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. 

The Road to Nampo

Toto, I don't think we're in Pyongyang anymore. 

Following lunch in Pyongyang, we set out on our journey to the port city of Nampo. Along the way, we visited a collective farm and a dam. We also ate clams cooked in gasoline and played virtual shooting games. Because this is just what you do. 

While none of these stops will likely be forgotten, the visit to the collective farm was something you almost have to experience to believe it is true. 

Because children. Damn, those children are well-trained. Americans could learn a lot from the North Koreans when it comes to teaching small children dance routines. THEY KNOW THEIR STEPS. THEY REMEMBER THEIR LINES. And none of their sweet, innocent little faces are wearing an ounce of makeup. Better than any little kids dance recital in the U. S. of A. that you'll ever attend. Nothing wrong with a little discipline. 

I am 95% positive they were singing about killing our imperialist asses, though. But it doesn't make it any less adorable. 

YOU HAVE NOW LEFT THE CITY.
THINGS SUDDENLY BECOME VERY RURAL. 

The few who pass you on the side of the road are on foot or bike. You wonder how long they've been traveling to their destination. Remember, all North Korean citizens need permission to travel specific distances. The average person cannot enter Pyongyang just because they wish to see what's kicking down at Kim Il Sung Square. Permission must always be obtained.  

Our first stop on the way out of Dodge is Mangyongdae, the (possible or alleged) birthplace of Eternal Leader Kim Il Sung. IT WAS VERY MODEST. HUTS. THEY LIVED WITHIN THEIR MODEST MEANS. GINSENG IS FOR SALE AT THE GIFTSHOP. 

FIRST WE WILL DRINK FROM THE WELL THAT KIM IL SUNG DRANK.

WE PROMISE IT WILL BRING YOU LONGEVITY AS FAR AS EXISTENCE IS CONCERNED.   

It was cold and oh-so refreshing. And it felt nice to not have to drink water from a bottle. I'm a tap water kind of gal. But show me a well of purity and purported longevity—I'm totally down. You know how many (South) Korean beauty products I use? 

So the delicious and thirst-quenching Kim Il Sung water may or may not have been what caused the extreme vomiting that I would experience in roughly 24 hours after this photo was taken. #CHEKOVSMINERALWATER

Socialism is great.
But socialism can only be perfection when you throw in a red truck.

The mural depicts the afternoon many moons ago when Kim Il Sung stopped by. He sat on the ground with the farmers, talked about farming stuff, Hay, hoes, hay, hoes. 

Nearly all of the sites you will visit when touring the DPRK will feature plaques or stone slabs commemorating when the Marshal visited. It is not unlike a Best of Boston 2007 certificate you see in the window of your favorite sushi place. But this one does not fade in the sun and features the date of the visit in both Gregorian and Juche terms. The North Korean calendar is based upon the date of Kim Il Sung's birth. From what I can see, North Koreans use both calendars, and both dates appear on anything requiring a time and date stamp. 

You can see the slab where the Marshal's visits are noted in the above photo. It sits right in front of the small building on the left. 

We have landed on a mushroom farm. 

Where are you going? Where have you been? 

Whether in the country or on the streets of Pyongyang, you wonder the same things any time you see someone on the move. Where are they going? Where have they been? What is their favorite food? Favorite color? Have they ever had their heart broken? What do they dream about? Do they believe what their government has told them for their entire lives? 

So what if your leaders have been maniacal despots? When I look into your eyes, I see warmth. When I see your smile, I feel hope. 

People just like you and me. They smile. They laugh. Trying to get by. Trying to enjoy life's little moments of happiness. A joke. A cigarette. A cool breeze. A well-deserved rest. 

More scenes of agricultural inspiration from the communist ideal

"We play REAL Minecraft, you pussies."

Speaking of the kiddies...

And as we strolled back along the footpath, music began to play. Rich, reedy bellows that grew louder with each lackadaisical step. Emerging from the melody were the tiny high-pitched sounds of...children?

