My North Korean Bubble burst during the pre-tour briefing in Beijing, the day before departure.
The entire lot of tourists going on the July tour had read the rules and signed on the dotted lines, but as the tour coordinators explained the rules, some twice, following them up with examples, North Korea seemed more sinister than the media made it out to be and the sixty of us felt like the stupid moths flapping around the flame looking forward to dying.
“These five days are going to change your lives forever,” said the tour coordinator in a serious attempt at humour. “Grab your last Starbucks coffee at the airport, eat your muffins and croissants, get enough money for the trip, in small change if possible, and never try to speak to the locals.”
She touched upon every possible subject connected to the trip – everything from flight meals to taking photographs, bowing at statues, staying “in line”, always checking with the guide about the repercussions of folding or damaging a newspaper containing pictures of the ruler.
“If there is anything that will get you arrested or deported, it is damaging the picture of the Great Leaders,” they told us over and over again. “Always keep any piece of paper with the Great Leader intact.”
Arrest was the solution to everything in North Korea.
Much of the North Korean animosity, it appeared, was directed at the Americans, so there was a good half hour dedicated to American behaviour in North Korea. What the tour coordinators worried about was the American temper that was likely to get out of hand upon hearing the Korean version of The War and the subsequent surrender of America and the general slandering of the rest of the world. I think India did not fall into this category so there was no reason to dedicate time to this. I also happened to know that India shared a good relationship with DPRK and shipped foodgrains to contain the famine from time to time.
“No matter what, grin and bear it,” continued the tour coordinator. “No matter how angry you are or how much you want to clear your country’s good name or the history in general, remember you are in their country. Remember they have been kind enough to let you in, so that says a lot.
“Remember, your guide is not ill-informed or at fault for telling you their version of the war. They are duty bound to carry out instructions. They tell you what they believe, er, have grown up to believe in. Give them some space. Just remember to check with them before you do anything – and yeah, they would be happy to receive a gift, like cigarettes and chocolates.”
And as a parting shot – “Guys, please get yourself a tie or a pant if you will – and a shirt. One of our itinerary demands it… and ladies, a below-the-knee dress. And preferably no exposing the shoulders or, umm, too much of the neck.”
As we filed out of the room, I was convinced that all sixty of us did have a rather twisted sense of adventure and were secretly proud to be the chosen few to get into North Korea.
But the last piece of news on North Korea brought to us via The Guardian, as we were ready to board Air Koryo the next morning, depressed me. The article reported that North Korean farmers were under great amounts of pressure to grow more crops to feed a hungry nation while the portly Kim Jong-Un had declared that North Korea would never have to tighten its belts again.
As I read through the article, KJU’s optimistic declaration seemed to be the only piece of good news and I had an increasing feeling of uneasiness and many questions about going hungry on the trip.
To be fair, had I been airdropped without the knowledge of where, I’d have found the scenery very captivating.
Endless fields of rice, peaceful rivers and green hills all the way to the horizon and if it weren’t for the mountains that crept in here and there ruining the picture perfect scenery, I’d have given the scenery a huge thumbs up.
But I knew where I was. I did however make a brave attempt to block out that knowledge for a fleeting moment so I could enjoy what was really a magical stretch of green, but that knowledge ruined the magic unfolding below.
The ugly, uneaten burger sitting on my pull-out table was a reminder that I was indeed in Korean airspace so I alternated between glancing outside and peering over the shoulder of my co-passenger and trip-mate, at the Pyongyang Times he was reading in amusement.
The front page was fully devoted to the Beloved Leader Kim Jong-Un and his visit to the orphanage and a large picture of happy children surrounding the leader. The inside, however, had a few interesting bits – it was enlightening to know of the technological advancements the country had made and how they were ready to take on the world, namely America, Japan and South Korea.
I could contain myself no longer. I hissed into my neighbour’s ear.
“What the hell is all that? How ridiculous.”
He had the good sense to look over his shoulders quickly before whispering back…
“Damned if I know what to make of it. It’s a load of crap.”
