On our family summer trip when I was a teenager, I came down with the flu in Cheyenne, Wyoming, smack in the middle of the Frontier Days festivities. Nothing like watching a rodeo when your high fever makes you think the cowboys are centaurs. I spent part of the night shivering in a tent at a campground, until my mom dragged me to the car where I slept (sort of) across the back seat, having nightmares that a scary rodeo clown was chasing me with a barbed wire lasso.
Years later I came down with the flu on New Year’s Eve in Barcelona. I discovered that drinking a gallon or so of beer doesn’t actually cure the flu, but it makes being delirious even that much more fun–just what the doctor ordered on New Year’s Eve! My memories of Barcelona are all multi-colored and sparkly.
On a recent holiday I also had another visit from Mr. Flu Bug, but this time it was during a trip to North Korea. And seriously, if you think nothing can be worse than a vacation to the bleakest place on earth, try doing it with aching muscles, a 102 degree fever, and chills. So, while our friends and colleagues were jetting off healthily to white sand beaches in the South Pacific or to quaint European hamlets, I was infirm in the country where dog meat sells for 25 cents a pound–if you can get it before it sells out.
Now, when it comes to a place where miserable people are as obvious as a black delegate at the Republican National Convention, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is it. And these miserable people didn’t even have the flu. They are just miserable from the lack of food, freedom, and hope in general.
Visiting the world’s most repressive regime wasn’t a decision we made lightly. True, you won’t find the DPRK on Condé Nast Traveler’s list of “Best Places to Visit in 2016” along with Martinique and Iceland. We knew it wouldn’t be fancy or relaxing or have overwater bungalows with butlers and complimentary slippers like the Maldives where we vacationed a few months prior (although the cost was similar). And it’s not like we say, “Oh, we should definitely visit a country where the leader is toying with nuclear weapons, the population is malnourished, and the U.S. State Department issues warnings like this:
The State Department strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to the DPRK due to the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement, which imposes unduly harsh sentences, including for actions that in the United States would not be considered crimes…”
The DPRK is mostly undiscovered territory for non-Asian tourists—only about 6,000 Westerners visit each year, and maybe only 500 or less are Americans—so we were curious to see this secretive and mysterious place for ourselves. And besides, over the years we’ve found that people-to-people contact is one of the best ways to dispel myths and stereotypes about each other. Of course we heard the old standby criticism “But you’re giving money to dictators blah, blah, blah.” Well, listen here Patty Patriotism. Every time you buy some cheap plastic crap at your beloved Walmart, you’re inadvertently supporting dictators too, so there!
We were fully aware that in case of trouble while we were there, there was no American embassy in the DPRK to rescue us. We were told that that the Swedish embassy actually provides basic consular protection services to Americans. You have to wonder what embassy assignment day looks like in Sweden:
Swedish official: “Ingrid Johansson, you’ll be going to our embassy in Paris!”
(Happy squeals and applause).
Swedish official: “Sven Nillson, you’re assigned to our embassy in the British Virgin islands!”
(Hoots and hollers and more applause).
Swedish official: “Gustav Karlsson, you’ll be staffing our embassy in Pyongyang.”
Gustav: “Excuse me, sir. Did you say ping pong?”
Swedish official: “No, Mr. Karlsson. I said Pyongyang. As in North Korea.”
Gustav: “Is this because of all those speeding tickets I have? Or because I badmouthed IKEA? Or because I don’t like meatballs? Please, please, anywhere but Pyongyang!”
I guess I really wanted to see for myself if everything we hear about North Korea is as
awful as they say. The DPRK officially describes itself as a “self-reliant socialist state that formally holds elections.” However, critics (e.g. the entire rest of the world) regard it as a totalitarian dictatorship and that is just never fun no matter how you look at it. It’s also been called Stalinist, especially with the godlike appeal of current leader Kim Jong-un (born 1983 or 1984—nobody knows for sure and you can’t ask or you’ll suffer the consequences). It was said that he was selected over his older brothers because one was too feminine and the other tried to sneak into Tokyo to go to Disneyland. It’s all about priorities.
