I was in North Korea (also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) from April 23-28. While I was there I had no Internet connectivity so this is being published a couple days after my return to Seoul. It was quite an interesting experience; here’s my account of the trip and some miscellaneous thoughts. This is the first of three parts I’ll post to make each section manageable.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
From my hotel in Beijing, I took a motorcycle-powered rickshaw to Dongzhimen station at which point I boarded the airport express. I was pleasantly surprised at how affordable and enjoyable the ride there was. By 10:30am I met the URI tour group at the rendezvous point – LEI Café, Gate 6 Terminal 2 – inside the Beijing International Airport, at which point I received my DPRK visa. It is a standalone document that we were required to collect prior to departure and must return before leaving. Once we had all connected, the five of us proceeded to check in for our 1:05pm departure. From the gate we boarded a bus that took us to a hangar where our plane was located. Air Koryo flight JS152 was about 80 passengers (mostly North Korean) aboard a very small Antonov model plane. Only a small number of us were foreigners. It isn’t common, but North Koreans take Air Koryo flights to China and Russia to work and collect badly needed foreign currency after getting approval from the government – approval which is in short supply these days. About an hour and twenty minutes after taking off we arrived in Pyongyang. Suffice it to say that this airport – the major airport of North Korea – is about half the size and half as nice as the Fort Wayne “International” Airport. Once off the plane, we first went through immigration, where a long line of stoic uniformed military eyed us cautiously us all the way to baggage claim. Because I had been backpacking for several days, I only needed to collect one bag which I had to horse over to customs. Customs in Pyongyang was a unique experience. For starters, bringing any data on either North or South Korea is strictly prohibited. In this way, I came to find out rather quickly exactly how this rule is enforced. The agent asked me to unlock both of my cellphones and laptop as he proceeded to get pretty friendly with my arms outstretched. When he was done I was directed to a room off to the side away from customs. Once there I found my laptop open and three people pouring through my files. I watched as they scrolled through my texts, pictures, and miscellaneous files on my MacBook and cellphones. Fortunately, I had the foresight to wipe my desktop clean of everything I had been writing about ballistic missile testing, nuclear weapons and the responses the DPRKs actions have elicited. My Achilles heel was that I sent everything to my e-mail, which was connected to my phones. I sent probably twenty different e-mails containing saved articles, photographs, excel files and writing all containing the subject “Wipe Desktop Files,” They asked me about opening the unread messages, but very gladly I explained to them I couldn’t because my global carrier didn’t service Pyongyang. Reluctantly, they let it slide. One proverbial bullet and meeting with Otto Werninberger dodged.
After the Airport
As customs took a while, we left the airport with the two North Korean guides and driver for Pyongyang city center about mid afternoon. The guides gave us some important nuggets of information before we left though, namely about photographs. If there is one rule to remember, let it be known that taking direct photographs of any military personnel is a serious faux pas in North Korea.
I say direct photographs, because it is essentially impossible to take any pictures at almost all places without capturing the likeness of at least some military types. If you make the poor choice of challenging them on this, steep fines of $2,000 USD per photo are inflicted. My chief assumption is that this is a ploy to attract the foreign currency that the DPRK so badly needs. They wisely assume that foreigners have a desire to touch what they can’t grab – or want to taste the forbidden fruit, per se – by simply predicting foreigner nature the government can keep fifteen locals from traveling abroad to earn foreign currency for a month by fining one American for a blurry photo of a Private.
If there were ever a perfect example of two things diametrically opposed to each other, North and South Korea would be it.
The ride to Pyongyang takes about thirty minutes from the airport. If you can picture an inverted bell curve in your head then that is essentially how the quality of life fluctuates from the airport to the city. Along the way there were no power lines. Most of the landscape is rusted earth with few trees. It is questionable whether or not the land is arable. There were very few vehicles in the middle of the day, which was a strange feeling having been in Seoul, Beijing, Luoyang and Hong Kong all in the past few weeks. In this way, the driver had some latitude to navigate the humongous potholes obstructing our path. The major roads here are not maintained very well – if at all. That is being extremely generous to phrase it so. Most people outside of the city center rely on bicycles as their primary mode of transportation. When entering Pyongyang you travel underneath an enormous concrete Arch, aptly called the Arch of Triumph.
Equivalent in size (if not bigger than) the famous Arc de Triomphe in France, the craftsmanship and magnitude of the structure is no doubt awe-inspiring. Like most of the commemorative statues and structures we visited throughout the course of the trip, our tour guides let us get out and take pictures while giving us a quick description of what exactly we were seeing. Before going to the hotel, we also visited Mansudae Hill, the large bronze memorial statues of Kim-il Sung and Kim Jong-il. At the request of our local tour guides, each one of the five of us purchased a bouquet of roses as an offering to be placed at the feet of the large inanimate objects.
