Arts, Culture & Media

Visiting North Korea

A corny pop song singing �Nice to meet you� is played right at the border. I was happy to be there, one of a group of journalists who had never been inside North Korea before. As soon as we cleared customs, we got a real welcome from several North Korean military guards. One of the guards shouted something at the man behind men; the man had broken a rule during his first minute inside North Korea, he snapped a photograph. There were a couple dozen buses waiting for the foreign visitors, we got on a bus for Americans and headed to our resort. The word �resort� in North Korea may sound odd but it's been operating for a decade now. it operates by low cost North Korean labor but by cheap South Korean technology, and a South Korean company provides the management. The managers are constrained when it comes to customer support because of North Korean restrictions. One such official laid down the law: no cell phones, laptops, tape records, microphones, cameras, magazines, or books about North Korea were allowed. The guide handed us plastic bags and we left all such materials in South Korea which we would get back when we returned. All that made it through were small video cameras that recorded the sounds you're hearing now. we had two guides, one who was an enforcer and another who was a little bit lighter. The tougher guide told us not to take pictures while the bus was moving, but we passed a chainlink fence that hemmed us in mile after mile. We saw wild hawks and a parched river bed. Every once in a while he spotted a few villagers, North Koreans, and none of them seemed to look because North Korean military guards stood guard. We were told not to notice them or take pictures, but we could take pictures of the villagers. At every entrance to the resort stands at least one soldier. In the gift shop, they charged $15 dollars for a standard sized box of mushroom chocolates, a popular snack. If you prefer to do your own cooking, they sold a cooking book for only $3. but the resort was intended to bring fast cash into the hands of a government that suffers through a devastated economy and droughts and the such. Visitors here pay in cash, American dollars although they also accept South Korean currency. A one-night package in season costs $250 double occupancy, high season is nearly $400 overnight. The hotel room was pretty nice with a mini bar and TV. We didn't spend a lot of time in the hotel though. Lunch was in the ornately decorated restaurant about a two minute walk from our room. There was plenty of everything and then boarded the bus to a nearby lake. The bus took a sharp right turn and then we saw a tattered billboard which said in Korean: �We will completely destroy American imperialists.� When we got there we all headed towards the same path to the lake, elbow to elbow and in somewhat of a hurry though we weren't sure why. There were mostly South Koreans there all of whom seem unfazed by the rush. The lake was luminous. The food was also welcoming. The final ascent was to the overlook, and was achingly beautiful. North Koreans could be proud of this sight, but they must hike at a different time than foreigners. Every so often on the hike we'd see the words of the Dear and Great Leaders of North Korea, sometimes etched into the side of a mountain or on a stone tablet. It went on like this during a trek and during another mountain hike. The minders kept us moving on time and would cordially take group pictures of us. and they reminded us when to put the cameras away during the walk. And so it went. Despite the forced march, there was a bit of free time built in. we also saw a 90-minute performance of North Korean acrobatics. For the big finish, they all gathered on stage to wish us farewell. Throughout our time, we tried to strategize about getting face time with regular North Koreans. At one point, one of my colleagues was walking the grounds and came across a group of villagers but a soldier whisked her past the villagers. There was a bit of a break after dinner and got the waitress to sing for them at the karaoke bar. It was a touch of karaoke diplomacy, and her unbridled patriotism. We left North Korea about 24 hours after we got there.