My Week in North Korea

A Soviet-born American tours the Hermit Kingdom and finds humanity in a most inhumane place.

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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.

Michael Malice is the author of the forthcoming Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il. He is also the subject of Harvey Pekar's graphic novel Ego & Hubris (Ballantine) and the co-author of several other books.

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  • Raston Bot||

    What's green and sits on the porch? My Jap, I paint him any color I want.

    That joke kills in North Korea.

  • Hoss||

    That's funnier than the crude "jap"
    joke, above.

  • Almanian!||

    You don't want to buy Japanese tires. Know why?

    Cause when Dago flat Dago "wop, wop, wop...." !!!

    OK, not ALL of these jokes work by substituting Japanese for others...

  • Almanian!||

    [Animal Mother to Japanese soldier beside him]

    "Thank God for the sickle cell, huh?" Mmmmmmm - nope.

  • Almanian!||

    "You know any motherfuckin' Japanese RACE CAR drivers? I think you see my point..."

    No, see, this just isn't working...

  • Almanian!||

    *pulls out sides of throat with both hands*

    What's this?

    A Japanese kid choking on a piece of rice....

    No, see....

  • Almanian!||

    You know why the Japanese guy walks around carrying a car door?

    So when it gets too hot, he can just roll down the window....


    OK, THAT one worked.

  • fish_remote||

    What's the fastest way to blind a ....(looks around furtively).....a Japanese guy?

    Put a windshield in front of him!


    Thanks I'm here all week!

  • Almanian!||

    I don't get it.


  • ZackTheHypochondriac||

    “Then your mother must have hated Russia.”

    I have to admit I didn't expect that and it hit me pretty hard. The tone of the article was surprisingly optimistic for a reason article on NK and I was kinda hoping for a happier ending that she was at least not miserable with her life.

  • Curtisls87||

    This. A floating sense of melancholy was rising in my mind until this line. At once, I thought, how poignant, how clever, and how utterly sad.

  • Metazoan||

    Yeah, that was a pretty powerful line.

  • NebulousFocus||

    +1 :(

  • Paul.||

    “I did not understand that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison.”

    He wasn't the first defector into a communist hellhole to come to the same conclusions. Luckily, he survived his realization. Not everyone did. Choose wisely, Mr. Snowden.

  • Sevo||

    "Choose wisely, Mr. Snowden."
    I'm not sure Snowden has a lot of choices right now.

  • Paul.||

    Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader

    Wasn't that the title of the New York Times' 2008 presidential endorsement?

  • PACW||


  • Paul.||

    A soldier stopped the woman and made a comment, clearly something along the lines of “Papers, please.” I watched her roll her eyes and practically could hear her snorting with disgust

    So they are more like America than we thought.

  • Paul.||

    Kim Il Sung’s second wife is a non-person, for example, and to this day few people anywhere know how many times Kim Jong Il was married, and when.

    I believe the proper term is an 'un-person'.

  • Paul.||

    1) Don’t denigrate the Leaders, 2) Don’t denigrate the government, and 3) Don’t acknowledge anything is wrong.

    So the New York Times style guide.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    It is populated by the children of a 1990s famine, malnourished orphans with oversized heads who never grew.

    Must have been all that Victorian-style capitalism.

  • LynchPin1477||

    I tried to feel Kim out during our travels together

    Now the truth comes out.

  • Rhywun||

    I'm assuming the crime rate is lower - in which case, one would certainly feel safer. I've felt safer walking around the streets of Beijing than in any American city - doesn't mean I'm a commie or I would ever want to live there.

  • Metazoan||

    If you exclude the crime committed by the government, I suppose.

  • Sevo||

    Metazoan| 7.23.13 @ 8:58PM |#
    "If you exclude the crime committed by the government, I suppose."

    Beat me to it.

  • Metazoan||

    If you exclude the crime committed by the government, I suppose.

  • Metazoan||

    If you exclude the crime committed by the government, I suppose.

  • Metazoan||

    Wow, I really meant it I guess :P

  • Boisfeuras||

    I'd be skeptical of how much lower the crime rates actually are under totalitarian regimes. The Soviet Union and China still had organized criminal syndicates, the vory and triads. Totalitarian states have no reason to publicize accurate crime statistics, which undermine their own legitimacy.

  • Greendogo||

    I agree. I have to think this would have to do more with the attempt to maintain an aura of civility and control for the tourists.

  • Tejicano||

    I don't see where this is even a question.

    If you are walking around a place where you are obviously (by your race and clothing) a guest of the State no local will so much as cross your path when they know that any crime committed against you will reflect poorly on the State and most probably end with that local and his/her entire extended family being thrown into a living Hell on earth. No line could be clearer and no punishment more extreme.

  • MappRapp||

    Dude is like totally rocking it man. WOw.

  • Luddite||

    Pariahs on the world stage, North Koreans proclaim a philosophy of self-reliance and absolute autonomy they call “juche.”

    I wager that one might pronounce "juche" as "juice". So is that the DPRK version of swag?

  • MOFO.||

    Ive always heard it pronounced like jew-shay

  • Faceless Commenter||


  • ||

    Antisemitism, straight up.

  • sphilben||

    What's the highest mountain (산) in Korea? 낙하산 (parachute)!

    Hmm, it's funnier in Korean.

  • XM||

    Why do Americans call Koreans "gooks"? Because when they get off the airplane in America, the first thing they say is "Migook!" ("America" in Korean)

  • BrendaMitchell||

    what Jonathan implied I'm surprised that you able to get paid $8990 in a few weeks on the internet. have you read this site...

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    So while the contemporary Internet might be forbidden in North Korea, there’s a thriving black market in VCRs—the better to watch foreign videotapes on. Though I didn’t think of it at the time, the woman and the solider provided a perfect metaphor for where the modern dynamism in North Korea lies.

    I read somewhere that the police/military will shut off all of the power to a building, then check room by room for VCRs and unapproved tapes.

  • Tomblvd||

    They don't have to shut off the power, they just wait around until it goes off by itself, which it always does.

  • XM||

    Subak, not Supak.


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