In Pyongyang, flower vendors are about the only sign of perfect competition because they are definitely a-plenty. For about 40 RMB I earned the pleasure of paying homage to dictators famous for preying upon the minds of children to spread their strong distaste for Americans! On each side of the sculptures were large walls dedicated to the working class, those responsible for the construction of them, and the Socialist Revolution. An older gentleman named Arthur (or Art) in our group said that having done business in Moscow all throughout the Cold War, Moscow has nearly identical structures portraying Lenin as well as the walls on each side of him. I didn’t notice at the time, but the ride from the structure to our hotel took an extremely long time even though it was visible from my hotel window when I got up to my room.
I figured out why later but not for a few days. I spent the night drinking beer at the brewery with our tour guides in the lobby of the hotel. Although the DPRK is about as isolated from the outside world as it can possibly be, the guides seemed to at least have quite the handle on current events. With each round it got more and more difficult to avoid hot button issues that I seriously wanted to ask the locals about. All I had to do was “not say to much” and seem disoriented. Eventually we slipped into the realm of politics so I had to get their take on the sanctions, THAAD, etc. since I hadn’t gotten a newspaper yet, but quickly found out that the only two stations in my room were RT and Korean Central News Agency. Making damn sure to respect any political differences, I quickly realized just how beloved the monarchial dictatorship is. The respect and reverence for Kim Jong-un is just as powerful yet strange as his aggression. From what I gathered from the guides, what the DPRK really wants is to sign a peace treaty and to do so from a position of strength. I went to bed praying I wouldn’t wake up shackled to a desk with a prepared confession and reporters fake-scribbling notes all around me.
First Full Day
I skipped breakfast the next day because I was too busy enjoying a bed for the first time in three days after spending 18 combined hours in a standing-room only train car with the rest of the cattle in the middle of China. Although the bed was rock solid, so too was my resolve after awakening with a renewed purpose.
I set out my suit jacket the night before to air out the wrinkles from being wadded up in my go-bag. The itinerary for the day included a visit to the Kumsusan (Koom-soo-sahn) Palace of the Sun, which called for us to dress in our Sunday best. The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun is a Mausoleum for Kim-il Sung and Kim Jong-il. It opens at 9:00 so we waited for about fifteen minutes before heading inside. The security in and around the building itself is more robust than anywhere else I have ever been, including the Pyongyang airport. In rows of four we silently walked in sync with military escorts – thumbs at the seams of our trousers – down a long concrete path surrounded by elegant landscaping for about a half mile. Once inside, we had to turn out our pockets without being given any tokens or tickets to collect our prizes later. On the way there we were flagged down and frisked at either four or five checkpoints with hopes they’d find our arsenal of concealed sharpened toothbrushes and shoe-bombs. Everyone was totally silent, even though we were sandwiched by (estimated) hundreds of military personnel and citizens wearing bright Korean traditional dresses. The reverence for the leaders really stood out to me. We walked in similar rows of four through a maze of tunnels and stairways all the way to the entrance. All of the hallways are decorated with hundreds upon hundreds of gold-framed photographs of grandfather, father and son in a variety of venues. Once inside the mausoleum, stone cold soldiers opened 25-foot wooden doors to a great hall.
Inside the Mausoleum
Through the doors a row of marble pillars massive crystal chandeliers line an otherwise empty hallway. About 100 feet from the doors are two massive plaster statues of both Kim-il Sung and Kim Jong-il striking their famous poses. It would have been laughable if they had not been so gigantic and lifelike. We silently approached them and were sternly asked to make a long, deep bow far past our waistline. They may have been charismatic leaders and loved by their people, but I rue the day that I get on my hands and knees to kiss the ground at the feet of these deplorable men. Fearing any blowback, I made a passable effort. We exited the room into a foyer of marble, crystal and gold. For a country that has suffered from a lack of material wealth and development for so long, they really pulled out all the stops on this one. No expense was spared in the making of gods. The ceilings are lined with ornate crown molding and everything just has a very regal feel to it. I do have to say though, to approach the bodies was really something.
