My Excellent North Korean Adventure

By Jerry Guo

PYONGYANG, North Korea ~ Blow enough time at the poker tables in Casino Pyongyang — please don’t tell my mom! — and you quickly forget that you’re partying in the worst-dressed state in the Axis of Evil. I recently got the rare chance to travel here. I came expecting a real-life version of 1984. But the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea turned out to be more like the set of Austin Powers 4, minus the hot blondes.
It’s a movie set very few in the West ever get to see, as I was reminded while reading the crescendo of rumors last week surrounding Kim Jong Il’s health. He could, people speculated, be dead or incapacitated. Or just being his normal nutty self. No one knew. (At least until the South Korean National Intelligence Service reported that he had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage last month but that his condition wasn’t critical.)
And just as no one inside North Korea appeared to know where the Dear Leader was or what life would be like if the Dear Leader departed, very few people outside North Korea have any real notion of what life there is currently like. We think it’s all gulag and famine.
The truth is that the DPRK I toured this summer is, in many ways, no different from countless other struggling fourth-world nations, with its share of haves and have-nots. And in the capital of Pyongyang, where the country’s elites dwell, I saw — beneath the veneer of Western paranoia and Stalinist mind-control — fleeting signs of grassroots capitalism: street vendors hawking junk food, indoor markets brimming with imported goods, even murmurs of drug use in the swanky underground casino.
I was in the country’s capital city last month with a group of Chinese tourists who had come to witness the kitschy architecture, personality worship and over-the-top propaganda machine first-hand. Our cast of characters included a retired fighter-jet engineer from Beijing, a human rights activist from Hong Kong and 14 real estate agents whose association had presented them with a free vacation to North Korea. The verdict is still out on whether the prize was for selling the most or the least number of apartments.
The guides had booked our group into the 47-story Yanggakdo Hotel, on an island lovingly referred to by the one guidebook on the city as the “Alcatraz of Fun.” Our sightseeing included a propaganda-heavy jaunt to the DMZ, a 30-minute video onboard the USS Pueblo on the evils of American imperialism and the obligatory kowtowing to the 70-foot Kim Il Sung statue in the center of town.
But I wanted to catch a real glimpse of Pyongyang nightlife, so late one afternoon, I sneaked off unsupervised and hit the city streets. And much to my surprise, I didn’t see a single People’s Army cadet goose-step past me with those missile-launchers-on-wheels that appear on the nightly news. What I did witness: a mother buying a soda for her daughter from a sidewalk snack cart; two older women sitting on a bench, gossiping and eating pears; businessmen coming out of the subway, sans Bluetooth headsets; a grimacing teen-age boy getting a haircut at a salon.
This was not the bizarro-land that I’ve read about in countless magazine articles and history books. No, this could have been Anytown, USA. Then I stumbled upon what turned out to be Pyongyang’s grandest indoor market; these off-the-books hives of capitalism, with their distinctive blue roofs, were rumored to have cropped up shortly after the widespread 2002 economic reforms, the first semblance of free markets at work.
I had found myself in the North Korean version of Macy’s, but here, every day is the Friday after Thanksgiving. There were delicate blouses and dresses for around 15,000 won (roughly US$4 at black market exchange rates), all sorts of fruit — thought to be nearly impossible to find in this mountainous hermit kingdom — and enough varieties of mystery meats to make my high school cafeteria green with envy.
No one paid much attention to me, until I stopped to snap a few photos. Then a group of stocky women in pink dresses magically appeared. They half-wrestled me to a second-floor office while blowing fiercely on blue whistles, as if to announce, “Look at me! My first American spy!” For the next six hours, I was questioned and scrutinized by a procession of Public Safety Bureau officers, their rank identifiable by the quality of their outfits: the first wore an undershirt, the last what seemed to be a custom Italian suit. Mr. Undershirt-With-Bad-Combover, for one, was so inept that he didn’t see me grab my camera from the table and stuff the memory card into a pocket. In his defense, for much of the time, he was too busy playing solitaire on his late-90s-model IBM or telephone tag with his superiors, none of whom Kim Jong Il apparently trusted with cellphones.
Eventually, they forced me to write a hyperbolic but harmless self-criticism, describing myself as “an American student,” “an incompetent trouble-maker” and “a genuine lover of the Korean people.” Then they booted me back to my five-star hotel.
The next day, after the PSB had assigned a baby-faced handler specifically to keep tabs on me, our group was whisked off to the Arirang Mass Games, a totalitarian feat of mass synchronization by 100,000 performers. We sat just rows away from the cordoned-off box seats, where the party cadres seemed to be having a jolly good time drinking and smoking. (They left in some of the estimated 6,000 Mercedes-Benzes that run wild on Pyongyang’s broad boulevards.)
And the town offers plenty else to do: there’s golf, several karaoke bars, the “Kaeson Youth Funfair,” a massage house with lots of late-night activity, and a shooting range (no joke: there’s a field where you can practice your grenade-throwing). In a worker’s paradise, where did this bacchanalia of Western extravagance come from? No doubt the granddaddy of partiers himself: Kim Jong Il. Sources close to the Dear Leader have described him as a womanizing, liquor-drinking, jet-skiing, film-directing, race-car driving, horseback-riding, Internet-surfing man about town. Though some accounts of his legendary exploits are probably exaggerated — the golf course claims that he scored a whopping 38-under-par on his first-ever round, complete with 11 holes-in-one — it’s safe to say that he and his party loyalists are living the good life.
Of course, that good life is in limited supply. The UN World Food Program warned this month that the DPRK may be on the brink of a famine of a magnitude not seen since the mid-1990s (that one killed more than 1 million peasants).
I read that report the week after I first rode into the country on a train from the Chinese bordertown of Dandong. And while conditions are certainly grim, the view I had of the countryside from my window suggested that they might not be as stark as all that: young boys giddily waving hello, men leisurely fishing, schoolchildren swimming in irrigation canals.
All this seems to suggest that the country is farther from imminent collapse than we in the West have hoped and have been predicting for more than a decade. Indeed, by dangling so many carrots before the party elites, Kim, or whoever is running the show, is no doubt trying to ensure that another generation of closet capitalists will carry on his legacy of shaping Pyongyang into a macabre playground for adults.
Spring break 2009, anyone?

Jerry Guo is a senior at Yale University who has studied North Korean economics.

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