axisofevil North Korea Story pg. 2, On to Pyongyang - Axis of Evil World Tour
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On to Pyongyang

Pyongyang Airport
Main Terminal, Pyongyang International Airport
Photo courtesy Dan Harmon


The plane touched down a couple of hours later at Pyongyang International Airport. A giant picture of Kim Il-sung looked down over the barren tarmac as we made our way down the steps of the plane and into waiting Air Koryo buses for the 30 second trip to the terminal. Once at the terminal, even before clearing immigration, I met Mr. Baek, the man who was to be our main tour guide. He divided us into language groups first, the Japanese from our tour into one group, the two Chinese into another, the two Germans got put into our six-man English speaking group.

After Mr. Baek's brief introduction and greeting it was time to fill out forms and, for those of us living in the South, start worrying about what exactly the North was going to stamp into our passports. A North Korean stamp, interesting rarity though it may be, would hardly prove endearing when we flew back to Seoul - with a little bad luck it could even get us deported.

After filling out the forms I walked up to the little wooden box housing the immigration agent and nervously handed over my passport. Mr. Baek stood next to me, ready to smooth over any problems. The agent gave my passport and the forms a brief once-over, stamped a piece of paper and . . . that was it. I've had more trouble getting through toll booths than getting through North Korean immigration. Plus the North is courteous enough to follow the time-worn pariah path of stamping a piece of paper and then stapling the paper into the passport. The paper to be removed a few days later when you depart.

Everyone else then began working their way through immigration. Apparently the whole tour was on one giant group visa and everyone had to go through together in one line. While the others were getting stamped in I went over to the forlorn looking little luggage carrier to grab my bag. Even some of the little hick towns I'd flown into in the South had bigger airports than this! Clean and well-organized it was, a haven of international commerce it wasn't.

As I was waiting for the others Mr. Baek came up and told me I was in charge of helping him fill out the 'forbidden items' customs paperwork. I had tried showing off my Korean when we first met and, after the shock wore off, I guess Mr. Baek thought he'd put me to work. Having never been a lackey of the communist oppressors before I decided to help him round everyone up for questioning.

We finally got everyone in the English speaking group together (the guides constantly hurrying us, while we paid them little attention, was to become a major theme of the trip) and Mr. Baek ran down the list of problematic items (books, cameras, magazines, newspapers, etc.) while I translated. Anytime you had one of the items you held up your hand so he could take a look and write it down. After a few minutes though, and still only part way down the list, Mr. Baek apparently decided he had seen enough and marched us over to customs.

He handed the customs agent our forms and then motioned for us to put our bags through what appeared to be one of the oldest x-ray machines currently at work on our planet. I swear the thing must have helped in the original fight against polio. Anyway, when some of us complained about possible film damage the clerk motioned us over to another, much newer, machine. The bags went through, they looked over us, the bags and our forms and that was it. The world's most tightly sealed country and we get through customs and immigration in less than 30 minutes. I'd half expected cavity searches, book burnings and perhaps a cattle prod. Instead it took less time than it usually takes just to walk up to the immigration line in most other international airports. There went reality again, screwing up my preconceptions.

Once out of the terminal we were all herded over to what became our second home for the next three days - our tour bus. Freshly imported from Japan the giant thing was actually quite nice - air-conditioning, video player, even an accursed karaoke machine.

Interrogation Translator
Interrogation Translator
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

As we boarded the bus we were again divided. The two Chinese went in the front with their guide and some type of government, most likely Worker's Party, official. Then came the group of 10 Japanese with their guide and finally, in the back, came us with our two guides. This pattern was not to vary in the slightest for the rest of the trip.

The guides got up and took turns introducing themselves as the bus began to pull away from the airport into the Korean countryside. Mr. Baek went first with another brief introduction, then he passed off to Mr. Huk. Mr. Huk was quite young and obviously somewhat nervous. It turned out he was fresh out of college and this was to be his first experience as a tour guide. He quickly identified himself as a trainee with the tour company and asked for our understanding in case he made any mistakes. Everything was nice and pleasant.

Then Mr. Baek got up again and recited what was to become a common refrain anytime something touchy was about to happen. "There is a famous English phrase that says when in Rome, one should do as the Romans do. Here in North Korea please do as we do and you will have a nice vacation."

Threat or promise? As I pondered that idea the reason for the little speech became apparent. "We need you to give us your passports for safe keeping and exit processing. We will return them to you when you leave." What was left unsaid, said it all. "Give us your papers or there will be trouble." Fortunately the guide in Beijing, plus a couple of travel books, had assured us that this was normal. Plus it's not like keeping them would have made any difference - the nearest US embassy was past about a million soldiers down in Seoul.

As the countryside passed by we all started to tune out the guides and look out the window. It was a beautiful, clear summer day and we were all anxious to get our first look at the 'real' North Korea. The road was lined with trees and we were surrounded by green countryside stretching off to low hills in the distance. Villagers were working the fields off in the distance, using machines to work the soil instead of the animals I'd half-expected.

The ride to Pyongyang is less than 30 minutes and, compared to Seoul and most other Asian cities, clean, green and unpolluted. The fact that we saw maybe a dozen other cars and buses during the half hour drive obviously having something to do with that. As we approached the city rows of bland, block-style buildings could be seen off in the distance. As well as the more famous monuments of the Pyongyang skyline . . .

Copyright 2006-2007 Scott Fisher and All Rights Reserved.