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Friday, April 20

A day before leaving for North Korea, Carolyn and I had to meet with Koryo Tours in Beijing, the tour company that would be taking us to Pyongyang the next day. There isn’t any way for an American to just buy a ticket and book a hotel like you would for almost any other city. North Korea has no diplomatic Kim Il Sung relations with the US, so you can’t get a visa from a North Korean embassy. In any case, the process is supposedly very bureaucratic—although to us it was just plain mysterious—so no big deal to let someone else deal with it. And I can imagine that the process was complicated further because we were American citizens, and Americans are not merely strangers to North Korea, but enemies—at least as far as our governments are concerned.

Koryo took care of the visa arrangements and the hotel and flight from Beijing. We were traveling with a group of 18 other Americans, and everyone needed to meet at the office on Friday morning, the day before the flight, to get information, pay for the trip, get our visas (North Korea only issues them the day before a trip) and hear the rules.

Nick Bonner of Koryo Tours was the one that would be traveling to North Korea with us, and he met with us to go over everything we needed to know. The meeting started with a warning that our visas had not been issued yet. Every time I read about traveling there, I was warned that the North Korean government is not like the government of any other country, and that it's not a normal tourist destination. The government could decide at the last minute not to allow us in, and we understood that it was completely possible to fly to Beijing only to find out that we couldn’t go after all. Hearing that the visas were not ready that morning was worrying, but we were told that (hopefully) we’d know more by the end of the meeting.

After Nick gave us that bit of pleasant news, he “read us the Riot Act”—basically telling us the rules of the trip. During the trip, we would be traveling as a group and there would be no chance whatsoever to go off on our own and check out the city. Kim Il Sung We would be accompanied by a driver and two North Korean guides whose job was as much to keep us in line as it was to show us the sites, although they did a great job at both. Our guides decide what we could and could not do during the trip in every respect. A bulk of the “rules lecture” was spent talking about photography and what we could and (mostly) could not do. First and foremost, if we didn’t have explicit permission to take a picture of something, it was off limits. Because North Koreans were not accustomed to having their pictures taken by tourists, it would always be inappropriate to take a close-up shot with a regular North Korean in it without asking first. We were especially warned not to try and secretly take pictures, out of the bus window while driving for example, because even though the guides may not catch us, we didn’t know who else might be watching. If we did something out of line, it would jeopardize the freedom of the group for the rest of the trip, but could also get our guides into serious trouble, as they are given responsibility for our behavior.

Woman with a gun

At no time during the trip, other than in the hotel, were we allowed to be out of sight of our guides. There was no chance to just “take a stroll” or go to some restaurant we’d heard about (not that we had) or go to a movie or a bar. If we were in the hotel, we were not allowed to leave without being accompanied by a guide.

Our interaction with North Koreans other than those involved with our tour would be very limited. As a practical matter, I don’t speak Korean, so it wasn’t as if I could strike up a casual conversation with a local. But we would never really be put into a position to have that happen anyway, as our guides would not be taking us to areas where that would be likely. We were also warned that people would be wary of talking to foreigners. If they did, they would be subject to questioning by the North Korean government. And even if they hadn’t seen it, any ordinary citizen would be required to report it as well. This is done completely out of self-interest, because if someone saw someone else do something wrong and they didn’t report it, they themselves could get in trouble. If the incident came to the attention of officials, they might ask someone who should have seen it why they didn’t report it, and could suffer consequences. In North Korea, “consequences” are harsh and unforgiving. Getting in trouble can lead to permanent and brutal imprisonment for serious offenses. But even being seen as a minor troublemaker can have a serious impact on what job you’re allowed to have, what area of the country you’re allowed to live in—all consequences that can be applied to your children as well.

Pyongyang in the morning

After the rules were read, the meeting lightened up a bit, and we were told some more of the practical details of the trip and how much fun it would be—based on our behavior. By the end of the meeting, however, our visas still had not been approved, and we were sent on our way with a suggestion to call back to their office around 5 p.m. to find out the status. Carolyn and I spent the afternoon walking around Tiananmen Square and just outside of the Forbidden City. The day was beautiful, and it was really our first chance to get a look around Beijing. The only drag was the effect of a twelve hour time difference and the concern that we’d gotten all the way to Asia to be barred from North Korea less than a day before we were supposed to go.

Just before 5 p.m., we took a break next to the moat surrounding the Forbidden City. In between being hounded by vendors trying to sell us water and magnetic noise-makers and the man vomiting into the moat in front of us, we called the office at 5 o’clock on the dot, and found out our visas had just come through.

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