Friday, May 3, 2013
(Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk)
How to get there:
- Don’t be South Korean.
- Go to China.
- Find a tour group.
- Follow the rules.
The laws about who can get a visa to the DPRK change often. At the time of our trip, the Japanese were allowed in, but the Chinese were not. But, South Koreans are never allowed in. Korean-Americans, however, are welcomed, if they use their US passport for entry.
You won’t get to use the phone. But if you need to know, the emergency numbers are 112 and 119.
- China Uncensored:
- Crossing The Line
- DPRK: The Land Of Whispers
- The Real Doctor Evil: Kim Jong Il’s North Korea
- Act of War
- Anecdotes of Kim Jong Il’s Life
- The Aquariums of Pyongyang
- The Dark Tourist
- Eating with the Enemy
- Escape from Camp 14
- Escaping North Korea
- The Impossible State
- Mao: The Unknown Story
- North Korea Kidnapped My Daughter
- Nothing to Envy
- Only Beautiful, Please
- The Orphan Master’s Son
- Somewhere Inside
- The Reluctant Communist
- The Tears of My Soul
- The World Is Bigger Now
If you can read Korean: Kingdom of Kim (There is no English version of this book yet. I would love to find one.)
NEVER NEVER NEVER bring a bible to North Korea!
The Yanggakdo International Hotel
(Yanggakdo gookchea hotel)
- 38°59’57.3″N 125°45’05.9″E
Don’t you worry about directions here or any other place in North Korea. Someone will also be around to show you where to go.
Yanggakdo International Hotel
Pyongyang, North Korea
There are phones in the hotel, but I never used it. So, I don’t know whom you can call.
You can send emails from the lobby of the hotel. You can also mail letters.
Your tour will take care of this.
- Breakfast starts at 7:00
- The Yanggakdo Hotel is not the only hotel in town. Neither is it the only functioning hotel in town. But it is the one in which any tourist in Pyongyang will most like be staying.
- This hotel is where many American prisoners get to talk to the Swedish ambassador. Some have actually held prisoner here.
- You cannot go to the 5th floor!
- You cannot go to any floor where the lights are turned off. If you try to, an official will escort you back to the elevator.
- You can walk around the grounds but you cannot leave Yanggakdo (Yanggak island) on your own.
- Be careful when using the elevator. The doors will slam shut even when you are in the way.
The International Friendship Exhibition
- Coordinates 39°01’47.3″N 125°38’00.8″E
- It opened on 26 August 1978.
- It was moved from Myohyangsan, North Pyongan province.
- It contains gifts presented to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il from various foreign dignitaries along with gifts from North Koreans living abroad.
- You will have to wear booties.
- You are not allowed to bring your camera in because it houses all sort of crazy stuff and the lies here are so thick they are delicious!
- Kim Jong-il built the International Friendship Exhibition in three days!
Kim Il-Sung’s Birth Place
- Coordinates 38°59’34″N 125°39’24″E
- He might not have been born here at all. No one really knows.
- This is where you get to see “how Kim Il-Sung grew up”.
Facts about Kim Il-Sung
- Kim Il-Sung was born Kim Song-Ju on April 15, 1912 somewhere in Pyongyang.
- At this site he is shown as being poor in his early years but he probably grew up in a middle-class family and not a peasant one.
The Pyongyang Metro
- Coordinates 39°00’38.6″N 125°43’03.3″E (Puhung Station)
- Coordinates 39°00’28.4″N 125°44’04.7″E (Yonggwang Station)
- Coordinates 39°02’35.5″N 125°45’14.6″E (Kaeson Station)
- 5 KP₩/ticket (For Koreans only)
- There are 2 subway lines; the Ch’ŏllima line and the Hyŏksin line.
- Constructions started in 1965 and the subway stations opened in 1969 ~ 1972.
- The stations can also be used as bomb shelters.
The Arch of Triumph
- Coordinates 39°02’40.8″N 125°45’11.6″E
- Just take the metro to Kaesong station.
- It was modelled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but it’s taller.
- It was built in 1982 to commemorate Korean resistance to Japan.
Some Hotpot Restaurant
- Coordinates 39°02’06.1″N 125°47’02.3″E
- It is somewhere near the Swiss Embassy.
- *청류관광기녕품상점 is the name on the building. I don’t know if that is the name of the restaurant.
- The restaurant is on the 2nd floor and there is a little shop on the first floor.
Ms. Lee told us how hot pot became popular in North Korea. She said that when soldiers had a break from fighting during the war and they were hungry they had to be very creative. They did not have many supplies. So they would build a fire and use their helmets as pots. Then they would put water to boil and add whatever vegetable or meat, if they were lucky, they could find.
The Juche Tower
- Coordinates 39°01’34.1″N 125°46’02.4″E
- Lonely Planet
- (I like that LP recommends going early in the morning, like you have a choice.)
- DPRK 360
- It costs €5 to go to the top of the tower. This is not included in your tour.
