Travels in North Korea Part II

A lesson in discretion

The entrance to the North Korean War Museum. (photo credit: LIOR DAYAN)
The entrance to the North Korean War Museum.
(photo credit: LIOR DAYAN)
I have to reiterate that sanity is not my strong point – but sometimes even someone like me comes across a person who makes him feel like he is at the peak of mental health.
That’s how I felt about Williams [whose first name I didn’t catch], the American guy the North Koreans stuck me and [PR executive] Nimrod Nir with at the Pyongyang airport. I mean, if you think about it, it’s a bit crazy for an American to go to North Korea, since the US sits at the top of the list of countries they despise. In the minds of Koreans, Satan wears jeans, eats hamburgers and walks around humming “Born in the USA.”
An American going to visit North Korea is like an Israeli touring Gaza. The general rule in North Korea goes something like this: Everything wrong in the country is the Americans’ fault.
This was repeated so many times during my trip that at one point I felt like grabbing my chaperone by the lapels and yelling, “Get over it! It’s been 62 years since the war ended. It’s time to move on.”
From my point of view as an Israeli, of course, it’s a refreshing experience to go somewhere you’re not considered the biggest pariah around. The North Koreans feel about Israelis as they do about the people living in South Korea: They believe they’re prisoners of American imperialism.
Also, because North Koreans learn about every last detail of World War II in elementary school (since this was what brought about the end of Japanese occupation and the birth of the North Korean nation), they know about the Holocaust and the plight of the Jews. In fact, at one point during my trip, one of the chaperones turned to me and said, “You Jews are just like us. You know how it feels to have everyone against you.”
“NO, YOU can’t be serious,” I said to Williams as he was leaving through the front door of the hotel.
“I’m totally serious,” he said. “I can forgo my morning run, but I need to take a walk. I have to check out this street without our chaperones.”
As Williams walked away, I stayed in the area our chaperones had said we were allowed to stand (up until the standing ashtray). I understood two things in that moment: One, my level of sanity – compared to Williams’s – was pretty high; and two, apparently Americans are so indoctrinated with a feeling of freedom that they can’t fathom such a thing as a place in the world that could put limits on that personal freedom.
As I stood there watching Williams walk down into the pedestrian tunnel, I wondered if I was going to get into trouble, too, since I was his travel partner.
Would I end up paying for his curiosity? Was I going to get arrested and put in jail, where I would linger in appalling conditions and suffer torture such as the Western world hasn’t seen since the Middle Ages? The reason I was worried about this was the North Koreans’ affinity for collective punishment. Slews of North Koreans were thrown into labor camps around the country just because they had been standing in the vicinity of offenders (i.e., people who had been publicly protesting the regime). In the eyes of the regime, one of the worst crimes one can commit is to try and leave North Korea by crossing the Tuman River into China. Regardless of whether you are caught (i.e., shot by the border patrol) or not (more often the case), the consequences are always the same: All your family members, and those of anyone who directly or indirectly helped you, are automatically sent to work camps from which they will never be released.
I could feel the fear in the air. I thought to myself, that’s it, I’m done for. Every time I’d visited a dangerous place (the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, the Syrian-Iraqi border), I’d experienced a moment like this. But this time, it had come earlier than I had expected – less than 24 hours after I’d landed.
Suddenly I heard loud whistling, and a car flew around the corner and disappeared in the direction of where Williams had gone. One minute later, the same car arrived at the entrance of the hotel and screeched to a halt. Two North Koreans got out of the car, dragging Williams and holding his hands behind his back. They whisked him into the hotel and only released him once they saw our chaperones. A minute later, I saw them reprimanding our chaperones.
I went up to Williams and asked him what had happened. He told me that as he was coming out the other end of the tunnel, a traffic policewoman standing at the intersection had seen him and immediately given two hard blasts on her whistle, stopping all the traffic.
Within 30 seconds, the police car had arrived, and two plainclothes officers had yanked him inside.
“It was pretty crazy, just like in the movies,” Williams said dreamily, like he was still in shock.
