My trip to North Korea taught me that the best way to learn about another country (and more about my own) was to go there and see it for myself.
Traveling to North Korea requires preparation, everything from certifying you don’t have Ebola, to promising not to bring religious material, to being respectful of political differences. All are part of the process. Obtaining the visa is easy if all boxes are checked correctly and the requirements met. Truly the difficult road to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was the pushback I encountered from friends and acquaintances here in the United States. The narrative I heard was consistent. They all questioned my sanity and feared for my safety.
My plan was deemed foolish, dangerous and irresponsible. I was told stories of North Korean concentration camps, torture, gestapo like tactics, eavesdropping and surveillance, being drawn into a ruse and disappearing into a hellhole along with gruesome executions by mortar or anti-aircraft artillery. I was entering a grim world of grayness and universal depression, void of laughter or humor, where people were trapped and unable to travel, where there were no modern conveniences — and all of this from people who’d never been there before.
The level of disapproval (accompanied with dumbfounded facial expressions) and charged emotional reactions were beyond anything I’d ever experienced. Was I naive to think I could spend eight days touring the DPRK, part of it on a bicycle and be able to come back to my world in California? Only time would tell.
My U.S. contact for organizing my trip was Andrea with Uri Tours out of New Jersey. I contacted Andrea about 20 days prior to my decision to go. She was immensely helpful in getting all the required documents and educated me on the particulars of visiting the DPRK.
I was pleased to hear I would be on a tour of one, just me, without the chatter of other tourists or feeling like I was part of a cattle herd. She also organized my visit to be partly on bicycle. I enjoy exploring the world from the perspective of a bike, it’s a pace that allows information to be absorbed and appreciated.
I met my contact Yuan at the Beijing airport prior to the flight to North Korea. Yuan handed me my visa, a simple folded piece of paper about the size of my passport with a DPRK logo in front and handwritten signature and date on the inside. It all seemed so easy, too easy. Perhaps all the warnings were true, I was being lured into a very dangerous place to be snared and held for life.
I stood in line at the North Korea’s national airline (Air Koryo) check-in counter with Yuan. I was giddy with excitement. I looked around at the other people in line; after all, I was laying eyes on DPRK citizens for the first time. Some were laughing, joking and hugging friends and relatives. Children restlessly held on to their parents. I could have been at the United Airlines counter at LAX and never known the difference. Surely, these couldn’t be North Koreans unless they were returning defectors (or actors) who’d taken anti-depression pills. I asked Yuan if these people were North Koreans. She looked at me with confusion and said yes, they travel!
I made my way to the gate, expecting to see some dinosaur of an airplane that would take me to this deep hellhole called Pyongyang, about a 2-hour flight. I let out a burst of laughter when I saw part of the wing and fuselage from the terminal. It was a Boeing 757. Could Air Koryo be flying an American built airplane? I was confused. I thought we had sanctions against North Korea. I know the Boeing 757 very well — I’ve been a commercial airline pilot for many years.
But once inside, I realized it wasn’t a Boeing 757. It was a very accurate Russian copy known as a TU-204-300. They had me fooled. I showed the flight attendant my airline ID and asked if I could meet the captain. It’s a common professional etiquette we do as pilots. A couple of very serious air marshals quickly escorted me to my seat. Meeting the captain was not in the cards. One more point of interest: the DPRK’s national carrier has a first class section. Apparently their egalitarian system doesn’t apply at 35,000 feet.
Once I arrived in Pyongyang, immigration was effortless and painless. My guides were waiting for me. I wasn’t difficult to identify. They’d received my picture and I was one of two Caucasians on the plane. The driver spoke no English but Ms. Soe and Mr. Lee (my two guides) spoke perfect English. They greeted me with nice smiles and a warm welcome.
We would grow close in the next eight days, laughing, singing karaoke, drinking beer, talking about life, family, politics, philosophy and sharing meals and picnics. They guided me, protected me and made sure all of my needs were met. All three were convinced I was a U.S. spy and asked what my mission was. It became a running joke. I would randomly announce my “true” intent and claim I was in North Korea to find the secret of growing rice or making perfect kimchi.
Pyongyang is a lovely city set along the Taedong River with parks and bike paths. Traffic officers are mostly attractive uniformed women with robot like head and arm movements assuring smooth circulation. The subway, at 360 feet below ground level, is one of the deepest in the world and doubles as a bomb shelter.
The first impression I had was the lack of commercial activity. No billboards, no advertising, no indication that a restaurant is located within a particular structure. Everything is state owned, no private enterprise. People are taken care of from cradle to grave. Free health care, free housing, free education and almost free transportation (the subway is a penny).
There are very few private cars so no problematic traffic. But the roads are in bad shape and so is the infrastructure. Every day I would get stuck in an elevator due to power outage or occasionally have no water in my hotel room. Personally I found these inconveniences minor hiccups, simply part of being in a developing country. To truly understand other cultures we need to remove our western, Eurocentric, capitalistic glasses and allow for a different road map to exist. My aim was not to confront, challenge or attempt to change minds; I was in North Korea to observe and try to understand.