- It was finished in 1982.
- The plaques on the tower (like the one in the photo above) were given to the Korean people by North Koreans living abroad. There are no Americans studying the Juche idea in the US.
- It is slightly taller than the Washington Monument.
Monument to the Korean Workers Party
- Coordinates 39°01’40.2″N 125°46’36.4″E
- It was completed in 1995 during North Korea’s famine.
Grand People’s study House
- Coordinates 39°01’12.8″N 125°44’57.0″E
- If you go there, you’ll talk to some professor and walk into some “random” English class.
- Coordinates 39°01’18.8″N 125°45’15.4″E
- You can buy books and newspapers here. All the books about about North Korea, the Kims, or Juche.
Kim Il Sung Square
- Coordinates 39°01’10.6″N 125°45’09.6″E
- This is where all the parades and marching takes place.
Pyongyang Film Studio
- Coordinates 39°04’17.4″N 125°42’40.7″E
- €2 to dress up and play with fake swords.
Pyongyang No. 1 Pizza Shop
How to get there:
- I have no idea!
- There is no information online.
- There is a Pyongyang No. 2 Pizza Shop, but according to our western guide, it’s not as good.
- They also serve pasta.
- Do not confuse this place with Pyulmori.
Pyongyang Cold Noodle Restaurant
How to get there:
- I have no idea!
- There is no information online.
- There is a very popular cold noodle restaurant called, “Okryugwan“. That is not the restaurant we went to.
- This restaurant had a shop on the first floor where you could buy DPRK won.
- For the main course there was the option of having either cold noodles or bibimbap.
- I guess Pyongyang is famous for these cold noodles.
Thankful to be back at the Yanggakdo
Vera and I were so grateful to be back at the Yanggakdo with its fully functioning hot showers and other amenities. It’s a generally okay hotel. You can tell it’s old but still, it’s alright. In our room everything worked fine. We did heard of others whose drains were clogged, or whose hot water didn’t work, or whose toilet kept running.
Before we went out for our day’s tour of Pyongyang, I filled out a laundry request form. I was running low on clean clothes and since the Yanggakdo had a laundry service (for a fee) I thought, “Why not?” When else will I have a chance to get laundry done in the DPRK?
By now I had stopped asking about the day’s plans and only focused on where we were going next. We were heading to the International Friendship Exhibition. As we drove along Ms. Lee decided to quiz us on what we knew about North Korea. She stood up and asked everyone on the bus when Kim Il-Sung was born.
I shouted, “Juche 1!” The Koreans found this to be very amusing. Later Intern Kim asked me how I knew about the Juche years. “Oh, I read about Kim Il-Sung on Wikipedia,” I said not remembering where I was and that this would bring on more questions.
Intern Kim – “What is that?”
Me – “It’s an online encyclopedia… Do you know what the internet is?”
Intern Kim – “I know the intranet…”
Me – “Okay, it’s kind of like that… On the intranet you can communicate with other people in North Korea. They write things and then you can read what they write. But, with the internet you can communicate with other people anywhere in the world.” I had no idea whether or not she had access to the DPRK’s intranet. From what I know only an elite few get to use the intranet and fewer still get access to the internet and they are mostly hackers.
Intern Kim – “And wik… wiki…”
Me – “Wikipedia. It’s a place online with lots of information. People who know things, write about what they know so that other people can know it too.”
Intern Kim – “And they write about Kim Il-Sung and Juche?”
Me – “Not just about Kim Il-Sung and Juche; about everything that people know. How pineapples grow. The history of noodles. The best ways to run away from a bear. Think about anything you want to know, if someone in the world knows it, you can probably find information about it online. Wikipedia is just one of the many places online with information.”
On the way we passed the pizza place again. I reminded the guides of my request to order pizza. People on the bus also chimed in. Everyone was willing to pay for a slice or two just so they could have some North Korean pizza. “Okay,” the western guide said, “Tonight, when we get back to the hotel we’ll order a pizza.”
My heart sank. I knew that was never going to happen. We usually get back to the hotel way too late. Everyone will just head off to bed. Even I, who wants this pizza so much, will be too tired to care by the time we get back. I took of a photo of the restaurant so that I could at least have that…
When they took away our cameras we knew we were in for something good. We all speculated about what we would see on the ride over. We all knew that a basketball signed by Michael Jordan would be there. But what else would we see and what stories would be told?
When our bus pulled up there were rows and columns of people dressed in their finest suits and chosonots. They all stood patiently in front of the main gate. We walked right past them. “Weren’t they here first?” someone asked a guide. “It’s okay, they will go in later.” They were still standing out there when we left.
They made us wear booties over our shoes. The ones who got in first stood in an empty white room waiting for the others to turn in their cameras and put on their booties. Eventually everyone was waiting in the white room, but there were no guides. We stood there wondering what to do next.