IN ALL of the articles I’d read about North Korea, I’d never heard of someone trying to do what Williams did.
At any rate, it had become pretty clear that even if you managed to get away from your chaperones for a minute, you wouldn’t last more than 10 minutes on the street, because there aren’t any Westerners walking around the streets of Pyongyang. The second a North Korean sees a Westerner walking around unattended, he’ll report it to the police.
The longer you last outside without a chaperone, the tighter the noose around your neck becomes.
Luckily for Williams, he didn’t get a chance to see anything incriminating.
But what surprised me most of all from this incident was that the people who got into the most trouble were our chaperones. I can’t even imagine what kind of punishment they received.
After this incident, it occurred to me that North Korea’s official tours were more important than I’d previously thought. I knew that the only way for locals to get their hands on foreign currency was when foreigners visited.
North Korean citizens have a difficult time accessing foreign currency due to the heavy sanctions placed on the country by the entire world (except for China). So the only way people can get their hands on foreign currency is through Western tourists. Foreigners are not even allowed to use local currency – only dollars and euros.
So I figured that the reason Williams hadn’t been thrown into some dungeon jail was that they didn’t want to be considered a crazy dangerous country that was not worth visiting.
OUR FIRST destination that day was the North Korean War Museum – or, as it’s officially called, the Museum of Triumph. Just from hearing its name, you can imagine that it’s one big propaganda show. I mean, it’s not like the war ended in triumph for the North Koreans (officially it was a temporary cease-fire).
On our way to the museum, as I sat in the van, I asked Cheh, the chaperone sitting next to the driver, about something strange I’d experienced the night before. Well, strange might not fully describe what happened.
“At 5 o’clock this morning,” I told Cheh, “all of a sudden I began hearing music playing outside my window. When I opened the window, I realized it was playing everywhere. Was I dreaming?” “No, of course not,” he responded nonchalantly. “This song is played over the city’s alarm system every morning.
It’s called ‘Where are you, Dear General.’ It’s a wonderful, exciting song that gives you the energy to get out of bed in the morning and the desire to serve your country. Our leader Kim Il Sung wrote this song in the 1970s. It’s beautiful, don’t you think?” After I heard Cheh’s response, I knew I was in the craziest place in the world, or the scariest. What I really wanted to know was whether the local people with whom I was coming into contact (i.e., our three chaperones) really believed the crazy things that were coming out of their mouths, or whether they were just too scared to say something that might be construed as disloyal to the regime and would get them and their families thrown into work camps – just another statistic in a UN Human Rights Committee document.
But it seemed like they really did believe all the outrageous things they were telling me. So I set a new goal for myself: to discover whether they believed these things out of fear, or whether they were all just nuts.
On our way into the museum, on display on either side of the walkway we saw items left over from the American military invasion: tanks, helicopters and airplanes. I was a little uncomfortable when we passed by the USS Pueblo, an American Naval Intelligence ship that had been attacked and captured in North Korean territorial waters in 1968.
There’s a 4-meter reproduction of an apology letter written by the then-US chief of naval operations, asking for the release of the American soldiers who’d been taken prisoner. The tour guide told us, “This letter is proof that the United States military is spineless. As you can see, the American general forgot to write the date, and so we needed to add it ourselves.”
But this was just our introduction to the museum.
When I heard the answer to the question of why the American general had forgotten to sign the letter, it was all I could do to keep myself from bursting out laughing.
“The reason is,” the guide explained, “that he was still in shock from the embarrassing hit the US Navy had suffered, and he couldn’t think straight. The US has never suffered such a heavy setback since, and it’s taken time for them to accept this part of American history.”
Yep, you read that correctly. Forget about Pearl Harbor or the Vietnam War. The hardest hit on the US military came from North Korea when the USS Pueblo was captured.
“Americans separate time into two: before the USS Pueblo was captured, and afterward. It’s never been the same since.”
I stood there listening to our guide, and thought to myself that if you had stopped an American on the street in the late ’60s when the incident occurred and asked him what the Pueblo was, he probably would have guessed, “The name of a Jimi Hendrix song?” When we reached the museum entrance, we were asked not to take any pictures inside. Then the real show began.
