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Farewell to Pyongyang

Thursday, February 28, 2008 - 04:53 PM

Our North Korean handlers have been going crazy trying to maintain some semblance of order among the unruly mob that is the international press. But it turns out they will have the last laugh. At 7 am, room phones start to ring. Please pay your room and phone/internet charges between 8 and 8:30 because the buses leave at 9. Well, the itinerary says the buses leave at 10, after breakfast, for the big children's arts school where a major concert has been organized for the Philharmonic and the press. I tell this to Mr. Lee, who seems momentarily flustered, and I wonder if he is perhaps unused to having people talk back to him. Although I've slept just over 2 hours, I had just woken up for some reason a few minutes before, so his call was not quite the rude awakening it would be for many of my colleagues. So I explain that I'm fine with settling my accounts, and since it is the money that he's really worried about, that's all he needs to hear.

Once in the lobby, I learn that the handlers actually have our passports, and that the cheap armbands that we paid 30 Euros for to identify us as press must be returned to them - or we pay a 50 Euro fine. At least there's no surprise settling the room: 80 Euros per night, as promised. Then it's time to face the internet/phone bill. Actually, this is something I can't do on an empty stomach - I don't mind missing sleep but I missed last night's big banquet here in the hotel because I was in the media center all night, and missing meals makes me very unhappy. So it's back to the Bizarro Breakfast Buffet, and then on to the communications table (formerly the coat check room.)

I brought 800 Euros to Pyongyang, leaving 640 - about a thousand bucks - for communications charges. It seemed like overkill in NY. Now, having paid the 30 Euro fee for the press application, and for the two passport photos they had to take for said application, I find that I'm short about 500 Euros. Remember, there is no way to acquire hard currency in North Korea. No ATMs, no credit cards. I was just wondering how long I'd be in a North Korean labor camp when I noticed a bunch of unfamiliar numbers of my itemized bill. No, not unfamiliar, exactly, but numbers I know I didn't call. Then I recognized them: NPR. NPR's Anthony Kuehn had the spot next to me in the media center, and had obviously used my phone by mistake. Here the minders come in handy - Mr. Lee finds Anthony's handler, who understands the problem and knows how to explain it to the communications staff. I eventually find Anthony, and he is fine with paying the nearly 300 Euros his calls cost. So now I'm 200 Euros short. But I know they'll take US dollars. Will they take Chinese ruan? As it turns out, they will. I know that I can get more ruan from an ATM at the Beijing airport, so I give them all my remaining Chinese cash - a bit more than 800 ruan. Having wiped out my Euros and Chinese currency, they start on my few remaining dollars. At this point, the woman relieving me of my troublesome cash actually laughs. I'm just 44 dollars short. Of course, she can't make change, but I have several 20s and a 5, so that does the trick. Now I can get my passport from Mr. Lee, who sees only a stamped invoice and has no idea of the international quality of the payment.

Sightseeing in Pyongyang and Mr. Sung
Pyongyang City View
The buses again offer us a chance to see some of Pyongyang. We will be going to the conservatory for a children's event, and 'if there's time,' to Kim Il Sung's birthplace. That means we don't stand a chance. But the calendar in my room shows a beautiful photo of Kim Jong Il's birthplace, a log cabin on the side of a mountain in North Korea. (For those who are hung up on 'facts,' he was born in Siberia while his dad, Kim Il Sung, was in exile.) At least we'll get to see the one structure that everyone has been talking about. Looming over the city skyline is a dark pyramid that must be enormous, even by NY standards. Steve Smith, who went on the sightseeing tour yesterday, reports that it's the famously unfinished hotel that the Russians started in the 80s and never finished. Because it remains unfinished, he says, it is no longer there as far as the locals are concerned. How they ignore something the size of a small mountain in their city is, I guess, a matter of will. Like believing their Dear Leader was born in that log cabin, and personally designed the famed Juche Tower, composed 6 operas, and singlehandedly fixed the acoustics in the theater where we saw the first night's concert.
Pointy Russian Hotel
For some reason, one of the younger assistant handlers, whom I haven't seen before and will call Mr. Sung, has decided to sit and talk with me on the bus. He says the hotel is 100 stories high, and as we approach, I believe him. At the top is an old construction crane, apparently left there when work stopped. Elsewhere on the bus, there is some good-natured ribbing going on. At least, I hope it's good-natured, since it's aimed at me. Apparently my various phone reports in the media center these past few nights have been a little louder than I thought, and some colleagues are having fun telling me how I have 'a strong voice' and 'it carries well' and 'you should be in radio.' I'm feeling slightly gauche and embarrassed, but point out feebly that my end of the connection had a lot of static and it was hard to hear.
Rally Central
Mr. Sung is actually quite forthcoming about his life - a rare change from the other minders. He wants to know where I live, whether I have family, and seems to fully expect me to ask him similar questions in return. (He was born and raised in Pyongyang, is single, likes working for the Ministry of Culture because he occasionally meets people from outside, has studied English for 3 years but rarely has a chance to use it and is glad of this opportunity. He works weekdays and Saturday mornings and gets 8 to 10 days off a year, paid vacation. He admires the conservatory kids we're about to see but wasn't able to go himself because he wasn't talented enough.). I ask if he's ever been out of the country. He nods solemnly: once, when he went to China. I ask what the major jobs in Pyongyang are - is there industry? He says the industry is outside the city. Inside, government jobs are common. Over the course of the day, I try to get a sense of what a real North Korean life might be like. Does he own a TV? (Yes.) Do most people? (Yes. He thinks so.) But in the countryside it's different, surely? (I've heard a UN statistic that only 5 percent of North Koreans have televisions, but officially, North Korea disputes this. Sung says that TV is rare in the countryside.)
Billboard
We pass a movie theater with two posters, a man and a woman, clearly actors. Do North Koreans watch movies? Of course, he says. North Korean movies? Yes, we have big movie studio in Pyongyang, he says. I'm trying to gauge whether any outside ideas are seeping in, so I ask if people watch foreign films. Some Chinese films sometime come in. Hollywood, no. You like to watch films you understand, he says. I nod. What about South Korea? Do you get to watch any South Korean films? Or TV shows?

