Land Of The Eternal Kim

It's finally going to happen: the peripatetic American in the ultimate Hermit Kingdom. Until the late 90's the State Dept prohibited travel to the DPRK, the not-so-friendly north. That restriction no longer prevails; instead it is the destination that refuses entry to visitors from the imperialist aggressor. In 2005 a dispensation was granted for a total of 150 tourist visas on the occasion of the Arirang Festival. I was going to go last year, but the mass games were cancelled as were the US tours. This year the quota was again set at 150 (though it will likely be exceeded). I signed up. Once again, the games and trip were cancelled, but my faith the Great Leader General Kim Il Sung is rewarded: the games and the trip are back ON!

The pre-departure briefing is on Friday evening in Beijing. Do's and LOTS of dont's. The people we will meet (as well as those we won't) are not just playing along to get along; they are all True Believers. They KNOW that WE have been brainwashed by a lifetime of lies, and are not interested in hearing them repeated. We will be told repeatedly that the US has been committing criminal aggression against them continuously for 60+ years and that there is no problem, including the weather, that is not America's fault. But, as our leader puts it, "It's not easy being at the top, and when it's over you get to go home."

Our group is 13, down from 20 due to the earlier cancellation announcement. This is not your typical tour group -- most have never been on a group tour before. It's a well-traveled bunch indeed: several expats, and one guy has mushed to the South Pole and is going to the North Pole in April.

Pyongyang is served by Air Koryo (and no one else), which has a daily flight to and from Beijing. I am surprised to see that it is a member of IATA (or so the ticket stock says). They use the Ilyushin 62, a vintage four-engine beast that is a contemporary of the 707. It is a blast from the past: the interior is exactly the same as the old Aeroflot, including an open luggage shelf over the seats.

Lots of forms to fill out. Am I bringing any cultural wealth? (Yeah, me!) Do I have any killing device? (You mean apart from my personality?) How about "publishings of all kinds?"

Beijing to Pyongyang is about 600 miles, just over an hour and a half. The plane is equipped with plentiful, pretty stewardesses, some of who even smile. From the air the countryside looks normal. Some 80% of the north is comprised of mountains and hills with relatively little arable land, the exact opposite of the south.

The formalities on landing are surprisingly quick and easy. We are on a group visa, and we basically point at our pictures and they check us off. They do not stamp our passports. It's a bumper crop of western tourists: on the flight are two American groups and a big European one.

We meet our support staff: the driver, our guide, and two minders, whose job it is to make sure no one wanders off or takes an unauthorized picture. The rules require that we be accompanied at all times outside of the hotel. They are friendly enough, in their own way, and try to help us while ensuring that we toe the line.

The cool sights begin as soon as we leave the airport: murals of the Great Leader inspecting the fields, greeting the farmers, and offering "on the spot guidance." But Rule #1: NO PHOTOS FROM THE BUS!

The drive into the city takes 30 minutes. During that entire time we do not see another vehicle. There are no private cars here and no money to pay for imported fuel for trucks and buses. (We have a very nice Japanese tour bus.) The streets are wide, straight and, except for pedestrians, empty. The traffic lights have been turned off; instead, posted at major intersections are attractive girls in sharp uniforms who comically pirouette while directing the sparse to non-existent traffic.

The first stop is the Arch of Triumph, bigger than that also-ran in Paris. It's also better because you can stand anywhere you like without risk of being hit by a car. What triumph you ask? Why, that of the Great Leader over the Japanese in 1945. (After all, they did surrender.)

The next stop is the statue of the Great Leader, 65' of bronze magnificence on a hilltop overlooking the city. First, we present a floral tribute at the base. Then, we must all line up and bow to the statue. This is all deadly serious stuff: we blow this and the guide will make us pay for it the rest of the trip. We pass the test. Then, it's OK to take pictures. But no standing near the statue, no silly poses, and no mugging for the camera! While we are there, wedding parties and assorted others come to pay tribute.

On through rush hour traffic to the hotel. Rush hour means more pedestrians on the road and massed at corners waiting to squeeze on to the occasional, already-packed tram or trolley-bus. Pyongyang is the showcase capital ? its residents are the most privileged in the country in terms of housing, and services. They are also the best-fed, although gaunt is the universal look and there are no (Dear Leader excepted) fat people.

