U.S. Navy Ship Goes On Display. . .In North Korea

It’s one of the most popular attractions in Pyongyang, North Korea, and with a new coat of paint it’s ready to attract more admiring crowds for a brainwashing display of jingoism.

The USS Pueblo is a U.S. Navy spy ship captured by the North Korean Navy in 1968. While on an intelligence gathering mission in the Sea of Japan to check out the activities of North Korea and the Soviet Union, the ship was attacked by several North Korean vessels and two jets. Two of her crew were killed before the captain surrendered. The survivors spent eleven months in prison and were subjected to physical and psychological torture.

Despite this, they were defiant. When posed for propaganda photos they subtly gave the photographer the finger. When the North Koreans discovered what this meant, the torture got worse.

North Korea insisted the ship was in its waters, while the U.S. said it stayed in international waters. The U.S. had to finally admit “fault” in order to get the crew’s release, and then immediately retracted that admission.

Today the USS Pueblo is still in North Korea. It’s been a propaganda piece for some time and is moored next to the Fatherland War of Liberation Museum, where it receives a steady stream of North Korean visitors and a few foreign tours. Now the Japan Times reports it’s been repainted and restored along with the rest of the museum. Presumably the damage caused by North Korean guns was left intact, as that was a star attraction. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over the ribbon cutting ceremony.

North Korean Airline Dubbed ‘World’s Worst’ Finally Gets On Board With Online Booking

Let’s take a poll: would you fly an airline rated the “world’s worst”? No? Now tell us, if that same airline was owned by North Korea would you consider it any more worthy of your ticket price? Probably not, you say?

The good news is that if you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, booking on Air Koryo just got a lot easier. The Skytrax one-star rated airline is selling its flights to China and Russia online for the first time.

Although we’re not sure that the website will add anything to the airline’s reputation. According to the Telegraph:

Early reports seems to suggest the website is unlikely to help the North Korean flag carrier shake its one-star rating, however. Users have already reported slow response speeds, with some searches not offering any availability for flights, while others result in an error message appearing on the screen.

What happens on a one-star airline? According to Startrax: “very poor quality performance … with poor, inconsistent standards of … service … in on-board and airport environments.”

At present, the airline utilizes a number of planes constructed in the former Soviet Union and is the only airline rated as one-star worldwide. That said, there are 29 airlines ranked just above this dubious distinction as two-star, which include names you may have flown, including Air Zimbabwe, Bulgaria Air and Ryanair.

[Photo credit: screenshot from Air Koryo]

Video: Sneaking Into North Korea

Most journalists tread carefully around the topic of North Korea. If a tourist in North Korea is found to be a journalist, that person can get into a lot of trouble. Whether or not the punishment for this crime is severe, the risk is too steep for most. But VICE sent a journalist to North Korea who made it out alive and well. This video documents the process of breaking into North Korea, so to speak. Watch, learn and enjoy. And by all means, if any of you have any personal stories you’d like to share about traveling to North Korea, tell us your story in the comment section below.

Syria memories: grieving for a dictator

The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il has led to some very strange television–the Dear Leader lying in state, throngs of North Koreans weeping uncontrollably, even rumors of miracles such as grieving birds.

The images coming out of North Korea led to a discussion with some of my Facebook friends over whether or not the outpouring of grief was genuine or staged. I lean towards staged, since the only news we’re getting is from the state media, which has tried to raise Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung to the status of demigods. Then again, in the cloistered lives the North Koreans live, perhaps they do feel a sense of loss. Even the BBC discussed the issue and came to the conclusion that we can’t know for sure.

The whole thing made me remember my trip to Syria back in 1994. Pictures of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and his family were everywhere–in shops, on the streets, in the front rooms of private homes–as you can see in this photo of what looks like a hotel lobby with portraits of Hafez and his son Bashar, courtesy flickr user Bombardier. Bashar now rules Syria (perhaps not for long) but it was his older brother Bassel who was supposed to take over. When I was there it was common to see photos of Bassel and Hafez side by side, and most Syrians assumed he’d rule Syria one day.

In Syria in those days, if you kept your nose clean the authorities generally left you alone. If you stood up against the government, they leveled your city. So Syrians toted the line in public. In private, however, many quietly told me how much they hated the regime. One admitted he’d never say such things to a fellow Syrian for fear that he may be a member of the secret police. In Syria, there are lots of secret police.

Then, on 22 January 1994, Bassel died in a car accident. I’ll never forget the grim military music that played on the state radio and television for several days afterwards, and the constant coverage the state media gave to his life and unexpected death. As soon as the news broke that first day I went out onto the streets of Damascus. Shops were closed and there were far more soldiers and police on the streets than usual. A rally was already forming in one of the main squares.The rally wasn’t very big, just a few dozen young men chanting slogans in support of the regime. There was no counter demonstration. Strangely, the cops seemed to be trying to calm the most vocal supporters. One young man got onto the shoulders of another to be more visible and started loudly chanting the praises of Hafez al-Assad. The cop made him get down and stop. It seemed that any outspoken statement, even one in support of the government, was viewed with suspicion.