Before we knew it, we were surrounded on all sides. The Hermit Kingdom had masterminded an ambush of adorableness. 

THE BASTARDS! 

“I don’t understand why we hate American imperialists so much. When I was a child, the teachers made us dance with them. I don’t think they knew the songs were about killing them, but they were not so terrible. I remember one nice white lady with bright red sneakers. But maybe she was Canadian.” — One of these children, 15 years from now.

While it was time to leave the collective farm, I realized I really had to urinate. They let me into the school. A couple of jogging suit-clad teachers kept tabs on me. I assume they were the DPRK Collective Farm edition of Bronx Beat. They let me take a photo. 

Thank you for the photos, ladies. Juche to all, and to all a good night. 

Until next time, North Korean mushroom farm. 


(I deliberately wore a t-shirt that read Be the trouble you want to see in the world. No one ever said anything. It was subtle. But completely intentional.)

You spend a considerable amount of time on a bus. You stare out a window. It occurs to you that it is probably a good idea to film whatever it is you are witnessing outside of your window given that you are likely one of the only people you know who will travel to North Korea. And you have a grandiose if unformulated plan to use the footage as part of some undetermined art project one day. 

We also stopped by the seaside and visited a dam

Get off the bus (for the last time today). 

We have arrived at our place of lodging. Healing waters are said to spring from the faucets into our bathtubs, but no one can get a consistent answer on how long one is supposed to soak in these healing waters. It might be five minutes. Or 15. Nothing the bathmat can't cure. 

There is no time to nap. Dinner will be served in the dining area. Then there will be petrol clams and soju should we wish to hand over €/$5. 

I think I spent about 20 minutes in the bathtub upon waking the next day. I have not discovered any skin deformities since then. But I still think about that bathmat with affection and longing. In less than 18 hours, the bathmat may or may not have been the mandala I would cling to in my mind's eye upon becoming violently ill.

But I should REALLY stop getting ahead of myself.

If I ever come back here, I'm packing various forms of electrical supplies.

But for the moment, I'm just going to not worry about it. Nothing is on fire. And I have a headlamp. 

After dinner, we retreated to the patio with our guides to indulge in a true North Korean culinary tradition. And it is, although I'm sure some naysayers will tell you its something they do just to make tourists ingest gasoline. Because no one can have nice things. 

If you want to try this at home, I've included instructions. 

How to make petrol clams if you are not in North Korea and your driver, guide, and cameraman say hey, we're making petrol clams and it will only cost you $5. Plus all the soju you can drink, because you sort of need the soju to kill off whatever the gasoline might miss. 

  1. Obtain a fireproof platform, preferably atop a gravel pit. Load it up with a single, tight layer of fresh clams—mouths pointing downward. Or just throw the clams onto the gravel if organization and finesse is not your thing. But still make sure the mouths are kissing the ground. Less gasoline will drip into the clam itself. 
     
  2. Fill two (2) 500ml bottles (standard water vessels) of gasoline. 
     
  3. Begin to douse the clams in gasoline. Do not be shy. 
     
  4. Light a match. Ignite those little suckers.
     
  5. Let them burn for at least five (5) minutes. Maybe longer. Make sure to use every drop of gasoline. 
     
  6. Once the fire (mostly) extinguishes itself, start eating. Crack the clam open and bite into the fleshy, ocean-reared goodness. 
     
  7. Chase with soju. 
     
  8. Repeat until you can take no more. Or just wish to go to bed. Or are not tired and wish to go to the building where the lights will be turned on at 11pm so you can play pool and the shooting game. (They also have beer.) 

How do you describe the standards of beauty? 

By this point in the excursion, I had developed a strong fondness for Mr. Kim. He was a spare guide of sorts. Maybe there to make sure everything was kosher. He was witty and erudite. His english was impeccable. He regarded himself as an armchair philosopher of sorts. He enjoyed trying to read people. I wanted to talk and talk and talk to this man for hours. He had even lived outside the DPRK in the former East Germany right when the wall fell. This man had stories. 

