What it's like to tour North Korea
It didn't hit me that I was really in the last Stalinist state on the planet until just before I left. The next thing I knew, I was crying
As my wife and I waited to board a plane from Beijing to Pyongyang, we watched crates of food and boxes of flat-screen TVs being loaded onto a conveyor belt and found ourselves resuming a conversation we started while still in Canada.
"I just don't feel right about this," I said. "You and I both know that all of that food and entertainment isn't going to the people of North Korea, but to the Kim family. And now we're giving Kim Jong-un our tourist dollars."
My wife, Irina, who is an aspiring travel photographer, had been planning this trip for nearly a year and wasn't about to debate this again. "Tourism is a sign of the country opening up," she said. "Trust me, this will be worth it. Now get your butt on that plane."
And with that, we boarded the world's only one-star airline to Pyongyang.
Each country I've travelled to has "hit me" in a different way. It hit me that I was in Russia when I set foot in Moscow's Red Square and saw the iconic St. Basil's Cathedral. It hit me that I was in Thailand while zipping through the canals of Bangkok's floating market. And it hit me that I was in China when our bus driver in Xi'an suddenly pulled over during a heat wave and exited the bus for a 10-minute cigarette break with friends.
But it didn't hit me that I was in North Korea until just before we left. In fact, I barely noticed upon arrival at customs that staring at me from the other side of the room were two gigantic portraits of "The Great Leader," Kim Il-sung, and "The Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il. Images of the deceased dictators are in every building, in every citizen's home and on every citizen's shirt or coat in the form of a special pin that must be worn in public. It wasn't long before I took seeing their mugs for granted at every turn.
Foreigners cannot visit North Korea unless they're part of a state-approved tour company, and the tours must be staffed in part by state-trained guides or "minders." Prior to our trip, I heard someone refer to it as a "government-sanctioned tour of boredom and propaganda." To a great extent, this turned out to be true. Many hours were spent being shuttled around Pyongyang and Kaesong – from one enormous grey or bronze monument to another. When at a monument, we weren't allowed to stray from the group to look at an adjacent garden or statue, we were discouraged from using our outdoor voices and we were strictly forbidden from speaking to locals. Our minders made sure of this as I'd never had someone place their hand on my back or shoulder so many times in a single outing. Some tourists described it as a real-life Truman Show, except that you're not sure whether citizens are acting under duress or if they truly believe in the part they're playing.
There are things that no one talks about while in North Korea, such as its labour camps, its starving citizens and its corrupt police force. And there are other things that are impossible to drown out, like the ongoing celebration of their military victories during the 1950-53 Korean War, the constant condemnation of the United States as "imperialist aggressors" that could strike again at any moment and the deification of long-dead Kim Il-sung as the country's "Eternal President" (the late Christopher Hitchens cheekily deemed it a "necrocracy").
But there were also whispers of a yearning to learn more about the world outside, such as when one of our guides quietly asked to see a tourist's digital-camera photos of South Korea, or when others gently probed us about the advertising business, which doesn't exist in North Korea except as propaganda. But the most subtle expression of this came at the end of our final night in Pyongyang, on the bus ride home from the annual Arirang Mass Games in which more than 100,000 citizens are forced to participate. Our guide, in a seemingly unscripted moment, said, "We're happy that you visited our country. Maybe after reunification, we'll get to see your countries, too."
And that's when it hit me: "I'm in North Korea."
The next thing I knew, I was crying. What our guides had really expressed was, "You get to leave this place. We don't." There I was – a Canadian on a five-day tour of a totalitarian dictatorship, the last Stalinist state on the planet. And there they were – stuck.
On the return flight to Beijing, I told Irina that she was right, that you couldn't put a price on what we had experienced, as controlled and manipulated as it was. It's easy to throw around reassuring phrases such as, "You can do anything you put your mind to," or "Where there's a will, there's a way." But the reality is that we don't get to choose where we start off in life, that when and where we are born is solely a result of chance. Since our trip, compassion and – frankly – guilt make up the lens through which I see the world, and together they've inspired a duty in me to help make change for the better.
Earlier this year, my wife and I talked seriously about returning to North Korea, this time by entering its remote northern part through Russia. We thought about what things we'd pay closer attention to this time around and the kinds of questions we might ask after getting to know our minders. We started to look at potential dates.
But then news broke of the release and eventual death of American university student Otto Warmbier in June, 2017. We had hired the same tour company and were frequently warned by its operators against doing anything without permission in North Korea. Yet we never thought much about what could happen if we unintentionally did something wrong. If we'd known that a small mistake could cost us our lives, perhaps we'd never have gone in the first place. And with that realization, we agreed that some things are best experienced once.
What's next on my wife's travel agenda? Crimea, apparently.