My minders know more or less what I think about the North Korean regime; we’d discussed it a number of times in the days we spent together, during which they never left me alone for a second (except while I slept). Their constant companionship was the precondition for my visit to the northern half of the Korean peninsula. I knew this and actually enjoyed their company, despite the fact that it was forced. The guides are accustomed to Westerners. They know we are different and that we don’t understand. And they are right. No one can truly understand unless they grew up there, like Kim, Choe, or the photographer sent by the Department of Propaganda to ensure that my pictures were kosher (and erase those deemed unsavory).
When they picked me up at the airport, eight days earlier, they were fully expecting to see me with a professional camera slung around my neck. They seemed a little surprised that I only had a harmless smartphone, the result of a misunderstanding that would have allowed me, despite the fact that I was a journalist and thus “potentially dangerous,” to shoot pictures and video at will.
Before beginning, though, there was an important issue to clear up. I knew that phones are no longer collected upon arrival and then returned at departure, like they used to be until 2013, and that perhaps one could even buy a local SIM card. The information collected before my journey was a bit nebulous. I ask my guides, and in five minutes, for just a few dozen euros, I have a Koryolink SIM card to make and receive international calls (at 2,50 euros per minute; I would later discover that North Korean phone numbers were labeled nonexistent when dialed from Italy), but without 3G internet.
“That would cost more than 200 euros,” Choe explains, suggesting that it is not appropriate.
“Are there places where I can get wi-fi?” I ask, knowing the answer already.
“Wi … Fi?,” Choe and the Koryolink employee, who handled my smartphone so deftly a moment ago, look at each other dumbfounded. They have no idea what I’m talking about.
Young Kim knows, though. He approaches shaking his head and laughing: “No, no. No wi-fi.”
It’s a late June morning in Juche 105 (North Korean for 2016) and Pyongyang welcomes us with a clear blue sky. I shuffle into the minivan along with my two tour guides, the driver, and the photographer, who reinvents himself as a paparazzo, documenting every second of my trip from beginning to end. The road from the airport to the city is a bit rough and the vehicle bounces the entire way over cracks and craters. Not knowing exactly where to push the conversation, I try to feel out the situation: “The roads in Rome are pretty bad, too. We actually just voted for our new mayor, and potholes were a key theme during the campaign.” As would happen many more times on the trip, as I walk blindly right into sensitive issues or downright unwelcome topics, my guides juggle a response and then let it drop. If I ask them something explicitly, however, they are ready to answer, rarely falling into difficulty.
The Pyongyang subway, built in the early 1970s, has two lines with station names like Prosperity, Glory, Torch, Victory, and Reunification. (June 2016)
Choe is a nice, 41-year-old woman who speaks Spanish, hence her occasional assignment to Italian visitors. Like Kim, she graduated from the University of Foreign Studies. She also lived for four years in Cuba when she was in high school in the early 1990s. After a visit to North Korea, Fidel Castro proposed a “cultural exchange” program to Kim Il-sung, and a group of Pyongyang students was subsequently sent to Cuba. Meeting a North Korean with some foreign travel experience is a rare occurrence, I think, listening to her story. “Did you enjoy it? The sea, Havana — how was it?” I asked curiously. “To be honest,” she replies, “I never left the Isla de la Juventud. I only saw Havana from the bus on the day we left. I don’t really remember.” Contact with locals was forbidden in Cuba, she explains, except with students and instructors (“It was a cook at school that told us about President Kim Il-sung’s passing in July 1994. He’d heard it over the radio. We didn’t believe him, at first. We thought he was joking”).
She’s been a guide for nine years and has a husband and a 14-year-old daughter. They live with her retired in-laws. You can tell that she’s dealt with foreigners on a regular basis. In addition to the knowledge of foreign places she’s studied for work, she has absorbed a great deal of information from tourists she’s met along the way. Despite living a life so completely isolated, Choe manages to have an idea of the world quite a bit more nuanced than her younger colleague.
Kim — sporting a haircut similar to Marshal Kim Jong-un’s, like many young men in the capital — has only been working for KITC, the government’s tourist agency, for three months. Before that, he worked as a singer. He comes from a high-ranking family. His mother is a doctor and his father a university professor, both still working (women, they tell me, retire at 55 and men at 60). They live in downtown Pyongyang. At 28, Kim still lives with his parents. He is single and so has no claim to a personal residence. “We used to marry at an earlier age, women at 24 and men at 28,” Choe shares. “But the average has risen, like in the rest of the world. I think it’s a trend. We’re not allowed to leave this place, but trends still spread here anyway — weird, huh?”
