I don't know what I really expected from North Korea - I pictured it as a steely, grey, cold place: a bleak, barren land with people moving around in a combination of militaristic precision and cult-induced narcosis.
So when we flew in over a bleak, barren landscape with almost no sign of human activity, and landed in Pyongyang's remote airport under a steely, grey, cold sky, with a stinging snow falling and a huge poster of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung's face presiding over us, it was strangely comforting. It really did look the way we've been taught to think North Korea looks.
Before leaving from Beijing, all of our passports are collected, along with our cell phones and blackberries. Media in North Korea is either completely controlled by the government, or it is not allowed. Cell phones and internet can't be controlled, so they are illegal. Fortunately, a media center has been set up for us at the hotel, with each journalist supplied with a direct-dial phone, an internet connection, and a mobile phone if needed. Unfortunately, the rates for this gear is daunting (about ten bucks a minute for a phone call to the States) - and it has to be paid in cash, in Euros, which you have to bring into the country with you. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a cash-only society; there are no ATMs and foreigners are forbidden to use the native currency. We are expected to bring 'real' money in from outside. This is a real potential problem, but we'll see how that works out...
Anyway, the press corps descends first, on old-fashioned jet-stairs, right onto the tarmac a good distance from the terminal. There, we amass in the wind-blown snow and watch the deplaning of the NY Philharmonic, allegedly the first major group of Americans to touch down on North Korean soil (hey what were we, chopped liver? I mean, we DID get there first by a good couple of minutes.) This photo-op was planned to be a quick and orderly affair - we all snap away as the musicians come down the stairs; the Vice Minister of Culture welcomes the orchestra and shakes hands with conductor Lorin Maazel, president Zarin Mehta, and chairman Paul Guenther; and then we pile into buses and go to the hotel. (The great irony is that here, in this most closed of countries, we never went through customs, never came near the terminal, never turned in the very important arrival form ('are you bringing weapon, ammunition, killing device, drug, exciter, poison,' etc ('exciter' must mean 'stimulant' - right? Or a toddler, maybe? (And if you're bringing these things into North Korea, would it make it all more fun to answer 'yes'? (Sorry for all the parentheses within other parentheses but when you haven't slept in days it makes your mind kinda jumpy (there's a name for the affliction that causes people to insert too many parenthetical remarks, by the way, but I forget what it is (and anyway I'm finally ready to wrap up all these digressions and return to the conclusion of my thought. (If I can remember what it was. But first, I have to close all these parentheses. Get ready - here goes...))))))) (Wow, that felt good!) (Sorry.) But the North Koreans, isolated from the wider world for 6 decades, have no clue what they're in for. If the US or anyone else ever does decide to attack this most militarized of nations, they may want to lead with their press corps. Talk about shock and awe. Just try to tell a wire service photographer, or worse, a network tv cameraman, to stay behind a line or give a subject some room. The scene quickly turns into a free-for-all, until the weather cools people's enthusiasm enough that we could be loaded onto buses and dispatched with a collective sigh of relief by the airport security detail.
Pyongyang is about 70 kilometers from its airport, and the ride is truly surreal. There is what looks like a small garrison town near the airport, with that mid-20th-century Soviet block architecture and the only splashes of color coming from the huge agitprop posters that we pass occasionally - loud red billboards featuring raised fists, grimly heroic faces, and the beatific gleam of the Great Leader (Kim Il Sung - his son, the current Dear Leader. Kim Jong Il, is not nearly as visible).
The mood on the buses is slightly subdued, but as we pass one of these billboards you can hear the frantic clicking of every camera. But the people seem shockingly normal. Kids run across a street in the same down coats our kids wear, and their moms chase after them, laughing.
Then, nothing for a good 20 minutes but a dreary winter landscape, which seems like it would be just as dreary in the summer. There are few people, and no other vehicles on the road. When we enter Pyongyang, we see people on the streets - but still almost no other vehicles. A convoy of buses led by several official vehicles is bound to attract attention, but it also seems likely that word of the Philharmonic's arrival has preceded us. People stare as we drive by. A boy watches our bus go by, and I wave to him as we pass. Hey, this kid may just run home and tell his mom, I saw an American and he wasn't a demon... he actually waved to me. The buildings remind me of East Berlin, an architectural wasteland but with the effect softened by the green, pink, and mustard colors of many of them. Driving over a bridge, we pass a flatbed truck crowded with at least a dozen students, who all wave at us.
The lack of traffic is unnerving. In many intersections, a police woman in a blue winter coat, fur hat and gloves, and surprisingly sexy boots points our convoy's way with rapid, clipped movements of a red stick. (We'd see the occasional police man, as well, but they somehow didn't pull off the boots as well.) After a while, I ask 'has anyone seen a traffic light?'. There is a ripple of surprise - no, no one has seen any sign of either sidewalk lights or traffic lights. There is definitely a weird vibe to Pyongyang, a kind of Western ghost town feeling. I mean, there are 2 million people here, but it seems almost deserted.
Our hotel is across the river and apparently in the middle of nowhere. It is 40 stories tall, and we can't help wondering what they need all those rooms for. We meet our 'guides,' one for each 5 or 6 of us, and go to our rooms to unpack. The hotel is trying very hard to be a good Western-style hotel, but they just don't have it right yet. They do have the BBC on the television, which is a surprise. But there's no time to check it out - we all want to check out our media center connections and then there's a performance at one of the big state theaters we're being taken to.
The performance is typical North Korean music: a bowdlerized version of Korean folk song in cheesy orchestrations, over-amplified so it sounds like a recording, and accompanying dance or acrobatic routines that have a similar combination of the traditional and the tasteless. The performances themselves are impeccable - clearly everyone here is the product of years of serious training. After it's over, Lorin Maazel comes onstage to present flowers to the prima ballerina. The hall, by the way, is an over-the-top behemoth, with a Soviet take on Classical architecture married to garish colored lights and a fake waterfall.
Then on to the banquet. Our itinerary includes all meals, mostly at the hotel, but this one is in a grand, old ballroom, where each table is set with plates of (to us) unrecognizable but presumably edible objects, and a centerpiece of bottles of water, soda, beer, and ginseng liquor. The latter is interesting. The local beer is quite palatable. The food - and I am an adventurous eater - ranges from the good (most of the Korean food) to the barely palatable (the 'normal' foods, like salmon and mutton, both overcooked). There will be dessert and more drinks, but some of us need to get back to the media center to start filing or phoning in reports.
The Dark Side of the Moon, Part II
Technically, this trip continues to be an exercise in frustration. I lugged nearly 40 pounds of equipment and one of the big pieces, which makes a crappy phone line sound like a crappy live interview, was not working in Beijing yesterday. It apparently doesn’t like Asian phone service. This evening, everything that can go wrong does. I eventually get a few nice clips back via yousendit.com, but this takes most of the night, interspersed with live reports for Brian Lehrer and Soundcheck and Morning Edition and whatnot. I mean come on, how many shows do we have back there??? Zero hour is tomorrow - we don’t have a concert broadcast unless someone figures out how to get the audio from here to NY. The Philharmonic’s audio engineer, Larry Rock, is a nice guy, and more to the point, he’s resourceful - and a WNYC fan. If anyone can make this happen, Larry can. ‘Cause I certainly can’t…
Stumbling to bed in the early morning, the hotel seems abandoned. Our minders disappear in the evening to their rooms - after all, where can we go? There’s nothing around for at least a mile and it’s pitch black out. And of course there are no taxis. So hotel guests remain hotel guests until someone with a vehicle comes to get them. Very ingenious…