DPRK: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the name North Korea gives itself).
Saturday night. I am going to meet the two first friends I’ve made on my arrival in China, a Canadian and a Czech, in a nice pub in downtown Beijing. The Czech is playing saxophone that evening, but suddenly, during a break, they fall on me with a crazy invitation: “we’re going to North Korea for a day, wanna join?”
Obtained through a man, himself known because of a more or less legal kind of contract obtained I don’t know how by one of my two friends, we have a golden opportunity to join a Chinese tourist group who will cross the border at Dandong six days later.
Thursday night. I finished teaching at 20h, I took my bag, got in the subway and two hours later I was on a train to Shenyang.
Friday morning. I arrived in Shenyang and a kind Chinese woman made me realize that my train to Dandong is departing from another station, somewhere in this city of 6.25 million inhabitants (she’s kind enough to point me to the left). I have an hour and a half. I then have the wonderful idea to try to find the station on foot, and then to follow some vague contradictory indications to a subway entrance, before bringing myself to take a taxi. Finally, a few minutes only before the departure, I get to the other two guys and we embark for Dandong.
Friday night. In Dandong, a Chinese city on the border with North Korea, we walk a little along the river that’s running between the two nations before going to dinner at a North Korean restaurant. The employees are North Korean, the food and the music too.
Something great about North Korea is how it identifies all of its citizens very clearly, much like a shepherd tags his sheep. Thus, whether at home or elsewhere, they carry this small pin of either their flag or their leaders’ face (the founder Kim Il Sung and their current leader Kim Jong Un). Really useful.
So we sit in this nice private dining room, served by waitresses each more beautiful than the other.
Because another feature of North Korea is that it forbids its own citizens of leaving the country, unless you enjoy a well calculated privilege: prominent businessmen, government employees (embassies, etc.) and other individuals selected to “promote” the country abroad. In this last category, we find a large majority of young women who have nothing to envy the supermodels of this world.
Our waitress then begins to discuss with my Czech friend (who speaks Mandarin pretty well) and after a few hours, he finds himself with a guitar in his hands. Musician in his spare time, he sings a few classics from Bob Dylan, The Eagles, U2 and Pink Floyd, that quickly attract all the waitresses. In a small dining room on the Sino-Korean border, three foreigners and a guitar singing to a handful of North Korean in a language they don’t understand, just because we can.
The fascination is mutual.
Unfortunately, photos are prohibited. Because yes, this is another North Korean particularity: no photos or videos may be taken of the North Koreans, even if they live outside the country.
Somewhat under pressure from his peers to do it, the Czech will even leave his telephone number to the waitress. “Just in case, you know”. But the lady’s answer tells us a little more about her country: she doesn’t own a cellphone, because North Koreans cannot own cellphones…
So, North Korea. Finally.
We cross the bridge and the Yalu River that separates the two ‘communist’ countries, and North Korean authorities seize our cameras to inspect them. Let’s use this time for a little reminder of the basic rules:
- No electronic device allowed in the country, except for cameras. No iPod, no phone, etc.
- We can take pictures when we are told that we can, and of what we are told.
- You cannot speak or approach or contact or photograph/film the locals.
- You can ask questions of the guide, but if he does not answer, DO NOT REPEAT THE QUESTION. He heard you, now let it go.
They give us back our cameras and we get back on the bus. Accompanied by thirty Chinese, we are the only “foreigners” and have an English speaking North Korean guide just for us.
I’ll say it right away: the guide was definitely one of the most interesting attractions (in my opinion). In the tourist business for less than a year, having (obviously) never left the country, he answered some questions with naivety and/or a disconcerting confidence, sometimes dropping some awesome comments.
“[…] Yes, right now the southern part of Korea is occupied by America, by the American imperialism …”
– The guide, about South Korea
More than that, he followed us like … like a North Korean guide in North Korea. He would not let us out of his sight and got very anxious as soon as he couldn’t see one of us three. He immediately inquired to the others, trying to find the third, creeping up behind us and keeping an eye on the screen of our cameras. His mission was clear: to keep his sheep together and to assure that they only see/photograph the cardboard facade.
“Do you have stories about DPRK in Canada? Yes? What kind of stories do you have, what do people think about DPRK? “
– Our guide, with a large and naïve smile, asking questions he does not want to know the answer
Nevertheless, once we return to the bus after visiting a park or a cosmetics factory (North Korea is definitely a leader and a global producer of high quality cosmetics…), the bus’s windows allow us to see the surroundings pretty well.
And this is another highly relevant attraction of North Korea: all that they can’t hide. Buildings that we don’t stop to photograph, mostly sad and decrepit apartments, fields, rice paddies and everybody who work there, little shaky houses in the hills, people who walk the streets on old bicycles and in old clothes. Or military clothes. People dressed in gray, brown and khaki, mostly.
And huge streets with almost no cars. Because in North Korea – another interesting characteristic – there is no private car. The government is the only one to buy vehicles, and then lends them to those whose job requires some.
There are also those who seem to be as fake as our guide, like the soldiers in bright blue coat standing at the corners of intersections – the ones where our bus passes, obviously.
Dressed up in a shiny military costume under a burning sun, they made me laugh quite a bit in this city without cars.
And then there is also the “art gallery”, a tiny museum dedicated to the founders of the current regime.
The small pieces of this façade that’s presented to us, and that we are somehow forced to take pictures of, also have their share of relevance. The cosmetics factory, for example, is simply absurd: white and clean machinery as if it had never been used, two – only two – workers dressed like little dolls and the only available room (in addition to the rooms of exhibitions products) of the whole “factory”.
Last stop: a kindergarten. At least that’s we’re told. Personally, I would opt instead for a “human conditioning center”, or an expo.
Roughly speaking, children aged 4 and 5 offer us a show worthy of the professional circuses. For an hour and a half they sing, dance, make pirouettes and play way too well of way too many instruments. Every gesture is calculated and controlled; these tiny human beings that should be playing outside are instead perfectly dancing to their fingertips, from the light and rhythmic nods of their heads to the fake expressions in their eyes.
ALL has been taken care of. Everything is controlled, planned, learned by heart. A performance of such a quality that leaves use imagining the very intense and frequent workout these kids have to go through.
In short, all this probably means the absence of childhood for those few North Koreans children.
Here, I invite you to pay attention to the second half of the video, which is a short, military flavored theatrical performance featuring two American soldiers (and their old helmets of the Korean War of 60 years ago) and a small band of North Koreans soldiers. We will see the awkwardness of the Westerners, their stupid and vicious expressions, their tail symbolizing the devil and the US “emperor” (very fat, and with a more bushy tail).
Keep in mind that we are supposed to be visiting a kindergarten.
Finally, we could not bring back a lot of souvenirs. They only led us in two or three identical small shops built exclusively for tourists, with a few mannequins-salesclerks. Still, we filled our bags with beers and North Korean liquor.
But not the famous alcohol made with tiger bones.
Because, you know, if even China thinks it’s unacceptable to make alcohol with Tiger parts in it, perhaps it’s means something…