It might not get weirder than this

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Disclaimer: I am a North Korea amateur and can only share what it's like to be part of a NK-bound delegation. Straightforward trip report here: no discussion of meeting details or intentions--just some informal observations from my grad school winter break.

Bill Richardson, former Governor, US Ambassador to the UN and backchannel freelance diplomat extraordinaire, was planning his 8th trip to Democratic People's Republic of (North) Korea. He invited my father Eric, who invited me.  

Two sets of goals for the trip: political (Richardson's side) and technological (our side). Speaking as a tech person, just getting to speak to officials in the most closed country on earth about the virtues of the Internet--and having them (appear to) listen--seemed extraordinary. 
It was a nine-person delegation in total. We left our phones and laptops behind in China, since we were warned they'd be confiscated in NK, and probably infected with lord knows what malware.  

#1 Caveat: It's impossible to know how much we can extrapolate from what we saw in Pyongyang to what the DPRK is really like.  Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments.  We had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans and were never far from our two minders (2, so one can mind the other).    

Pre-trip cartoon from South China Morning Post


This is how it started:  
 A Chinese media pack saw us off at Beijing Airport. "Gov" is unfazed, a pro. The level of media attention prior to the trip raised the stakes and definitely affected the calculations on both sides.

We flew Air China in, on a full flight.  Mostly Chinese businessmen, Western NGO types and assorted diplomats, all looking appropriately battle-hardened.  An Ethiopian attache assured me there was "never a dull moment" in the hermit kingdom.

(Left) My favorite form. 

Do note #1 and #6: leave your "killing device" and "publishings of all kinds" at home.  Got it.

We carried a ton of cash (USD) since that was the only way to pay for anything.  

We also had no trouble with cameras.  Only rarely were we told we couldn't take photos of something, and no one ever checked our cameras. 

An aside: For a country that banned religion, and has sent thousands of practicing Christians to prison camps, the Christmas trees were rather incongruous.


When asked, Minder 1 chuckled and offered, "New Year's trees?"


We were treated very well throughout the visit, even though official relations between the US and DPRK are "very tense."  Ours was the first American delegation in over a year, and the North Koreans we met were unfailingly polite and engaging, even excited to meet with us (particularly Eric).  How that squares with official NK agitprop that Americans are super-evil imperialist bastards is beyond me. 

Opa Pyongyang Style 

Main lobby (above): Grecian statues, pirate ship appliqué, TV playing patriotic broadcasts.

Long, empty hallways. My father's reaction to staying in a bugged luxury socialist guesthouse was to simply leave his door open.

Since we didn't have cellphones or alarm clocks,  the question of how we'd wake up on time in the morning was legitimate.  One person suggested announcing  "I'm awake" to the room, and then waiting until someone came to fetch you.


Now to the good stuff.  Pyongyang is a city of 2-3 million, maybe 10% of the population. Most of it built after the Korean War. Electricity levels higher than expected but still visibly patchy. Once outside the city center, things get rural real quick: endless rolling scenes of frozen farmland. If you forgot where you were for a moment, you might call it bucolic.

People there walk very long distances (miles and miles) in sub-zero temperatures, often in the middle of the road.  (Not a problem because there are almost no cars outside the city center.) Conclusion: these people are really, really tough. 

Pyongyang itself is oddly charming.  Broad boulevards, taller buildings than you'd expect, and a fair number of pedestrians.  Very clean.  Stylish women in heeled boots and makeup. Given the season, it was all tundra but I can imagine it would be quite pretty in bloom.

You could almost forget you were in North Korea in this city, until you noticed little things, like the lack of commercial storefronts. No street-level commerce, either. I didn't realize that I hadn't seen any plastic bags yet until I saw one person with a bag of apples and thought it looked out of place.   

Our trip coincided with the "Respected Leader" Kim Jong Un's birthday. On that day, the little stalls that dotted the city and sold small sundries had long lines as they distributed treats.  
When we asked how old Un had turned (29? 30?), we were told that "Koreans keep track of age differently" than we do.  Alright, then.  

