A North Korean Affair: Part One

First of three parts
I think it’s a good sign when your heart skips a beat because a North Korean airport immigrations officer is stoically inspecting your passport and you have butterflies in your stomach because you realize you’d forgotten the Immodium.

Standing inside that flat-slab, spacious terminal on Feb. 14, waiting for my luggage on the snaking carousel, I thought: This is the Valentine’s that will defeat all others and I already feel sorry for anyone who attempts to top my week-long trip to Pyongyang.

Two amazing things are happening here. One, I’m going to Pyongyang. Two, some elderly Chinese dudes just invaded the ladies’ bathroom. For complete, unadulterated photos, visit my Picasa album

Our two-hour flight from Beijing on Air Koryo’s Russian Ilyushin plane was quite smooth and punctuated by chipper revolutionary music during lulls. My window seat offered gorgeous views of China’s mountain ranges and lakes, though Pyongyang was shrouded in fog as we landed.

They showed a lengthy in-flight movie called “A Traffic Controller in Crossroads,” which from what I gleaned was about a female traffic cop’s romance with a beret-sporting catering services driver. Some in our tour group of 29 sat with official-looking North Koreans, a few of whom seemed none too pleased at being sandwiched by excited foreign faces.

Their airport terminal.

The stewardesses gave out magazines with a moist red flower (which I later learned was the Kimjongilia) on the cover. Inside were pictures of the Dear Leader on his excursions, his medals and awards, and stock photos of the DPRK’s progress in such sectors as science, agriculture and orchestra music.

I was expecting a thorough tour of my luggage at customs, but a friendly officer with high cheekbones simply asked us if we had laptops, mp3 players, cameras with GPS (not allowed) or other notable electronic devices, then waved us along. Between the X-ray machine and the exit, I somehow lost my alarm clock, knit hat and a small guidebook from Koryo Tours. Others noted losing packs of cigarettes.

Some of us received individual visas and others got group visas. Our passports would never get stamped by the DPRK, which is a shame — but probably for the best.

The tour started romantically enough, with a stop at the Arch of Triumph, which is just like its French cousin except for the revolutionary inscriptions and brass reliefs portraying victory over Japanese occupation. Close to the site is a mural marking the spot where Kim Il-sung made a speech about rebuilding the nation.

I smiled at a middle-aged man arranging bright artificial flowers inside a big pot next to the road, and he smiled back. Already, there were bouquets of rainbow-colored balloons lining the highway, which I took as a sign that Kim Jong-il’s birthday (two days later) would be a jovial affair instead of a depressing, tear-streaked one.

We crossed the highway and were right in front of the Kim Il-Sung Stadium, where the Mass Games used to be held. On the edge of the square, we spotted some white tents and a crowd. Nick from Koryo asked the guide in a “pretty please” voice if we could check it out, and it turned out to be a winter fair serving the DPRK equivalent of carnival food at the foot of Fun Fair, a theme park with Italian rides.

We had been split into two groups, A and B, based on our attractiveness (I’m kidding) and were given a CIA-factbook-like briefing of Pyongyang by our female North Korean tour guides, who spoke excellent English. Korea means “land of the bright sun”; Pyongyang means “flat land” and has a population of 3 million. Our guide, Kim Un-hee, also explained on the bus the many battles and discords that split the peninsula in two.

On the way, we saw a couple of monuments, such as the Immortality Monument, built after Kim Il-sung died and points straight up at the sky, whose red inscription reminds the people that he is still in their hearts.

But I was more interested in observing what seemed like North Korean rush hour, with people briskly walking or cycling home, giving our tour bus a quick stare or passing glance. Throughout the trip, we couldn’t take photos of them, but could wave at them, and we all felt such a thrill when they waved back. A lot of the commuters were crammed into buses or trams, painted on the sides with red stars, each symbolizing 50,000km traveled without any accidents.

