Ten days ago I went on a mini-vacation to a place I’d been wanting to visit for a couple years: North Korea. I haven’t extensively documented my adoration for the Korean peninsula here, but suffice it to say I’ve for some time had a bit of a love affair with the land of the morning calm. North Korea is to many Americans an odd vacation destination, and since many have asked me about the trip I’m diverging from typical topics to write a brief travelogue here.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea grants visas to American tourists when the Mass Games are on, usually in late summer and early fall. A handful of tour companies based in Beijing will take Americans on their tours. The typical tour is 5 days 4 nights, and costs a couple thousand dollars minimum. When I learned that a shorter and cheaper tour was being run, I decided it was a good opportunity to visit.
I’m sure one piece of criticism people will level, as I’ve had the thought myself, is that visiting a nation like DPRK is tantamount to aiding an inhumane regime. Certainly, DPRK has been widely criticized for human rights violations, and its form of governance is not one I hold in the highest regard. My interest in the northern neighbor to South Korea strengthened during one of my last periods living in Seoul, when I spent some time volunteering at a North Korean refugee organization. I am quite familiar with the atrocities carried out against political dissidents, and with the general quality of life expereinced by the average North Korean in comparison with the elite. I also know that China repatriates North Korean refugees, sending them back to an unthinkably horrendous fate, worse than they initially fled. We don’t bat an eye at the thought of visiting China as tourists, and I don’t think we should with North Korea either.
I also did a few back-of-the-envelopes while I was there. We have no way of knowing how much of our tour fee goes to the North Korean tour company versus the Beijing tour company, or how much goes to the actual employees versus the state. But we can guess at rough gross income from tourism. Based on some costs I observed, I’d guess they bring in a couple-€100K a year from tourism, my guess is somewhere in the vicinity of €300K annually (one of the British tour guides agreed this was a good approximation). A shockingly large proportion of this stems from Mass Games tickets: the night I was there alone DPRK grossed over €10K from foreigner tickets. For a country that can afford to test nuclear weapons for show, I’d guess that a couple-€100K isn’t making much of a dent. So, all that is to say, save the lecture about supporting rogue regimes. And the one about safety: I never once felt my safety was in jeopardy, I entered the country legally (yes, the US allows it also), led by a very experienced British-led tour group, and after applying for a visa; I never felt at risk.
Upon arriving, I was blown away by how green Pyongyang is. It was in some ways one of the more beautiful cities I’ve seen, simply because of the ratio of plant to cement. It’s not a far drive at all to reach extensive agricultural fields from downtown, a 15-20 minute drive. And all throughout the city, streets are bordered by large swaths of park.
Pyongyang, despite supposedly being the wealthiest part of the country, is reminiscent in some ways of any developing nation: there appears to be a great deal of relative poverty. In other ways, it is dramatically different: there is very little traffic, few motorized vehicles in general, crystal-clear air quality, no beggars, and no advertising.
The North Korean people are, perhaps unsurprisingly, Korean through-and-through (at least the elites, which all the people I interacted with undoubtedly were). This was one of the more penetrating observations for me, that in their manerisms and culture they are so similar as to be not noticeably different from South Koreans. Korea has an achingly tragic history; observing how very much the same people are on both sides of the DMZ drives home in a very visceral way the sadness they experience as a divided nation.
Our first experience of North Korea was to attend the Mass Games, also known as the Arirang festival. A ninety minute show, this was an utterly phenomenal display of unity and discipline. My photos hardly do the artistic nature of this event justice, to get some sense of it I’d suggest taking a look at this YouTube video. It was beautiful and awe-inspiring, but also, in the words of a British woman on my tour, “somewhat terrifying.”
What fascinated me most about the Mass Games was the implication for the Pyongyang economy. I mentioned that in one day the event grossed over €10K from foreigners alone; that was probably an unusual day, as our tour group was quite large, but let’s optimistially assume Mass Games brings in somewhere between €50K and €100K over the course of 3 months. Over 100,000 people participate in Mass Games, and spend 9 months practicing full-time every day, except during the final 3 summer months when practices are held early in the morning and late in the evening to avoid midday heat. The city of Pyongyang has a population of just over 2 million, so somewhere close to 1% of the city’s population is dedicated to this economic activity, which presumably generates, optimistically, €1 per person per year. I haven’t thought too deeply about how this compares to similar activites in western nations – Olympic training, professional sports, show business – but can’t imagine it stacks up very well. Another way of thinking about it is education, given many of the Mass Games participants are younger. Education though is often considered an investment in future economic activity; I’m not sure the same can be said here.
A sidenote: I never figured out how much a North Korean pays to attend Mass Games, but undoubtedly a relatively insignificant amount compared to the tourist price. I did, however, learn from one of the Korean tour guides that the average salary in Pyongyang is €300-400/month. One has to question the veracity of any information, in general, but especially in a country known for its propaganda and restricted flow of information. So, while the number sounded reasonable I found myself wondering what that money is for. What are they buying? I couldn’t be sure, we of course weren’t taken to average markets, but supposing the exchange rate is something like 200 won to a euro, this would imply they were bringing in 60K won a month. I think I saw a shirt in one of the tourist markets marked for 60 won. Something doesn’t quite add up – maybe it was really marked for 60K won, but that wouldn’t add up either. I’m not an expert here, just making some neophyte observations.
