A peek behind the North Korean curtain In the gift shop at my hotel, I found a phrase book. It told me how to say, 'I wish the Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il long life in good health,' but I couldn't find 'Where is the toilet?' July 12, 2000 Share 1 -- Editor's note: Travel Weekly editor at large Arnie Weissmann visited North Korea in the early '90s. In light of recent developments, his destination report offers timely insights.PYONGYANG, North Korea -- The recent New York Times photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il holding raised hands with South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung, promising to work together toward peace and unity, was something I thought I'd never see.A companion news report that the U.S. plans to lift sanctions imposed on North Korea -- including those in the areas of travel and tourism -- was more surprising still.What is travel in North Korea like? Unable to find a correspondent to handle this assignment for Weissmann Travel Reports, I spent a little more than a week there in the early '90s. This was before "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung died and was replaced by his son, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il.A trip there is not so much about sightseeing as it is about experiencing a unique culture. And from what I've read since my visit, that culture has not changed very dramatically, despite recent political movement between the Koreas.From the start of my trip, I felt as if I had walked into an Asian version of the novel "1984."A large mural in the Pyongyang train station, my point of arrival, showed Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il painted in brilliant reds, yellows and oranges in front of a vista with the setting sun behind them.Everyone in the station -- make that the nation -- wore a little Kim Il Sung button over his or her heart. Large portraits of the Great Leader smiled down from buildings and billboards along the route to the hotel.In the gift shop at my hotel, I found a phrase book. It told me how to say, "I wish the Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il long life in good health," but I couldn't find "Where is the toilet?" or "What's your name?"My guide from the official North Korean tourist bureau, also named Kim, and I went over the itinerary he had planned for me. It included stops at Kim Il Sung Stadium, Kim Il Sung Square, the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, Kim Il Sung University, the Grand Monument (featuring a three-story bronze statue of Kim Il Sung), the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery (where Kim Il Sung's first wife is buried) and an amusement park. In other words, a nice balance of history and fun.Kim (the guide Kim) relentlessly preached the virtues of the "Juche Idea," North Korea's guiding philosophy. Political slogans -- always punctuated with an exclamation point! -- hung from every building.Signs with slogans were brought in for construction sites, and I had even seen the signs in rice fields.The radio in our car played an endless stream of light pop music. I'd asked the name of these songs. One was "We'll Gladly Live With Mother," he said. Others were "A Picturesque Place, Good to Live In" and "Two Comrades Are Criticized."I asked him to translate one cheery tune. "I am a construction worker, happy in my job. I hate for my work to end, but I know that in the morning, I will rise happy again, like the sun, for another full day."This depressing/uplifting spirit was rendered in three dimensions at the Grand Monument. Schoolchildren approached the three-story statue of Kim Il Sung in groups, bowed and placed flowers at his feet.Two bas-reliefs flanked the statue, one portraying the armed struggle to "liberation," the other, progress since liberation. The detail was extraordinary: Each soldier in the struggle is a study in determination.The "progress" of the nation was humanized through individuals, as well -- an old farmer carrying produce, a young woman with a small TV tucked under her arm.It was an inspiring cross between Chinese Cultural Revolution-era art and Norman Rockwell -- great attention is paid to each face, and hope, determination and joy shine through.The art contrasts so sharply with the reality of North Korea that the entire capital city of Pyongyang becomes a giant gallery of surrealism.The city, as seen from a window atop the 600-foot-high Tower of the Juche Idea, looks like an architectural model, in part because it was completely rebuilt after the Korean War and in part because so few people are on the streets. ("Everyone's at work," guide Kim explained.)I was based in the capital for my entire visit, but took day trips.The first was to Myoyangsan, a beautiful, mountainous nature area and home of the International Friendship Exhibition, a six-story museum of gifts given to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il by people from other countries.And what a collection of gifts. The Kims have amassed hundreds of rooms of presents. Practical presents (a handheld calculator for young son Kim Jong Il), thoughtful presents (framed, inscribed photographic portraits from the Great Leader's pals, Mao, Khomeini and Khadafi) and presents both practical and thoughtful (a bullet-proof sedan from Stalin).Some gifts, such as plastic souvenir place mats from Mauritius, seemed to be an afterthought, picked up at the airport on the way to a summit.My favorite was a portrait of Kim Il Sung rendered in lines of Arabic script (the text of which is "...the undying classic, 'The Non-Alignment Movement Is a Mighty Anti-Imperialist Revolutionary Force of Our Times'").The other memorable excursion was to Panmunjom, on the border with South Korea. This is quite a different tour from a tour taken from the South.The tour from the South is a tightly controlled affair (you're given explicit instructions on how to dress and behave, and your time at the border is brief). I supposed this was because the U.S. and South Korean forces don't want to provoke a North Korean response to a perceived infraction.The tour from the North, on the other hand, had an almost laconic feel. I surmised this was because North Koreans didn't want to ruin their reputation for behaving unpredictably.I was put with a group visiting from Taiwan, and we wandered around the border area, took photos of one another and watched several tour groups from the South come and go.We were taken into the room where talks still take place, and our guide, an Army major, invited us to sit at the table and pretend to negotiate (on the tour from the South, Marines give strict instructions not to touch the table or even circle it completely).As a visitor, my biggest frustration was that I had very little contact with North Koreans other than my guides.I tried various ploys to get closer to the citizenry. I told my guide Kim I wanted to go to a restaurant to eat instead of the hotel. He said he'd arrange it, then brought me to a private room in a restaurant.I told him I wanted to go see a movie. He told me I could watch movies on the TV in my hotel room. (Not true. All I could ever get were political speeches and soap operas.)I told him I wanted to visit a typical house to see how people lived, and he resisted, but on my last day surprised me by saying he would take me to see his apartment.We drove into a quiet neighborhood of apartment buildings; he led me up several flights of stairs, opened a door and invited me in.I had regarded my guide as a bit of a robot up to that point; his boasts and diatribes revealed little humanity. I reckoned that he was an intelligence officer, and I wasn't surprised to learn he had been an army officer, working in embassies abroad.He worshiped Kim Il Sung, often referring to him as "our father," and sure enough, there was a portrait of the Great Leader in every room.But when we sat down on his sofa, his demeanor changed dramatically: He was suddenly a humble, nervous, eager-to-please host. We went through three family photo albums.He was very proud of his son -- whose name means "Faithful to the State" -- and he translated a poem he had written on the day his daughter was born. In it he wrote that he would build for her a room whose roof was a rainbow, and whose walls would be made from flowers.I saw photos of his revered grandmother, children's birthday parties, funerals, him in uniform. He talked about his wife, who had a weak heart, and their daughter, who was prone to high fevers. He talked about wanting to impart a legacy of his good life to his son.He served biscuits and tea, and surprised me by apologizing for offering only Korean-made products, "not of high quality." He gave me a guidebook to a history museum, and inscribed it, "From your friendly, frankly guide."Should you send clients to North Korea once it opens up? Absolutely.Emphasize that it takes a bit of effort to reach the heart behind the rhetoric, but advise your clients that it's worth that effort.