North Korea: Lights out in the city

Before leaving North Korea, Lior Dayan visits the border with the South, dances at a surreal karaoke party and discovers what’s hiding on the 44th floor of his hotel.

Lior Dayan in North Korea (photo credit: LIOR DAYAN)
Lior Dayan in North Korea
(photo credit: LIOR DAYAN)
When we arrived at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, it took less than 22 minutes before someone told us, “Let me make this clear – if anyone dares to threaten us, we will start a nuclear war!” This statement took me by surprise, because up until now, the subject had not arisen during my North Korea trip.
So far, we had visited only places that had been engineered to show off the country as pleasant and nice (and only inside Pyongyang). No one had even referred to the real reason North Korea is considered the biggest nightmare of the Western world: its nuclear capability.
If North Korea did not have nuclear capability, no one would care about it. It would be treated like any other crazy dictatorship with a wacko leader (like Eritrea or Turkmenistan, for example).
But since it is a (nutsy) nuclear state, this is just a small part of the problem. The more problematic part, in most people’s minds, is that North Korea is willing to sell nuclear weapons to other loony countries. Do you remember that nuclear reactor in Iraq that Israel destroyed (allegedly, and only according to foreign sources, relax!)? So it turns out that it was built with the generous help of North Korea.
Iran also owes a lot to North Korea for its nuclear progress. Iranian expats talk about how it is not a rare sight to see delegations of North Korean scientists in the Islamic Republic.
The funniest thing that happened during our visit to the North Korean demilitarized zone was that the guide there spent hours explaining to us how the North Korean army was so strong and how they won the Korean War. He described to us how the Americans and the South Koreans begged the North Koreans for a ceasefire and couldn’t even look them in the eye out of pure shame. But as we exited the building, by chance I turned to look behind me and saw the label on the air conditioning unit: Samsung – the name of a very successful South Korean company. In other words, the North Koreans can ramble on and on about their remarkable achievements, but the existence of the a/c unit tells the real story – that since the end of the war, South Korea has become a technological global superpower and one of the most sophisticated countries in the world.
“In short,” I told Williams, my American travel companion, “if you’re still trying to figure out which side won the war, I have two words that will help you figure it out: Hyundai and Samsung.”
A guide at the DMZ explains the ‘victory’ of the North Koreans over the South.A guide at the DMZ explains the ‘victory’ of the North Koreans over the South.
The absolute craziest part about North Korea – and you don’t even realize this until you’ve left shiny Pyongyang and visited other parts of the country – is that while the centrifuges are running in the Yongbyon nuclear facility, the rest of the country is kept behind a smoke screen that doesn’t let technology in. For two hours, I saw an incredibly disturbing scene as we traveled south in the car from Pyongyang to the demilitarized zone. Of course, I was forbidden to photograph any of the half-destroyed, dilapidated houses or the farmers tending fields using the most primitive of tools.
I’m talking about people walking behind old iron plows pulled by oxen, and barefoot children sowing rice in the fields. And next to the fields, there were huge billboards with Korean writing on them. When I asked our guide what they said, he said, “It’s complicated – you wouldn’t understand.” But I’m 32 years old, and if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that nothing is too complicated to explain – there are only things that you don’t want to explain. And these are almost always the most problematic issues.
WHEN WE left the room where the cease-fire talks had taken place in 1953, I decided to try to uncover the greatest riddle of all: How old was Kim Jong Un? Our guides didn’t know, and I got the feeling that they didn’t like the direction the conversation was taking. But I was determined to get some information out of them, so I asked another question: Did they know that Kim Jong Un had studied in the West? They replied that they didn’t know that, so I went on to tell them that he had gone to a prestigious diplomatic school in Switzerland.
They appeared to be quite shocked by this information.
In fact, they were so taken aback that I decided not to tell them about the well-known rumor that when the school put on a production of the musical Grease, the future North Korean dictator was delighted to play a major role. Only now, as I write these words, do I realize that it is a miracle I wasn’t executed on the spot with an anti-tank missile (a common occurrence in North Korea) for doing what North Koreans fear more than anything else from Westerners: leaking uncensored information to locals.
