Sluices and molluscs and radiotoria, oh my! – Travels in North Korea, Part 7

In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.

The afternoon of our second day in North Korea, our tour bus took us from Pyongyang to Nampo, a seaport city on the country's west coast. The two cities are connected by the Youth Hero Motorway, a sprawling, ten-lane expressway that is remarkable for the near-total absence of motorized traffic. For most of our journey, we were the only powered vehicle in sight, though we did pass plenty of people walking or biking on the shoulder. Our British tour manager later told us that the only reason the highway is so wide is to transport in all the tanks, missiles, and other equipment for military parades in Pyongyang.

Our first stop was the West Sea Barrage, an enormous tidal power station located at the mouth of the Taedong River. The Barrage is a point of pride for North Koreans, or at least for the government, who use it as a showcase of national ingenuity. We were taken to a visitor centre overlooking the dam and shown an overwrought documentary describing its construction. Despite the obvious kitsch value, many of us found it difficult to avoid falling asleep during the film. I may have nodded off once or twice myself, though at least I wasn't among those who continued snoring after the lights went up.

[Youth Hero Motorway] [West Sea Barrage] [Kids in Nampo] [Workers in Nampo]
Youth Hero Motorway West Sea Barrage Kids in Nampo Workers in Nampo

The Barrage was our only stop on the coast. Afterwards, we headed to our resort hotel, the Ryonggang Hot Spring House, in nearby Onchon. The resort is situated in a wooded area encircled by a high wall topped with barbed wire; the only access is through a gate guarded by armed soldiers. (This rather detracts from the friendly holiday atmosphere they seem to be going for.) Inside the compound are several isolated villas containing the guest rooms, plus a larger building containing the reception, a games room, and a dining hall. It was evening when we arrived, but it was still sunny, with the temperature well above thirty degrees.

The guest apartments—four to each villa—consist of a spacious bedroom and a bathroom with its own spa. The furnishings are hopelessly dated, and the beds, while very wide, are as hard as a rock, with only a thin cloth padding over the wooden frame instead of a real mattress. Almost nothing electrical in my room worked, including the lights, air conditioner, and power sockets. The only exception was the bathroom light and the television, which was showing the same "Kim Jong Un supervises bombing exercises" show I had seen in Pyongyang. I considered unplugging the set so that I could recharge my laptop and camera, but found that it was hard-wired into the electric supply.

We had two meals that night, one an outdoor "barbecue" which consisted of our bus driver pouring gasoline on a slab of clams and setting them alight, and then a proper dinner in the hotel's dining hall. The latter meal was conducted mostly in the dark due to the lack of electricity. The lack of lighting also ruled out the possibility of any after-dinner karaoke or table tennis, so everyone was advised to retire to their villas and enjoy our personal spas.

[Ryonggang Hot Spring House bedroom] [Ryonggang Hot Spring House spa] [clam barbecue] [clam barbecue]
Hotel bedroom Hotel spa Clam barbecue Clam barbecue

The "spas" turned out to be very large, tilework tubs that can be filled with hot mineral water. Given that it was over thirty degrees out with no air conditioning, taking a hot bath wasn't exactly the first thing on my mind, but I decided to give it a try anyway. Despite the near-blackout, the water was piping hot, so I filled up the tub, got in, and spent an hour soaking up all those healthy hot spring minerals. It was a nice enough experience at the time, but I had a minor pang of regret once I got around to reading the hotel brochure the next morning:

The Ryonggang Hot Spring House is situated in the mid-western area of the Korean peninsula. It is a famous spa treating hyperpiesia, non-tubercular arthritis, neuralgia, neuritis, lumbago, varieties of wound, sequelae of operations, chronic gynecologic inflammation, functional disorder of nidamental gland, sterility, chronic gastritis, chronic colitis, skin diseases including eczema and prurigo.

[So far so good, right? Incidentally, my dictionary defines "nidamental gland" as "an internal organ, in some elasmobranchs and molluscs, that secretes egg cases or the gelatinous covering of eggmass". I guess that explains why they always serve clams at the resort. Anyway, read on for the truly horrifying bit (emphasis mine):]

It is an attractive spa richest in mineral matters among the spas of the country and is a bromine, radon-rich spa. The house provides favourable conditions for radon gas bath, whole body/local bath, douche and internal treatment. Moreover, every room is tapped with mineral water harmonizing with fantastic views, thus winning popularity among the guests.

Yes, that's right! I had just spent the night before bathing in toxic, radioactive radon gas! As Wikipedia puts it, this kind of "spa treatment" was "an early-20th-century form of quackery" that is now "discouraged because of the well-documented ill effects of high doses of radiation on the body". I guess the news hasn't yet reached Onchon.

(Continued in Part 8—coming soon.)


An invitation typeset in XeTeX

Below is the inner page of an invitation I produced using XeTeX. I repurposed a decorative border from the frontispiece of Quadrans Astrolabicus, a 1534 book written by Oronce Finé and printed in Paris by Simon de Colines. The text is set in EB Garamond with occasional use of fancy ligatures and coloured initials. The whole invitation is printed on textured, A4-size card stock, folded in half to make A5 pages.

In case anyone would like to adapt the design for themselves, the complete and freely licensed source code is available on GitHub.


Scraping the nadir of typographic kitsch

I don't think I've ever mentioned it here before, but digital typography is one of the true loves of my life. Back when I had more time, I used to contribute lengthy articles to TUGboat, the journal of the TeX Users Group. Nowadays I mostly dally in reproducing curious old paper documents, since it's something I can work on a few minutes at a time.

It's often said that the 19th century represented a nadir in typography, but I find many documents typeset in this period to be charmingly kitschy. Last month I tried my hand at reproducing "Persecution of New Ideas", a notorious quacksalver's advertisement from an old 1875 railroad atlas. Here is the original and its LaTeX reproduction, warts and all:

Though there were some tricky bits, on the whole this wasn't terribly difficult to reproduce. The source code (and the generated PDF) is now available in a GitHub repository.


Travels in North Korea, Part 6

In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.