In our briefing we were reminded that over a million people starved to death here during the prior decade. (Unable to feed itself, the country survives on food aid primarily us and from the South. Famine persists in every part of the country except Pyongyang.) Fifteen percent of the current crop was destroyed by floods, but that doesn't mean that we will be eating 15% less; it means that 15% of the people won't eat. We will be served a lot of food and some of it will be pretty good.

There are two, first-class hotels in the country, both modern high-rises and both in Pyongyang. Leave them and you forsake reliable electricity and hot water. Ours, 47 stories tall and located in the center of town but on an island in the middle of the river, has its own golf course, casino, disco, bowling, and more. Of course, you can't leave. The guidebook calls it "an Alcatraz of fun." Judging from the empty common areas and the scant number of lights in the guestroom windows, the occupancy rate is very low.

The raison d'etre of granting us entry visas comes tonight, the mass games. The drive to the stadium in which they are held is eerily dark and quiet. Pedestrians silently walk along the unlit streets. The buildings look blacked out, but after your eyes adjust you can see that most apartments are illuminated by a single, low-wattage bulb. The traffic girls wear read LED vests and carry flashing wands which stand out like beacons. In sharp contrast, the stadium is a riot of light, color and sound. Colored beacons play off spraying fountains while music plays and color guard units march into position.

Imagine the biggest and most spectacular half-time show you've ever seen, combine it with mass gymnastics, Busby Berkeley dance numbers, laser shows, and circus acts, all at once and with 100,000 performers, and still you can't begin to describe the show. The precision and speed of the 18,000 card-flipping students that form the background is beyond belief. The performance is a tale of Korea, from ancient roots, to Japanese subjugation, to the heroic rise of the Great Leader, to the building of a strong and bounteous society, to a future of reunification and happiness.

The point of the exercise is to demonstrate that the (North) Korean people are of one mind, and that it does effectively. I can't imagine any other society that could pull this off. And they are not automatons ? the participants are enthusiastic and joyous. The Guinness Book lists the games as the world's largest gymnastic and artistic event, and the May Day stadium in which they are held is the world's largest in terms of seating capacity.

The show last 80 minutes. Tickets for foreigners are $50, $100, and $300. Not sure what to expect (and knowing there will be another chance to see the show), I opt for the cheap tickets. I'm glad I did -- I'm going back on Monday and will upgrade, something to look forward to.

Before the show starts the card flippers go through warm-up exercises that is a show in itself. At each card turn they shout and stomp in absolute unison. (During the performance they are completely silent.)

Afterwards we dine at the hotel. I thought it would be like the old Soviet Union where you took all meals in the hotel in which you stayed, but to my surprise the other four lunches and dinners are served to us in different restaurants. Each has a different speciality. The duck restaurant delivers the many parts of a quacker (but not the feet or bill) in various courses.  The noodle place is less of a hit (think vermicelli, only cold and rubbery and in a foul-tasting sauce); I think they are offended that one portion would have been enough for us all. The best is the beef strips that you barbequed at the table ? tender, lean, and well-marinated ? but the hostesses seem very concerned that we are using up all their cooking gas because every few minutes they come by to monitor and turn down the flame, which we immediately restore to an adequate setting. At all meals we are given beer and rice wine and served more food than we could eat. Of course, kimchi is included in every meal, but I never touch the stuff.

Sunday morning we go to worship. The Great Leader may have passed in 1994, but he is still with us in spirit and in body. His mausoleum, the Kim Il Sung Memorial Palace, is open on Sundays, and this is the first year Americans have been permitted to enter. We have been instructed to dress in our very best: no T-shirts, neckties required for men. Not having brought a tie, I select one from our leader's big bag of ugly ties.

The place is enormous. In comparison, the mausoleums of Mao, Lenin, and Ho are dollhouses. Everywhere else in Pyongyang we visit our bus pulls right up to the front door. Here, the drop-off point is far away. Cameras and bags must be checked. Then, we go through metal detectors. After that, the surreal experience begins.

We pass over automatic shoe-cleaning machines before stepping on to what seems like miles of moving walkways and escalators until, at last, we enter the temple. In the first hall is a Zeus-size statue of The Man in brilliant white. As we enter the second, we are handed Sony mini-players to hold to our ears as we circle a gallery of bronze friezes depicting the grief around the world at the news that the Great Leader has passed on. As we look at larger-than-life Africans prostrate with grief, the tremolo voice of earpiece narrator is keening lamentations such as "the flow of their tears is etched into the concrete!" More galleries display his limousine (Mercedes 600 SEL), his private rail car, and maps of his domestic and world travels. All this is a prelude.

