This post is simply about my time in the DPRK. I never saw hardship up front, nor did I visit any of the notorious labour camps.
Sometimes I think I haven’t learnt anything new about North Korea after spending six days there. Since we’re back in France the question we’re consistently asked is, are the people happy? The Koreans I met seemed to be, but they were also extremely talented in talking in circles, leaving me always unsure about what was real or not. I never really figured out what our guides felt about anything. And, the guides were the only Koreans we had any long conversation with.
I actually had stopped telling people I was going to visit North Korea before I left, partly because I was doubting our decision to visit when Little Rocket Man and the Dotard were ratcheting up the warlord rhetoric, but mainly because every reaction I met with was loaded with moral judgement. Either we were immature to go to a country on the brink of war, or it was morally irresponsible to be giving money to a bloody dictator. Of course we had considered the ethicality of going there but concluded, as we always do, visit before you judge. Constant newsreels on a nuclear war, pressure from family and friends and the long detailed emails from our tour operator on what to do and not to do, stressed me before leaving. I was afraid of saying the wrong thing, which after a few beers everyone knows, I’m very good at. JF’s unadulterated excitement about going didn’t make me feel any more at ease, it just irritated me.
Going through passport control and customs makes me nervous anywhere I am, but seeing the huge serving dish military hats, which communist countries are partial to, sitting precariously on small, slight heads with frowning faces made me stand up straight and keep a respectful manner. My soldier stamped my visa card after a few silent minutes (understanding the difficulty having a DPRK stamp on your passport could cause in the future, they kindly leave it blank). Behind me I heard JF and his custom’s guy laughing together. How do you pronounce your name? Jea Frrrancoi. Ok Jea. No, it’s Jea Frrrancoi, it’s very French I know, JF says in his best French-English accent. I look over my shoulder and the serving dish hat is nearly falling off the soldier’s head as he tries to pronounce JF’s name in mirth, Ja Fa Ca. I instantly relax. People are people. Our phones were taken for an hour to be checked, though I doubt they were. Our bags were opened and questions asked about the books we were taking in with us.
Two hours after getting off one of the three planes in the North Korean Air Koryo company, a Russian tupolev plane, we were put onto a small bus with 6 other tourists, two guides and a driver. Apart from the cigarettes we were told to buy the driver, he didn’t really play a big part in our experience, until the last night. We visited the second brewery of our trip and we invited the driver in for a beer. At least 4 pints later he drove us back to our hotel, proving yet again, the wise and grumpy Australian was right when he surmised our driver had the face of a secret drinker.
The Australian was the oldest in our group, beating JF by only 3 years, and I called him the cynic. It’s probably for that reason I was drawn to him. At least there was one other person who lost patience after five minutes in yet another war museum. It would be fair to say, that these very sophisticated memorials to the DPRK’s history played liberally with the truth. We spent a few hours in one such museum where we were told that the Americans, not the North Koreans, started the war in 1950. There was a Danish couple, very nice and respectful people, who were just as difficult as the Korean guides to read and who I called the parents. Because, when we were in Kaesong, they were given a room like a suite, while myself and JF were in a tiny room next door. There was the Argentinian, who I called the ideological teenager. A firm believer in socialism, especially with a South American twist. A handsome guy, with an easy smile who was late all the time and was lost in some situations. He signed up for dog soup, only to find out too late that it wasn’t duck soup like he thought he had heard. At every meal he’d ask JF to try all the green stuff to see if the vegetables were edible; another reason why I called him the teenager and JF the child. And the Croatians. The only name I have for them is that. Croatians. For me, they epitomized all my preconceived notions of people from the Balkans, serious faces that look extremely unfriendly at first sight, but soon break up in a hearty laugh. They were kind, ironic and drank a lot of beer, even more than JF and I. We even left them drinking a few nights when we went to bed. Unusual but it happens.
We had two female guides, we’ll call them The Boss and The Deputy. There are a good few tour operators working within the DPRK and here’s how it works, I think. They find the tourists and hand them over to a driver and at least two guides. We presume there are always two guides to keep an eye on each other. The DPRK tourist board gives a list of suitable must-sees of which the operators choose from, depending on the group and the time the group has. We were told by our tour operator that if we were well behaved and do as the guides say, there was a good chance they would relax by the end and we could get a more candid insight into life in the DPRK. Both guides were extremely firm, cross even the first two days. Our schedules were busy as we had a lot of patriotic monuments and museums to visit, it probably didn’t help that the Argentinian was always late and got lost quite often. The panic on the Boss’s face when we were all squashed into the metro, waiting for the doors to snap closed when she saw the Argentinian absentmindedly looking at the mural of the General (Kim Jong-il), oblivious to the fact, or maybe not, that the rest of the group was on the train to the next station. We were allowed to visit three stations, and passed through another three stations. The Boss screamed from the train for him to hurry. He just made it. I think we all wondered what would have happened if one of the group had been left alone, without a guide, for any period of time. I suppose the Boss would not be a guide anymore. JF started talking to some young guy he was pressed up against on the train and the Boss did not take her eyes off the two during the short stilted conversation. Maybe she was worried JF would slip him a bible or a usb key, we’re not sure.
