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DPRK 2007



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Saturday, April 21

We headed to the tour office early in the morning to take a bus with the group to the airport. The flight to Pyongyang was on Air Koryo, the North Korean national airline. I got my first glimpse of North Korean-ness in the gate area. Kim Il Sung was the leader of North Korea since just before the Korean War through his death in 1994. He’s still technically the president, although the country is run by his son Kim Jong Il. Kim Il Sung is revered not just as Air Koryo the father of the country but as nearly a god, an affection that was seen in many ways at almost every moment throughout the trip. One of the most prominent ways was the display by virtually every North Korean of a red pin with Kim Il Sung’s image being worn right above the heart. I’d read about this before, but when we got to the gate at the airport I finally started to see people that were actually wearing them.

Not the world’s busiest airline, Air Koryo flies into Pyongyang from Bejing twice a week. The plane is a Russian Ilyushin jet from the 1960s and boarding the plane was the first time of many during the trip that felt like stepping through a time machine. But as opposed to most of those types of experiences, I have to say that when I’m getting on a 50 year old Russian plane, “nostalgia” is not the first thing that comes to mind.

Pyongyang airport

We landed in Pyongyang without incident and taxied over to the Pyongyang airport. After passing about six or so shuttered Air Koryo planes, we came to the terminal. It was tiny compared to most major city airports, although perfectly adequate considering the number of flights, and it’s most prominent feature was the large portrait of Kim Il Sung at the top.

I love traveling, but going somewhere new can be a little exciting as well as nerve-wracking. But it’s one thing to somewhere that’s “unfamiliar” versus going to the least-visited country in the world. Worrying about people reacting negatively to Americans in Paris is one thing, but going into an “axis of evil” dictatorship that uses anti-Americanism as one of its pillars of nationalism is quite another. There was a sense of helplessness being in a country where rights as we know them are a completely foreign concept and where Americans are disliked and—since this was only the fourth time Americans had been allowed in since 1995—almost never seen. (See the anti-US poster below)

Down With The U.S.!

It was a little tense going through the airport itself, being in contact with regular, uniformed government authorities. We had many warnings about things we couldn’t bring into the country, from items with American flags on them (not sure I actually have any) to books that have any mention of North Korea. I had to leave my laptop and cell phone in Beijing (almost no one in North Korea is allowed to have a cell phone) as well as a book about Chinese history because it had some information about North Korea. Thankfully, we were advised that Carolyn’s deck of cards with 52 images of George Bush dressed as a woman was perfectly fine.

Relieved at surviving my first contact with the North Korean government, Carolyn and I got to the other side and were approached by one of our North Korean guides who pointed us to the bus. As the bus started off to our first destination, I finally started to relax and breathe easy, although it was still hard to believe we were actually headed down the streets of Pyongyang. Our guide who would spend most of our time on the bus for those four days—at the front with a microphone navigating the trip—introduced himself and welcomed us to North Korea. His friendly demeanor and dry humor were evident immediately and made us feel welcome from the start. During the entire trip, that warm treatment was always at an uneasy contrast with the feelings that most North Arch Of Triumph Koreans have about the U.S. So after being welcomed, we were warned that during the next few days, we would hear a lot of negative things about the U.S. and its actions during and since the Korean War. Some of it was put in terms of “we’re not attacking you, just letting you know how North Koreans perceive the U.S.”, although many times it was a more straightforward criticism of U.S. policy.

The entire time in North Korea was jam-packed schedule-wise, and they wasted no time at the beginning. Before we went to the hotel we were taken to a few sites. The first was the Arch of Triumph, which is similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and commemorates the end of the anti-Japanese struggle in the 40s. It was impressive looking and was typical of the kinds of things we’d see throughout our time there—monuments commemorating various wars done in a very big and imposing manner. When we got off the bus to get a closer look, we were given our first opportunity to take pictures. Because of the unique opportunity to be in Pyongyang, just about everyone on the trip went a little nuts with picture taking, but I, for one, couldn’t help it.

Kim Il Sung

After a few minutes a North Korean woman appeared dressed in a traditional Korean dress, as would almost all non-military women who were involved with one of the sites we visited during the trip. She explained the significance of the Arch and as with many of the sites we saw, we got a very detailed explanation of the exact measurements (always impressively large) along with the time it took to construct (always impressively short).

