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Pariahs on the world stage, North Koreans proclaim a philosophy of self-reliance and absolute autonomy they call “juche.” But they’ve learned the hard way that it’s really difficult to buy things when you don’t have any money. Hence their tourism industry, a way to attract some much-needed hard currency from foreigners.
My reasons for traveling there were more personal. Like Kim Jong Il, I was born in the former Soviet Union. Visiting North Korea would be my best chance to see what my family had gone through before we fled to Brooklyn when I was 2 years old. There was also the issue of time: I suspect North Korea as we currently know it will not be around for much longer.
It never occurred to me that you could visit North Korea until I logged into Facebook one day and saw photos of a friend flashing his dimwitted grin against the backdrop of the Korean People’s Army tanks. “How the hell did you get into North Korea?” I asked him.
“It’s easy,” he told me. “I met a guy at Burning Man who runs a company. His role is to vouch for you.”
A little Googling revealed that several firms offer to take outsiders into North Korea. It was easy, but not at all cheap. All you needed to do was get yourself into Beijing on the right date—and not be a journalist.
As background reading for my trip, I devoured several books about the nation (though Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader by Bradley K. Martin and Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick should be sufficient for anyone planning a visit). Like most other don’t-call-me-a-hipster New Yorkers, I also watched The Vice Guide to North Korea on YouTube, in which Vice honcho Shane Smith claimed that in North Korea, “there’s nothing normal that happens ever.”
My experience ended up being completely different from Smith’s—about the only thing we shared in common was that we coincidentally ended up staying in the same hotel room. I witnessed vast amounts of human normalcy in the most abnormal society on Earth. When I waved to teenage girls, they giggled. When I smiled at toddlers, their grandmothers beamed with pride. The people on the streets of Pyongyang are often alleged to be actors staffed for the benefit of tourists, but there is no amount of training in the world possible for a theater production of that scale.
The first step to entering North Korea is getting debriefed by the Western tour agency that acts as your liaison. I expected a long litany of do’s and don’ts from Phil, our Western guide in Beijing, but his advice was actually quite relaxed. “The North Koreans really like and admire their leaders, so we need to respect that. We will be laying flowers at the statue of Kim Il Sung and bowing before it. Does anyone have a problem with that?” No one did. “That’s about it. Just don’t be a jerk and everything will be fine.”
Surely this was nonsense. Everyone knew that one misstatement was enough for a one-way ticket to the gulag. “What’s the worst trouble that anyone’s gotten into?” I asked.
“One time someone sent their guide a present from abroad, and they wrapped it in the Pyongyang newspaper,” Phil explained. “Well, that paper happened to have a picture of Kim Jong Un, and the person had to write a long apology. That was about it.”
That was pretty much that. Our group of about a dozen tourists went to the airport the following morning, and that’s when the first bits of North Korea began to permeate. The airport employees were Korean, and they wore the red badges of Kim Il Sung and/or Kim Jong Il that all North Koreans are required to display. (Back in the day, it took Kim Jong Il a while to get his own badge; it seems his son is respectfully following suit.) As we waited by check-in for stragglers, several more North Koreans came to check their luggage. To a man—and they were all men—they bore two or three boxes of electronics with them, TVs or computers. The square boxes were bound with plastic ties and wrapped, making it impossible to see what they were without getting out a box-cutter. This was one advantage of being trusted and powerful enough to be allowed out of the country: You could brazenly smuggle things in, and no one would dare challenge you.
I was a bit nervous about the flight. For years Air Koryo was the world’s only one-star airline. Its fleet consisted of Soviet planes from the 1950s, which were banned from flying inside the European Union due to safety regulations. Not that it mattered much: Currently the whole country of North Korea has one flight in and one flight out per day, from and to Beijing.
But when we boarded I saw that the planes had apparently been upgraded. Judging by the sparkly red plastic decor, Air Koryo had made it as far as the 1980s. On the plane we had to fill out a customs form declaring that we were not bringing in “killing device,” “exciter,” “narcotics,” or “publishing of all kinds.”
Time Travel, North Korean Style
The plane taxied and stopped about an hour later. We walked into the terminal, which was just one large room like a modified airplane hangar. On the far wall were huge framed portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Our cellphones were then confiscated, to be returned when we exited the country. There was now no possibility of leaving the nation, no possibility of contacting anyone I knew. Every neuron in my brain shouted, You don’t belong here.