When we were taking the deep escalators up and out of the station, our group stood one behind the other in a line to the right, leaving the left side for those in a hurry. The Deputy told us to come closer to listen to her and laughed when we didn’t move. You don’t need to stand in a line she said a little exasperated, it’s forbidden to move on the escalators anyway. We spilled out into the dark and cold night where our bus was waiting to take us to another restaurant that evening. We were always taken to restaurants where tourists were allowed and where other tour buses were parked outside. Chinese and other nationalities doing the same controlled pilgrimage as ourselves. The food was always fine, fresh and wholesome, but a little bland. We had to do our own cooking at times, which I liked. We barbecued our own duck and the side dishes of kimchi, rice and pickled vegetables were tasty.
What made that meal stand out was the wine. We had been taken to a supermarket (co-owned with the Chinese) earlier. It was packed with Pyongyangers perusing everything from noodles to cookies to tents and electric bicycles. The guides made sure we left our phones and cameras on the bus, it wouldn’t do to have photos of good socialists in a capitalist frenzy of consumerism. The Croatians and ourselves stocked up on beer and I noticed a very expensive carton of Spanish wine that I couldn’t resist. It was my third week without wine after all. I was delighted to have the Australian and the Argentinian to share it with me, as the ‘out of order’ French man drank his beer.
Cold noodle soup is the country’s specialty. Buckwheat noodles in a clear cool broth that’s mixed with spring onions and chilli paste. We were served an array of dishes with every meal, cucumber salad, rice noodles, dried seaweed, deep-fried chicken, stewed pork to name a few. Every meal was served with rice and beer. One evening we made our own individual hotpots. We all had our own burner with a saucepan of stock bubbling on it and we were told when we should toss in our cabbage, bacon, tofu and chillies. The cooking of it was more fun than the eating of it. I always found it difficult to imagine that the skinny Koreans I saw on the street ate as much as we were given at mealtimes.
It was night when we drove into Pyongyang for the first time and it was the darkness and the silence that impressed me. Not at first, like adjusting your eyes to the dark, it took me some time to realise that this city was not like I was used to. Huge, soviet-style boulevards were lined with pastel coloured high rise apartments, clean and organised looking. There were lights on inside, but it seemed as if the bulbs were of a very low wattage. The few street lights lit up statues of the great leaders. Not many cars illuminated the night either. The government owns all the cars and taxis and only a few special citizens are given a car of their own. But it was the lack of flashing neon signs, stark florescent shop lights and gaudy advertising that caused the real disorientation.
The absence of a commercial buzz was a relief at the beginning, but soon the heavy statues of social realism and the glitzy cult of the great leaders began to have the same oppressing effect as western consumerism. When we drove in the dark to Kaesong, we presumed we were driving through the empty countryside, only to see the next day as we drove home that many villages were wedged between communal paddy fields. We didn’t see them because there was no electricity. Only a handful of cars passed us. But on each side of the wide highway men, women and children, often on the same bike, were cycling two lanes deep.
The countryside guesthouse we stayed in Kaesong was built in the traditional style. A complex of individual square, low houses built around a courtyard with a persimmon tree in the middle, and a river running through the houses. We all slept on thin mattresses on the heated floors. We were allowed to walk in the town’s streets the next day, which surprised us. Even though the Boss stayed in front and the Deputy guarded us from behind, it was more freedom than we had expected. We were taken to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) later that day. We lined up with 4 other tourist buses before entering with an army man in our bus. It felt like entering a museum and not the 38th parallel that divides two ideologies at a constant face-off. People gave cigarettes to soldiers to shake their hands and vied for photos with them. It was farcical. (JF didn’t give any cigarettes for his handshake. The Boss told the soldier that JF was a soldier too. He did a year’s military service in France working as a doctor, and sailing…). Suddenly receiving the first text message in days in the DMZ affected me more deeply. Getting a signal from South Korea, two miles away, highlighted how cut off the DPRK is from the outside world.
