Clutching my passport and a small flimsy light blue booklet together in both hands, I place my documents on the desk of the immigration officer. He stands proudly wearing his neat olive military uniform and a large soviet-esque hat. Despite his otherwise imposing demeanor, he surprises me with a warm smile, coolly looks over the booklet which serves as my visa, and promptly returns it back to me with one hand and with the other directing me with an open palm to the security check.
The only times I felt fearful in North Korea was when I first stepped off of the plane in Pyongyang and when I was going back through immigration to depart. Contrary to the bleak images which are depicted in the media, Pyongyang is now a colorful modern city. Each apartment building brightens the skyline with its own pastel colors, which are repainted every two years. Skyscrapers which seem to have sprung up out of a 1950s Sci-fi comic book line their “scientist street”.
At the peak of many of these towers a golden atom can be seen shining like the star of Bethlehem, a reminder of their atomic aspirations. No old buildings can be seen at all or as my tour guide bluntly stated on the bus from the airport to downtown, “We have made it a point in the last several years to tear down all the old things.” The other members of the tour group and I often, to the side, discussed how much of what we were seeing was an actual normal day for a North Korean and how much was merely a performance for the tourists.
There is no doubt that what we were shown was the absolute best North Korea had to offer. Grandiose performances by school kids at the Children’s Palace, bars frequented by Pyongyang’s upper class, and hotels complete with every kind of luxury you could find at the nicest resort in the Caribbean.
These are all superficial things, which, even though the atmosphere in the DPRK is unique in itself, it will not leave an everlasting impression. What will though is your interaction with the people. Walking down a main street in Pyongyang, you will surely notice that the locals avoid all eye contact with the tourists, but the more time you spend in public places you can quickly pick up on some people “breaking character”.
Children looking on in astonishment at the sight of foreigners, young women hiding their giggles on the subway, and especially in the countryside, you are greeted with immense hospitality in the form of waving and cheering from the farmers. Some of the most intimate conversations though are of course with the guides.
The tour guides shed some insightful information on the lives of North Koreans, such as it is compulsory for every man, woman, and child, no matter what their occupation is, to participate in the harvest for two weeks every year. But what really took me back was when on the bus I was glued to the window, as was the other travellers, trying to get a glimpse of the people walking by and the everyday life of a North Korean.
Suddenly the young Korean guide, Mr. Park, hopped into the seat next to me. He heard from someone that I could speak Chinese and was hoping to practice with me. I, of course, obliged. He was quite amazed by the fact that an American could speak Chinese, I then wondered where this misconception rooted from. In North Korea, they do not hide the fact that they loathe the United States with posters depicting Korean soldiers bayoneting American GIs and slogans reading: “Never forget what those American bastards did.” Mr. Park explained that they despise the American government, not the people.
That is a song and dance I have heard in many other countries, but his eyes showed no sense of scorn or prejudice. Mr. Park and the other guides were all very engaged with us, whether it was by playing countless games of ping-pong or just by sharing music from our phones. They showed us the open warm heart of Korea, rather than a threatening hollow metallic beast of a country forged by the labor of its people.
With all the cultural exchange and welcoming atmosphere, it is easy to forget that you are still in a country with strict laws and restrictions, so one must be sure to keep their toes behind the line. It could be something small like respectfully bowing before the giant bronze statues of the supreme leaders whose smiles beam from every other street corner, or as big as starting to feel that you have the freedom to stray from the group and wander off to see what is on the next street over.
North Korea has a bad reputation, but at their core they are just regular people which you could find anywhere else on the planet. At the tensest border in the world between the DPRK and ROK, North Korean soldiers are seen laughing, smoking, and posing with tourists, a scene which can definitely not be seen by their southern counterparts. But also it is a scene which gives a glimpse at the people behind the military fatigues and missile tests, call it Stockholm syndrome, but the North Koreans are so much more than a country constantly beating the drums of war, they are simply a people caught in between governments trying to flex a muscle.
Even though the media likes to take the role of the harbinger of a war to end all wars and to paint the world in black and white, the truth is not so simple. Although I did not get to see much behind the curtain during my parade around the DPRK, I did get to look into the eyes of the people and saw a person not so different from you and me.
This week’s guest writer is Zachary Williams – find more of his stuff here ~