Thursday, November 11, 2010

A student experience in North Korea

My family’s connection in North Korea has encouraged me to learn more about my heritage, and as a result, I have always had a vested interest in North Korea and its politics. While I have always dreamed of somehow visiting the Northern half of the peninsula to personally talk to residents and better understand the country, the opportunity suddenly appeared before me in the form of the Pyongyang Project. While I was initially skeptical of its authenticity as an organization, I decided that the chance to experience North Korea exponentially outweighed my initial suspicions. I applied for the August program and arranged my flights into Beijing.
Once I arrived in Beijing, I went to the designated hotel and met the founders of the Pyongyang Project. I was honestly expecting older men to greet me at the entrance, but was very surprised to meet two young men. Nick Young and Matt Reichel are recent graduates from Brown University, and despite their youth, they were very organized and capable in running the organization. They planned our lodging in several cities throughout northeastern China and North Korea, took us to delicious restaurants, and even arranged several activities for us.
However, all the fun we experienced in China was nothing compared to our excitement as we prepared to depart from the Shenyang Taoxian Airport to Pyongyang via Koryo Airlines. To be quite frank, I was absolutely terrified once I arrived on the tiny plane. I was going to risk my life riding a 1980s Soviet plane. But I was able to distract myself from my fears by talking to my fellow passengers who were students from Chosun University, a North Korean government sponsored university. These students held no citizenship, but did have Japanese permanent residency cards. They looked very excited to visit their “motherland,” talked about what they wanted to do once they arrived and even prepared themselves by wearing their North Korean pins.
I became friendly with one particular girl. While she was indoctrinated with North Korean philosophies, she also embodied Western culture; she sported a stylish Fendi purse and was passionate about fashion and American pop culture. She even expressed interest in possibly visiting both South Korea and the United States and asked me several question about my experiences in both countries. I was very intrigued by this girl who worships the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung, adores Lady Gaga, believes in the Juche ideology, and keeps up with the latest fashion trends.
After an hour flight, we arrived in North Korea’s Sunan International Airport, probably the smallest airport in the world. There were only five airplanes lined on the side and the terminal included customs, baggage claim, and security all in one big room. We had our phones taken from us, and I was surprised to see that the North Korean customs officer could distinguish an iPhone from an iPod. While we were waiting for our luggage (which was placed on a tiny manually controlled conveyer belt), we noticed that we were not the only foreigners in the country; we talked to several German, Dutch, Saudi, and Chinese nationals among others and most seemed to be visiting North Korea for business purposes.
We met our three North Korean guides who were extremely friendly (although they were frequently critical of each other – correcting minor errors and such) and well spoken in English. They were particularly fascinated with the Korean-Americans in the group and spoke to us in Korean. I became particularly friendly with Mr. Kim, and we spoke of many different topics. Although he tended to avoid answering the more sensitive questions, he demonstrated an extensive knowledge of the outside world due to his interactions with foreigners. Even when I showed him pictures of Seoul, he did not seem surprised by its level of technological development (most North Koreans are taught that South Koreans live in extreme poverty). Mr. Kim, however, was not aware of Kim Jong-un attended school in Switzerland or was even in the country.
Our tour guides strictly controlled our schedule, what we were supposed to see and do, and tried to severely limit our interactions with the local populations. They first took us the much-anticipated Arirang Mass Games where we watched hundreds of thousands of people act as one, performing stunning acrobatic feats and dances. The most popular act was undoubtedly the children’s performance, in which thousands of boys and girls tumbled and cheered for the Great Leader. The most astonishing part of the Mass Games was the mosaic background; tens of thousands of people each flip through a book with colored pages to create an enormous mural. Despite the vast crowds that have shown up for this event, I noticed that most of them were foreigners, mainly Chinese tourists.
We arrived in our “five-star” hotel, and we were served essentially Western cuisine during our stay. In the morning we went to Kim Il-Sung’s mausoleum, and it was so big that it took us almost twenty to thirty minutes to weave through the pavilion and the inside of the building. When we arrived in the main room that housed the Great Leader’s dead body, we bowed to it four times and then left for the pavilion. There, we observed that the North Korean women were dressed in bright and gaudy hanboks (Korean traditional dress) for this particular occasion. Although it is illegal to take pictures of North Korean soldiers, I managed to sneak quite a few, as they marched by me.
