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Pyongyang travel experience

North Korea tourism: Fear and Paranoia

Sep 27, 2010

North Korea's Arirang Festival, which took place last Thursday in the capital Pyongyang. However, an impoverished world is hidden away just off the main boulevards.

Irish Times Reporter reports in this article: The North Korean capital is famously the showcase for a Stalinist experiment gone horribly wrong. Like the embalmed face of the nation’s founder Kim Il-Sung, lying in a glass coffin in his mausoleum in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Pyongyang at night has an eerie waxy pallor that can’t disguise its slow decomposition.

From the 40th floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel, the dim illumination from street lamps and low-watt bulbs in apartment buildings is a telltale sign of the city’s fuel shortage and creaking electricity grid. The brightest lights shine on the architectural baubles, idolatrous murals and giant statues of Kim dotted all around the city.

Off the wide main boulevards, stories abound of poverty and malnutrition following a botched currency re-evaluation last year.

The guides, however, treat visitors like antibodies around a virus, hustling them from one carefully approved site to the next and isolating them in the hotel, dubbed Alcatraz because it is built on an island about a mile southeast of the city centre.

Delegates have already begun gathering in the city for the first conference of the ruling Workers Party in more than 40 years.

Tomorrow they will meet in Mansudae Assembly Hall – a few miles from the hotel – to discuss a successor to Kim’s son, Kim Jong-il, who is recovering from a stroke suffered in 2008.

Our guides in Pyongyang, who surely know these facts, remain tight-lipped, batting away questions about the transition or what it could mean for this crippled nation.

“We are not politicians, only ordinary people,” says one.

Last Friday morning a British colleague and I decided to slip our guides to see Pyongyang for ourselves. We left the hotel at dawn, walking quickly across the bridge from Yanggak Island, ignoring the quizzical glances from North Koreans astonished at the sight of two unaccompanied westerners in probably the world’s most isolated capital.

Many were just starting their day, heading off to work on foot, on bicycles or in the city’s rusting electric tram system. Women crimped their hair as they hurried to the tram; men walked their daughters to school.

A typical morning anywhere, except this is modern life stripped bare: no iPods, jeans, T-shirts or sneakers, which are banned as foreign affectations. Mobile phones are as rare as sparrows in winter.

As we walked off a main road, about half a mile northwest from our hotel into the backstreets, the facade began to slip. Here the roads are potholed, the people are scruffier and more sullen and some appear to live in slum-like conditions.

Rounding one street we came across a group of maybe 200 huddled around a makeshift street market, our first concrete sign that even here, in North Korea’s carefully cultivated Potemkin Village, the country’s state- controlled distribution system, is shot to pieces.

The crowd eyed us nervously. Markets such as this are illegal because, among other reasons, they strike at the heart of the official claim that the Kim Jong-il dictatorship will provide all.

However, they allow people one of the few places outside of official gatherings to meet and talk.

Women on haunches rolled out slabs of meat, vegetables, apples, even underwear – a prized commodity here – ready to disperse at the first sign of trouble.

As I raised my camera to take a picture, the crowd began yelling furiously and pointing and several came for us. A man in a scruffy army uniform demanded our cameras. We tried to walk away as our bags were violently tugged; my colleague stumbled and fell.

We realised we simply had no choice if we were going to escape safely. We surrendered our cameras, my colleague even handed over some money.

Our interrogator then tried to march us to what looked like a police station but we shook him off, before making a wrong turn and walking straight into a phalanx of green uniforms – a local guard-post.

Foreign journalists have been locked up here before. US citizens Euna Lee and Laura Ling were held for more than four months two years ago after being captured reporting along the border. They were freed only after a rescue mission by former US president Bill Clinton.

Ours was a comparatively minuscule offence – wandering off base and taking photographs without permission. Luckily for us we aren’t Americans, but we mentally rehearsed the possible consequences.

The further that news of our excursion went up the chain of command, the more likely we would be subjected to a full background check. We had come in disguised as ordinary tourists.

Back in my hotel room were my press ID, business cards and a laptop with articles I’d written on Kim, including one called “Schooldays of a Tyrant”.

If the trouble stayed within this neighbourhood goon squad, we might get away with a ticking off from our guides. If not, who knows?

My colleague began explaining that we were in town as delegates to the Pyongyang Film International Festival and had simply gone for a stroll. As we talked, an army vehicle drove up and a soldier came in carrying our cameras, which he had retrieved from the crowd. The men fiddled awkwardly with the unfamiliar technology before giving up and demanding we show our pictures.

My memory card didn’t work, probably damaged in the melee. My colleague’s showed only a single blurred image of the market and several dozen of his blonde one-year-old daughter.

When the men saw her, they softened and swapped cigarettes. Another group of more senior soldiers drew up and we watched as they mimed the story of how two six-foot foreigners had been relieved of their cameras and money by the much shorter Koreans, drawing laughter all around.

We were ordered into a van and driven back to the hotel where our guide, Mr Cha, was waiting for us. His face registered shock as they told him the news. In this rigidly hierarchical society, he was responsible for us and shared the consequences.

Our journalist colleagues, three Scandinavians, a Frenchman and an American – all also disguised as tourists – would suffer the collective punishment.

Our scheduled trip to the Korean demilitarised zone was cancelled while a makeshift tribunal, chaired by the boss of the travel company, was hastily convened.

In the gravelly voiced tones of a chain smoker, the boss intoned that our actions had put a “black stain” on improving relations between his country and Britain; it wasn’t the time to point out that I was Irish. We would be confined to our hotel until the trip ended and would write a letter of apology “from our hearts”.

The letter was read aloud, the boss pronounced himself satisfied but told us that our camera memory cards, containing four days’ images, would be kept. It was better than the alternative.

Afterwards we joked with our colleagues about who would have rescued us had we been thrown into a North Korean gulag, unlikely as that was.

Tony Blair perhaps, shrugging his shoulders at Pyongyang’s tiny airport as he appealed for, y’know, mutual understanding.

Later, a tearful Mr Cha relented and allowed us to leave the hotel to attend the closing ceremony of the film festival. Over a final drink, he toasted us, but the memory cards remained confiscated, all except a handful of anodyne photographs.

“I hope you understand our country better and will come back,” he said later over a beer. “We want people to like and respect our country.”

North Korea tourism: Fear and Paranoia
David McNeil took this image at the North Korea's Arirang Festival

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