Weighing in at 290 pounds, the world’s youngest state leader went to boarding school in Switzerland under an assumed name. According to his former chef, Kim Jong-un drinks Johnnie Walker whiskey, smokes fancy Yves Saint Laurent cigarettes, and likes to party all night long. His wife was recently photographed carrying a Dior purse valued at nearly $1600, which is about the average year’s salary for a North Korean citizen.
The godlike appeal also applies to his late father Kim Jong-il (1941-2011). Our guide told us that that Kim Jong Il was born on a sacred Korean mountain top and that his birth caused winter to change to spring, and I was thinking, “Wow, he’s just like Storm from the X-Men!” (Note to self: learn that trick ASAP). Well, don’t spill the beans to the citizens of the DPRK, but he was actually born in the Soviet Union, and it stayed winter when he was born. As a matter of fact, the winter of 1941 – 1942 is known as the coldest winter of the 20th Century.
However, the cult of personality most especially applies to Kim Jong-un’s late grandfather Kim Il-sung (1912-1994). As a matter of fact, even though grandpa has been dead for more than 20 years, he still remains the official DPRK president, AND the general-secretary of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea, AND the chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission. This guy’s got three jobs and he hasn’t breathed for 22 years! Geez, whatever happened to “rest in peace?”
Just like Irene Cara in Fame, Kim Il-sung wanted to live forever. Apparently, according to his former doctor, he would regularly take blood transfusions from people in their 20s, and would also spend hours watching children play—all part of a plan to live to 100 (or the plot of a super-creepy horror movie). Word to the wise: He died at 84, so skip the transfusions. However, every adult is required to wear a pin every day on their shirt with his face on it. Plus there are around 34,000 statues of him in the country. And his portrait (side-by-side with Kim Jong-un’s chubby little mug) is everywhere and is required to be hung in every home. Our guide said every family even gets a special towel that you can only use to dust the portraits each morning. And don’t worry, the government does random spot checks to make sure everyone complies. So yeah, he’s gonna live forever, dust-free.
The capital of the DPRK, Pyongyang, is a dreary city that looks more like a faded backlot stage set at Universal Studios. When you have the flu, it somehow manages to look even drearier. There are lots of beige, grey, and faded pastel buildings, all concrete and without a particular architectural style—unless “plain, concrete, rectangular prism” is a style. There is one exception: the bizarre, pyramidal 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, which was started almost 30 years ago and is still not done, although our guide said it was “close to completion.” It holds the illustrious title of the tallest unoccupied building in the world, and may keep the title for a long, long time.
There are wide concrete roadways pocked with basketball-sized potholes, but shoddy road maintenance doesn’t really matter because there aren’t many vehicles on the road. On our three-hour drive to the DMZ at Kaesong, a Mister-Toad’s-Wild-Ride sort of adventure in which the driver constantly swerved to avoid the road craters, I could count on one hand the number of vehicles we passed. There are only five advertising billboards in Pyongyang (all of them owned by the same automobile dealership) so there isn’t much to distract drivers either. Well, aside from those craters.
Even in my delirium, I know we saw plenty of sprawling concrete plazas with giant statues of one or more of the Kims (which sometimes looked like their eyes were following me, but that could be flu-induced vision), but these plazas were mostly empty of live people. However, there were plenty of little splotches of paint on the ground in these plazas, spaced equally apart, indicating exactly where people must stand in well-measured formation when they have big events. Now that’s what you call “crowd control.”
Even without the flu this place would feel surreal, like being inside one of those dystopian novels where plague has wiped out most of humanity, and we just wander around trying to avoid the evil warlords who now govern the planet. It certainly didn’t feel like 2016. Well, actually it isn’t 2016 in the DPRK. That’s because North Korea uses something called the “Juche” calendar which began on April 15, 1912, the day Kim Il-sung was born. So we were currently enjoying the year 104 in North Korea.
We did see a few people, but always from afar because we weren’t allowed to speak to anyone but our guides. It made me wonder if these people were really actors brought in to line the roads that we drove along, just so our guides could say, “Why look at how cheerful and busy our city is, just like Boise!” One day, as our bus waited at a red light, I waved to a cute toddler on the sidewalk who began to wave back. But suddenly the mom yanked him by the arm and started shouting at him. I’m guessing it was something about “Death to the American imperialists” or whatever.
