This past summer I had the unique opportunity to spend nine days in North Korea, with my cousins, aunt, and uncle. The trip was all more the extraordinary as I was visiting a family member posted in Pyongyang, and thus not subject to an all-encompassing scheduled tour, nor constantly “minded” by menacing guides analyzing my every movement for perceived insults/hostile activity (which my movements tend to naturally exhibit when unhindered).
It’s hard to put into words and explain all that we saw, and even though we had greater freedom than most tourists, what we experienced was still controlled in some way. Nonetheless, it provided a window into a typically secluded society (all the more so for Americans), and gave us a chance to get beyond the alarming headlines of impending projectile-related doom.
The following is the first in a multi-part Q&A monologue, based on the most frequent queries I have received regarding the trip. Unfortunately, my grand dreams of crafting a deeply insightful yet classically humanizing narrative capturing the intricacies of the North Korean soul fell flat the second I began typing. Thus the path of least resistance is as follows.
How were you able to go?
So by extreme chance, my uncle happened to be working in Pyongyang and was able to get select family members a visa (to be part of such a prestigious selection, you basically had to exist). I told him no matter what the cost, if I could ever legitimately visit North Korea, I would. Being an American added a layer of difficulty and my application was initially rejected, but the perseverance of my uncle and his office ultimately won out (there was the slight issue that I had lived a year in South Korea, and happened to attend the same university with the same major as North Korean’s most recent long-time American visitor). In this sense, we were treated more like diplomats rather than regular tourists on the nine-day trip. That meant we had free access to go around just about anywhere in Pyongyang without minders (as my uncle does), though when visiting major monuments or sites a staff member from his office usually accompanied us (thus someone he knows and interacts with on a regular basis, rather than your stereotypical personality-lacking, government-imposed minder). But generally we were allowed to walk the streets of Pyongyang freely on our own, and even got outside the city on three occasions, which made it a unique trip from what I imagine is your more traditionally restrictive guided tour.
As a caveat though, I can obviously only discuss what I saw and even though we were more free than most, what I saw was still heavily managed. Some of the best moments were just wandering around Pyongyang surrounded by seemingly normal North Koreans – but I must remember it’s a privilege to live in the city that most do not get to enjoy (about 90% of the population). Similarly, we got to see a few other sites outside the city and travel on some roads, and while those areas clearly illuminated some differences, these were also typical sites or along known routes that likely have been allowed for a reason. It’s folly to say any of this represents the rest of the country. At the same time, however, it does ring true for about 10% of the population, which is a limited but not insignificant sample. In short, the people we met and the things we saw were real, even if they don’t illustrate the entirety of the country (similar to how I always felt living in DC was a bubble insulated from the rest of the US – for instance, I had no idea what happens, if anything, ever, in Wyoming).
What was entering the country like?
At the airport on the way in, I was a little nervous about the health check given that I was coming from West Africa (for a time, North Korea put every foreigner arriving in the country under a three-week quarantine for Ebola, regardless of origin). That proved to be a senseless concern, as the first thing I did upon entering the airport was hand my health form outlining the countries I had recently visited to a doctor-type official, who barely glanced at it and waved me on.
Immigration was not too difficult – I am certain the guards had been given the background of everyone entering on that day’s Air China flight (the North Korean-owned Air Koryo also makes the trip from Beijing most days, practically the only way to enter the country), as instantly when I handed the immigration official my papers, he said (in English) “you are visiting your uncle?” It was a startling introduction to the pervasive state apparatus, while at the same time a not-so subtle reminder that “we know all about you.”
Customs was a bit more intense, but reminiscent of my family’s re-entry into Saudi Arabia at the end of every summer in the 1990s, when the authorities would go through every single item in your suitcase and generously utilize their black marker to eliminate uncouth materials. This was a similar process of going through x-rays and opening up our luggage, but a few interesting things occurred. First my glasses were inspected, perhaps to see if they contained a camera, the Internet, or just because they are held together by used bubblegum. Secondly, they repeatedly asked us if we had GPSs, USB sticks, or bibles – seemingly their largest concerns. I also had to mark on the customs form that I had brought in no “killing items” or “poison” (conveniently bypassing the fact I consider myself to be finely-tuned and poisonous killing machine).