[Photo of a framed sign reading, 'The book is a silent teacher and a companion in life. —Kim Il Sung'] [Photo of a sign reading, 'Books are treasure-house of knowledge and the textbooks for a person's life. —Kim Jong Il']

A few years ago, at a party hosted by abigailb, her then-girlfriend Angelina brought along a curious Russian–English phrasebook. It was issued by a Soviet state-run publisher for patrons of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and contained such hilariously unhip "conversation starters" as "I say, comrade, how is the wheat harvest in the Kazakh SSR this year?" I'm sure the compilers selected the phrases in all earnesty, but the book must have been received by foreigners at the time, as it was at Abi's party, as a colossal joke.

One of my small regrets in life is not trying to buy that book off Angelina, or at least not writing down its title and publication details. That book was comedy gold, but when I tell people about it, they are convinced I'm making it all up. I've never been able to locate another copy, and Angelina has lost hers. Little did I know that, within five years, I'd hit the motherlode of unintentionally risible phrasebooks in Pyongyang.

The Foreign Language Bookshop occupies the ground floor of an unimposing building on Sungri Street, just a few steps from Kim Il Sung Square. Compared to Western bookstores, it's downright tiny, with just one narrow aisle stretching the length of the building. There's only one bookshelf, lining the wall opposite the storefront windows, but packed into its meagre niches is a veritable treasure trove of literary kitsch.

The first book I picked up was a language guide for foreigners, Let Us Learn Korean. This book wastes no time in getting into the truly essential points of the Korean language, teaching readers such phrases as:

The United States must get out of south Korea. It has no grounds for remaining in south Korea.Migugun namjosoneso nagaya hamnida. Namjosone nama-isul kun-goga opsumnida.
The Korean people long for national reunificationJoson saramdurun jogukthong-irul iril chonchuro kodaehago-isumnida.
Such a miracle is possible only in Korea led by the great leader Comrade Kim Jong Il.Iron kijogun ojik widaehan ryongdoja Kim Jong Il tongji-ui ryongdorul patnun josonesoman isulsu itnun irimnida.
I practically felt that the Korean people are singleheartedly united behind Comrade Kim Jong Il.Uridurun joson inminduri Kim Jong Il tongji-ui turi-e ilsim-dan-gyol toe-yo-ittanun gosul siljiro nukkyot-sumnida.
Korea is the people's paradise where there are no beggars and all people study.Josonun kojido opgo moduga kongbuhanun inminui ragwon-imnida.
Pyongyang is clean and beautiful and seems to have the best housing conditions in the world.Pyongyang-un kkaekkut-hago arumdaulppun anira inmin-durui juthaek jogoneso sesang-eso jeil ingot gatsumnida.
All the Korean people are good-mannered, diligent and modest.Joson saramdurun hanagachi ryejori palgo kunmyon-hamyo sothal-han gosi thukjing-imnida.
With the death of Comrade Kim Il Sung mankind lost the legendary hero, great leader.Kim Il Sung tongji-ui sogoro illyunun jonsoljok yong-ung, widaehan suryong-ul irot-sumnida.
Comrade Kim Il Sung was the most distinguished leader of our times.Kim Il Sung tongjinun uri sidae-ui kajang kolchulhan suryong-isi-yot-sumnida.
I want to visit the bronze statue of Comrade Kim Il Sung first to express my condolence.Uson Kim Il Sung tongji-ui tongsang-ul chaja aedorul phyosi-hayosumyon-hamnida.
Here is really people's paradise.Yoginun jongmal inmin-ui ragwon-imnida.
[Scan of Let Us Learn Korean] [Scan of Let Us Learn Korean] [Scan of Let Us Learn Korean]
[Scan of Let Us Learn Korean] [Scan of Let Us Learn Korean] [Scan of Let Us Learn Korean]

Should you suddenly find yourself at a political meeting, the book provides a wide selection of phrases expressing support, solidarity, and unconditional agreement:

I support you.Tangsindurul jijihamnida.
I support your struggle.Tangsindurui thujaeng-ul jijihamnida.
I support your standpoint.Tangsindurui ripjang-ul jijihamnida.
I support your draft resolution.Tangsindurui kyorui-anul jijihamnida.
I support your independent reunification policy.Tangsindurui jajujok thongil pangchimul jijihamnida.
You are right.Tangsinui malssumi olsumnida.
I give unreserved support to you.Jon-jjoguro jijihamnida.
Your speech encourages us.Komujogin yonsorul hasyotsumnida.
Korea belongs to the Korean people.Josonun joson saramui kosimnida.
We insist on one Korea.Urinun hana-ui josonul jujanghamnida.
We are opposed to two Koreas.Urinun tugae josonul pandaehamnida.
We will always stand by the Korean people.Urinun onjena joson inminui phyone so-isul-gosimnida.

Conspicuously absent from this part of the book are any phrases for expressing disagreement, dissent, or even apprehension or uncertainty.

A similar book, Welcome: Speak in Korean contains long vocabulary lists which are less political but just as useless for day-to-day communication. One page, for example, is dedicated to fruits, the vast majority of which are completely unavailable in the country, even for "rich" foreign tourists such as our group. The German edition of the same book, Wir heißen Sie willkommen! Wir sprechen Koreanisch, was first published in 1989 for the World Festival of Youth and Students and doesn't seem to have been updated since. The only option it offers for introducing oneself is, "Ich bin DDR-Bürger" ("I am a citizen of East Germany").

[Scan of Speak in Korean] [Scan of Speak in Korean] [Scan of Wir sprechen Koreanisch] [Scan of Wir sprechen Koreanisch]

For those who prefer their indoctrination to be more overt, the bookstore also offers a wealth of clearly marked political treatises. In addition to thin paperbacks with such titles as Socialism is a Science and Abuses of Socialism are Intolerable can be found hardcover, multi-volume editions of the complete works of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. For lighter fare, there are Little Red Book-style collections of quotations from the three Kims, as well as illustrated volumes of short biographical (read: hagiographical) anecdotes. There are also plenty of books on Korean history, nearly all of which are concerned with the role of Kim Il Sung in the anti-Japanese uprising and in the Korean War.

I was hard pressed to locate any book not directly related in some way to the Kim dynasty. Even the books on nature and horticulture seemed to have political overtones. For example, the only books on Korean gardening were dedicated entirely to the cultivation of Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia. Possibly the only books I saw without a political slant were those I later encountered in the Grand People's Study House, the showcase library of Pyongyang, but our visit there will be the subject of a separate entry.

(Continued in Part 7.)


Travels in North Korea, Part 5

In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.