The government declared several days of national mourning. All shops were to remain closed. I had befriended a shopkeeper near my hotel, a friendly fellow with good English who changed money at a black market rate for a steady stream of backpackers. Let’s call him Samir. I won’t tell you his real name or occupation for obvious reasons.

Samir lived frugally. I got the impression all that hard currency was going somewhere else. A nest egg? Support for extended family? I never asked. He was like many such people I’ve met in my travels in that he enjoyed talking to foreigners as much as he enjoyed making money off of them. I changed money with him only a few times, but every day we sat sipping sweet Arabic tea and having long conversations about everything except politics. Samir never discussed politics, not even on January 22.

In fact, all Syrians were silent with me on the subject of Bassel’s death. While they didn’t look choked up about it, they didn’t want to risk saying anything about the dead son of the dictator, not even to a foreigner. I saw no evidence of grief, not even at that rally. Those young men in the square only seemed to be doing some very public brown nosing. The rest of the people of Damascus just went about their day-to-day lives and kept quiet.

The days of mourning were declared over and Samir reopened his shop. I was just about to enter for our morning tea when a cop showed up. He told Samir that the mourning period was still on, and demanded to know why the shop was open. Samir cringed and pleaded that the radio said the mourning period was over. The cop told him that was wrong (it turned out they’d extended it at the last minute) and that he better close his store quick. Then the cop left. He could have hauled Samir before a judge, or demanded a bribe to keep him out of jail. Instead he just walked away. Perhaps he wasn’t fond of the al-Assad family either.

It was the least mournful period of national mourning I’ve ever seen.

So are the tears for Kim Jong-il genuine? If Syria is anything to judge by, they aren’t, but Syria and North Korea are two very different cultures and Syrians were never as cut off from the world as the North Koreans. So, as usual with the world’s most isolated country, we once again have to shrug our shoulders and say we don’t know.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Kim Jong-il’s death, besides the political instability, is that the passing that same week of Václav Havel has not received the attention it deserves. Havel was a dissident playwright in Communist Czechoslovakia who refused to stop making his art despite being repeatedly imprisoned by the government. In 1989, Communism fell and he became president, helping to lead his country’s transition to democracy. He did it with no bloodshed and a minimum of ill-will. And then he went back to his writing. Check out this obituary of Václav Havel to learn more about a leader whose death really does deserve tears.

Travel Warnings: often not as bad as they sound

The United States Department of State issues travel warnings when dangerous, long-term conditions lead to a recommendation that Americans avoid or consider the risk of travel to certain countries around the globe. They also issue warnings when the U.S. government’s ability to assist American citizens is compromised by the closing of an embassy or consulate or a reduction of its staff. Still, seeing a country’s name on the list does not necessarily mean all travel to a given country should stop.

Mexico is a good example of a country where there have been issues of concern, a travel warning has been issued, but not all travel there is unsafe. Since 2006, the Mexican government has battled drug trafficking routes and other criminal activity. Still, a lot of Americans travel to Mexico safely.

“Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day for study, tourism or business and at least one million U.S. citizens who live in Mexico” states the Department of State in their current travel warning for Mexico.

Still, the Department of State notes that violence along Mexican roads and highways in the northern border region make that area off limits to U.S. government employees and their families, good advice to consider for travelers as well. Often, common-sense advice is given for those who must travel

“If you make frequent visits to border cities, you should vary your route and park in well-lighted, guarded and paid parking lots. Exercise caution when entering or exiting vehicles.”

Some travel warnings go back quite some time too, like travel to North Korea where entry requirements are strict and explicit official permission plus an entry visa are required from the government of North Korea.

“Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizens crossing into North Korea without proper documentation, even accidentally, have been subject to arrest and long-term detention” warns the Department of State.

Again, following some common sense tips for safety when traveling abroad are given by the Department of State including:

  • Dressing for the part– Do not dress in a way that will make you look like an affluent tourist. We got that same recommendation from a friend before our recent trip to Italy who urged avoiding bright colors or designer clothes.
  • Travel light– You can move quickly and have a free hand that way. On our recent trip it was a backpack and a small carry-on for each member of our traveling party.
  • Limit the valuables you take and plan places to conceal them– Inside pockets, money belts worn under clothing and the like are good places for credit cards, passports and cash. Leave the jewelry at home.
  • Keep essentials with you– eyeglasses, medicine and other not easily replaceable items should be kept with you when traveling or locked in a hotel safe.
  • Tag your luggage carefully– Put your name, address, phone numbers inside and outside luggage. Tags on the outside of luggage should be difficult to read from a distance, like standing in line at a foreign airport, where your identity or nationality could make you a target.
See more on these and other tips for traveling abroad at the U.S. Department of State website and don’t forget their Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) that provides most current information about the country where you will be traveling or living.

Flickr photo by Håkan Dahlström

Related Stories