I mentioned in my last post that I visited north Korea earlier this year and I thought maybe that would be interesting to some people. I went in April for Kim Il Sung’s 101st birthday with a group of friends from school. I had long wanted to visit nK, but because of restrictions associated with my previous job, I had been unable to. Stepping off the Air Koryo flight in Pyongyang was surreal. For days I had to keep reminding myself that I was finally there, seeing it for myself after reading about north Korea and studying it from afar for so long. What I found there was mostly not surprising…the restrictions, the sense of only seeing what “they” wanted us to see, the poverty (it was visible, in spite of their best efforts), and the crazy number of statues and pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il. What I found that was surprising, was the warmth of the people. Until I stepped foot in the country, I only had the stories of defectors and the media from which to judge north Korea. The impression I had gotten was of a cold, militaristic people with no independent thoughts and an undying love and devotion to the Kim regime. While that is true to some extent, there is far more to the north Korean people than our media portrays. On some level, logic would have told me this, but it was still something I needed to see in order to really believe.
The international airport in Pyongyang is small. There wasn’t even a jetway, we just got off the plane and walked across the tarmac into customs where we were directed to wait in a line before having our visas checked. Honestly, I was a little scared, it was all so weird (I had just spent the last 90 minutes on the flight from Beijing listening to military marches blaring through the speaker system) and I just didn’t know what to expect. I thought maybe I’d be harassed or interrogated at customs and that I’d say something wrong and be locked up in a gulag. The customs agent probably was used to this type of nervousness and surprised me by greeting me with a huge smile and saying in English “Welcome to Pyongyang!” I was caught off guard and thought maybe this person was just trying to impress me with the friendliness of the north Korean people. The next north Koreans I met were our wonderful guides (handlers?) Song Sim and Li (not their full names, but what they asked us to call them). Both of them were so sweet and concerned for us…they worried that we couldn’t handle the food and reassured us many times that our safety would be assured, even if all hell broke loose. The time at which we visited was during the peak of the tensions between north Korea and America. We had a group of 7 and in total, there were only 10 Americans in the country at the time. Clearly, we were either braver or dumber than most Americans.
Every where we went, we were greeted by north Koreans who seemed genuinely interested in learning about us and they asked questions about our country and our experience studying abroad in China. I found them to be very open to engaging in conversation of any kind as long as you approached it correctly. If you sound accusatory or tried to lecture a north Korean on why their way of thinking is wrong or why Communism is wrong, then they wouldn’t engage you. On the other hand, if your attitude is one of understanding and trying to learn from them, then there isn’t anything they won’t discuss with you. We asked our guides about everything including nukes, gays in north Korea, family, education systems, why they hate Americans, propaganda, poverty, the famine, the Kim family, censorship, defectors, etc etc. We talked about everything and learned so much about the Korean point of view. They were eager to see pictures we had brought from home and were curious to hear what we were listening to on our ipods. One of my classmates played “Gangnam Style” for them and the reaction was pretty funny. It was like watching your grandma hear rock and roll for the first time – pure disgust. They loved Mariah Carey though.
Almost all of the conversations we had with north Koreans other than our guides had to be translated through them. Our guides had told us that “most north Koreans” had learned English, but we found this to not be the case at all. Or maybe they were afraid to speak to us independently. I was surprised at how few north Koreans stared at us. After being in China for so long and being stared at everywhere I go, it was a nice break, but I also was a little suspicious. Song Sim told me that they didn’t stare because “north Koreans are used to foreigners,” but once we left Pyongyang, we were stared at by everyone! We even had groups of small children follow us once. I tried talking to them. I said “hello! How are you?” and I actually got a response after repeating myself a few times. One of the children said “Fine, sank you!” After that, the guide at the site we were visiting, angrily chased them away. Maybe she thought they were bugging us, or maybe there was another reason for her exaggerated reaction. It was hard to take things at face value there after reading so much negative information about the country.
We had bugged our guides constantly to explain the anti-American propaganda that was everywhere. It was interesting, but disheartening too. Song Sim taught us how to say “American aggressor” in Korean – “mi gook nom.” After she taught that to us, I realized that whenever they were talking about us, that was what they called us! I think they underestimated our ability to pick that one word out in conversation, but every time any of us heard it, we would shoot Song Sim or Li a look and they would grin at us and say “oh, sorry.” I’m pretty sure that’s just what they call Americans there.
