An ego trip in N. Korea

Times Staff Writer

THERE’S not a lot to do when you’re a closely watched visitor in North Korea except hit the karaoke at day’s end, so we’re at it again.

From the sound of it, most North Korean karaoke falls into two categories. Soupy ballads about national glory, superior leadership, glorious workers. And hard-driving martial tunes urging citizens to think as one and pick up a bayonet. Rounding out the experience are video clips of goose-stepping soldiers and ozone-piercing missiles.

A gentle tune floats by that doesn’t seem to fit the bill. On the screen, a river meanders. Birds chirp. Trees sway. The reverie is brought up short, however, when our minder informs us it’s about a river that would flow through a unified Korea -- if the imperialists hadn’t ripped the peninsula apart.

From karaoke to billboards, lapel pins to education campaigns, North Korea doesn’t miss an opportunity to drive a handful of core messages home: It’s under siege, the Korean War never ended here, its leadership is divine, sacrifice and deprivation make you strong.


Even a carefully scripted visit designed to put the North’s best foot forward underscores just how buttoned-down this place is. At a time when Pyongyang is flirting with some modest reform, the almost complete lack of tolerance for deviation from the party line suggests the huge psychological challenge this isolated society will face if and when it decides to join the outside world.

Most visitors are broadly aware before they arrive of the leadership cult centered on Great Leader Kim Il Sung -- who died in 1994 -- and Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, who recently celebrated his 65th birthday. But that doesn’t prepare you for its 3-D, surround-sound intensity in person.

Kim Il Sung called for reunification on his deathbed. Kim Il Sung taught farmers a better way to raise cows. Kim Il Sung visited every monument personally. Kim Il Sung taught construction workers to mix cement. Kim Il Sung designed the traffic police uniforms.

ON the twice-weekly flight from China aboard a Russian-built TU-154, flight attendants dressed in blue and red uniforms and Kim Il Sung pins hand out copies of the Workers Party Daily newspaper. The front page is dominated by a massive picture of Kim Jong Il and hundreds of soldiers. Heading through customs, I’m berated in Korean. Eventually I figure out my transgression: folding the newspaper near the Dear Leader’s face.

“This is the first thing you should know about our country,” one of our minders says shortly after our group lands at Pyongyang Airport. “Although Kim Il Sung has passed away, he is always with us. Western people just do what they like. But in a place where there’s a statue or picture of the Great Leader, don’t misbehave. Don’t smoke, spit or wear sloppy clothes.”

A museum north of Pyongyang features a Madame Tussaud’s-style wax likeness of Kim Il Sung. We’re instructed to wear ties and bow to the graven image. A group of North Korean women, visiting at the same time, emerges tear-stained. Its members have seen their maker.

“God in our country is the Great Leader,” one of our minders explains. “It has a different meaning from what Westerners think. Our God means our mother, our father, our parents. Kim Il Sung understands us, understands the details of people’s daily lives. If you have problems, he works to solve them.”

The regime takes great pains to try to counter its reputation as an isolated state and to give the impression that the Kims are not just loved at home but also glorified abroad. We’re told repeatedly that President Carter once said Kim Il Sung was greater than Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln combined, an apparent urban legend, North Korea-style.

Equally striking is the near-complete absence of brands, advertising or commerce in the country. Five days of driving in and around Pyongyang and on trips south, north and west of the capital yield a single advertisement: a billboard for the Ppeokkugi, or Cuckoo, sports utility vehicle and the Hwiparam, or Whistle, sedan.

A closer look, however, suggests that the billboard has more in common with a propaganda placard than a Nike swish. In reality, it’s a slightly more subtle form of bravado, hyping that North Korea has an auto industry of its own. So what if the factory appears dormant from the outside -- as close as they let you get -- or that we only saw one Ppeokkugi on the road during our trip?

“It’s amazing to see streets without any commerce in Asia,” says Peter Tasker, a Tokyo-based private investor on the magical mystery tour. “It’s not always what you see that’s striking, but what you don’t see.”

The throwback nature of the entire experience is part of the attraction for many visitors. In a world of look-alike malls and identical Starbucks from Rome to Redondo Beach, there’s a refreshing lack of sameness about it, if you don’t stop to think about the suffering, hunger and deprivation underpinning the system.