I'm pushing it here, and Sung knows it. Watching South Korean TV is a crime punishable by forced labor. For once, he pauses and is clearly uncomfortable. I could not answer that, he says; I do not know. I think we do get some South Korean films though. Fair enough, I think. I've met a young man who seems genuine and friendly - I'm not going to trick him into saying something treasonous. Besides, we've arrived.

The children's theater is a sumptuous, gigantic building with a theater full of disappearing wings, sliding floors, scrims - all the trappings of a truly professional theater. And the kids are amazing. Singers, musicians, dancers, acrobats - and they've worked up two songs for their American guests. Jingle Bells and My Darling Clementine. The words are unrecognizable and the melodies are orchestrated to truly saccharine heights - much the way Korean folk music is treated in the popular light classical style. Everything is precise and the kids seem as professional as the adults. Sung tells me, when I ask how they're chosen, that they volunteer. And they pick what they will study. It's essentially a big after-school program, and the Mangyongdae School is nothing if not big. There are hundreds of Koreans in the audience in addition to most of the Philharmonic, many with spouses and other family members, and the press.
north_korea_kids_400.jpg
The performance begins with the song 'Best Is My Country,' with kids materializing out of wings and walls until there seem to be hundreds on the stage. Later, a girls chorus sings 'Generalissimo Kim Il Sung Dance With Us' and the audience dutifully bursts into applause at the Great Leader's name. A gymnastic routine is called 'We Are Masters of the Future' and features kids doing things with hula hoops that defy the laws of gravity and logic. The grand finale is the song 'We Are Faithful Only To General Kim Jong Il,' which produces an inevitable outpouring of applause when the title is flashed on the stage. And when, at the end, the back of the stage becomes a huge photo of the Dear Leader, the audience erupts. The kids, clearly inspired, bring down the house with the final chorus. Then, in a strange echo of last night's memorable ending, the kids begin to file out, waving as they go. This is clearly choreographed, and the parents and others are on their feet, as are the Americans. And the Philharmonic members are waving back. This is not choreographed. And so several hundred kids will have this memory, of the despised Americans who came and waved to them. Again, somewhere down the road, maybe many years down the road, that memory may be a little crack in the door of this closed nation.
billboard happy kids
On the other hand, my overwhelming reaction is just how creepy this is. They start drinking the Kool-Aid at an awfully early age here, and Kim's cult of personality is a very effective and very pernicious cult. It would be interesting to see what Pyongyang looks like next week, when we're all gone. We've learned that most of the virulent anti-American billboards have been removed, though one, of a huge fist crushing an American GI, remains. Everyone wants a photo of it, but it's at a weird angle to the street and as the buses pass it's too hard to really photograph effectively. Will the others stay down, or will they be right back up?

Whatever happens, we won't be there to see it. The buses take us directly to the tarmac and our waiting plane. There is no ceremony as we say goodbye with varying degrees of sincerity to our guide/handlers (I wish Mr. Sung many more chances to use his language skills, and thank him for his company, and mean it), and trickle up the stairs. There is one final piece of surrealism for this day - the flight to Seoul is 50 minutes long. In less than an hour, we have moved into another world, and apparently another century, as Seoul spreads out beneath the plane and spreads into the sea with a colorful, geometric series of causeways, gas distribution rigs, etc.