The Kumsusan Memorial Palace was impressive, but it wasn't the only thing on the agenda that day. We had a long list of places to visit, each of them fascinating in their own way.

The first stop was the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, a companion memorial to the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs' Cemetery which we'd seen two days earlier. Whereas the previous one had been dedicated to the heroes of the 1950–1953 Korean War, this one honoured those who fought in the much longer struggle for independence from Japanese rule in the first half of the 20th century. The two memorials share some architectural commonalities: both feature a huge red flag carved from red stone, huge gilded inscriptions by Kim Il Sung, and of course enormous statues of grenade-wielding soldiers. One of the main differences is the location—the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery is perched on a hill overlooking Pyongyang. The bus drops you off about halfway up, at an ornate gate in the traditional Korean style; from there it's a long climb up several flights of wide stone steps.

Another difference is the decoration of graves. The tombstones of the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs' Cemetery are tall and stylish, but adorned only with black-and-white portraits, whereas those of the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery are shorter and plainer but topped with life-sized bronze busts. Among the graves our guides were careful to point out were that of Kim Jong Suk, the first wife of Kim Il Sung; Kang Pan Sok, his mother; and Kim Chul Joo, his younger brother. The graves of the most honoured revolutionaries were situated in front of the red granite flag at the back of the cemetery. As usual we went through the charade of laying a bouquet of flowers and bowing respectfully; our minds and eyes (and later, our cameras) were actually on the group of local university students next to us.

[Gate] [Statue] [Kim Chul Joo] [Students]
Cemetery gate Statue Grave of Kim Chul Joo Students paying their respects

It was a bit hazy that day, so we didn't have an altogether good view of the city. Off to the west we could spot the Rungrado May Day Stadium, the largest stadium in the world and venue for the famous Mass Games. Behind it, near the horizon, we could just barely make out the mysterious Ryugyong Hotel. Much closer to the cemetery was the Pyongyang Central Zoo, then under renovation. From the top of the hill we could clearly hear music blaring from distant loudspeakers; we were told that this was motivational music for the zoo reconstruction workers. Looking south was a narrow valley with a soccer field where some locals were having a game, and beside it was a vast, deserted amusement park. Our guides assured us that the park was open and operational, but that nobody was in attendance because it was so hot out. We all muttered skeptically amongst ourselves.

It was getting close to lunch time, but we had a few minutes to stop at Pyongyang's very own Triumphal Arch (which for some reason everyone in our group referred to unfacetiously as the Arc de Triomphe). This was yet another monument to the "Fatherland Liberation War" of 1925–1945, and more specifically to Kim Il Sung's trimuphal return to Pyongyang following the defeat of the Japanese. We weren't allowed inside, though we did have a fairly good view of it from the nearby Triumphal Return Square. As usual, the local passersby proved infinitely more interesting than the monumental architecture. Several members of our tour, including myself, wandered off to accost a trio of middle-aged ladies lingering outside Kim Il Sung Stadium. Some of us managed to charm them into posing for a few photos with us before our guide ran over to break up the fun. Others took to photographing the packed city buses circling the Arch's wide roundabout.

[Arch of Triumph] [Triumphal Return Square] [Kim Il Sung Stadium] [Local bus near Arch of Triumph]
Arch of Triumph Mural at Triumphal Return Square Kim Il Sung Stadium Local bus near the Arch of Triumph

After lunch (Korean cuisine to be the topic of a separate post) we headed to Kim Il Sung Square, the city's main parade ground. It's scenes from here that tend to be shown on Western TV whenever the news needs stock footage for a story about North Korea. You know the ones—the Kim-of-the-day waves to a triumphant procession of tanks, missile-laden trucks, and goose-stepping soldiers, while in the background a vast assembly of uniformed civilians move and cheer in perfect unison. Well, it turns out that these civilians are usually secondary school students, and all that choreography requires weeks and weeks of practice.

Every day we were in Pyongyang—even on Sunday, the country's only nominal day of rest—the square and all the surrounding streets were full of thousands of children practising for the upcoming National Liberation Day parade. Most were dressed in white shirts, red caps, and black slacks or skirts, and all of them carried two wooden practice batons topped with red cardboard flames. When they weren't taking a break, they were dutifully lined up in rows stretching across the entire square. Periodically, a voice would bark an order through a megaphone, and then begin counting. The grid formation would dissolve and then coalesce into a new shape—a number, or a symbol, or some Latin or Korean characters. Every time a new shape was formed, the count would stop and the crowd would shout in unison.

We had some great views of this from atop the buildings at the opposite ends of the square. Below is a composite video showing the National Liberation Day practice sessions from three vantage points. First, there's a ground-level shot as our bus drives down Sungri Street and past the square. In the background is a traditionally styled building with a green roof; this is the Grand People's Study House, from which the second shot is taken. The third and final shot is from high atop the Tower of the Juche Idea, which overlooks Kim Il Sung Square from across the Taedong River.

So how do the children manage to arrange themselves so precisely? Our close-up inspections of the square revealed the trick: the paving stones are painted with numbered spots to help the demonstrators get into position.

[Building with KWP flag] [Pavement markings] [Korean Central History Museum] [Building with DPRK flag]
Building with KWP flag Pavement markings Korean Central History Museum Building with DPRK flag
[View from Grand People's Study House] [Street view] [Children resting] [Gawking at the tourists]
National Liberation Day practice,
view from Grand People's Study House
National Liberation Day practice,
view from Sungri Street
Taking a break from practice Gawking at the tourists

(Continued in Part 6.)


Travels in North Korea, Part 4½

In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.

Another member of our DPRK tour group has very generously permitted me to use some of the photos he took. It's great to have these to supplement my own, particularly since he was able to get a lot of wonderful snaps of local Koreans that I didn't manage myself.

I've already gone back to the first four parts of my travelogue to add some of his photos, or in one case to replace one of mine with a much better one from him. Please check out his shots of the Air Koryo flight, a Pyongyang traffic warden, locals posing outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, and some interior scenes from Kumsusan shortly before our cameras were confiscated:

[The mysterious Koryo burger, as photographed by a fellow traveller] [The new Pyongyang Airport terminal] [Traffic warden]
The mysterious Koryo burger Pyongyang Airport A Pyongyang traffic warden
[Confiscating our cameras] [Automatic shoe washer] [Locals posing at Kumsusan] [Locals posing at Kumsusan]
Confiscating our cameras,
Automatic shoe washer,
Locals outside Kumsusan Locals outside Kumsusan

(Continued in Part 5.)