Yanggakdo Hotel, where we checked in after the day tour and where we stayed for six nights, turned out to be pretty nice, comfortable and well-equipped with entertainment (bar, bowling alley, ping-pong court, billiard hall, spa, casino, bookshop, souvenir shop, sauna, mysterious 5th floor where the staff reputedly live and we couldn’t find).

I roomed with a Norwegian girl living in Shanghai named Lindis, who had an oddly American accent and whose boyfriend lives in Moscow. In the evenings, we would both write furiously in our journals while eating lots of chocolate, which we would shell out to chambermaids and our guides. The first night after checking in, we treated ourselves to state TV, showing reruns of Kim Jong-il cutting ribbons, getting presented with bottles of wine or posing with his closest cadres.

A big booth at the hotel bar, which we hit at the end of each day to swap stories or play poker, a practice frowned upon by the ultra-efficient waitresses.

The hotel overlooks the frozen Deadong River and is on an island named after the shape of a sheep’s horn. It had hot running water, good room service and thick red blankets that probably saved me from dying in the dead of night. You can walk around the compound if you ask permission.

Our senior unpaid intern at the Globe, Steve, had once said he’d played golf at the hotel’s nine-hole course, but on my trip, the green had been cleared to make way for an “entertainment complex.” So for the time being, our main amusement was drinking their microbrew, a malty lager, for 15 yuan (1.5 euros) each draft — probably distilled at the brewery North Korea had transplanted, piece by piece, from Britain.

View from the 34th floor of Yanggakdo. It is often called Amusing Alcatraz because we’re on a secluded island, but kept well-fed and entertained.

I always liked it when, on my way up to the 34th floor, I would share a lift with some random North Korean who more often than not spoke a foreign language other than their native tongue, which in the North is a lot more formal and devoid of foreign characters that had sneaked into that of the South. I met quite a few travel agency officials, one diplomat based in Berlin and a French-speaking researcher who said my accent was c’est excellent.

Our first full day of touring crammed an 11-point itinerary that saw us thrown into a cycle of exhaustion on the warm bus, near-hypothermia when we were walking outside, and overstimulation when we’d see the sights and try to absorb what the local guides (on-site experts other than our own guides) were saying. We got used to it after a while.

The morning of Feb. 15, we were at the Metro Museum, getting shown around the painstakingly curated process of building their underground subway system by a lady who reminded me of my mother.

Another lady, called “the boss,” watched us like a hawk, waiting to claw at anyone who took photos of anything inside, apart from the massive mural in the chandeliered foyer. She sneered at Eva, a Danish mother of three who was born in Seoul, when she took out her iPad, probably worried that Eva would take photos.


Their metro, the deepest in the world, was essentially built with the micromanaging guidance of Kim Il-sung, who picked everything down to the color of tile used on the platform. They kept everything: the chair he used to test the escalator, the desk where he signed orders for construction and naming of the stations, the trolley bus he rode when he was inspecting the sites and cheering on the workers.

Conversely, we were allowed to go trigger-happy with our cameras at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, where I felt my ears burn in the cavernous chill. We watched an ancient video on how the war started mainly because the United States wanted to boost its war economy.

All the special effects were circa 1970, much like the rest of the city, which seems stuck in that era. We were shown lighted diagrams of the advance-retreat of the Korean People’s Army in the face of the imperialist-controlled South and a moving diorama of a mountain war scene illustrating the hard push to the front line under constant American carpet-bombing.

We also got a tour in the basement of the captured military hardware and the mangled skeletons of planes flown by the DPRK’s pilots. The really funny part was when the museum guide turned to me and asked, “Have you ever seen a diorama before?” I said, “Yes, just at the Metro Museum.” Then she smirked and said with curled lips, “We’ll see.”

