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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

North Korea, for The Anti-Tourist

Miss Sanny, Miss Sanny. Come back here!" Mr. Kim demanded. "You will be hurt!" I had run into the middle of the nine-lane main drag of the capital city. It was 10:30 a.m. on a weekday, and the streets were empty -- not a vehicle in sight. Only the group of policemen spotted peripherally to my left, and our guides/minders to the right were potential hazards. Determined to beat them at their own game -- at least once -- I held my ground and managed to squeeze out a photo before they dragged me away.


Welcome to the epicenter of world tourism where cars are almost nonexistent and individual thought is discouraged. For the bored traveler who has "been there, done that," hope is not lost. There is still the last of the oxymoronically named countries, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK.


There are two kinds of travelers in the world: Tourists who are taken and adventurers who explore. Unfortunately, one cannot explore the DPRK. Rather we were VIP-escorted 24 hours a day from place to place as "most honored guests." My brother and I were so honored they assigned three people to care for the two of us. Mr. Rhee, Mr. Kim, and our "driver," Mr. Kim II who "just happened" to have spent five years working at the North Korean Embassy in Moscow.


Like old times in the Soviet Union, from the moment we entered the country, we were never out of sight of these minders. We shared the same cabin on the train. We ate our meals together not in the dining car -- where we might have encountered someone else -- but in our compartment. If either of us ever attempted to stray off on our own, even for only a few minutes, we were promptly followed. Yes, they even walked us to the toilets. We were never allowed to speak with any local people. In fact, we barely saw them at all. Every time we got on or off the train, we were consistently the only people on the platform. Even when they took us on the metro, the place looked suspiciously empty. In short, what we were permitted to see was thoroughly manipulated.


However, various tourist sites were on the official agenda. Pyongyang is built on the banks of the river Taedong, and for all us who live in Russia it has a somewhat familiar look: Soviet architecture with a cheap paint job to keep the cracks from showing. And like the Soviets, biggest is best: The Pyongyang Arc de Triomphe in the center of town is three meters higher than the one in Paris. The fountains in the middle of the Taedong river, the guides claim, are the tallest in the world, squirting water to a height of 150 meters. (Geneva's manage 122 meters, and Canberra's 140.) Dominating the city skyline at 170 meters is the Tower of the Juche Idea and the incredible Ryugyong Hotel. The former looks like a giant pencil in the sky, and the latter like a 105-story pyramid. The Ryugyong is billed as a luxury hotel and supposedly has 3,000 rooms, but unfortunately they ran out of money before it could be completed, so its empty shell sits unused. In some tourist pamphlets this building is lit up. This is wishful thinking -- the place has no electricity.


Not to be missed on the tourist trail is the International Friendship Exhibition. This sacred museum houses more than 100,000 preposterous gifts donated to the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-Sung, or GLCKIS, by many of the world's more dubious leaders and governments. The Sandinistas sent a stuffed crocodile standing upright holding a serving platter with six wooden cups. Below it sits an ashtray for the smokers. The PLO's donation? Two crossed gold-plated Kalashnikovs. Cambodia? A colorful painting of brooms representing Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam sweeping away a caricature of Uncle Sam. In bold letters etched across the top reads the slogan: "Kick out the U.S. Imperialists from Asia." Even Kurt Waldheim sent United Nations coins during his reign as secretary general.


Room after room after room after room. All in the name of the GLCKIS, his son Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jung-Il, Kim Il- Sungism, (we never did find out what that was) and the great Juche Idea, to which the giant kitsch obelisk is dedicated. What is the Great Juche Idea? Well, according to "A Sightseeing Guide to Korea" (published by order of the National Directorate of Tourism of the DPRK):


"The Juche Idea means that the masters of the revolution and construction are the masses of the people and that they are also the motive force of the revolution and construction. In other words one is responsible for one's own capacity to shape one's own destiny."


What we thought this meant was that as long as the Russians and the world's other communist countries were supporting North Korea, they could be totally "self-sufficient." Since there is no longer a Soviet Union, and the country is broke, self-reliance has been a little harder to come by. Now self-sufficiency means that people eat just two meals a day, and meat is only available for foreign visitors.


When we arrived in North Korea it had been just two months since the death of the supposedly immortal GLCKIS and the country was still in mourning. According to The Pyongyang Times, more than 212 million people came to lament the passing of the GLCKIS. "Mr. Kim," I asked, "how is it possible that 212 million people came to mourn the GLCKIS? I mean, you only have 20 million people in the country, and getting visas to come here takes so much time. How did all these people come from abroad?"