(Below) is an entrance to the grand square, where they hold military processions and large rallies.  Everything on the propaganda side (monuments, portraits, official buildings) is done at scale in the DPRK. Makes it all feel even emptier.
This guy's book explains the function of size in the DPRK totalitarian aesthetic--kitsch, ostentatiousness, scale--superbly.

This is a country in a permanent revolutionary state, and everything you see reflects that dug-in, determined, fiercely independent quality. "Juche," the concept of national self-reliance, is equally omnipresent.   Even the calendar year is called "Juche." We're in the year Juche 103, in case you were wondering.  

There is only revolutionary art. 
There is only revolutionary music. 
Trucks equipped with loudspeakers roam the streets. "For the propaganda," Minder 2 told me, with a tone that suggested You idiot. 

When you enter most buildings, you're invariably met with scenes like this:

Equally charming were the school-project-variety poster boards, like the one that explains how Mr. Il's "Exploits Will Be Immortal."


Begin with a grand arrival:  
excellent caption opportunity

Go through halls like this (Parliament building):

And open with a familiar speech: It was only due to the instruction/vision/guidance of Our Marshall/the Respected Leader/ Awesome-O wunderkid Kim Jong Un that we were able to successfully __________ (insert achievement here: launch a ballistic rocket, build complicated computer software, negotiate around US sanctions, etc.).  

Reminded me of the "We're Not Worthy" bit from Wayne's World. Just another example of the reality distortion field we routinely encountered in North Korea, just frequently enough to remind us how irrational the whole system really is. 

I mean, really: how lucky are they that their new Leader turns out to be a nuclear technology expert, genius computer scientist and shrewd geopolitical strategist? That guy is good at everything.

  • The mausoleum also had large trophy rooms for the Leaders, with medals, honorary citizenships and a veritable rogue's gallery of grip-and-grin portraits of the Kims and their various friends: Oh hey, Hafez Assad, Fidel Castro, Teodoro Obiang... Also noteworthy: only U.S. contribution was an honorary degree from the bullshit Kensington UniversityAw, nobody told them.
  • North Korean acrobats are seriously impressive. I can only imagine the spectacle of the Arirang mass games. Packed amphitheater to watch them, yet temperature never rose above 25 degrees indoors. Felt particularly sorry for the performers with water elements.
  • They made sure to show us the American-style fast food restaurant, though their timing appeared to be off: the place was shuttered when we arrived. Workers scrambled to put on aprons and turn on the lights. 
  • Additional visits to: revolving restaurant on a hotel's 44th floor, art gallery, cell phone store (Koryolink), various gift shops to buy souvenirs and official literature, available in multiple languages. My favorite was titled, Kim Jong Il, Un Gran Hombre.  If only I could explain the concept of memes...


Even more aggressive, enormous press swarm upon arrival at the Beijing airport. We watched Gov and Eric enter the mosh pit and hoped for the best.  (Spoiler: They made it.)  

The longer I think about what we saw and heard, the less sure I am about what any of it actually meant.

Top Level Take-aways:
  1. Go to North Korea if you can. It is very, very strange. 
  2. If it is January, disregard the above. It is very, very cold.  
  3. Nothing I'd read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.  
I can't express how cold it was. Maybe 10-15 degrees F in the sunshine, not including wind chill.  The cold was compounded by the fact that none of the buildings we visited were heated, which meant hour-long tours in cavernous, 30-degree indoor environments. It is quite extraordinary to have the Honored Guest Experience in such conditions: they're proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.

Ordinary North Koreans live in a near-total information bubble, without any true frame of reference.  I can't think of any reaction to that except absolute sympathy.  My understanding is that North Koreans are taught to believe they are lucky to be in North Korea, so why would they ever want to leave?  They're hostages in their own country, without any real consciousness of it.  And the opacity of the country's inner workings--down to the basics of its economy--further serves to reinforce the state's control. 

The best description we could come up with: it's like The Truman Show, at country scale

I. Arrival, cont.

We picked up visas at the check-in desk: slips of paper with our pictures taped on, which they then took back upon arrival at Pyongyang.  Deprived of our deserved passport stamps, we soldiered on.
Our flight was the only one coming into Pyongyang that day. (Also, turns out it's pronounced "pyong-ong.")  Small press swarm upon arrival, including media from NK, China and the AP, who have a small bureau in Pyongyang.

