Surrealism supplanted reality the moment I landed in Pyongyang, North Korea. In front of the airport terminal, beneath an enormous painting of Kim Il-Sung, a long line of women in traditional dress chanted “Welcome Pyongyang!” as they pumped their fists in the air.
At the airport I was paired with an “escort” who wouldn’t leave my side the entire time I was in the country (I swear he even slept outside my hotel room). He took possession of my passport and began a nonstop barrage of propaganda the moment we got in the car: “Scientific socialism is alive and well in North Korea. The Great Leader said the socialist countries of Eastern Europe failed because they forgot to factor in the crucial ingredient of love.” Etc, etc, ad nauseum (add nausea).
Pyongyang is a city of ten-lane streets, marble monuments and grand public buildings. Murals of Kim Il-Sung adorn every corner. It’s a Potemkin village on an enormous scale, built to dazzle the few foreign guests and delegations permitted to visit. It feels like a stage set, or like walking through an engineer’s conceptual model. There’s a sense of barely maintained illusion, of a collective effort at make believe. The grandeur is faked, and history is rewritten to suit the message of the day.
Pyongyang has the highest living standards in the country, though among everyone except the tiny elite these standards aren’t very high. In the countryside is starvation. Soldiers are everywhere. Both men and women are in uniform. For many, enlistment is the only way to ensure regular meals. In North Korea the military is fed first and is first to benefit from foreign aid.
Only those most loyal to the regime are permitted to live in the capital. Old people, cripples, and the extremely ugly are banished to the countryside. Even the female traffic control police are said to be chosen for beauty rather than ability. It wouldn’t matter anyway; there isn’t any traffic.
From a distance the facade is impressive. The public buildings are incredible examples of the Communist Realist style. The many apartment complexes appear well organized and comfortable in their neat little rows. But closer inspection reveals drab grey concrete structures that seem about to collapse from sheer depression and lethargy. Many lack window glass. Thanks to chronic electricity shortages most of them lack heat during the harsh winter, as well as elevators and running water. At night they’re lit by a single bare bulb, and through each window the regulation framed pictures of the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il are visible on every wall.
A trip to North Korea will give you an unbeatable trump card in the game of traveler’s tales. The Hermit Kingdom is the most difficult country in the world to visit, and nothing comes close to the dislocation of stepping into its alternate reality.
But a journey there goes beyond travel coups and dumb escapes. Places like North Korea need to be visited, and as travelers who have been there, we’re responsible for talking about what we’ve seen. The stories of their people must get out and the world must take notice on a human level if there’s to be any sort of lasting change.