My first day in North Korea
In May 2015, I traveled to North Korea — I mean the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. No, this does not qualify me as brave. No, it does not mean that I am crazy. Yes, I would eventually do it again. These tales were originally posted on my personal website, but I hope publishing them here helps to offer a larger audience a somewhat different take on the Hermit Kingdom.
PEK > FNJ: Enjoy the flight
It was not the smoothest of landings, but we made it into Pyongyang Airport with zero fatalities. Or minor injuries, for that matter.
More interesting than the trip itself was what transpired on the way through Beijing’s (very thorough) security lines.
Our flight also included roughly 50 or 60 of the best-dressed North Korean men I saw during my entire time in the country. They were glowing with good health. They were mostly handsome. They ranged in ages, and their clothing appeared more western in cut and fit. Were they a football team and their coaching staff? Not sure, but they clearly had enough status to travel from Pyongyang to Beijing.
As we prepared to go through security, I was waiting among them. I tried to divert my eyes, as to not appear if I was staring at them with endless fascination. Gazing at their bags, their shirt collars, searching for any indication of just who this cadre of comrades were and what exactly it was that they did. They also eyed me curiously, one looking over my shoulder at my passport and ticket, asking Pyongyang? as if I may have been in the wrong line. I smiled and said yes, Pyongyang.
One of them passed out gum to his comrades. And then ran out. This was the perfect opportunity to engage in unsupervised conversation with honest-to-goodness, real-life North Koreans! I pulled out the pack of Extreme Artisan WinterSuperMint Blast Effects whatever and proudly stated, I have gum. I beamed at each of them when doling out the soft green pieces. It was spirited spearmint diplomacy. They continued to look at me curiously, but now our glances at each other were met with less-suspicious smiles.
When we made it to the terminal, all of them bought cases of ramen. I hurried to buy gifts for my guides (Gifts? Radical self reliance? What is this — Burning Man?). I did not see them again until I boarded the previously-owned Tupolev Tu-2–4. One of them who I had deemed to have a very stern, somewhat impenetrable face looked up as I walked past him. He smiled and winked at me. I will always treasure that moment. I will also forever wonder if he preferred evil white imperialist chicks — but could never speak up about this proclivity or fetish, just as one could never admit being gay in his country.
Arch of Triumph: Pyongyang Style
First stop on our way into Pyongyang — the Arch of Triumph. Of course it is bigger than that piddly one hanging out in Paris. We are taken off our our comfortable Chinese-made tour bus and encouraged to take photos.
Over the next six days, we would spend much of our time on that bright green KITC tour bus. When you tour North Korea, there’s no such thing as down time. Unless you’re on a bus. In that case, you might read. Talk to your neighbor. Take photos of the often impoverished rural scenes that are impossible to miss on your way in-and-out of town. But then you almost become immune to those and simply choose to marvel at the mountains. The rice paddies. A world so alien yet not so different from our very own. But everything is quiet. And a bit pristine. Even the crops on high alert for the next devastating drought, they still appear pristine. They look nice from the outside. We can’t always see what is going on underneath.
But we came here knowing that.
Its the green one. I mean the RED. Wait. NOT the white one. I think it’s the black. Yes. The black. I mean the orange.
I will reiterate that we had zero power issues at any time we were in our rooms at the 5-star Yangakkado Hotel. I was fascinated with the wiring. And wondered what the chances of electrical fire could be…
It is common knowledge power is reduced in the tourists hotels throughout the day — hot water is also unavailable during daylight hours — only to be all aglow once the day’s activities have returned you ‘home.’ You are exhausted. Only one elevator is working. But you don’t mind because this is life, and these things could happen anywhere.
Almost anywhere. Even in your perfectly adequate room at the glorious, five-star Yanggakdo Hotel.
Every place where I could examine the wiring — I did A LOT of that anywhere we went — there was no evidence of heat shrink or crimped connectors ever used. Only electrical tape.
I started fantasizing about what it would have been liked to have shoved this small box of heat shrink in my bag. Then I wondered whether or not one could bring a heat gun into North Korea. There’s just a time and a place for electrical tape. I suppose that place is North Korea and the time is right now.
Several weeks after I returned to the U.S., it was reported a fire broke out at the Koryo Hotel — another tourist hotel in Pyongyang. Smart money says it was an electrical mishap.