The ambience really turned it around for me. In the exact center of a 2,000 square foot room lies the embalmed body of Kim-il Sung. Dimly lit with red lights, the room had four statuesque armed soldiers – one in each corner – gazing longingly at their beloved departed. The rose colored lights were really quite fitting for someone who was a thorn in the side of so many for so long. When the rotation of four finally reached my crew we walked up to the left side of the body and bowed. Then, we marched column right to the head of the body and bowed. Once more we marched column right and bowed yet again- this time on the right side of the body. It all happened pretty quickly, but I’d guess it took about a minute. A sign reading “no monkey-business” might as well be hung from his feet; this is one place in North Korea where bottlenecks are strictly prohibited. In the next room over is a large showcase of all of the accomplishments bestowed upon Kim-il Sung. Military accolades as well as honorary doctorates the world over fill the room to the brim. Our guides couldn’t really tell us what exactly all of it was (we had to read each piece for ourselves) but they sure did know how much of it was in there. Most of the relics come from Russia, Peru, and Ecuador. The United States however, is notably missing. On the way to the Kim Jong-il shrine we stopped and saw some other things that were really very neat. In one room with about 50-foot high ceilings was a large electronic world map (minus the Americas) showing all of the Supreme Leaders’ travels via train and air, accompanied by the train car that he traveled in. Another room had his everyday vehicle and another had a car given to him by Stalin. The spaces dedicated to Kim Jong-il followed the exact same pattern. I noticed the similarity when we entered the room with his body. Something profound happened to me during the second bow though; I noticed that the morning coffee had really run right through me. Reluctantly I hesitated and decided it was best to wait until we left the building to ask where the nearest washroom was located. Like Kim-il Sung, Kim Jong-il had a large collection of accolades and vehicles. Unlike his father though, he actually died while aboard the train car. It was really interesting to see the inside of his cabin because everything was extremely dated except for the 15 inch MacBook Pro on the desk. The guides – who are chalk-full of facts and figures – gave us the inside scoop on the environment surrounding his death. Legend has it he collapsed and died immediately after signing a document that provided a million farmers with food for the year (that they themselves produce on the cooperative), thus preventing widespread starvation and death. He was named a national hero and given a star to commemorate his final act – all for the good of the people. A national hero indeed.
We got outside and took some pictures after backtracking to get our belongings from the first security desk. As stated earlier the DPRK photo policy is restricts taking photos of any military personnel. At a place like this though it was really difficult to get any decent shots of the whole building without getting some soldiers in the frame. No matter; before I left I would bury any questionable photos deep in the bowels of my laptop.
Back in Pyongyang
Later on Sunday morning we headed back to the city of Pyongyang. The next stop was the Workers Party Founding Monument. It is really a very unique sculpture not solely because of its scale, but because it is in perfect symmetry. From the statue, you can see the massive bronze statues of Kim-il Sung and Kim Jong-il at Mansudae Hill about two kilometers away. Behind the statues, the soon to be world-famous pyramid shaped Ryugyong hotel sits perfectly between the two leaders. The memorial itself is made entirely of concrete and is roughly 25-30 meters tall. Hammer, scythe and brush represent the workers, peasants and intelligentsia (respectively). A beautiful North Korean woman in a traditional dress gave us the rundown on the history and meaning that our guides translated and relayed back to us in English.
North Koreans seem to pride themselves with the speed at which they can accomplish tasks, so we got used to hearing that every one of the statues or memorials we visited was usually completed in exactly one year to the day. There is a really nice park that surrounds the memorial with a stream, lots of trees, and magnolias – the national flower. Children were roller skating and laughing while older folks took it upon themselves to let us know that they were mad-dogging us.
The Rest of the Day
We made our way to the restaurant for a much-needed lunch which was really quite good. Kimchi, dumplings, chicken, rice, radishes were just a few of the dishes they kept bringing out. Beer with every meal is pretty common, but this time they brought us bottles of soju to keep us disoriented and to start a pretty good afternoon buzz early on. I was really trying hard to make it my duty to keep a clear mind so I could keep my wits about me while I was there – seemed like the prudent thing to do – but they were really making it difficult. Anyways, after lunch we went to the birthplace of the man, the myth, the legend– Kim il-Sung. Unlike many of the other places dedicated to his eternal memory, we were the only people there or near there. It is pretty far removed from the city of Pyongyang from what I gathered, since I didn’t have any real concept of where we were. My guess is that because many people rely of public transportation it is difficult to mecca there. The house is in a remote location in a forest of sorts. His family consisted of ten siblings who were all peasants.
