North Korea Disco Visit No Laughing Matter: Richard Vines

It’s the early 1990s and I’m standing in front of the Triumphal Arch, a copycat Arc de Triomphe in downtown Pyongyang.

There is a crimson blur in the distance and the sound of drumming. Then they come in their thousands, possibly tens of thousands: Young people marching in formation, waving red flags and holding aloft giant pictures of President Kim Il-Sung.

North Korea was a strange place then, just as it is today. The memories returned this week as I watched the BBC documentary “North Korea Undercover,” in which the reporter John Sweeney breathlessly whispers about the most dangerous place on earth while visiting many of the same tourist sites.

(The London School of Economics called on the BBC not to broadcast the program because Sweeney traveled undercover with a group of students who might have been placed at risk. The BBC refused, saying that they had consented. Sweeney and I are both graduates of the LSE and both worked for the Morning Telegraph.)

I was among a party of journalists invited more than 20 years ago when the North Korean authorities were considering opening the country to small tour groups from Hong Kong.

At the time, I was the foreign editor of the South China Morning Post, for which I wrote editorials on Asian politics. I also made several trips to South Korea and interviewed leaders such as the future presidents Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung.

Flight Catwalk

We flew to Pyongyang on CAAC, the Chinese state airline, which had a reputation for old planes and flight attendants who put the spit into hospitality. We traveled on a new jet served by tall young women who smiled and entertained us with a catwalk show mid-flight. Then they sat next to passengers to chat.

While Pyongyang airport was basic, we were boarded onto smart tour buses and driven along broad avenues to the twin-towered Koryo Hotel. There were few cars or bicycles on the streets, not even many people: just young women cops at intersections with batons ready to direct non-existent traffic.

When a place is as closed and secretive as North Korea, you end up feeling something between paranoia and self-importance. You may ponder whether that mass demonstration in an empty city was laid on for your benefit, and is that Korean who has casually sat down near you spying on your conversation?

Years later, I watched the “The Truman Show” -- about a man living in a constructed reality -- and knew how he felt.

When I asked the hotel receptionist for a change of room, she said it would be necessary to hold a meeting first to discuss the idea. I assumed such a move might involve shifting around surveillance equipment.

Fingerprint Mystery

No problem, there was a mysterious break-in at the new room, when a sealed envelope containing my papers was opened. I complained and a man came and dusted for fingerprints, before saying everything was OK. As he hadn’t taken my fingerprints, I wondered how he knew.

The food served to us, mostly Korean, was plentiful and delicious. At that time, North Korea enjoyed close relations with China and there were probably fewer shortages than now.

The visit, of less than a week, was tightly organized, with guides in near-constant attendance. The group was ferried in buses from outsize developments such as the Kim Il Sung Stadium to Kim Il Sung Square, via the Tower of the Juche Idea, honoring the then-president’s philosophy of self-reliance.

What was most noticeable was the scale of the monuments and the shortage of people. At one stage we were taken to visit a department store selling refrigerators and other household goods. I didn’t see anyone buying anything. I’d lived (and married) in Beijing before China fully opened up, and I knew the rarity and value of such appliances in an impoverished country.

Overnight Train

The only time we left Pyongyang, we traveled in the dark by overnight train -- so no view of the countryside -- to the border city of Kaesong and a visit to the demilitarized zone.

I tried asking the train attendant for a date and she laughed. I wish I could say it’s the only time that has happened. Later in the journey, I went to ask for a beer and found her in a tiny compartment cuddling a steward.

I’d visited the South Korean side of the 38th parallel months before and the propaganda was more insistent there than in the North. But when I asked if we might visit some North Korean apartment blocks near the border, I was told that we would if there was time. There wasn’t, lending weight to the idea it is a Potemkin Village, erected for propaganda reasons.

We escaped from our minders twice during the visit. On the first occasion, I walked out in the evening with a couple of friends in search of a “disco” at a neighboring hotel. We tried to flag down a taxi that was improbably passing in the dark before we spotted markings that indicated it was a police car.

Nursing Beers

We made it to the hotel, where a few African and East European men nursed beers in a room with a neon sign, “Dance Hall.” They were students sent by their governments and looked like they might have appreciated some female company. Instead, there were a few Korean men who sat close by in near-silence.

On the second, I walked out in daylight, went into the metro and (paying with a coin supplied by our Hong Kong tour guide) took a train to the end of the line. I emerged into a shabby suburb with dusty roads and brick houses. That was no surprise: Most capital cities have districts that are poor.

What struck me was the fact that homes had bars on their windows, suggesting petty crime had not been eradicated in a totalitarian nation that described itself as a people’s paradise on earth. I tried to buy chili paste in a shop to the amusement of local people. They were courteous and friendly and explained to me in sign language that I would need a ration book.

Showcase Patients

It’s easy to make fun of North Korea. I smiled when a doctor told the BBC that there were no patients in a showcase hospital because they had just left. Sick people were treated in the morning and then went out to work or for social activities.

(On my trip, the guides said that the Ryugyong Hotel -- a 105-story pyramid-shaped shell of a building dominating the city -- was about to open. It still is.)

But North Korea isn’t a joke or deserving of cheap shots.

Through ruthlessness and political skill, the regime has survived against the odds. It’s a government that represses and impoverishes its people while lavishing spending on the military and on monuments to the personality cult of the Kim dynasty.

It’s tragic, not comic.

(Richard Vines writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Martin Gayford on European art, Lance Esplund on U.S. art, Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on technology.