The next day, we were bussed to Wonsan, a port city on the eastern coast, where we all went to the beach and enjoyed ourselves. The most significant aspect of this trip was our tour guides’ lack of scrutiny or control over our actions on the beach. We were free to whatever we wanted on the beach, even talk to the local residents. I took advantage of this opportunity and acquainted myself with a family who offered me some of their packed lunch and introduced themselves. The mother and father owns a state-run market, and their elder daughter serves in the North Korean military while their younger son attends middle school. I asked them if their life was difficult, and they said that while times are difficult and rice is scarce nowadays, they find pleasure in just coming to the beach and spending their time together as a family.
Another group of people I talked to were older men who traveled from Pyongyang to enjoy the day in the beach. They said that it was difficult to obtain permission from the government to travel outside of their home cities and even finding a means of travel was almost impossible. Then, the gentlemen offered to buy me beer (a bottle of Heineken for $2), and we talked about the United States. They asked me questions about life in America and were fascinated with the pictures I showed them of South Korea. I asked them how they felt about America and South Korea, and they demonstrated no animosity towards both nations. In fact, they felt as though North Korea could become allies with America if President Obama were to accept Kim Jong-Il’s offer of friendship and that South Korea desperately wants to unite with the north (a large portion of South Koreans citizens are against reunification).
After spending the night in Wonsan, we drove back to Pyongyang and immediately drove southwards to Kaesong. It was then I learned that all roads lead to the capital in order to prevent rebellions and insurrections. In Kaesong, I noticed that the city was considerably less developed than Pyongyang or even Wonsan; there were dirt roads, most of the buildings looked dilapidated and the people’s clothing looked outdated and worn. However, the city felt more familiar to me because it resembled South Korea in term of food and the traditional architecture. In our hotel, I asked Mr. Lee to let me leave the hotel for a little bit so I could take a few pictures, and he was reluctant at first but obliged after I kept begging him and offered him $20. It was a very brief excursion though, probably did not even last one minute, and the streets were deserted. After 10pm, electricity stopped running, but that didn’t stop us from socializing with our tour guides and drinking beer by candlelight.
We drove further south to the DMZ where we met a military officer who acted as our tour guide. He went into extensive detail about the Korean War, of course form the North Korean perspective. I was particularly surprised by how lax the North Korean soldiers seemed to be; they freely let us wander around the museums and the Pamunjeon as long as we didn’t cross the line into South Korea, and take as many pictures as we wanted to, including soldiers. I remember going to the DMZ from the south and it was so much stricter, as we had to follow our tour guide at all times and were limited to taking photos at a certain time. We even saw tourists from the South Korean border and while we waved at them, they unfortunately did offer us the same courtesy.
Afterwards, we drove up to the Sariwon commune, which was probably the lowest point of the trip; it is essentially a model farm that constantly boasts of the many times the Great Leader and the Dear Leader have visited the commune and praised its innovative farming techniques. They even have a museum, which includes the chair Kim Il-Sung sat on as well as the bowl and chopsticks he once used. Then, we drove back to Pyongyang and made it in time for the Pyongyang Circus. I noticed that the entire audience consisted of military personnel, so it was interesting to see break away from their hardened image as soldiers and just laugh like normal people. While the circus was highly entertaining, I was disturbed by one of their propaganda acts that criticized Lee Myung-Bak and claimed that the Cheonan incident was a complex CIA conspiracy to implicate North Korea.
We also attended the Children’s Palace to watch artistically talented girls and boys perform for a mostly foreign audience. Adorable little boys and girls sang about North Korea’s strong military, which was accompanied by projections of military vehicles and Kim Jong-Il’s salutations to his soldiers. They also performed with traditional instruments and dances, while others used Western instruments. The children were phenomenal, and after the performances, we met them and gave them candy and school supplies. We were so impressed that we kept on talking about the Children’s Palace all day until we thought of the pain the children had to endure and how much they had to sacrifice, including school. They were essentially used by the government as pawns to endear tourists.
As we spent our last day in North Korea, we toured Pyongyang to the capital’s main landmarks and even went to the Planetarium located in a technology and science research community (which ironically also fell victim to the city’s many blackouts). We watched the sunset over the city. Of course, we spent the night drinking bottle after bottle of Western whiskey, North Korean beer and soju (which has over 10% more alcohol than the standard in South Korea). With hangovers and stomachaches, we headed for the airport and had a slightly bumpy right back to (relative) freedom and capitalism in China.

The writer, Debbie Kye, is a junior double majoring in Asian Studies and International Affairs. She traveled to North Korea during summer 2010 as part of a delegation with the Pyongyang Project.

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