Travels in North Korea, Part 4

In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.

Nobody needs an alarm clock in Pyongyang. Every morning around 6:30, streets come alive with a cacophony of loudspeakers blaring patriotic music. They were clearly audible even from my suite at the Yanggakdo Hotel, on an island hundreds of metres away from the city centre. Rising from my bed on Sunday morning and peering across the river, I could just barely make out a crowd of workers taking orders from another one of these loudspeakers. So much for their weekly day of rest.

It was our group's first full day in North Korea, but we wouldn't be spending it all in Pyongyang. We had a full slate of sites in the city to visit, including the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, the Arch of Triumph, Kim Il Sung Square, and the Foreign Languages Bookshop, after which we would be driving all the way to the west coast to see an enormous tidal barrage. We would then spend the night at the Ryonggang Hot Spa Houses, a luxury spa hotel near the coastal city of Nampo.

Our first stop, however, was Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the holiest site in all of Korea. Like Mecca for the Muslims, Kumsusan is a place that all North Koreans are expected to visit at least once in their lives (and preferably annually if they can afford the pilgrimage). This is because it is a mausoleum and shrine for their eternal god-kings, Great Leader Kim Il Sung and his son, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.

Kumsusan Palace of the Sun Kumsusan Palace of the Sun

The tradition of state capitalists exhibiting the preserved bodies of their dead leaders may have begun in the USSR, but the Bolsheviks actually co-opted the practice from the Church. It's the ultimate realization of the cult of personality; among those for whom idolatry is so pervasive and so institutionalized, there can be no higher object of veneration than a corporeal manifestation of divinity itself. And when it comes to these public spectacles of devotion, no one does it better than the North Koreans. In Rome, for example, the embalmed body of John XXIII lies in an elaborate glass coffin in the Papal Basilica, but it's unusual to see anyone paying much attention to it, dwarfed as it is by the magnificence of the church and its other treasures. Lenin's mausoleum, on the other hand, was purpose-built to exhibit him, but it's a small and unimposing structure with a dark, nondescript interior. The corpse may be the only thing that commands attention, but nothing about its surroundings really puts you in awe of the man or his achievements. An unceremonious one-minute shuffle around the sarcophagus and the visit is over. A visit to Kumsusan, however, is a mind-blowing half-day event, fully stage-managed to instill maximum awe and devotion in the hearts and minds of its visitors.

Our visit to Kumsusan began early in the morning. The tour bus dropped us off at a small reception centre about half a kilometre from the palace, our view of which was obscured by trees and a long colonnade. Our tour guides checked us in, and the palace staff checked us over to ensure we complied with the dress code (button-up shirt and tie for men, no jeans or open-toed shoes). After a few minutes in the lobby, we were led outside and made to line up, four abreast, inside the colonnade. We then walked solemnly in formation through the colonnade, resisting the urge to peek through the columns for a glimpse at the palace itself. After a hundred metres, we came to the door to yet another reception building. Here we were given a final chance to use the lavatories, and then ushered into a garderobe where we were obliged to surrender the contents of our pockets. No bottles, cameras, cell phones, or foreign objects of any kind are permitted in Kumsusan. The staff even take pains to relieve you of the tiniest specks of dirt: the garderobe's only exit is through an automatic shoe-washing device. (And several times during the palace tour, we would pass through full-body blow-drying chambers to cleanse us any last traces of dust.)

[Confiscating our cameras] [Automatic shoe washer]
Confiscating our cameras Automatic shoe washer

We emerged from the garderobe into a long, bright hallway with large windows running down both walls. We were not permitted to walk, but rather stood on a slow-moving, three-hundred-metre-long moving sidewalk. Through the windows on the left we could see the palace moat, and beyond it an elaborate wall with relief sculptures of cranes. To our right we had a view of the palace itself: a massive grey edifice looking out over an equally large, beautifully landscaped park. The building has no windows, but is adorned with two enormous portraits of the two leaders.

After several minutes, we came to the end of the moving sidewalk, took an escalator down to a basement level, and turned right onto the moving sidewalk of yet another long hallway. Instead of windows, this one was decorated with dozens of enormous framed photographs of the two leaders: Kim Il Sung on the left, and Kim Jong Il on the right. I was standing next to Mok Ran, our lead tour guide, who proudly explained to me the stories behind many of the photographs: here is Kim Il Sung delivering a speech upon his homecoming to Pyongyang in 1945, and there he is again consulting with Nicolae Ceaușescu in the 1970s, and there he is again with Yakov Novichenko, the Soviet soldier who heroically saved him from an assassination attempt on 1 March 1946. Mok Ran asked me with genuine concern whether people outside of Korea knew about all this history, and I had to admit to her that most people in the West probably didn't know much about Kim Il Sung. "And what about Kim Jong Un?" she asked. "Do they report on him in the news?"

Of course, the Great Successor pops up from time to time in the Western media, but almost always in an entirely negative context. I decided that the shrine to the man's immediate ancestors probably wasn't the best place for a frank discussion of Western attitudes to the Kim dynasty, so I wracked by brain for memories of any non-negative coverage I could report to her. "Well," I said, "a lot of people seem very interested in Kim Jong Un's wife, Ri Sol Ju. The Western papers report that she was a pop singer. Is that true?"

Mok Ran was delighted that I was able to name a North Korean other than the three Kims. "People abroad know of the Great Marshal's wife, Ri Sol Ju? That is wonderful!" she exclaimed.

Hoping to keep the conversation going, I asked, "So, do Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju have any children?"

"I, uh—actually, nobody knows."

In light of the near-encyclopedic knowledge of all things Kim she had just been demonstrating, I wanted to press her for an explanation of this bizarre admission of ignorance, but we had come to the end of the moving sidewalk. We had finally reached the palace itself!

