North Korea: The Closer You Look, the Less You Understand

Sophie Hilaire
Dec 27, 2016 · 8 min read

“President Kim Il Sung is better than George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson — combined,” or so said President Jimmy Carter according to Mr. Lim, our North Korean tour guide, as he earnestly addressed our bus of 16 tourists in Pyongyang. I had no internet access (North Korea has their very own intranet), but didn’t need it to verify that President Carter never said that. I’m sure I failed to mask my amusement with my unconscious smirk and raised eyebrow.

Prior to leaving for North Korea, I was repeatedly asked the same two questions by friends and family: Won’t they think you’re a spy? And, Why are you going there?

The first question was fair. North Korea will not grant tourist visas to South Koreans or US Military personnel. I’m ethnically part Korean (with relatives in both the North and South), yet I’ve always been a US citizen. I spent 6 years in the US Army prior to Wharton, and was honorably discharged almost a year ago. So, while I’m not technically “disqualified” the situation is complicated by the fact that I spent the last 18 months of my service working in Seoul directly for the US Army three-star General in charge of all troops across South Korea. However, since my top-secret security clearance had expired eight months prior and I signed a document promising I wouldn’t seek out my long-lost relatives, the North Korean government granted me a visa.

The upshot: my parents were mortified and my friends sent me articles about North Korean prisoners — one even mocked me in my MBA program’s annual roast, Wharton Follies:

So what made me want to go to North Korea?

Well, I have a deep-rooted sense of adventure (to put it mildly). I’d seen 53 interesting countries, and been deployed to Afghanistan, yet I longed to experience something completely unparalleled. Hearing stories about my second cousins in North Korea, having lived in Seoul, and reading about the gulags (North Korean prison camps) made me all the more curious about what on earth was going on across the 38th Parallel.

I had to see it for myself.

Still, I needed something to give me the impetus and push me over the edge. Enter, the Pyongyang Marathon. This was the critical opportunity that sealed the deal and committed me to this unusual vacation. I’d run several marathons, including the Boston Marathon and had set a Guinness World Record for the fastest marathon in full military uniform in Philadelphia. Many of my friends knew this so several of them sent me a link to the Pyongyang Marathon website, jokingly suggesting that I should run it. Ironically, when I told them I was going, they quickly recanted and sent me an endless stream of New York Times articles to convince me to cancel my trip.

But it was too late.

By that point, I’d researched the situation extensively and spoken at length with Koryo Tours, a British tour company based in Beijing, who erased any fears I had. Rather than putting down a deposit, I immediately paid for the trip in full seven months out.

Traveling to North Korea on Air Koryo (the national airline deemed “unfit to fly” by the European Union) was an appropriate introduction to the week’s events. We were given free copies of the Pyongyang Times and a nearly inedible burger by hostesses dressed like something out of the 1950s, all while watching videos of North Koreans singing joyful songs about their leaders. I’d assured my friends and family back home that I would follow the rules, but I found myself in trouble before even landing in the DPRK when a stewardess reprimanded me for inadvertently placing the burger over Kim Jung Un’s sacred image on the Pyongyang Times’ front page. I found out that it is also illegal to fold a newspaper along his face or to throw the newspaper away (much less obscure his image with said burger). Off to a great start!

Upon arrival at Pyongyang’s modern airport, anyone who brought a phone was instructed to unlock it so the authorities could peruse their photos and emails prior to rummaging through their suitcases. Fortunately, I’d heard all about this shakedown before packing my bags for the trip, so I’d strategically left my electronics in Philadelphia. From there, we set off on our tour, which I knew would only consist of what the government wanted us to see.

We were briefed on a few simple rules to follow: no roaming around without a guide; no photos of construction sites or military sites; no taking photos of leaders that aren’t full-body and unobscured by chandeliers, etcetera; and under no circumstances would we take “selfies” with the leaders. North Koreans take their leaders very seriously. Within their homes, each North Korean must display the ubiquitous side-by-side photo of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (henceforth referred to as “Kim #1” and “Kim #2”). This rule is actively enforced by government spot checks to ensure the photos are present and routinely shined with a specially designated cloth.

