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Stepping inside North Korea

Postcards from the place that reality forgot: A rare tour of the world’s most closed society
The Grand People's Study House, Pyongyang's national library, spans 10 blocks and is said to house "millions" of books "where all people can study."
The Grand People's Study House, Pyongyang's national library, spans 10 blocks and is said to house "millions" of books "where all people can study."© Nancy Jean
/ Source: Forbes

My husband Mike and I recently returned from a visit to North Korea, aka the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It was what you might think of as a getaway — we stayed 4 days and 3 nights, the maximum allowed for U.S. citizens. We flew first to Beijing, not knowing if our DPRK visa would issue. (Our attempt last year to visit was aborted when massive flooding and nuke testing combined to cause the DPRK to ban most visitors.) Visas have been issued only rarely to Americans and usually to coincide with the Mass Games (more on the games below). By good fortune, we were among a small group of U.S. tourists permitted to visit the DPRK this year. The first such opportunity for Americans was in 1995, and then only during a two-week window, followed by brief periods in 2002 and 2005, each coinciding with the Mass Games.

We were told to leave computers and cell phones behind in Beijing; neither would be operative in DPRK: no signal and no ability to receive e-mail in any event. As we prepared to board our flight to Pyongyang, I bought a duty-free Hermes scarf. It was an impulse — I have never bought any Hermes product, but I felt compelled to have a frivolous capitalistic moment before entering the Communist “hermit kingdom.”

Despite promises of denuclearization, North Korea remains on the Dept. of State’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, together with Iran, Cuba, Sudan, and Syria. The North Korean bombing of a South Korean airliner 1987 is the last of the cited acts. The new list no longer cites the North's abduction or detention of 485 civilians since the 1950-53 Korean War. Being on the list subjects North Korea to a web of economic and financial sanctions.

Our Koryo Air seats were covered in starched, linen mats. The airsickness bag said “For Your Refuses.” The in-flight magazines in English included one devoted entirely to a 2002 visit to Russia by DPRK Leader Kim Jong Il. It reported that jubilant workers in the DPRK increased production by 17 percent and danced in the street the day he returned. (It was not apparent how they could increase production with all that dancing.)

Lunch on the plane consisted of two small pickles, two tiny tomatoes, one miniature ear of corn, two types of thinly sliced, fatty sausage, one hard roll, a sliced hard-boiled egg filled with oily/fishy orange “caviar,” three tiny cold meatballs, and a hot entree, served TV dinner style in an aluminum container, consisting of rice, boiled potato, and a tiny piece of chicken. I selected a soft drink the color of lemons; Mike made the mistake of selecting a can of something that was emerald green. We weren’t even in first-class; the service was for business class.

No one stands out
All Koreans (referring hereafter to North Koreans) were dressed in plain dark clothing — suits for both men and women. Sensible pumps or low-heeled shoes on the women. No short skirts or short sleeves. All adults wear a little red pin over their heart, bearing a picture of the late President Kim Il Sung, father to the present-day Leader. In three days we did not see a civilian adult anywhere without the pin.

Thinking the pin was like the souvenir Che Guevera pin I purchased in Cuba, I asked our minder where I could get one. She paused for a moment, looked down while she contemplated the extent of my ignorance, and then explained that the pins are not purchased, they are presented to those who show loyalty to Korea, an achievement apparently earned by all sentient Korean grownups. She furrowed her brow and said she did not think I could make the requisite showing in three days.

We never saw a Korean pedestrian wearing jeans and T-shirts, and saw almost no color. Schoolchildren all wear uniforms as do traffic control cops (a curious job given there's basically no traffic), and people working at the souvenir shops, restaurants, and monuments we visited. It was Orwellian. The only color we noticed was on toddlers, uniformed waitresses and local guides wearing traditional, long Korean silk gowns in pink, red, or lime green. The women wore no make-up, and the hairdos are straight and simple. (The exception is Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, whose pictures suggest he teases and sprays his bouffant 'do).

Koreans do not have many cars and by the looks of things not many bicycles, either. The wide boulevards and the roads out of Pyongyang are empty. Koreans get around the city on foot, a few on bicycles, and crowd onto old electric street cars. We saw orderly lines of Koreans three blocks long (really) patiently and quietly waiting to board. Despite the absence of cars, many intersections have a smartly dressed traffic cop who stands ramrod straight, looks left and right, then makes a quarter turn and repeats the move over and over as she rotates in the intersection. She’ll be ready if a car ever comes.