A ~60-year grudge
My one regret in choosing the shorter, cheaper tour is that we didn’t get to see the DMZ from the North, which would I think be fascinating. We did get a solid dose of military history, though, through two stops: the military history museum and the USS Pueblo. The museum was interesting for a couple reasons. First, the massive installations of battlegrounds that struck me as interesting artwork rather than history lessons, though the latter was obviously their intended effect. Second, the display of damaged and charred US tanks and planes in the basement. Most shocking was the display of what looked like charred dust, marked as the helicopter shot down by the North Koreans in 1994, an incident in which one American died. That wasn’t so long ago; family members of that crewman could have been in the tour group, and here the Korean guide was proudly telling us about the incident. Just one of many instances in which I felt a grudge was being held without much perspective or awareness of collective human remorse.
We also visited the USS Pueblo, captured in 1968. One crewman was killed, another 80 or so taken hostage. We received a guided tour of the ship from one of the Korean soldiers who captured it back in the day; he remains very proud of himself and appeared to be somewhat of a national hero. One of the men on my tour refused to enter the ship because as a former Coast Guard cadet he felt personally insulted by perceived insensitivity on the part of the Koreans. Needless to say, he was questioned somewhat extensively by the guides as to why he wouldn’t board the ship; presumably they found it disrespectful.
It did seem as though the country is holding a collective grudge that is almost six decades old, and while I have some sympathy for that grudge I mostly feel sad for the Korean people that as a group they haven’t been given the opportunity to move on. I had a surprisingly open conversation, several actually, with Korean tour guides, and as with any travel to foreign countries these conversations with locals were the most valuable part of the entire trip. These are very kind people, very open people and warm-hearted; they respect their leaders tremendously, and sincerely believe that the US has been an agressor and unfairly held power over their peninsula. One of the more interseting assertions was that if the US would leave the Korean peninsula the two Koreas could be united again. Unfortunately, I suspect that is a very naïve point of view; the US is not the single reason the peninsula remains divided. It’s not the fault of the people that they hold this grudge, but that they have been given such limited information for so long they can’t gain any perspective on their history.
A surprising holiday
The day we toured Pyongyang was a national holiday for young people. As a result, we saw more people in colorful traditional dress than is apparently typical. It was quite a sight, but the tour was made one of a lifetime during that evening. Because of the holiday, large dance celebrations were being held at various sites around the city. When my group descended the Juche Tower, several hundred Koreans were beginning a highly organized dance alongside the river, something like Korean four-square. After watching for 20 minutes or so, our guides suggested we join in. About 8 of us walked down and, in our jeans and tee-shirts, and joined in the dance pictured below for about half an hour.
It was a phenomenal experience, perhaps because it was wholly unexpected. We each got paired up with a North Korean of the opposite gender; I and the woman next to me were paired with what seemed like very kind and amused men, while two of our male counterparts claimed to have been forced upon two not-so-willing young women. The gender roles were not exactly subtle. We tried to keep step with some difficulty, but I have to admit I laughed more during that dance than I do in a typical day, it was so unexpected and such a simple way to connect with people in a very natural, human manner. Diplomatic duty? Of a sort, perhaps.
I spend a lot of my days thinking about the economics of the Internet, advertising, free flows of information, and innovation. One conversation with a Korean guide stood out from all the rest, as it touched so directly on the restricted flow of information inside the DPRK. It was very clear that this guide believed that other countries’ information was incorrect, and his own was accurate; therefore, why be upset about not having access to outside information? And yet, when I asked if they wanted more digital cameras (by the way, Pyongyang has many now, as well as cell phones), computers, access to the Internet, etc., the response was adamant: “yes, we want, we want, of course we want.”
A few final thoughts and curiosities, from which I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
North Korea will get the technology they want through China, if only because of economic sanctions imposed by western nations. You may have read today in the New York Times that China has quietly imposed a policy requiring Internet users to log-in under their real identities when posting comments to news websites. South Korean companies have meanwhile resumed regular activity in Kaesong again as of last week. Almost exactly four years ago I was working for Korea Telecom when the company installed the first communications line to connect the two Koreas in fifty years. At the time, I found it a hopeful sign that perhaps the Internet, and its freeing effect on information access and expression, would make its way into North Korea more broadly. That has yet to happen. My recent visit made me wonder: would we be wise to offer up routers and computers, maybe put in a few POPs?
One final comment: there is no advertising in North Korea. None. Propaganda, sure, but advertising does not exist.
I asked how they found things they needed, how they knew where to acquire things; every apartment building has a market and set of restaurants in the basement, everything one might need is there. My mom used to send her parents flowers every Memorial Day. In the 1990s, she did this by getting the phone number of a local florist when she visited them in Seattle, and sending whatever bouquets that florist had available in May when she called. Today, when I send my mom flowers I use advertising-funded search engines to look for flower stores in her community, and/or to find a large online flower distributor that will send a type of flowers I know she likes. It’s a small example, and perhaps the value really is not that great, perhaps we could be equally happy without so many choices (I’ve yet to read Paradox of Choice, but think there’s probably some interesting ideas there). But I can’t help thinking that the role advertising has played in our economic expansion is non-trivial. Apparently, according to one of my British guides, there have recently been two or three billboards installed in Pyongyang advertising cars from the local manufacturing plant. If true, might it be a case study examining the impact of advertising? It would be interesting to see if over the next 6-12 months the number of automobiles in Pyongyang increases noticeably.
All in all, a very memorable trip. Highly recommended if you have the ability to make a visit.
A few folks have asked about the food. It was quite good, really very good. I did wind up with a stomach bug that has still not completely resolved itself, but the food itself tasted wonderful. The main meals were barbecue duck (during which the power went out, fun), shabu shabu, and bimbimbop. Next to the peninsula’s tragic history, eating good food in North Korea was difficult, knowing how frequently there are food shortages in the country. Another observation on their choice of resource allocation, I guess.