We knocked out the marathon on our first full day in the country. It consisted of four laps around Pyongyang, on some of the most beautiful and inaccurately representative streets in North Korea. The cherry blossoms were at their peak, and the streets were lined with delighted North Koreans, waving at us while their children ran into the streets and gave us high-fives. Of all the marathons I’d run, this was by far the most surreal. The finish line was in May Day Stadium, where 80,000 citizens in identical, drab outfits, cheered us on. One exhausted woman even held her arm up with her other hand to continue waving for those of us closer to the strict 4-hour cutoff. We later heard that a Kenyan was set to win the race, but the staff (accidentally?) misdirected him, allowing the 2nd place North Korean to take the lead and break the tape. Needless to say, the Kenyan was not pleased.

Throughout the week, I absorbed the strangeness like a sponge. Instead of advertisements, they have propaganda posters. Instead of a labor market, the Ministry of Labor assigns jobs — workers don’t get to pick. North Koreans need written approval to travel in the country beyond their district. Electricity and hot water aren’t guaranteed. Propaganda music blares from loudspeakers mounted on vans, and synchronized performances are everywhere. Giant statues and murals of Kim #1 and Kim #2 are a frequent sighting — in fact, one of North Korea’s few exports is giant bronze statues of dictators. The food is nothing like the dishes I love in South Korea (though I feel guilty even complaining about the food after eating better than 99% of the country). They still use lead paint and asbestos. While I was somewhat skeptical at first, I determined that the subway is indeed real (we had the opportunity to ride it with locals for a few stops). The schools are full of anti-American propaganda, nuclear warhead images are repeatedly depicted, and the schoolchildren put on a show to make it appear they are learning something. In actuality you only see a few kids give massively impressive performances, and the rest stare at computers that are not turned on and pretend to move an invisible mouse. Americans are always referred to as “American Imperialists.” I was conflicted as to whether I should find this hilarious or extremely awkward since I was standing right there beside them when they made these statements.

My sister Nicole and me on the South Korean side of the DMZ in 2014.

In North Korea in 2016.

Our trip to Kim #1 and Kim #2’s mausoleum was the undeniable highlight of the trip. We had to wear business casual clothing, and for 2.5 hours I felt like I was back in the Army, marching in platoon formation whenever we weren’t standing on the slowest moving walkway in existence, arms by our sides, instructed to marvel upon photos of the leaders at various stages of their lives. The soles of our shoes were scrubbed clean by a machine, and a wind tunnel blew the dust off us before we were deemed sterile enough to enter the holy rooms of Kim #1 and Kim #2’s embalmed bodies, which we bowed to three times each. If there was any question in my mind as to whether our tour guide actually respected the Kims, it was squashed when Mr. Lim brushed away tears and said, “I really miss our president.” Within the mausoleum, I also learned that Kim #2 and I shared some common ground beyond our Korean heritage: we’re both MacBook users and we disapprove of Crocs. That’s right about where the similarities end.

Traveling to North Korea will send you back in time, to a decades or centuries-old regime. But coming to North Korea on a chaperoned and scripted tour to find answers is a fruitless endeavor. After being inundated with more anti-American propaganda than I’d seen in Cuba and Vietnam combined, I’m still perplexed as to why the people smiled genuinely at me. The enduring mystery is that despite having been to the DPRK, and seen it with my own eyes, I still don’t have a firm grasp on what North Koreans truly believe.

The closer I looked, the less I understood.

After I arrived back in Philadelphia and breathed a sigh of relief, I found the actual President Carter quote, “You have to remember that at home, President Kim Il Sung is treated as a combination of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abe Lincoln.” Well, I would agree with that statement and it was a simple one to authenticate. As for the rest of the trip, I ended up with more questions than answers … but came away with a deeper appreciation for my American freedoms and a strong recognition that our human connection, regardless of our cultural affiliation or the regimes under which we live, is stronger than we think.