True enough, her museum’s diorama kicked every other DPRK diorama’s ass. We were led into a circular theater, which revolved on an axis so we could get a 360-degree view of a 30-plus-meters tall, 100-odd-meters-wide strip of canvas painted with ridiculously detailed war scenes and fronted by plaster props of tanks, ruined houses and tiny people. I think it was meant to be testament of how much damage the DPRK sustained in the war, but how it still managed to soldier on.

Then it was a quick stop at the War Monument, where I took pictures of myself playing in dirt-streaked ice, which invisible hands would always shovel into neat mounds on sidewalks or grass beds by the time we’d go on tour. Lindis teased that while everyone else was taking photos of structures, “the only Filipino in the group was taking pictures of snow.”

Lunch was at a Korean barbecue restaurant, where we had the comparatively best meal (grilled squid, duck and pork) we would have in Pyongyang. The menus would vary a little in succeeding days, but we would always be fed cabbage.

We ate in what looked like pop-up barracks, which filled with the smoke from our fires but didn’t stop the colorfully dressed waitresses (all comely) from performing for us. They sang my favorite Kamsa Hamnida (Thank You) song, which I would hum during our trips or before going to sleep, until Lindis said she might bludgeon me into silence. One of the girls rocked out to an accordion.

She has just serenaded Zeb, our burly Oklahoman, who wore an NBA band around his forehead the entire trip and who, along with the Australian surgeon from our group, later had a Kim Jong-il suit tailored at the hotel.

We came out smelling like burned meat in time to waft into the Mangyongdae compound, where Kim Il-sung’s ancestral home is. It is pretty romantic because as you walk in the gate, there’s classical orchestra music coming from a speaker tucked under a small tree, and the place has winding cement paths, a nice gazebo and snow-covered foliage.

Our guide spoke in very soothing tones (like the operator voice that informs you that you’ve run out of cellphone credit) and showed us around the house, now painted mustard and has small rooms containing photos and furniture: his mother’s wedding chests, their straw mats, Kim Il-sung’s writing desk, the family’s noodle press, his grandmother’s embarrasingly misshapen soy barrel (purchased at discount because they were so poor).

I wrote to my little brother later that he was the same age as the Eternal President when he left home to “save his country,” and I pressured him to do great things at 13. The lady guide spoke about the leader’s origins and accomplishments with such feeling. Hers was the kind of expression depicted in the city’s murals, showing people gazing at Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il, both always bathed in golden light.

The land was entrusted to Kim’s family by a landlord and they stayed here for generations. It is often repeated that the Kims come from a long line of revolutionaries.

If you ask any in our tour group what the highlight of their trip was, many of them will say it was getting to ride the metro with the citizens. We went from Prosperity Station to Glory Station, where we stopped to admire the chandeliers fashioned to look like fireworks and a bust of Kim Il-sung, then waited for another train so we could alight four stops away at the Triumphant Return Station near the Arch of Triumph.

Each station is opulent like a Russian castle, and the walls have murals of the nation’s leaders touting some technological advancement or national progress. Inside the trains, painted red and apple green, speakers would blare what I thought were the day’s news, read by a man who spoke in a battlecry.

A little boy ran inside and stopped dead when he saw that he would be sitting next to Tero and Sammi, Finnish graduate students. He turned around and looked at me and Daniel the Chinese-Canadian, two Asian faces grinning at him and his little predicament. The boy eyed the empty seat next to me, shrugged and sat down unmoving until the next station. It was hilarious.

It got more crowded on the second train, where I got very well-acquainted with an elderly North Korean man’s right ear. Escalators into and out of there are pretty steep — almost vertical — but it didn’t seem to bother the streams of commuters, who also seemed unfazed by the sudden appearance of foreigners.

Then it was the Tower of Juche Idea, which holds that man is the master of his own destiny. Self-reliance is a valid principle to embrace if you’ve been oppressed or bullied for decades by Japan, Russia, China and America. On the viewing deck atop the 170-meter-tall tower, my 5-euro elevator ticket, a master of its own destiny, decided to escape my clutches and fly into the pretty city below.