I ate in state run tourist restaurants and was very pleased with the food. They were gracious in accommodating my vegetarian diet. Three dishes can describe Korean food, kimchi, cold buckwheat noodles and bibimbap. But I saw an array of flavors and dishes way beyond those three to include fish, fried rice and delicious marinated tofu.
I requested and was schooled on proper Korean table etiquette and would wait and observe closely the manners of others. Should I use my chopsticks to transfer food from common dishes to my plate? The answer, yes. I noticed my beverage glass would be filled to the rim by others, even the toasting and clicking of glasses had importance. Status and respect was afforded by making sure their glass made contact with mine near the base.
I wasn’t allowed in grocery stores but from what I could see from the windows, the shelves were not well stocked. Basic food stuff was available with little variety. I rarely saw fruit and was told it was for snacks. In the 1990s, North Korea experienced a severe famine that took the lives of many people. The collapse of the USSR and the grain shortage in China were the main cause, but the North Korean government blamed the United States. Today they are working hard to create a self-sufficient agricultural sector to prevent that from happening again.
No question, the DPRK is in a state of war preparedness. Every day we were stopped at check points to present identification. The military is an integral part of society, they are respected (and feared) and given the sole responsibility for all construction and infrastructure. The message is clear early on in people’s lives; the evil imperialist Americans have a single purpose and that is to destroy and crush their country. Every precaution is taken to counter that threat but like our own industrial military complex, this fear is used to create dependency on government and to consolidate power.
At the DMZ (Demilitarized Military Zone) an officer told me that if the U.S. does anything to North Korea, Hawaii would be wiped off the surface of the earth. This kind of saber rattling is common in the U.S. too — we have our share of warmongers. We were instructed not to point, wave or put our hands in our pockets. Running towards the dividing line would result in being shot. My guide told me the South Koreans would shoot first.
The DPRK teaches kindergartners that America is a rogue state without morals, willing to use nuclear weapons against civilians. Posters of the most graphic kind are on walls showing atrocities committed by the American war machine. It’s no wonder that a visceral reaction of hate results when you identify yourself as an American.
Despite the military posturing, the “axis of evil” that my government sells and our media promotes is not what I experienced. We revel in devaluing and lampooning those who don’t follow our way of life or whom we perceive as uncool. It’s unfortunate. I saw families walking and dancing in parks, lovers kissing and hold hands, kids skating at ice rinks, excited couples getting married and children proudly playing their musical instruments at after-school centers called “Youth Palaces.”
This is an atheist state but the most radical religious person in America would bow to the DPRK’s moral norms, of no abortions, no premarital sex, no living together before marriage, no tolerance for homosexuality and very few divorces. Simply remove the word “God” and insert “Kim Jung Un“– the differences are minor.
Crime is nonexistent; people are secure in their homes and in public but fear the outside world. We in the West have the opposite view. We fear our neighbors and strangers but rarely fear a foreign army will invade our country. Teachers and professors are held to the highest esteem and given preferential housing. I was told that freedom of religion exists in the DPRK and as proof I did see churches of different denominations. But I’m under the impression that those churches are equivalent to saying that racism is gone in America because we have a black president.
The North Korean government has a choke hold on information, therefore there’s very limited Internet access. What is available is filtered. It’s akin to living in a world where there’s only one news network and only one political party. Three government run TV channels broadcast mostly patriotic content. I watched hours of well-orchestrated, uniformed-clad attractive women professing total submission to the state through songs and music.
The people are only aware of the ills of the West, not much of the good. They know about racial profiling, killing of blacks by white police (they can recall every incident by memory), violent riots and how police brutally beat down demonstrators. They see our system as exploiting workers for the benefit of the rich. They believe they’ve found utopia and are living in paradise. They want a unified Korean peninsula with one government and two systems, a socialist north and a free market south. This might sound contradictory – one government and two systems. Why would they want two systems if their system is the best system? The answer is simple, expecting South Korea to change is improbable.
When I talk about my experience to people who warned me about going to the DPRK, I find some don’t want to hear a narrative that is counter to theirs. They don’t have the patience and walk away. Others see my trip as “sleeping with the enemy” and have de-friended me. The propaganda runs on both sides, we demonize those who refuse to be our puppets and they, on the other side, offer a very negative and narrow view of America.
My last day was an emotional one, as I said goodbye to my guides at the airport, our eyes swelled up with tears. We came from different worlds and our paths had crossed briefly, now it was time to return to our respective worlds. We had found common ground irrespective of the vicious narrative our governments hurl and we learned a valuable lesson: common people sharing a slice of life is the first step to lasting peace.
Copyright © Carl Paradise/2015 Singular Communications, LLC.