Meeting my guides, who are also my nannies, guardians, interpreters, and traveling/lunch/dinner companions, is actually a blessing. We like each other; we chat and joke together. We know the rules and we don’t intend to break them. From the second day, Kim begins to refer to me as noona (older sister, a title used by men to refer to older women), laughing every time he pronounces it. I can call him dongsaeng (little brother), he tells me.
“You weren’t afraid of coming here? No one ever asked you, ‘Where are you going?! Isn’t it dangerous?’” Choe asks with a smile. “Usually foreigners are nervous the first day and keep quiet. On day two, they relax a bit and start to open up.” I take note of everything they tell me, knowing their ultimate goal is for me to walk away with a good impression of their country at the end of the week. “Seeing is believing,” Kim repeats every so often. True, but I’ll only see what they are authorized to show me. Anything I may catch on my own will be difficult to understand or verify.
The view from Moran Hill isn’t so bad. They take me there for the ritual bow in front of two imposing statues of the nation’s leaders — Eternal President Kim Il-sung and General Kim Jong-il — after a brief glance at their Arc de Triomphe (“You know the one in Paris? This one is three meters taller!”). Pyongyang, cut in half by the river Taedong, which forms an S-shape meandering from east to west, isn’t as gray and gloomy as I’d expected. The buildings, mostly containing apartments and offices (but also museums, theaters, sports arenas, a multitude of monuments and new futuristic quarters), are all painted in pastels — not bright, but not gloomy either.
The green spaces are kept clean by the maniacal attention of women (“because they are better suited for detailed tasks”), laborers one sees at all hours of the day, hunched over in flowerbeds weeding out yellowing grasses. Their gardening has softened the city’s facade, which is hardly rich but generally dignified. The problem, as I would learn from an engineer working for a foreign firm there, is that safety standards aren’t respected in the construction industry: for example, “though you should technically wait 15 days for cement to dry, projects always continue without pause.”
Stores are scarce and almost invisible. Besides the N.1 and N.2 department stores, the locals in Pyongyang do their shopping in random corner drugstores. There are no signs or displays. The only sights remotely reminiscent of a city to a foreigner are the mini-kiosks dotting the streets selling drinks and snacks. North Korea has about 25 million inhabitants distributed, more or less, in this way: 2.5 million in the capital, 2.5 million in the other nine capitals of the surrounding provinces, and the remaining 20 million or so in agricultural cooperatives sprinkled throughout the territory. Those living in Pyongyang are definitely the lucky ones.
On Saturday morning at 7:00, the streets of the capital hum along to the rhythm of a regular workday. Kids in uniform make their way to school, employees rush to reach the office, and herds of others move on bikes, on the tram, or in a few cars. Many are carrying a red book in their hands, and some, stopped at traffic lights, peek at its pages.
During the week, everyone arrives early at school or work to perform morning cleaning. Today, though, everyone is on their way to study the history of their leaders and the Juche (the official ideology of North Korea, built upon the idea of self-sufficiency): three hours of group study with peers and colleagues, and then some time alone for personal study. It’s a pattern that begins for everyone in kindergarten, with little ditties dedicated to the exploits of the Kims, and that recurs throughout adult life until retirement. Then, I’m told, people can take a break. The only true day of rest is Sunday. The feeling, though, is that activities tied to the Party — to “socialist construction” and “national development” (recurring concepts in our conversations and seemingly fixed in the lives of every North Korean) — never end, and that the concept of truly free, unorganized time does not exist.
The waterpark in Pyongyang.
In the afternoon, the bowling alley is mobbed. A team of professional bowlers, recognizable by their numbered jerseys, is training, and there is also a large group of regular folks, almost all young, there to have some fun. Alongside the three recreational parks — at least two designed and constructed by Italian companies — the bowling alley is one of the few spots for the capital’s elite to gather (by “elite” I mean a kind of urban middle class that can afford such luxuries). There is also a water park, “desired by Marshal Kim Jong-un and opened in 2013,” explains the lady who offers me a guided tour of this massive, packed complex of indoor and outdoor pools — small, medium, and Olympic-sized — with wave pools, water slides, tennis, basketball, and volleyball courts.
A hyper-real wax model of General Kim Jong-il, smiling and standing on a beach next to an umbrella and plastic chair, welcomes visitors in the marble lounge of the water park. Blue skies and waters are painted on a backdrop. We have to bow, and unfortunately are not allowed to take photographs (one of the rare moments when they forbid me). “Marshal Kim Jong-un has visited the park eight times,” the guide tells me. It’s a refrain I hear every time we visit a new place, whether the water park, the science and technology museum, the Buddhist temple, the agricultural cooperative, the War Museum, the gynecology clinic. The first tidbit of information provided by local guides is always how many times leader so-and-so has visited the place, and if they said something memorable during their visit (like: “This temple is very ancient, we need to preserve it for future generations”). In such cases, a plaque has almost certainly been put up to memorialize the moment.