As we walked in, we were greeted by a huge wax sculpture of the esteemed leader Kim Il Sung, and were asked to bow in reverence. So of course we complied.
When we were done honoring the fearless leader, we walked up the stairs and came upon a room that was covered from top to bottom in Italian marble. I felt like I was in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel, that’s how luxurious and kitschy it looked.
We were shown a 15-minute movie about the war from the North Korean point of view. Now I really began to understand the gap between what they believe took place and what the rest of the world believes.
I think the only thing both narratives agree on is that the war began in 1950 and that there was a ceasefire in 1953.
ACCORDING TO Westerners, in 1950, Kim Il Sung (who was backed by the communist Soviet Union) decided to invade South Korea to consolidate both Koreas under his leadership. He gave the command to the military to advance toward Seoul, and the war officially began. At first, North Korea succeeded in taking over a significant amount of territory in the South (which was backed by the US) and even reached Seoul. At that point, the US intervened and pushed the North Koreans back to the where they had started and then some.
The Americans considered overtaking more territory, but then the Chinese became concerned that American troops might reach the Chinese border, so they sent reinforcements to repel the Americans. There was a bit of fighting around the 38th parallel north line, with no clear advantage for either side, and then a cease-fire was set in place and a temporary border was drawn. This is the border that remains in place until today.
And now for the version we heard at the Museum of Triumph. According to the movie, the American pig imperialists plotted to conquer all of Korea (to get a foothold in Asia and take over other areas on the continent), and that’s why they launched a surprise attack on a Sunday, which is a day of rest in North Korea. Kim Il Sung realized that the only way he could respond was by counterattack, so he reacted strongly (and with great skill, of course) and succeeded in reaching all the way to Seoul. However, in the meantime, the Americans brought in reinforcements and recruited other countries to help. And so the brilliant North Korean general decided to carry out a “strategic retreat” back to the cease-fire line. North Koreans continued fighting valiantly against the vast US Army and other Western countries’ militaries, and succeeded in preventing them from taking over territory from North Korea.
According to the movie, Kim Il Sung’s ultimate wisdom enabled him to lead his country in the war as an artist paints a painting, and to compose operas and songs like the one that was heard every morning at 5 a.m. Although they were so few against so many, they managed to survive and to surprise the world with their great determination against the imperialists. Finally the US understood that it would not be able to overcome the North Koreans, and so it agreed to sign the shameful temporary cease-fire agreement.
The Chinese role in the war was played down, although it was mentioned as an aside that 400,000 Chinese people lost their lives fighting for North Korea.
The number of North Koreans who died in the war was significantly lower.
In the museum, we saw multiple displays that expressed the North Koreans’ great suffering. There were torture instruments the Americans had used to torture the North Koreans they had taken prisoner. Near the exit, there was a souvenir store where you could buy an assortment of books, including one called Towards Final Victory by Kim Jung Un.
“Wow! He wrote a book?” I asked the woman working in the store.
“Of course, he wrote and published many books,” she told me proudly.
“I also published a book in the country where I come from,” I told her.
“Really? What was it about?” she asked me.
“Short stories about people’s difficulties in relationships and our inability to understand our place in the world.”
“What?” she asked. “That sounds so depressing.
Why would anyone want to read something like that?” “That’s actually a really good question,” I replied. “People don’t write about things like that in North Korea?” “No, nobody writes about stuff like that here, and I’m happy about that. This way nobody lets himself become despondent about anything. Why would you want to focus on negative things? Doesn’t that just make you feel worse? If you’re a writer, you should write only about the nice things that take place in your country or in your life. That way, you’ll make people feel better about their lives.”
This was the first time I’d had the opportunity to hear someone say something real in North Korea, something that made sense. I’d finally learned a little bit about North Koreans. I began to think that maybe our suffering in life really was self-inflicted.
Does a person who’s never heard Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen’s wistful songs or read Raymond Carver or Dylan Thomas’s melancholic poems suffer differently than we in the West do? Does he suffer at all? Maybe our free and open culture really is poisonous.