Still, I must say that when you’re actually in North Korea, you understand that not everything people say about the country is accurate.
For example, six months ago, the BBC reported that all North Korean men are required by law to have the same exact haircut as Kim Jong Un. But when you’re there and see people walking around, you realize that just isn’t so. I mean, people there don’t have complete freedom regarding hairstyles, but there are 15 different styles men can choose from, so not everyone looks like Kim.
The same thing regarding military service. I’d read once in Haaretz that all North Korean citizens must serve 10 years in the military, but when I was there I asked my chaperone, and he told me that wasn’t true. According to the law, everyone needs to serve three years, and only people who are found suitable continue for 10 years.
Precisely for this reason, if I were an external consultant for the North Korean regime (a position I might not reject, by the way), I would recommend continuing with these guided tours, but also developing them further.
Because having been there, I can tell you that after waking up every morning at 5 a.m. to the song “Where Are You, Dear General,” I don’t have the inclination to establish an underground communist cell, but I certainly have a much more positive image of the country than I did before I visited. It might not be paradise, but it’s not the hell I’d imagined it to be.
In some ways, I actually identified with certain things that we don’t even whisper here in Israel but that are shouted from loudspeakers in North Korea. I mean, it’s true that the Americans are imperialistic like the North Koreans claim. The US does behave as if the whole world is its property. It invades countries (directly or indirectly) whenever it deems this necessary, grants aid according to its own (usually economic) interests, and doesn’t usually take into consideration whether people and/or nations get destroyed along the way. I think there are quite a few people in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Panama who would agree with me on this.
After visiting North Korea, my conclusion is that the people there are most upset by the Americans’ attitude that they have the right to do anything they want.
And I kind of agree with them there. You can’t deny that the US does act like the world is its playground.
Millions of people who live outside the borders of the United States are influenced directly or indirectly by American actions, which are sometimes carried out with incredible recklessness (such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003).
Dayan grabs the mic for a soulful karaoke rendition of Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire.’Dayan grabs the mic for a soulful karaoke rendition of Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire.’
On the other hand, I’m not by any means insinuating that North Koreans are angels. What I’m saying is that after visiting North Korea, I realize that things are much more complex than they previously appeared, and it’s not all black and white. In fact, every black and every white has thousands of shades.
ON OUR last evening in North Korea, Nimrod – my “boss” and cover in my identity as an advertising executive – Williams the American and I, along with our three chaperones, were sent to a local karaoke club. It ended up being the most surreal evening I’ve ever had in my life.
They put us in a room that was so small I almost began to hyperventilate (and I’m not even claustrophobic).
We’d been waiting there for 20 minutes when suddenly two North Korean women bounded into the room, took the microphone and began singing along with the North Korean karaoke music and gesturing to us to join in and dance with them.
I would like to take a minute here to admit something personal that not everyone knows about me: I do not dance. Ever. I didn’t even dance at my wedding.
To this day, some people still refer to me as the bridegroom who didn’t attend his own wedding. So where was I the whole evening, you might ask? I was standing at the entrance to the hall next to the guard, chatting with people while sweating profusely out of fear that someone might try to cajole me into moving onto the dance floor (which did happen a few times, but when they saw tears form at the corners of my eyes, they let me go).
In my mind, there’s nothing more stupid than dancing.
I don’t understand why people think it’s such an important activity. Why must we contort our bodies and move them in all different directions? Isn’t it obvious that if God had intended for us to dance, He wouldn’t have invented gravity? The role of gravity is to nail us to the ground and prevent our limbs from moving in all directions for no good reason.
But at some point, I saw that the North Korean karaoke women were starting to get angry that I wasn’t coming to dance with them. I realized that they were insulted, and I feared that they might think I was trying to insult their leader on purpose. I knew that I had to do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life: step out onto the dance floor. I began dancing like I never had before, because when you’re in North Korea, you can’t be too careful. I began dancing with one of the women, who was moving around me like a dreidel.
