Ox-drawn carts squeak by towering marble monuments – with slogans like “Live forever our father” [Kim Il Sung]. Remnants of four-lane highways snake parallel to a single train track that handles all traffic through the northwestern corridor. Schoolchildren in tattered shorts play near stiff-faced sentries (the kids wield sticks; the soldiers, automatic rifles).
Such dichotomies reflect the perplexing and almost unimaginable world that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a hermit kingdom that may harbor a half-dozen nuclear weapons or more while simultaneously being on the brink of a famine that could doom most of its peasant population.
Now, with outside reports that North Korea strongman Kim Jong Il is seriously ill, international attention is focusing once again on this troublesome nation. The world’s leaders remain, however, much as everybody else, befogged about the road ahead for North Korea. The reason for this is simple: practically nothing – news, Western luxuries, even people – is allowed in, or out.
But here I am, riding a German-imported train with 30 other Chinese tourists and plenty of North Korean guards patrolling the cabins, on our way to Pyongyang. I’ve come to see what life here is like for the Koreans, fully expecting the absurd.
What I didn’t expect was a history lesson on my own cultural heritage (I moved from China to the US when I was 6), for I had inadvertently stepped through a time portal into 1970s Red China, right down to the Orwellian surveillance and forced confessions.
My holiday began in Dandong, a wood-print of any other Chinese boomtown, its streets spilling over with traffic, gaudy billboards, and all sorts of touts living out the capitalist dream. One morning late last month, the once-daily train eased across the yawning Yalu River into North Korea.
While there was the expected indignation from the Chinese tourists – “Look at how many people they’ve shoved onto that train,” one woman exclaimed – most passengers were understanding. “They live better than the farmers in Shaanxi and Gansu,” said the man next to me, as he looked out at endless green fields of rice and corn and government-built apartments.
Our traveling entourage included a diverse array of characters: an older woman who would find her brother-in-law’s name at a Pyongyang monument to the Chinese comrades who died during the Korean War; a young serial traveler who was already planning her next trip, a ride on the Tran-Siberian railway to Moscow; a stout ethnic Korean who lived in China and took this journey simply as a weekend diversion.
Even though it has a burgeoning middle class that can now afford to vacation in Thailand or Hawaii, China still has many people who journey to North Korea each year – hundreds per day in August and September during the Arirang mass games, a staged gymnastics spectacle. It could be the red-carpet treatment they receive (five-star hotels, buffet feasts, VIP tickets), but I sense that for my fellow travelers, most in their 50s, this trip was a chance to revisit their still painful adolescence in China, and to say, “Look how far I’ve come.”
The head guide, Ju Rol, a newly married North Korean, greeted us at Pyongyang’s Soviet-era train station. He didn’t wear the ill-fitted suits popular with most North Koreans, but Western-style collared shirts, and along with his near-perfect Chinese accent, he promptly endeared himself to the group – or at least the women, who laughed at his jokes.
He herded us onto a sleek tour bus, which became our classroom for the next three days. The first day’s lesson, as we rode from the captured USS Pueblo to the Pyongyang Metro, covered the “three beauties” of North Korea: the greenery, the air, and the women. As if on cue, one of his new female admirers declared, “You’ll never see blue skies like this in Beijing.”
On Day 2, he focused on the “three frees” of Korean society: education, healthcare, and housing. Because we had a two-hour bus ride to Mt. Myohyang, home to a 400-room fortress where gifts to the DPRK are proudly displayed, he invited questions. “How much grain is allotted to each worker a month?” asked Wang Zhelu, a teacher from Dalian.
“Twenty-seven kilograms,” Mr. Ju replied, which led to murmurs of approval from a group that had grown up with ration coupons (according to the UN’s World Food Program, the actual figure is closer to five kilograms, with meat available only on national holidays).
“What about the apartments – how big are they?” asked Zhao Heping, a retired fighter-jet engineer from Beijing.
“Eight hundred to 1,500 square feet.” This caused more grumbling, as one Beijing resident said that would be bigger than his place.
“Where do we apply to live here?” somebody else quipped, half-jokingly.
As the laughter died down, Liu Yi, a human rights activist from Hong Kong, queried, “Can you buy a car?”
This didn’t seem to be in Ju’s script. After a long silence, he countered, “Yes, if you’re a movie star.” And then he told us to get some rest.
Later that day, at a six-course lunch, the mood was almost wistful. “Life is so carefree here,” said one of the real-estate agents. “In China, from the first day of preschool, you have worries.”
Still, to some of the travelers, it was becoming apparent that one of the North Koreans’ main objectives with the tour was not to make money ($350 for an all-inclusive four days), but to convince the Chinese that a country of 30 million peasants has somehow achieved the ultimate worker’s paradise.
By the end of Day 3, many of the Chinese, however pampered by the food and concerts, were getting restless. The stream of rules governing what they could photograph and where they could go was something they had not experienced since the Cultural Revolution 30 years ago. And they missed their cellphones (kept by North Korean custom agents at the border, along with our passports).
My foray – unsupervised for once – into downtown Pyongyang one afternoon brought its own adventures. At 6 feet, 4 inches and sporting a “I heart Brasil” T-shirt, I was not inconspicuous, and the North Koreans I passed, worried about being linked to a foreigner, avoided all eye contact.
For an hour, I caught a rare glimpse of everyday life in North Korea. To my surprise, it wasn’t much different from your generic third-world city. Conditions were stark, yes, but not as outlandish as many in the West might imagine. There were sidewalk vendors, electric trollies, bicycles, and neighborhood shops.
There was also one notable difference: the unparalleled sense of paranoia and Stalinish control. Take my six-hour ordeal with the Public Security Bureau. I became caught in their net when I snapped some fidgety shots of a vibrant indoor bazaar, a rare free market at work. Stocky women in pink dresses suddenly appeared.
They turned me over to the feared police, who only let me go after securing a self-criticism that would have made Mao proud. But this was not to be my last brush with the authorities. The night before our train ride back to China, the ever-friendly Ju, our guide, refused to leave my hotel room until he could search for the “missing” memory card from my camera.
Fortunately, my roommate chose this moment to dash out of the shower. Ju apparently decided this was too much for him and scampered off into the night.
The next day, on the trip back, our train car went quiet at the North Korean border town of Sinuiju. A cadre of North Koreans, decked out in military fatigues, ordered everyone to empty their bags, checking for ill-gotten photos.
Finally, with a loud cheer from our group, the train lurched from the station, toward the bright lights, the Kentucky Fried Chickens, and the honks of impatient taxi drivers awaiting us across the river in China.