Friday, August 3, 2012

Seven days in the DPRK - Day 4

Note: These posts provide a summary of one tourist’s experience in North Korea in summer 2012. This trip was conducted without external financial support, and nothing herein should be construed as condoning or supporting the actions or policies of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

After temporarily losing my camera bag and wallet last night, it was time to present my letter. I’d spent much of the previous evening stressing about this moment, hoping I could marshal the appropriate words to save my guides from further embarrassment. I showed my message to one of the Koryo Tours folks, got his OK, and thereafter delivered my letter to the senior Korean guide. I handed it to him with both hands.

“Write from the heart,” he said last night. I sure did try.

Thereafter our group drove to Kim Il Sung Square where thousands of children had already arrayed themselves in straight lines to practice for a torchlight march. By now we’d grown used to the sight of children staring at us, but we also were happy to see their smiles and hear their efforts to practice some English with us. We strolled the square, snapping photos and sticking close to our guides.

Kim Il Sung Square
I imagined what it’d be like to walk alone out here on this vast plane of concrete, to wander anywhere away from our hotel without those ever-present guides. “What happens if we leave the island?” I once asked. “Would guards or troops stop us or something?” “No,” one guide said, “but everyone knows that you’re not allowed to walk without an escort. Someone would call the police.” 

Gazing over the Workers' Paradise
Later on we drove to the Mansudae Grand Monument, site of two immense bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il gazing down upon Pyongyang. Guides offered instructions with DMZ-style seriousness. This place demands religious reverence from all who visit. Indeed, it’s an essential stop for local newlyweds. Accordingly we had to wear modest clothes and proper shoes (I had to borrow a pair; mine had succomed to mildew), and we each had to bow deeply in front of the statues. 

Visiting Mansudae Grand Monument
Most Americans, I presume, would have a hard time bowing before North Korean leaders. Yet one can rationalize it as an act of courtesy and cultural sensitivity. What’s more, Koryo Tours, the group that arranged our itinerary, made it clear that any foreigner unwilling to bow should stay away from North Korea. Failure to perform this act would cause more anger and embarrassment than we’d want to contemplate. 

Bowing before the Great Leader and Dear Leader
So we gathered into lines and bowed, and then we took pictures. Guards watched us carefully, their faces growing stern when we got too close to the statues. Alongside the Kims, forming a sort of box canyon, scores of smaller bronze characters were arrayed along two granite flags, conveying the happy, confident warriors of the revolution: soldiers, farmers, children - and for some reason, a woman carrying a television set.

The revolution will be televised
Mansudae Grand Monument
Our next stop was the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) moored along Taedong River. Since I’d served a hitch in the Navy, this was an even weirder destination for me. Most people don’t know the story of the Pueblo Incident, how North Korea captured a U.S. intelligence-gathering ship in 1968, imprisoning more than 80 Americans for nearly a year. But you can’t travel long in the DPRK without seeing images of the ship and crew: proof, we’re told, of North Korean victory over imperialist running dogs everywhere.

U.S.S. Pueblo
We watched the inevitable video, learning that “the U.S. imperialists who kneeled down before the Korean people are now running on down hill!” We were shown bullet holes and led into compartments that bulged with electronics equipment. We saw no pictures of the so-called “Digit Affair,” of course, when American prisoners mocked their captors by surreptitiously flipping the bird for propaganda photos. And there was no talk of torture. 

Pueblo deck gun
Was the U.S. actually spying on North Korea? Yeah, there’s no real debate on that topic. Was our ship captured in Korean waters? The DPRK says yes; the U.S. says no. Either way, I felt a special kinship with those men, especially the enlisted folks. I couldn’t help but feel angry at the sight of the the Pueblo - still an active duty U.S. Navy vessel - transformed into a tourist trap. A few fellow tourists noticed my darkened mood, but I couldn’t complain: I'd known what to expect.

The rest of the day featured a mixture of North Korean hard and soft sell. We had lunch at Pyongyang Pizza, where we sampled a surprisingly good approximation of Italian pizza [Kim Jong Il had apparently sent a delegation to Naples, hoping to master the secrets of perfect crust and seasoning]. 

Metro museum panorama
Then we toured the Underground Revolution Museum, a celebration of the Pyongyang metro that mostly extols the virtues of Kim Il Sung. Once more, irony abounds. Complex and sophisticated work was necessary to build one of the world’s deepest subway lines. Yet our attention was constantly directed to chairs upon which Kim sat, desks he used, and photos of the Eternal President guiding the builders.

Leading the underground revolution
“Make sure the lines are efficient and convenient,” Kim would announce.

I imagined the builders furiously scribbling in their notebooks.
They must have been thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Hearing how the Great Leader was apparently the cause of all good things in North Korea, I’d occasionally drift back to that Simpsons episode when Marge and Groundskeeper Willie challenge Homer’s decision to dedicate his life to the leader of a cult called The Movementarians.

Groundskeeper Willie: Alright, what's so fine and great about your fancy pants leader?!?
Homer: The Leader knows all and sees all!
Groundskeeper Willie: Oh! This Leader, he sounds like a grand fella!
Marge: Willie, I'm not sure we're making any headway here.
Groundskeeper Willie: Would you shut up, woman! He's talking about my Leader!

War Victory Monument
Another view of the War Victory Monument
The rest of our afternoon included a tour of War Victory Monument Park and a visit to the Monument to Party Foundation for a closer look at the Workers’ Party of Korea’s iconic stone hammer, brush, and sickle. Then we dropped by the Golden Lane Bowling Alley for our group’s last itinerary item, a chance to relax with locals. The North Koreans there were not especially interested in playing with us right then, so a few of us gathered around a pool table for matches that pitted Brits versus Americans. The Colonies were bested every time, unfortunately. At least the beer was cheap.

Monument to Party Foundation
This was our final day together. Most of the group had opted for a four-day excursion, while David and I were scheduled to travel independently for three more days. Thereafter we’d have a smaller van and, hopefully, enjoy a bit more flexibility. Of course we’d still be accompanied by two eagle-eyed guides, and we’d still be required to follow the rules. Still I knew we’d be treated well. Throughout the day, news about my letter had traveled quickly throughout the community of North Korean guides. Apparently I’d managed to strike an acceptable balance of gratitude and contrition, which meant warm smiles all around. The senior guide wanted the letter read on Pyongyang television. 

Something tells me I'm going to have some interesting conversations with U.S. government officials one day.
All photographs - except for "Meeting" and "Bowing" - © Andrew Wood


Hannah said...

Andy, thank you for blogging about your time in the DPRK! I find it very fascinating to read. I recently watched a documentary on North Korea from the perspective of an American visitor (the limited footage she could capture) and your words are pretty consistant with what I learned from that film. It's interesting for me to make the connections. Again, great posts and I'm glad you got home safe.


highway163 said...

I'm glad you're digging the blog, Hannah! Stay tuned. Days Five through Seven are coming soon!