Friday, January 04, 2013

How I Survived North Korea - Q&A's

In Nov, 2012 I jumped on a chance to see the most mysterious country in the world - North Korea. Far from being a ideal tourist destination, a visit to North Korea carries obvious risks. In the same month, CNN reported that an American tourist was arrested for "unspecified crimes" against North Korea.  Lucky for me, I made it out unscathed and here is my story. This blog will not be structured as a "how to" article as linking in the tour and the guides that gave me access into the country would actually put people in real danger. If you are really interested to visit North Korea, send me a message and I'll share with you what I know. It is surprisingly easy even for a American like me. As I signed documents prohibiting me from publishing on anything I've seen in the country, this would be for my personal recollection only and I'm sharing with family and friends. Note that my views are probably biased by my fervent believe in democracy and my suspicion that the trip was mostly orchestrated. 
Posing infront of dear leader and his pops
Most unusual combination... 

How was I allowed into North Korea as a American?

North Korea officially started allowing American tourists into the country in 2010. But to the surprise of no one, US travel agencies weren't flooded with eager tourists dying to visit the hermit kingdom. In fact, Less than 2,500 U.S. citizens have visited North Korea, ever. I'm quite proud to have nudged that number up by 1. Nonetheless, I did have my reservations. The US gov websites made it clear that it is heavily discouraged for Americans to ever visit North Korea. It was imperative to have proper documentation. But even with proper documentation, the site continued, random imprisonment could and have occurred (it indeed happen in the same month!). Pretty dire warning, but hey, we only live once and I was operating under the assumption that the world would end on Dec 21. So I loaded my suitcases up with instant noodles and made the trip.

Not a frequent flier on this one..

Is North Korea as oppressive as they say it is?

I was born in mainland China where I lived for ten years before moving to the States, so I can perhaps give a little bit of perspective when I say I've never felt as restricted as I have in the 4 days that I was in North Korea. Nevertheless, the country did not seem as bad as how the Western media has portrayed it to be, although the paranoia of foreigners is definitely present. 

Upon arrival at the North Korean airport, our passports and mobile phones were confiscated immediately (to be returned on departure) along with any devices that had GPS functionality. After which point, we were essentially cut off from the rest of the world with no proof of identification. Being an American, I'm aware of the regime's feelings towards the States, so I was extra careful with guarding my tongue from committing accidental mockeries of the regime... 
Our tour guide/minders

A loose tongue is a real concern as we have been warned before leaving BJ that we would be under surveillance and our hotel rooms are most likely bugged. Nonetheless, we relaxed somewhat on the last day and started testing the boundaries of the rules which resulted in a guard at the airport confronting us and deleting pictures from our camera. (We were warned to not take any pictures that would portray North Korea in a bad light. And the North Korean airport, in short, was a dump) Being told what you can say/do and can not say/do feels kind of strange.  Freedom of speech is never really missed until you do not have it anymore.

Are North Koreans happy?

I would guess that the North Koreans I've seen are not any more or less happy than you and me. Happiness, in my opinion, is a relative and temporary state of being. If you were born in North Korea and all your buddies and neighbors are living in similar conditions, then you would probably believe you are doing alright, similar to a American with a 2 car garage house and 2.5 kids. Of course, that is completely dependent on if primary needs such as food and shelter were being met. I guess the lucky ones in Pyongyang the capital, where we visited, had it covered. 
Mixed in with the North Koreans
I'm on the far right

Just to proof that North Koreans are happy, at least some of the time. Here is a picture of us at a North Korean amusement park. I wished I could've taken more pictures because it was probably the most interesting sight I've ever seen. The North Koreans marched, yes literally marched in formation, around the amusement park from attraction to attraction. There was a army platoon there along with a factory unit sitting on the rides with us side by side. It was one of the highlights of the trip. 
North Korean wedding. One of the few cell phones in the country

Is there enough food to eat?

I understand that there is currently another famine going on in North Korea. The famine of 1998 killed an estimated 2.5 million people which is tragic on so many levels. I'm guessing that this time is not as bad since I haven't seen any starving people on the street. Then again, we were guided to all the best areas of the capital, so we may never know the real picture. 
I brought instant noodles from HK

However, the acute shortage of meat is easily observed since we barely had any during our 4 days there. On the last day, we were genuinely excited to hear that we are going to Korean BBQ for dinner. However, strangely enough, they served us plates of duck meat instead of the usual pork and beef that is usual for Korean BBQ. This resulted in half of our group getting food poisoned. Many unfortunately experienced the symptoms during their 36 hour train ride back to BJ... (I luckily flew back since Americans aren't allowed on North Korean trains)  
Mystery meat?
Lots of food, no meat

Is Kim Jong-Un really that pudgy?