We also met our handlers, two men from the Foreign Ministry, whom we gave code names. Unusually, both men had lived in the US, in addition to other countries, as embassy staffers. 

It was hard to reconcile this with our notion of hermetically-sealed North Koreans: Did it mean they'd passed the ultimate loyalty test? That they were even more ideologically committed than most NKers? How on earth do they reconcile the differences they see between their experience abroad and what they'd always been told?

As minders go, they were alright.  They were affable, but would frequently give noncommittal answers to our questions...or just not answer us at all. I'd like to think they grew a little fond of us, though realistically, they were probably just as happy to see the back of us as we were to leave.

View of Juche Tower, downtown Pyongyang

We stayed at a guesthouse a few kilometers from Pyongyang that was really like a private hotel, in that we were the only guests.  Food overall? Solidly decent.  Like Korean food, only with less pizzazz and more corn (?).

We were told well ahead of time to assume that everything was bugged: phones, cars, rooms, meetings, restaurants and who knows what else.  I looked for cameras in the room but came up short. But then, why bother with cameras when you have minders? After a day in frigid Pyongyang, I was just thankful it was warm.

Inside, the place was a bizarre mix of marble grandeur and what passed for chic in North Korea in the 1970s.

In case you were wondering where tacky fake floral arrangements went when they went out of style: they're all in North Korea. (Ditto for gaudy light fixtures.) 

And those beds? Hard as a rock.  Very little in North Korea, it seemed to us, was built to be inviting. Not a rug in the place.

Three channels on the TVs: CNN International, dubbed-over USSR-era films, and the DPRK channel, which was by far the most entertaining.  My tolerance level for videos of Kim Jong Un in crowds turns out to be remarkably high.  

The pastels (below) are a nice touch.  In other pictures I'd seen, they look a bit eerie, particularly when it's dark and only some of the buildings have electricity.  But in person and in daylight, they're almost playful, and reflect Koreans' love of color.

In addition to some garish modernist architecture, there were more traditional buildings, some of them quite lovely.  (Below) is the Grand People's Study House.  Like most prominent buildings, it displayed two large portraits of the deceased leaders: Kim Il Sung, "Great Leader" and "Eternal President," and Kim Jong Il, "Dear Leader." If you can believe this, you get used to it quickly. Portraits are always cheerful, more Santa Claus than Stalin.

Inside, we were shown through study rooms like the one above, maybe 60 people diligently at desks.  Were they bussed in for our benefit? Were any of them actually reading? All I know is that it. was. freezing.

  • Palace of the Sun, Kim Il Sung's former office and now the national mausoleum where Kim Il Sung's and Kim Jong Il's embalmed bodies lie in state.  When a government meeting was cancelled, they decided to let us visit to pay respects (a rare honor). I can barely describe how strange an experience it was. 
(Above) Large, gilded gates outside the Palace. Heavily guarded, military types everywhere. This country has the 4th largest standing army in the world  (1.4 million)  and it's the size of Pennsylvania. 

We weren't allowed to bring anything in--no coats, gloves, cameras, hats, etc. ("No contents!") We entered a series of tunnels with those moving-walkways you find in airports, which we slowly rode for probably 20-30 minutes.  The walls were lined with portraits of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung looking at things (famous tumblr here), which turn out to be rather important: Because the Leaders are god-like figures, when one provides "on-site guidance" (which they always can, because they are experts in all things) it's like a benediction. 

Some favored the portrait of Kim Il Sung behind a gynecologist's chair (insert "on-site guidance" joke here). I preferred the one of him sitting behind a desk double-fisting ears of corn. 

Behind us in line were at least 600 North Korean soldiers of various rank, for whom this was a solemn occasion and precious opportunity--they may be allowed to visit once more in their lives. 
The mausoleum part had all the dramatic doom and gloom you can imagine: red-lit marble halls, severe-looking guards, sweeping, lamenting orchestral music.  The soldiers would line up in threes at each side of the bodies, and bow deeply.  Stone-faced.