Me at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun Group photo at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun

Our tour group got back in formation and we were quietly led through lofty, beautifully decorated passageways until we reached the doors to a large hall. This hall, it was explained to us, contained two large statues of the Kims. We were to walk up to the statues, one row at a time, and pause at a line marked at the floor. We were then to spend a few moments in quiet contemplation, bow respectfully, and file out a door to the right. I had seen photographs of this hall online, which showed the statues to be made of white stone, so on entering the chamber I was surprised to see that they had been replaced with full-colour effigies. The grey-suited Kim Il Sung stood on the left, a stern but confident expression on his face. Next to him was a beaming Kim Jong Il, sporting his trademark beige uniform and permed bouffant. Except for the fact that they were at least eight metres tall, the statues were realistic down to the tiniest detail. Unfortunately, we didn't have very long to admire them, and in any case it probably would have been taken as disrespectful to stand there gawking. We all made a bow deep enough to satisfy the immaculated uniformed honour guards and hastened to the exit.

The next part of the visit is a bit hazy for me, though I do remember us passing through spectacular marble-clad rooms with polished granite floors, and at one point climbing a majestic carpeted staircase patrolled by more armed guards. We eventually arrived at one of the aforementioned blow-drying stations, which was situated just outside the room where Kim Il Sung's preserved body lies in state. By now we were sandwiched between two groups of locals, most of the men in suits and ties and the women in colourful traditional dresses known locally as joseon-ot. Again, there was a pause while the choreography of this room was explained to us: before entering the room, we needed to get into formation, and then walk in one row at a time. We were to bow once at Kim's feet, then move clockwise around the sarcophagus, pausing at his left and right sides to bow again. We were warned to maintain dignity and solemnity at all times, and above all not to stare at the man's head (perhaps to discourage us from gaping at the baseball-sized tumour on his neck).

Except for the bright crystal sarcophagus which forms its centrepiece, Kim Il Sung's resting chamber is dimly lit. Unlike Lenin's claustrophobic tomb, Kim's room is several stories tall, and spacious enough to require the support of four stout columns. Soft orchestral music emanates from well-concealed loudspeakers, providing an atmosphere that is at once sorrowful, peaceful, and awe-inspiring. Some of the female Koreans who entered the room after us immediately broke down in tears; luckily for them they had a few moments to compose themselves while we all awaited our turns to step forward and bow. Once we began, however, there was no time to linger—one brief circumnavigation of the Great Leader's earthly vessel and we were ushered away to continue our tour.

We next found ourselves in a hall of awards. Lining the walls, and running down the centre of the room, were a series of illuminated glass cabinets containing hundreds of medals, trophies, badges, diplomas, and other decorations bestowed upon Kim Il Sung during his life. Predictably, most of the awards came from governments associated with the Eastern Bloc, such as the USSR's Order of Lenin and East Germany's Order of Karl Marx. However, there were also plenty of obscure examples from non-ruling political parties of the First World and post–Cold War Europe. (Kim seems to have been particularly beloved by the Leninists of Poland, who continued to heap medals and certificates upon him long after they were deposed.)

After this, we visited a succession of rooms documenting Kim's world travels. First there was a large chamber containing a car which we were told was the leader's, though we noted it differed in many details from the one Kim was posing next to in the room's many photos. Next was an even larger room, maybe six or eight metres high and twenty or thirty metres long, one of whose walls was covered with an electronic map of the world. Animated, colour-coded lines formed by LEDs showed Kim's official travels by train and plane. And facing the map was Kim's original private rail car, looking exactly the way it appeared in the photos which adorned the walls.

Locals posing at Kumsusan Locals posing at Kumsusan [Locals posing at Kumsusan] [Locals posing at Kumsusan]

We were then led to another blow-drying room, and the entire tour was then repeated, this time for Dear Leader Kim Jong Il: another sarcophagal chamber, identical in every respect to the last except for the deceased occupant; another hall of awards; another auto garage with an expensive-looking bullet-proof Mercedes; and another lofty chamber containing a huge self-illuminating wall map and a full-size luxury rail carriage. The last room, however, contained a surprise: Kim's 25-metre-long armoured yacht. We were dumbfounded as to how they managed to get two rail cars and a full-sized yacht into the palace. The vehicles didn't appear to have been cut down and reassembled inside, so the walls or ceiling of the palace must have at some point been dismantled to move them in.

The ship marked the end of the inside portion of our tour. We were taken back to the moving sidewalks and stood in motion for what seemed like an eternity. As we'd already seen all the portraits and windows on the way in, we looked instead at the local Koreans coming towards us on the opposite sidewalk. I smiled politely a few times, but it seems they were trying assiduously to ignore us. I suppose when you come to Kumsusan, you're expected to devote your full attention to the Kim memorabilia, not the exotic foreign tourists who happen to be there too.

After a quick stop at the garderobe to collect our belongings, we were set loose on the palace grounds. This was our only opportunity for photography. The local visitors were at it as well, posing for group pictures on risers which were set up for that purpose in front of the palace. From a distance I managed to snap a few pictures of joseon-ot-clad ladies, but the large number of soldiers milling about made it too risky to get anything more. I contented myself with a few snaps of a beautiful but unpopulated fountain before we all headed back to the bus.

Fountain with a military music theme Fountain with a military music theme

Our entire visit to Kumsusan had taken up most of the morning that Sunday. As the bus pulled away, I reminded myself that Kim Il Sung is still, constitutionally speaking, the country's president. It then dawned on me that, for the first time in my life, I had had an audience with a sitting head of state. Though I had often wondered what such an experience would be like, I never once imagined that it would involve paying homage to a dead man.

(Continued in Part 4½.)


Travels in North Korea, Part 3

In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.

The first thing I ever remember reading about North Korea, and what really sparked my interest in the country, was a Straight Dope column from 21 July 2000. Titled "Is the world's tallest building in North Korea?", it described the absurdity of building the world's tallest hotel in what is surely the world's most isolated and least visited country:

At 300 meters (985 feet), the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang — there's a phrase to make your jaw sore — never came close to being the world's tallest building. But it would have been the world's tallest hotel, except for two problems: it was never completed, and even if it had been, somebody's built a taller hotel elsewhere. Always the way in the "world's tallest" sweepstakes.

The North Koreans began constructing the pyramid-shaped Ryugyong in 1987, reportedly aiming for 105 stories to beat out a structure the South Koreans were building in Singapore (not Kuala Lumpur). With 3,000 rooms and an estimated cost of $750 million, the thing was strictly an ego trip for North Korea's rulers — Pyongyang's few existing hotels were, and are, virtually empty. In 1991, some time after the Ryugyong had been topped out, work halted for unknown reasons, though "out of money" would be a good guess. The 3.9-millon-square-foot concrete structure is lit up at night, at least in propaganda pictures, but is thought to be crumbling.