I needed to use the bathroom. There were many halls that lead away from the white room. I picked one at random and started to walk. I got almost to the end of the hall when a soldier stepped out to ask me what I was doing. “Is there a toilet somewhere? toilet?” I tried speaking more slowly, “toiiillllleeeetttt?” He indicated that I should follow him and he took me back to the white room and down another hall.
As we passed the white room some people from my group asked what was going on. “He’s showing me the way to the bathroom,” I said as I marched along. When we arrived at the bathroom there was a parade of women behind the soldier.
Our guides eventually came to get us and we began the tour. We started by bowing to a statue of Kim Il-Sung on the seconds floor. Then we entered a room with gifts from dignitaries from other countries to Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il. The museum’s guide told us all about the fabulousness of each gift. Everything was the best top-quality thing given to Kim Il-Sung or his son and the Korean people with the utmost respect and admiration by some person held in high esteem from some country somewhere.
Everyone stopped at a large embroidered picture of Kim Jong-Il riding a tiger Putin-style in what looked like full traditional Korean Military dress. The tiger was wearing some sort of armor and bearing his teeth. It was so grandiose and gaudy. It was the tackiest thing I’ve ever seen. (…and I used to live in Florida!) “Wow, this is amazing,” was all we could safely say while trying not to giggle. The curator stood there proudly. “Foreigners like that one very much,” he told us. If only he knew why.
There were plastic baubles past off as gems and meaning given to things that had no meaning, or had meaning that the Koreans did not fully understand. In the corner of the room sat a giant rock; a boulder. It was given to North Korea by Russia. The curator told us how heavy it was. According to the museum guy, it was the biggest rock of this type in the world. “It took hundreds of Korean soldiers months to get it here from Moscow (or wherever).”
Wait! Russia gave you a giant stupid rock and you have to haul it back to Pyongyang yourselves? With friends like the Russians…
There was a giant clam shell given by some country, I think East Germany. I looked at that thing and imaged a bunch of diplomats at a seafood restaurant somewhere complaining about an upcoming trip to Pyongyang. “I have to get this Kim guy something and give some BS speech about the inspiration of Juches ideals.” “You know what you could do, Ambassador Schmidt?” a subordinates says. He scoops up a large piece of clam onto his plate. “You could just give him this normally large clam shell from our meal and tell him that this, largest clam shell in the world, is just like Juche, the biggest idea in the world…”
We left this room and walked around the rest of the building. Once again I lagged behind. I took my time to look at the things that interested me and ignored the things that didn’t. It was just a matter of time before I was on my own. This didn’t last long though; maybe 5 or so minutes. Intern Kim found me and we looked at stuff together.
I read the label of one item, it was a sewing machine given by some Chinese guy. I asked Kim what it meant. She was surprised that I could read Hangul. “Did you learn Hangul in school?” I giggled and said, “No, I learned it in Seoul.” I asked her why the Chinese guy had such a Korean sounding name. She read the label again. After reading several other labels she said, “The people might be Koreans living in other countries not Chinese or British people.” So the gifts not in the first room are from North Korean diplomats living abroad.
We took our time going through each room. The group was several rooms ahead. A guard came in and reprimanded Intern Kim for moving too slowly. I didn’t want her to get in trouble, so I started to go to the next room. Then Kim told me that it was okay. As long as we stayed together we were fine.
We passed some furniture. It was a whole living room set, but it looked like it had been dipped in gold. Intern Kim asked me if I liked it. I thought it was god-awful like most of the trite in the exhibit, but I wasn’t going to just come out and say that. “You don’t like it?” she asked. I think she could tell from the look on my face. “I looks very expensive,” I said, “but not very comfortable.” “You can’t sit on a gold sofa,” she sighed and we both giggled.
We moved to the South Korean electronics room. It had, among other gadgets, flat screen TVs made by LG and Samsung. Kim asked me which company was better.
Me – “They’re both pretty good.”
Kim – “Which one is more famous?”
Me – “They are both are very famous.”
Kim – “…outside of South Korea?”
Me – “My first computer was a Samsung. My refrigerator in my apartment in Japan is made by LG.”
Kim – “Are they rich?”
Me – “The people who run those companies could buy several of those golden living room sets, though they would probably buy something… softer.”
Intern Kim seemed to be taking it all in as we trailed several rooms behind the group. We looked at things and talked about life in South Korea and Japan. She didn’t seem at all interested in the US. Instead she wanted me to compare life in South Korea and Japan to what I could saw in Pyongyang and even to compare South Korea to Japan.
We could not see all the rooms because when the group was finished we had to go. A uniformed museum worker came to tell us that our group was leaving. The Koreans lined up outside were waiting for us to go so that they could come in and enjoy the exhibits.
We got our cameras backs and returned the booties. Then waited for everyone else by the bus. We gathered in little groups to quietly discuss the madness we had just seen.
Vera – “Did you see that tiger? The curator said it had rubies and sapphires on it. It looked like plastic!”
Me – “No I missed that one. I was too busy staring at the awesomeness that was the giant Russian rock.”