"Ah," he told us, "many people come many times!"


We too were taken to GLCKIS's monumental monument to lay a wreath of flowers and pay our respects. We watched as they organized mourners in groups of four to six people. After signing the guest book, they were directed to a position in front of the statue. The cue was given, and the howling began. For what seemed like a predetermined amount of time, women wailed, wept and bawled hysterically out of control, and loudly. Then as abruptly as it began, the mourners were pushed aside and the next group brought in.


Beyond Pyongyang, another essential trip is the Panmunjom Demilitarized Zone which separates North and South Korea. There you will see actual lines on the ground denoting the border between the divided countries, and once in the border huts you will be permitted to walk around the tables, technically leaving and entering both countries. The UN troops on the other side will take your pictures with super-zoom telephoto lenses. Your guides will ask you not to smile or wave at them, but it's impossible not to ham it up a little with a lens that size in your face.


The trip to Panmunjom will have you staying in the neighboring town of Kaesong, probably in the Kaesong Minsok Hotel, which is built in the traditional Korean yogwan style -- meaning you sleep on the floor. In Kaesong you can see burial mounds of the former kings and queens of Korea and will be taken to visit Sonjuk Bridge, a tiny clapper bridge built in 1216, overshadowed by another huge statue of the GLCKIS.


Overall, we found North Korea to be as complex and filled with contradictions as modern-day Russia. Despite supposed superb sports facilities, they refused to show us any. Despite promising to take me to a classroom to meet local kids, they neglected to do so. Unlike the brusque Russian rudeness of being told everything is either nevozmozhno (impossible), or nelzya (not allowed), in Pyongyang they politely say yes, but refuse to do it anyway. And yet, unlike descriptions I have heard about visits to the Soviet Union back in the bad old days, here we were never permitted to feel or see any of the hardship or oppression. Yes, we were constantly manipulated, but it was done so cordially that it was hard to react in anything but an affable manner.


In fact, if I had known nothing about the country before I came, I could have walked away from there thinking that it really was a worker's paradise. The cities are spotless, the countryside fertile and green, and the lack of industry means that the nation is virtually pollution-free. We never saw dissention of any sort, we were driven up and down the same half dozen streets of Pyongyang time and time again so that all we ever saw were the stores that had something in the windows. The fact that there was probably nothing else there we were not permitted to know. We ate delicious plentiful meals and were treated by all we came in contact with as graciously as if we were dear friends. The problem to me was that after 10 days of living, eating, talking, and almost laughing with these people, I unfortunately felt that we knew them no better when we left then when we first arrived. Were their beliefs true devotion, or blind acceptance? It was frightening how little their answers revealed.





Getting There


How to get to North Korea? Maybe it's better to start with how not to get to North Korea. If you're American, then you're out of luck: The country admits no citizens of the United States. If you're a journalist, you may have to bend the truth a little to obtain a visa. I told them I was an after-school gym teacher. They obviously didn't check.


Most of the train and air routes that used to exist between major Russian towns and Pyongyang appear to have been canceled as the ties between the two countries break down. I wanted to start my trip from Khabarovsk in the Far East and bought a train ticket from there only to find that the train no longer functioned. In the end, we made it to the border town of Haasan on local electrichkas from Vladivostok. We then joined a group of North Korean loggers from Siberia who had a special one-car shuttle to take them through the no-man's-land between the two borders. However, this is not a route I would recommend for the faint of heart or the adventure-impaired.


From Moscow, there is one train -- No. 20 -- that departs from Yaroslavsky station for Pyongyang every Friday at 8:35 p.m. The journey takes 164 hours, leaving Russia in Chita and running through Manchuria to North Korea. A one-way ticket for a foreigner costs 896,000 rubles (about $190).


But by far the easiest way to set up your trip is through the Red Bear Tours travel agency based in Melbourne, Australia (tel: 61-3-9824-7183). They will arrange a package which includes all accommodation, meals, transportation and itinerary for about $150 per day. They will also organize a visa for you which you can pick up in the North Korean Embassy in Moscow.


For a slightly cheaper alternative, you can contact the Korean National Travel Agency yourself and ask for Kang Chol-Su (tel: 850-2817-201, fax: 850-2817-607).