I stood at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in South Korea looking north. I wasn't sure why I wanted to visit the Hidden Kingdom, only that I very much wanted to go.
Back in the States, I consulted my travel agent, who was dubious. "We really don't know the basis on which North Korea admits travelers – it seems arbitrary." But in August 2007, I was one among a group of eight curious Americans flying from Beijing to Pyongyang. We flew with Air Koryo, North Korea's airline, on board a Russian-built IL62.
Our tour leader briefed the group: "There are some constraints upon travelers in North Korea. First of all, you are always to stay with your guides (read: minders). We will be housed in a hotel on an island in the middle of a river in central Pyongyang; you may not leave the island unaccompanied by your guide.
"You may not take photos of military, construction, or other major activities. You may not take photos at random from the bus. We count on your tact not to raise contentious subjects with your guides or any Korean you meet. Your role is to be a considerate traveler."
Pyongyang is an attractive city with a population of two million. It was entirely destroyed by American bombing during the Korean war and rebuilt at a time of relative North Korean prosperity. As we drove into the city, we noted teams of gardeners industriously trimming shrubs and clipping grass. Citizens, we learned, give one day a week to the state, and much of this labor goes into public maintenance. I thought it the "greenest" large city I had ever seen.
We understood that it is considered a privilege to live in Pyongyang, the most affluent area of North Korea. The "impoverished" northern part of the country is off-limits to foreign visitors.
Our hotel was simple but pleasant. We could view BBC World television from our rooms. I was told that western news sources were not available outside the hotel. Food, too, was simple. Breakfast leaned heavily to tomatoes, chopped cabbage, and boiled eggs, plus a few Korean dishes. Away from the hotel, we had standard Korean food. Wondering about reported food shortages, I asked my guide if I could visit a typical grocery store and was told I could not.
The acclaimed Mass Games were a highlight. Over a thousand costumed dancers performed in absolute precision. Overhead, aerial acrobats amazed the crowds with daring feats. I changed my position in order to get better photographs. My minder followed me but did not challenge my choice of locations.
At the museum commemorating the Korean War, a young guide harangued us about alleged American atrocities during the war and presented evidence of her claims. I thought of Abu Ghraib and of the thousands of dead Iraqi civilians.
After a long walk through marbled halls, we viewed the preserved body of Kim II Sung, the "Great Leader," who died in 1994. His son, Kim Jong II, is always spoken of as "Dear Leader."
Our guide later explained that North Korea follows a philosophy called Juche. Self-reliance is stressed, but collective consciousness must be guided by the Great Leader. I wondered to what extent North Koreans are true believers.
There was virtually no traffic on the highway as we went south to Kaesong, an ancient seat of learning and the first capitol of unified Korea.
We visited the sites on the north side of the DMZ. I commented that I had seen, from the south side, tunnels where North Koreans had attempted to enter the south. "Propaganda!" snorted the guide. "There is no such thing."
I persisted, saying "I saw the tunnels myself, and they are well documented."
"Well," he allowed, "Maybe it just shows you how much we want to be reunited with South Korea."
We had limited contacts with Koreans other than our guides. Once, we encountered a bridal party in a park. Realizing we were visitors, they burst into hearty applause. Our minders seemed to us like college kids, eager to practice English and please us as much as possible. We in turn cooperated and tried to please them.
Before we left we heard that the Mass Games would be cancelled because the dancers were being sent to alleviate flood damage in the north. Accordingly, all pending visas would be revoked.
The gates to North Korea had closed once again.
>> From Linda Bowman: Thanks for Nancy Peterson's North Korea, Open and Closed. It offers insights we rarely see.