And you can guess where he came from. I would see red too – if, first thing in the morning my eyes fell upon false propaganda against my country. I’d grit my teeth and make a fist and want to throw punches too – so he was within his rights to hiss and clench his fist and make a feeble attempt to crumple the newspaper.
“I feel like a traitor not reacting,” he said, growing redder, “but I guess Uncle Sam will appreciate my position.”
I myself was posing as a kindergarten teacher and kindergarten teachers had a certain behavioural pattern that did not include showing outright agitation.
“Well, you got me there,” I said instead. “It’s a good read though.”
On the fringes of the runway three old Air Koryo planes sat motionless, secured to the ground with thick ropes.
Heavy tarps covered the cockpits. Grass grew around their wheels. It was the first indication that something was not right. Why were these old planes displayed like that?
Between getting off the plane and walking towards the old, functional airport, Katarzyna caught up with me. We had spoken briefly at Beijing airport and hurriedly exchanged names but I had a feeling we were going to get along very well.
“I am feeling weird, you know,” she said, “I cannot believe I am here.”
That somehow heightened the discomfort I was feeling too.
“Breathe,” I said, more to myself than to her. “Breathe.”
Meanwhile the other passengers were not exactly holding out well, each throwing meaningful and furtive glances at each other as though preparing for something to happen. It was as if every one of us had created ominous scenarios in our heads and were hoping some of that might come true.
We entered the small building. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-Il or simply The Kims smiled at us from the walls across the immigration desk.
I have been through small and very small airports before. In fact, I love airports. I love going through them – to me, it is a hallway to something fascinating beyond. This airport was smallish, yes, but it was also in a state of chaos.
There were no real lines, only a large number of unsure people jumping queues. We had filled out our details on two pieces of paper listing all of our personal belongings, including books, radios, mobile phones and cameras. It was funny how our baggage was scanned on the way out of the containment area.
All of us made it out of the airport without any fuss.
Our local guides, aka, minders were waiting on the other side.
We were introduced to Miss Deer.
Miss Deer was beautiful. She had flawless skin. She wore a knee length skirt. And she spoke excellent English. She was beautiful. She would have to be, I learnt later, because she lived in Pyongyang and for that one had to be beautiful. Living in Pyongyang was an honour given to the selected two million. She was beautiful and fit the bill in every way.
Miss Deer was to be our guide, along with Li the driver, Li the-other-guide and Li the-minder-of-Miss Deer and Li the-other-guide. I will call Li the-other-guide Giraffe because he was too tall for a Korean.
“This is going to get very interesting,” Katarzyna whispered once we boarded the bus and took the backseat. “This country is full of Lis, I think. This is so funny. You think it’s their real name? Li, Li, Li…” Katarzyna made that into a little tune, she was funny that way. I put it down to Polish humour.
“Nah, I don’t think so. But at least they had the good sense to choose an easy one. Weird that we end up with three on this tour… they could have split them with the other
As we waited for the others to board and settle down, we snapped pictures of the airport behind us and a few buildings around that were under construction. Like any first time visitor into any country, everything was interesting, including buildings under construction.
Miss Deer quickly stopped us.
“It is forbidden to take pictures of building under construction,” she said in her beautiful voice. “We Koreans see it as something unfinished, so no photos please.”
See how she had used the word “forbidden” and not something less scary? It would have been hilarious at this point, but that was also when we were asked to hand over our passports “for your own safety” – and nothing was funny any more.
I am not sure I understood how turning my passport over to the guides ensured my safety.
In the minutes following this, everyone was quiet – perhaps all of us, the Americans, Germans, Poles (Katarzyna or Kate as I called her), a Slovenian, Dutch, Singaporean, Australian and I, the odd Indian, had the same thought.
Hence, with my fear of going hungry came another fear.
What if they lost my passport and I was stuck here forever?
Excerpted with permission from There Are No Gods In North Korea, Anjaly Thomas, Niyogi Books.