Pyongyang, North Korea – I think only at 10 p.m. did it sink in where I was.
I was in a bumper car in the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground, an amusement park in central Pyongyang. A small green car with a senior North Korean military officer behind the wheel sped out in front of me. He shouted what sounded like a battle cry in Korean, then drove straight into me.
As my body reacted to the powerful impact of his car, I suddenly realized for the first time that this was real. I was really and truly in North Korea, in the capital city’s new amusement park – the very same park that the country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, himself inaugurated three years ago, and in which he was caught on film grinning from ear to ear as he rode the roller coaster.
When I first came across that amazing photograph, I printed it and hung it on the wall of my study. Since then, I’ve been looking at the picture every day, dreaming of the day that I too would get to go to the amusement park in Pyongyang.
That was three years ago, and all this time I’ve been obsessively investigating the tourist visa requirements for this closed country. Surprisingly, it appears that thousands of Western tourists succeed in securing entry visas to North Korea every year, and so my next mission became clear: To be one of them.
BUT IT wasn’t an easy task. You have to pass extensive and arduous tests and you have to show them an infinite number of documents, which prove two things: that you are not a journalist (or work in the media in any capacity); and that you are mentally healthy. Of course these requirements worried me, because I didn’t qualify on either account.
So I had to find a false identity that wouldn’t have any connection with the media. It took me a while to think of a way to solve this problem, but then I remembered that my parents had argued over what to name me, and when they couldn’t agree, decided to use both names.
When I was born, my mother wanted to call me Lior, but my father preferred Amos. Neither of them was willing to give in, and so I was named Lior Amos Dayan.
Up until that moment, I’d never viewed having two names as advantageous, but now I was in luck – because the North Koreans use their names backwards (first they write their last name, then their first name). So if I just ignored the name Lior, I could say that my name was Amos Dayan, and they’d never know I was deceiving them. I tried googling Amos Dayan in Hebrew and English and nothing came up, so I knew I’d be okay.
But this was just the first step, since just because I had a new name didn’t mean I had a job and a boss with no connection to the media industry who could sign all the necessary paperwork testifying to the fact that I worked for him. I tried to think of a friend who had a business and would be willing to declare that I worked for him. And that’s when the name Nimrod Nir – he owns a PR firm – popped into my head.
I picked up my phone and called him, and within 10 seconds he’d said, “Welcome to The Brief: Creative Marketing, Amos Dayan. You are the new creative VP.”
“Thanks,” I played along. “I’m very excited to join the team. I’m ready to take this office to new levels and to stand up to the challenges that come with the job.”
“But I have just one condition if you want the job,” Nimrod said in a serious tone. “You need to bring me with you to North Korea. That’s how it works in this office; the creative VP and CEO always travel overseas in tandem. This is an old tradition that goes back generations.”
“Well, I don’t take tradition lightly,” I responded. “Scan your passport and send it to me, and I’ll take care of the rest, boss.”
Unfortunately, when the momentous occasion finally arrived and I found myself standing in front of the very same roller coaster the North Korean supreme leader had been photographed on, I suddenly felt lightheaded – and chickened out.
“The ride just looked too scary,” I explained to my younger brother when I got back home to Israel.
“Yeah, right, and going to North Korea is something you do because you’re looking to relax,” he replied sarcastically.
AND YES, there is the issue of danger.
In fact, just this past year, two Western tourists were arrested (one for carrying a Bible and the other for causing a ruckus in the airport) and sentenced to decades of hard labor in North Korean prisons. And before that, in 2009, two American journalists were arrested by the North Korean authorities and charged with the most serious of crimes: being journalists (they received 12 years of hard labor). And let’s be realistic – I’m not very good at doing any kind of work, and certainly not HARD LABOR.
Nevertheless, I decided to take my chances and go visit North Korea.
Compared with the roller coaster that up close seemed much more frightening than it did in the picture of Kim Jong-un, the bumper cars looked like fun. But I hadn’t thought about the fact that I’d be bumping into officers in the North Korean Army, who were indoctrinated to detest Westerners and who were excited to have a real, live Westerner in the bumper car right in front of them. Yet in the end, it turned out to be lots of fun.
The officers kept bumping into me from each and every side, but I managed to keep a smile on my face the whole time. It just didn’t seem like reality. I mean, I was finally in the new Pyongyang amusement park that sits just next to the spot where 67 years ago, Kim Il-sung declared the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea as most Westerners call it. Now, in this very spot, there is a 30-meter-tall wall mural of that momentous occasion.
This was also the first place we stopped on our way from the airport on our first morning in North Korea. The reason each tour stops in that location is for strategic purposes: From this spot, you can see the huge mural, as well as the giant 60-meter-tall Arch of Triumph. As we stood there on our first day, our mandatory guide told us in a clear, strong voice that the Kim family was “not like other people. They came down from the sky.”
