The Democratic People's Republic of Korea

In May 2015, I traveled to North Korea. It is not difficult. I spent 6 days in the Hermit Kingdom. I escaped entirely unscathed, albeit food poisoning. And many bizarre dreams followed. 

Fundamental Human Needs, Factories, and Fanta

Monday morning. We have a big day ahead of us. There is no down time in DPRKorea! I was disappointed our planned excursion to a steel factory was replaced with a trip to a glass manufacturer. I have a weird fascination with metal hardness standards that stems from my childhood obsession with the Titanic. (That hull was made of slag, dammit.) But I quickly get over it because how often does one get to visit a North Korean glass factory? And oh, because I have no say in the matter. In Democratic People's Republic of Korea glass factory visits you! 

But before I think about glass or even breakfast, I need to soak my ass in those special Nampo healing waters. 

A new woman has emerged.
She just needed to find a towel. 

I became one with the tiger. I am the tiger.
I roar on the inside. 

The man in the background is my friend Alex. He's the one who said, hey, you wanna go to North Korea, you're going. Alex is one of those very rare and very good human beings. The man grew up and still resides in Los Angeles where he manages disasters for the Red Cross. He also walks a lot. In L.A. He's just one of those very pure, very kind people who harbors nary an ounce of sarcasm. He's a wide-eyed optimist. He can also smoke and drink more than almost anyone I know. He also ate 30 f**king petrol clams. THIRTY. 

I decided against taking the tiger towel home. Anything of the sort just seemed so wrong. I could not even bring myself to take Air Koryo's airplane safety card—standard operating procedure anytime I fly (another unformulated art project, obviously)—until the flight back to Beijing. 

Speaking of petrol clams...

Too busy trying to be healed and taking selfies wearing almost-paper towels, I miss breakfast. But I was not that hungry. Instead, I stock up on water and a couple of these tasty cans of iced coffee from Thailand. Oh yes. You will be always be buying products made somewhere else. Even South Korea. Beer is always domestic. Everything else, not so much. 

A Brief PRIMER ON SHOPPING IN North Korea

While everything in your trip is technically included, there are several extras you are given the option to purchase. Bottled water is an essential item to purchase every morning. At meals, should you not want beer, soda is $1. As is any bottle of water in addition to the handful that are placed on the table. You don't really grumble about it, though, because you need to drink water and everything in North Korea is pretty damn cheap. 

The world's most isolated dictatorship is not a shopper's paradise, even with Kim Jong Un's making attempts to emulate China's reforms. They have a long, long way to go. Whether or not they can successfully open Special Economic Zones without allowing greater access to the rest of the globe is a complete unknown. 

You are dumped off at a lot of 'stores.' Imagine capitalism as in infant. Many of these stores sell the same damn things. In North Korea, its at the stage where it knows how to roll over and hold its head up. It might smile at a funny face you make but most of the time is doing so because of its own gas. 

At this point, I am unable to remember if I was prohibited from taking photos in the Western-style department store I visited or just didn't even have the desire to do so. Stores in North Korea boast what one could describe as primitive merchandising. Items of same or similar function were grouped together. But there was never quite a rhyme or reason as to what stores carried what objects. 

I do regret not capturing or even purchasing any of the virility enhancement products, but frankly, I was unimpressed by their packaging. Give me so oomph. Something I can work with here. We're talking penises. That drawing of that piece of ginseng probably doesn't count as a universal turn-on. 

Yes. Expressing my disappointment in the lack of innovative branding in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is like going to Disney World and asking why there's a smiling mouse everywhere. Point is, state-sanctioned media is where the goodies are at. 

No, really. Do people know you? What if they're just your friends in a fantasy world and in real-life, you don't really know them and you're not really a war correspondent. 

They make glass here

On our way back to Pyongyang, we stop at the extra-special glass factory. I spent too much time engaged in photographing or filming the processes and not enough time listening to their on-site guide. My stomach was also beginning to feel a bit off. I chalked it up to those three little clams baked in gasoline and a couple of beers on top of soju. It was also now obvious that the weather was going to be hot for the duration of my stay and I had way too many Boston-in-May outfits. Plus, I was at a glass factory when I clearly wanted to be at a steel factory. SO THERE. SCREW YOU NORTH KOREAN GLASS FACTORY. I don't even know if you can produce glass in other sizes and shapes, but the idealist in me wants to believe that you can and do, and all of the design and planning goes down in this room. 

My ADHD mind does not do GPS. At least not with jet lag and sleep deprivation and ingesting gasoline. This reminded me of Greenfield Village. And then I thought about the Motown Hitsville U.S.A. tour, the gold standard for group exploration of any, well, anything. Do they know any Motown here? Or just The Beatles and Michael Jackson? Michael Jackson WAS Motown. So maybe? I really loved Detroit. Oh yeah. Greenfield Village. Not as fun when you consider how many ovens were on sites. Henry Ford might have done a lot for manufacturing but that man was pure evil. Would the holocaust have happened without Henry Ford? Fuck. Do you think we're near a...camp? Christ. Why do I feel so bloated? I think I need water. But yeah...how often do you go on vacation and visit a factory? Other than one that makes beer or one that shows old-fashioned thank-you-lots-industrial-revolution manufacturing processes? Oh god, my stomach. No one heard that, right?

I snapped back to reality, and found myself enamored with the brilliantly clear sheets of glass coming down the line. I'm not sure what I was expecting. Maybe I wasn't expecting anything. How much slag is in North Korean steel? 