One by one we enter into airlocks where (using 1980's clean-room technology) powerful blowers remove any dust particles from our persons. We form up into lines of four and enter the vast chamber in which the founder and Eternal President of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea rests in a crystal sarcophagus. No smiles, smirks, or jokes. It's like the pope lying in state in the Vatican, only more serious. Koreans around us are crying. When our line of four reaches the foot of the sarcophagus, we must bow (not optional), and again at the head and at each side. All I can say is that the old boy is not looking so good.

We exit into a museum of all the honors, awards, and degrees bestowed upon Him during his life by a grateful nation and world. As you might expect, there is a comprehensive collection of tsotchkes from every tin pot dictator eager to swap, but the list of toadies includes too many real countries.

Finally, we enter a hall lined with massive carved desks holding elaborate pen sets and large comment books, where a representative (luckily, not me) is invited to record his impressions.

On the way out we pass long lines of Koreans who come for their Sunday devotion. We are permitted to take photos in the outside plaza, where Korean groups pose on risers for group photos to mark their visit. Our guides expresses his appreciation for out decorum: in the event of embarrassing behavior, it was his head that was on the line.

On the way back, we stop at the monument to the foundation of the Korean Workers Party. It's a typical Brobignagian, ugly construction.

Then, the Tower of the Juche Idea. Juche is the credo of the nation. The simple translation is "self-reliance," but it represents an entire philosophy, a new way of thinking from the fertile mind of the Great Leader. People here all study it, and there are Juche study groups all over the world (although if there's one in Jacksonville, I've missed it). The tower is a slender obelisk crowned by a red torch on a riverfront plaza, visible from all parts of the city. On a lower plaza units of military or cadets are drilling in formation, but no photos allowed. In the river itself twin fountains shoot 150' water columns into the air while loudspeakers on the opposite bank blare music and exhortations from dawn till dusk. Unfortunately, the tower's elevator is under repair so we can't go to the top.

Sunday is the day off in Pyongyang, and the itinerary originally called for us to spend the day sightseeing. However, the DMZ will be closed tomorrow in preparation for the South Korean presidential motorcade's arrival so our visit needs to be today.

It's a two hour drive along the best (and only) highway in the country. The opposing lanes are divided the entire way by a neatly-trimmed, waist-high privet hedge. Along the entire route we do not encounter a single vehicle in either direction. The road is dead-straight, with numerous tunnels cut through the intervening hills. In most of them crews on ladders are replacing light bulbs, no doubt in preparation for the motorcade tomorrow. Most of the ladders are home-made, pieced together from scrap lumber and not-very-straight tree branches.

The DMZ itself is a bit of a letdown: map displays and political lectures. We visit the buildings where the cease-fire talks lasted for two years and where the armistice was signed. (Both are in the North.) There is a big building overlooking the line and facing a corresponding observation building in the South. (Our schedule shift means we miss out on waving to our counterparts taking the tour from the southern side, where I am told they do a much better presentation.) Finally, marching in a double column, we enter the conference room that straddles the line, the only place where one can pass freely between North and South. Of course, the southern door of the building is closely guarded, as is the line itself. (Once, I read, someone made a successful dash to freedom.) Even our guides have had to surrender their identity cards before entering the DMZ, which they reclaim on exiting.

There is a souvenir shop that sells a cool pamphlet from the Korean Peoples Army Publishing House. The opening paragraphs give the flavor of what we hear at Panmunjom and elsewhere:

The US imperialist aggressors drew the Military Demarcation Line to divide Korea and her people by artificial means. Panmunjom is a place through which the line runs. It is a court which exposes and vehemently denounced the US imperialists' criminal aggression in Korea to the whole world. The US imperialists started a war of aggression (1950-53) in order to swallow up the whole of Korea. But here in Panmunjom they went down on their knees before the Korean people and signed the Armistice Agreement. After the war they committed various military provocations and hostile acts in wanton violation of the Armistice Agreement, for which they wrote many apologies.

Today too, here in Panmunjom the US imperialist aggressors are bitterly denounced by us for the new war moves which are bringing the situation in the Korean peninsula to the brink of war.