The entrance was plastered with marble slabs with names of donors (from Finland, Pakistan, Bangladesh or even cities like New York) who helped finance the 250,000 plus bricks used to erect an idea. There is a massive park trailing the river below, and pastel-colored buildings in neat rows that Un-hee said were mostly apartment buildings.

I remarked that the viewing deck would be a great place to propose, and the local guide said that in her years of service, she’s only seen one couple (Dutch, no less) exchange rings 150 meters above ground and armed with fresh knowledge of self-reliance.

We then visited a flower exhibition featuring thousands of potted Kimjongilias, huge red flowers which only bloom for a year but one-upped their American begonia cousins in terms of size and appearance. All these flowers were real, as I touched one of the petals when we were riding up the escalator to the second-floor pavilion. There is also a Kimilsungia, a purplish orchid hybrid.

A nice female guide, clad in a powder blue, tulle-sleeved Choson-ot dress, took us through the many iterations of what images (birds, continents, the numbers “216” for the late Dear Leader’s birthday) a cluster of Kimjongilias could create, much like parade floats. She liked peppering her speeches with, “Well, you know” with a twang. She told me later, as she helped me purchase DPRK cigarettes, that she knew a bit of Tagalog!

Apart from a framed photo, propped on one of the exhibits, of Kim Jong-il the Sunday before he died, the star attraction, for me, was this nine-year-old boy, Jong Chong-hyok, who won acclaim for cultivating nice Kimjongilias at such a young age in honor of the Dear Leader.

The sign says something along the lines of, “I miss you, Father Kim.” 

Guys carrying old 16mm film cameras, the types with double spools of highly flammable celluloid, kept on prompting the guide to make us face their direction, and we wondered if we’d be on a propaganda film. At the bar two nights later, Amy the Welsh lawyer spotted us on a state TV news piece about the exhibit. Score!

Then our final stop before hotpot dinner at the Embassy district was the Worker’s Party Foundation Monument, which represents the worker, working intellectual and farmer through massive fists clutching a hammer, paintbrush and sickle, respectively. (At this point, my camera died. Batteries use up faster in the cold.)

One of the Finnish guys on the group described the showcase capital as “just like Finland.”

Our local guide, like many of her peers in days to come, magically appeared at the site in impeccable make-up, a glittering beaded long dress under a sober, fur-collared long coat, and a sturdy pair of high-heeled boots. North Korean footwear is fascinating; I saw one waitress wearing what would be the shoe child if a Doc Martens and pair of slim stilletos mated.

That evening, I sent out a few postcards for 1 euro each, including a love letter to myself, which I was told would be received in 10 days. [UPDATE: The ones I sent to Indonesia arrived in 21 days, the ones in Hong Kong in 26 days and the ones in the Philippines almost not at all.] I also sent David Watnick a Microsoft Outlook e-mail from the hotel’s lone terminal.

It was an interesting process. I signed a slip detailing which country I was sending the e-mail to, the recipient’s e-mail address, my name and my room number. Then the assistant looked over my e-mail after I’d typed it, pressed “Send” when she was satisfied, then opened a spreadsheet and put my details in. She sent that file to an address for the authorities’ records, I imagine.

Bought this set for 5 euros at the Koryo Museum’s souvenir shop the last tour day. The stamp of a white kitty wearing eyeliner and a bewildered expression was quite the hit.

I slept pretty good that night, tired from a full day, but couldn’t wait to wake up the next morning and experience Kim Jong-il’s first birthday after his death, and observing one of the most politically significant events that would take place under his son’s new leadership while I was there to see it.

[CORRECTIONS: The stars represent 50,000km without accidents, not 50km as originally stated. The stadium is Kim Il-Sung Stadium, not May Day Stadium.]

Next: Kim Jong-il’s birthday bash and getting some zen time in Pyongyang


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