A book research trip to end all research trips
In 2012, author D.B. John traveled to North Korea as the regime was celebrating the centenary of the birth of the nation's founder, the "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung (grandfather of Kim Jong-un). What he saw on the trip would later inform his summer thriller, Star of the North, available now, that follows two sisters after one is mysteriously kidnapped in South Korea and the other joins the CIA. Ahead, John shares fascinating photos from the trip.
Destination North Korea
Our tour group departs Beijing with Air Koryo, North Korea’s national carrier. The Soviet-made Tupolev airliner, dating from the 1970s, has been repainted with what looks like house paint. There are splashes of it on the windows.
First night in Pyongyang
With so many foreigners in town for the celebrations, accommodation proves a stretch. Our first night is spent on the rock-hard mats of the uber-creepy Ryanggang Hotel. Built for the Communist World Festival of Youth in 1989 (an event that bankrupted the country), it clearly hasn’t been open since. A sign in English in the lobby says: “The dead drunk guest cannot use the elevator.”
First night in Pyongyang
A flashing sign in the lobby says “Day of the Sun,” i.e. 15 April, the Great Leader’s birthday.
The tour begins
Our bus outside the Pyongyang Grand Theater, which stages such revolutionary extravaganzas as “Sea of Blood” and “True Daughter of the Party.” Our two guides explain what we may NOT photograph: anyone in military uniform (about a third of the population), any statues or portraits of the Great Leader or the Dear Leader, unless they are full body shots. (So no cropping off arms, legs, or other parts, which is rude and disrespectful.)
Our group poses with a class at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace, attended by the offspring of the elite. They have just performed a little song and dance for us. Kids in all the schools we visit spend much of their time in gymnastics, musical performances, or mass games. Classroom time is taken up with heroic deeds from the lives and Great Leader and the Dear Leader. Contrast this with South Korean primary school kids the same age, who by now are proficient in languages, math, and science.
Leaders great and dear
The colossal bronzes of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung and Dear Leader Kim Jong-il are 65 feet high. They make us feel like ants. On almost every day of this tour, we are asked to pay our respects by lining up and bowing before a statue of the Great Leader. To refuse would be awkward, as it risks getting our two guides into trouble.
White-gloved traffic girls control the intersections with robotic efficiency. Now and then we see them close the roads to allow a regime limousine to speed through. With rising numbers of cars on the streets the girls are gradually being replaced with traffic lights. We cheer them like lunatics, just to see if we can make one of them laugh.
Glory to Kim
Massed choirs and dancers perform a lavish spectacular as part of the celebrations. Each time an image of one of the Kims appears on the giant screen, the North Koreans in the audience applaud spontaneously. We clap politely at first, but the applause feels oppressive as the show wears on. I think of how Soviet citizens would give an ovation at every mention of Stalin’s name. (The gulag awaited those who didn’t applaud.) Almost all popular North Korean entertainment, even pop music, is in praise of the nation and the Kims.
The big day
We spend the big day, 15 April, Kim Il-sung’s birthday, in Pyongsong, a city some 40 miles from the capital. People here never see Western visitors and stare at us as if we’ve stepped off the set of Star Wars. At the ceremony I watch the entire citizenry advance in silence, holding flowers, toward a giant statue of Kim. It is one of the oddest experiences of my life, reminding me more of a scene from the Old Testament than of anything from the old communist bloc.
For a country associated with famine, North Korea has a sophisticated cuisine. We are fed huge amounts of food to prove there is no hunger. The reality, however, is that most citizens eat only very basic meals of grains and vegetables, and malnutrition lurks in every village. North Koreans eat meat so seldom that they can often remember the dates — usually the birthdays of the Leaders, when the state makes extra food available.
In a city without advertising or the bustle of commerce, propaganda posters are the only dashes of colour. The iconic art style of the posters is unchanged since the 1960s. These celebrate the centenary year 2012. For decades, regime propaganda has heralded this year as the point when the country achieves its goal of becoming a “strong and prosperous” nation.
The power of waves
We wave and smile at every line of school kids, just to show we’re not the snarling jackals of state propaganda cartoons. Surprised, the kids always wave back. Everything they’re taught about the West is negative. They’re not even told that humankind has walked on the Moon. So even simply seeing us may help change their perception, even just a little.
Me with Kim Il-sung Square in the background, where the regime stages its massive parades. In the far distance is the Juche Tower, which glorifies the regime’s official ideology, juche — a baffling hodgepodge of Marxism, Confucianism, and ultranationalism. Our guides become embarrassed when asked to explain it, indicating that it is “too profound” to convey with ease.
A white-water river roars through the ravines of Mount Kumgang. North Korea has some of the most spectacular mountain scenery on earth, but few North Koreans ever get to see it, as most travel is tightly controlled. Citizens need a travel permit (and a good reason) even to leave their local county.
Scariest moment: A North Korean soldier pointing at me and shouting “GEEPISH!” He thought my camera was a GPS device. (We were banned from taking any communications devices into the country).
Funniest moment: Getting one of our minders drunk and hearing him sing “Hey Jude” off key on the hotel karaoke.
Most frustrating moment: Contracting propaganda sickness. (Being told daily that Kim Il-sung single-handedly defeated Japan, the USA, South Korea…)