Good Morning Pyongyang —
but let’s rewind about 4 hours first, shall we?
Let’s begin with a very quick tale from the night before — the celebratory first night in the Hermit Kingdom.
Still jet-lagged from Boston → Beijing. Upon finally entering our rooms (two twin beds, of course) on the 38th floor, my plan to take a 20-minute disco nap was a noble one. And I should have known immediately that I was down for the count. With the exception of waking up a couple of times — once to a very loud war movie playing on our non-HDTV (saturated with the lusciously jagged streamers jaywalking along the screen brought back nostalgia for trying to find the nudity squished in between the scrambles); the second and final time as my roommate and one of our British tour mates (key-less) stumbled in with too much bluster and the stank of yeasty ales. They were shit-faced. I used the kettle to make them ramen. Mainly for Dave, the Brit. He asked me for Xanax. I said I had Lorazapam.* He begged me. I relented. I gave him two and told him that was that, even though he swore it wouldn’t work. But he did promise Xanax as soon as he got into his room in the morning. He spilled his tea and ramen. I tried toweling it up, as you do when you are in a hotel room. (This detail may be important to remember. A Chekov’s towel, perhaps.) A little while later, Dave fell asleep.
So I had a mostly good night sleep and decided to go for a run around the hotel grounds — it is on an island, of course. Everything felt so eerily tranquil, as if the city was still waking up. The propaganda blaring from the loudspeakers was almost nonexistent. At least at that moment on that particular day.
Then again, I was wearing headphones.
* PROTIP: If you have any sort of anxiety related to air travel, you definitely want to pack something with a punch should you ever fly Air Koryo. It just makes it…fun. It takes away the fear. The fear of crashing. The fear of HOLY S**T I AM REALLY F**KING GOING TO NORTH KOREA RIGHT NOW.
Military trucks are never far away—it is the third-largest army in the world. Although the North and South are still technically at war, they’re not in combat. The DPRK army actually works on many of the country’s endless construction projects. They also routinely do drills. Sometimes you can just look out a window of say, the Grand People’s Study House, and see 10 of them marching. It is almost reminiscent of a high school cheerleading or color guard squad practicing after school for Friday’s big game. But then you remember you’re in Pyongyang.
The Taedong River
The sounds along here at night, however, are some of my most favorite sounds I’ve ever heard. I might consider going back just to sample them. They’re really potent. Hollow metal clangs faintly in the distance. A melodic echo almost calling someone home. Soothing enough to lull even an infant to sleep. I thought about the sirens who tore Odysseus’ crew asunder.
It is still remarkably quiet. So I began running. The pastel facades of the city scape simultaneously convey optimism, despair, unconditional love, and accepted hopelessness. If anyone was following me, they get bonus points for mad stealth. I did a few yoga poses. At this point I wished someone had been lurking in the background so I could have scored a photo of me laying down a sweet hanumanasana alongside the Taedong River.
This would be the last time I would exercise on the trip. Because there is no time. There is only a schedule to keep. Within only a couple of days, I will begin to gain a tiny bit of understanding into how absolute power can be kept so absolutely. If you keep people busy, they will be too tired to complain. Too tired to resist. This is how you do tour in North Korea because this is how you do life!
(However, I still suspect work may be fetishized slightly less than my first Burning Man camp.)
You will not see one person jogging on the streets in Pyongyang. Exercise is not a thing for most adults. Work work work. With rumors of a burgeoning middle class, a couple of spas/health clubs are currently under construction.
A toast to the simple Pyongyang breakfast
To this day, I am still enamored by the quadrilateral perfection of North Korea’s sliced bread. Quick, easy, and I could take it on the go. The guides don’t like to be kept waiting. We have schedules to keep! Sleep in. Meet in lobby by 8:15.
Your itinerary for today, ma’am: While you may not find out exactly what the schedule holds until you board the bus in the morning, you know a very, very full day awaits.
Upon boarding the bus and reuniting with my brand new friends, I discovered I had slept through a very entertaining night involving a trip to the hotel’s casino AND the revolving restaurant upon the top floor.
SHHHH DO NOT TELL: It really does not revolve.
But we all can dream.
Almost forgot something — You know what wasn’t a dream? The pack of Xanax sitting on my little twin bed. MY DRUNK BRITISH NEW FRIEND YOU ARE SOLID.