One noticeable change from a visit in 2005 is the government’s apparent effort to skim more hard currency from foreign tourists. Most museums and monuments now offer souvenir shops, and a foreigners-only department store in Pyongyang has been expanded.

The problem is, there’s still hardly anything worth buying. A typical stand might feature books on the teachings of Kim Il Sung, some green and pink embroidery of dancing children, bottles of the local firewater known as soju, cans of peas and boxes of hemorrhage restorative herbal medicine. At one point while buying some apples, I try bargaining -- de rigueur in most of Asia -- to gauge the reaction, an affront that draws looks of shock and embarrassment.

The most important relationship most visitors will have during their three-, four- or occasionally seven-night trip to the North is with their guide, who variously keeps you in line, keeps you fed and keeps you blinkered. He or she is also your main conduit for any occasional insights that slip through on life behind the North Korean veil.

THE ticket into this isolated world is a hot one for Americans, whom the regime views with some distrust even as it hungers for their money. Trips are arranged through a handful of travel agents with links to the government, can set you back up to $8,000 and are subject to last-minute cancellation if Pyongyang’s political mood changes.

Our senior tour guide, whom we nickname “Good Cop,” is in his mid-30s, speaks English well and appears relatively comfortable around foreigners.

Our second tour guide -- we nickname him “Mini-Me” after the diminutive character in the Austin Powers films -- is a decade younger, betrays no sense of humor and shows a pretty deep distrust of foreigners.

Mini-Me also appears to hold sway over his older colleague, which on the face of it is unusual in Korea’s strong Confucian culture, hinting at superior political credentials and the underlying fear that binds society. “This is the last time I say this to you, no pictures,” he barks in a typical warning. “Or there will be uncomfortable events.”

The two are assisted by a young female guide in training, whose main function seems to be sitting strategically near the back of the bus to keep a close eye on us, and a driver, for a group of seven visitors.

“No matter how early we got up, one of the [minders] was there,” says Shari Bouchard, a freelance photographer from Palm Springs.

When someone on another tour falls sick, a guide is left behind to keep tabs on the person at the hotel. “They don’t want an imperialist wandering around,” says Chris Taber, a real estate developer from Long Beach. “It’s not like being in a gulag, and you expect some of this going in. But you definitely know your chances of complaining about your constitutional rights are pretty limited.”

The guides seem to have an inordinate fear of South Koreans and Westerners mixing, perhaps a reflection of Pyongyang’s broader efforts to drive a wedge between the two allies. At one point we run into some English-speaking South Koreans at yet another monument and start talking. A code red goes up among both sets of minders as they use every possible pretense to quickly separate us. The look of panic on their faces says it all. “You started the conversation with them?” Mini-Me asks us accusingly after we’re safely back in the bus.

Tucked among the endless monuments, however, are also rare, touching glimpses of humanity among North Korea’s long-suffering people: children laughing with abandon, young lovers canoodling in a pocket park, a tired farmer stopping for a smoke.

On our last night, our minders take us for another karaoke session, our third in four nights. This round is out of the hotel, in a private room of a restaurant with no other customers.

We’ll say goodbye tomorrow, and our minders want to leave us with a good impression, so this place features foreign numbers in addition to the full range of North Korean hits. As an added bonus, a couple of waitresses in traditional pink gowns can sing some of the choruses in English, their arms gyrating in a well-practiced motion vaguely reminiscent of synchronized swimming.

After four days of being micro-managed by minders, New York-based entrepreneur Shane Smith, a member of our group, decides to shake things up. Buried amid the tame Beatles and Eagles numbers is the 1977 Sex Pistols hit “Anarchy in the U.K.” The song may be 30 years old, and punk a dim memory in pop music history, but it’s all news to North Korea, especially when screamed into a reverb-laden mike at Banshee-screech volumes.

Our minders look around nervously, leading to another moment of panic and a sharp exchange in clipped Korean until they decide it takes a safe imperialist to fight a suspect imperialist. Before long, the gentle tones of John Denver fill the room, allowing the synchronized swimmers to slip back into form.