I had been warned to bring as little electronics as possible so I just had my camera and my phone (which I had unnecessarily deleted nearly all apps and photos from prior to arrival). Both were taken out and examined, with the camera taken to a different location. Unfortunately, on the way in my camera was actually in my cousin’s bag, who was standing in line in front of me. The guard asked him if he had a camera in his luggage, to which he replied no, as he had forgotten I placed mine there. It created a minor ruckus as I called out after him to tell him he did indeed have a camera, which the authorities subsequently found after going through the x-ray, none too pleased. They asked him about it and took him to a side room, with him calling back at me to explain that it was mine, while I couldn’t proceed as I hadn’t been through the x-ray just yet. They wanted to turn it on, which my cousin didn’t know how to do and in fact is very complicated because the on switch is kind of broken and you have to open up the battery flap and hold it in while simultaneously pressing the on button to get it going in most circumstances (yes, I am so cheap that I have yet to resolve that issue). So with the guards demanding he turn it on, him yelling back at me, and someone else then grabbing the camera and taking it to a separate area, we had a few minutes of minor panic, with flashes of how good I might look after 15 years of hard labor flying through my mind. By the time I got through the x-ray, however, and ran over to the separate camera area, the authorities were handing it back to my cousin, seemingly satisfied with whatever check they conducted, and thankfully not pressing the issue on the discovery of electronics in his bag after he denied anything of the sort.
The other only minor issue was when we didn’t have one of the proper forms for customs (there was a health, immigration, and customs form – but the airline did not give us the last one). A gruff guard told us to go back and find it, forcing us to confusedly walk back through the airport until others told us to go forward. Upon our return, he grudgingly gave us the form and allowed us to fill it out there.
From there we were free and made the 30-minute drive to the city (the Pyongyang airport really is in the middle of nowhere – when we were landing I was shocked that all I saw around were fields, reinforcing some preconceived notions regarding the level of development in the country)!
What did you do?
We did a combination of your typical visits to monuments and grand sites, mixed in with some cultural excursions like the circus and a classical music concert on the 100th anniversary of a famous composer, interspersed with a few more “normal” type of activities. A mostly inclusive list:
- Laid flowers and bowed at the statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il – the first thing we did on our first day.
- Visited Kim Il-Sung’s birthplace, which is now a preserved open air at Mangyongdae, just on the outskirts of the city.
- Went to an Italian restaurant where all the wait staff doubled as highly patriotic karaoke singers.
- Toured the War Museum, a massive structure that depicts the North Korean side of the 1950-53 Korean War. The grounds are replete with weapons of war captured from the United States during the conflict, along with the USS Pueblo (which is docked in the harbor right next to the museum and open for boarding).
- Visited Juche Tower and got a sense of how big Pyongyang really is.
- Rode Pygonyang’s metro, one the world’s deepest, but only for our one allotted stop.
- Visited a recently built Science Center filled with tons of computers and children, along with a gigantic missile in the center of the building (replica I assume) – this was your typical showcase, whereby happy children in well-dressed uniforms surfed the North Korean Intranet on home-made eletronics to learn about aspects such as the chemical composition of chlorophyll, or the destructive nature of unverisal human rights.
- Had a rainy photo shoot at Kim Il-Sung square, where many of the large-scale parades and events take place.
- Paying a visit to the intensely capitalistic Tongil Market, and haggling with the sweetest elderly North Korean ladies (in some broken Korean mind you) for the right to purchase a Kim Jong-Il era safari suit.
- Attended a concert on the 100th anniversary of a famous composer’s birth – almost every single song had to do with the Korean War or some other aspect of patriotism, while many war veterans were interviewed during musical interludes.
- Visited one of the movie studios in Pyongyang, and flirted with the idea of staying on to make it as a famous actor.
- Went out for ice cream and Korean BBQ at some of Pyongyang’s finest restaurants – also tried to go eat on a restaurant at a boat, but got there after its 9pm closing time.
- Defeated by cousin by way of a massive comeback during an epic bowling match, surrounded by thousands of cheering fans (all true – besides the fans).
- Freely (I assume) walked the streets of Pyongyang and sampled the local street food (not a lot of winners unfortunately). While I would assume the guards at the exit to the diplomatic enclave notified someone each time we departed, I did not overtly notice anyone following or watching us.
- Held a BBQ with the 20-odd staff at my uncles office – a nice chance for the North Korean staff to mingle with us (along with other foreign staff).
- Visited Mt. Myongheong, where we did a small hike and toured the Friendship Hall – a massive complex displaying gifts from other nations to both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. We also had lunch at a completely empty 14-story pyramid structure that emerged from the middle of nowhere, and looked like it could be a ruin found by future civilizations.
- Visited the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the border between North and South Korea, in addition to the city of Kaesong (which contains a currently non-functioning joint industrial complex, along with a few historical sites of importance from various Korean empires dating back hundreds, if not thousands of years).
- Took the train from Pyongyang to Dandong on the Chinese side of the border to exit the country, which was full of Chinese nationals but a rarity for an American.
Was it was weird as the media makes it out to be?
