I woke up as the plane flew through a bit of turbulence to find a strange woman’s head on my shoulder and her saliva running down the shoulder of my shirt. I closed my eyes again, not awake enough to be bothered. I began to think about the previous five days in the only truly communist country in the world. By the time I set foot in Pyongyang I already had a notion of what the country would be like. I had watched CNN, read the US State Department website, and I also investigated other, more in-depth, accounts of the country, including watching several documentaries on youtube. According to all accounts, my visit to North Korea would be risky and filled with uncertainty.
I didn’t trust these sources though, and have lived abroad long enough to know that even the most dove’ish news to come out of Western media, particularly from the United States, and more particularly when it comes interpreting Asian countries, is often much more hawkish than reality. News agencies need something to feed their websites and teleprompters. Politicians need something to beat the other guy over the head with. Consequently, Americans are fed lots of rubbish.
Still, I landed in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) with a healthy respect for following instructions, earning the trust of my minders, and for the hammer blows from an authoritarian government. But I also suspected that contrary to what nearly every source was telling me, North Korea would be perhaps one of the safest countries I would ever visit.
We could not take any GPS devices and had to surrender our phones at the airport upon arrival. Our minders were at the airport to greet us when we exited customs, officially in North Korea. There were two of them. A male and a female, one senior and one junior. The senior minder was there primarily to mind the junior minder. The junior minder did most of the work. The ride from the airport to the first place we would visit took about thirty minutes.
The ride from the airport was lined with trees on both sides, evenly spaced along both sides of the roadway, green fields beyond, dedicated walking paths on the other side of the trees, and much of the way followed a calm, muddy, river. Lots of people walked or rode that old-world sort of meandering bike with a basket in front. Unlike other old-world nations, I saw no dogs and no cats. The buildings were a rainbow of dull colors, dull mint green, dull yellow, brown, dirty white, black, dull light blue. Most were, not surprisingly, low-rise communist-style block apartment buildings. There were no advertisements on any storefronts, and no evidence at all of any commercial activity. I saw one billboard in the country and that was an advertisement for the state-produced car, called Pyong Ha, or Peace. The only problem is that only government officials can own cars and so the roads are empty, and the Peace cars, by my rough estimate, made up less than ten percent of the car population in North Korea. The rest were Mercedes, Lexus, BMW, and a few cars from the 1950’s that you’d expect to see in a French spy movie, or an old 007. Almost no taxis.
After visiting the tallest triumphal arch in the world (so it is claimed), and having a tasty Korean dinner, our last stop that evening was to visit an amusement park. This was a change of schedule, and we’d originally planned on heading to the hotel. Our hotel would be on an island in the middle of the Taedong River, accessible only by a bridge to the hotel. During dinner our minder told us the trip to the amusement park was voluntary but would cost us about $100 USD and if we didn’t go in we’d need to wait on the bus for three hours. Some choice. We all volunteered to pay the price and ride the coasters. To our delight, our hefty fee included what would be a Fast Pass here in the United States. We got to cut in front of all of the lines… although this was a nice feature, I definitely had the guilty feeling of being the rich foreigner that could pay for this while the locals couldn’t pay for it even with a year’s salary.
Our minder, by now, was answering lots of questions about various things in Korea, most of the early questions were, “can you have abc or xyz in Korea?” “Of course,” she would reply. She paused long enough to tell us that we could not take our cameras into the amusement park and then I sidled up next to her as we entered the park and headed up to the first ride. Her name was Mrs. Kim. “Kim,” I said, “have you been here before?” “Of course,” she replied. “How many times?” Three. With tour groups. Not with her husband and child.
Mrs. Kim was 28, petite, moderately attractive, much more so when she smiled, and positively disarming and elegant after five days of traveling together. The senior guide, Mr. Han, was 30, and also surprisingly handsome and boyish. He looked nothing like I would have suspected a North Korean government official to look. As our group approached the roller coaster, Mrs. Kim and I in the lead, I began to tease her a bit about not wanting to go on the roller coaster, one of the scariest I’d ever seen. Still walking, her stride gravitated toward mine until her shoulder was against mine and we were walking in step. As we walked and she softly laughed at my teasing and then, while speaking something in reply, reached up and rested her fingertips on the top of my raised forearm. Just for a moment.
Now, I’d only met this woman four hours ago when we landed at the airport, and this was a nice departure from the rude welcome we had gotten from the flight attendant. Yet I could not help but begin trying to work out in my mind what the friendliness was about. Was it genuine, was it part of her training? Was she trying to lure this foreigner into saying something political so they could put me in prison and charge me with spying?
From what I could gather after five days traveling in North Korea, to visit an amusement park, or any place of mass recreation, you must go with your work unit, usually a group of about 20 or 25. The factory or company within which your work unit operated was given tickets and, in turn, management would select which units would receive the tickets. This is the way everything works in North Korea, at least from what we could tell. The guides were always vague when answering questions about what the people could and couldn’t do, or details surrounding the work units. But little by little the picture became clear.
After we got off the roller coaster I saw people laughing, walking dizzily, and one man of about thirty helping his female companion as she kneeled to the ground, too unsteady to get up. The next ride was the bumper cars. I climbed in and noticed that the occupants of all the cars were either members of my group, or soldiers. Suddenly, to my surprise, a uniformed schoolgirl of about ten or twelve came eagerly bouncing along toward my car and, even though there was little room, she squeezed herself happily into the seat next to me. She just beat out a boy in the race to occupy this seat and, once she was firmly planted in the seat next to me, gave him a tongue. Several of my tour-mates also had small companions. All were dressed in their blue and white school uniforms. Blue shorts, white button-up shirts, and adored with a red scarf, the kind boy scouts wear. Every school child I saw in North Korea was dressed this way.
I pressed on the gas and she steered and we laughed together for several minutes as we rammed as many cars as we could. I would point to one and she would aim straight for it. She was fearless. We hit my fellow group members, we rammed North Korean Army officers, we drove in circles, hit the wall, and we laughed together. We laughed without reserve or fear, as though there was nothing wrong in the world. And at that moment, there was nothing wrong with the world… at that moment all was right, and when it was over she gave me a high-five.
But all is not right in North Korea. Over the last twenty years…
Female guides who flirt, young men who help their girlfriends after a doozy of a ride on the roller coaster, and children who have fun on bumper cars? What kind of North Korea was this? In my first few hours in North Korea my perceptions had been shattered. These people were just like me. They work, love, laugh, play, and throw up after roller coasters.
This story was written on August 15, 2012.