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Where in the world is Sheryl?

Subject: #2 DPRK (North Korea)
Date: August 28, 2007 9:29:44 AM PDT


Well, i made it back, though i wished i could have stayed longer than the 3 days US citizens are allowed.

DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea. It is only in the last couple of years that Americans have been allowed in so i feel very privileged to have had this unique opportunity.

I flew in with a group of 20 very well-traveled people on an old but well-maintained Ilyushin, the kind with open overhead bins like bus luggage racks. We had a very decent meal on the plane served by beautiful, English-speaking North Korean flight attendants.

It is required by all tourists (yes, there are tourists) to be accompanies by a guide(s). We had two, Mr. Lee, 48, and "Honey," a great young woman of 28. They both spoke fantastic English, as did many of the people who interfaced with tourists. We were free to photograph anything except military personnel.

We stayed at the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang, a 40-story "luxury" hotel with a revolving restaurant on top, several other restaurants, a basement bowling alley and swimming pool. We left early each morning and returned late at night. We were very lucky with the weather{it rained and stormed at night (the stories of flooding are true) and cleared up mostly during the day. It was quite warm and humid.

The city is full of monuments and we visited many of them. First the Mansudae Grand Monument, a huge bronze statue of Kim Il-sung with two memorials on either side depicting the immortal revolutionary history of struggle of the Korean people. I volunteered to place the bouquet of flowers our guides had brought at his feet

There is an Arch of Triumph that looks just like the French Arch but is reportedly three meters larger. The construction is dedicated to "the home return of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung who liberated Korea from Japanese colonialism."

The highlight of the day and of the trip was the Arirang Mass Games, a spectacular performance by thousands of young people in a 150,000-capacity stadium. The performance consisted of disciplined precision drill teams, gymnastics, and dancers, all colorfully costumed and precisely coordinated. This set to a backdrop of thousands of young people with huge books of colored flip cards that changed to create stunning, complicated murals. This was a show unlike anything i've ever seen; completely symmetrical and flawless. I made friends with some nearby children by giving out postcards and showing pictures from home, as i did at other times with people. I always took the opportunity to "make friends."

The next morning we visited the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung. Visiting at the same time were busloads of soldiers in their best uniforms, lined up five abreast and looking very solemn. After depositing our belongings in a cloakroom, we walked over a series of footbrushes to clean the bottom of our shoes. Then through a metal detector and up an escalator, joining an airport-style moving sidewalk at the top that moved slowly and gravely for a very long stretch. It's a brilliant way to move hundreds of people in reverential silence.

At the end of the walkway is a red escalator, which deposits us in a vast white marble hall, completely empty except for a huge statue of Kim Il-sung bathed in peach and purple light. We are lined up four across and solemnly walk the length of the room to stand briefly in front of the sculpture before entering another room. Inside are a series of pods, one of which we step through, cold air blowing onto our clothes to remove, i suppose, dirt and germs from outside. We turn another corner and there he is, the Eternal Leader. Again we line up four abreast and, following the example of the soldiers and civilians preceding us, circle the glass casket clockwise, bowing at his feet and left and right side. Many people are visibly moved.

On to the next room where we're given cute little Sony recorders that we hold to our ear for the audio commentary accompanying a panoramic exhibit showing the Korean people??s reaction to Kim??s passing in 1994. The narrator tells us how "the tears of the people fell to the ground and turned to stone" on hearing the terrible news. Next we are shown a room containing hundreds of diplomas, doctorates, and medals awarded to Kim during his lifetime primarily by African and South American dictatorships.

Next we spent over an hour at the Youth Funfair, a rickety amusement park. One of our party, a young woman who works for Disney and knows about ride safety, took one look and watched everyone else take their turns. I spent most of the time wandering freely taking photos of people.

After a stroll in a park where people were picnicking, we visit the Juche Tower, monument to the guiding philosophy behind North Korea, an ideology formulated by Kim Il-sung (who else?) emphasizing self-sufficiency{that the country can only rely on itself. Juche is one of the main philosophies of the DPRK and a part of the nation's fabric. At the foot of the statue is a chamber containing stone tablets donated by various DPRK sympathizers and Juche study groups across the globe, organizations like The Ghana National Institute Of The Juche Idea, The United Nations Institute For Namibia Committee of The Great Juche Idea Of Comrade Kim Il-sung, etc. You get the picture. We ride up the 150-meter tower in a very slow elevator to be rewarded with breathtaking views of the city.

Next we visit to the USS Pueblo, an American "spy-ship" captured by the North Koreans in 1968. We learn how 82 American crew were held hostage for close to a year, only being released when the US published a full letter of apology. That the US retracted the apology the moment the sailors were freed is not mentioned. The original radio room is intact and the galley contains a soft-serve ice cream machine.

More tales of war-mongery follow at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, a vast complex where an enormous mural of Kim Il-sung leading the Korean people greets visitors. Though he appears to be facing forward as you stand at the front, his body appears to move to fact you as you walk to either end of the mural. The museum is huge but we're only given the brief highlights{another film, a few rooms demonstrating American deceit, treachery, and confession, and a spectacular three-dimensional, 360Krevolving diorama depicting various scenes from the conflict.