Yes and no. It’s clearly weird – there is no doubt about that. But as weird as the media makes it out to be? Well . . . I think an analogy is appropriate here. Prior Christine’s first trip to Pakistan with my family, she was a little freaked out. I mean if you read the news about Pakistan, it sounded like there are bombs going off on every street corner on a bi-hourly basis, while all white people were immediately thrown in dungeons and denied cheese. Clearly that is not the reality of daily life, but rather a snapshot of the worst events that transpire, replayed over and over. After being in Pakistan for about one week, Christine literally told me she was “bored.” Sorry – not enough bomb action for her liking.
So at any rate, clearly media outlets need to sell their content, and come up with snappy titles to grab attention while focusing specifically on arcane aspects. Not that what they are reporting is not true, but is typically just a fraction of normal life, rather than the whole picture. Days that pass without missile launches for example, and where everyone just goes on a happy picnic with fried chicken, generally do not make the news (though I would love to see a photo of Kim Jong-Eun “inspecting” a bucket of good ol’ Colonel Sanders).
Now having said that – things are most definitely still weird. The cult of personality is all-encompassing. Everyone wears a pin of one or both of the Dear Leaders all the time (which I was explained you get when you join the youth league in your late teens). Murals and paintings of Kim Il-Song and Kim Jong-Il are everywhere – large murals depicting happy scenes, while paintings of the Dear Leaders adorn the entrance of most buildings. There are also ubiquitous propaganda posters and other sorts of slogans in Korean (or at least I assume most are, given that my Korean is limited largely to food words, of which these slogans did not contain many). There are no other real sorts of advertisements – really its just advertising the regime constantly. Indoctrinating motivational songs just start playing around you – be it coming from a vehicle with speakers, an adorably tiny child that has latched onto your thumb, or elsewhere. The cult of personality is so extensive, that you can’t just dispose of the newspaper, as it usually has a photo of Kim Jong Eun on the cover, and must be treated properly. So that’s all a bit different, considering you can buy (and I often do) George W. Bush toilet paper in Amurica.
I began to think of the cult of personality like a religion. Albeit imposed (as religion often is actually) and revolving around a living family, a religion nonetheless. People revere and deify their leaders, and will not accept any criticism of that aspect. Sounds like a lot of religions to me, and if you can just accept that and move on, then it starts to get a bit less weird.
In addition to the cult of personality, references to the war and the evil American empire are common. At the concert we went to, every song essentially involved patriotic symbolism from this event over 60 years old – as if to completely keep society mobilized on a near-constant war footing, or at least the threat thereof. It would be like if we constantly celebrated the greatest feats of our nation from the 1950s over and over – such as the emergence of the poodle skirt.
On top of that, you never really know what people are thinking. The Dear Leaders are thanked for everything they have done for their people and country, and there are frequent bows when in the presence of their statutes. You kind of constantly want to ask “ok yea, but do you really believe all this?” – a question on everyone’s minds, but one we just really won’t evern know the answer to.
Nonetheless, while the cult of personality and these other aspects are entrenched, they didn’t dominate every single thing we did or every conversation we had either. Prior to each meal we didn’t have to thank the Dear Leader, nor was every other word out of someone’s mouth some sort of expression referring to how North Korea was the best country in the world. No one also tried to kill, kidnap, torture, or tickle me once they found out I was American.
And in Pyongyang at least, daily life activities can be somewhat normal on the surface. There are some shops, although the selection is limited. There’s public transportation and people are constantly walking the streets. The city has all the modern conveniences you would expect (electricity, water, etc.), though they aren’t always operational. But it’s a real city that’s clean, with paved roads and a plethora of utilitarian 15-25 story buildings. I mean you can even go kayaking in the Taedong river that bisects the city (my mark of normality anywhere).
Really, as an outsider you can get used to many aspects pretty quickly, reducing the overall “weirdness” of the whole place. Plus all the people we met were genuinely nice, and did not appear to be robots. The fact that I still had to verify their humanity makes it one of the “weirder” countries I’ve ever been to for sure, but your average day might not rank as high on the spectrum as you might think (at least as an outsider – no one still really knows what’s happening on the inside).
Proof of a level of normality came when my cousin almost ate it while slipping off a wet sidewalk curb, and a stern North Korean guard doubled over in his chair laughing so hard he nearly ate it himself – a sign that the classic humor of a person falling flat on their face translates even to North Korea, making the whole place just a little bit more normal.
I think the biggest lesson is that people are people everywhere, and no matter the situation they go about their daily lives in as normal a fashion as possible, adjusting to their local context. Even if that context can seem pretty dern odd to outsiders.
more riveting armchair analysis and tales to come . . . don’t turn off the Internet!