Infiltrating North Korea Part 2: The challenges of being a tourist

If my hotel was any inclination of what to expect in North Korea–and it turned out to be–my time spent in the Hermit Kingdom would be as a distant observer far removed from the everyday life and culture of North Koreans and cut off from the general populace itself.

Yanggakdo Hotel is a foreigners-only hotel located on a small island in the middle of a river near the center of Pyongyang (the building on the left in the photo below). Locals were not allowed near it and foreigners couldn’t step off the island without their designated tour guide. In fact, merely walking out the hotel doors for some fresh air in the evening was usually met with nervous doormen who would shoo me back inside to the numerous hotel amenities designed to keep captive tourists entertained–such as a bowling alley, health spa, pool, ping pong tables, and even a small casino in the basement.
Even if I had managed to sneak out, I wouldn’t have gotten far. There were no taxis to take me anywhere and, for that matter, there was nowhere to go. Bars simply didn’t exist and showing up to a restaurant without my “minder” would have caused a panic. Plus, there was the small matter of money. Foreigners weren’t allowed to possess North Korean currency and any local discovered taking dollars from a tourist was in for some big problems. Lastly, I’m a 6’4″ American with light brown hair; sneaking out and blending in with the populace just wasn’t going to happen.

One simply cannot wander about on one’s own in North Korea. Every tour group is manned by at least one tour guide and one member of the Ministry of the Interior (i.e. the secret police). Of course every secret policeman has a cover story–like being a teacher or translator–but don’t believe it. They will observe and report back to their superiors and, as a result, visitors have to be careful with everything they say. I never felt threatened or too worried, but I also never felt safe enough to truly say what I wanted to.

Our minders basically had three tasks; to show us around, keep us from talking with the locals, and to prevent us from taking photographs when we weren’t supposed to.

I’m sure it wasn’t too difficult to prevent communication with most groups of American tourists because of the language barrier. The small tour group I randomly joined, however, was mostly made up of missionaries living in Asia who actually spoke some Korean. They knew the rules, however, and spoke only brief greetings to people walking by. Our minders, always at our side, made sure the conversation didn’t progress beyond that.

It was very strange. I’ve never been anywhere where I couldn’t communicate in some manner or another with the locals, thereby gaining insight into living conditions and culture that only can be gleamed from first hand experience. Nor have my movements ever been completely controlled; we could only go where they wanted us to go in North Korea and see only what they wanted us to see. We couldn’t wander into a neighborhood store or market or anywhere off the carefully choreographed itinerary. In fact, after we pushed too hard one evening to visit somewhere off the itinerary, I was surprised to hear our frustrated guide quote Shakespeare in telling us that it wasn’t possible, “It doesn’t mean I love Caesar any less, it just means that I love Rome more.”

Therefore, the most revealing snippets of life were snatched from the windows of our minivan as we drove between sanctioned locations. That’s why so many of my photos are at odd angles and blurry; sticking the camera out the window of a moving minivan and shooting a click-and-pray was always a hit or miss ordeal.

But even this wasn’t easy. Like everything else in North Korea, photography is also carefully controlled. We could take photographs anywhere within the capital–except of soldiers–but once outside the city limits of Pyongyang, we weren’t allowed to take any shots unless specifically told it was okay. We often asked and were usually told the same thing.

One morning while driving outside of Pyongyang, we stopped at a simple, non-descript building that sold snacks to tourists. I’m not sure why someone wanted to take a photo of this boring structure but our guide turned us down nonetheless. “No you can’t,” he told us, and then added with a smile, “but of course I don’t know why.”

It actually became a running joke in our group and a telling insight into what life was like in this hyper-paranoid country. “Well of course you can take photos,” we’d mimic, “just not here.”

Our tour group was therefore limited to the state sanctioned, hygienically scrubbed, life-is-rosy perspective just as the government wanted it to be. As a result, visiting North Korea on a guided tour is like visiting 5th Avenue and assuming the rest of New York is just as swanky. Unfortunately, the following posts in this series are therefore limited in their exposure as a result.

Furthermore, I’m following the lead of the North Korean government and exercising some censorship myself. Certain photos and very minor incidents which occurred (and which might seem inconsequential to the reader), could certainly have ramifications for those involved or photographed. I’ve even chosen not to post any shots of our minders, both of whom were basically good guys simply doing their jobs.

And so, I’m forced to present a somewhat biased look at North Korea–certainly a somewhat biased look is better than no look at all. But don’t worry: despite the state’s best attempts to shield us, there are plenty of chinks in the armor and cracks in the smoke and mirrors; North Korea is not the worker’s paradise it claims to be and this is painfully obvious no matter how distanced we were from the day-to-day reality of the world’s last Hermit Kingdom.

Yesterday: Infiltrating North Korea Part 1
Tomorrow: The Enigma of Pyongyang