As the plane began its descent, vast areas of empty terrain divided into sharp rectangles was all I could see. Construction sites peppered with mountains and covered in snow filled the land, with the promise of new development in the years and decades to come. Small identical villages were visible every so often in the middle of this nowhere land, not seemingly connected by any major roads. “No filming,” my flight attendant told me, as I positioned my camera outside my window. On the plane, they tried to sell me “Royal Blood-Fresh,” a soybean extract for thrombosis (“Who says you can’t grow younger and cleverer”); I didn’t purchase any. We were provided with the local newspaper, with strict instructions not to fold them in a way which hurt the image of the country’s leaders on front. In-flight entertainment was a sole screen playing a concert recording of a young girl in military uniform singing passionately, although I am not sure about what. Her airy singing filled the plane, giving an extremely ominous aura in the moments leading to touch down. Finally, we hit the runaway, the only airplane in site. We were in the DPRK; we were in North Korea.
There was a snowstorm the previous night, so hundreds of workers were furiously plowing snow to make way for planes. It goes to show how low wages are, or practically nonexistent, when it is less expensive to hire so many people than simply to use machine plows. The airport was completely empty, except for the people on our flight who were either other members of the tour group, Russian diplomats, or local businessmen returning from workshops and such in China. I had to change my phone to reflect the 30-minute time change from Beijing, apparently originally made in order to differentiate it from Japan. The airport was white and clean and stark, empty except for a small Duty Free packed with tobacco and whisky and a small coffee shop with Nescafé, and plastic greenery every so often to add some color to the otherwise plain building. Soldiers patrolled the area, studying foreigners as they collected their luggage. Customs was surprisingly easy; I kept being afraid that someone would suddenly realize I was American and send me home, but luckily that moment never came. Officers asked to see my books, my computer, my phone, and while they didn’t search them as I was warned, apparently they took hours going through the belongings of the people who came to Pyongyang over train while searching for any offensive or problematic materials. Outside the airport, the area looked like a lost relic from Soviet times, every car dating back to the 60s in pastel colors straight from a Wes Anderson movie.
We were hustled into a tour bus out of the negative degree weather, while being introduced to our Korean hosts. Our guide, Kim, began by telling us the history of the DPRK (I noted how she never explicitly used the name North Korea). Each house we passed by was identical out in the countryside, each a pale pink buried in the snow, all with frozen lakes somewhat nearby.
“Do you want to hear a traditional Korean joke?” Kim asked us.
“Okay: Father and son are quarrelling because son is stupid and doesn’t know one plus one equals two. One day, the son’s teacher scolds the father for not teaching his son enough when growing up, so the father tells the son that he must learn more and would be tested the next day. The day after, the father asks son what one plus one equals, and the son said he learned it, but had already forgot! You idiot, the father yelled, one plus one, what does it equal? What do you get when you put you and me together? The son immediately responded: Two idiots!”
After some polite laughs, Kim proceeded to tell us the rules of the trip:
- No folding newspapers on the face of the leaders
- Pictures must be of the full leaders, without cropping
- No posing in pictures with the leaders
- No photos of military checkpoints or of soldiers
- No photos of individuals
- No going anywhere without a guard
- No spreading religion
- No trying to find Internet - “research centers may pick up your signal and give us a fine,” Kim warned.
I was mostly focused on the photography rules, especially as I was going to be taking the 23 hours train back to Beijing and knew that my photos would be searched. Our bus left the rural areas and arrived in Pyongyang, which was drastically different than I had expected. We got out and began to walk the streets, passing by tall building covered in lights and hoards of people returning home after work. In the DPRK, people work from 8 to 6, with a long lunch break during which people nap in order to improve productivity, I was instructed. The masses blended together, with everyone wearing a variation of the same black or dark brown jacket with matching black or dark brown pants (not jeans, however, because that would be too American). We passed by a large copy of the Arch de Triumph, which Kim proudly said was larger than the original in Paris. Hundreds of cars zoomed down the highways in what I assumed to be rush hour, past the colorful buildings and shops on the streets. Large building complexes were being demolished, with construction sites every couple of streets. Kim explained that all houses prior to 2014 were to be torn down and rebuilt with newer, modern versions. We began to talk about our lives and where I’m from and such, and I asked Kim why she had decided to become a tour guide. She looked down at first and gave a little laugh, and finally said that she hadn’t; she went to school for tourism, and the school chose her to become a guide. She had no choice in the matter, she explained, most people in the country did not get a decision in their career. Pyongyang nightlife doesn’t exist, the bars close before nine, and people want to get back to their families although there is no state enforced curfew. We passed by dozens of statues and mammoth portraits of Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il, illuminated with power that any of the dimly lit shops we were passing would die for. After exploring the elaborate and surprisingly beautiful architecture for quite a while, we returned to the bus and made our way to the hotel.
The group of individuals on this tour is interesting, representing nearly the entire Anglophone world, from South Africa, England, Wales, Ireland, Australia, and Iceland, along with people from Peru, Mexico, Italy, Croatia, Switzerland, and little me from Canada. There were 20 of us in total, a mix of middle aged men, recently graduated students, and travelers in their twenties. Nearly everyone was traveling alone, except for two Italian brothers and a South African family – the son, a 19 year old who worked as a software developer in China instead of going to university had surprised his parents the day before the trip by taking them to the info session and saying “guess where we’re going!” While some people were actually interested in the area, most were just looking for adventure, something wild to tell their friends back home.
The hotel was lavish, all the workers being women in matching beautiful traditional colorful dresses. Our dinner looked like it belonged at a wedding reception, with flashing party lights hooked up to the ceiling (genuinely thought I was going to have a seizure) hanging over the ballroom with oil paintings of North Korea fully covering each wall. The women presented us with free flowing beer and course after course of delicious food; I felt as if we were receiving more food than was available in the entire country. My table broke into laughter after few seconds, joking about codenames for the countries we were discussed (South Korea = K, North Korea = KK, USA = KKK, and Japan = Sushi), asking the waitress if she had a tinder (she didn’t respond), if she would sing for us (she did not), and general jokes about all our different homes and accents and cultures.
Eventually we broke off into our individual rooms, decked out with full sized refrigerators, heated beds, and luckily, no propaganda posters.