A North Korean Affair: Part Two

Second of three parts
I was particularly interested in seeing how the capital would commemorate Kim Jong-il’s birthday on Feb. 16, and was glad to be kind of invited to his big bash.

For early starts like this one, we had been advised to bring alarm clocks (our cellphones were tucked in labeled plastic bags and safely kept by the tour officials), though I was pleased to find a suitable alternative in my roommate, who would wake up to the beeping of her clock, and then wake me up a while later with the sounds of her padding around our room. It was a good system.

A typical breakfast at Yanggakdo hotel.  For complete, unadulterated photos, visit my Picasa album

Daily tests of collective spirit appeared in the form of tour times, which we’d try our best to stick to so we wouldn’t delay the entire group, and our adherence to rules on photography that if breached by one would swiftly put an end to the adventure of all.

(No pictures of anything strategic or military. No telephoto lenses. If you do take photos of the leaders’ monuments, their entirety must be in the frame. Calmly compose the picture and don’t take too long snapping a photo. People are sensitive to getting their pictures taken, so always ask before you shoot. Follow your guides’ cues at all times.)

In the end, although there were a few places and events that couldn’t be photographed, Koryo was right in saying that we would take more pictures than we’d think. My grand total: 1,366 kick-ass photos and 37 videos.

Throughout the day, we were met by a Pyongyang in mourning, but which had evidently decided to remember the good bits of what seemed like a strongman’s colorful life.

We’d missed out on plans for some sort of field dance or parade for Kim Jong-il, evidenced by festive props carried by various citizens who made their way to Kumsusan Palace.

Un-hee teared up as she recounted the shock that came with news of the leader’s death after conducting spot guidance in the countryside and how the last edict he signed “before his demise” was to “provide more fish to the people.”

She also explained how Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un had ordered images of his late father to be erected around the nation so the people could grieve and remember. Apparently, he’d also solicitously allowed the citizens to wear gloves and hats (usually removed as a sign of respect) “so they wouldn’t be cold.”

Our guide summarized the official sentiment: “The Koreans will never forget his giving the country prosperity … He didn’t die, but he lives forever in the hearts of the people.”

Our lovely guide, who has been patiently shepherding naughty foreigners for about seven years. Her mother is a literature teacher, she likes French cosmetics and when asked if she had a boyfriend replied: “I’m still hunting.” 

We started with a morning constitutional at Mansudae Fountain Park, which was right across the stately Grand People’s Study House, the city library we didn’t get to visit.

At the pretty park, which glistened from melting ice, we bought some Kimjongilia bouquets wrapped in yellow-lined plastic for 4 euros. This would be a small fee to pay for that priceless moment when we headed to Kim Il-sung Square shortly afterward, saw a phalanx of somber North Koreans lining up to pay tribute to a smiling portrait of Kim Jong-il and proceeded to cut in line to offer the flowers.

A clip from the official tour video, made by our intrepid North Korean cameraman from the Korea International Travel Agency, Che Tsung-guk, who filmed the entire thing. It cost 45 euros, given to us right before we left, and serves as living proof of how slow we walked during our outings, much to Un-hee’s chagrin.

That was me, with my hair tied in a bun and wearing a black parka, walking backwards after I’d laid down the flowers because I wasn’t sure if we were allowed to turn our backs to the picture. You should have seen their block formations at the square; it seemed like it was the width of our bus and the length of two. Being in front of all those people, feeling thousands of eyes boring into my back, I felt so important.

As foreigner-vassals, we were naturally good subjects for official state photos and state TV cameras, and they clicked and rolled as we made a poor effort at bowing. Naden, the Aussie I would henceforth go off on mini-adventures with, lamented that we hadn’t rehearsed. (But really, how could we expect to to bow better than the locals, who had years of practice?)

Despite not looking sad enough and not capitulating properly, much later we would learn that we had landed on state TV news — again!

We could observe the rite from the far end of the square, and I wondered what the people were thinking when they were bowing and looking at their shoes.

We rode past the Kumsusan Memorial Palace — where the bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lie in state, and which was closed until April — and made our way to the Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery, set up a slope on Mt. Taesong and dotted with rows of tombstones with brass busts of those who died in the fight against Japanese rule.

Most of the graves are empty, the bodies never retrieved from the battlefield, including those of Kim Il-sung’s brother and uncle. Many of the busts were created cartographically, based on accounts from friends and family, for lack of photos.

They are positioned this way such that they can “gaze upon a liberated Korea.”

Hannah pointed out the bust of an old woman who had given seven sons to the revolution, one of whom cut off his own tongue after he was captured by the Japanese, for fear that he would give away guerrilla secrets in his sleep.

It was less morbid at our next destination, the 21st Paektusan Prize Figure Skating Festival. We got stalled on our way back to the city center by thick throngs of coat-clad middle-aged citizens, carrying those red-and-pink flower props. This was nice because we could peer down at them from our fogged-up windows and see them squinting up at us with equal curiosity. Some of them smiled bemusedly or waved.

