Author: Rostyslav Rusakov
Translation: Pasha Sidun
I’d rather you asked me about Somaliland, Bangladesh or East Timor. But no, everybody wants DPRK!
The idea of eating kimchee in its historic homeland was born a long time ago and the systematic coming back to it left me sleepless. One of the main goals of the trip in my interpretation is the search of a time machine. That is how I found myself in Bolivia, Indonesia, India, Iran, Nicaragua, Burma, and, of course Vladivostok, PRD and Prypiat. These kind of places became an obligatory destination in every big trip and increasing a higher dosage of difficulty is now a must. The next step, – definitely not the last, – was DPRK in August 2018.
There have always been many clichés, stereotypes, associations considering Korea: a big community, unbelievable cuisine, ambiguous music, technical achievements, and daily political fuss in the news.
May Southern Koreans forgive me, but I decided to start the peninsula exploration from the North because of the high risk of extinction of this social reservation. Withal, how many of you can name the leader of the South Korea without googling?
The purchase of the soviet map from the 80s with underdeveloped South (propagandistic?) became the last drop. And the Lolly Bomb video, of course.
Just like all the brightest life impressions this case needed me to take quite radical actions. Normally after one of the Saturday-night parties without acknowledging the risks and possible trouble you just buy a ticket to a random point on the spinning globe. In the morning you necessarily get terrified with the route, but do everything to make sure it happens no matter what. In the past years it all ended with having a ticket and one night booked at the arrival point. No other preparations, plans or points on the map.
It wasn’t quite like that with North Korea. Well actually, the party did happen and the will to buy the ticket you can’t find anywhere was there. I had to explore the market and luckily it turned out there were a few ways to get into the country and all of them were not really complicated. Getting the visa (as did the organization process of the trip to DPRK) turned out to be one of the easiest ever. The only things required were 3 e-mails, full name and a small amount of foreign currency. My choice fell on coming (as a position of principle, not flying) from China, namely a border town called Dandong, through which most of the smuggling into Korea passes. The city is like a portal to another dimension and deserves its own story. There was an option coming through Russian Federation, but I would not have survived their service and inevitable presence of Russian tourists in close proximity during several days. I’d prefer 30 Chinese, none of whom speak anything, but Chinese.
So, the visa was received a day before departure, the actual visa in passport, not the laminated booklet that you get on the same day. It has no name or photo in it, but you are the only white monkey in the whole group anyway. The Chinese agent is in touch with you every minute, though not a single has been paid, I am already queuing for the passport check at the Chinese border train station. I assume this is the way of doing business – no payments until the work is done. I can’t imagine any other place in the world where people would 5 times in a row refuse a certain amount of money. Right before the immigration officer the agent finally accepts the offer and gives me a full bag of presents in return, including 6 Korean postcards – the reproductions of propaganda posters. I guess to reduce temptations of tearing those down from the Pyongyang corridor walls. Yes, after the famous case with the American tourist it is common to post ads with skull and crossbones warning you that the ripped poster or any other disrespect towards the leaders might be life threatening.
By the way, mandatory condition for obtaining the visa is the two-entry Chinese visa, as nobody will grant it to you in Korea, and the visa-free transit is not applicable in this case even if you stay in China both times for less than a day. Entering DPRK from one side and exiting through another one via RF is also not an option. Although I wanted to do so and logistic wise it would have been perfect, because the flight to Japan was planned through Vladivostok. We know everything about the northern neighbor’s hospitality, but things confirmed in practice in several days occurred to be even worse. But it’s a different extreme-saga.Meanwhile the Korean extreme was immediate after crossing the Chinese passport check. At the extensive front first platform of the Chinese Dandong Korean steam locomotive is waiting with its 6 cars. The number of Chinese people at the platform is up to fitting 10-12 wagons. I am the only non-Chinese, of course.
The Korean side gets obviously really nervous. The train driver in a soviet-style uniform with badges of the whole Kim-family profiles on the chest runs around the platform panicking and forbids the boarding to everyone who hasn’t got a particular seat (most people are like that and I am one of them). Even down to the point when stewards push us out of the wagon. The scandal lasts an hour and a half, the train driver even tries to leave the station on his own claiming that a few hundred people on the train will make the bridge between PRC and DPRK collapse.