The two subway stops we saw were clean, cavernous, and elegantly illuminated from above by massive chandeliers. The walls were covered with huge propaganda posters of fertile farms (Western reports say that “fertile” is a grievous overstatement) and both the Dear Leader and his father in heroic poses surrounded by happy civilians and/or the brave army. The subway doubles as a bomb shelter. The 200-meter (!) escalator ride from the street to the subway cars is so long and steep that many sit down. No graffiti down here.

At night a dark hush falls over Pyongyang. To conserve energy, the street lights are not lit and, to conserve fuel, the few cars are forbidden to drive at night and all day Sunday. Our car was stopped more than once at night by a uniformed guard who needed to see our permit. So: utter darkness and total silence. Spooky.

Our minders made sure we had minimal interaction with Koreans. What little we had (e.g. at the subway stop), was less than warm. Some eye contact but no smiles were returned. I continued to flash my warmest all-Americans-are-not-evil-imperialists smile but to no avail. Unlike our experience in China or South Korea, not one North Korea ever approached us to say hello or to practice their English. No one was playful, animated, or even smiling.

We were not allowed to photograph people in the streets or on farm communes, even from the car. The only explanation? "They don't like it." If we wanted to take any pictures at all, we had to ask the minder. We could snap the monuments, propaganda billboards (no commercial advertising anywhere), and the Mass Games. But not people going about their daily life. Later on, when we visited the Demilitarized Zone, and I inquired about taking shots of border guards, the policy was put in simple terms: “The border guards have guns."

The mass games
On our first night, we were driven to the huge May Day Stadium to see "Arirang," a mass gymnastics and artistic performance by 100,000 gymnasts and dancers. The 90- minute extravaganza started with waving banners and countless marchers depicting the military and occupation by the Japanese sixty years ago. It then switched to themes of bunnies and rainbows representing the plentiful harvest, and the hoped-for reunification of the Korean peninsula, presumably under benevolent North Korean rule. A card section of 20,000 students provided a backdrop depicting animals, landscapes, waterfalls, slogans, and even a portrait of Kim Il Sung. The field was crowded with costumed dancers, gymnasts and aerialists moving in unison. Between segments the stadium went dark for a minute, and about 80,000 people somehow got off the field in total darkness, then replaced with just as many in under a minute. How I don’t know. Imagine the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games, then multiply by a hundred. A brochure in our hotel said, “The optimistic outlook of the Korean people is depicted well in the work. It is a performance that grasps the hearts of the audience for its philosophical profundity and truthfulness and its strong national character."

A little background
KIM IL SUNG ("KIS"): "The Eternal President." The Great Leader. He lived from 1912 and died in 1994 at the age of 82. Seventy-five years ago, in his late 20's, KIS's legend began when he fought with the Korean revolutionaries to defeat the Japanese who occupied the peninsula. KIS is credited with defeating the U.S., “a ferocious imperialist,” during the Korean War. As such, Koreans are taught that KIS "ushered in the dawn of a great, prosperous, and powerful nation."

KIM JONG IL ("KJI"): The Dear Leader. The son of KIS is General Secretary of the Workers' Party and Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army. Since KIS is the eternal President, KJI is referred to as General, the Commander, or simply the Leader.

Respect for the President and his fluffy-haired son is visible everywhere. There are photos of both leaders in all the buildings we visited. Reportedly, a special cloth is used to dust the framed photos. Billboards around the country carry painted or ceramic images of father or son (most often KIS) in heroic poses. Military might and bountiful harvests are recurring themes.

Kim Jong Il is said to be "exactly" like his late father. His leadership is needed, because, according to the Dear Leader’s speech quoted in the daily paper (always folded so as not crease his photo), "the danger of war still hovers over the country due to the continued attempts of the U.S. imperialists to stifle the DPRK. If they dare infringe upon DPRK's sovereignty and right to existence the Korean People's Army will destroy them at one stroke and achieve the historic cause of national unification, the greatest desire of the nation."

The newspaper also reported on the 1948 meeting of representatives from the North and South at a time when "the U.S. was instigating the South Korean reactionaries to hold separate elections for setting up a puppet regime in a bid to perpetuate Korea's division and make the south its colony." At the time, KIS hosted a meeting in Pyongyang in favor of "his just and correct policies of reunification." Since then KIS worked to reunify while the US "is bringing the dark clouds of confrontation and war." Yet another article blasts the other DPRK enemy — Japan — for their use of Korean "comfort women" during World War I. It is as if time stopped in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Of all the grievances we read about in translation, few were about events more recent than 1953, the end of the Korean War. In DPRK, that is referred to as the "Fatherland Liberation War" in which “the U.S. invaders" were defeated by forces led by KIS. The DPRK, and KIS in particular, thus "built a solid foundation for national prosperity" and "world-startling changes."

