6.28.13 Issue

by Rich Juro

At the Pyongyang, North Korea airport immigration counter, the unsmiling guard states: “Give us your cell phone. You will get it back when you leave.”

At the hotel, checking in, the unsmiling front desk clerk requests: “Give us your passport. You will get it back when you leave.”

So went the worrisome entry into the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. Yes, they inspected our luggage at the airport, which is why we didn’t bring any books describing people escaping from North Korea or its repressive government. Surprisingly, we were allowed to keep our iPads or other computers. Reason: there is no internet access in North Korea. The medieval name ascribed to Korea, the “Hermit Kingdom,” is equally applicable to North Korea today.

It’s a challenge to describe life for the citizens of North Korea. Even though this is the most isolated nation in the world, word has seeped out describing in detail the concentration camps, the widespread famine, and the overall misery that burdens most of the inhabitants of this unfortunate land. All we can attempt here is to report what we saw and learned about this country and its people during our eight day visit in August 2012.

Our guides met us and we drove to the Yanggakdo International Hotel, shaped like a triangle, 47 stories high with 1001 rooms and a revolving restaurant on top. It did have a beautiful lobby, but the small, dingy rooms were more like those in a 20-year-old Motel 6. We did have a private bath. The amenities were six small plastic bottles of shampoo and body wash – but they were about half empty, apparently partly used up by the previous occupants. There was a small TV, but the only English language channel was a Japanese news station. That channel was our only source of news from the outside world, but even it is not available to ordinary citizens in their homes (if they even have a TV). There were five restaurants: Japanese, Chinese, Revolving, Restaurant #1, and Restaurant #2. I’m not sure why we only dined in Restaurant #2, but even my wife Fran didn’t argue about it.

Our guides told us, “Please do NOT leave the hotel on your own”. Fran and I have been to about 140 countries, and have NEVER been told that. When asked why, they said it was for our safety; but like other totalitarian dictatorships, there are no issues of personal safety in North Korea. But when tourists start walking out of the hotel, they are immediately stopped by guides or hotel staff, asking, “Where are you going?” John, one of the other two Americans in our little group, then commented to us: “This place is like Alcatraz East.” A foreigner who has done his homework, and we all had, does not start an argument with any official in this country.

One morning, just to see what would happen, I hobbled outside the hotel. No one seemed to care, probably because I was barely walking due to my very severely injured right ankle. I guess they figured I was a harmless old man, unlikely to meet up with any insurgents or defectors. They were right. Still, I was pleased to be an exception to the rule, especially in North Korea.

What was Pyongyang, the capital of the country, like? A city of 3,000,000 people, most of whom are from the upper stratum of North Korean society: that is, high-ranking Communist Party and army officials and their top functionaries. There are lots of tall buildings, lots of new construction and lots of wide streets. The two most distinctive structures are both hotels. One hotel has two 37-story twin towers and became our home several days later. The other is huge, “about 105 stories, built about 15 years ago,” according to Su Yong, our female national guide. It is a beautiful pyramid-shaped edifice set by itself on a large lot near the river. However, there were no lights on, nor cars in the parking lot. This hotel has never been finished, and, even Su Yong admitted, probably never will be. Why? Like so many other absurdities in North Korea, we would never learn the answer.

Pyongyang has many broad avenues and boulevards. Yet there is very little traffic, as privately-owned vehicles are forbidden to all but a few of the very top officials. Su Yung explained that not only are cars very expensive, but they would contribute to air pollution. Yet some of the army trucks have been converted to carbon-producing, wood-burning engines because of the lack of petroleum. One of the questions Su Yung asked us concerned the quality of air in our home city versus Pyongyang; she was visibly disappointed when we said Omaha’s air is equally clean and fresh.  There is also an extensive underground metro system that is the main method that locals use to get around the city.

The little traffic in the streets consisted of crowded public busses, army vehicles, lots of bicycles, a few motorbikes, a few taxis, vans making public announcements, and trucks holding 20-30 people crouching in back being transported to their workplace. In a whole week, the only negative thought expressed by Su Yung was that the P.A. vans blaring patriotic songs, political propaganda, and uplifting thoughts were actually “noise pollution.” Patriotic movies are also shown in the evening on huge screens in the large public squares.

To be continued…