Only the interference of the Chinese station bosses reporting that the rail switch is set towards the dead-end help to resolve the situation. I am boarding into the wagon one of the latest. And at this exact moment I realize that the Chinese agent wasn’t lying when telling about the unprecedented hype for these tours in the last months. The catalyst to the hype was not only the glorified meeting of Kim and trump, but rather the multiple pictures with Xi Jinping. And China as we know has always lived by its own perception of the world.
To the cover on Farewell of Slavianka the train slowly crossed dirty-grey border river. The Dandong skyscrapers and the ruins of the bridge destroyed during the Korean War fled into the mist, the mobile services went off – the movie has started.
The next stop - 1984.
It occurred in only ten minutes.
Same coats on men, heals and typical skirts on women, unconcealed fuss and nervousness. Poor, but clean.
As expected, I had to stand for a long time. Everyone was kicked out of the train, lined up at the platform, were forbidden to move (even to the bathroom), sit down (even on the ground), use the telephones (taking into account the absence of any network). This is how an hour and a half of obscure actions, selective questionings and … attempts to sell fake alcohol and curatives for ED and GL tract. Two girls, white tops, black bottoms, unobtrusively walked through the lines, unknowingly started a TV show: myth or reality. After three passport checks by different officers the last one of them gave a squinty look and stamped it.
Welcome to DPRK, mice!
As long as we are not going to Auschwitz.
Ironically the next one is a GDR train from the early 80s with soft-seats cars and soap holder like in all modern German cars, but without the actual soap, of course. Compartment is shared with me by an elderly couple making very weird sounds in their sleep (it is not snoring!) and father with son who is around 15.
This meeting was determining because after two days this boy from an elite, according to Chinese standards, city Dalian, the only person who could speak bearable English will become my main source of the truthful information.
The decision to come by the train and endure the hardships and not take the airplane-teleport was made due to the wish to see the country from corner to corner on the way. Because it’s impossible to build Potemkin-like villages alongside the whole five-hours route in such a poor country. The best case scenario – sweep the platform, paint the grass and put some happy pioneers with carnations at the key locations.
Those of you who have seen the amazing ‘Under the Sun’ should have noticed how staged everything that’s happening there looks and the nervousness of the puppeteers about anything redundant getting picked up by the camera. You could feel the effect since the first until the last second, and the rare exceptions (matrix errors) were very conspicuous and attracted genuine attention. I have no clue how they smuggled those uncensored by the ministry off-screen stories, but the picture is magnificent and constantly made me feel in a reversed deja vu. I haven’t watched the movie before the trip on purpose.
Half-dead cities on the way, the fields with primitive machinery, unfinished industrial monsters, random beggars on crutches under the bridge grabbed out of sight, everything indicated some kind of plot, inept farce for the world amusement which is about to drop another skeleton form the closet. And all of this was only the beginning, as the official tour started the next day.
The train arrived to Pyongyang after dark. We were met by the dressed up guides with strict haircuts and familiar from earlier patriotic badges-profiles (no pioneers with flowers though), sat into the old, but well maintained Hyundai busses from the “occupied and oppressed” South and taken to the dinner.
The first shots and the first impressions from infrastructure and life. Wide avenues that we’d be driven around through during the next days, almost complete absence of cars, Czech trams like in Kyiv, soviet trolley busses. All of them overcrowded and with no air conditioning. It’s 45 degrees C outside for the record. Rare glimmer in the typical high-rise buildings windows. Half-empty booths painted acid colors. Emotionless passersbies usually dressed in 60s fashion, probably Hasid-like in the image of the prophet. In this case, instead of Tsadik Nachman from the 19th century, Kim Il Sung in the young frenzy of rock and roll 50s. Women have a little more variation and, apparently, the Dandong smuggling window is opening up more and more: there are young people in fake converse, jeans, and, it is terrible to say, in T-shirts with English inscriptions of frivolous shades. Such a forever petrified stagnation.