Right across the street from the Arch we were taken to a large mural with the image of a radiant Kim Il Sung giving a speech to an enthusiastic North Korean crowd. This was our first up-close encounter with an image of Kim Il Sung, and as some people from our group got a little close to the mural and started climbing up on a ledge to pose in front of it, our tour operator had to yell out “Remember where you are!” to get people to act a little more restrained.

We then went to one of the most famous landmarks in Pyongyang: the giant statue of Kim Il Sung, usually referred to as "The Great Leader". It’s a “must-see” Kim Il Sung Statue attraction...literally. Before we got there, we were reminded of a few special restrictions we had to follow. He reminded us to act respectfully, but specifically there were some rules about picture-taking. They required that when we took pictures of the statue, it had to feature the entire statue or nothing. If someone was standing in front of it, you couldn’t, for example, take their picture with just the bottom of the statue’s legs and feet in the background. Also, we were not allowed to pose like the statue (with the outstretched arm).

There is a tradition of leaving flowers at the statue, so two members of our group left bouquets. Then the entire Bowing before the Kim Il Sung Statue group was required to stand in a line before the statue and bow in respect. It felt odd, to say the least, to bow to North Korea's deceased dictator, but there would be little point in complaining. When in Rome, you do as the Romans do, but in Pyongyang, you do as you're told.

The statue itself is huge and imposing, but the area around the statue would have been empty of people without our group. Eventually some North Koreans started to approach and it turned out to be a small wedding party with the bride and groom paying respects to Kim Il Sung which apparently is common. They also left flowers and bowed.

Yanggakdo Hotel It was already late afternoon at this point, so we went to our hotel and checked in. We stayed at the Yanggakdo Hotel which is located on an island in the middle of the Taedong River that runs through the middle of Pyongyang. We were never told so, but it seemed like it was no coincidence that the Americans were stuck on an island. Just about everything we saw in Pyongyang during the trip seemed nice, well-kept, a little contrived and always just weird, and the hotel was no different. Despite a tiny tourism industry, Pyongyang did not skimp on the hotels. The Yanggakdo is 47 stories tall topped with a revolving restaurant and also featuring a cinema complex, a bowling alley, a casino, a nightclub, a bar, a bookstore, several other restaurants, and a massage parlor (that we were warned should be avoided by "God-fearing gentlemen"). Despite all of the things to do there and 40-some-odd stories of rooms, there was hardly anyone there apart from our group. Every time we’d go to one of these places in the hotel, we were invariably the only ones there.

Our hotel, however, paled in comparison to the most dominant site in the Pyongyang skyline: the enormous Ryugyong hotel. Although it’s not (and may never be) completed, it is 105 stories and was meant to hold 3,000 rooms and seven revolving restaurants. For reasons that change anytime someone is asked, construction stopped about 15 years ago, and although it’s about as tall as intended, the entire outside is just a concrete shell. Considering the occupancy rate at our hotel, this Ryugyong Hotel building was at best going to be a monument to atrocious planning and waste, although now it’s not much more than a monument to North Korea’s economic problems.

Once we were checked in, we got on the bus and headed to the main attraction of the trip and the event that was the reason North Korea was even allowing Americans into the country: Mass Games. And speaking of amazingly overdone and over-the-top spectacles, Mass Games takes the cake. But although it’s just as easy and appropriate to question the motivation behind putting Mass Games 1 on a show like this and devoting massive resources to a show in a country that has trouble with necessities like food, it’s also impossible to be anything but awed and impressed by the human achievement.

Mass Games is not actually a game, but a performance. It takes place in May Day Stadium, the largest non-racing stadium in the world with a capacity of 150,000. There are up to 100,000 performers involved with 80,000 on the floor display and up to 20,000 children making up the backdrop, which is a giant, constantly-changing mosaic of cards that covers one whole side of the stadium. The ability and scale involved are incredible, and I can honestly say it’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. It’s very difficult to describe and although it does, of course, lose something in video, I’ve included a few to give an idea of what it’s like.



Before the show started, the 20,000 kids that made up the backdrop went through some practice moves guided by flag-waving conductors below them:

And then the show got underway:

Everything in the show was ultra-patriotic:

The kindergarten-aged kids were a big hit with the crowd:

One of the more bizarre moments was the tribute to food:

And one of the most impressive was the tribute to martial arts:

After that it was back to the hotel for our sequestration for the night, which included a few North Korean beers with the group before going to bed.

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