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That Time I Went To North Korea

The first thing people always ask me is: how did you even get to North Korea?

Drove.

That’s right: let’s say New York City is Seoul. You go out the door, get in your car, and before you’d get to Stamford, CT, or New Brunswick, NJ, you’d be there. North Korea. It’s that close.

Only somewhere around Greenwich (or Edison) you’d hit one of the most heavily land-mined areas on earth: the DMZ. (If you’re not familiar with the New York Metropolitan area, just open Google maps and find a point about 35 miles away from your home. That’s where North Korea’s border is from Seoul.) That’s why everything’s so dangerous. Guns and missiles massed at the border could do tremendous damage in a matter of seconds.

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So off we go…me and a few other reporters…this is part of a journalism fellowship hosted by the Korea Press Foundation…in a little white minibus as I remember it, with our South Korean military escort…I think just one jeep. Then the jeep peels off and the minibus stops. Nothing for a few minutes. Silence. Everyone’s sitting very still, and quiet. Which is highly unusual for journalists, who if anything are generally overly chatty. I feel like a sitting duck. One question keeps going through my mind, which I’ve probably asked myself far too many times in my life, actually: “I’m risking my life for what, exactly?”

And then they start coming. Military vehicles from the North. We’re taken to a frontier post and examined by grim-faced types who check through our phones and cameras. (This was at a time before cell phone cameras took good photos, so I had a small digital camera with me.)

When our little bus starts rolling again, there are three more people with us. Unlike the North Korean military personnel at the check-point, they are more laid back and jovial. They all wear designers: Hugo Boss suit, Kenneth Cole leather jacket, etc. They are our “handlers”.

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And off we go, down beautiful, smooth, wide roads, but we almost never see any other cars. (We are not going anywhere near the capital of Pyongyang “everybody’s seen that” we’re told.) Each time we come into a town, there is a uniformed officer at the main intersection standing on a pedestal, ready to direct traffic, but we are the only traffic. I expected it to be like Communist China the first time I’d visited years ago: almost no cars but thronged with bicycles. But no. There are not even many bicycles.

Along the road, every few miles (or maybe even less) is a soldier, standing by himself, silently, in a field. I wonder if he is there because of us, or if that’s his regular job.

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North Korean soldier in field (left side of left hand of photo; barely visible)

Problem is, every time anyone asks a question of our handlers that’s a little “delicate”: like “why is there a soldier standing at attention by himself in a field every half mile”? instead of answering, the handlers are quick to deploy a diversion.

One of their favorite tactics is picking up a mic (of course our little minivan has karaoke) and saying “now I would like to sing you a song about my homeland.” And bursting into song.

If they don’t do that, they pacify us by boasting that at some point before we leave the country we’ll be treated to a meal with 11 side dishes. I don’t get the significance of 11 dishes. Is it like the Spinal Tap thing where it’s 11 because it’s one higher than 10?

When I learned I’d be going to North Korea, I’d held off telling my dad, because he was in the army in Korea, and I didn’t know how he’d react. But when I told him, a few days before I departed, he was pretty cool about it. They only thing he said was “take plenty of cans of tuna fish! Don’t eat anything they serve you because it’ll be drugged and then they’ll brainwash you!” So in that context the repeated promise of a big, final meal seems more than slightly ominous. I should’ve brought the cans of tuna fish.

We tour around, visit a waterfall, and a factory in the in the Kaesong industrial zone where at the time South Korean manufacturers were setting up shop. Kim Jong-un has since shut this area down. But back then, it was a point of pride. We still didn’t get many straight answers: the workers are paid $60.20 a month?/a week? It kept changing. Even famous movie stars are rumored to be working on the assembly lines, because the jobs are just that good. And did the employees keep all the wages paid by their South Korean bosses? That, for some reason, they were a little clearer on: the North Korean government kept cash; paid the workers in coupons they could buy food or TVs with.

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Kaesong Industrial Zone

And a new question: what’s happened to those workers now?

The next stop is a giant glorious golden statue of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the country, and his son Kim Jong-Il (he’s Kim Jong-un’s father). We‘re told we can’t take photos of the statue, which seems weird to me. It would be like taking a group to Mount Rushmore and saying “this is in celebration of the leaders of our country we’re so proud of, whose greatness inspired this iconic work of art…but, NO PHOTOS!”

Our cameras continue to be a focus of attention: we’ve learned to expect camera checks as a several-times-a-day occurrence. Most of the time we’re told to delete most of our photos. Interestingly, the camera checks are never done by our “handlers”. Instead, they are conducted either by uniformed military or a plainclothes person with military bearing. I’ve traveled many places where I was obviously being monitored: Tibet, Myanmar. But it’s never been this overt.

And a statue that they’re clearly proud of or else they wouldn’t be showing it to us? No photos even of that?