Flip-flips – “How about the stuffed alligator?”
French Guy – “Did you see the collection of rotary phones? Do you think that China just polishes their old things and sends them to North Korea?”
Is it a holiday or something?
When we got to the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Museum I saw more people there than I had the entire trip. Everyone was dressed up. Several people asked the guides why so many people were there that day. They wanted to know if it was a holiday. The guides said it was not a holiday, but maybe these people took a personal day to come here. “It is a great honor to come here, so people gladly use their time off for a visit.”
But that did not explain the herds of schoolkids. Were they all playing hookie from school to visit this museum? It just doesn’t sound like the kind of thing kids get up too. But what do I know; I’m a capitalist. I only care about money and stopping North Koreans from getting electricity.
Just like at the International Friendship Exhibition, we cut the line even though the people had been clearly waiting a very long time to see the house. Not only did we skip them, but they were made to stand back and they had to wait until we were done to continue with their pilgrimage.
The place was re-created to look like it did when Kim Il-Sung was a boy. Supposedly he grow up as a peasant, but there is very little proof of that. Revolutionaries generally don’t come from peasant backgrounds. Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Lenin, George Washington, Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King jr. were all at the very least middle class.
We had some of the Kim Il-Sung well water. This is supposed to be the well that the Great Leader drank from growing up. The guides told us that many people believe the water has healing properties. “School children drink the water before taking exams.” We all tried some.
Generally you should not drink the water in North Korea unless it is boiled first. (Instead, drink bottled water.) Plus, everyone drinks from the same set of cups that never get washed. It was gross. I thought it was icky. But everyone else in my groups was doing it, so I drank the water too. (No, I did not get sick, but for the next couple weeks I had a burning desire to wear some Juche pants.)
Ticket to Ride
Actually, we did not get tickets to ride. We hopped the turnstiles. Okay, we didn’t literally hop them. The guard made us walk around them. I was a little disappointed because I wanted a subway ticket for a souvenir.
We took the long escalator down to where the trains were. I think the escalator ride was just a little shorter than the subway ride. The Pyongyang metro is one of the deepest metro systems in the world. It also serves as a bomb shelter.
The station below smelled like an old basement. It had a very Russian or Moscowian feel. It most definitely was not boring. With murals, chandeliers, and statues to look at. It makes you want to say, “So this is what it would be like if Liberace were communist!”
We got on the train and several Koreans got up to give us their seats. Most of us refused the seats and asked them to sit back down. Some Koreans returned to their seats, others moved to another car. It was an awkward ride.
One couple said that the guy sitting next to them struck up a conversation. They said he was a lovely man, but when they asked him where he learned English he changed the subject. “He was still very nice,” they said, “odd, but nice. And we could tell he was well educated.”
We stopped at a subway station. We did not change lines. We just stood on the platform to take photos. Then we got on the next train.
When we got to Kaesong station we got off the train again. This time we headed for the exit. On our way out we past this shop in the subway. Look at all that stuff! It was colorful, pointless, decadent, and kitchy. It looked like stuff you find at a carnival. This was the last thing I would expect to find in a North Korean subway shop.
I wasn’t the only one. Almost everyone in my group turned to snap a photo of this shop. And then… “STOP, STOP, STOP!” This time both Ms. Lee and Mr. Park were shouting at us. Even the cameraman nodded at us disapprovingly.
I really have no idea why this photo would cause such a reaction. Here is proof that North Korea has stuff for sale and it looks like they also have people buying the stuff. Whether they are actually buying things or not I can’t tell. But I don’t know why they didn’t want anyone taking this picture.
I don’t remember exactly what reason was given. It might have had something to do with the people at the shop being ordinary citizens. But, that makes no sense. We had just taken many photos of similar people on the metro…
Ms. Lee made everyone delete their photos, but once again she see did not see me. I don’t know why. I was standing right there too. The only thing I can think of is that I have my camera on silent. It makes very little noise. I also almost never use my flash. Or maybe she just liked me…
Ms. Lee didn’t stay mad at us for too long. As soon as we got to the exit she went to the ticket booth and bought us all subway tickets from her own money.
Intern Kim Shines
When we got to the Arch of Triumph, Intern Kim asked if she could try leading the tour. So, instead of Ms. Lee doing the talking, Kim did. She was a little nervous, but she did a fine job. We asked her a few questions which she answered and then we clapped and cheered for her. She blushed.
We were told that our next stop would be for lunch so we all got on the bus. Once I was in my seat I heard some altercation going on outside, but I could not see what it was. I wanted to get off the bus to see what was going on, but there were too many people standing in the aisle of the bus and in line outside waiting to get on. I heard yelling in Russian.
“What’s going on out there”, I asked someone standing by the door of the bus. “It looks like some Russians arguing.” “Is one of them wearing a pink polo shirt,” someone in the bus asked. The guy at the door stuck his head out. “Yes. Do you know him?”