Then Cheh, our chaperone, also jumped onto the dance floor, took another microphone and began singing at the top of his lungs. All the North Koreans seemed to know the song – I could see the other two chaperones were also singing along.
I looked around me. Williams and Nimrod were dancing with the other woman, who was singing at the same time. Cheh gave his vocal chords artistic freedom. Our guide Lee and our third chaperone sat  cups of tea in their hands. And what was I doing? I was making robotic movements next to the North Korean woman who moved like a cheetah. Her movements reminded me of Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poem “Clockwork Doll.” The more the cheetah attacked me, the more the words of the poem echoed in my head: “I was a clockwork doll that night, and I turned left and I turned right and I fell and broke to bits.”
At some point, the nightmare ended, and I was allowed to sit down. Now it was our turn to sing. I flipped through the catalogue of Western songs, and then a song that I knew was meant just for me caught my eye.
I pointed to the one I’d chosen, and then I stepped onto the stage.
Into the microphone, I proclaimed that the song I’d picked – “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel – was my message to North Korea from the West. I’m a bit of a Billy Joel buff, and so I knew that in this song, the countries North Korea and its vilified neighbor to the south were both mentioned. I decided that if I wanted to be true to Joel’s genius, I couldn’t censor the words.
When we got to the part about the Koreans, my chaperones stopped and stared at me bug-eyed, but they didn’t stop or say anything, since the atmosphere in the room was pretty wild, and I guess they realized that the best mode of action was probably to turn a blind eye to the incident.
After the karaoke was over, we walked back to the hotel. Since I knew this was our last evening in the country, and since I felt like Cheh and I had bonded, I went up to him and asked if it was possible for us to remain in contact after I left and returned home.
“Do you have Facebook?” I asked him innocently.
“No, no,” he replied.
“Or email?”
“No, I don’t use the Internet.” (Translation: “I do not have permission to use the Internet.”)
“Can you make international calls?”
“No, that’s not possible from North Korea,” Cheh replied.
“And if I were to call you from overseas, would I be able to reach you?”
“No, that’s not possible.”
And that, my friends, sums up the North Korean experience: complete isolation.
 Dayan's understanding of the people and culture of North Korea: ‘complete isolation.’ Dayan's understanding of the people and culture of North Korea: ‘complete isolation.’
I COULDN’T fall asleep in my hotel room that night, so I decided to go down to the lobby in search of something to nosh. When I pushed the button on the elevator, I saw that it wasn’t working. I wasn’t surprised, actually. Although the policy was for foreign hotels to have electricity all night long (as opposed to the rest of Pyongyang, which was completely cut off for hours every night), this wasn’t always the case. I headed toward the emergency stairwell so I could walk downstairs. It was at that moment that I noticed something incredible: There was another hidden elevator behind a door next to the stairwell.
This elevator was in fact operating. I couldn’t contain my curiosity, so I pushed the button, and the elevator door opened. I stepped inside. I knew what I was doing was crazy. Whereas the official elevator had only gone up to the 35th floor, this one went up to the 44th floor. Of course, I was completely out of control by then, so I pressed the button for the 44th floor.
The elevator began to rise, and so did my trepidation.
When it reached the 44th floor and the elevator doors opened, right in front of me stood two North Korean women. They yelled out something and then ran to the left, down a hallway that was covered with murals of the Kim dynasty and of soldiers fighting heroically.
I didn’t think twice – I pushed the button for my floor and prayed that the elevator doors would close quickly, that I’d be able to get back to my room safely and that nothing would happen to me and prevent me from getting out of this weird place. The doors finally closed, and I got out on my floor and made a beeline for my room. I lay down on the bed, my heart beating like crazy, and turned to look out the window over the city.
I suddenly understood that in comparison to the other nights, when I’d been amazed by this city that was completely dark, this time I was pretty indifferent to the whole thing. At that moment, I realized that darkness is something you can get used to pretty easily.