Another day we were walking to a souvenir shop and a parade of schoolchildren literally just appeared and crossed our path, sort of like when the Electric Light Parade pops up at DisneyWorld. At first I thought it was another flu-related vision, but everyone seemed to notice this. The kids were singing and holding flags and banners with Korean writing (probably “Death to the American imperialists”), and didn’t once make eye contact with us or smile. I asked the guide why there was a kid’s parade happening at 6:00 PM when we weren’t near any schools, and there were no other people around. I was told that these types of “impromptu displays of patriotism” were common. I just smiled, nodded, and thought to myself that (a) these children will now haunt me in my dreams, and (b) these kiddos were definitely automatons, or at the very least automaton-like. Yep, this was a place where you could definitely feel the heavy hand of the government smooshing the joy out everything in its reach.
Even before we arrived in the DPRK, we sort of had the joy squished out of us too after reading about the typical rules governing tourists. This included:
- Do not bring books about DPRK or the Korean “situation.”
- Do not carry in American or South Korean flags or clothes prominently showing these, or books, magazines, or newspapers from South Korea.
- Do not wear clothes with political or obscene slogans.
- DO NOT bring in Bibles (the regime believes that Kim Il-sung is the supreme leader, so Bibles are considered an attempt to influence people’s beliefs).
- Do not bring a camera lens over 150mm.
- Don’t mention the movie “The Interview” (which was not going to be a problem since I don’t discuss terribly written and acted movies).
- Don’t photograph anything or anyone military or “strategic.”
- Do not take photographs from behind the statues of Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong Il, and don’t photograph their feet, or just a part of the statue; make sure the entire body is in the frame.
- Do not take photos of poverty, shops, or housing, and don’t try sneaking photos.
- Basically, don’t take a photo of anything unless you ask the guide first.
- Do not enter the country if you are a full or part-time journalist or photographer.
- Do not leave the hotel unescorted.
- Don’t crumple up or throw away any newspaper or piece of paper with pictures of leaders Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un; don’t fold these papers so that any leader’s face is creased.
- Don’t smoke, eat, or chew gum at sites of national importance.
- If you are not willing to bow at the statues of Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong Il, do not visit the DPRK as the potential for offense to be taken by the hosts is too great.
One thing that was clear from the moment we arrived until the minute we departed, is that
they really, really, really hate the United States. Not just an “I-hate-those-ugly-$2000-Yeezy-shoes-that-Kanye-designed” kind of hate, but an honest-to-goodness, deep to the core, loathing that obviously has been pounded into their brains since birth. Sure, I expected this because I read quite a bit about the country beforehand. And to be honest, I thought I could laugh it off. Well, laugh it off internally, of course…no North Korean prison for this American! Speaking of prison, just prior to our trip, the DPRK sentenced 21-year old University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor after accusing him of removing a political banner from his hotel. Good times.
But by Day Two, even with my brain operating at 50% capacity due to illness, I was ready to go all Kate Smith and start belting out God Bless America in her deep contralto voice, arms pointed to the heavens, hands waving multiple American flags. I really wanted to believe that sticks and stones would break my bones but words would never hurt me. But geez Louise, what about when those words are “imperialistic oppressors,”“cowards,” “colonialists,” and “aggressors,” and you hear them every ten minutes and the people are kind of smiling when they say it and you can’t really come back with a witty retort like “I know you are but what am I?” or “asphinctersayswhat?” One morning a guide randomly quipped, “People in the DPRK, even children too, don’t like Americans. They ask, ‘Mommy why are Americans so mean?’” Uh, hello North Korean guide…I’m standing right here, and I have three Toblerone chocolate bars that I’m supposed to present to you at the end of our tour but now I’m thinking of eating them all tonight.