As if aware of their weak positions, the tour program takes us to the illusory world of abundance and prosperity. This is a demonstration behind the looking glass, to touch which there is the possibility of a few favorites. Through the lighted showcases with the same fake whiskey, Coca-Cola made-in-China and other symbols of capitalism, the corridor leads us to a chic hall, where well-trained waitresses begin to flit around the foreign tourists, replacing the dishes and adding vile rice beer. The food is perhaps even too tasty for such spiciness, very diverse (about 20 dishes per evening) and no worse than in good-quality Korean restaurants around the world. Although at the next table for the guides there is just on a small plate of rice with kimchee. I hope they are at least not the plastic copies, as they like to put on display in the Tokyo schools. It is hard to imagine what an ordinary person has at home for dinner.
Staged shot n.236…
They got us really drunk, by the way. So that there is no strength left to run away, communicate with passersby and to tear the posters down.
There were dancing in national costumes with a disc jockey in uniform, with his back to the audience (but this way he’ll NEVER see you put your hands up!)
I would not be surprised that this is prescribed in the instructions attached to the accreditation of the State Committee of rock and roll and DJing. I don’t know what he was doing there in his “Muga”, but the psychedelic beat and fierce rover over some kind of pop tune seemed to be heard in the residence of the High Chairman.
In the name of Lenin and Kim Il Sung –tracks mix!
The most beautiful dancer of course flew and pulled me into some kind of dance. It seemed to be the most ridiculous, but my Chinese people sincerely clapped their hands and filmed everything on their phones. This was the first choreographic triumph in my life and probably the last one.
She did not leave me her number. You can’t leave something you don’t have!
Checking into the hotel. Everything is pre-filled, agreed, marked, received. Passport data entered without the actual passport. We walk along the waypoints, deviations are accompanied at best by a questioning look. And God bless you, my guardian angels.
I ask the guide the key question: WHERE ARE THE LIMITS OF MY FREEDOM IN YOUR COUNTRY?
To which I get an ambiguous and vague answer like: “Why do you need freedom? We will show you everything, tell you everything and accompany you. Oh yes, well, of course you will sleep alone. But if anything, my room is on the same floor through the door. ”
Anyhow, think as you like. I answe: “You are not my guide anymore! You are my guard! ”
Room is on the 35th floor. Hotel by the way is a solid 5 *, but frozen somewhere in the early era of realignment. I am the only one living here from our group (the Chinese were taken to a more modest place). This is one of the few skyscrapers of Pyongyang on the island between the two central embankments. It can be seen from everywhere and almost all the main points are visible from here: the central square, the embankment, the Juche column, and the giant pyramid-hotel. The last one, to my understanding, is being prepared for delivery and in the middle of the night (thinking that no one sees) experience illumination similar to that at midnight on the Eiffel Tower.
Early start. This unlimited culinary feeding in a sty, hungry eyes and strained smiles. The group of Russians is complaining about something at the table next to mine. Probably abut the uncomfortable reusable iron chopsticks or withdrawal syndrome after rice liquor. I pretend not to understand them.
We are going to the city. A series of pompous monuments that do not let you doubt the triumphal victories of the DPRK over the capitalist world in an unequal grip. The panels and the bas-reliefs are showing the proud bloody faces of the war heroes in the spotlights, tightly gripping the gun and confidently pinning the enemy with a bayonet. The gray overcoats and cowardly, skewed, depressed Americans look like Hitler’s images by Kukryniks In dark corners. The Yaks are finishing off the Mustangs in the sky. For the first and the last time in history.
Judging by the parade rehearsals on all the main squares, another red calendar date is comiong. Basically, this is the main entertainment here, so the melancholy on the faces of the participants is not particularly noticeable. They do not know it could be different anyway.
The elite has its own concerns: how not to let the lower classes know that they are more than sheep, but free individuals who could have have more than one way. Undisguised megalomania, the cult of personality and, apparently, other sexual complexes of the ruling elite, driving around on rare black SUVs with serial numbers from 1 to 999 – this is where we all were a few decades ago.
The next day, we are escorted across the country to the sacred “smelling” mountain and to the museum of the Kim dynasty presents. The building itself is an imitation of a pagoda on the outside and the Orwell’s gray corridors and halls inside.
Cameras and phones are taken away. I would not be surprised if they were also trying to hack them in the hour and a half of the tour.
The guide solemnly announces each new room and the next treasure inside.
