Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Visit to North Korea

The best free online political/social/pop culture magazine in existence is It’s part of my daily routine. I would suggest that you make it part of yours too, but you’re probably not an internet addict like me. Keep it that way.

One of Slate’s best features is a column called the Explainer, which answers questions about the news that we’re all asking, but no one in the mainstream media takes the time to answer. Questions like, “How many retired generals are there?” (which the column answered in 2006 after about twenty of them starting attacking Rumsfeld all at once), “Why don’t English speakers name their kids Jesus?” and “Who owns the Arctic?” (It depends on the shape of the ocean floor.)

When Bill Clinton made his jaunt to North Korea a month ago to secure the release of two kidnapped American journalists, he went as a “private citizen,” not in any official capacity. This led the Explainer to ask, “If Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea as a ‘private citizen,’ can I?”

The answer is so interesting that I will quote it at length:

Yes. If you're feeling adventurous and wish to visit beautiful Pyongyang, the U.S. State Department recommends getting a visa through North Korea's U.N. representative. ...You can be barred for any reason, but the only explicit deal-breaker is listing "journalist" as your profession. Even if approved, you can stay only five days during the period coinciding with the country's annual Arirang Festival, or "mass games," which this year is being held in August and September...

Travelers to North Korea can expect constant oversight. Upon arriving at the airport, you're met by an official government tour guide, who stays with you for the duration of the trip. Customs officials can confiscate anything they consider pornographic as well as religious materials that could be used for proselytizing locals. You have to leave your cell phone at the airport, and the guide holds onto your passport. From there, you're taken directly to your hotel—usually either the Koryo or the Potanggang, known for being the only hotel in North Korea that gets CNN. Tours are highly regimented and tend to cover the same circuit of tourist attractions, from Juche Tower, which commemorates the birthday of Kim Il-Sung, to the Korean Central History Museum, which presents a rather unconventional history of the country, to museums that house all the gifts given to Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il by foreign dignitaries over the years. Trips during Arirang include viewings of elaborate Beijing Olympics-style presentations that include music, dancing, and the games' famous "card stunts." (See photos here.)

Wandering off on your own is strictly forbidden. Same goes for talking to North Koreans. If you do try to speak to locals, they're supposed to report you to the authorities. If they don't, someone else may report them. Travelers are discouraged from being openly critical of the government. And if you take photos, especially of military buildings or personnel, your camera or film may be confiscated. There's no American Embassy to turn to in case of emergency, but the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang provides basic consular services for U.S. citizens.

Two days later, Slate ran another piece, this one by a journalist named Sarah Wang, about her visit to North Korea this July with a group of investors. I strongly, strongly encourage you to read the whole thing. It’s gripping:

...our tour guides intervened whenever we tried to take pictures. "Our people don't like to be photographed," they explained.


Our guides repeatedly reassured us that the people had enough food and that each Pyongyang resident receives a ration of vegetables and rice every day. They didn't mention meat or fruit. When a member of the tour group spat out the tasteless meat that was a rare treat at one of our meals, the waitress standing behind him visibly stiffened. On one occasion, I drew a banana on a piece of paper and showed it to a waitress; she had never seen one. She knew about apples, but she had never eaten one.

I brought 150 Kit-Kat bars into the country, and I always took several out of my bag when I was alone with a North Korean. They would hesitate for a few seconds, look around to make sure that no one else was watching, and then stuff the Kit-Kats into their pockets.

Half of a nation, 30 million people, under the thumb of one family of nutcases. No internet, no TV, no travel, no freedom, no hope for change. 3 million North Koreans starved after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Kim Jong Il refused to let in food aid. 300,000 North Koreans today are living in concentration camps that cover hundreds of miles. It is estimated that a quarter of them die every year, from starvation or murder, but of course, no one knows for sure. And the international community is only too willing to ignore all of this, as long as Kim keeps the crazy inside his own borders, and keeps showing up to the nuclear disarmament “talks.”

This satellite photo of the Korean peninsula has become one of the most enduring symbols of Kim Jong Il’s manufactured land of darkness:

Anyway, does anybody want to go to North Korea with me someday? In days of freedom, insha allah, but I think it'd be fascinating to be there regardless. The only problem is that I also want to visit Iran soon, and my family's police state-visiting tolerance (I've already been to two) is probably getting thinner.


  1. Joel North Korea sounds like a nightmare and a half. I would love to go! Theoretically I am all for it. Realistically is another matter. Peace man. Oh, the Jerusalem Market is the place that sells good Hookah supplies its downtown a bit.

  2. I'm in. Let me know when you're going to North Korea (am I even allowed to enter that country?). Oh and I'm game for Iran as well. Let's just make it a double-featured trip.

  3. Hani, since you're a Korean citizen (right?), the rules are probably different. But I will definitely let you both know. It will be an adventure.