no longer flowed up the river, thus helping fishing and irrigation along with a dam generating electrical power. On the way back to Pyongyang, we stopped for lunch at the last place we expected: the Pyongyang Golf Club. Originally set up by the Japanese, it is used sparingly today by foreign diplomats and a few members of the NK ultra-privileged class. There were actually a couple of people playing, but we declined.
Due to the recent serious flooding in North Korea, we were not able to head north for sightseeing in that area. What was surprising was that we never heard anything about the hundreds of people killed nor the thousands displaced from their homes. When asked, our guides just said the army was helping out.
We were privileged to attend an event formerly called the “Mass Games”, now the “A-Ri-Rang Games”. The spectacle takes place in a 150,000 seat stadium, and is presented every night for one month a year. The showground is at least double the size of a football field. As foreigners, we paid $180 each in crisp, new USA currency for first class seats. There were also thousands of regular army and students in the cheap seats. They were probably admitted free as a reward for outstanding service or citizenship.
Across the stadium were seated at least 25,000 people holding large cards. Those who have ever witnessed a student card section at an American football game know that the card holders will periodically hold up their cards to spell the name of the team or spell out exhortations to the fans. Here the cardholders spent almost two hours continuously displaying different color cards. They formed dramatically moving pictures, everything from a North Korean flag waving in the wind to cranes flying across the sky to pictures of the Dear Leader. On the field were thousands more performers: acrobats, musicians, singers, dancers, and gymnasts, all marching in ever-changing formations. Fran and I have witnessed the Super Bowl halftime, Carnaval at Rio de Janiero, and other spectacular events, but the A-Ri-Rang performance is simply unequalled anywhere in the world.
Early one evening we also went to a wonderful circus. The acts ranged from an ice-skating bear to blindfolded flying trapeze artists. Again, it was nice to see that most of the audience consisted of soldiers and schoolchildren.
The last afternoon in Pyongyang was devoted to shopping. As noted earlier, every business is owned and operated by the government. Surprisingly, the service in at least some of the stores was very helpful, maybe because working in these establishments is a plum job. We went to an art studio where among the numerous patriotic paintings we spotted and purchased an excellent wood cut. A small food store had some unusual fresh fruits and vegetables. At a large craft and souvenir shop, we purchased a small delicately decorated porcelain bowl. The bookstore had thousands of maps, pins, and posters of all subjects, from art designs to historical pictures to dramatic depictions of North Korean soldiers bayoneting American G.I.s.
In all of these retail establishments we had to pay in crisp, new US currency, Euros, or Chinese RMZ, as the government needs whatever hard currency it can get. Obviously, locals cannot buy here, unless they manage to get some foreign money. (For example, we tipped our guides and driver generously in Marlboro cigarettes purchased in China, chocolates, and U.S.$.) We were not allowed to have the new (devalued) notes of North Korean currency, called won. When the government issued these new and devalued notes, it created even another serious hardship for the citizens, but that is another problem that is never discussed publicly.
So what is the real Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? Is it the tall buildings of Pyongyang, the million man army, the developer of nuclear missiles, and the farmland near the DMZ filled with healthy looking crops? Or is it the disaster we’ve read about, with famine, concentration camps, no personal liberty, a failed economy, and no communication available between its citizens and the rest of the world? Perhaps the true answer was given to us when we spent some time with two young European men who had just finished two weeks of travel, including visits to the northern part of the country. Here’s what they saw in Chongin, a large formerly industrialized seaport city in the northwest:
the factories were closed down (probably due to lack of fuel and electricity);
the streets were unpaved, empty of vehicles, and without sidewalks;
the people appeared small of stature (from previous famines), clothed in rags, and forsaken;
all in all, a gloomy hellhole, which probably explains why thousands of North Koreans brave the elements, border guards, imprisonment, or death to try to cross the Yalu River and escape to China.
Yes, the latter is the real North Korea. Did we see it? Not really. But we did spend a fascinating week visiting the most remote country in the world.
And, yes, we got our passports and our cell phones back when we departed. We each had several hundred e-mails when we arrived back in Beijing, but none of them seemed to matter that much compared to the unforgettable experiences we had encountered.
Not mentioned in the memoir, but asked by some is how we got into North Korea. There are several American companies that set up tours, with entry and exit through Beijing, including Travcoa of California and Asia Pacific Tours of Kenilworth IL (firstname.lastname@example.org), but all travel within North Korea is with the Korea International Travel Company, a government agency.
For further reading, I suggest:
“Separated at Birth,” by Gordon Cucullu, a US Army officer who spent years in South Korea, and writes the history of both North and South Korea from ancient times thru 2007.
“Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick, a Los Angeles Times reporter who spent two years interviewing and writing the life stories of six varied people who escaped from North Korea and now live in South Korea.
“Escape from Camp 14”, by Blaine Harden, the true story of a young man, Shin Dong-Hyuk, who was born in and grew up in a NK concentration camp, and became the only such person who has successfully escaped.