(I know. I know. I should just shut up how much I wanted to see North Koreans make steel and enjoy this glass factory. But my stomach is a mass of bloated, sinewy knots. And these knots try and speak every so often. Does a grunt, even one legitimately guttural, sound the same in Korean? Am I in Greenfield Village?  Sugar Pie Honeybunch / you know that I love you / I can't help myself / I love you and no body else. 

When the two sheets of glass come to the conclusion of their journey, two men stack them. Other than the men at Mission Control and our on-site guide leading us through this section of the plant, they are the only employees I have seen inside the building. 

They produce the glass, but not the soda ash. 

Juche, my ass. I kid, I kid. Importing materials and supplies is necessary for any economy. And all of these sacks looked so nice all piled high like that. Couldn't you just see it up against the side wall at your new favorite brew pub? And don't those Mast Brothers do the same thing to make those chalky bars wrapped in Nantucket Red, diagonally emblazoned with atomizers alternating with croquet mallets. 

My mind has moved on from Motown. Now its more like a Les Miserables medley. Most of the time I'm Eponine. The remainder goes to Fantine. Never that bitch Cosette. Everything feels itchy. 

Employees of the Month? 

I am assuming these individuals are being singled out for their hard work and dedication to the Fatherland. Because everything appears to be cheerful and there are flowers. Cheerful flowers. And this is all nestled amongst propaganda so yes, yes indeed. They MUST be employees of the month. I TOAST YOU, RANDOM NORTH KOREAN GLASSMAKERS. 

I hope none of them are dead. I want to see them smile. 

Since work is the backbone of everything in North Korea, people do not indulge in hobbies or recreational activities as we do elsewhere in the world. You don't realize how lucky you are to have the luxury of exercising. Having the time or energy to go running, or take in a yoga class. You are also incredibly lucky to have freedom of travel. You do not need permission to enter another city or state. You are not told where to live. You are not required to live where you work. 

"Recreation" is built into the spaces where people live, work, and raise their children. Throughout the cities, you will see colorful parks with climbable characters. In Pyongyang alone, there are at least three funfairs (aka amusement parks). These destinations are not something citizens enjoy on a daily basis, but only when they are able to partake in them. 

So yeah, we're at a glass factory. These are common sites. I assume most of the residents and workers are working. Or in school. OH MY GOD I JUST WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE PEOPLE I CANNOT SEE ARE DOING. 

The cadets (?) walked by each other and did not stop to chat. My Canadian tour mate says they're clearly building missiles here. She also says this is what they're doing at every children's palace. And anything that is under construction. She could be absolutely correct, but the difference here is that this building does not have anything resembling a hemispherical dome roof.  

The best dressed girls in all of North Korea? Perhaps. I kind of dug their style, even if the weather was a bit warm for jackets. But seriously, these girls might have innate style. They may be smuggling in the K-Pop, we do not know.  

North Koreans operate on the buddy system. In pairs. In school, a buddy will be assigned to you. You will rarely see young people alone, and it is not uncommon to see those of both sexes walking hand-in-hand or while linking arms. 

Buddies look out for one another. After all, what good are friendships if you don't keep each other in line? 

Quick aside: You will never see a North Korean person wearing blue jeans. Women almost always wear skirts. And if you are wearing a skirt, you cannot ride on certain amusement park rides. But more on their sartorial tendencies later. 

Cat Person (Putting Out Fire)

The musical interlude you requested

The realization you have come to a country to...look at things. 

Can I love the aesthetics of communist propaganda even if I inherently disagree with 90% of the sentiment behind it? 

After we boarded the bus and began to settle in, I realized my backpack was smeared with red paint. 

They must have painted just for us. A fresh coat for the tourists. 

"Oh, there's paint on here," I said absentmindedly as we pulled away. 

"And now you have Korean propaganda on your bag to take home with you," Mr. Kim laughed. 

I have paint on my backpack from a North Korean propaganda poster. THIS IS SO COOL. Ugh. Do they have Sprite here? I feel so gross and bloated. 

Oh, Mr. Kim. I so hope that one day our paths may cross again. And the red paint stain. A much better souvenir than the threadbare tiger towel. Even better because there is no chance of anyone getting into trouble for it.

I want to talk to you more, Mr. Kim. I want to hear about East Germany. I want to talk to you for hours. But I know the others do, too. And I just want to curl up in my seat and maybe this god-awful cramping and bloating will go away. I close my eyes, even though I want to stare out the windows at dangerously-dry plains drenched in sunlight. To see the people on their bikes. In the fields, To wonder what they go home to, to wonder whether or not they are happy, are they in love. I wonder what makes them smile. Why they cry. I bet a soda would be nice right now. 

The world around me changes / The trees are bare and everywhere / The streets are full of strangers

(The Fanta comes later. It is really not all that important beyond its alliterative use in the title. And that it is a much lesser refreshment when served warm. I DID think I would get to that in this post but it then dawned on me that we still had to return to Pyongyang, visit a department store, ride the subway, eat Bi Bim Bop, cross the street, and THEN visit the real Viennese coffee shop because we had time to kill before the Juche Idea Tower. AND that all comes before the bowling and pizza and optional Oh Youth screening.)  It appeared as if it might be the perfect night in Pyongyang. 

But rarely does anything ever go as planned? Even on a tour where everything is planned for you. 

North KoreaMelinda Green