After visiting the giant statue of KIS, where we were strongly urged to buy a $4 sprig of flowers to lay at his feet, the next stopover was KIS’s birthplace. It is set on a hill in a park with “a thousand views.” It is a small thatched hut “left as it was when he lived there.” Elsewhere, every restaurant we visited, without exception, showed televised tributes to father or son. A few translated excerpts:

“The current yearning [for the leader] will flow forever down through the generations ... KIS is the first and eternal President ... Anti-Japanese veterans are loved by KJI ... Another great father [KJI] exactly like KIS is guarding the future ...Our country is solid as a bell ... We will continue to fight against the Imperialists and carry on KIS’s effort to make the army invincible. The greatest all-around happiness is to see KJI close at hand.” It is said that young and old weep when in the presence of the Dear Leader.

Each day, our breakfast consisted of toasted crustless white bread, a cold little omelet, and instant coffee with powdered milk. Lunch was usually soup of broth and vegetables, rice, and seven or eight bowls of boiled cabbage, dried fish, bean sprouts, bean paste, tofu, and some items that defied standard culinary nomenclature. Dinner one night was a Korean version of sukiyaki heated over a Sterno can. Another night we went to a duck barbecue restaurant where we grilled thinly sliced pieces of roasted duck and duck fat. The guide asked me if Korean duck is as good as Chinese Peking duck. With my quest for a red pin in mind, I choked down a piece of grilled fat and said, "It’s better." Ever the optimist, I asked the waitress if white wine was available. She said “white?” and I said yes. She left and returned a bit later with a glass of hot milk. She got the white part right.

The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)
We passed four checkpoints on the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the border with South Korea, and at each, a uniformed soldier stopped us and demanded to see our papers. The guides complied, showing them our yellow permit. Yellow is apparently reserved for sensitive visits such as ours. When we arrived at the final checkpoint, we were, for some reason, told to get out of our car and walk through the guarded gate. Our car met us on the other side at which point a soldier climbed into our car “to protect us from the U.S.” as we drove the final stretch to the border. He used the short drive to fire questions at me such as “What do you think of Bush and the war? Do you realize that the U.S. aggression started the Fatherland Liberation War? ... We did not so much as throw a stone at them ... Why doesn’t the U.S. leave Korea and allow us to reunify?”

We drove to the building where the armistice was signed in 1953. Since peace was never formally declared, both sides stand guard at the border and watch each other day and night. The South Korean guards face North, obviously, but so do the North Koreans — presumably to watch over their own people, and any stray impulses to flee southward.

In the course of our trip to the DMZ, we spoke (in hushed tones) to an Australian World Food Agency representative posted in North Korea. He said that more than one million North Koreans have died of famine in recent years. Chinese and Russian subsidies ended in the 1990s and the DPRK ran out of food and fuel. Because eighty percent of North Korea is mountainous, every square inch of arable land is cultivated. And because the DPRK does not let the fields lay fallow for even one season, the land is exhausted from overuse and lack of proper fertilizer. The Australian official told us that despite its desperate need for help feeding its people, the DPRK expelled many of the food aid workers so as not to let the world think it needed them. The food shortage is apparently compounded by the lack of machinery and fuel to assist with planting and harvesting. We saw perhaps three tractors in ten hours of driving out in the country, and the occasional skinny ox pulling a wooden plow. Most farming is done by hand. City residents and soldiers are brought to the fields to help out. We saw hundreds of such "volunteers" in one area. Also a few small herds of goats and ducks, but otherwise, no farm animals.

The U.S.S Pueblo
The U.S.S. Pueblo, the American “spy ship” captured by the North Koreans in 1968 when it allegedly strayed into DPRK waters (the U.S. insists it was in international waters) lies at anchor on the bank of the river that flows through Pyongyang. The captain and 82 crew members were captured. President Lyndon Johnson at first said the Pueblo was on a research mission but intelligence found in the ship by the North Koreans, later shared with the Soviets, showed it was on a military intelligence mission. The crew was tortured by the Koreans and signed confessions of spying. After eleven months of wrangling, the crew was allowed to return to the United States but the Pueblo was kept as a “trophy.” Upon boarding, we were shown a video of the story to make sure we understood the “lies” President Johnson told and the “espionage” practiced by the U.S. We listened quietly and without comment.

They come without glue. The hotel postal desk kindly glued my stamps to my postcards. I was told they will also read all the postcards before sending them on. I wrote messages accordingly.

Popular culture
The DPRK film festival shows films from China and Russia as well as some local fare. Our minder told me she has seen American movies at the university: “Gone With The Wind,” “The Sound of Music,” and “Love Story.” She asked if Clark Gable is still alive.

I was never given that red pin.