The Mansudae Fountain Park
The intense heat and sunlight in even the (very) short time I had been there made it seem pretty obvious a terrible drought may be in the DPRK’s immediate future.
Our sweet, witty, and always informative guide, Miss You, presented us the Mansudae Fountain Park to begin our first full day (Sunday) in North Korea. She commented the fountains were not running because it is important for the citizens to use the water to ensure the grass can grow.
I began to look around myself and my group. Pyongyang citizens, many female with school-aged children, were filling plastic grocery bags with water and traipsing up the hill with them. And then down, fill, back up again.
It is entirely possible the water was used to water the green areas of Pyongyang. There are several plots where hand-planting was readily visible. There are many green public spaces and the citizens are expected to take care of them in such ways.
Whether or not they were doing just that, watering the grass, or providing water for their families, I do not know. I can certainly say I witnessed the acts of lawn maintenance.
The fountain itself was exquisite, even without water leaping gracefully-if-languidly between one dancing lady to another. It is easy to picture. Each stream arching overhead as if to bridge that heartbreaking divide between two peoples in two countries.
For a moment, I reflect upon my own heartbreaking divides. But then I am told it is time to get back on the bus.
DPRK Military 1
Evil American Imperialists 0
Accurate translation coming very soon. But why not take a stab at it?
military first something something honor to great nation something military first
Gift shops: the gateway drug to capitalism
We stop at our first shop, chock full of books and DVDs. Rich, our guide, tells us that we will be visiting a few stores during our adventure, so that there will always be a chance to buy something.
I always enjoyed perusing the DVDs. I mean, the curious incredulousness of the books was absolutely expected. The DVDs tickled me silly.
Classic North Korean Programming
For the kiddies, we have The Cleaver Raccoon Dog. For those of all ages, we have yet another documentary on the Fatherland Liberation War.
The titular Youngest Bear looks indecisive. I hope he remembers to JUST CHOOSE JUCHE.
Those two buddies who drank the mineral water? The little one on the right looks like he got a bad batch. #CHEKOVSMINERALWATER
Another feel-good documentary
Let’s talk about the Inerasable Crimes of Japan while we stare at some bright red Kimjongilia.
I began to think about documentary filmmaking. First, about all of the ones I’ve watched on the very country in which I was now standing. Then I began thinking about the [then upcoming] Amy Winehouse documentary. And I wondered whether or not any North Korean had ever heard her insane, out-of-this-world, one-of-a-kind voice.
I got a little sad about all of the above, but it was time to walk down a traditional Pyongyang street and get back onto our bus.
Another day, another cut.
Another customer gets a respectable trim in
a North Korean barbershop.
We may have hurried by here too quickly, but I am mostly confident I did not see one of those alleged GET YOUR HAIR CUT LIKE A GOOD COMRADE posters.
Truth be told, there were only a mere handful of men we saw sporting Marshal Kim Jong Un’s coif of homage to Brian Austin Green and those little boys on Home Improvement. They stood out, of course.
The only thing that stood out more than deliberate Kim Jong Un hair was the ONE FAT KID. We saw one. Just one.
I really wish I would have gotten a picture of the token fattie. (And I don’t even mean that in the slightest derogatory way.)
I’ve been told it says ‘cobbler.’
That’s what Koreans have told me it says. I was just taken with the styling of the sign, such a throwback to a not-quite-too-distant era. (I was also intrigued by the shoddy wiring, and how, well…how can it work…ever?)
Then again, much of Pyongyang exists in another time and place. Like some sort of interstitial rest stop between the Cold War and Dick Cheney’s Quail Hunt.
EVERYBODY LOVES North Korean Traffic Girls
The lovely women who patrol “traffic” in the DPRK don’t f**k around. Then again, nobody really f**ks around when on duty in North Korea. North Korean traffic girls are famous the world over. (They are also the inspirational source of my all-time favorite Halloween costume.)
As of May 2015, there were more cars on the roads of Pyongyang then I ever imagined, or had previously seen in any documentaries. We actually encountered a tiny traffic jam towards the end of our trip. By traffic jam I mean, we had to wait a few minutes to get through a light — a traffic light that experienced zero mechanical failure. In addition to tour buses, you will now see taxi cabs and mid-range, DPRK-made cars that look an awful lot like your favorite BMWs, Volkswagen, or Kia. (Another one to remember for later.)