Today, twenty-eight years after the Ryugyong Hotel was started, it remains under construction, though it's no longer the derelict concrete shell Cecil Adams described. In 2011 the exterior was finally decked in shiny blue glass, transforming the structure from a cavernous monstrosity to a very modern, very attractive structure. It completely dominates Pyongyang's skyline, being visible from almost everywhere in the city, but throughout our tour our guides never once named or referred to it. This seemed to me part of a pathological perfectionism pervading every aspect of North Korean society: anything flawed, inadequate, or incomplete was rarely acknowledged and never freely discussed. Which isn't to say that North Koreans believe their country to be perfect, but they are so fiercely proud of what it does have that they do not appreciate foreigners gawking at its many faults and shortcomings.

It was Saturday evening, the first night of our tour, and our bus was wending its way through the streets of Pyongyang en route to our hotel. Our attempts to steal furtive glimpses of the elusive Ryogyong Hotel gave way to a rapt fascination with the city itself. Pyongyang is at once eerily familiar and so unlike any other city on earth. The architecture is modern, in the sense that everything dates from the 1950s onward. In common with countries of the former Eastern Bloc, residential housing here is a mix of low-rise Soviet-era buildings and ultra-modern high-rise apartments. The older buildings are spartan but not at all shabby; most of them have shops or offices on the ground floor. Conspicuously absent, at least from the main boulevards, are the soulless, prefabricated panel buildings typical of Soviet satellite states. Every so often we would pass a stunningly beautiful work of architecture—here a triumphal arch, there a grandiose theatre, then a futuristic-looking stadium. Many otherwise unremarkable buildings featured large portraits of the two Kims, or revolutionary propaganda slogans in bold white brushstrokes on huge red banners.

Unlike the desolate intercity highways, the city roads in central Pyongyang have plenty of motorized traffic. Vehicle ownership is conveniently marked by the colour of the licence plates: white for state-owned vehicles, black for military, and orange for the odd private car. Taxis are commonplace, and seemingly always occupied by well-to-do young ladies. The sidewalks are full of people walking or biking home from work, swarming into the Metro stations, or forming impossibly long queues for the trolley buses. (The work week in the nominally socialist DPRK is six days long, with only Sundays off.) Traffic at major intersections is regulated not only by the usual electric lights, but also traffic wardens rhythmically gesturing in their impeccable blue and white uniforms.

[The elusive Ryogyong Hotel] [Kim Il Sung Stadium] [Pyongyang Station] [Typical street in central Pyongyang]
The elusive Ryogyong Hotel Kim Il Sung Stadium Pyongyang Station Typical street in central Pyongyang
[Kim Il Sung mural] [Traffic warden] [Propaganda posters] [Mangyongdae Children's Palace]
Kim Il Sung mural Traffic warden Propaganda posters Mangyongdae Children's Palace

Before long we had turned onto the bridge that would take us to our destination, the 47-storey Yanggakdo International Hotel. It's well known that tourists in the DPRK are forbidden from leaving their hotels unless accompanied by their guides; the Yanggakdo enforces this rule geographically by virtue of being situated on a small island in the middle of the Taedong River. The hotel's isolation is mitigated somewhat by its entertainment offerings, which include several gift shops, a casino, a massage parlour, a brew pub, a café, a bowling alley, a swimming pool, a billiards hall, a karaoke bar, a ping pong parlour, and a revolving rooftop restaurant. Sarah, our British tour manager, encouraged us to think of the place as "the Alcatraz of fun".

Our bus pulled to a stop outside the hotel, and we grabbed our bags and shuffled into the lobby to collect our room keys. Sarah reminded us that the power in Pyongyang was unreliable and in short supply, and announced that hot water would be available for only for short set periods in the evenings and mornings. Our entire group was installed in rooms near the very top of the hotel, affording us excellent views of the city. Though it was a bit hazy that first day, from the hallway windows we could already pick out a number of landmarks we'd soon be visiting close up—the Tower of the Juche Idea, Kim Il Sung Square, the Grand People's Study House—as well as a number that would remain off-limits, such as the Ryugyong, the Yanggakdo Stadium, and the golden-domed Russian Orthodox church.

We had an hour or two to rest and unpack before meeting for dinner in one of the half dozen downstairs restaurants. My suite looked nice enough in the fading daylight. I had two twin beds separated by an end table with an ancient-looking panel controlling the lights, alarm clock, and radio. Except for a couple of the lights, none of the controls worked. Beside one bed was an attractive wooden clothes rack, a table and armchair, and an empty refrigerator which ran so noisily that I immediately unplugged it. The bathroom was of standard European design, the bathtub and toilet bearing tissue-paper banners proudly announcing that they'd been sanitized for my use. The counter top near the basin was well stocked with toiletries, though unfortunately labelled only in Korean.

[Yanggakdo International Hotel] [My hotel suite] [View over Pyongyang] [Look who's on TV!]
Yanggakdo International Hotel My hotel suite View over Pyongyang Look who's on TV!

Opposite the bed was a modern flatscreen TV whose only offering was the state-run Korean Central Television (KCTV). When I switched it on, I was greeted by a close-up of Kim Jong Un's grinning mug peeking out from under a straw hat. The camera pulled back to reveal him seated at a fancy wooden desk on an outdoor platform overlooking a coastal airfield. The chubby leader laughed and cheered as he watched military planes and helicopters take off and drop a seemingly endless supply of bombs on a nearby island. It was like watching a kid play with toy soldiers, except these were not toys.

It took me a few minutes to grapple with what it was I was watching. In the West, North Korea is widely seen as being run by a volatile and oppressive tinpot dictator, and the TV's grinning, trigger-happy Kim wasn't doing much to disabuse me of this notion. Why was North Korean state media seemingly playing into this Western caricature? After thinking about it for a while, I realized where I was mistaken: KCTV doesn't produce its programming with a foreign audience it mind; it is made solely for consumption by the local populace. Like any other country and government, the DPRK has constructed a standardized narrative to justify its existence, and the role of the media is to produce entertainment and news reporting consistent with that narrative. The DPRK's narrative goes something like this:

For decades, the Korean people suffered under a brutal Japanese occupation, until the heroic Kim Il Sung single-handedly liberated the country in 1945. However, Korea soon came under a new occupation, this time by the imperialist Americans. Kim once again rose to the challenge, and by 1953 he had victoriously repulsed the Yankee invaders from the northern half of the country. For his singular feats against seemingly impossible odds, the Korean people enthroned Kim Il Sung as the country's rightful and eternal leader.

