Infiltrating North Korea Part 1

My first impression of North Korea was just what I expected: an old, weathered airport crowded with dour-faced people in uniforms.

Policemen, soldiers, customs officials, airline employees and lord knows what other branch of the government requiring a uniform were all packed into the arrival terminal at Pyongyang International Airport looking stern and threatening. It was an intimidating show of force and I was not looking forward to a cadre of officials tearing apart my luggage in search of whatever they might consider contraband. But instead, my baggage was simply x-rayed by a stoic soldier who asked me, in probably the only English he knew, “Cell phone?”

Cell phones are not allowed into North Korea and I watched as those behind me surrendered their only link to the outside world to customs officials who would eventually return them five days later when it was time to depart.

I had flown in on a Russian Tupalov jet from Shenyang, China on a very low trajectory that never took us above the cloud layer. The countryside below was gray, misty, and depressing–just as I had always imagined it would be–and occasionally intersected by random dirt roads with hardly any vehicles on them.

After months of planning, logistics, and cancellations due to political summits and floods, I had finally made it to the world’s most reclusive country. It wasn’t easy: the hermit kingdom doesn’t normally allow Americans into the country. In fact, last summer was the first time they did so since the end of the Korean War.

The reason for this exception was the Mass Games–an unbelievable spectacle of synchronized dancers and performers who stage a production that’s part Super Bowl halftime show on steroids peppered with old-school, Soviet-style propaganda and a touch of Cirque du Soleil.

For some unexplained reason, the government seemed to think this was a momentous enough event to finally allow Americans back into the country where they’d undoubtedly be overwhelmed with the impressive powers of synchronized gymnastics and stadium card shows, thus discovering that North Koreans haven’t just narrowed the gap, but have actually surpassed the rest of the world in this genre of entertainment.

And so, one drizzly afternoon last October, I found myself in the Pyongyang Airport waiting for a guide to take me into town and unveil this planet’s most mysterious nation over the next five days–the maximum amount of time an American is allowed in for the games. Unless, of course, something goes terribly wrong–a fear made all the more real when my guide confiscated my passport and ticket out of the country and turned them over to the police for the entirety of my stay in North Korea. I wasn’t going anywhere if the government didn’t want me to. It wasn’t until I returned to the airport terminal five days later that I was finally reunited with my only means out of the country.

Those passportless five days turned out to be truly extraordinary and worth every moment of my will-I-get-out-of-here-alive fear. Over the next two weeks I will be sharing with you this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel back in time and personally witness the communist regime, cult of personality, totalitarian lifestyle, and oddball reclusiveness known as North Korea. It ain’t Paris, but I think you’ll love it nonetheless.

Tomorrow: The Challenges of Being a Tourist