That’s me. I felt if I was going to take a photo in front of this neohistoricist monument to people or palaces or culture orjuche, I wanted to pose in front of the badass revolutionary farm girl sporting a chic pony tail and loaded gun.
No, we did not go in. I am sure it was lovely. But I imagine we did not miss much.
Back onto the bus. I hear it may almost be time for lunch. But we need to go bow to some statues.
(I told you. There’s a schedule. You keep to it. If you’re too efficient and finish early, they find something else to throw in.)
No need for bike locks. Or bus schedules.
A may waits for the trolly in Pyongyang. Everything is green. Different shades. Calming. Happy. Green is life.
The idyllic panorama behind the commuter is the illustrious Mount Paektu, the alleged birthplace of Kim Il Sung on April 15, 1912. Now, remember what other momentous historic event happened on the same date and draw a supernatural connection. No, silly, Kim Il Sung wasn’t ALSO an iceberg. But his arrival onto this earth coincided with what is widely regarded as the death of the Edwardian Era and the first real oh-shit-technology-can-fail-us moment. Titanic was also hugely popular in the DPRK. Because tragic love stories and the demise of capitalism is what sells tickets.
We’re immune to the advertisements thrown onto us while waiting for the subway or the bus, so it is difficult to look at the above image and not think it is a tourism campaign. The DPRK does not permit advertising EXCEPT for the county’s auto manufacturer. This is also a relatively new happening. Kim Jong Un is allowing more capitalistic opportunities than his father, but whether he can do this and retain his despotic control over the country has yet to be seen. Economic growth is not widespread. Money is still in the hands of the upper classes, the chosen residents of Pyongyang. While the country has been hit hard by a drought this year, experts doubt a famine on par with The Arduous March of the 1990s will ensue. Another recent change in product ownership allows farmers to keep part of what they grow rather than giving it all to the state — finally deciding to take a page out of China’s playbook. That’s not all the DPRK is doing to emulate their neighbor and stalwart ally. China’s glorious and rapid rise to economic powerhouse, and their creation of special economic zones, is something North Korea wishes to implement in Pyongyang and border cities like Kaesong (bring Choco Pies)and Chongjin (weed is legal). At least to some degree. I’m guessing it isn’t exactly scaleable but I’m merely an armchair follower of emerging capitalism.
MY FIRST SIGHTING — BEHOLD THE RYUGYONG HOTEL!
Kim Il Sung Square? Who cares. It is from the confines of our tour bus that I spot the architectural calamity that jumpstarted my interest in this mysterious nation-state. The Ryugyong Hotel, how I long to one day visit you. I am sitting next to my beloved guide, Mr. Kim, and I ask him if the Egyptian country most recently attached to the project was still moving ahead on its plans to make it an actual hotel. He said, no. This was no longer the case and that they had simply put mirrors up all around it rather than concern themselves with any of the interior structure.
Whether or not it is possible for this building to ever be structurally sound is part of the reason I harbor such a fascination with the Ryugyong. And its symbolic resonance as an unintentional landmark for a fading communist empire never ceases to floor me.
High Art in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
THE ONLY LEGITIMATE NORTH KOREAN ARTWORK IS PRODUCED IN THE MANSUDAE ART STUDIO AND THEIR TRAINED ARTISTS.
Mansudae artists produce many oil paintings and statues of these grand feline beasts, for they are the NATIONAL ANIMAL OF THE DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF KOREA.
A brief synopsis from the Mansudae website:
With a labor force of approximately 4000 people, 1000 of which artists, and an area of over 120,000 square meters, 80,000 of which indoor, the Mansudae Art Studio is probably the largest art production center in the world and by far the largest and most important of the country.
The Studio is divided in 13 creative groups, seven manufacturing plants and more than 50 supply departments. The artistic works realized at the Mansudae Art Studio range from oil paintings to bronze sculptures, from Korean Paintings (ink on paper) to ceramics, from woodcuts to embroideries, from jewel paintings (made with precious and semiprecious stones reduced to powder) to charcoal drawings and much more.
