“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published Feb. 24, 2008, in the Boston Globe)
From Di’s eyes: This trip fascinated me, what with all the propaganda, especially at the Mass Games. I had no idea tours were offered there until Jim and Jon contacted me. Coincidentally, the New York Times ran a short piece on a couple tours behind North Korea’s iron curtain the same day this came out, and on Monday, this piece about the New York Philharmonic orchestra playing in Pyongyang. I guess the Communist country is all the rage now.
WHO: Jim Augusto, 41, and Jon Cramer, 38, of Melrose, Mass.
WHERE: North Korea.
WHEN: Three days in October.
WHY: “We’ve been intrigued by the whole mystery around it for years,” Augusto said. “Several years ago I’d tried to find a tour company, but Americans weren’t allowed in.” The couple traveled with British-owned Koryo Tours.
WHY NOT: “Most people thought we were really crazy to go,” Cramer said. “People would jokingly say, ‘They’re never going to let you back out.’ Some people said, ‘How can you go support a country that treats people horribly?’ But I think it’s still important to go. By maintaining no contact, there’s no incentive for them to change.”
BEIJING BRIEFING: Augusto and Cramer visited North Korea in the middle of two weeks in China. “People said North Korea is like China was 30 or 40 years ago,” Cramer said. They met their 28 fellow US tourists in Beijing, where they were told the basic rules: no laptops or cellphones allowed, no taking photos without permission, and no going anywhere without a North Korean attendant.
SPIN CITY: They flew to Pyongyang on a late ’60s Russian jet, and “the propaganda started in the airspace,” Cramer said. “They said something like, ‘You’re now entering the Great Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,’ and all this stuff about ‘our dear leader Kim Jong Il, our great leader, Kim Il Sung.’ ” They were greeted by a huge portrait of deceased leader Kim Il Sung on the runway, and later saw images of both men (father and son) in homes, public buildings, and on citizens’ lapel pins.
STAYING PUT: The US contingent was divided into two groups of 15 and each had two North Korean guides. “We’d all come together for meals and at the hotel,” Augusto said. They stayed at Yanggakdo Hotel. “It’s a huge hotel with a revolving restaurant on top, on a little island,” Augusto said. “It’s only for Western visitors. You’re not allowed to go onto grounds without a guide.”
GAME FACE: North Korea’s annual “Mass Games” fascinated the Americans, both for its dazzling display of acrobatics and its propaganda. The stadium performance, which runs three to four months a year, involves about 100,000 performers, including thousands of children in the stands flipping color-coordinated cards with political messages. “It was like an Olympic opening ceremony on steroids,” Cramer said. “It was 80 minutes long and I think my jaw was down for a good portion of it.” “It was all about national pride and reunification,” Augusto said. “There’s a whole section where tens of thousands of little kids, 8 to 10, are doing all these synchronized acrobatics. It’s amazing to see, but terrifying to think that they are forced to practice half the year.”
RED-COLORED GLASSES: The groups were taken to several communist monuments, including a huge statue of Kim Il Sung as well as his mausoleum. “We also got a tour of the USS Pueblo, on display as an example of US imperialism,” Augusto said. “We visited the DMZ, but you couldn’t see a single soldier on the South Korean side.”
ICE-BREAKING BABY: They were allowed one ride on the metro, which doubles as a nuclear fallout shelter. “Inside are lavish propaganda art mosaics,” Cramer said. “The metro is where we got closest to citizens. One couple in our group, who live in Shanghai, brought their 6-month-old baby. The North Korean women’s faces would light up. They were going crazy over the American baby.”