Today, despite its people's yearning for reunification, south Korea remains occupied by the American army and illegally administered by their puppet government. But their war of aggression is not over. No peace treaty was ever signed, and the Americans remain intent on conquering all of Korea. They are prevented from doing so only by the might of the Korean People's Army, as constituted by the infallible Kim Il Sung, and now entrusted into the command of the great successor Kim Jong Un. The free people of northern Korea must remain ever vigilant, ever ready to defend themselves against encroachment and domination by the forces of capitalist imperialism.

When the North Korean people turn on their televisions and see the grinning Kim Jong Un supervising the air force training exercises, the ballistic missile test launches, and the endless parades of soldiers marching through the streets of Pyongyang, the intent isn't to make them feel dominated, subjugated, and scared into subservience. Rather, they are supposed to feel empowered and reassured that, despite the ever-present threat of invasion by the American imperialists, Kim Jong Un and his loyal Korean People's Army have everything under control. See how Marshall Kim confidently laughs and smiles? He's not at all afraid of those belligerent Americans and their opportunistic running dogs! Bear witness to the mighty military forces under his command! With Kim in charge, no foreign power dares impugn the sovereignty and safety of the Korean republic. It is the great Comrade Kim, and Comrade Kim alone, who guarantees the peace-loving people of the nation will never again come to harm.

(Continued in Part 4.)


Travels in North Korea, Part 2

In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.

All together there were 17 people in my tour group, plus Sarah, the British tour manager from Koryo Tours; Mok Ran, Song Ii, and Chong Song, our three local guides; Mr. Chae, the bus driver; and Mr. Pak, the KITC cameraman who would record our every move (for the sole purpose of producing a souvenir DVD, we were assured). Our group came from all around the world: there were six Singaporean friends, a family of four Brisbanites, a married couple from Innsbruck, and five solo travelers from Europe, Asia, and North America.

The terminal at Pyongyang Airport had been completely rebuilt just a few weeks before our tour started, so contrary to my expectations of finding a country frozen in time, everything looked fresh and modern. It wasn't long, however, before we all got a glipse of more typical North Korean infrastructure: the bus trip from the airport into town took us down an impressively wide motorway almost entirely devoid of motorized traffic. Also absent were billboards or commercial advertising of any kind. There were, however, plenty of pedestrians and cyclists travelling in the lanes parallel to the main road.

As our big blue tour bus wound its way through the idyllic corn fields, our head tour guide, Mok Ran, activated the PA system and gave us all a warm welcome to the DPRK. Besides providing some general information and statistics on the country, she also set out some ground rules concerning the behaviour expected of us. These basically amounted to a long list of things we were not permitted to photograph:

  • no photos of military sites or personnel,
  • no close-ups of locals without first asking their permission,
  • no photos of construction sites,
  • no photos of anyone sleeping or resting,
  • no photos of anyone engaged in manual labour, and
  • no photos of excessively long queues at bus stops.

Above all, when visiting the country's many gigantic monuments to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, we were exhorted to always photograph the entire statue, never framing the picture so as to cut off any part of the revered leaders. We were also told that any live person appearing in such a photo should be respectfully posed—imitating the statue's position or gesture is a big no-no.

Our first tour stop was the Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery, a memorial to the veterans of the 1950–1953 Korean War. Though only two years old, it's built in the same imposing style as Berlin's Treptower Park and other Soviet memorials of the 1940s and '50s. We would come to see this style over and over again in our travels. In the USSR and Eastern Europe, this so-called "socialist realism" fell out of favour in the late 1960s; not so in the DPRK, where it apparently remains the only officially sanctioned style of monumental art.

Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery

Our visit to the Cemetery had a form which would come to be familiar over the next few days: after getting off the bus, we were met by a custodian guide who would give a Korean-language introduction to the site, with one of our own three guides serving as a consecutive interpreter. One piece of information which was always included in such visits was some historical connection to Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or Kim Jong Un. Even for ancient or medieval sites that had no relationship whatsoever to the Kims, the custodians were very careful to validate their importance to us by listing the exact dates on which the Great Leader, Dear Leader, or Great Successor personally visited there to pay respects or provide on-the-spot guidance. In the case of the Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery, for example, we were told that the entire memorial was the brainchild of Marshall Kim Jong Un, who oversaw its design, personally inspected it on 1 July 2013, and officially opened it on 25 July 2013.

After the custodian's introduction, we were taken to the monument itself, where we were obliged to lay a bouquet of flowers and bow in respect for the fallen martyrs. We had been warned in advance of our trip that it would involve a lot of "respectful" bowing, particularly to images of the revered leaders. There is really no way of avoiding it short of not signing up for the tour in the first place—it was repeatedly stressed to us by Koryo Tours that whatever our personal feelings towards the Kims and their country, engaging in public displays of respect for them was a non-negotiable condition of the tour. So everyone swallowed their pride for a few seconds and bowed (some a bit more stiffly and shallowly than others), knowing that we could joke, grumble, and commiserate about it together afterwards.

Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery

After the bowing, we had some time for a leisurely stroll around the cemetery grounds. This one has somewhere between 500 and 600 graves, each individually marked with a headstone showing the name, photograph, and personal details of its occupant—or intended occupant, since many of the gravesites have been reserved for still-living veterans. As is usual with North Korean monuments, there is a gigantic stone wall inscribed with a gilded quotation from Kim Il Sung. The one at the cemetery reads,

Heroic feats and undying exploits performed by the service personnel of the People's Army in the Fatherland Liberation War will always remain in the revolutionary history of our people in golden letters and they will be conveyed down through generations.
—Kim Il Sung

aptly illustrating why Kim, Sr. would never have cut it at Hallmark.

(Continued in Part 3.)


Travels in North Korea, Part 1

In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.

Independent travel to North Korea is generally prohibited, and the country's main tour company, the state-run Korea International Travel Company (KITC), doesn't deal directly with the public. Western visitors must therefore book a guided tour through one of a half dozen or so tour agents operating outside the country. These foreign tour companies generally set the tour itineraries and arrange the visas, travel tickets, and accommodation, and while they may send a company representative to accompany the group, all the local guiding is done by KITC employees who are assigned to the group and remain with it at all times, even in the hotels.

