While it is not normally necessary to base a travel plan on whether or not you agree with the government in power, North Korea is an exception. Since the Korean War armistice that split the peninsula in two in 1953, it has gone from communism to the oppressive regime we know it as today. It is a truly intimidating place and as a traveller, you will most definitely experience that. The government heavily controls and basically stages any tour you go on. You never see or interact with anything or anyone they don’t want you to. Samuel Getachew of The Reporter recently traveled to the isolated country and found out that he was not “discovering” anything – he was being fed pure propaganda.
When the conversation to visit North Korea started months ago with its embassy in Addis Ababa, I welcomed the opportunity. I saw it as a chance of a lifetime to visit one of the most isolated nations in the world. They saw it as a chance to use me to present a different perspective of their nation.
The country has never been in my radar but I was fascinated. From the outset, I knew this would be a unique international trip like no other. It was not like the experience of going to New York and being wowed with skyscrapers or to Dubai and being impressed with shopping centers. I knew I was visiting a struggling nation trying to survive in the midst of sanctions and isolations.
There is something abyss, overwhelming about visiting North Korea. It was one of the most exhausting trips I have ever taken. In hindsight, United States Senator John McCain is correct – if any American is “stupid” enough to venture into the country, they should be required to sign a waiver from potentially blaming their nation for not protecting them. That warning should be extended to anyone, American or otherwise that is crazy enough to visit the country.
I arrived in Pyongyang via Beijing the day Dennis Rodman departed. I was hoping for a chance of meeting with one of the most colorful characters of my generation. It did not happen. He left mere hours after I arrived.
Pyongyang International Airport is anything but international, with few flights coming from abroad. As long as international flights are concerned, the only international flights coming in are from Russia and Beijing. It looked abandoned and had slow traffic of people. There were very few foreign faces and I stood out. Striking details as military songs played endlessly everywhere even inside an aging Russian-made Air Koryo plane that brought me to the historic city.
I was inspected thoroughly. That was because I had declared copies of Newsweek, the Economist and TIME magazines in my luggage. The authorities were looking for materials that they deemed offensive to the nation. Anything about North Korea that is not positive is considered offensive. Happily, I did not have anything that would compromise my stay in this foreign land. My phone went through many screenings, my messages were read and all the pictures inspected. I threw everything I deemed might be offensive on my way. This was no ordinary society.
I was welcomed by a delegation of three arranged by the North Korean embassy in Addis Ababa. They were to be my escort for the next five days. I was to be under their control. I was not to talk to anyone or take pictures without their authorization. They had crafted my journey accordingly and the narrative of what I would experience predicted. They were here to help me execute their plan. Not mine!
I was to stay at an ordinary hotel next to an office that publishes the nation’s daily propaganda newspaper. It had pictures and political messages, in the lobby, in the hallways and everywhere I went. It was suffocating at best. I was asked very private questions on my Canadian citizenship, family and marital status and others. It was uncomfortable but I answered every question as if they were natural to me. They were not.
A quick glimpse of the city, it mirrored a living room like atmosphere with portraits of Kim II-Sung and Kim Jong-il at every corner. Every citizen dressed and walked alike and they seemed terrified. I was also terrified. For the next five days, I was to have a full schedule.
I was taken to the Panmunjom – the military demarcation line and was told “the imperialists” are provoking a potential war and helping their “puppets”. It was an overwhelming experience. They encouraged me to ask questions but I did not have the courage or the heart to do so. I was not sure it would provoke a wrong reaction. I was given a tour of places and sat on chairs where important talks had taken place on the conflicts between South and North Korea.
I was taken to the Juche Tower and told about the exceptional vision of Kim Il-Sung and the Mangyongdae – the birthplace of Kim Il-Sung. I was told how he escaped poverty to become their eternal leader. I saw family pictures and was asked to fetch water from a well and drink. I did.
Then, I was taken to a zoo to see a slew of animals that were donated to Kim II-Sung from heads of states. There was a sign acknowledging the donation of monkeys by former President of Ethiopia, Mengistu Hailemariam.