Lunch and Races
Our next meal was stew that we could cook to our liking. We could make is as spicy or as bland as we liked. We could use some or all of the ingredients placed at our table.
The guy in front of me didn’t like spicy food or eggs, so I took his egg. By this time in the trip I have become less picky and more hungry between meals. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast around 6:00 and we were late for lunch at around 14:00. We would also probably eat a late dinner around 21:00 or 22:00. Being picky with food was a fool’s game!
This meal was, like most North Korean meals, okay. It was not overly delicious, but adequate. You ate and when you were no longer hungry you had no desire to keep eating. I still tried to eat all my food because I knew that we would be running late again and dinner time would get pushed back.
I had just gotten to the point where I was tired of the food when they brought out dessert. I knew that bananas were a rarity in the DPRK and was amazed that we were given a banana. We had to split the banana among 4 people but still. It’s the thought that counts.
I left the table to use the bathroom and noticed some smokers sitting outside, without any Korean guides. I got my bag and sat with them. We stared across the street at the Iranian embassy. One of the smokers asked, “What do you think would happen if we ran over there and told them that our North Korean handlers were being mean to us?” “We want sanctuary in Iran,” the other one said as he put up his hands and playfully pretended to run across the street.
One by one people who finished eating came outside. One guy challenged a western guides to a race. We relaxed and hung out on the sidewalk like this is what one does everyday in Pyongyang.
The Juche Idea is that of self reliance. A person is in charge of his or her own destiny if he or she is reliant only on his or herself. This is what North Korea is founded on. Or rather, this is what its propaganda claims North Korea is founded on. But it’s all nonsense.
North Korea started out propped up by Russia. It relied heavily on Russia and China to support it in the past. Then it got handouts from South Korea, Japan, The US, Canada, and the European Union. When there is any lack in the country like a power outage or a shortage of rice, they blame America. So much for being in charge of your own destiny.
Some of us took the elevator to the top of the Juche tower. It was overpriced for an elevator ride, but I’m never going go get a chance to do this again so I went for it.
While we waited for the elevator some people browsed in the gift shop, others wrote in the Juche Tower guest book, and still others sat on the sofas and relaxed. This was the first time I saw Cameraman Choi speaking. He only speaks Korean, so I could not talk to him directly. I asked Intern Kim to translate for me.
I asked him if he gets tired of visiting the same monuments over and over again. He said that he quite enjoyed visiting the monuments because he gets to work with his camera. He loves making the videos.
As I looked over the city of Pyongyang I told Ms. Lee that I thought the city was beautiful. It was. It’s a tourist paradise with a monument on every corner and over the top crazy stories of impossible feats at every turn. I asked Ms. Lee if there were foreigners living in Pyongyang who weren’t diplomats. “Sure there are,” she said. “Do you want to live in Pyongyang?” she asked. “I can’t; I’m American.” “That is a problem,” she replied.
To be honest I wouldn’t mind working in Pyongyang for a few months for an NGO or something. I could not work for the North Korean government like I did in South Korea or Japan. I know of one person hired by the DPRK government to do some translating and when it was time to leave, the North Korean government refused to let her go. She eventually got out and, I think, wrote a book.
Needless to say, I shall not be living or working in North Korea any time soon.
The Famine and the Monument
North Korea’s famine started about 1994. Russia gave up trying to get any payment for goods already given to North Korea. Trade, if you can call it that, stopped between the two countries. North Korea has never actually produced enough food for itself, relying on outside help to make up the difference.
I’ve noticed that regimes never refer to their famines as famines. Cuba called theirs the Special Period. China called theirs the Difficult Three Year Period. Russia never talks about theirs. North Korea refers to theirs as the Arduous March. According to Wikipedia, the famine was not a result of bad weather or a season of bad crops, but of a lot of bad decisions made by the government over decades. One of those being to stop farmers from growing food, and forcing them to grow plants used to make heroin and cocaine.
In 1995 North Korea built this thing; a monument for the working people, the people who were starving to death.
The pins in the DPRK work like this. Anyone can buy a pin with a North Korean flag or map on it. But, the pins with the leader’s face on them are only worn by Party members. Not every Korean is in the Party, but every Korean must wear a pin.
Our tour guides all had pins with Kim Jong-Il on them. There were no Kim Jong-Eun pins when I was there. The pins we were allowed to buy were only of the Korean flag. But I’m sure if you really wanted one, you could get a face pin or several in China.
They’re using the internet? Those guys!?
We went to Grand People’s study House. We were met at the door by a guide; let’s call him Mr. Bak. There was a Russian tour group that got there right before we did so we had to wait for them for a few minutes as Mr. Bak made small talk. He wanted us to know that he wasn’t some nobody who has never been any where. So, he told us that he has travelled a lot.
“Where did you go?” we asked him.
“Well let me see… Germany… Russia… China… I can’t remember all now.”
