Recently, I interviewed Jim. Jim is unlike most travelers. He likes to see places that most people wouldn’t. In 2010, he thought it would be a thrill to visit mysterious North Korea. Ahead was his experience.
While what we hear on the news is all most of us will ever know of this isolated land, it’s enlightening (and rare) to get a first-hand account of life there.
I met the middle-aged Caucasian man in a coffee shop. The reason for the anonymity is that though he’s uncertain if he’ll ever want to step foot back into North Korea, he’s also not interested in burning bridges. And one group of people that North Korea is cautious of letting into their country is journalists/media. So, he thought it best to disassociate his identity with this piece. This level of caution probably falls in line with what you’d expect concerning this unfriendly nation. But there was also much that might surprise you.
Right off the bat, it was easy for Jim to get to North Korea. All it took to go was passing background checks, paying visa fees, and signing up with a tour company. Jim’s impression is that any “average American” can go, he said.
He went with a group of 9-10 people: one Korean-American, a Chinese-American, two African-Americans, and 5-6 other Caucasians. They went through an American non-profit that works to build international relations. Once Jim got in contact with them, they made all the arrangements. The total cost of the 11 day trip was $2-2,500 including hotels and most meals. Jim said that travel groups and coordinated tours are mandatory for entry in North Korea. You can’t just go it alone.
On the day of departure in August 2010, they all flew into Beijing, China. This is where one can get a flight into the capital of North Korea, Pyongyang. Pyongyang is where Jim and his group would spend most of their time.
The hotel they stayed at in the capital was very nice, said Jim. And there were several other Westerners staying there as well–on business, he figured. But some he thought were there for humanitarian reasons–not for concern for the people of North Korea, but in support of the Party and their Communist ideology, he figured, as these foreigners sported socialist propaganda on their shirts.
In the capital, Jim’s tour were shown the city center where the 100 foot statue of Party founder Kim il Song stood. He’s the father of Kim Jong il and the grandfather of today’s leader, Kim Jong Un. There, Jim said school children “stand at attention and bow reverently.” Jim said some new brides and grooms come here as well. It’s a “pilgrimage”, a “pseudo-religious” destination for citizens, he said. Jim’s guide also reminded the group that then-leader, Kim Jong Il, was not the president of North Korea. He was in charge of military and of the Party, but the title of president is forever bestowed to their forever-leader Kim Il Song.
That’s not to say there aren’t other major religions represented. Buddhist temples are around and practiced in, said Jim. And their tour was taken to a protestant Christian church service. However, one cannot be a member of the Party and a member of a religion, he said, so here was one instance where Jim and his fellow tourists were left alone to enter the church while the guides waited outside. (Members of Jim’s tour were supervised wherever they went by a state-sanctioned tour guide–even when one person on Jim’s tour went for a jog.) In the church, they were given headphones providing English translation of the sermon. It started with a Christian message, said Jim, but then the preacher talked about the eventual reunification of Korea, lauded the Party, and chastised the United States.
Jim said that in North Korea, animosity exists toward two counties–and one of them is not South Korea, actually. Jim said that North Koreans see the South as “innocent victims caught up” in the mess created by the U.S. The U.S. then is one of the two countries loathed by many in North Korea. Jim said they visited a memorial of a United States-led civilian massacre on North Koreans. (According to most sources, this incident was a case where the U.S. military didn’t prevent South Korean soldiers from enacting this murder, the North Koreans, however, maintain per the memorial that U.S. soldiers were the ones slaying the innocents.) The other country they dislike is Japan, said Jim, which actually received more scorn due to their invasion during WWII.
As much as Jim’s tour was a showcase of North Korean history and culture, it was also seemed a diplomatic trip showing these outsiders that North Korea is doing well. “There was an element of ‘see, look at us,’” said Jim. As such, they took the group to a hospital and a university.
Jim said that in all the places, tourists were free to photograph. But this didn’t include those in uniform which Jim said there were many of in the capital. In fact, it seemed to Jim that “most people, to some degree, were in the Party or had Party connections” in Pyongyang. There, Jim said the streets were unusually empty, and the citizens–though his interaction with them was limited–still gave off a “dour” feel.
Outside the capital, they visited a beach where they could only see a few swimmers and some fishermen. The hotels outside the capital were not as nice, Jim said. It was also outside the capital that Jim said he experimented with the rumors that electricity rationing was necessary, if not accidental, due to insufficient energy allocation. So one night he fell asleep with the light and fan on. Jim said he awoke at different times in the night to find the light and fan on and off at different times. He concluded that regular power was a challenge in this part of North Korea.
He remembers a large corn field outside the capital and also remembers very good food. “They’re big on roast duck”, he said. If interested in buying anything in North Korea, tourists weren’t allowed to use North Korea’s currency. Instead, vendors at a rest stop selling snacks or a museum or hotel gift shop took American dollars, euros, or Chinese renminbi.
Confirming North Korea’s isolation was a trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the “line in the sand” separating North from South Korea and which has been for decades since the Korean War, a literal no-man’s land along the 38th parallel. There, soldiers keeping watch, and even officers stationed there, spoke with the Korean-American in Jim’s group. This tourist would share with Jim that these military men were very curious about what was happening outside their country. “They didn’t know anything about the outside world”, said Jim.
Jim’s trip also indicated my own ignorance toward North Korea. Something I didn’t know was that most countries have diplomatic relations with North Korea, said Jim. In fact, only five countries cut off diplomatic ties with North Korea: America, South Korea, Japan, Israel, and France. There was even an international business trade show being organized in the capital while Jim was there.