Arriving back into Pyongyang the next day, JF asked the Boss why there were queues of people at a checkpoint entering the city. After gentle probing it was understood that not everyone is allowed into the city. Of the 25 million North Koreans, only 2.5 million live in the capital. The regime tries to keep the poverty to the countryside, and to areas tourists are not allowed to visit. Of course the Boss never gave any information in a direct manner. I learned to decipher what was meant by what was not said, but by the end I was losing patience and stopped asking altogether. JF, on the other hand, as stoic and as stubborn as ever, flirted with The Boss and she finally succumbed to his charm and opened up to him. Every day she’d say to me, you are so lucky to have such a generous and charming husband. I barely contained myself from laughing out loud and setting her straight, but I bit my tongue and swallowed one for the group.
When I think back to our week in the DPRK now, it’s the colour red that comes first to mind. Bright red party flags bellowing against an overcast sky, the sickle, hammer and paintbrush symbolizing the regime’s faith in Juche, a belief in the hard work and self-reliance of the society. Red sticks out too in my memory against the somber colours of the people. The streets swarmed with uniformed officials, brown, black and blue. The men generally wore the same type of slacks and an army-style jacket, not unlike the Mao suit, in dark colours. Some women wore brighter clothes, but again, red or pink is what I remember them wearing. At tourist attractions the women were quite often in traditional dresses, bright satin puffs that fell from a big bow at the breast.
It appeared as if everyone was in uniform. Even university students wear different shawls to indicate what profession they study. Every morning groups of women and men gather at street intersections and create a brass band. They sing and play to motivate all workers on their way to work. It was between six and seven in the morning when we looked on from our bus, amazed at their motivation, or perhaps their fear of not being motivated enough. When we were reluctantly taken to the top of the Juche Tower we looked down on Kim Il-sung square where around 60,000 students and workers were practising a synchronized dance for the 30th of October, Party Foundation Day, a national holiday to celebrate the founding of the workers’ party in 1945. From high above the city it was mesmerizing to watch thousands of people below forming lines and circles in unison. When we went to the square to see them up close, we were amazed by the order and discipline. To think one man with a loud speaker was conducting so many people to dance choreographically, left us in no doubt again as to the control the authorities had over the people.
Also looking down on all the loyal citizens marching to the beat in the square were the two ubiquitous paintings of The Great Leader Kim Il-sung and The Great General Kim Jong-il. Their well-fed pudgy faces smile down on their people from all public buildings. The present leader, The Great Marshal Kim Jong-un has successfully carried on the tradition of creating a cult like reverence towards him and his forefathers. Since he came to power, the number of statues and paintings have increased. I never once sensed any irony from our guides when they talked about the leaders. When we had a picnic and drank some rice wine with a family in a park, the grandmother toasted reunification with South Korea and dared America to attack. As she sang with her face and chopsticks raised into the air, her family cheered her on. The Deputy translated what she said: we don’t want to attack any country but we are ready and strong enough if Trump attacks us. JF noticed that they didn’t drink to the great leader. Was that a sign of a lack of respect, or are the great leaders too sacred to drink to? We’re not sure.
When we visited The Great Leader and The Great General lying in state, the Boss asked if the mummified Moa Zedong and his mausoleum were as elaborate as her great leaders. We assured her that neither Mao, Ho Chi Minh or Lenin were as well preserved as the Kims lying in the middle of Pyongyang. An email we received while in China informed us that JF would need to have a shirt and tie if we wanted to visit the mummies. No tie, no entry. We were once again told to leave all our possessions in the bus, no scarves were allowed and we had to be formally dressed. We walked for an hour through corridors lined with photos of the leaders being met by foreign dignitaries or visiting the people. The Deputy took four of us in a line in front of Kim Il-sung and with a seriousness that made me want to giggle, gestured for us to deep bow in front of the corpse. A small figure, white skin and dark hair lay wrapped in red velvet and was encased in glass. The lighting and the speed with which we had to bow and circle the body, made it difficult to make out any details. The Deputy then led us to the side and we did it again. We passed around the back of the body, no bowing allowed from this angle and we bowed for the third time at the other side, before being ushered out. There were queues of people, North Koreans and tourists alike, performing the ritual. We did the same performance for Kim Jong-il, walked more cold corridors adorned with photos, before finally spilling out onto the square in front of the mausoleum. There was a sense of relief in our group then. We all looked at each other in such a way as to say, we didn’t mess up or laugh out loud, because we later told each other that’s exactly the urge we had all tried to suppress.
As the bus was taking us to the train station on the last day, where we’d get the train to Beijing, JF turned to me and said, it’s probably just as well we’re leaving now. Why, I asked. We’re becoming too relaxed, he said, and that’s when silly mistakes could get us into trouble. It was true. Each night in the revolving bar, on the top floor of our hotel (one of the two hotels where tourists are allowed to stay), our tongues became loser. We all agreed, as a group, that our rooms were probably bugged but that didn’t stop us from speaking more freely as each day passed. It was time to leave. Time to go back into my own world, steeped in its own sophisticated propaganda.