OK fine I won’t take photos of the statue. I will take them of the crowd of “regular” people that’s gathered around because we’re there. They are standing what seems like a compulsory 100 yards away, under a big sign, staring.

SNAP! WHOOPS! That was a mistake. As soon as I do, armed plainclothes and army security people come rushing over at me screaming and grabbing at my camera. One of the handlers quickly diffuses the situation, but only after I agree to hold my camera high in the air and physically delete the photo in full view of everybody. As if I am disarming a weapon.

Later, I ask our South Korean translator why I created such a brou-ha-ha (it was reported in the Baltimore Sun) and she said it was because the sign all the people were standing under said “we do not envy anybody.” So I guess, at least, North Korean soldiers do have a sense of what we may in the West, consider irony. (Although in other cases, they clearly didn’t.)

From that moment on, I am followed very closely for the rest of the trip: even when I go to pee…right up to the urinal.

We finally arrive at the government guest house for the meal with 11 dishes. There’s a massive, gorgeous billboard across the street. Later I learn that billboard proclaims “We are winning!” and it’s not only military imagery, but also businessmen and opera singers…Everybody’s winning! They’re probably winning so much they’re getting tired of winning.

“We are winning”

Then we are locked and bolted in behind a MASSIVE wooden gate. I want to get a photo of this too, but I don’t want it to be confiscated. I’m kind of getting the hang of this photo thing though, so instead of trying to take a photo just of the gate, I get someone to quickly snap a photo of me in front of it. When a guest house worker asks me why I need that photo, I answer “because I am so handsome.” He laughs.

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BTW, North Korea has the best graphics artists in the world. Giant billboards of Kim Il-Sung in front of fields of gleaming wheat. Or dad and son in front of a tractor emanating rays of heavenly light that ARE truly inspirational. I wish my photos of those things hadn’t also been censored without explanation. The statues are great too. In fact, even now (or at least until the latest round of sanctions), North Korea work crews are viewed as so skilled, they are often sent out of the country to build statues in other places. It’s become a significant source of hard currency for the North Korean government.

And we sit down to a meal which features, yes, 11 dishes.

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Count ‘em!

We are immediately told if we want more of anything, just ask. Because food is so plentiful in this country. We also have to ask permission to go to the toilet.

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Lids off. (2nd dish in from the left, 2nd row is the North Korean version of tater tots)

I don’t eat much, not so much because of what my dad told me, or because I know people in the country are starving. Although maybe it’s a little bit of both. Nobody asks for seconds. And I get the very distinct impression the restaurant employees’ meals will consist of whatever is left over, or at least if we asked for more it would come out of the rations of the staff, who clearly had to be under the age of 22, over 5'8", and the winner of at least a regional beauty pageant to be hired there in the first place.

We are later taken to a gift shop where the NATIONAL beauty pageant winners seem to work.

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Gift shop

It’s ludicrously overpriced and accepts only U.S. dollars. They know we’re journalists, yet the government feels compelled to squeeze some hard currency out of us nonetheless. It’s not the first place I’ve been where a government’s been virulently anti-American, yet hankering for U.S. dollars. Some people do actually buy things, just to say they have something from North Korea. I’m happy enough with my visa, which is kept with my passport and dutifully stamped, but the passport itself is not stamped.

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On my way out of the country, I’m paired off for a few moments with a young soldier at a checkpoint. He asks to see my camera. “Why?” I think to myself, “you’ve already made me delete virtually every photo I’ve taken.” (I only got the one of the soldier standing on the side of the road through because I put my thumb over the viewfinder while they were censoring my photos). I hand it to him, wearily. He starts flipping through my photos: “Oh, those aren’t from here” I explain, “That’s where I live in the U.S., and that’s where I go to the beach, and those are cheerleaders at a baseball game in South Korea.” He says nothing, and keeps flipping through. I realize he’s just checking it all out: what it’s like on the other side.

Cheerleaders at a pro baseball game in South Korea

On the way home, I meet in Honolulu with a bunch of South Korean journalists who had been in DC at the same time I was in Korea. They appeal to me repeatedly not to think of North Koreans as “strange” or “monsters” or “others.” “They’re just like us” they say, “they laugh at jokes, they care about their families.” The only difference is they are indoctrinated into some crazy life-philosophy, called Juche, and live in a system where their loyalty as a citizen is evaluated every single day, with potentially crushing consequences. But all I keep thinking about is how happy I am to be able to come back to the USA. Where we can say and take photos of whatever we want. Where our government does not fear citizens speaking their minds: in fact, protects that right. I’ve never been a political guy, but recently I find myself saying things to my 7 year old nephew like “If you’ve got something to say, Shout it out!”

Written by

Peabody award winning journalist. Streaming media pioneer. Played @ CBGB back in the day. Editor-In-Chief "The Chaos Report" www.thechaosreport.com

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