A writer journeys into North Korea with Chinese tourists
He catches a glimpse of everyday life in the ‘hermit kingdom’ – sidewalk vendors, electric trollies, neighborhood shops – but also encounters the ever-watchful Pyongyang police.
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On Day 2, he focused on the “three frees” of Korean society: education, healthcare, and housing. Because we had a two-hour bus ride to Mt. Myohyang, home to a 400-room fortress where gifts to the DPRK are proudly displayed, he invited questions. “How much grain is allotted to each worker a month?” asked Wang Zhelu, a teacher from Dalian.Skip to next paragraph
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“Twenty-seven kilograms,” Mr. Ju replied, which led to murmurs of approval from a group that had grown up with ration coupons (according to the UN’s World Food Program, the actual figure is closer to five kilograms, with meat available only on national holidays).
“What about the apartments – how big are they?” asked Zhao Heping, a retired fighter-jet engineer from Beijing.
“Eight hundred to 1,500 square feet.” This caused more grumbling, as one Beijing resident said that would be bigger than his place.
This didn’t seem to be in Ju’s script. After a long silence, he countered, “Yes, if you’re a movie star.” And then he told us to get some rest.
Later that day, at a six-course lunch, the mood was almost wistful. “Life is so carefree here,” said one of the real-estate agents. “In China, from the first day of preschool, you have worries.”
Still, to some of the travelers, it was becoming apparent that one of the North Koreans’ main objectives with the tour was not to make money ($350 for an all-inclusive four days), but to convince the Chinese that a country of 30 million peasants has somehow achieved the ultimate worker’s paradise.
By the end of Day 3, many of the Chinese, however pampered by the food and concerts, were getting restless. The stream of rules governing what they could photograph and where they could go was something they had not experienced since the Cultural Revolution 30 years ago. And they missed their cellphones (kept by North Korean custom agents at the border, along with our passports).
My foray – unsupervised for once – into downtown Pyongyang one afternoon brought its own adventures. At 6 feet, 4 inches and sporting a “I heart Brasil” T-shirt, I was not inconspicuous, and the North Koreans I passed, worried about being linked to a foreigner, avoided all eye contact.
For an hour, I caught a rare glimpse of everyday life in North Korea. To my surprise, it wasn’t much different from your generic third-world city. Conditions were stark, yes, but not as outlandish as many in the West might imagine. There were sidewalk vendors, electric trollies, bicycles, and neighborhood shops.
There was also one notable difference: the unparalleled sense of paranoia and Stalinish control. Take my six-hour ordeal with the Public Security Bureau. I became caught in their net when I snapped some fidgety shots of a vibrant indoor bazaar, a rare free market at work. Stocky women in pink dresses suddenly appeared.
They turned me over to the feared police, who only let me go after securing a self-criticism that would have made Mao proud. But this was not to be my last brush with the authorities. The night before our train ride back to China, the ever-friendly Ju, our guide, refused to leave my hotel room until he could search for the “missing” memory card from my camera.
Fortunately, my roommate chose this moment to dash out of the shower. Ju apparently decided this was too much for him and scampered off into the night.
The next day, on the trip back, our train car went quiet at the North Korean border town of Sinuiju. A cadre of North Koreans, decked out in military fatigues, ordered everyone to empty their bags, checking for ill-gotten photos.
Finally, with a loud cheer from our group, the train lurched from the station, toward the bright lights, the Kentucky Fried Chickens, and the honks of impatient taxi drivers awaiting us across the river in China.