The plane was an old Tupelov. Not sure of the year, but I would guess at least fifty years old, if not older. Russian. The airline was Koryo Air, the only one-star airline in the world. North Korean. My seat was lopsided, the one next to me tilted backwards, the one in front of me would not stay upright. There was little legroom, but hey, I am on my way to North Korea. The flight from Shenyang is only about forty minutes and they served drinks, but would not let us take any pictures.
When we crossed the Yalu River an announcement was broadcast in English and Korean and which ended with the phrase, “…which helped the fatherland to win victorious.” There was no safety briefing, no pleasantries, and the flight attendants were all female, and all attractive. The condition of the plane notwithstanding, this flight was all about presentation, posturing. When we landed there were no announcements to stow your tray tables or put your seats upright, but there were plenty of warnings early in the flight about not taking pictures. Not over the intercom, just from scurrying flight attendants who made it clear that there were to be no pictures. I took a few anyway.
Flying into Pyongyang I was struck by how beautiful the landscape was. Rice fields everywhere, rivers, and roads and footpaths winding through the rice paddies. Very rural. On the approach to land I thought we may land in a rice paddy, there were virtually no signs of an airport until we almost touched down. Going through customs was no problem, and, just like in America and China, the customs officers scolded people, telling them to stay behind the yellow line. As soon as we collected our baggage we had to surrender our phones and any device that had GPS. Surprisingly I was able to keep my computer. Unlike in some parts of China where foreigners rarely go, no one here stared at us. We attracted no more attention than anyone else.
We met our minders, a handsome young guy of maybe 28 years, and an attractive woman of about 26. She was probably 5’5” and he was probably 5’7.” They were both fluent in Chinese and English and they would be with us everywhere we went. All groups, even if you are a group of a minder or two. One is to mind you, and the other is to mind the other minder, or really, to mind each other. It would be fairly easy for one of them to plan a defection (easy to plan, hard to execute). But these people are selected from loyal families and are not really in danger of defecting, I suspect. They are nothing like the minders I have seen in documentaries about North Korea. They are not stuffy, they are not stern… The female minder did most of the minding for our group; she was the junior minder. The male mostly just corralled the group while we are walking or when it was time to get on the bus.
Upon leaving the airport in our tour bus we headed toward the tallest Arc d’Triumphe in the world (so our minders told us). We got out and walked to the middle of the road so we could take better pictures. I learned quickly to stick close to Mrs. Kim (not her real name) because it was quickly obvious that she was a fount of information – propagandized information, yes, but interesting nonetheless.
At one point my guide leaned forward, smiled, and gently touched me on the arm as she told me about the Arc d’Triumphe, the tallest in the world. She is easy to make laugh, and she answers most of my questions. Most, but not all.
We toured a few places along the streets…. I noticed that there is almost no trash along the roads, the place is clean, orderly, and quaint. Kids were rolling on the hills together. People riding bikes, laughing…. Laughing.
No traffic during rush our. Later that evening in the lobby of our hotel I asked her why there were no taxis. She said that few people drive. I asked if she can drive. No, and private persons cannot have cars. Only government workers. That would explain the empty roads during rush hour. But the streets of Pyongyang are eerily empty, as are the sidewalks. It is claimed that there are two million people in this city. I don’t believe it.
After a bit of sightseeing, the arc, we went to dinner. Dinner was traditional Korean food. Very good.
This story was written on August 8, 2012.