Sunday in a park in Pyongyang.
The atmosphere in the park on Sunday is very relaxed. Groups of old ladies meet up to eat and sing together. There are couples and families with children picnicking under trees, youths painting, two newlyweds posing for photos. The park is immaculate, with willow trees, a small pond, and a path leading up a hill to a scenic pavilion. We could be in any city of any middle-income country.
There are only a few foreigners around. In one week in my hotel — a 47-floor tower closed off on an island in the middle of Taedong River and affectionately nicknamed Alcatraz by Westerners — I run into a couple of Chinese tourist groups and two couples from Northern Europe. In other sites, in museums or touristy restaurants (almost always empty) where we go to eat both inside and outside Pyongyang, I only see a couple of other foreigners. There is one sitting in the first pew of a Protestant church my guides bring me to without my asking. Probably, they thought, as an Italian I would enjoy seeing the service. We arrive during the 10 o’clock mass. The choir is singing and 40 people are sitting in the pews, almost all women, some praying with their eyes closed, or perhaps sleeping. When the music finishes, the priest (or someone dressed as one) begins his sermon. Kim explains to me that he is talking about the celebration of the “fight against the American imperialists” held the day before with a grand procession commemorating the beginning of the Korean War on June 25, 1950. In the pew in front of us, there are a Bible and hymnal in English. More than a demonstration of religious tolerance, the ceremony is confirmation that no corner of the country is untouched by propaganda. (Even the Buddhist monk far away on a mountaintop, whom I naïvely supposed lived in an oasis, at one point during our conversation made reference to the “prosperity of the nation under the guidance of Marshal Kim Jong-un.”)
Walking around the city (an activity usually not granted but which has been arranged before my arrival), I have the strong sense of being a rare figure in the landscape, a magnet for people’s attention. Outside the capital, the astonished faces of those around me make me feel like I’m a Martian. While Choe and I chat, Kim leads the way, making sure there are no “dangers” in our path. These hazards include indecent scenes that might ruin my trip, such as the old lady I glimpsed in the park rummaging in the trash can (Kim noticed her too late to divert us) or the kid in the countryside who follows us for a while, keeping a safe distance and a hypnotic gaze fixed on the first foreigner he’s ever seen (Kim shoos him away, hoping I haven’t noticed).
Luciano Rovesti, the managing director of the Italian Cooperation in North Korea, once asked for permission to drive through the countryside just as he does through the capital (accompanied, of course, by “a chaperone”). “But doctor,” his liaison officer replied, “what would people think if they saw a foreigner driving a car?” Quite true, what would they think? In addition to his regular duties in Pyongyang (as the only official Italian representative, since the embassy in Seoul serves both South and North), Rovesti is an agronomist who oversees an agricultural project for the Development Cooperation Agency of the Italian government. (In accord with European sanctions, this project is designed as humanitarian aid, though Pyongyang, which in 2006 cast out most international NGOs, denies the need for any such assistance. After 2006, six foreign NGOs remained, agreeing to work without their logos or any other public visibility, under a new banner: the “European Unit.”)
Rovesti works in a rural province helping a dozen agricultural cooperatives increase rice production, which is below average for the region. “Production is low, on average about four tons per hectare,” he tells me, “when the average in Asia is six tons.” Rice is the primary staple distributed by the state to its citizens, along with some cereals and potatoes. The problem is that the government guarantees almost 600 grams per person per day but are only able to provide about 300–400.
The stark difference between Pyongyang and the rest of the country stands out immediately as we leave the city. The road pointing straight south from the Arch of Reunification, at the gate of the capital (and, in theory, proceeding beyond the militarized zone), is almost deserted, running through endless rice paddies. We are headed toward Kaesong, a city with 300,000 inhabitants close to the border, 170 kilometers south of the capital. From there, 50,000 workers used to travel each day to the industrial park managed by both Pyongyang and Seoul, at least until last February when South Korea decided finally to leave the joint project following the North’s fourth nuclear test.
Along the route, we run into farmers on foot and bike, people working in rice paddies and fields with hoes and wooden plows pulled by oxen, and women washing clothes or rinsing their hair in creeks and puddles. A child leads a flock of ducks. The people’s faces and arms are baked by the sun, backs bent. At a certain point, we enter the narrow alleys cutting between the fields. They are littered with hay. In the absence of threshing machines to shell grains, farmers have laid the stalks out to be crushed by carts pulled by oxen. It is another world and another time, even with respect to Pyongyang. It could be a scene from rural Italy in the 1950s.