Well Russia and China was nothing special. But we wanted to hear about his trip to Germany. (We wondered if he meant Germany or East Germany.) We begged him to tell us what he thought about Germany or even why he was there.
He said he was there for some conference to learn about German policies or something. He couldn’t remember now because he skipped out of the meeting and went to the pub instead. He doesn’t remember what he thought about Germany since he was blazing drunk the whole time. “The beer was very good!”
Once inside the building he showed us some guys on computers. “They are using the internet,” Mr. Bak bragged. The men were standing in front of the computers with their hands behind their backs. I’m no expert on using the internet, well actually I am. One does not use the internet for that long without typing something.
Vera said she watched one guy closely. “He stood there staring at the brower. It was just some sort of homepage; nothing to occupy one’s mind that long. After a few minutes he scrolled down then stared some more. Then he scrolled back up and stared, then back down again. He just kept doing this over and over again. But there was nothing there for all that reading and rereading.”
We saw the famous Kim Jong-Il invented adjustable tables. There were actually really nice. I wonder if I can get one at Ikea?
Mr. Bak then took us to an office where a professor was doing some research. Unlike everyone else in the building, he actually seemed like he was in the middle of doing something. I felt like we were barging in. He spoke English and answered our questions, but in a curt manner. I felt bad for the guy and wanted to leave. I know what it’s like to have a silly boss who gets on you for not working efficiently, but won’t leave you alone so you can actually get some work done.
The tours were long. We started very early in the morning and we got back to the hotel very late at night. We always seemed to be late for the next thing no matter how much we hurried along. So much stuff was packed into our days. Going to North Korea is a once of a life-time thing for most visitors so, the guides do their best to keep you occupied. By this day, day 4 we were all pretty tired.
You want science? I got your science right here!
Next Mr. Bak wanted to show us something amazing. He made us stand by this counter where a lady was looking bored and staring at her computer screen. “Wow, another internet user,” I thought.
“What kind of book would you like?” Mr. Bak asked giving a proud smile. “A book about food,” someone in the group replied. “Ask this librarian for any book and she will give it to you.” Mr. Bak then said something to the bored lady and she pressed a few buttons on her keyboard.
Out came a metal box from the wall. The bored librarian reached in and pulled out Discovering Food and Nutrition. “What other book would you like,” ask Mr. Bak. He seemed to be challenging us. There was no way he could possibly win this sort of challenge.
“Do you have Fifty Shades of Grey?” someone asked. The group giggled like it was an inside joke. “Is that a good book?” Ms. Lee asked. “No,” someone else said, “It’s a very bad book.” Then he gave the fifty-shades guy an ironic chastising look.
“What about Mark Twain?” Vera asked.
“What about a science book?” Flip-flops challenged.
The bored librarian did not acknowledge any of our suggestions. She did not even glance our way. We looked at Mr. Bak. He said something in Korean, but the bored lady gave no response. There was only the sound of typing. “She’s tired of us already, I think,” joked one of the guys. Then another metal box appearing.
The lady pulled two books out of the metal box and set them on the table. Then she went back to looking at her computer screen and ignoring us. Mr. Bak nodding at us self satisfied. “Any book you want!” he beamed.
“Can anyone asked for any book?” someone asked. “This is the people’s study house. It is for the people.” Mr. Bak said solemnly.
He lead us away. “Let me show you all the books…”
He took us into a room with many computers and many people staring zombie-like at their screens. “More internet users?” someone asked. “No, these people are using the intranet,” he explained. “From the intranet, these people can see what books we have at the library. They can also read speeches of the great leaders or read a newspaper.”
There was a computer not being used. He asked for a volunteer to sit at the computer. “Type in the name of any book or author you like,” Mr. Bak dared. The volunteer typed, “O-R-W-E-L-L.” Everyone in our tour group looked anxiously at the screen. The computer took a while to process the information.
In the meantime Mr. Bak yakked on about how the operating system was Korean made. The computer was made with the best DPRK technology to be fast. It was just looking through all the books in the library, and there were so many books. That’s why it took so long.
Finally a result came back. One entree: Animal Farm. Someone asked Mr. Bak where the book was. “It’s in the library or maybe someone has borrowed it.” We asked if we could go see the book. Mr. Bak said that we would have to go back to the bored librarian and ask her for the book, but we had no time.
No one asked about why the best of Korean technology was a Chinese computer or why the Korean operating system used Internet Explorer. There are just certain topics that one does not discuss with an Internet Explorer user.
What do you have in England?
Next we walked into an English class. The teacher was not there yet, but the students were in their seats. Some of us took the remaining seats and the rest stood at the back of the class. One of the guys on our tour (Mr. Hoodie) was also a JET like Vera and me. (We might have mentioned to the guides that the three of us worked for the same “company”, but we did not mention that the “company” was the Japanese government.) Since he was an English teacher, Ms. Lee asked him if he would like to say a few words to the class.