There is also a Mansudae gallery in Beijing’s absolutely phenomenal 798 Art District. I stopped by, but I did not check out their second floor. I was only 48 hours on the outside. It was just too soon.
DEEP THOUGHT INTERJECTION: I hope to one day be able to adequately describe the range of emotions and realizations you experience when you take this sort of surreal journey. While this word is used rather overzealously in the context of say, all-night parties at art or music festivals — and yoga retreats — going to North Korea is kind of a lot to process. And it’s probably why I waited so long to write about it.
OUR CHILDREN HAS NOTHING TO ENVY.
OUR TIGERS DO NOT HAVE ANYTHING TO ENVY. BECAUSE TIGERS HAVE FANGS.
The joyful little boy is learning from his happy young mother the importance of defending the fatherland. Look Hoon Park, its your first paper airplane. One day you will fly one of these to rid our sisterland of the U.S. imperialist bastards.
(Ok. Maybe it is just a pristine white blossom plucked from a lush valley nestled upon Mount Paektu. I cannot be certain one way or another.)
The most common socialist idealist images seem to always include smiling children who have nothing to envy in the world.
I imagine the tigers would say the same things. Sadly, we were unable to speak to any while on our tour.
My Ginuwine Comrade Pony
I’m just a loyal comrade
I’m looking for reliable transport
Some beast that knows how to ride
Without falling off the rice paddy
Gotta be a comrade
Take me to my rations
Pony when I hitch you up
I hope they don’t take you away in a truck
If you’re a commie, let’s juche
Ride it, my pony
My paddy’s waiting
Rice for the fatherland
(Come on. Like you weren’t thinking about Lil’ Sebastian, too.)
BRING US TO THE FOOD
Even only a half day or so into this journey, you’re taking in a lot of information. After exploring all three floors of the Mansudae art studio. It was time to sit down. Especially if you were (slightly) hungover. Like my awesome tour mates. They were hung over. I was just jet lagged. And maybe suffering residual trauma from last night’s classic war movie roaring into my dreams at top volume.
But Me? I was all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and raring to eat whatever incredible foodstuffs would be placed in front of my face at the next stop. I mean, I was in NORTH F**KING KOREA. I was living my dream. I actually DID this. And I was getting hungry.
Also to note: We were the only “shoppers.” I wondered what the employees here, and everywhere else we visited, just did in between tour bus arrivals. People do nothing but work, yet so much of this work appears to be…waiting.
So Is lunch next? I will bow at whatever f**king Kim shrine they take me to if I just get to eat.
Does this mean I’m becoming…one of them?
(No. I just missed most of breakfast. Whew.)
First Lunch in Pyongyang
The dumplings were solid. Tried a bit of the overly pink ’n’ symmetrical sausage. Edible. The fried stuff was decent.
The food never stops coming out. There is no way the 15 of us could have ever come close to finishing what was served to us at every meal. I sincerely hope the employees of the restaurant ate our leftovers and/or brought them home to their families. I worked at several restaurants in Imperialistic America. I totally took advantage of some untouched goodness a customer left on their plate.
During the entire meal, a large TV played the Moranbong Band’s latest concert. The Moranbong Band are all female. They are Kim Jong Un’s favorite musical act. I asked my guides as to whether or not they had fans, as in, were there certain girls some preferred to others? Mr. Kim told me that yes, the citizens had their favorites. Thinking about Menudo, I asked him if the talent “aged out.” He responded that a lot of the musicians will get married and then retire.
The above concert I linked to? That’s the one we heard in nearly every restaurant. Just catching a bit of the concert video brought me right back. I am instantly wrapped in a cloak of gauzy pink Vinalon. The waitresses are coming with another course…
I was also very hungry considering that save for the perfect quadrilateral toast from the morning, and a bag of those chocolate-covered acai blueberries, I had not eaten anything since leaving Beijing.
I was really hungry. Really hungry. And feeling hungry in North Korea can make you feel a bit guilty. Reducing the spread offered to tourists even just by 25–30% would never compromise the meal itself. And the staff could take home more food to their loved ones. Perhaps they could collapse on the floor around the table as a family. And watch the Moranbong Band’s latest concert. Again.
And our day still has so much more jam-packed fun, it’s going to need a whole other post. So stay tuned, comrade — the next chapter is eminent.
Originally published at mynameisgreenmelinda.com