There wasn’t really too much to see here so I didn’t really gather too much. Later on we started to joke about it, but it got to be pretty old pretty quickly the way they showcased every place and everything the “Great Leaders” ever touched. The birthplace in particular was a little much for my taste in the sense that they deify Kim-il Sung and his offspring. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t exactly the product of virgin birth on the storied Mt. Paektu, although it seems he went to great lengths to stage the birth of his son Kim Jong-il there. Keeps up appearances, y’know?
The next stop was the Pyongyang Metro. It is considered the deepest in the world, checking in between 100-150 meters deep. The fare is the equivalent of about a penny in USD. Once you pass your ticket to the armed security guard, you can hop on the escalator and try in vain to make out the faces of the people at the very bottom of the escalator. It takes a hot minute to get to the bottom and was noticeably different from the Seoul Metro in a number of ways. First off, the platform is more like a great hall than a waiting area. Large chandeliers hang down, reflecting light and sending a wave of colors all over the floor. The walls have these incredible painted stone carvings dedicated to the Workers Party. They’re quite attractive to the untrained eye. In the center of the platform locals gather around revolving newspaper cases.
When the bright green metro car finally approached we got on board and I noticed a couple things. The pictures of Kim-il Sung and Kim Jong-il we at both ends of the car in the same way they are pretty much everywhere else. I could reset assured knowing that both Big Brother and Jesus were with me on my journey to the center of the earth. The next thing was that the cars were not air-conditioned and had open windows making conversation futile. Lastly, the cabin was all wood. I’m not a designer or an engineer, but I’d guess the utility of that material is dated about 40 years. Overall the subway seemed kind of like a prop but felt semi-legitimate at the same time. There are rumors circulating that the Metro is fake and doesn’t serve any real purpose other than for appearances, and furthermore, the state floods it with trained actors in order to promote a sense of urgency and bustle. North Korea is a great many things, but I am not so sure that they are pulling any strings on this one. If so, it is quite an elaborate hoax. I was pretty convinced it is in fact the real deal.
Our guides had some pretty spectacular things lined up for us throughout the rest of the day. We left the Pyongyang Metro station en route to the Juche Tower. In a nutshell, Juche is a broad system that encompasses both religion and political ideology with which the North Korean people identify; this structure in particular is dedicated to it. The Tower is the tallest granite structure in the world, checking in at 170 meters or 560 feet. We got there in the middle of the day and it was cloud free. When we took the elevator the top of the structure we had a truly epic view of Pyongyang and the Taedong River separating the two main sections of the city, much in the same way the Han River does in Seoul or the Chicago River does in Chicago.
So far I’ve been writing this article with a little bit of negativity, but I do have to say that everything over the course of the trip was extremely informative and really quite remarkable, even if it did not parallel my own beliefs and worldview. The Fatherland Liberation War Memorial Museum is perhaps one of the most impressive features of Pyongyang. It is home to hundreds of thousands of relics from the Korean War. When arriving at the museum, the first and most obvious thing to me was the captured American weapons being showcased out front.
I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Damn, they have got a lot of our stuff.” Once our driver parked the van we got out and met a very stern yet extremely well spoken North Korean woman officer. I was surprised at how good her diction was. She maintained a pretty stone-cold façade, but we managed to get her to crack a smile before we left later on. Back to the American weapons – she directed us through a trench that was apparently used by French troops during the war that led to the showcase. All kinds of planes, helicopters and tanks had been put on display. A few were still largely in tact but many of them were mangled and had jagged pieces of metal jutting out of them. What I didn’t find particularly appealing was that most of them had full color photos of the deceased servicemen displayed above the vehicles at the time they were captured. It seemed in poor taste to my Western sensibilities, but hey, war and death clearly take on a wholly different meaning in Socialist countries. Once we were out of the repaired trenches we walked down a flowery path to the crown jewel of the museum, the US spy ship USS Pueblo captured in 1968. It’s a relatively small vessel, but at the time it was captured the crew numbered 83. We were told that it had been patrolling the waters on the Southwest coast of Japan and crossed North Korean waters on seventeen separate occasions before it was captured. Naturally, it was open to tourists. Before I left for North Korea I had read a couple different accounts of the ships capture. After seeing the inside of it though there is not a shred of doubt in my mind that this was in fact a US spy ship. The controls seemed extremely advanced for the time and were far greater in quantity than one would expect a research vessel to be equipped with. The number of people captured was another discrepancy I noticed. A couple of different accounts claimed the number was only in the teens. Eighty-three seemed like a far cry from 12-18. Regardless, when the ship was taken one crewman was fatally injured. You could see the bullet holes in the hallway next to the chambers for Chief Petty Officers (we were told), which is were he was killed. Eventually the captive soldiers returned to America and they sent the remains of the deceased as well. Well, they made sure to pop open the young mans’ coffin a snap a quick pic to post next to the bullet holes where he was killed on the ship. It was well over a year before they returned home; you can imagine what the corpse looked like. The USS Pueblo is one of, if not the only US naval vessel that has been captured and is still in commission. Interesting thing to see for sure.