Yes. Here is a picture of him planting a tree. This was on the cover of a inflight magazine. I kept it as a kickass souvenir. But then I realized it really wasn't that special because he is on the cover of every newspaper and magazine in the country, all day, every day... 

The new sheriff in town

What's the difference between North Korea DMZ and South Korea DMZ?

The DMZ, as you know, is the boarder between the North and the South and is one of the most dangerous boarders in the world. I had the opportunity to visit the South Korea DMZ several years back so it was interesting for me to observe the differences.

1. The area immediately around the DMZ - On the South Korean side, there were lots of UN soldier and military vehicles, sort of what you would expect on such a boarder. In contrast, on the North Korean side, it was pretty much farm fields all the way up to the boarder. There were farmers plowing the field with their ox. Beside a few military checkpoints, I barely saw any solider on the North side. 

2. The way the soldiers stood at the DMZ - If you look at the picture below, on the South Korean side, the soldiers are facing away towards the North. They are standing with half of their body covered by the building so they could duck easily if the North decides to shoot. In contrast, the North soldiers stand facing each other, with instructions to gun the other North Korean down if he attempts to run to the South. There is one extra soldier on the North Side facing back towards the North, presumably to prevent anyone from running across the boarder. 
The South facing outward
The North facing inward

3. Different version of history - I won't go into detail but our North Korean guide told us a version of history that is completely different from what the rest of the world believes in. 

Is North Korea as closed off as they say it is?

I did not see any sign of foreign publication in the hands of the general public. We were taken to the Pyongyang library where the director there proudly took out several foreign books for us to see. However, upon closer inspection, you can see from the picture below that these books haven't been checked out even once, at least officially. There were many computers in the library, but they were not connected to the internet. 
Mint condition
Hasn't been checked out once

We had the opportunity to visit several classrooms where students were learning English. One North Korean student asked us "if the outside world really still thought that there was only one Korea". This seemed to me to be a genuine question that reflected how closed off they are from the outside world. But on the other hand, you hear stories of smuggled Chinese cell phones and South Korean drama dvds, so I'm sure the population is becoming more aware. 

Is the tour a real representation of North Korea?

Probably not. Extraordinary efforts were spent on impressing us. We were painstakingly driven around several tall apartment complexes in Pyongyang. At night, they were all brightly lit to give the appearance of prosperity. The only problem is that none of the windows had curtains and I saw absolutely no movement behind any of the windows on any night. And any tale-tell sigh of habitation is also absent. There were no laundries laid out; there were no flower pots on the windows, no sign of any life at all. 
Empty new apt building

We were taken on a visit of Pyongyang's metro system. At first I was amazed by the fact that there were so many people taking the subway in the middle of the day. It felt like any overflowing busy Asian cosmopolitan city. However, everything felt wrong in the way that everything was so pitch perfect like it was a part of a movie script. And if you compare the deserted streets and boulevards with the comically jam packed subway, you would start to suspect, like I have, that these were all just actors instructed to make the subway appear busy. 


We were kept on a tight leash. There were two minders with us during the whole trip and I noticed that there were more observers at every site we visited. At no point of the journey were we able to deviate from the original plan. One of the hotels we stayed at is nicknamed Alcatraz since it is located in the middle of a island surrounded by a moat so it's not possible for tourists to wonder off by themselves. 

The "Alcatraz" hotel

In summary, what is your general impression?

Given that I'm assuming 90% of the tour was completely orchestrated, I can't say for sure what it is like being a North Korean. On those rare attempts where we were allowed to take a stroll through the town and see people going about their business, I do see a sense of purpose in their strides. I would imagine that the north Korea now is similar to what China was like during the great leap forward in the 50s. The similarity is uncanny - one party totalitarian system, mass famine and a society closed off from the world. The key difference was that power transitioned away from Mao's family after his death since Mao's wife was arrested and his sole surviving heir was mentally ill, while its arguable that all of the Kim's lineage suffers from mental illnesses of a grander scale, they, unfortunately, are still in power. 

One book that I highly recommend is Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. I had it with me and tried to finish it before the trip but ended up taking it into North Korea and had to hide it in my suitcase between my boxers for fear of discovery. Eventually I made it out alive with the book and finished it. Extremely well written and informative. 
Propaganda was everywhere
Probably 25% of everyone we saw were in uniform
Even civilians stay in formation
Some communistic monument... 
The North's version of the Tienanmen Square

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