Halls are divided by countries. Seeing it all in one day is impossible. They take you through the main ones, plus the ones where the guests came from. There are tons of presents, and that means that my counter of lies has twirled with the speed of light. There are even presents from the USA. Basketball fan Kim Jong-eun’s basketball from Madeleine Albright. I am sure it was done with Denis Rodman involvement, Kim’s best friend. Although most of the gifts are from various countries, most of them are some kind of sketchy marginal councils, committees, parties, funds and other parasites of all the colors of the Comintern. Among the leaders: basically a circle of dictators. Castro, Mugabe, Mubarak, Gadhafi, Chavez and other dear comrades. The main gift from the Russian Federation: the caricature Medvedev, who looks like a hobbit, shakes the hand of a no less caricature father of the current chairman. Guide presented it as an official gift from the president and the government of Russia. I come closer, and the nameplate says: “A gift from the dental community of Chelyabinsk.”
Isn’t it cute!
As many as 3 halls are devoted to gifts from China. Endless numbers of vases, silks, figurines and … a few cars. One of which is the American Buick made in China. Such a poetic justice.
And here comes my favorite part!
The guide recalls that in addition to the crowd of Chinese, some guy from Ukraine was among them. And everyone is told to pay tribute.
Thank God we share not the biggest room with Hungarians, Belarusians, Slovaks.
Only one wall is devoted to Ukraine. There is all the brilliance and pride: three clubs, sabre, Kobzar, embroided shirt, boring pictures descended from non-existing parties and prime ministers. And in the middle of everything there is a panel lined with ordinary amber, of course, illegally mined in the Rivne region.
The guide takes everyone to the picture and loudly declares: “Look, look, this picture maid from pure DIMOND!”
The Chinese in faint all at once, I scream that this is lies and just amber! I add this to my list. And they seem to add me in theirs.
On the way back we visit a shop with postage stamps. A paradise for connoisseurs and again, the same dictatorial porn, where everyone is with everyone.
Lunch in the town on the way to the capital. Everything is traditional. Having finished faster than the others, I take the Chinese boy and bring to corrupt him: on the square in front of the entrance, against the background of a panel of leaders, we arrange monkey games and show obscene gestures to the camera:
The soldiers see all of this and run for help. The panicking guide demands to remove the photos and threatens that I am going to be arrested at the border. I say that I didn’t do anything “wrong”, I’ll handle this, and the kid had nothing to do with it. The careless boy is given into the hands of quite liberal dad. I become an outcast, the tension hangs over to the end of the trip until the border crossing. On the way back, my Hitler in a skirt sits down and tries to play a good policeman. The main question is: why do I dislike her country so much?
I say: “I have no problems with your leaders and people, it’s important to make a public accent – I like architecture and food (which you, for some reason, don’t share with us), but I just get sick of your constant lies, whose collection passed over a hundred. Why are you telling us that you won the World Cup and beat the USA 7-0? Well, yes, no one can check – because there is no Internet. Oh, is there? Intranet is called? Secret Korean development, like television? And what can your browser do? Let you read the morning newspaper and show the weather forecast. Not bad, not bad. Anything else? What is the use of it without going online!
Why all this farce with Potemkin villages and imitation of civilization? It look ridiculous and only makes your guests laugh and will not keep your regime from falling. All these scarce products in a plain sight for the tourists, the same routs so nobody gets a glimpse around the corner, houses painted on one side only. Admit, your country is poor and economically disastrous. Yes, I want to say that you are underdeveloped, full of hatred and hypocrisy, and your people live below the poverty line. They don’t have any rights, freedoms and the basic amenities. They are forbidden to buy cars, it is impossible to leave the ghetto, clothes – according to format, if there is no access to the black marketeers, to read and listen to the unapproved by the party is the greatest sin.
Freethinking is dangerous for the masses. A thesis like this could work in the middle of the 20th century, but not in 2018.
And yes, I am extremely pissed by the total control over my persona.
Oh, you have satellites and rockets? But they are 100% made of Chinese and Russian components and only the flag is Korean.
According to my estimates, if the DPRK lives in such a format for another 10-15 years, without radical reforms, the introduction of new technologies, freedoms and open borders, the gap between you and the civilized world will increase to insurmountable and you will collapse into the Middle Ages.
In response, only a slight squint and I know more or less about the ratio between those who know the truth and play up to the regime and those who continue to faithfully perform and believe in the DPRK.
