On June 17, 2000, shortly after
North Korea made unprecedented overtures to the West, the cover of
The Economist magazine showed a photo of its leader, Kim Jong-il,
his hand raised in salutation, beneath a headline that read,
The country (and
its leadership) certainly has a reputation for quirky, perhaps
alien, behavior. Our report last week about North Korea issuing
visas to Americans for the period from mid-August to mid-October
(Operators jump at chance to offer glimpse at North
Korea, May 11, 2006) quoted executives of two tour operations
who had been to the country. One said you wouldnt know that there
was an authoritarian government in place. The other said that part
of the allure of the country was that its so surreal.
Having been to
North Korea, Ill break the tie. Its surreal. To visit it is to walk
into an Asian version of 1984. No matter how carefully packaged the
tour, Im not sure you could miss the fact that North Korea is ruled
by an authoritarian government.
My Korean guide
seemed very sincerely convinced that the North Korean system of
government was superior to any other. He asked me several times to
try hard to understand the North Korean way and how good it was. He
emphasized that everyone was very happy.
Every piece of art,
every book -- even guidebooks -- emphasized the accomplishments of
the government and its leaders. The public art (largely in the form
of murals, mosaics and sculpture) was without exception political
in nature. Kim Il-Sung, the current leaders father, and Kim Jong-il
feature prominently in most of the art, usually outlined in a
golden aura that would put Maxfield Parrish to shame.
I received some
history lessons from my guide. The Japanese surrender at the end of
World War II is known as The Liberation (and, simultaneously, the
beginning of The Time of the U.S. Occupation of South Korea, which
endures). He stated that the Japanese occupation ended as the
result of the peoples struggle and guerilla warfare on the
peninsula, aided by the Russian Army.
The Americans, he
added bitterly, never fought to liberate Korea.
Putting aside the
Korean War for a moment -- my guidebook had already informed me
that the U.S. had knelt before the Korean people and signed the
armistice agreement -- I mentioned that, of course, Americans were
quite busy during World War II fighting the Japanese elsewhere.
Yes, I know all about that, he said, with condescension. I began to
speak again, but he interrupted. You cannot disagree! This is what
He had previously
made it clear that if I persisted in asking narrow-minded
questions, he would refuse to guide me, and I would be sent home
If what I have
written so far would predispose you not to visit (or to send
clients to) North Korea, let me state this as emphatically as I
can: Go! I cant think of a destination as fascinating and absorbing
that doesnt involve NASA or require pressure suits. North Korea,
more than any other nation, has evolved along a unique and solitary
path. Its a rarity in this era of flat-earth
And for any
traveler who wearily responds Been there, done that to your
destination suggestions, drop a mention that they can visit North
Korea next fall. Its not every day that you can sell tours to an
alternate version of reality.