I visited the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and saw USS Pueblo. I was lectured how North Korea humiliated the American military. I was shown handwritten notes from American soldiers, apologizing and admitting their “grave mistakes” and I was encouraged to take souvenir pictures. I did.
I was asked to sign a book expressing my admiration of North Korea under the watchful eyes of my escorts. I tried to be as vague as possible. What I wrote was inspected and translated right away. What if I wrote things they did not like?
One afternoon, after lunch, I was driven to the Academy of Social Science for a conversation. This was to be an adult conversation on politics and ideas. Because I was not given any warning, I was ill prepared to talk communism with intellectual elites. They mostly spoke and I listened. They lectured me about the goods of communism and the happiness it has brought to the masses. I almost swallowed my tongue when they suggested I help them expand communism in Ethiopia.
In my head, I was reflecting on the Derg era in Ethiopia, where the military abused human rights, destroyed the livelihoods of citizens and sent the young to pointless conflicts. I reflected the time when my grandmother was imprisoned when she shielded my uncle, barely old enough to graduate from high school, so he would not be sent to a war. The curfews, the limitation of movements in the wee hours of the night, the youthful dream lost in the midst of madness – what is there in the old Ethiopian society to admire or emulate? I felt lost at times, depressed at best.
I was taken to the residence of a scientist to have a family tea. I was given a tour of their apartment and was told it was provided by their supreme leader. The apartment and the contents were donated to them by the supreme leader of the nation, I was told. I tried to comprehend how a scientist could be poor enough to benefit from subsidized housing, mostly reserved for the poor in the rest of the world.
At the Pyongyang Orphanage, I had children sing me a song praising Kim Jong-un. At the Jangchon Vegetable Cooperation Farm, I was shown a bench Kim Jong-un once sat on. It was covered in clean beautiful cloth to help preserve its prestige since the president once sat on it. I was encouraged to seat on it, but I refused. What if one of them took offense and I was sent to prison, I thought.
One morning, I was rudely awakened with military and folk songs as people dressed in beautiful costumes danced in front of the hotel. I jumped out of bed thinking the country was about to be invaded and liberated. I felt I had accidently fallen in the nation’s transition, perhaps a historic moment. It was not.
It was a day marking the anniversary of Kim Jong-Il’s first day of work with the Workers’ Party Central Committee. That is a public holiday in North Korea. This is a nation constructed by the image of individuals not its populations.
All throughout, I was asked about Otto Warmbier (the American youth who was imprissoned to hard labour and later died as his only crime was he stole a government propogranda sign) and what I thought of him and the offense he committed. I wondered what could have happened to me had I given undesired answer. I took a long shower to cleanse the answers I gave when I was given free times in my temporary sanctuary.
Back at the hotel, I was pressured to have someone send money by my escorts and I was not sure why. The embassy had clearly invited me to the country and I was not told of any payment. It added much pressure on me and pushed me to the breaking point. As the pressure for money became great, I asked to leave the country sooner than anticipated but that was refused. I felt my friendly escorts were becoming my captors.
There was no bank accessible to a foreigner for me to run to and pay for my exit. My escorts had my passport and I was not allowed to travel alone or take a taxi. I felt vulnerable.
They asked USD 2000 initially (then said it was a joke) but I was no mood to joke with people I barely knew. That was reduced to USD 1500 and then USD 1000. I spent countless nights trying to call my bosses in Ethiopia, but there was no internet and the phone lines were poor. Somehow, one night, my phone mysteriously worked after speaking to one of my escorts and it worked.
I spoke to my editors at The Reporter and it was arranged that they would pay the equivalent of USD 1000. What I learned after I came back is that they were forced by the embassy to pay at an exaggerated black market exchange rate of 28,000 birr. I was heartened funds were paid, but was more shocked that a foreign mission would demand to use black market exchanges. The funds, literally a ransom allowed my exit finally. I wondered what could have happened if I did not manage to have someone pay for me.
The experience did not change my perception but reinforced what I already knew from a distance.
By Samuel Getachew