In this country they assume you’re an enemy right off the bat,” the elderly Polish-American tourist said as our ancient Soviet airplane descended into the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on the regular Air Koryo flight from the northern Chinese city of Shenyang. Growing up in communist Poland, he had escaped to the US in his youth. This trip to the world’s last surviving Stalinist dictatorship was his way of confirming his worst fears about what he had avoided by leaving Eastern Europe behind.
The eight-page English-language Pyongyang Times I was leafing through certainly confirmed the common perception of a country stuck in a time warp, focusing on past glories to paper over current inadequacies. The lead story, “Victory in War: 55 years on”, was about the anniversary of the end of the inconclusive Korean War. Another article dealt with the Taft-Katsura agreement between the US and Japan, calling it an “American-Japanese conspiracy aimed at interference in and domination of Korea”. The agreement was signed in 1905.
Only on the penultimate page did a story betray the trouble North Korea is currently in, with the UN World Food Program warning that the country is experiencing the worst levels of food shortage since the mid-nineties.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Not that one sees this side of life in North Korea. Like other visitors before us, we were shuttled from regime-approved sites to foreigner-only restaurants with as little interaction between ourselves and the local population as possible. We trooped obediently through the mausoleum of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). We politely looked at the thousands of gifts presented to North Korea’s ruling family by foreign potentates and bowed before another enormous statue of Kim Il-Sung in downtown Pyongyang, which is currently undergoing a facelift to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the founder’s birth.
I travelled to North Korea with two young American women who were fluent Mandarin speakers. Our excuse for visiting was the Arirang Games, a visual extravaganza held in the May Day Stadium that is the regime’s jewel in the crown. Featuring 100,000 gymnasts, acrobats, martial arts experts and sword-wielding majorettes in khaki-coloured uniforms, the ceremony is a kitsch, emotional interpretation of Korean history infused with adulation of the DPRK’s ruling family. The event had been brought forward two months to pre-empt the Olympic opening ceremony in nearby Beijing by four days.
Our minders’ favourite pastime was eating. Lavish by local standards, the beautiful and perfectly impassive waitresses brought plate after plate of local delicacies until we could eat no more. It was the DPRK’s none-too-subtle way of demonstrating that talk of famine was inaccurate. But the eating habits of our slim minders spoke otherwise, shovelling food into their mouths and regarding us strangely when we said that we would rather take a walk in the streets than visit yet another restaurant. One of my travel companions repeatedly tried to make small conversation.
“How many years did our driver have to study before he became a driver?” “Two months, but he has a lot of experience,” one distracted minder answered. “Who is the most famous person our driver has driven?”
“The Minister of Railways,” he said, a note of suspicion creeping into his voice about our line of questioning.
The centre of attention was the driver ingesting food at phenomenal speed, sometimes with his chopsticks, sometimes tilting his head back and tipping the bowl’s contents into his mouth. Whether eating or piloting our bus with sadistic acceleration towards the lackadaisical pedestrians of North Korea’s empty highways, our driver remained silent.
“They loathe us,” one of my travel companions said of our guides. “We make their skin crawl. Can’t you see the hate in their eyes?” She mentioned how, at one point in the negotiations over where we could and could not go on our severely circumscribed trip, she had put her hand on one of the tour guides, and watched him flinch. “It was obvious that he wanted to move away, but didn’t out of politeness.”
Later, they openly threatened my companions. “The DPRK and the USA are still technically at war,” they said. “We would like your trip to conclude with success.”