At the dinner, I refused alcohol abundance and declared that I was planning an evening jog around the city. Koreans didn’t like the idea very much – they started to mumble again about the fact that it was dangerous, not interesting, and generally it’s better to swim in the pool or run around the hotel.
And what will you do, and what if people do not understand you, and what if they show aggression, what if, what if, what if …
After arriving to the hotel I tell the guide that I will die from obesity without the run and this will be on their conscience. So dress yourself in a more sporty way, and if you are afraid that I will run the wrong way, let’s ran together.
I go down to the lobby and see some indistinct outfit of nightie and sandals with socks.
I turn on the headphones and give an average pace on the way to the checkpoint behind which there is such a long-awaited exit from the matrix.
From time to time I look around, checking how my Korean woman feels. Through the music I hear yelling something inarticulate.
I continue to run, but so that they do not think that I am running away. I rush past the stunned sentry. Road, bridge, other shore. REAL PASSERBIES!
I understand that this is already the extra bonuses and it is important to stop at the casino in time. I slow down to almost walking, the Korean woman makes the last shot, screaming at the strain: “Mr. Rusakov, stop right now. I’m not scared for you, but for myself “. I pretend not to understand what she is talking about.
I continue to stretch right at the intersection.
A random guard with an AK-47 stands diagonally across from us. She runs to him in panic and drags him towards me. I see that she says something bad about me, poking a finger at me. The soldier looks at me, at her, again at me, his lips begin to shake and he jerks the shutter. Wow wow, what about “Oh Sport, you are the peace”
We were also promised some kind of bus that had to tag along. It was not actually there, and they walked me back to the hotel under convoy.
Lie n. 256...
By the time we returned a black Lexus with a driver was waiting for us at the parking lot in front of the entrance. Judging by the reaction of others, a highly respected man comes out of it and approaches me. He has the already familiar smile with the KGB squint. A short introductory lecture about what’s what. Hint about I need to be more respectful, careful and trust my curators. I smile back and say that I thought I was going to the Korean People’s DEMOCRATIC Republic.
The next morning.
The guide sits at the far end of the bus and gives me unkind glances. I tell the Chinese the story and ask the boy to translate everything to me to English from now on.
We are taken to the tower of the Juche – the main dominant on the embankment, a symbol of North Korean ideology and philosophy.
For the first time there was an opportunity to pay for something, to be exact, the rising on the survey platform. Before that all the entertainment, food, accommodation, transportation, excursions, gifts were included in the tour price.
The view is perhaps the best in the city and, with minimal optics, it gives the opportunity to see a little more than what you were planned to be shown. The city is quite compact as for 3 million, the architecture (if it can be called such) is mostly minimalist-miserable. Easier said, boxes in the image of Soviet dormitories painted with psychedelic paints. The cult brutal structures stand out like a Bright (figuratively speaking of course) spots of the view: a few gigantic monuments, a stadium, a Culture house, the old and the new hotels. You immediately understand that the roots of the projects are stemming from Soviet engineering and construction institutes, which were given the opportunity to realize their most sick ideas here.
Further, according to the plan, one of the traditional propaganda shows – a visit to the benchmark school and a performance in the assembly hall.
There is a diagram of the passage of the beloved leader comrade Kim during his last visit here in the frame on the wall: he stopped here, then turned around, then he touched the door handle, and here he used the bathroom. One hell of an entourage! The posters with instructions are everywhere. The leaders are also not strangers to the modern technology: Kim’s, the father and the son, stand proudly in the middle of a computer class, telling the legend of C ++ on canvas.
Everything is ready for the reception of dear guests in the assembly hall. The school band is on the stage and they play a quite well pop rock and roll. The girl smashes a solo on the guitar; others rocked the accordion, drums, saxophone and traditional instruments. Obviously they rehearsed hard. But the happiness was short. The lights in the whole school, and it is in the very center of the capital, go down and the girls continue to play the instruments. Let me remind you it’s +45 outside and the fans also stop working. This is apparently not the first time for the guys and some generators and batteries appear on the scene during the program and a quick re-switching occurs. I would, frankly, without any hesitation take them all to my festival. And the government, for such advances in electrification, would have removed from all the world’s lineups.