When our group was waiting outside our tour bus after landing in Pyongyang, Mr. Kim informed me that I was the ideal combination of male and female. He says he could tell this from my hands. I'm sure the fact I was wearing blue jeans and a newsboy cap also had something to do with it. But I was flattered and impressed nonetheless. 

Earlier in the day, he told our group about team building. It begins with team forming. Then comes team storming, where people might bicker or be unsure of their role. Eventually there will be team performing, where everyone comes together and does their best as a group. Form. Storm. Perform. It was a nice little piece of socialist philosophy. I'm sure I will bust it out someday in a work context. 

Following the evening meal in Nampo, Mr. Kim and my travel companion Alex were chatting on a sofa outside of the dining room. I approached them.

Melinda, what is the definition of feminine beauty in your country, Mr. Kim asked. 

Uh...I do not know if I can answer. We all look so different. I'm not even sure where to begin? Nice breasts...a good...butt or figure. 

Wow. This is akin to describing color to someone who has never had vision. How do I do this? I was attempting to avoid facial structures or skin tones or anything too specific, but it is an almost impossible question to answer. Despite the pathetic state of racial relations in the United States, we are still a culture that has blended enough create all sorts of different hair and eye colors, body types. There is no one universal marker of beauty. 

Here in Korea, we have The Three Whites, Mr. Kim explained. Pale skin, bright whites of the eyes, and very white teeth. It is also a common belief that in Korea, the most beautiful women are in the North while the better looking men are in the South. 

This is not the first time I have heard that sentiment. While the Northern women's wardrobes and hairstyles are hopelessly out of date, there is a purity and naturalness that is not camouflaged by excessive makeup. At the same time, North Korean men could really benefit from paying more attention to their appearance. Yes. I am proposing a correlation here. 

I can't think of anything that would compare to that in the States. We just all look so different. We even dye our hair if we want a change. Some people look good with very pale, alabaster skin. Others look better when they've had a bit of sun. I know I feel more attractive when I have a tan. It makes me look and feel healthier. 

I still think about this question, just because beauty is such a difficult thing to describe to anyone. It is entirely subjective. Our taste often evolving with age and experience. Or sometimes our desire to try something different. 

NOT ENTIRELY RELATED BUT WORTH NOTING: Korean women refer to the men as goats. Because they chain smoke and cough all the damned time. And they sound like goats. Men smoke. Women do not. At least not in public. Perhaps this is a grand plan to eliminate the patriarchy by allowing them to kill themselves off. Warnings of the effects of cigarette smoking are given more validity now than in the past, but maybe it just comes down to the fact that people want some small pleasures out of life and this is one of the few allotted to them in their society. Probably a subconscious death wish, too

No chickens or dogs. We want to play the one where you shoot the Americans. 

We spoke these words to the inn's proprietor. He laughed. There were only a few of us who played, two of whom were Americans, one New Zealander, and one Canadian. Myself and the ex-Marine had the highest scores. I'm not sure if this is irony or a sad statement about gun culture in the United States. Or maybe we just weren't that drunk. 

After going all yippee kay-yay muthaf**ker on simulated yankee imperialists, I finished my beer and chatted with Rich, or amazing Koryo guide and Mr. Che, our eldest male guide. I inquired about the pizza restaurant and whether or not this would be a possibility. Who doesn't want to try North Korean pizza? Come on. They told me they would try to get us in for dinner tomorrow night. I was very excited. Pizza! I have explanation, but I was so looking forward to North Korean pizza. 

See what I just did there? Foreshadowing. 

All of us finally headed to our rooms for the night. It was about a five minute walk from the main building. Never in my life have I seen so many stars. I saw two SHOOTING STARS. I forgot to wish on them because I was in awe of the entire sky. I did not want to turn my gaze from what seemed like a massive swath of black velvet blazoned with tiny crystals. It was the most beautiful sky I had ever seen. 

Certainly one benefit of shitty power and electrical systems. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

North KoreaMelinda Green