I arranged my visit through Koryo Tours, a British-run company based in Beijing, and the oldest company specializing in DPRK travel. Their six-day Early August Tour 2015 coincided with the end of a scientific conference I was attending in Beijing, which made it an easy choice for me. Signing up for the tour was as simple as filling out an online form, wiring 50% of the tour fee as a deposit, and sending a copy of my passport and photograph for them to arrange the visa. (If there's no DPRK consulate near you, Koryo Tours obtains a visa on your behalf and gives it to you in Beijing, where the tour starts. In this case, the visa is issued on a separate piece of paper which is stamped on entry and taken away from you on exit. Whether this is an advantage or disadvantage depends on what you think of having evidence of travel to North Korea in your passport.)

My adventure started on the afternoon of 31 July, when I attended the mandatory tour briefing at the Koryo Tours office in Beijing. Here I met the rest of our group and our tour manager, Sarah. Sarah went over the tour rules and guidelines, which had been sent to us earlier by e-mail. This covered advice on basic Korean customs and how much money to bring, but also very strong warnings about the sort of behaviour that could land us, her company, and the local guides in very deep trouble—namely, journalism, proselytizing, and showing disrespect to the supreme leaders Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. In fact, we all had to sign agreements confirming that we were not journalists and would not publish any photographs or articles about our trip in any mainstream media, and that we would not attempt to convert the local population, even by passive means such as leaving Bibles in hotel rooms.

[My DPRK visa (cover)] [My DPRK visa (inside)] [Checking in] [Our Air Koryo plane]
My DPRK visa (cover) My DPRK visa (inside) Checking in Our Air Koryo plane

The next morning at 10:00, we all met near the Koryo Tours office and climbed on the airport shuttle bus, where Sarah handed everyone their DPRK visas. We soon found ourselves stuck in heavy traffic, and some of us started to get nervous about missing our flight. "Don't worry, folks," Sarah reassured us. "Air Koryo's the kind of airline that would gladly hold the flight for us if I call ahead." (Air Koryo is the state-owned national airline of the DPRK.)

On arrival at the airport we stopped at the bank machines to withdraw Chinese yuan for spending money. (Visitors to the DPRK use yuan, euros, or US dollars for all purchases; using the local won isn't normally permitted.) Then we headed to the Air Koryo checkin desk, which for most of us was our first encounter with actual North Koreans. While our tour group stood in line to check in, the Koreans next to us were busy wrapping up enormous boxes, crates, and suitcases full of consumer electronics. Sarah explained that she sees the same Korean travellers over and over again at the airport—it's probably their job to travel back and forth to Beijing to load up on sanctioned goods.

Sarah warned us that the flight meals were terrible, so after checking in, most of us headed to Starbucks for a quick snack. This was also our last chance to check e-mail, since there is generally no Internet access for tourists (or anyone else, for that matter) in North Korea.

[The Pyongyang Times] [DPRK Magazine] [Air Koryo economy class] [In-flight entertainment]
The Pyongyang Times DPRK Magazine Air Koryo economy class In-flight entertainment

Before long, it was time to board the plane—a Russian-made Tupolev Tu-204. Like any other airline, they offered us a range of complimentary newspapers and magazines at the end of the jet bridge. By the time I got there, all copies of the English-language Pyongyang Times were gone, but I managed to snag the last copy of Democratic People's Republic of Korea. This is a beautifully produced, large-size, glossy magazine, though the writing would put even the most die-hard DPRK fanboy to sleep: page after page of articles glorifying Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. Nonetheless, Koryo Tours had warned us to treat these publications with respect: tourists have occasionally gotten into trouble for folding them so as to crease the cover image of the supreme leaders.

The aircraft interior was clean and modern-looking, and the flight attendants young and well-groomed. The in-flight entertainment consisted of a slickly-produced military concert video. For a couple hours, we all watched uniformed women sing the praises of the Korean People's Army to backdrops of old Korean War footage intercut with clips of a beaming Kim Jong Un. At the end of each number the camera would pull away from the stage to reveal a hall filled to capacity with applauding generals and other high-ranking officers. (Over the course of our tour, we became intimately familiar with this video, as it was played for us at almost every meal, no matter what restaurant or hotel we ate at.)

Contrary to expectations, the in-flight meal—a large bun containing a meat-and-vegetable patty—was quite tasty. I attempted to take a photo of it, but a flight attendant told me that photographing the food was forbidden(!). Dejectedly, I put away my camera while others in my group who had not received the warning snapped away with impunity.

[The mysterious Koryo burger, as photographed by a fellow traveller] [The new Pyongyang Airport terminal]
The mysterious Koryo burger,
as photographed by a fellow traveller
The new Pyongyang Airport terminal

Our flight arrived in Pyongyang around 16:00 Korean Time. We had been warned in advance that the border guards might try to inspect our electronic devices, and this turned out to be the case with me and others in our group. After showing my passport, I was taken aside and asked to surrender my digital camera and netbook. The guard returned my camera almost immediately—I don't think he even bothered turning it on—but he took particular interest in the netbook. He put it on a metal table and pressed the power button, and asked me to log in. I then witnessed him spend a good five minutes attempting to navigate my KDE desktop environment in a state of total confusion. It was clear he had never before encountered a computer running GNU/Linux. He moved around and closed windows at random, and opened and closed the Kickoff application launcher several times, completely bamboozled by the unfamiliar interface. Eventually he turned around and said to me, "Movies?"

I understood that he was looking for contraband films, which as far as North Korea is concerned means any movie in Korean or about Korea but not produced by the DPRK. I took control of the machine, using the only terminal window he hadn't yet closed to list the contents of my video folder. "Movies!" I said, pointing at the output of ls.

He clearly didn't understand. "Movies?" he asked again.

"Yes, this is a list of the movies!" I said, again pointing at the terminal output.

The guard directed his gaze at the terminal window and then back to me several times. He had no idea what to do. After a long pause, he said to me, "So, no movies?"

I sighed and decided not to press the matter. "Yeah, no movies," I said.

"OK, goodbye," said the guard.

I packed up my computer and headed out the security door and into the airport lobby. I had made it into the country.

(Continued in Part 2.)