Recently a pop culture magazine called Punch! produced a goofy video that mocks the DPRK’s efforts to lure American tourists.
Indeed plenty of folks have wondered just what the hell I was thinking when I shared my plans to see North Korea for myself. One pal asked, “Aren’t we technically still at war with those guys?” Well, yes and no. Starting in 1950, the United States led a United Nations “police action” against the North and nearly pushed its army to the Chinese border before PRC forces swept south and forced a stalemate. Even so, the U.S. never technically declared “war” on North Korea, and we never signed an armistice to end hostilities [an armistice was signed, yes, but not on behalf of the United States]. There is no peace treaty, no formal American recognition of the DPRK. So, yeah, there’s still some tension there, which partially explains why only about 2,500 U.S. tourists visited North Korea from 1953 to 2010 [that number might have crossed 3,000 by now].
|Was I really here? Sometimes it's hard to know for sure...|
The DPRK, after all, zealously guards against the threat of social contagion. Journalists and missionaries are especially worrisome to that government. Heck, Western tourists couldn’t enter North Korea until 1987. However recent years have seen some relaxation in restrictions. And necessarily so.
|Pyongyang underground (and under the gaze of Great and Dear Leaders)|
Despite this tiny crack, North Korea works to insulate outsiders from the harsh realities its people must endure. Travel to North Korea and you’ll see this, especially when you meet your guides: people who escort outsiders beyond the perimeters of that nation’s foreigners-only hotels. Guides are unfailingly friendly and earnest; they are also expected to be ideologically unimpeachable and always alert for any signs that a foreigner might be causing trouble.
|Windows on Pyongyang|
Guides draw attention away from awkward interruptions, such as when the power goes off unexpectedly or when the locals appear to be picking grass for food, and they shoot down rumors about the luxuries enjoyed by high officials. They also keep visitors out of trouble. Guides say when it’s OK to snap pictures and when cameras must be put away, and they guard against any displays of disrespect for DPRK leaders. Oh, and they never let tourists wander out of sight.
They also make sure that you never have much time to think. At least that’s what we experienced. Coordinating with Koryo Tours representatives traveling with us, our guides were determined to fill every minute of our tour with activity. That meant an early departure from Nampho this morning and an hour-long drive to the West Sea Barrage, a North Korean showcase of dams, locks, and water channels that demonstrate its people’s ability to complete projects on a grand scale.
|West Sea Barrage|
Mostly we were taught to see the dam as proof of the infallibility of North Korean leadership. Throughout our tour we’d see paintings and other illustrations of waves that crash and roil with wild rage, their furious energies stayed by the steady hands of the Kim Trinity. The dam was a manifestation of that power. We learned nothing, though, about the environmental impact of the dam’s construction, or whether its design inadvertently contributed to the North Korean famine. Neither did anyone dare raise such questions during our visit.
That’s pretty much how the tour ran in those first few days: showcase after showcase after showcase of North Korean ingenuity and steadfast resistance to foreign aggression, signs and wonders that are always attributed to the wise and benevolent leadership of the Eternal President Kim Il Sung [The elder Kim remains the DPRK President, despite his death in 1994]. Our tour was, in many ways, a vast assemblage of staged exhibits dedicated to two men.
|All Eyes to the Great Leader!|
We didn’t hear much about Kim Jong Un, though. The DPRK’s new leader assumed power last year after Kim Jong Il’s death. Sure, locals buzzed about Kim Jong Un’s recent appearance at the newly opened Rungna People's Pleasure Ground; our guides nearly gasped when we showed them a picture in the English-language Pyongyang Times that featured the new leader enjoying an amusement park ride (with a Westerner, no less!) but North Koreans know relatively little about Kim Jong Un. They only know that they love him.
|Kim Jong Un is on middle-right [Image from EPA/KCNA]|
|Mural at the Children's Palace|
Diligent Korea-watchers first spotted the new Double-Kim Pin earlier this year, worn by television news announcers. These new pins are rolling out slowly. Some folks say that only the leaders’ most fervent followers can wear them. I imagine some sort of ranking system that divides Single-Kims from Double-Kims, but our guides squashed that rumor, explaining that delays in production, not distinctions in merit, explain the rarity of these items. When asked where we might purchase either kind of pin as a souvenir, our guide could only blink and pause before composing the correct answer. Kim Pins may not be sold to foreigners.
|Water Factory bears|
Then we returned to the bus and those rutted roads, heading for Pyongyang at last. My stomach felt like it was sloshing with Soju, but I was excited to visit a place I’d always envisioned as a retro-Stalinist dystopia of cinderblock tombstones and patriotic posters. Mostly I wanted to see the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, the so-called “Hotel of Doom” shaped like George Orwell’s Ministry of Love, a monstrosity that Esquire dubbed “the worst building in the history of Mankind.”
“Let's become a youth hero in the worthwhile struggle to glorify the Kim Jong Il era!”
“Go forward for the final victory under the guidance of the great party!”
“Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung will always be with us!”
|Juche Tower figures|
|Monument to Party Foundation|
|Mass Games vision of world peace|
Here's a brief video I produced from the show...
The show conveys many elements of the North Korean vision for itself, describing its suffering at the hands of foreigners, its redemption through the strivings of the Great Leader, its depth of despair at being cleaved from its southern brothers and sisters, and its promise of better days through shared adherence to Juche and Songun (“Army First”) policies. One sees no sign of Marx or Lenin here; the virtues of Communism has been largely rooted out of DPRK propaganda. The Mass Games convey a strictly North Korean promise of paradise.
|Mosaic of Great Leader and Dear Leader|
|Mass games finale|
|Yanggakdo Hotel lobby|