This is actually pretty consistent with the official biography of Kim Jong-il (the previous leader and Jong-un’s father), which states that when he was born, a double-rainbow appeared in a cloud and a new star was born. And that he began talking and walking at the age of three weeks. This goes along well with the history books used in North Korean schools, which say that Jong-un learned to drive when he was three and won his first yacht race at age nine.
Not surprisingly, according to the North Korean calendar we’re not in the year 2015, but 104. In other words, it’s been 104 years since Kim Il-sung, the father of the nation, was born.
Whenever people ask me why I’m so interested in North Korea, I reply: “The Kim family is the only family that’s crazier than the Dayan family.”
THERE’S ONLY one way to fly into North Korea – Air Koryo, the government’s official airline.
Once you step onto the plane, you already feel like you’re in North Korean territory. The airline’s fleet consists of old Soviet- era aircraft such as the Antonov and the Tupolev, which give a Leninist-Marxist vintage tone to the flying experience.
When I entered the plane, I was handed a North Korean newspaper in which Jong-un’s face looked up at me from each page. Then when I had found my seat and before the safety video came on, the giant communal screens came alive (the seats didn’t have individual screens) and a bizarre performance began – featuring North Korean women dressed in old-fashioned nurses uniforms (except that the cap sported a red Communist star), playing instruments: a cello, violins, trumpets, drums and a piano.
Behind them on the stage stood an immense red flag with the symbol of the Workers’ Party of North Korea (sickle, hammer and paintbrush), the only legal party allowed in the country. Then the camera moved to focus on the 100 or so soloists of the military band, who opened and closed their mouths in perfect unison. I have no idea what the words of the song meant, but I have a feeling it wasn’t anything reminiscent of Queen’s “I Want to Break Free.”
As much as the general atmosphere on the plane definitely helped prepare me for my arrival in Communist North Korea, nothing could have prepared me for what awaited our arrival in the Pyongyang airport. As I looked out the window as we were landing, I saw an incredible spectacle taking place that made me feel like I had landed in an alternate universe.
A group of 20 soldiers was quickly approaching our plane, walking in two lines of perfectly matched military-style formation, their faces devoid of any emotion.
A commander stood at their head and directed them where to march.
When they reached the plane, they opened the baggage compartment and began unloading our suitcases.
They were just airport porters! So this is what it’s like to work in a military regime, I thought to myself.
As they removed the luggage from the belly of the plane, their commander made threatening- looking hand gestures at them and seemed to be screaming commands. Oh God, what have you gotten yourself into, Lior? I asked myself. But then I remembered that my name was Amos, and so I corrected myself and asked again, Sorry, God – what have you gotten yourself into, Amos? “I’m Lee, your guide,” a petite Asian woman with a huge smile that did not reach her eyes said to us as we ascended into the airport terminal.
“Hello,” we replied, as we attempted with great difficulty to return her smile.
We were pretty drained from all the bureaucracy and tiring security checks we’d gone through. There’s an extremely long list of items that visitors are forbidden to bring into the country – from Bibles and movie DVDs to T-shirts with political messages – and they go through every last item in your suitcase to make sure you aren’t carrying anything illegal. But then again, we were in North Korea for the first time, and everything was extremely exciting and mysterious.
The first thing we noticed was that many of the locals standing around us wore a pin in the shape of a waving flag, with the image of Kim Il-song and his son Kim Jong-il (or just one of them) in the middle of it.
“Everyone wearing such a pin is a local citizen,” our guide Lee told us in fluent English.
“We are accustomed to wearing this pin on the left side of our shirts.”
At the time, I hadn’t learned that when Lee said “we are accustomed,” what she really meant was “we’re required by law.”
Throughout our trip, Lee used this phrase many more times, such as when she told us that North Koreans are accustomed to: bowing when they come upon a statue of one of nation’s great leaders; refraining from running electrical appliances during the day to save electricity; and reporting to the authorities each time they travel to another city. Lee also used the same phrase when speaking in the negative: We are not accustomed to wearing jeans (and yes, I double-checked – it is illegal to wear jeans in North Korea).
I lit a cigarette and watched the guards as they patrolled around the fence that surrounds the airport, holding their Kalashnikov rifles as if they were participating in an official World War II reenactment.
Suddenly, our guide walked right up to me and explained that it is not respectable to be smoking so close to the picture of the father of the nation, Kim Il-sung. I looked up behind me and saw a huge picture of the preeminent leader hanging over the entrance of the terminal, right above where I was standing. So I quickly moved away.
At the time, I did not yet understand that the phrase “not respectable” is the twin sister of “not accustomed to.” Had I known, I would have reacted with much greater eagerness.
Afterwards, we met two other people who introduced themselves and said they would also be accompanying us on our trip. I thought that was a bit strange, because we were only a group of three tourists – myself, Nimrod and an American guy whose last name was Williams, and whose first name I didn’t quite catch. So, we were three tourists and three “accompanying personnel.”
It quickly became clear that Lee was the leader, because every time we asked one of the other two a question, they said, “You must ask Lee.” Since I’ve been reading obsessively about this sealed country for years, I knew right away that these two accompanying personnel were members of the secret service, and were attached to us just as agents are to every Western tourist who enters the country.
