As my wife and I waited to board a plane from Beijing to Pyongyang, we watched the crates of food and boxes of flat screen TVs be loaded onto the conveyor belt and found ourselves resuming the conversation we started while still in Canada.
“I just don’t’ feel right about this,” I said. “You and I both know that all of that food and entertainment isn’t going to the people of North Korea, but to the Kim family. And now we’re giving Kim Jong-un our tourist dollars.”
My wife, Irina, who is an aspiring travel photographer, had been planning this trip for nearly a year and wasn’t about to have this debate again. “Tourism is a sign of the country opening up,” she said. “Trust me, this will be worth it. Now get your butt on that plane.”
And with that, we boarded the world’s only one-star airline to Pyongyang.
Each country I’ve traveled to has “hit me” in a different way. It hit me that I was in Russia when I set foot in Moscow’s Red Square and saw the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral. It hit me that I was in Thailand while zipping through the canals of Bangkok’s floating market. And it hit me that I was in China when our bus driver in Xi’an suddenly pulled over during a heat wave and exited the bus for a 10-minute cigarette break with friends.
But it didn’t hit me that I was in North Korea until just before we left. In fact, I barely noticed upon arrival at customs that staring at me from the other side of the room were two gigantic portraits of The Great Leader Kim Il-sung and The Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. Images of the deceased dictators are in every building, in every citizen’s home, and on every citizen’s shirt or coat in the form of a special pin that must be worn in public. It wasn’t long before I took seeing their mugs for granted at every turn.
Foreigners cannot visit North Korea unless they’re a part of a state-approved tour company, and the tours must be staffed in part by state-trained guides or “minders.” Prior to our trip, I heard someone refer to it as a “government-sanctioned tour of boredom and propaganda.” To a great extent, this turned out to be true. Many hours were spent being shuttled around Pyongyang and Kaesong—from one enormous grey or bronze monument to another. When at a monument, we weren’t allowed to stray from the group to look at an adjacent garden or statue, we were discouraged from using our outdoor voices, and we were strictly forbidden from speaking to locals. Our minders made sure of this as I’d never had someone place their hand on my back or shoulder so many times in a single outing. Some tourists described it as a real-life Truman Show, except that you’re not sure whether citizens are acting under duress or if they truly believe in the part they’re playing.
There are some things that no one talks about while in North Korea, like its labour camps, its starving citizens, and its corrupt police force. And there are other things that are impossible to drown out, like the ongoing campaign that celebrates the Korean War as having ended last month, the constant condemnation of the United States as Imperialist Aggressors that could strike again at any moment, and the deification of long-dead Kim Il-sung as the country’s Eternal President (the late Christopher Hitchens cheekily deemed it a “necrocracy”).
But there were also whispers of a yearning to learn more about the world outside of them, like when one of our guides quietly asked to see a tourist’s digital camera photos of South Korea, or when others gently probed us about the advertising business, which doesn’t exist in North Korea except in the form of what we call propaganda. But the most subtle expression of this came at the end of our final night in Pyongyang, on the bus ride home from the annual Mass Games in which over 100,000 citizens are forced to participate. Our guide, in a seemingly unscripted moment, said “We’re happy that you visited our country. Maybe after reunification, we’ll get to see your countries too.”
And that’s when it hit me: “I’m in North Korea.”
The next thing I knew, I was crying. What our guides had really expressed was, “You get to leave this place. We don’t.” There I was—a Canadian on a 5-day tour of a totalitarian dictatorship, the last Stalinist state on the planet. And there they were—stuck.
On the flight back to Beijing, I told Irina that she was right, that you couldn’t put a price on what we had experienced, as controlled and manipulated as it was. It’s easy throw around reassuring phrases like “You can do anything you put your mind to” or “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” But the reality is that we don’t get to choose where we start off in life, that when and where we are born is solely a result of chance. Since our trip, compassion and—frankly--guilt make up the lens through which I now see the world, and together they've inspired a duty in me to help make change for the better.
What’s next on my wife’s travel agenda? Chernobyl, apparently.
I’m sure it’ll be worth it.