The teacher walked in and did a double take. She was not expecting us and was a little put out. But, she went with it. She greeted her class and engaged them in light conversation. Then she asked for someone in our group to speak.
The guy in the photo above got up and introduced himself and our group. Then he got the class to ask him some questions. They wanted to know where all of us were from. Mr. Hoodie never told the students who was from what county. Instead he said, “Some of them are from England, like me. Some are from France. There are some Australians. There is a guy from Switzerland and a couple Fins. …and we even have some… Americans.” At this some of the people in our group oooooed, making the students laugh.
One of the students wanted to know about England. “What do you want me to tell you about England?” “I don’t know,” the student said, “I’ve never been to England. What is England famous for?”
The guy thought about it for a bit and decided to tell them about Stonehenge. “Do you know about Stonehenge?” he asked the class. All he got were blank stares. The teacher stepped in and reminded the class to speak. “I don’t know what that is,” said one brave students. So Mr. Hoodie tried to explain, but couldn’t. He also tried to draw a picture of Stonehenge, but it did not help either. “How could I explain England to North Koreans when they haven’t ever heard of Stonehenge?” he later asked me. “You can’t; you just can’t.”
Non-constant time flow
After the class, we went to the roof of the People’s Study House and watched the citizens practice their marching in Kim Il-Sung square. I think we were there for a good 20~30 minutes. We had plenty of time to go back to the bored librarian to find the Orwell book, but we didn’t. But I was sure that if I had asked right then to go back, suddenly there would be no time.
Next we walked to the Foreign Language Bookshop. Of course all the books there were either written by one of the Kims or about one of the Kims. The shop also sold newspapers and magazines. I was quite bored by all of it and was about to stand outside on the sidewalk to watch people walking by, when I heard some of the guys giggling in the corner.
“What’s that?” I asked. The guys showed me the cover of their book and then where I could get a copy. I picked it up and started to read at a random page. The story was called A Puzzle Solved and was about how clever Kim Jong-Il was and how impressed Madeleine Albright was by him. There was so much nonsense in the book; I had to buy it!
It turns out that Kim Jong Il is North Korea’s very own Chuck Norris! The book has a number 1 on the cover. I hope that implies a couple of sequels…
At the Movies
Although it’s Kim Il-Sung in the statue above it was Kim Jong-Il who revolutionized North Korean cinema. With Kim Jong-Il’s guidance the film industry of Pyongyang improved with techniques like, using multiple cameras, using foreigners as baddies, and kidnapping a good director from South Korea and having him make movies.
Once again we were lined up in front of a bronze Kim Il-Sung and made to bow. Then we were introduced to the studio guide who was dressed very much like the Dear Leader.
The Dear guide gave a very forgettable speech about Kim Jong-Il’s greatness in film and of all his accomplishments in film production. I really don’t care that much about films, even Hollywood films. I tried hard to pay attention to see if he would at any time mention Shin Sang-ok, but he did not. Rather, he focussed on talking about the progressions and improvements of North Korean films as if we were all familiar with these movies. <“Oh, ‘Unsung Heroes,‘ why that’s some of Ryu Ho-son best work!”>
We were then taken to a cold room where a very old man was working on a film. Well, I don’t know if he was really working on a film. There was a film being played and an old man in the room pushing blinking buttons.
I think the old man had a hearing problem. The volume of the film was very, very loud and the sound was out of sync. I sat on the floor in the cold room holding my head in my hands trying to will my impending headache away.
The old man talked over the loud film and Mr. Park translated. We were meant to ask questions during this cacophony. Someone asked him exactly what it was that he was doing. He responded that he was fixing the sound and adding extra noises to the film. To demonstrate this, he played some noises for us. A track of someone knocking on a door, footsteps, a dog barking were played for us and full blast.
I noticed that the people closest to the door were walking out. I needed to get out too. As I left someone was asking what the example film was. “Oh, it’s a real film,” Mr. Park assured her. “It will be in theater by this summer.” “Yeah right,” Vera whispered to me, “That thing looks like it was filmed in the 70’s and it’s nowhere near finished!”
After that we played dress-up then took a few photos. There were no chosonot long enough for me so I was given a man’s robe with a lady’s hat.
Then we walked around the movie lot. I think we were supposed to be impressed by the many sets they had, which were South Korea in 60’s, Japan in the 50’s, China, and Europe. Europe was done in such a way that gave the impression that the builders thought of Europe as one country and that they had only read about Europe and had never seen it.
When we passed the “Europe” section, everyone thought that the tour was over and that we were now just walking back to the bus. The Dear Guide asked us if we knew what type of house this was, as he pointed to the house in the photo above. Someone asked if that his house. He was not expecting a question like that and thought he should give us a clue.
He said something like, “This is a very famous place.” But that left us even more confused. “Is this a reconstructions of a famous house?” another person asked. “No, not the house. The style. Where would you find this type of house?” The Dear Guide still held out hopes for his big reveal.