From North to South to Beijing Again

But while still en route, a wonderful thing happens: I get my blackberry back. My baby, I cry when it's passed to me. My baby is back! I have become a hopeless addict (hence the nickname Crackberry), and like Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings, I can't help feeling I've got my Precious back. Plus I can actually finish these damn blogs.

I'm in Seoul only to connect to a flight back to Beijing. Everyone else is staying for the NY Phil's concert there. A few hours later, I'm back where this whole thing started - same hotel, and apparently, the same neon sign over my head saying 'I am a fool and I have money! Please part me from it!' Although it was just a few days ago, it seems like last year when I walked out of the hotel only to be continually accosted by young men wanting to practice English by bringing me into their friend/teacher's store, old women grabbing my arm and pointing to their identical trinkets saying 'cheap! Look, cheap!' (had to agree with them there), and young women asking if I wanted 'Chinese girlfriend.' (One enterprising woman would not be so easily brushed aside, upping the ante to 'hotel sex.' On the theory that I was too stupid to understand the girlfriend part.)

The first person I meet, before I even leave the terminal, presents himself as a taxi driver. But he leads me to a different door, and a car that is clearly private. So, car service then. I ask the fare, and it's about four times what the taxis charge. When I tell him this he says that's not true, I'm mistaken, etc. I walk away.

After checking in, I leave the hotel through the basement entrance to the underground mall. There's a supermarket where I can buy decent English ale. As soon as I open the door and enter the mall a young woman comes striding purposely up to me. 'You have an interesting look,' she announces. 'Interesting hair. Are you musician? We could have a drink.' On the one hand, it's just too annoying to leave the hotel - on the other, there's a certain wild wild west quality to modern Beijing - changing from a closed city to an Olympic-hosting cosmopolitan center that looks like midtown Manhattan - that feels like home, like New York in the 70s perhaps. I think about Pyongyang - where are the hustlers and the hookers? The casino was squirreled away in the hotel basement. Where do you go if you're gay, or religious, or otherwise out of step with a lockstep society? People are the same everywhere, so all of these groups must be hidden somewhere in the darkened floors of Pyongyang. When change comes, someday, will Pyongyang look like Beijing? I regard my unwanted companion (she does walk fast, because she's keeping up with me) for a brief second, which is normally a mistake, then smile and shake my head no, and head into the supermarket.

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Comments [9]

Bownessency

Пост хороший удачный, закину сайт в закладки.

Dec. 01 2008 10:27 PM
Leslie Yu

Hmmm - thank YOU for your reply! I just want to add that your inadvertent ploy (a cliff hanger, never mind that you are afraid of heights) caused me to comb through your entire blog, which was quite informative and very entertaining.

Mar. 11 2008 11:25 AM
John Schaefer

Leslie, thanks for your concern... I never did find my glasses. By the time I got back into the theater that night, the place was full of people and it made searching difficult (though I did try). They also didn't have a Lost & Found.
Thanks everyone, for reading and commenting!

Mar. 06 2008 07:23 PM
Victoria

As always, I think John and WNYC did a wonderful job in relaying and blogging about their experiences in North Korea. Thank you very much! It was a joy to read and listen about this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Mar. 06 2008 05:32 PM
Leslie Yu

Did you ever find your glasses?? You didn't say....

Mar. 04 2008 11:11 PM
littleredcar

I did watch the show on 13 last week, and I thought it was amazing.

However, I was listening to John's show this afternoon on NYC, and I'm pretty sure I'll agree that this was one pretty creepy trip.

Mar. 04 2008 09:16 PM
Anna Rich

I heard what you had to say about your trip on the air and when you said "…get me outta here", I knew I could relate. When I watched the concert on TV and wondered whether the North Korean audience had ever heard any of that music before. Surely someone has an old record player or cassette deck? Pirated, underground recordings?
Thanks, I enjoyed your posts.

Mar. 04 2008 09:07 PM
Jim Leff

Also...I'd like to urge everyone to click on the youtube video of Maazel and Schaefer on Brian Lehrer's show. It radically shifted my perception of the story of the ovation. The fact of the matter is the orchestra absolutely played their hearts out on Arirang, the Korean folksong...as Maazel and Schaefer indicate via their beatific grins while listening to the playack. So the tumultuous ovation was not entirely political. Interesting!

Feb. 29 2008 02:36 PM
Jim Leff

The comments section is as strangely vacant as Pyongyang on a Monday night, so let me get the ball rolling by thanking you for this awesome, thoughtful, funny, insightful, and extraordinarily transportive blog. It couldn't have been fun to produce amid all the other Herculean sleepless labors. But at least this one reader really enjoyed it and appreciated your taking the time and effort.

Feb. 29 2008 02:31 PM

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