We keep driving down the same wide, empty roads to get from place to place. There are a few ancient electric trolleys and old buses, but hardly any cars (there are thought to be only a few hundred thousand motor vehicles in the DPRK). Surprisingly (or not), among the few cars we do see are several Mercedes and other slick black vehicles. With Pyongyang suffering sporadic power outages, the few traffic lights are shut down during daylight hours, and the traffic is directed by a team of beautiful uniformed girls who robotically direct the cars with near-military precision.

We also repeatedly pass Kim Il-sung square, an enormous plaza used for parades and gatherings. Youth Communism Day or something similar is this week so thousands of young people have been practicing dances and drill moves every time we drive by.

Another stop on our itinerary is the Monument to the Edification of the Workers Party, symbolizing the three classes of people who make up the party: peasants (represented by the sickle), workers (a hammer), and intellectuals (a paintbrush).

We travel to the DMZ, a 2-hour, 160-kilometer drive on a decent, empty road, through soggy green countryside (and intermittent rain). The land is rolling hills and lowlands, planted in rice, barley, wheat, corn,and potatoes. 90% of the farms are cooperative; 10% are state owned.

Panmunjom, a few kilometers beyond Kaesong, home to the most intense concentration of military personnel on the planet. Despite all of this, the atmosphere is surprisingly relaxed. A military officer shows us a scale model of the area before joining us on our bus to guide us further into the DMZ. It??s here we learn how the two sides are still officially at war{an armistice was agreed in 1953 bringing a temporary halt the the bloodshed, but a peace treaty was never signed.

As i've taken command of the front seat for the entire tour, i scoot over and the officer joins me. I give him a postcard, which he thanks me for and then places inside his very large cap for safekeeping. I manage to sign "isn't your uniform hot," to which he answers it is. We're taken to the Joint Security Area, a series of huts that sit across the border, in which talks are held. There's a modern building on the South Koreans side with an impressive array of surveillance cameras.

We stop in Kaesong on the way back for a traditional meal at a folk hotel. We sit on the floor at low tables containing about a dozen small metal bowls containing various foods: an egg thing, noodles, meat, pickles veggies, fish, a bowl of soup with egg noodles. We're given the opportunity to try dog soup and ginseng chicken, both of which i take.

Pyongyang has a metro system, reminiscent of the Soviet ones. Beautiful, cavernous underground stations with revolutionary murals on the walls. We were able to ride for one stop (there are 17 stations and rumors of a secret government line as well as underground facilities).

We enjoy the circus later that afternoon, some aerialists, synchronized swimmers, high-jumping see-saw acrobats, and women balancing long poles with various things balanced on the ends, from their mouths.

Dinner at a BBQ duck restaurant. The table has an inset gas grill on which you lay pieces of raw duck until they are cooked. That, along with several other dishes (duck liver, duck in sauce) and some sides, made a fine meal.

It seems like they genuinely want unification with the South, but both sides are well aware of the difficulties in joining a communist and capitalist country{just look at the Germanies.

We had much more access to the North Korean people than i expected. I thought we'd be lead around in isolation but that was not the case at all. Several times we stopped at bookstores or stamp shops and while others shopped, i stood on the street out in front and did my own thing. It wasn't permitted to go off around the block alone but i could wander a ways without causing concern to the guides.

Housing, health care, and education are provided by the government (people pay for their utilities). Housing is owned by the government and distributed according to various criteria. Pyongyang is the showpiece of the DPRK. Everyone who lives there is privileged to do so. They might be families of party members, war veterans, sports stars, or government and high-ranking military personnel. There are huge high-rise apartment blocks, way bigger than the Soviet apartment blocks. All apartment building construction appears to be cement, which is often very weathered on the outside. It is said that the apartments inside are for the most part well kept and decent. Pyongyang is quite an attractive city, and often symmetrical when viewed from above.

People are able to choose their jobs. I was surprised to find that many North Koreans travel outside the country for business and sometimes school. Our guide, Mr. Lee, studied for the hospitality industry in Bulgaria and Russia. There is a huge catalog of export products (i suspect a lot of it is for show), the primary trade partners being China, South Korea, and various African countries. China and South Korea are the largest donors of unconditional food aid to North Korea. I saw white goats and cattle in the countryside and a pick-up truck full of fat, pink pigs near the DMZ. People are issued ration coupons for staples such as rice, eggs, and so much meat. Anything beyond that they must pay for.

All of the women hostesses we encountered at the hotel, restaurants, tourist sites, and the traffic ladies are very good looking and specially chosen for those jobs for that reason.

Most people dress decently; skirts or pants and blouses for women; "Mao"-type suits and normal clothes for men in town. Workers on the highway wore typical worker clothes. There is a distinct "white collar" group in the city. You can tell by their clothes and the briefcases they wear.

Life goes on as it does anywhere else; people work at all the same occupations that we have in the West. There appears to be less time for play, as there's always some excuse to memorialize or celebrate and everyone is expected to participate in festivities. We always saw people amassed in the square or lined up in the streets waiting to practice or train. One wonders if they ever just wish to stay home and watch one of the two TV stations available. Often work brigades (this could be students ) are sent to various parts of the country to assist with flood control or other emergencies.

Well, it's late and i've written as much as i can think of at the moment. I'll try to add pictures to this narrative when i get home and send it out again as a PDF.



Sheryl Shapiro is a freelance writer and photographer based in Boulder, CO.