There were contestants from Russia, Finland and possibly China, but the North Korean pairs skaters, children and singles stood out for their Olympic-level precision and their old-school costumes (think felt and sequins in maroon and green).

I laughed so hard when a foreign pair performed to the Black Eyed Peas’ “Time of My Life” and “Boom Boom Boom” mix. My favorite, however, was the pair of blonde skaters — the man in a loose white polo and wife-beater inside, the girl in a hot pink dress — performing with a long swathe of blood-red fabric to sensual music, in what I call the “Breaking of the Hymen” routine.

As their suave finish, the man lay down flat on the ice and she skated with her feet tracing the outline of his body until she was straddling his face. North Koreans are polite in the way that they will clap even if it’s clear they’re thinking, “What the hell did I just see?”

The participants’ curtain call.

After lunch at our hotel’s Revolving Restaurant, which indeed revolved quite slowly as we were eating, we headed to the Army Circus, one of the most entertaining I have watched, though the theater was insanely cold and depleted my energy.

The performers, I was told, were proud KPA, and I wondered how such skills as leapfrogging three of your comrades on a tightrope while holding a metal rod, managing to look graceful  on a trapeze, or juggling five soccer balls with your feet and shooting them through hoops or at each other, can be used in combat situations.

The show ended with a rousing rendition of “Footsteps,” a song for Kim Jong-un, and then it was on to the well-heated Health Club to watch some synchronized swimming. Girls splashed around the pool so coordinated and graceful in their modest but glitter-encrusted swimsuits. I’ve never seen so many North Korean legs.

The event’s host, clad in that cupcake-like dress that everyone with an introductory function seems to wear, sounded like she was about to cry or was agonized — which we noticed was the preferred cadence in Ladies’ Public Speaking 101.

The club has a sauna, massage parlor and beauty salon, where you can reportedly pick a haircut based on a menu of numbered pictures. There is one hairdresser specializing in one haircut. I resisted the urge to get a retro hairstyle.

Then we visited the Foreign Language Bookshop, where I plundered yet more souvenirs: stamps, postcards, DPRK lapel pins, an action Taekwondo film featuring one of NK’s most popular actors, a copy of Kim Jong-il’s biography. I also hoarded copies of the Pyongyang Times, which I read at night and tickled me with headlines such as “Kim Jong-un inspects tank division; sees concert” and “Moral retard” on a piece about a foreign government’s refusal to apologize for some diplomatic insult or other.

But the shop’s best feature was its proximity to a female traffic cop — many a North Korean male’s (and now foreigner’s) fantasy — standing right across the sidewalk, whom me and a cluster of boys from Group B stared at for a while, until she noticed and turned away.

Hannah told me there is a joke around town that these sapphire-uniformed ladies cause more road accidents than they are supposed to prevent because they are quite fetching. A Dutch airline pilot told me on the express train to Beijing airport that he wanted that uniform tailored for his girlfriend to wear.

Prior to finishing off the tour at an Austrian cafe back at Kim Il-sung Square, we played bowling at Pyongyang Gold Lane, a recreation center that was quite packed that night because the people were on a four-day holiday for Kim Jong-il’s big occasion and the kids were on winter break.

At 2 euros per game, we could borrow funky neon-colored sneaks and could play the games alongside ordinary citizens, some of whom were pretty good. I threw my ball around with the finesse of a spastic gazelle to record a grand total of 58. Mark the American emerged victorious, though Un-hee had coyly told him during the game, “I don’t want you to win. I want the girls to win.”

At the end of the day, when I was lying in bed pressing a cold towel against my eyes, I told Lindis that we’d been to one of the more interesting birthday parties ever.

Yes, you can wear jeans.

The frenzied pace of our tours continued the next day, which involved a lot more speed-walking. We had to cover a lot of ground, for instance, at the International Friendship Exhibition on Mt. Myohyang, where hundreds of thousands of gifts to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il slept in the warm, green-walled rooms of two massive complexes.

Past coat check and a metal detector, we were asked to put on some cloth mittens over our shoes either so we wouldn’t dirty the marble floors or so that we could glide easier. The presents, encased in glass shelf systems if they could fit, were classified according to nation and continent, and we could choose which nations to browse.

There was an “introductory room” that had good selections of gifts and a metal map showing how many presents each leader received, and from how many nations. As of Feb. 17, 2012, Kim Il-sung has 255,954 presents from 184 countries (not the Philippines), while Kim Jong-il has 59,264 gifts from 170 countries. They still receive gifts posthumously.

Entrance to Kim Il-sung’s vault, marking one of the few moments when Group A and B’s schedules would sync. We couldn’t take photos inside.

During the expedition, I made a mental list of all the things that caught my eye, and there are trinkets from places I never thought would care: Martinique, San Marino in Italy, Zimbabwe, Pakistan.

We spent more time at the Kim Il-sung complex, where I asked to see the United States’ offerings. Our local guide replied: “Oh. It’s just a box.” She meant Team America’s gifts didn’t take up much space in one standard-issue glass case: there was a book with the DPRK flag design on the jacket from a New York Times deputy editor, a small carving of a cowboy on a horse from a think tank, and a bigger version of the same from the American Freedom Coalition.

