Lol, don't mind my heading. I know it will got you scared! Anyway, this is for the people who have toured the world and now feel they need to get to unusual places just to keep touring. Please read this before you make North Korea your next destination. I no dey, lol.
North Korea recently sentenced Otto Warmbier, an American college student and tourist, to 15 years of hard labor. Not surprisingly in the surveillance state to end all surveillance states, there are security camera images of Mr. Warmbier trying to steal a propaganda sign from an off-limits area of the hotel. In photographs from the trial, he seemed utterly shocked that he was being prosecuted.
I was not shocked. Proceed...
I have an idea of the brutality of the regime my parents fled as teenagers. Over the years, my father communicated by letter with someone claiming to be his younger brother. In the pictures the man sent â€” to show how rosy life was there â€” he looked decades older than my father. He asked for money.
My father sent it.
My father tried several times to return to visit his homeland, including with a medical group bringing in supplies, and he, the lone Korean, was always denied entry. North Korea rarely grants visas to Korean-Americans. But in 2009, almost a decade after my father died, I had an opportunity to visit North Korea with teachers and students from my university. My Korean background obscured by our group visa, I also brought my mother along.
It is slightly easier to travel to North Korea now than it was in 2009, but the United States State Department still â€œstrongly recommends againstâ€ it. Last year, the warning was updated to â€œreiterate and highlight the risk of arrest and long-term detentionâ€ because of North Koreaâ€™s â€œinconsistent application of its criminal laws.â€
Our group was briefed several times about the things we could and couldnâ€™t do. We were not allowed to bring Bibles, satellite phones, cameras with telephoto lenses, notebooks, pornography. We were told to expect that our group would probably be spied on and to not bad-mouth any of the regimeâ€™s leaders, past or present, even in private.
Once your Russian-made Air Koryo jet lands and you are in the Democratic Peopleâ€™s Republic of Korea, you lose control. You hand over your passport â€œfor security reasons.â€ You are taken where the government wants you to go, you eat whatâ€™s given, you are not allowed to seek out unscripted encounters. The 47-story Yanggakdo Hotel, the one place where all the foreigners stay, is on an island, physically separated from the rest of the capital.
But even so, there is a warping effect that being an American gives you. My mother, who suffers from anxiety, insisted that I call my brother to make sure sheâ€™d locked her door back home. When I told her we were in North Korea and couldnâ€™t call, she suggested email â€” and I had to remind her that we couldnâ€™t use the Internet either.
North Korea is also kitschy in a way that only a country that has little contact with the outside world and yet wants to impress the outside world can be. The subway, which goes one stop, has chandeliers that Louis Comfort Tiffany would have deemed too baroque. In our hotel, one of the clear pillars in the lobby had a sad shark swimming in it.
The secretiveness of North Korea has made it an easy target for America to project various stereotypes, about Asians and about dictators. American tourists often donâ€™t take the country seriously; reports of â€œdrunken high jinksâ€ on tours are becoming more common. The travel agency Mr. Warmbier used advertises itself as â€œtours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from,â€ mentioning â€œfun, thrill-seeking and adventure at a great price!â€
When I was in North Korea, I, too, was tempted to break the rules. We were instructed daily not to take pictures without explicit authorization. But once, when our bus had stopped in the middle of the countryside without explanation, I noticed a bicycle leaning forlornly against a tree and felt that would make a compelling photo. Our tour guide had left the bus along with another of our minders; the bus driver was not looking behind him. It would be easy to squeeze off a shot. But just as I was thinking that, the bus was stormed by soldiers with the tearful guide in tow. â€œThey said someone took a picture!â€ she cried. â€œWho took the picture? This is a military installation!â€
A student was taken off the bus and disappeared with the guide for a hair-raising hour.
What kept our group from a possible Otto Warmbier situation was that the student was a Chinese citizen, and China is one of North Koreaâ€™s few allies. Many of us deliberately left our cameras in the bus at the next stop, terrified of making another mistake.
Like Mr. Warmbier, I wanted a propaganda poster to take home. There was a funny â€œ12 months of Communismâ€ calendar hanging in our hotel room â€” pictures of people in full uniform engaging in seasonal activities, done in that florid Soviet style, with stagy smiles. I thought for a moment how perfect that calendar would look in my office. Instead, at the gift shop, I bought a replica of a propaganda poster, a color copy painted by hand.
Safely back in China, our group met to debrief. I took the poster out to show it off.
â€œWas that always there?â€ someone asked, pointing to a splotch. Apparently, even though the gift shop had packed my poster in a sealed tube, at the Pyongyang Airport, someone had opened the tube and unrolled the poster. On the unpainted border was the single smudgy fingerprint of an anonymous North Korean, the hand of the surveillance state reaching out, still.