Rare visit to North Korea finds land of beauty, control

A scene from the annual Mass Games. Videos: Inside North Korea | Mass Games
A scene from the annual Mass Games. Videos: Inside North Korea | Mass Games Tim Johnson / MCT

PYONGYANG, North Korea — As soon as you settle into the seat of the Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang, it's obvious that North Korea is a nation like no other.

The plane is a Soviet-made relic with whining engines and small overhead bins. The flight attendants pass out sandwiches in plastic throwaway containers, then collect the containers and plastic cups to be reused. North Korea is so poor, and so determined to be self-reliant, that it scrimps and salvages what the rest of the world considers trash.

In contrast to booming, chaotic China, North Korea is an oasis of cleanliness, order and quiet. There's almost no litter: Every item is used to exhaustion. In the countryside, rivers and streams run clean, and vistas of forest dot the rural landscape.

North Korea, it seems, is too impoverished to despoil its countryside. The last Stalinist holdout on the globe, it seems trapped in time, decades out of sync. But upon looking around, a thought occurs: Is this the past or the future? Could a world so ravenous for resources eventually enter an era of scarcity in which every scrap everywhere must be reused?

The realities of North Korea, a police state, quickly end such reveries.

Tour guides, rather than being solicitous, are often stern and rarely out of sight. They commandeer passports and mobile phones at the airport, and return them upon departure.

"Delete the picture!" guide Kim Hyon-choi scolded one man among a small group of foreign journalists. "You mustn't take pictures of the bad side of our country, ugly things. ... We will confiscate them."

On subsequent days, however, the rules changed. No photos of soldiers. No photos of the rickety electric trams in the capital. No photos from the moving tourist bus.

"Can we take a picture of the monument? It's Kim Il Sung," implored a South African cameraman, referring to the founder of North Korea, who's revered as a godlike "Great Leader." His image is everywhere. A monument loomed on one side of the bus.

"No, sorry," Kim Hyon-choi said.

The tour guides seemed more afraid of one another than they were of the foreigners, each one whispering in private that he or she wanted to offer more freedom but feared being ratted out by the others.

The bus arrived the first night at the May Day Stadium, which can hold 150,000 people. It's the site of the Arirang Mass Games, the largest choreographed gymnastics and dance display in the world. While thousands of dancers move about the field in flawless formation, children in the opposing stands flip cards to form massive murals.

It's been called the world's greatest extravaganza, and indeed it's the equivalent of a Super Bowl halftime show on steroids.In addition to exalting the deceased Great Leader and his son, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, who rules the country now, the show lamented the division of the Korean Peninsula into South and North Korea, two distant neighbors.

"The land is one, the blood is one, the language is one, and the customs are one, too," one giant mural said. "Defend the peace. Achieve unity."

The next day, an escort explained why a huge pyramid-shaped building, 105 stories tall, appears to have been abandoned in mid-construction.

"It was never finished for lack of money," guide An Gyong-chol said.

On Mansu Hill in central Pyongyang, flowers were piled at the feet of a statue of Kim Il Sung. Escorts told visitors to approach the statue, lay bouquets and bow. Everyone obeyed.

Two hours north of the capital sits Mount Myohyang, a monument to the idolatry that the Kim dynasty demands of its citizens. There, two exhibition halls contain gifts to North Korea's leaders from heads of state and distinguished political figures.

One massive building contains 221,411 gifts. "If you take one minute to see each gift, it will take you half a year to see them all," An whispers to a visitor.

The gifts, arranged in halls by continent and country, range from kitschy wooden figurines and plaques to elaborate carpets, carved ivory statues, a bulletproof limousine and two entire train wagons donated by Chinese leader Mao Zedong and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, respectively.

"You can find gifts from about 100 presidents and their countries," said tour guide Ree Yong-hui, walking past a gold saber from Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and a black pistol given by former East German leader Erich Honecker.

Only one billboard interrupted the 95-mile ride back to Pyongyang — for a car made by Peace Motors, a joint venture between the automotive arm of South Korea's Unification Church and a North Korean company.

"This is advertising!" An said brightly, signaling his awareness of Madison Avenue.

While billboards are rare, murals exhort the populace at every turn. "We will do everything the party demands!" said one.

A Chinese tourist aboard the bus let out an exasperated sigh.

"These are all slogans we have heard before. We are tired of them," said Han Fuzhu, a businessman who was visiting with his wife from northeast China.

Many Chinese come to North Korea, where they can gamble at Pyongyang's casino, look for business deals and thank their lucky stars that China has left doctrinaire communism far behind. Their trips here boost pride at how far China has come.

Pyongyang at night is eerily silent and inky. Unlike China, where cyclists rely on streetlights to guide them in the darkness, North Koreans must use the dim lights on their bikes to avoid crashing.

By 7 a.m., long queues of passengers form at roadsides for buses, and streams of people walk toward their jobs. Traffic is minimal. Electric trams ply the wide boulevards. No beggars accost passers-by. No one looks destitute. But people look small, shorter and thinner than their better-fed cousins in South Korea.

In parks, some elderly women stoop to cut grass with small knives, filling plastic bags with clippings to take home and feed the rabbits they raise for food.

Nearly everyone wears a lapel pin with the likeness of the Great Leader or his son.

The eyes and ears of the state are omnipresent. One foreigner in Pyongyang described finding three tiny microphones planted in the walls of his mission.

Teams of street sweepers outnumber vehicles along the highway to the border post of Panmunjom, where soldiers from North and South Korea glare at each other across the 38th Parallel, which divides capitalism from communism and democracy from dictatorship.

As one approaches the border, concrete towers rise by the roadside, ready to be toppled as barricades in the event of a tank invasion. A hedge divides the highway, to prevent enemy planes from using it as a landing strip.

Korean People's Army Lt. Col. Ri Gwang-hol took an interest in an American visitor, grasping his elbow gently and asking whether he had children.

"As I told you, we like U.S. people. We only dislike the U.S. administration," Ri said, adding that American troops should leave South Korea. "They came here only to make trouble. Why don't they return to their homes?"

No law bars U.S. citizens from traveling to North Korea. But the North offers visas only at certain times, usually to coincide with Mass Games in April or from mid-August to early October. Few Americans cross through the looking glass into the Hermit Kingdom each year.

At a border gift shop, a booklet provides a topsy-turvy view of history. Contrary to fact, it says that the 1950-53 Korean War was sparked by a U.S. invasion of the North and ended in a "disgraceful defeat" for American troops. It contains photos showing rice, cement, medicines and other "relief supplies" sent from the North to South Korea. The photos provide no date. In fact, in recent years the famine-stricken North has received tens of millions of dollars in relief from the far richer South.

On a final morning, a couple of companions arose at 5 a.m. to play a round of golf at the nine-hole course in front of the tourist hotel. A guide, alerted to the game, scurried out to hover by their sides. There was no escape.

An air raid siren broke the stillness at 7 a.m. Other journalists strolled to a busy street away from the hotel. One set up a video camera and filmed cyclists rolling past.

Another guide sprinted to the road, and arrived bathed in perspiration.

"What are you doing? You can't film here! What's the matter?" An said. "No pictures! We have no time left," he added, tapping his watch.

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