“Is this a traditional North Korean house?” someone asked ironically. We had no idea where this conversation was going and since irony is lost here in the DPRK we thought we might as well have some fun. “No. Do you have houses like this in America?” the Dear Guide asked.
“No,” Vera said, “but it’s kinda shaped like a barn.” “A barn?” the Dear Guide sounded a little shocked. “It’s not a barn, it’s Europe.” The Dear Guide turned to a few of the Europeans in the group and asked, “Don’t you have houses like this in your country?” “No,” one of them said, “I also thought it looked similar to a barn.”
We had clearly offended the Dear Guide, but not too much. He was still happy to take photos with us at the end of the tour and he even told one of the tourists from our group where he gets all this suits made. “I was wondering about that because it looks like a suit that Kim Jong-Il would wear,” the tourist told him. With that he beamed with pride and all other offences were forgotten.
Our bus pulled off on the side of the road. We all wondered what was going on. The western guide on our bus told us that since we were running late, they decided to order pizzas now. Camera man Choi was going to get the pizza and bring them back.
“Does this pizza place have a restroom?” someone asked. It did. We were told that if we needed the bathroom we could follow Camera man Choi into the pizza shop. Of course, everyone had to “use the bathroom”. Whose would choose to wait on the bus?
I don’t remember why the bus parked so far away from the restaurant, but it was a 10 minute walk from the bus. We weren’t walking on the sidewalk. I didn’t realize that we were in the road, since there were virtually no cars. When a tram came close to hitting one of our bunch who was not paying attention, I got myself onto the sidewalk by walking over some plastic sheeting that was on the ground. We were told not to walk on it, but I had to.
I really did need to use the facilities. There was a long line for the women. By the time I finished and got to the counter everyone was asking the pizza guy lots of questions. I looked around the shop and noticed some people sitting at a table eating pizza.
They were staring at us longingly. “Real Koreans!” I thought and several of our group moved over to them. “Where are you guys from?” one of the people asked. My heart sank; they were not North Koreans at all. “I’m from New York,” Vera said. “Oh, I’m from New York too!” one of the people said. “I’m from Toronto…” one of the people said looking for a fellow Torontonian in our group.
We sort of paired up and we were all talking at once. “What are you guys doing here?” we asked each other. “We’re here on a group tour of North Korea, you?” “We’re a medical team…” one of the people answered.
“Okay, time to go,” Ms. Lee called. No one responded. We kept asking the people questions and they kept asking us questions. “What kind of medical team? Do you guys work in a hospital in Pyongyang?” Ms. Lee and Mr. Park held on to a couple arms and started to drag us out of the shop. “We are late. We really need to go.”
“Maybe we’ll see you guys around later,” one of the people said as we were exiting the shop. “I don’t think so, most of us are leaving tomorrow. Well, anyway, goodbye! Goodbye!” They seemed sad to see us go. We didn’t want to go. We wanted to stay and talk with the medical team and ask more questions.
We got back on the bus and tried to assess the situation. Everyone retold what little information they got from the people in the pizza shop. But, already the stories were being distorted. “They were doctors.” “No, they said they were a medical team. No one there claimed to be a doctor.” “I thought they were medical administrators.” “They were South Koreans.” “No, they were Korean-Americans.” “No they were Korean-Canadians” “The lady I talked to was Korean-British.” It was the most exciting thing to happen to us all day.
We have to share?
We went to a restaurant for our last meal of either bibimbap or Pyongyang cold noodles. I have had both these dishes before in Seoul and to be honest, I hate them both. I ordered the cold noodle because they were a specialty in Pyongyang, but I was not expecting much.
Luckily for me the meal started off with 2 slices of pizza. We had to share the pizzas with group B, but they didn’t get to go to the pizza shop. I’m glad we got the pizza because I downright hated the food at this meal.
Up until this point the food had been okay, passable, not delicious but not bad either. This time it was bad. I gave up all attempts at trying to clean my plate. I tried everything that was given to me, but I only like the pizza. We were going back to China the next day; I could eat then.
Next we watched the first 10 minutes of tour videos. Group B’s video was played first. When their video was done they left. The next thing on the schedule was a trip to the night amusement park.
They tried to rush us along so that we too could make it to the park, but we asked to stay, drink tea, and watch our video instead of going to the night amusement park. We were all tired and just wanted to relax. The guides seemed okay with that, so they put on our video.
…Then the lights went out. I took a little while for the people at the restaurants to get flashlights and then get a generator going. For us it was funny, but it was not so funny for the people in Group B.
“When the light went out we were in complete darkness. Our guides gave us flashlights and at first we were waiting for the lights to come back on. But after 15 minutes they did not. So we went back to the hotel. We were only there for half an hour.”
On our way back to the Yanggakdo for the last time Mr. Park asked if we wanted to hear a folk song. We all said, “yes.” A couple days before Ms. Lee sang Arirang for us and we loved it. So he took the mic and started to sing what we thought was going to be another Korean folk song.