People often asked us how the food was there. Knowing that most north Korean citizens are actually starving, I don’t think I can complain because we actually had food. It wasn’t as varied and the flavors weren’t as strong as the food in South Korea, but that may be because they were trying to cater to what they assumed Americans would eat. I suppose not all of us have a taste for kimchee. They served us a lot of bread and we only had fruit once during the 8 days we were there. I never saw a fresh vegetable, but I absolutely love kimchee, so it was fine. Aside from the doodz incident mentioned in my previous post (which started in China, for the record), I didn’t have any problems with getting sick from it. Oddly, I was the only one in our group who didn’t get sick at least once. One guy got some pretty serious food poisoning, but no one else did and we ate the same things at every meal.
Song Sim was the older of the two guides, she’s 31 and is married with a child. Li was much younger and had only be working as a tour guide for about a year I think, she is in her early 20s. Both of them spoke amazing English and Li even spoke Chinese pretty well. I had heard that north Korean guides had to work in pairs so that they can keep an eye on each other and the way they related to one another seemed to reinforce that. Often times, if we asked a sensitive question that Li wasn’t sure how to answer, she would look at Song Sim and let her answer instead. Based on their body language, sometimes it seemed as if Song Sim was giving Li directions or maybe even correcting her. Both of them had wonderful personalities and Song Sim especially, enjoyed messing with us. If someone was taking too long to get back to the bus, she would tell our driver, Mr. Kim to shut the doors and drive away. If we were in America, this would just be an annoying little prank, but in north Korea, it takes on a slightly more sinister meaning as the people being left behind quickly realize what it might mean to be abandoned in north Korea. Needless to say, they got us every time. Song Sim taught one of the guys in our group how to say “I love you” in Korean and then opened the window in the bus and directed him to yell it at all of the traffic girls we drove past in Pyongyang. The traffic girls are typically very disciplined, they don’t react to much. To this point, the biggest reaction we’d received from them was a tight lipped smile and maybe a small wave if there were no cars. After my friend began yelling “I love you!” at all of them, many of the traffic girls laughed and instinctively covered their mouths with their hands. A few of them turned beet red. It was adorable. At most sites we visited, the local tour guides were women and the boys really enjoyed flirting with them. Those ladies would melt like butter and seemed to really enjoy their time with us. Song Sim and Li encouraged this behavior and I think I know why. In spite of what they would say (aka the party line), referring to Americans as “mi gook nom” (American aggressors) and the such, I don’t think that they really believed that we were the enemy. They more than likely don’t appreciate the American government, but they were definitely able to separate the individuals from the government. I think they genuinely wanted people to like us and get to know us and see that there wasn’t anything to fear. It’s a lot harder to hate a faceless enemy after you’ve met a few who treated you with respect.
I really enjoyed talking with Song Sim and Li. I felt that if our situations had been different, we could have been good friends. Leaving them was actually pretty hard. I normally don’t get too attached to people, especially in such a short amount of time, but I still think about them often and wonder how they’re doing. I plan to return for Kim Il Sung’s 105th birthday and hopefully sometime for the Mass Games. I believe that visiting north Korea as it is right now allowed us to gain an understanding into how China was and how Chinese people lived during the 60s/70s, so I felt that this trip was an opportunity to gain some perspective on how that crazy period of Chinese history may have looked and felt to the people who experienced it. I wish more Americans would visit north Korea. We can’t judge individuals based on the acts of our governments and more interaction between individuals would help improve relations between America and north Korea.
Here is a list of some of the sites we visited during our time there:
Pyongyang: Arch of Triumph, Juche Tower, Pyongyang Orchestra, Circus, Kim Il Sung Mausoleum, Kim Il Sung Square, Kim Il Sung Stadium, bowling alley, the brewery, north Korean “Starbucks,” Chollima Statue,
We also visited the DMZ, Kaesong, Sariwon, Haeju, Sinchon (including the Museum of American War Crimes) and a number of sites within those cities.
If what our tour operator told us is still correct, only about 3000 Americans have visited north Korea since it opened up to American tourism. I know I didn’t go into a ton of detail on the specifics of our trip, so I would be happy to answer any questions about it.
Li is in the foreground and Song Sim is in the background.
Curious children spying on us.