After leaving the school, we departure to the demilitarized zone – an important historical place of relations between the two Koreas, and a tourist attraction for both. I would even call it a competition in its extremes. A short briefing, a mandatory mentioning of the imperialists’ scoundrels and the fact that South Korea is their inferior artificial project. One of the officers, before entering the zone, suddenly starts showing me kung-Fu tricks on me in a gangster manner. Ok, ok, what haven’t we gone through here yet, right?
The center of the zone is a huge observation post for tourists, several barracks painted blue and the tables for negotiations inside, divided between the two countries. It is not clear why during our visit to the South Korean part, which is a chip shot away, the picture is absolutely still. Not a single person or a car. It is quite simple to develop the legend that South Koreans were captured by soulless American robots.
Upon the return to the city, the guides are obviously trying to stall, and I understand why. I talk to several Chinese and poke a finger into the program of the tour, where the METRO VISIT is written.
They grudgingly agree. We go to the last station of one of the two lines. Walk inside in an organized way. This number of actors is unaffordable for a bankrupt regime, so this is one of the rare moments of touching reality. The passengers are surprised of what is happening, although they try not to show it. Apparently it’s the consequences of the traditional upbringing and mentality.
There are only 17 stations in the city of three million people, but!
Each one is a palace on a separate patriotic theme. And clearly, is a matter of pride. They are different from the rest of the urban surroundings. Settled down very deeply underground and clearly funded from the military budget, as bomb shelters.
The trains are from the old Berlin metro. But with the obligatory portraits of Kims.
We pass only one station and get off. I’d like to see more, but thanks for that.
The last dinner, returning to the hotel and sending postcards.
I sent as many as 6 pieces with provocative, veiled texts, quotes from Soviet propaganda and George Orwell to the different addresses around the world. I put the year 1984, not 2018 on purpose.
4 out of 6 reached their destinations, but the hope is still alive!
Some people rehearse the parade on the platform before departure again, what else! Or imitate that they rehearse. That doesn’t really matter anymore. My guides are standing on the side and make sure that we do not get on the wrong train. Yeah right, like there are a lot of options here.
There’s a pretty girl-guide whom I had never seen before standing next to another group. I came over to chat. She is dressed according to the dress code, but quite stylish. She has these sincerity and curiosity in her eyes. We talk in tolerable English about life. My guides look displeased.
“Trust me, grinning enemies of socialism are not standing around North Korea with targeted missiles who dream of taking over your homeland. South Koreans do not die of hunger and are one of the most developed countries in the world, they make Samsung and Hyundai not at gunpoint, and their kimchee is as tasty as yours. People travel freely around the world, have personal transportation and use the Internet to search for ANY information and often do people around them good and wish them peace. Or at least they pretend that they want to – a bad peace is better than a good war. ”
The conductor invites everyone to the car. I get in the very last, right before the departure and watch through the window how the Hitler in a skirt runs up towards the girl and begins grilling her, asking what the enemy of the people has told her. In response, a serene smile, thoughtful look and soothing gestures. It worked and left some hope that the gap between generations will bear fruit.
I slept all the way (the route is the same, but with a smaller fanfare) and wanted to quickly find myself in such a free democratic China with Facebook via VPN 🙂
At the border, my assumptions and hopes were confirmed. Thus I was ready for any outcome and explanations about my actions and photos on the phone.
Korean patrols came in. Searches and fussing with the Chinese began, to the accompaniment of their apparent discontent. Some souvenirs, cosmetics bottles and … a power bank were taken as a bribe. No problems with me. She didn’t rat me out to the KGB … or was it that the dirt on me didn’t get tot them in time through the IntrAnet).
I ask an intelligent-looking young Korean guy what is all this rampage. He shakes his head and one can see by the eyes that this sucker is not a decoy. The system simply did not keep track and randomly positioned him in the next compartment. He turned out to be an exchange student who has been studying for several years in China. He has to return to work soon for the benefit of the homeland. All this time, his family is de facto hostage to the regime.
It is impossible to not return, but no one will forbid drawing the right conclusions anymore.
Big Kim is watching you!
P.S. More hardcore coming up from Jamaica, Saudi Arabia (April 2019), Namibia and South Africa (right after) and Bhutan (until it turned into Nepal)