This is the first in a multi-part blog on North Korea…
Many readers have asked about my time in North Korea. Why did I go? How did I get in? What was I thinking?
I’ll start at the beginning. It was August 2001, a month before 9/11 changed the world forever. I was living and working in Tokyo. Summer vacation was coming up, and I planned to visit a friend in Indonesia. The problem is, all of Japan goes on vacation at the same time. They’re absolute workaholics, and if vacation time was individually scheduled (like it is in most countries), guilt would keep everyone slaving away. So for two weeks each summer the country shuts down, the freeways clog in 100-km traffic jams, and air tickets jump to five times their normal price.
Thanks to my company vacation schedule, I could get a ticket to Jakarta but I couldn’t get back to Japan. Everything was sold out. I had purchased maps, I’d planned my route, I’d read and researched and I was pissed off. I looked at the map of East Asia with bitterness, scorning each country as dull and uninteresting. I finally decided that the only other place I wanted to go was North Korea. But of course that was impossible. I pulled up a web browser and punched it in, simply to prove myself right.
It didn’t take long to find a British expat living in Beijing who had contacts with the regime and could arrange my visa. By some strange coincidence, he was sending six European guys in during the very week of my vacation. I wrote and he replied immediately. Time was tight—this was a week and a half before the trip—but his contacts were good and he thought he could speed me through the approval process. The only catch was that I would have to fly to Beijing. It was the only place I could catch a flight or train to Pyongyang.
I faxed him a long form that included information about my current job, every prior job I ever held, and my educational background. They also wanted a letter signed by my employer certifying that everything I’d written was true. I listed my company as my emergency contact. A week after I faxed the application somebody called asking questions about me. I said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s just the North Koreans.” They didn’t know what to make of it.
If you show up to the table with enough cash, the North Koreans will talk to you. Otherwise don’t bother trying. Even with money it’s difficult to get in. They cancel applications and tours arbitrarily, at the last minute, and with no refunds or rescheduling.
The cheapest way to visit is to go in a small group. It’s possible to go alone, but much more expensive. You have to pay for two guides and a driver who are with you 24 hours a day. With a small group you still have the same number of watchers, so costs are slightly lower.
I met the other guys I’d be travelling with at the North Korean embassy in Beijing. It’s a drab communist-looking building decorated in the usual battleship grey. The entrance foyer contains an enormous painting of Kim Il-Sung and Chairman Mao, standing arm-in-arm and gazing off into the horizon, presumably to the glorious future of communism.
At the embassy I had to fill out another visa application and hand over two photos and my passport. We waited for over an hour while the North Koreans checked our backgrounds once again. An Italian couple was asked to leave immediately, without explanation. They had travelled overland from Italy on the Trans-Siberian Express, and this venture into North Korea was the focal point of their journey. But it had all been derailed because of a small mistake on a document. We all sat up a little straighter at that point.
Everyone else checked out. We were each given a one-way ticket to Pyongyang and a tourist visa stamped on a little blue piece of paper which they stuck in our passports (it would be removed on the way out of the country). We were to meet up at Beijing airport the next morning for our flight.
I spent my last night of relative freedom at the Great Wall with some friends from the German embassy. We purchased a bag full of beer, crackers, and water, and we bargained with a taxi driver for a ride to the closest section of the wall, an hour outside Beijing.
In the daytime the place swarms with tourists, but in the evening the buses are gone, the souvenir stalls selling Great Wall hats and t-shirts are closed, and the site is empty.
We walked up the wall to the highest point, winding along ridges and over the crests of hills, to where the wall doubled back on itself several times before disappearing into the distance. We were completely alone. It was so peaceful up there compared to the smog, blaring horns, and shoving people of Beijing. The air was fresh and cool. The only thing missing was birdsong. I think the Chinese have eaten them all.
At the highest point we sat down and opened our beers. We drank and talked quietly as the sun slipped behind the hills, making its exit in a blaze of orange and yellow that trembled in the humid haze that clung like gauze to the peaks.
I wondered if there were sunsets in North Korea? Had the government banned them? What would they look like? Would they even allow us to see them? The week ahead was filled with uncertainty.
In the morning it would begin.