Pyongyang Journal: Misadventures in the Democratic People’s Republic of Disneyland

Ox-drawn carts squeak by towering marble monuments – with slogans like “Live forever our father” [Kim Il Sung]. Remnants of four-lane highways snake parallel to a single train track that handles all traffic through the northwestern corridor. Schoolchildren in tattered shorts play near stiff-faced sentries (the kids wield sticks; the soldiers, automatic rifles).

Such dichotomies reflect the perplexing and almost unimaginable world that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a hermit kingdom that may harbor a half-dozen nuclear weapons or more while simultaneously being on the brink of a famine that could doom most of its peasant population.

Now, with outside reports that North Korea strongman Kim Jong Il is seriously ill, international attention is focusing once again on this troublesome nation. The world’s leaders remain, however, much as everybody else, befogged about the road ahead for North Korea. The reason for this is simple: practically nothing – news, Western luxuries, even people – is allowed in, or out.

But here I am, riding a German-imported train with 30 other Chinese tourists and plenty of North Korean guards patrolling the cabins, on our way to Pyongyang. I’ve come to see what life here is like for the Koreans, fully expecting the absurd.
What I didn’t expect was a history lesson on my own cultural heritage (I moved from China to the US when I was 6), for I had inadvertently stepped through a time portal into 1970s Red China, right down to the Orwellian surveillance and forced confessions.

My holiday began in Dandong, a wood-print of any other Chinese boomtown, its streets spilling over with traffic, gaudy billboards, and all sorts of touts living out the capitalist dream. One morning late last month, the once-daily train eased across the yawning Yalu River into North Korea.

While there was the expected indignation from the Chinese tourists – “Look at how many people they’ve shoved onto that train,” one woman exclaimed – most passengers were understanding. “They live better than the farmers in Shaanxi and Gansu,” said the man next to me, as he looked out at endless green fields of rice and corn and government-built apartments.

Our traveling entourage included a diverse array of characters: an older woman who would find her brother-in-law’s name at a Pyongyang monument to the Chinese comrades who died during the Korean War; a young serial traveler who was already planning her next trip, a ride on the Tran-Siberian railway to Moscow; a stout ethnic Korean who lived in China and took this journey simply as a weekend diversion.

Even though it has a burgeoning middle class that can now afford to vacation in Thailand or Hawaii, China still has many people who journey to North Korea each year – hundreds per day in August and September during the Arirang mass games, a staged gymnastics spectacle. It could be the red-carpet treatment they receive (five-star hotels, buffet feasts, VIP tickets), but I sense that for my fellow travelers, most in their 50s, this trip was a chance to revisit their still painful adolescence in China, and to say, “Look how far I’ve come.”

The head guide, Ju Rol, a newly married North Korean, greeted us at Pyongyang’s Soviet-era train station. He didn’t wear the ill-fitted suits popular with most North Koreans, but Western-style collared shirts, and along with his near-perfect Chinese accent, he promptly endeared himself to the group – or at least the women, who laughed at his jokes.

He herded us onto a sleek tour bus, which became our classroom for the next three days. The first day’s lesson, as we rode from the captured USS Pueblo to the Pyongyang Metro, covered the “three beauties” of North Korea: the greenery, the air, and the women. As if on cue, one of his new female admirers declared, “You’ll never see blue skies like this in Beijing.”

Part 2 tomorrow.