WHEN WE finished the tour of the museum, we continued to one of Pyongyang’s finest destinations: the world’s deepest underground subway (100 meters deep). I’d heard that the North Korean subway was just for show. I mean, how can a nation that doesn’t even allow its citizens to use electricity at night operate a subway that runs through the entire city? But I can tell you that Pyongyang’s subway is absolutely incredible.
The walls of the station are covered with gigantic murals of their leader. Huge chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and instead of support columns, there are marble-covered arches. Hundreds of people got on the subway with us, so there was no way this was just for show. I think this was just another example of classic North Korean exaggeration. Of course, it’s likely that all the other subway stops look more like Mosul after it’s been bombed. Or that these are the only two subway stops in the city.
While we were riding the subway from one stop to the other, I decided to try my luck. I asked Cheh if he was allowed to travel with his family to, say, Italy. His answer was both ridiculous and brilliant at the same time.
“I’m too busy for vacations,” he replied.
I didn’t relent, though, and asked him if someone else in his country who was less busy could take such a trip.
“There is no such thing. Everyone here is very busy.
We are a busy nation,” he replied. He paused a moment and then added, “I feel that your questions are beyond the scope of tourism.”
I smiled at him and said, “I’m just a naturally curious person, that’s all.”
“Yes, I suppose you would need to be in your profession, advertising, right?” “Yes, of course,” I replied. The subway car stopped at the station, and we exited into a station that was just as elegant as the previous one.
“You know, because there is no such thing as advertising here, I would love to hear a little bit about what you do in your work,” he said.
And that was true – I’d noticed that there were no billboards or ads anywhere. From a marketing standpoint, the country was completely sterile. The only signs I’d seen were propaganda posters that praised the supreme leader, work, the country and dying for the sake of the country (yes, I’d actually seen one that specifically stated that it was an honor to give your life for the homeland).
“Well,” I stammered, “I’m the creative VP, so I’m responsible for everything creative.”
I knew I had to give him details and make a convincing case here. “I’ll give you an example. Let’s say a client walks into the office, and he wants us to advertise the refrigerators he sells. I’ll gather together my team and we’ll brainstorm what’s the best way to show his products in a way that will make people want to buy them.”
“And how do you do that?” he asked.
“It’s actually pretty simple,” I said with confidence.
“I have a foolproof method. The client shows me what the product is, and then I think of a wild animal that can help describe the attributes of the product, such as an elephant or a panther. These two animals go with almost everything. And then I write above the product, ‘The panther of fridges,’ or ‘The elephant of fridges.’” “And if someone is selling ovens?” he asked.
“Same thing. I think of an animal that fits, like a cheetah, and I write on top: ‘The cheetah of ovens.’” “You always use animals?” “Yes, I love wild animals,” I replied. “Can you think of anything better than animals to get a message across?” “I understand,” Cheh said. And then I thought to myself, I’m standing in the only place in the entire world where the description I just gave sounds reasonable.
Just before we left the subway station, I saw a group of cute kids who looked to be around three or four years old. I went up to them and said hi. They seemed kind of amused by me. One of them even shook my hand, and I thought, maybe he’ll grow up to hate Westerners just a little bit less. Cheh called to me to move on.
“We have to hurry to the van,” he said. “It’s late and we have a long drive.”
So I hurried with Cheh to the car that was waiting to take us 180 km. south of Pyongyang to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea – the most volatile and dangerous place in the world.
I’ve heard estimates that there are almost a million soldiers on the north side and half a million soldiers along the south side at the ready in case war breaks out between the two nations. There are tens of thousands of tanks and guns in place, and more mines in the strip along the border than in any other place in the world. In other words, this is a cheery place that I will describe in more detail in the next installment. 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
The first installment appeared in the July 3 issue of the Magazine. The third and final installment will appear in the Magazine on July 24.
Lior Dayan is the son of late filmmaker Assi Dayan and actress Caroline Langford and the grandson of the late General Moshe Dayan and screenwriter Barry Langford. He is well-known in his own right as a journalist, author and TV personality.