We stop along the way at an agricultural cooperative in Sariwon, the capital of North Hwanghae province and a typical stop on every tour through North Korea. There are colorful palaces, monuments to the Workers’ Party, and propaganda posters. At the annexed museum, where working tools and blown-up portraits of leaders in rural garb are on display, our guide is a young girl, the daughter of a model farmer, they tell me. Since we are the only visitors, she opens the museum especially for us, shows us around and explains that rice production is higher here than anywhere else. After the visit, our guide locks up and takes us to her home, one of the dozen or so squat houses with pagoda-shaped roofs. A small orchard and arbor covered in grapes stands in front of the entrance. The home is small and very modest. On the walls, photos of Kim Il-sung share space with shots of her father, the model farmer. Adhesive plastic, haphazardly pasted to the floors, is peeling along the edges of the room. Plastic wreaths decorate the posts of the doors.
During the famine in the mid-1990s, it was the farmers who suffered the most. “In Pyongyang, food from abroad arrived, but it was scarce in the countryside,” one of my guides points out. Aside from a couple of big agricultural companies managed directly by the state, all production is nationally organized into cooperatives. The state, my guides tell me, purchases 40 percent of the harvest, the rest being kept by the farmers for their sustenance. Whatever else is left they can sell on the retail market.
Later, an informed person will tell me that things don’t exactly work like that. The state doesn’t “purchase” but “holds back” certainly more than 40 percent, and the head of the cooperative has the authority to manage the surplus — which, in light of the traditional cultivation methods (hoe and ox-driven plow) isn’t very much. All citizens except for students, I learn, have to work in the fields 70 days a year, mostly during the summer transplanting of rice. It’s a tough time spent hunched over, legs sunk in water and mud, trying to line up rice plants in perfectly symmetrical rows. “Some use rubber boots,” Choe explains, “but it’s hard to move through the paddies in them, so most walk around barefoot.”
On the way south, we stop at a rest area. While we stretch our legs, two large buses from the government’s tourist agency pull up. “Here they are, the Chinese,” I observe. We’ve run into two groups at lunch, making quite a racket. “As a matter of fact,” Choe clarifies, “they’re Koreans.” “Oh, really?” I ask, surprised. It’s the first time I’ve seen internal tourists. I had no idea they even existed here (later, I discovered that key stops on the propaganda tour serve as destinations for organized trips). “Do they come from Pyongyang?” I ask. At that very moment, three women get off the bus in black pants and everyday blouses, tottering on 14-centimeter heels and wedges they are clearly not used to wearing. “No, I think they come from the countryside,” Choe says dismissively. Even in North Korea, city girls look down on their dolled-up country cousins.
To reach the Demilitarized Zone, a strip of land only four kilometers wide straddling the border, we pass through three checkpoints and pick up a soldier. He is around 30 years old, with a kind face and, under his hat, a hint of the leader’s haircut. I point this out to him and he responds in complete seriousness: “I want to breathe and think just like Marshal Kim Jong-un.” “Breathe?” I ask. The soldier smiles: “It’s just an expression.” I ask him if any soldier can be sent to the border or if they are specially selected. “Only those most faithful to the leader and to the party,” he answers, brimming with pride. We step out of the minivan and I ask if I can take a photo of him. He makes a serious face. “Come on! Smile!” I insist. He bursts out laughing. This would be unthinkable in the South, where soldiers never remove their black Ray-Bans (“they’re trying to instill fear,” the guide explains), an artful affectation meant to add thrill to the tour of the border.
We visit a low building in the village of Panmunjom, where in 1953 the North and South signed their armistice (no peace treaty was ever agreed to, keeping the two Koreas technically in a state of war). Old photos on the wall narrate Pyongyang’s version of the conflict. About 50 Chinese tourists are taking selfies with the guards. We move on to the joint security zone, an area with blue buildings where talks between Seoul and Pyongyang were held and where, walking around a table, it is possible to feel the exhilaration of stepping across the border dividing the two countries.
Actually, the excitement is greater when arriving from the South. Approaching the Demilitarized Zone from Seoul is a gradual process, a series of stages and observation points from which “the most mysterious and isolated country in the world” can be gazed at through powerful binoculars. Tension increases as the tour bus approaches the border, the guide’s voice becoming ever more grave: “Line up in single file. Do not move your hands. Refrain from making faces. Do not talk. Only take pictures when I give you permission.” Otherwise, they seem to imply, the North Koreans may open fire. The culmination of the trip occurs when the visitors arrive in front of the blue buildings and a North Korean soldier finally comes into view. “A North Korean in the flesh! He could’ve been you!” I tell the friendly young soldier who’s asked me what I would write about. He bursts out laughing with everyone else.