AS WE got into the van and began driving to towards central Pyongyang, Lee laid out a list of important ground rules we must comply with during our trip.
The first one was that we were forbidden from taking pictures while driving in the van, except when we were in central Pyongyang, the most beautiful part of the city. Lee even admitted to the reasoning: “Every city has its nicer areas, and these are the places we’d like you to photograph.
“We do not want you to photograph the less nice areas” – which include entire neighborhoods of people living in abject poverty and substandard conditions, and even labor camps for political prisoners (anyone who goes against the regime).In late March, the UN Human Rights Council came out with a resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights record.
Another rule was that we were not allowed to photograph anything connected to the military. This was actually harder than one would think, because North Korea is the most militarized country on the planet. A crazily high percentage of the population serves in the standing army (20 percent of citizens age 17-54) and North Korea invests 15% of its GDP in defense.
In other words, there are 1.19 million North Korean soldiers, which makes it the fourth-largest military in the world.
In comparison, the US military has 1.369 million soldiers on active duty – but 318 million people live in the US, not 25 million like North Korea. This made it awfully difficult to take a picture without a soldier appearing by chance in the background.
Another rule is that we weren’t allowed to call the country North Korea. According to them, all of Korea belongs to them, and there is no reason why it should be split into north and south – there’s just one Korea. From their point of view, people living in South Korea are suffering from the terror of American occupation, and they hope the American imperialism will be temporary so that the two Koreas might be reunited one day. Lee asked us to please refer to her country by its official name: the DPRK.
“You guys have to come see this,” Williams informed that night at dinner as he pointed to his digital camera and began browsing through the pictures he had taken that day.
“Do you remember when we drove by the Arch of Triumph today and a few electric buses they were boasting about drove right past us?” We replied that yes, we did remember them.
“So take a look at this,” he said, zooming in on the tail-lights of one of the electric buses he’d photographed. “Look – you can see they painted the tail-lights yellow, white and red.”
“But why would they want to do that?” Nimrod asked. “What would they benefit from that?” “It’s simple,” Williams responded excitedly.
“They want us to think that North Korea is a modern, developed nation and not a backwards, poverty-stricken country with a totalitarian regime that doesn’t even have enough money to install real headlights on its buses.
“They want us to go home and tell everyone that [US presidents] Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama are just jerks who’ve been lying to us and making up stuff about North Korea. They want us to go home and tell everyone how beautiful everything was, that North Korea is an absolute paradise.
“Don’t you get their game?” “That’s completely crazy,” Nimrod retorted.
“I can’t believe what I’ve gotten myself into.”
“Do you mean that in a positive or negative way?” I joked. “Because if it’s in a good way, then the first thing I want when we get home is a raise. I think that as the creative VP I should be making a higher salary.”
AFTER DINNER, we returned to our rooms to prepare for our departure to Pyongyang’s amusement park. On the way, Williams grabbed my arm and whispered that he was not going to skip his early-morning jog the next day despite the fact that we were specifically forbidden from leaving the hotel without our escorts.
I was shocked! Tourists are not allowed to walk around by themselves – well, except for maybe flamboyant former NBA star Dennis Rodman, who has made a few controversial trips to North Korea.
“I’m not going to ask anybody for permission,” Williams insisted. “I’m just going to go outside and start running, and we’ll see what happens.”
“Are you crazy?” I yelped. “You’re in North Korea. Here the concept of ‘we’ll see what happens’ could get you sent to prison. This is not a place to fool around.”
“I’m going for a jog tomorrow morning – period,” Williams said with great determination. “I don’t care what the consequences are.”
When I got to the room I was sharing with Nimrod, I looked into the giant mirror that covered the entire wall next to the smoking corner, and thought to myself that maybe there is something to the claim that all the hotel rooms in Pyongyang are bugged. There wasn’t any other logical reason for this huge mirror.
“Are you ready to go?” Nimrod asked.
“I’ll be down in a second,” I replied. “I just want to make a quick call to Roni.”
I was so excited as I picked up the phone receiver, because there is no cellphone reception in the North Korea and only 605 people in the entire country have access to the Internet.
“Hi, sweetie! I arrived safe and sound,” I told my wife, who almost dropped her cellphone on the floor when she saw she had an incoming call from North Korea.
I quickly described some of the weird things I’d experienced that day, but not too much – I didn’t want to freak her out. “But what’s up with you? How’s Arad?” She told me the baby had woken up a few times in the night, and that she was exhausted and barely had the strength to push the gas pedal when she drove him to the babysitter.
“Well, I have good news, honey,” I told her. “I discovered today that there’s a person who learned to drive when he was three, and so I don’t see any reason why Arad can’t begin to learn to drive soon. That way, he’ll be able to drive himself to kindergarten in the morning.”
“It sounds like you didn’t get much sleep on the plane,” she replied.
The second half of Lior Dayan’s journey to North Korea will appear in next week’s Magazine.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
This story first appeared in the Jerusalem Post Magazine.