axisofevil North Korea Story pg. 1 - Axis of Evil World Tour
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Journey into Kimland
by Scott Fisher

When was the last trip you took where:

  • the guide wouldn't allow you to keep your passport?
  • you weren't allowed to use the local currency?
  • criticism of the place you traveled could get a guide into serious trouble?
  • on your return you felt you had to be careful bringing back books, pins and T-shirts because they might be illegal?

All this and more can be yours with a trip to the DPRK, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Orwellian Country Names, better known as North Korea. In an age where you can get Starbucks on Thai islands, Baskin-Robbins in Saigon, Coke and McDonalds just about everywhere, it's nice to finally visit a place lacking even the knowledge of such things. The most end-of-the-earth Chinese villager knows of Michael Jordan. In North Korea our big city Pyongyang guides had no clue who he was - until we pointed out his name on an autographed basketball in the Gifts to Kim Jong-il Museum. Then they were sure he must be someone really important. A mere basketball player? No way!

North Korea - Closed Door
Locked Door, Kaesong, North Korea
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

But I get ahead of myself. My goal here is to present the story of a trip into what can best be described as 'Kimland'. A country totally dedicated to the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, his Juche ideology and his son the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il.

To get started I'll go back to the beginning. From where I sit typing this in Seoul the border is about an hour away. Should I want I could get up right now and go to a restaurant, watch the news, use the Internet, drive, or go to the airport and get a flight anywhere in the world. My guess is you can do about the same things from where you're sitting.

Across that border up there though it's a different story. There are no restaurants for me, or for you, outside of those select few specifically approved for foreigners. The only news is state news, on both channels. The Internet is something you access via satellite from a diplomatic compound. To leave, the city or the country, you need government approval stamped into your passport or travel document.

This isn't a developmental issue. Third World countries don't shoot missiles over Japan or try to launch satellites into space. No, in the case of North Korea the differences are all by choice. What I or most others on the planet can do; like heading over to the next town to meet a friend or tuning in a radio station, are banned or tightly regulated. The DMZ is not a border between two countries. It's the edge of the known world butting up against a nation of people trying desperately to keep it away.

With all this, why go to North Korea? Why go someplace so purposely unappealing to foreigners, especially Americans? For me, after living, working and studying in South Korea for the better part of a decade, North Korea had become a forbidden fruit. I'd tried to go several times but had always been prevented because of my nationality.

That is, until this year's 'Arirang Festival'. The "Mass Gymnastic and Artistic Performance" was ostensibly in honor of departed leader Kim Il-sung's 90th birthday in April, 2002. From the timing and openness to foreigners though, even us evil Americans, a more apt description might be 'Festival to make us feel better cause the World Cup is in the South' or maybe, 'Festival to get us a lot of hard currency'.

Arirang Ticket
My 'ticket' to North Korea

The first reports from across the border on the festival and the possibility of American tourists being granted visas came in late March. Some friends and I started to follow the reports closely. Maybe, just maybe, if Bush didn't piss them off again with another Axis of Evil comment, we could actually go. Throughout April reports indicated the North was wavering between allowing and banning Americans. Finally, by early May, it was clear we had a good chance and so six of us, all having lived, worked and known each other for years in South Korea, decided to take advantage of this rare opportunity to visit a place we'd heard about for so long.

Unfortunately, unless you're a bird, you don't just zip across the border from South Korea into North Korea. Instead you go by way of Beijing. This in order to get your travel papers, instructions from the official DPRK travel agency, a bouquet of flowers . . . etc.

This brings me to my first problem - how much should I talk about our North Korean guides? Guides are your constant companions on a trip to the North, whether you want them to be or not. The problem here is that I'm going to say some things that don't reflect well on the DPRK and I worry about possibly nasty repercussions for them. Another of the people in our group wrote a series of articles on the trip for The Korea Times once we got back to Seoul. He and his editors decided to handle the situation by changing the names of all the North Koreans involved. I've decided to handle the problem the same way, so any North Korean names mentioned will be made up.

Getting Closer

Early on in the visa application process we had been told that, news reports aside, a group of Americans would have very little chance of getting visas on our own. It would be better to join a group of Japanese college students planning to go at a similar time as part of one large group. Why? Apparently the travel agency hoped those in charge of granting the visas would just see one big group and not pay much attention to its components. It worked. We got the visas. But only after a lengthy, time-consuming process.

It finally started to hit home that we were actually going to North Korea in the Beijing Airport, while standing in line for Air Koryo, the national airline of the DPRK. Seeing 'Beijing-Pyongyang' up on the board, plus the North Koreans (easily identified by the Kim Il-sung pins they all wore over their hearts) standing in line had everyone in the group getting excited. The odd twang of the North Korean accent began to be discernible amongst the Japanese and Chinese conversations.

Any North Korean allowed out of the country is such an obvious elite that we were all curious about their backgrounds. The people we were looking at, after all, were most likely card-carrying members of one of the governments of the "axis of evil". I tried to feel intimidated, or at least impressed, but mostly I just felt ignored. None of the openness or gregariousness of South Koreans toward foreigners. The Northerners paid our curious looks no attention and kept to themselves. Perhaps they were used to being watched.

When we finally boarded I felt like I was stepping back into the 1970s. From the old Russian plane, to the crew uniforms, even the clothes and hairstyles of the 'elite' North Korean passengers, everything screamed early-70s kitsch. After grabbing some reading materials I jammed myself into the tiny seat and started to see what the North had to say.

North Korean 'journalism' rarely fails to entertain and the in-flight reading material on Air Koryo was no exception. As you can see from the headlines the articles were models of unbiased reporting.

US - Kingdom of Terrorism
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

US is empire of the devil
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

The front page, of course, was mainly about the fantastic exploits of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il. But after that came plenty of space for anti-US and anti-South Korean diatribes.

The 'Profile' article to the right is the second of a two-part series on how the South's Lee Hoi-chang (leading candidate for president in the 2002 elections) is really a despicable traitor. It seems he had the temerity to suggest that the South demand reciprocity for its donations to the North.

Profile of a traitor
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John


When the flight attendants started the drink service I finally got a long awaited chance to actually talk to a North Korean. Sure enough, the accent was so thick it felt like a different language at first. Even a lot of the words were different, the most important one being the name of the country. In South Korean one says "han-guk," but saying that in the North apparently causes your listener's face to curl up like they've just taken a big suck on a lemon.

This I learned about 10 seconds into my attempted conversation with the attendant. At the mention of the naughty word her face got all twitchy and our conversation was abruptly over. Odd, whenever I use the Northern term ("Chosun") in the South people just laugh at the weird foreigner. Apparently things are a bit more serious in the North.

Copyright 2006-2007 Scott Fisher and All Rights Reserved.