Outside the entrance to the main building of the museum there are just two armed guards standing outside massive wooden doors with big bronze hinges. We made quite an entrance as we flung the doors open and were greeted by yet another massive plaster statue of Kim-il Sung (this one of him as a young man) that segregated two massive two-story marble staircases and an elegant water fountain. It was late in the day, but we were the only tour group except for a small group of Chinese tourists we could hear down the halls. It was a weird feeling to be in a building that large and be some of the only people there. Let me preface that by saying that we only saw about a tenth of the museum and spent a couple hours inside. Interestingly enough I found some common ground between the North and the South; there is an enormous section of the museum devoted solely to an (and titled) Anti-Japanese Exhibit. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to make it to that section although I’d like to have. I think they were more focused on chronicling the respite following the Japanese Occupation (1905-1945) and the ensuing Korean War. I was unaware of this until just before going to North Korea, but apparently the United States began militarily occupying Korea starting in 1945 after the Japanese were defeated in WWII. What I gathered from the museum was that the DPRK didn’t particularly enjoy the Japanese military subjugating their women, but the real hostility is specially reserved for America. After watching some old film of Eisenhower, John Hodges, Harry Truman and others you couldn’t help but feel some kind of pathos. Sixty-year old correspondence between US officers and defense officials in original typeface were hung up as trophies on the wall. Most of them (I don’t discredit their validity) pretty much catch the US with its hand in the proverbial cookie jar. Phrases like “strategic importance that lies in the Northern part of the Korean Peninsula” and sentences like “Sunday is the best day to send the first wave, we are a Christian state and it will be unexpected” accomplish this pretty much on their own. Throughout the exhibit our guide routinely referred to the US as the “American Imperialists” each time she referenced the United States. I didn’t know that I was an imperialist before but I feel enlightened to know that now! I think she was trying to plant a bug in our heads or something, like one of those code words they use in the Manchurian Candidate or something. Who knows. One section displayed a large collection of bugs in jars which really seemed quite strange. They said that the US would drop these huge bugs from bombers onto villages, which I found to be laughable, but horrifying if true because these things were the size of a Yorkshire Terrier. More than once our guide said that the American Imperialists violated international law by engaging in war and using chemical and biological weapons in the process. Now my history may be a little fuzzy, but something tells me that the US did not in fact violate international law by engaging with the North after the UN passed a resolution that the Soviet Union chose to abstain from. I’m no expert but someone needs to check their facts. Obviously I couldn’t take pictures of the inside, but the guide took great pride in showing us one particular exhibit. They have a section that is a small battlefield. In the battlefield are these extremely lifelike dead American soldiers with fake crows that are sitting on bayonets sticking out of the corpses. It’s a little unnerving to look at a 6’ 2” blonde American made of plaster or wax lying on the ground with eyes wide shut.
“The object of war is to not die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.” –Patton
“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” –Eisenhower
All in all the museum is very good and fascinating to visit; it would take two days to see everything inside. I can’t speak from experience but I think that to pay homage to those who lost their lives is a good thing to do, but to preach hatred for something that happened two or three generations ago – in this day and age – is futile. The degree of isolationism the DPRK has imposed upon itself hasn’t exactly helped them level up past “anger” in the five stages of grief. You would never have expected a European Union after WWII but that didn’t prevent the creation of the European Economic Community in the late 1950’s. I think that there is some merit to the North’s claims of wrongdoing, but honestly they are still fighting the Cold War for goodness sake. The hammer and sickle might as well be branded on every man, woman and child. I think the problem in the DPRK isn’t just the level of isolation, but rather its’ inability to adapt to a rapid rate of change without the building blocks in place for a developed economy to take off. I truly believe that the country is cautiously pragmatic about any kind of economic ties with the outside world more or less for good reason. Without any barriers to entry it would be extremely simple for multinationals to go in to the DPRK and use cheap local labor to slurp up enormous profits basically overnight. My solution would be to initiate a slow, but steady level of interdependence with the South under similar arrangements that were present in Kaesong Park before the sanctions took off earlier this year. I’ll address this in a separate piece, but suffice it to say that sometimes brothers need to throw a couple punches before they can ultimately make up with one another.
Next: Part II
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