Also lying in state: the late Leaders' cars, train compartments and even a yacht, all preserved in their former glory.  Even Kim Jong Il's platform shoes were on display.  I was delighted to learn that he and I shared a taste in laptops: 15" Macbook Pro.

  • Metro Station. Rather less grand than the mausoleum, but also our best shot at seeing a non-staged group of ordinary North Koreans. The lines are probably twice as deep in the ground as an ordinary city's, designed to withstand bombing raids.  
Cars are old but clean. Portraits of the Leaders? Check. Revolutionary music? Check. In the station, they had the day's newspapers on display (bottom left); there are four papers and all are state-run.  
In a fantastic bit of timing, as we exited the train, the station's power cut out (above right).  The commuters around us immediately pulled out flashlights, which they presumably carry all the time.  Can't win 'em all, minders. 
  • The Kim Il Sung University e-Library, or as I like to call it, the e-Potemkin Village
Looks great, right? All this activity, all those monitors. Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.

One problem: No one was actually doing anything.  A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in--a noisy bunch, with media in tow--not one of them looked up from their desks.  Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.  

Of all the stops we made, the e-Potemkin Village was among the more unsettling. We knew nothing about what we were seeing, even as it was in front of us. Were they really students? Did our handlers honestly think we bought it? Did they even care?  Photo op and tour completed, maybe they dismantled the whole set and went home.  

When one of our group went to peek back into the room, a man abruptly closed the door ahead of him and told him to move along.

Not that we were allowed to talk to them, but riddle me this: How do you explain to someone that she's a YouTube sensation if she's never heard of the Internet?

  • Virtually everyone wears a Kim pin: either Kim Il Sung's face, or both his and Kim Jong Il's  face, on a red background, on their left lapel.  You can see it in the meeting photo (left).
  • Expected to see more flags flying.  Didn't expect to see so many glitter barrettes. 
  • Officials blame American sanctions for just about everything, though somehow the sanctions didn't stop them from stocking the sparkling new supermarket we saw with Doritos.
  • We heard just one song that wasn't patriotic North Korean music while in the country, first in a promotional video for the e-Potemkin village and again over the speakers on our return flight on the national airline, Air Koryo It was a remastered version of The Cranberries' "Dreams."  It's cool, I'm sure they secured the rights first. 
  • Also on our flight out? The North Korean national women's soccer team. 20 little North Korean women in tracksuits and sneakers, and presumably no intention to defect. Here's a North Korea joke:
  • Q: Did these athletes play indoor or outdoor soccer?
    A: Trick question. They have no heat, so what's the difference?

On the tech front:

Everything that is accessible is accessible only in special tiers.

Their mobile network, Koryolink, has between 1-2 million subscribers. No data service, but international calls were possible on the phones we rented. Realistically, even basic service is prohibitively expensive, much like every other consumption good (fuel, cars, etc.). The officials we interacted with, and a fair number of people we saw in Pyongyang, had mobiles (but not smart phones).

North Korea has a national intranet, a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real Internet.  Our understanding is that some university students have access to this.  On tour at the Korea Computer Center (a deranged version of the Consumer Electronics Show), they demo'd their latest invention: a tablet, running on Android, that had access to the real Internet.  Whether anyone, beyond very select students, high-ranking officials or occasional American delegation tourists, actually gets to use it is unknowable.  We also saw virtual-reality software, video chat platform, musical composition software (?) and other random stuff. 

What's so odd about the whole thing is that no one in North Korea can even hope to afford the things they showed us. And it's not like they're going to export this technology.  They're building products for a market that doesn't exist.  

Those in the know are savvier than you'd expect. Exhibit A: Eric fielded questions like, "When is the next version of Android coming out?"and "Can you help us with e-Settlement so that we can put North Korean apps on Android Market?"  Answers: soon, and No, silly North Koreans, you're under international bank sanctions. 

They seemed to acknowledge that connectivity is coming, and that they can't hope to keep it out.  Indeed, some seemed to understand that it's only with connectivity that their country has a snowball's chance in hell of keeping up with the 21st century. But we'll have to wait and see what direction they choose to take.