North Korea in the news? All too often it involves someone being arrested there, waiting for Jimmy Carter to fly in and rescue them. Oddly enough though, tourists visiting North Korea volunteer to become prisoners of the DPRK. Those coming to see North Korea are escorted at every moment, watched over, eat and sleep where they are told to, and subject their cameras to searches. Nobody is free in North Korea, least of all the tourists, so what is the experience like?
“You do realize how stupid this is?” I thought as a flight attendant stood over me, forcing me to scroll through my photos and delete the pictures I had taken inside the aircraft. This was minutes after stepping aboard Air Koryo, North Korea’s number one airline. From this moment on it was clear, I was not a customer, I was their subject.
We were in North Korea for five days, at the end of which I was ready to leave. This was the first time I wanted to leave a place so quickly, then again, they took away some of the rights I have taken for granted since childhood. Rights like crossing the street on my own. This became clear, when our guide instructed us to cross the street, so we did, individually instead of in a line as instructed. As we were crossing the guide stood by the curb shouting for us to be careful, “the traffic!” he yelled, showing genuine concern. Soon the Police were on the scene to chat with our guide, who wantonly exposed us to the dangerous traffic of Pyongyang. After a few days of this I wanted to return to “free” China.
The world we lived in was completely created and controlled by our guides. Days were spent in buses, being carted around from approved sight to approved sight. While local life passed by the bus windows there was limited information given, and photos were allowed only when specified. When we arrived at a tourist sight, locals were nonexistent. It was rare that we were within shouting distance of any local person, let alone allowed to approach them. Children seemed interested in us, but were shy to our cameras or chased away by security men. We saw North Korea as they wanted us to, perfect North Korea.
We may have been tourists, but in North Korea, just like everyone else, we were their prisoner. I did what they said. I listened and nodded to their “facts” and propaganda, containing my own, different, ideas. I did not question authority or their reality as presented. In this way it is really an interesting trip, it’s fascinating to see how their system works, to see a place so different from what I have ever seen, to hear their view of the world. At the end though I wanted out of their prison.
Each day I was in North Korea it became increasingly difficult to take our guides seriously. The constant stream of known falsehoods they shared and the unnecessary “precautions” we had to make were ridiculous. For example the constant assertion that South Korea is a puppet government run entirely by the U.S. to a bus full of Westerners who knew otherwise. The insistence that we have an armed North Korean soldier on the bus for our own safety became increasingly laughable…only no one was laughing.
It was like being in an alternative reality and for all practical purposes that is the best way to describe North Korea. There was almost nothing of the reality that I am accustomed to in the North Korean reality I lived in for the five days of the tour. We were not allowed any interactions with local people other than the guides and every part of every day was choreographed. Each sight we saw was hand picked by the DPRK and the allotted amount of time at the sight was pre-determined as were the bus pick up and drop off sites.
Each morning we would board the bus, be given the outline for the day down to the minute and then depart. As we moved through the streets of even the largest city in the country we would see few signs of regular daily life as we knew it back home. Instead we often saw school children in identical uniforms walking together, soldiers marching and empty streets. In the rare occasion we would look out the window and see “normal people” we were restricted from taking any pictures. It also seemed that we travelled the same routes over and over, allowing us to only see small pockets of each city we visited.
All of this made the entire experience feel rehearsed almost as if the hotel staff, restaurant employees, tour guides and regular street walkers had a set role to play and script that they operated from. I don’t regret visiting North Korea at all, in fact it was one of the most fascinating stops on our trip, but it was tough to get over the lack of freedom to do, say or see anything we wanted. The scariest part of it is that I think we really did experience what it’s like to live in North Korea.