Part 5 of 6 in our Inside the Hermit Kingdom series on the people and culture of North Korea. Multimedia producer Ben Piven’s video chronicles his five-day trip in August.
Air Koryo stewardesses with delicately coiffed hair and impeccable red suits directed us to our seats in the stuffy Tupolev aircraft. Flimsy seat backs folded completely forward onto the seat cushions. Pyongyang-bound tourists, businessmen, and North Koreans fanned themselves ferociously, as the temperature hit 80 degrees.
Forget Bill rescuing Laura and Euna in a private jet. Our Soviet-made plane first arrived in Pyongyang when Richard Nixon was conducting ping-pong diplomacy with China.
We touched down, sweaty and relieved. The head stewardess announced, “Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea!” We blue-state Americans were ready to challenge the hermit kingdom’s concept of “imperialist dogs.”
Fearlessly led by three 2009 Brown University graduates, our Five Passes group had 18 scholarly Americans — including a Berkeley sociologist and an assistant director at the Asia Society — and 1 Chinese citizen. The tricky visas for the five-day North Korea tour had been arranged through North Korea’s consulate in Shenyang by a Chinese travel agent of North Korean origin.
After landing, airport officials escorted one of our guides and me to a back room to take our temperature. (Back in New York, I had half-joked whether a senator would rescue me from ping-pong with the dictator). They said we were warm – probably false – but maybe the result of the steamy plane ride. Twenty minutes of detention were disconcerting.
We had left forbidden items in China – several iPhones, a Blackberry, Star of David necklace, and a large zoom lens. Our group was anxious that customs officials might find a New Yorker cartoon of Kim Jong-il.
After leaving the terminal, we boarded our old tour bus and saw five half-smiling North Korean hosts – our guide, guard, minder, driver — and cameraman. We instantly became the subjects of a government travel documentary. Our tailor-made Truman Show had begun — in a 1950’s dystopia behind the Korean curtain.
We stayed at the grand Yanggakdo Hotel, on an island in the middle of the sluggish Taedong River. While the rooms looked like those in a 1970’s Ramada, we delighted in the 9-hole golf course, revolving rooftop restaurant, and Chinese-owned casino.
We mingled with Westerners and local families at the outdoor bar on the island’s edge. Bar matrons tended tables until after midnight — and even remembered our Koreanized names when we stepped into the fluorescent light of the breakfast hall by 6:30 a.m.
On the third day of our 92-hour time warp to the world’s most secretive country, we drove to Mt. Myohyang, 90 miles north of Pyongyang. Bob, a University of Colorado professor and our most quintessential American, bowed awkwardly at a waxen Kim Jong-il inside the International Friendship Exhibition. We chuckled about Bob’s homage to the “dear leader.”
Walking past thousands of treasures received by the reclusive leader and his late father, our guard commented on the U.S.-D.P.R.K relationship. “When the general plays with that ball, it proves that he controls the whole world in his hands,” said Lee, glaring at the Michael Jordan-autographed basketball Madeline Albright gave to Kim Jong-il in 2000. We then nicknamed our guard “Serious-Lee.”
His diametric opposite was our baby-faced 33-year-old minder with Buddha ears – also Lee – whom we called “Happy-Lee.” Neither Lee told us his first name, enabling our good cop/bad cop monikers. “Naive-Lee” versus “Stern-Lee.” And “Nice-Lee” versus “Malevolent-Lee.”
Nice-Lee charmed us with awkward English, using “representative” and “condensed” to describe our experience. But Serious-Lee, who stars in the 2008 Vice Guide to North Korea, prevented us from causing real trouble.
Nice-Lee fondly recalled the American and North Korean flags displayed side-by-side at the February 2008 Pyongyang performance of the New York Philharmonic. He was also impressed by the orchestra’s many Asian-Americans.
Our guide was an pretty 25-year-old woman who cheerfully promoted government dogma but tired of our questions. Our postmodern sensibilities overwhelmed her, especially when we spoke candidly about diplomatic rapprochement. But we did our best to transcend ideology by discussing nonpolitical issues.
On our tightly managed tour, objectivity and authenticity were in short supply. Though culturally sensitive, we critiqued claims about the economy and the allegedly hostile U.S. government. Bearing our American soft power, we were lucky to visit in the footsteps of our ex-president. Although we feared becoming pawns of Pyongyang’s public relations campaign, we hoped that our educational tour benefited the broader diplomatic thaw.
On our last day in Pyongyang, we said goodbye to plentiful Kimjongilias and Kimilsungias, the country’s revered flowers. At the airport, we noticed only two flights listed that day.
The return flight was the most terrifying part of the entire trip. Taiwanese passengers twice shrieked when the plane dropped dramatically. The plane was a microcosm of the country: in complete disrepair, while most people inside remain mum about their plight.
We cursed that the embargo prevented Air Koryo from updating its ancient fleet. I’ll wait until new jets arrive for my next voyage to the perfectly preserved Cold War museum, our beloved Hermit Kingdom.
– Ben Piven