There was a golden plaque and embroidered saddle from Gaddafi, a hunting rifle from Putin, gold coins from Hussein, a pinafore and bullet-proof Zim car from Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin, a silver tea set and honorary doctorate from Sukarno, and a luxury train carriage (which occupied one room) from Stalin, who also gave airplanes, an aircraft carrier and guns.

There was a futuristic writing desk from France, binoculars and a camera from Japan, 50kg elephant tusks from Nicaragua, a skinned polar bear from “a Canadian citizen,” and my favorite, a snuggly teddy bear from the Berlin Worker’s Party. There was also a stuffed lion that lets guides know if you’re a nice person or not by whether you see it as smiling or menacing.

The very pretty cafe on top of the Kim Il-sung complex, where I had bittersweet ginseng tea.

Kim Jong-il’s side, which we rushed through, was much the same: a jewel-encrusted gold saber from Gaddafi, a basketball signed by Michael Jordan from Madeleine Albright, about three skinned bears from Russia and Romania, crystal stallions from Royco and, I was told, a brass engraving of the Dear Leader’s ancestral home from the Philippines.

In both buildings, there were hallways lined with portraits of the flora and fauna that each leader received, and deposited in the mountain’s zoo and botanical garden. However, we noticed that a few of the images were a bit ersatz.

Naden was transfixed by two snow leopards reclining in their natural setting (a purple jungle) while I pointed out that the ostrich was standing on a golf course. The intent of the entire exercise was to show how well-loved the leaders were and how much the world reached out to them.

My decision to wear hiking boots that day proved smart because we took a leisurely stroll up the steep crags and slippery crevasses of Manphok Valley Trail, which ribboned around Sogok Waterfall, a lengthy stretch of water that must be majestic in warmer seasons, but which was still beautiful in its frozen state.

One of the smaller, easier sections.

I lost my hiking buddies along the way, so made a solitary ascent, clinging to the metal chains lining the paths and trying not to imagine a very tragic death for myself and my new camera. I had to stop to catch my breath at a lookout where the stragglers decided to stay, before continuing the climb, for which I was rewarded with scenic views of the surrounding tundra.

There were surprising treats along the way, like a hanging bridge leading to a small ice-covered park or a cliff that overlooked the trees and pools below. I am infinitely grateful to the inventors of thermal underwear and parkas, which acted as my protective layer of blubber as minus 13 degrees Celsius got more difficult to endure in higher altitudes.

Realizing that I had mistakenly inhaled too much fresh air from communing so much with nature, I immediately shared a smoke with Thomas the German stockbroker, who had earlier remarked on the relative “inferiority” of Russian cars and the ubiquity of Chinese-made copies of German luxury models spotted around Pyongyang.

Needing a bit of zen at certain points in the day, we visited a Buddhist temple that preserved many of Korea’s ancient writings, mementos and architecture. At one of the temples, I lit some incense for 2 euros and knelt on a mat in front of the Buddha, wishing for a nice, deep-tissue massage (which actually came about the very next day).

The Buddhist complex, like many other buildings in the city, was reputedly bombed by the Americans but saved by the reconstruction orders of the Kims. I suppose the point of this was to show how freedom of religion was bizarrely in place in this socialist nation. Un-hee even said Pyongyang has four churches: one Christian, two Protestant and one Russian Orthodox.

When we returned to the city, we also found some zen in the bottom of our beer glasses when we sequestered a room at a local bar, though I was sad we couldn’t get drunk with locals.

We had Ragwon (“Paradise”) beer and good conversation with Mr Che Song-nam, the male guide who was the quieter of our two guides. He has a daughter my age, highly appreciated my gifts of Camel cigarettes and said he used to work as a translator of foreign books for KITC.

My roomie Lindis with Mr Che.

Nick and I talked about the BBC documentaries Koryo had helped out with, including A State of Mind, about two young DPRK gymnasts preparing for the Mass Games, and Crossing the Line, about the last surviving Americans who defected to the North decades ago.

I was happy to learn how the subjects were doing now. One of the gymnast girls joined the army and the other is a cook. As for my delusions of having a date with defector James Joseph Dresnock‘s son, James — who had appeared in the 2006 film as a bright-eyed, fair-haired 22-year-old dreaming of becoming a diplomat and who mentioned he didn’t want to marry a Korean girl — were shattered when I was informed he had married a Korean girl and just had his first child.

The drinking (though we would actually get a bottle of beer or soju at every meal) sufficiently prepped us for bibimbap (mixed rice that a general had discovered was pretty delicious and more convenient than individually packed meal ingredients) for dinner at Song San Restaurant. This I thought was a hearty finish to an exhausting, mildly bewildering day.

[Correction: San Marino is in Italy, not Spain as originally stated.]

Next: Invading the spa, the DMZ and the sleeper train home
Previous: My big, socialist F-you to Valentine’s Day


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