Now, I realize the government encourages/requires this name calling, and saying something complimentary about Americans would probably not end well for them. But it got very tiresome hearing about how the U.S. was literally responsible for everything bad in the DPRK, e.g. The U.S. started the Korean War. The U.S. is occupying poor South Korea. The U.S. destroyed every building in Pyongyang during the Korean War (um, that one is sort of true). The U.S. is responsible for the famine in the DPRK.
Actually, they didn’t blame us for the really bad coifs we saw on so many women there. That’s what you get for not using the services of a salon professional, or using a healthy dose of Frederic Fekkai Ageless Overnight Hair Repair—that stuff really works. But then I discovered that these hair-don’ts really aren’t their fault after all. There are state-sanctioned haircuts, and married women are required to get a butchy, short cut (or else).
It was all very strange because we had read so much about how the North Koreans place such great value on politeness and respect, and how they are very sensitive to any slights (perceived or real) against them. And I’m down with that because really, aren’t we all just asking for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T? And I’m happy to give it.
So when one restaurant offered us a traditional Korean dish called gaejangguk (“It’s dog soup,” the guide told us matter-of-factly), we didn’t say “EEWW!” or “Scooby Doobie Doo, where are you?” or “Lassie’s in duh house!” as we declined the offer (while throwing up a little in our mouth). Maybe the flu had put me in a mood, but all I could think was: If we can display cultural sensitivity toward them even when it involves PetSmart on the menu, could they at least skip telling us that North Korean kids hate us?
But again, I’m pretty sure the guides are persuaded/required to say these things, and they do have minders that watch them watch us. We heard that even a minor slip of the tongue, e.g. “Michele Obama has such toned arms,” can send a citizen to the prison camps. It was scary talking to the guides, wanting to ask them a million questions but worried about (a) possibly going to prison for saying something the government deemed criminal or (b) getting them sent to a prison for answering one of our questions. So we kept to the basics, as best as we could—weather, family, food, the absurdity of Donald Trump (yes, even without the World Wide Web, they asked about him).
It was during these conversations, benign as they were, that things felt the most authentic to me. We commiserated about the frustrations of raising kids, about balancing work and personal life, and about finding time to pursue our own hobbies. We had teachers in our tour group, so when we visited a school the local teachers there were keenly interested in our impressions. Yes, it was all very staged (a science classroom with a 1950s microscope on each desk, an 1990s desk top computer with a flashing, colorful screensaver on a teacher’s desk), but the teachers seemed sincere and shared our same impressions of students (they stay up too late, they don’t always do their homework, they clam up when visitors come around).
The teachers were thrilled, smiling ear-to-ear, when we told them how much we enjoyed touring their school and recognized how hard teachers work. Looking back, I think that we left a good impression about Americans. And I think we all realized that, in some small way, we have some shared experiences in life. And maybe, just maybe, next time they won’t tell us that kids hate us, at least not to our face.
Aside from those brief up-close-and-personal moments, the DPRK was the only country I’ve ever visited that seemed mostly soulless. People didn’t smile, including an entire bridal party we saw at a park, or the passengers on a crowded subway train who slowly moved back and left a one-foot buffer around our group. Just about everywhere we went, there weren’t any signs of history or culture. There was the visit we made to Kim Il-sung’s historic birthplace village (allegedly), which consisted solely of a curiously newish-looking hut painted butter yellow. I asked our guide where the rest of the village was, and was told the other huts were moved so people could live in them and they wouldn’t be wasted. Yeah. This is also where the hut guide scolded me for putting my hands in my coat pockets as we listened to her ramble on and a cold wind whipped around us.
It’s weird that so much mystery and hysteria surrounds a tiny country about the size of North Carolina. It’s also weird that almost 6,000,000 North Koreans–25% of the population–are in the military (world’s 4th largest army…take that, America!). In fact, just about everything about the DPRK is weird. And maybe being afflicted with the flu increased the weirdness factor. But I can’t say that my visit helped me understand this weirdness any better. It’s the only country out of the 70 or so I’ve visited where I nearly cheered when the airplane’s wheels left the runway to head home. I had much to be thankful for. I wasn’t doing hard labor in a North Korean prison camp, and this American imperialist had three Toblerone chocolate bars to eat all by himself.