Well, we finally pulled off our long-held dream: After years of trials and disappointment we slipped into the world’s sole remaining Stalinist dictatorship, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Why the government is allowing small numbers of tourists from the U.S. into the country is anyone’s guess. We just felt as giddy as kids in a candy store to be there… utterly cut off from the rest of the world.
No cell phones. No computers. LOTS of propaganda under absolute quarantine!
To fully describe the experience would take much more than this small space. Suffice it to say it is truly like dropping through the rabbit hole and emerging in a real-life version of Orwell’s 1984. From the moment our little group of five stepped on to our Air Koryo Ilushyn 62 aircraft in Beijing for the flight to Pyongyang, we were set firmly in a different era.
Some striking observations as we toured along a well-worn path to various monuments, museums and propagandistic displays: Everything is orderly, if for no other reason than to be orderly. Massive concrete block housing dominates the grim skyline of Pyongyang. “Traffic,” as it were, consists mostly of pedestrians walking, walking, walking everywhere (and surprisingly few bicycles). There were a few electric buses and streetcars of 1950s to 1970s vintage and the odd “private” car inevitably belonging to high party and military officials.
The overall silence in the capital city was, well, disquieting!
What was decidedly NOT quiet was the incredible propaganda spectacle known as the Arirang Mass Games. Basically, it consists of 100,000 participants exuberantly performing a mind-bending, tightly choreographed performance depicting the triumphs and tribulations of the Korean nation and people.
Imagine the Super Bowl halftime crossed with the Olympic opening ceremonies and multiply it by about 1000 and you begin to approach the Mass Games. For a glimpse, check out a few of our video clips at poetravel.com.
Otherwise, our stops at various colossal monuments and homage museums were predictable. The ultimate was our stop at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where Kim Il Sung lies in state. We had the privilege of being the first Americans ever allowed!
I will say our four government-crafted minders were respectful and polite, while reminding us constantly of the dreadful situation into which our government, aka “Brazen Faced U.S. Imperialist Aggressors” had placed all Korean people. They were even so kind as to provide a videographer to document our entire trip – with the option of buying a DVD at the end as a memento, of course!
I had anticipated the experience to be much as our respective governments and the herdish media portray the DPRK – as black and white. However, we all came to find the DPRK and our situation at least multitudinous shades of grey. I find I am grappling with it fully two months after returning. There is no simple solution to the impasse.
An interesting proposition which one group member aptly suggested and my dad, Fred Poe, embellished: If we were to simply remove the tens of thousands of American troops from the Korean Peninsula, the DPRK would cease to have a reason to exist!
Until any form of reunification scenario unfolds, we voyeurs may still have a few small windows of opportunity to step back into that era that millions have nearly forgotten.
By Tony Poe, Marketing Director, Poe Travel
Learn more about travels to North Korea and the Arirang Festival in our feature article, Autumn in North Korea.
Please note that tours to North Korea cannot be guaranteed as government rules and regulations change frequently. Please check with tour operators for more information.
Poe Travel’s upcoming North Korea tour runs from September 28 to October 2. 501-376-4171, www.poetravel.com
Asia Pacific Travel still has spots open on its August 29 departures to North Korea. There are 10, 11, 16 and 18-day tours. 800-262-6420, www.northkorea1on1.com
Geographic Expeditions’ tours are sold out, but there is a waiting list for departures on August 19-28 and September 2-11. Dates are pending for fall and spring 2008. 800-777-8183, www.geoex.com
Koryo Tours has arranged tours to North Korea in the past and upcoming itineraries are pending. 86 10 6416 7544, www.koryogroup.com