Here's their take, as discerned from their propaganda and explained to me by the guide on the drive down: After the Japanese were driven out, the US reoccupied their land, setting up a puppet government in the south. Not content with half of Korea, we instigated the puppet government into a surprise attack on the north. For years we cruelly and mercilessly bombed and laid waste to their country. But the Korean people would not be subjugated, and the vanquished Americans sued for peace. For over half a century the imperialists have sought to reverse their humiliating defeat by continued acts of aggression. Why oh why, they ask, do we come across the seas to kill them and occupy their country? If we left, any differences between north and south would be resolved without need of war. Now here's the scary part: they see no reason to continue to be a victim of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions that have hindered their development. Their army is powerful, we understand only strength, and if we don't leave they will force us out. The US wants war, and they will give it to us.

After a quiet night in the hotel, on Monday morning we visit the metro. Like Moscow's, it is deep underground and the stations are lavishly decorated. On the platforms the Party newspapers are posted for the riders' edification. Each subway car is graced by twin portraits of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. We enter one station and ride to the next. As is every aspect of this trip, it's all been arranged. At each station extra minders appear and position themselves on the staircases to prevent our escape.

Then, a visit to the U.S.S. Pueblo moored in the river. We watch a video and tour the captured spy ship. This is one place with no restrictions on photography. One of the now-aged heroes of the capture is there in uniform and poses with us.

Another highlight is the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. (That's what we call the Korean War.) It's VERY big, and we are conducted through just a fraction of it. We are ushered into two galleries devoted to proving that the US started the war. (When I told the guide that we are taught that the North invaded the South, he thought that was hilarious.) Then, a Disneyesque presentation of an important mountain pass under constant air attack. In a darkened theatre ground fire shoots down enemy aircraft while motorized miniature trucks keep the supply lines open. Then we walk past captured heavy armor and guns and the wreckage of dozens of downed aircraft. The final display (for our visit) is a 360? cyclorama of a 1950 battle south of Seoul in which 24,000 enemy were captured or killed. We are told that 20,000 individuals are depicted on the canvas.


On the way out we stroll through the VFLW memorial, a huge statue of a soldier flanked by ten or so subsidiary sculpture groupings.

Originally on the Sunday agenda was visiting an amusement park and city park to mingle with the locals. It's Monday, and the fun fair is closed, but they open it up for us. It is both fun and thrilling because you think the ancient equipment will fall apart and send the riders hurtling to their deaths. The best (worst) is what we call "The Wheel of Death," once a tilt-a-whirl that has been randomly perforated with a torch and metal plates crudely welded over sections of the holes. There are no belts or safety devices. If you are lucky you will only break your tailbone from the shaking but avoid contracting tetanus from the rusty, jagged metal plates. There are milder games too: care to aim a beanbag at the bloody, gaping wounds of American MPs?

Three more stops finish out the afternoon. Kim Il Sung Square, a vast plaza in front of the Grand Peoples' Study House and facing the Juche Tower across the river, is where mass rallies and military reviews are held. Then, the book store where I pick up some light reading, two pamphlets by the Dear Leader, Kim Il Jong, "On Correctly Understanding The Originally Of Kimilsungism," and "Abuses of Socialism Are Intolerable," but pass on "Korea, the People's Paradise on Earth."  Finally, the stamp store permits us to purchase philatelic reminders of our visit.

Monday night it's mass games redux, this time with a pricier seat and better view. It would take a lot more than twice to grow tired of this show. Interesting note: the US accuses North Korea of counterfeiting our currency, in particular the $100 bill. Our guide records the serial numbers of the C-notes we use to pay for tickets. I inquire, and he tells me that he turns the list in to check if the bills are false. Now, in the detection of counterfeit currency there are many security features to look for, but the serial number provides absolutely no clue unless you already know which ones are bad, information you would not have unless you the one doing the counterfeiting. QED.

Tuesday morning, time to fly back to the real world. As we drive out, crowds of people are on their way to greeting the arriving South Korean president, the women dressed in the national costume and holding flowers. At the airport the arrivals board has a second entry, a flight from Seoul. (It's probably only the second time that sign plate has ever been used.) Our cell phones and passports are returned, and we bid our goodbyes.

It's not everyday you get a political lecture within a flight announcement, but this place is unlike anywhere else. Air Koryo can't resist a parting shot. After thanking us for flying with them, the announcer gal hopes that we will return soon to a "unified Korea free of foreign interference."

trip date: Sept-Oct 2007