The relaxed atmosphere is even more estranging when we reach the peak of a small mountain a few kilometers further, where we gaze upon “the wall that the South Koreans are hiding and the Americans deny was ever constructed.” Two soldiers, one about 60 and the other much younger (much too thin for his uniform, which cinched to his body by a big leather belt), are holding their post at the deserted lookout in the middle of a marvelous forest. With massive binoculars aimed southward, they show us the evidence of how the “American imperialists” lie when they state that the armed, concrete wall, “up to eight meters tall and built to divide the whole peninsula,” is nothing more than a series of anti-tank barriers strategically installed at a few points along the perimeter.
While we chat over apricots picked from a low-hanging branch, enjoying the tranquility of the place, we suddenly hear a pair of amplified voices, a man’s and a woman’s. The voices are distant and their message unclear, but we all know what they are: megaphones the South Koreans installed along the border to broadcast anti-Pyongyang propaganda. They’re meant to convince the soldiers patrolling the zone to desert. We listen for a while, craning our necks to hear better. I ask Kim what they are saying, but he can’t make it out either. The volume is low and the accent strange, he says. I activate the recorder on my smartphone and aim it in the direction of the voices. “They should turn it up. You can’t hear a thing,” I blurt out. Everyone laughs.
A restaurant in Pyongyang.
It’s an interesting experience speaking with people who only know the official history taught them by the regime. The fundamentals of this narrative are simple: the Americans are imperialists and the Japanese are evil; the South Koreans are their brothers, with whom they’ll soon reunite when the Americans finally leave the peninsula; Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union, abandoned them in their darkest hour, during a famine and the mourning of President Kim Il-sung’s passing; and China, the last friendly nation, seems more concerned with its own reputation, voting in favor of UN sanctions. The rest is folklore.
Besides the privileged few — the diplomats and the elite — who can travel to China, North Korea’s citizens live in a land impenetrable to any kind of external information. This isolation is a necessity for the effectiveness of state propaganda, as well as for the endurance of the regime. The specter of imminent American attack (a daily refrain in the news) keeps 25 million people on high alert, poised to defend their nation. Professional guides, however, have the opportunity to hear what the foreigners they accompany have to say. The result is bizarre, sometimes flabbergasting.
“No, there are no gay people here,” Choe assures me. “There weren’t any in Europe before, either, but I think they’ve been increasing there lately.” I try to tell her that society has evolved, that gays used to stay silent but that is changing and there’s nothing bad about it, but she scoffs. I tell her that same-sex couples can now marry in Italy (sort of). “Oh, so Spain is much more advanced than you!” she smirks. Abortion is illegal in North Korea, she tells me; IUDs are the most common form of contraception; and condoms are available but hard to find. Sex before marriage is not illegal but is curtailed by families keeping their daughters under constant surveillance. “There is no ‘Sex Ed’ in schools — but it would help,” she comments matter-of-factly.
One night over dinner, we talk about how Burma (Myanmar) is no longer a military dictatorship; now open to the rest of the world, it is transforming rapidly. “Is that what they say about us, too, that we’re a dictatorship?” Kim asks, leaving me gaping. “You’re a journalist, so you’ve probably been to tons of places,” he says. “How many, 50?” I ask them which one they’d like to visit if they had the chance. Choe says Spain. Kim has no doubt: “The South.” One of the recurring leitmotifs of our conversations is their conviction that reunification will soon arrive “thanks to the wise leadership of Marshal Kim Jong-un.” After the millionth repetition, I ask them how this is going to come about, how two opposing systems with such huge economic gaps will be reconciled? Choe agrees with the instructions left by President Kim Il-sung before his death: build a federal state for maintaining two separate systems. Kim is a bit more extreme; he knows South Koreans have no intention of being subjugated to Pyongyang, so “there’s only one option.” “What,” I ask, “military force?” He nods.
“The internet is full of negative propaganda about us, huh?” my minders ask me. It’s true that online news about North Korea is quite negative, some of it truly horrifying. I tell the story about the official torn apart by 100 ferocious dogs for falling asleep while Kim Jong-un was speaking; the story about the band allegedly executed by firing squad for selling pornographic films; the story about the mandatory haircuts. Choe and Kim are both incredulous and amused, but I point out that as long as news about North Korea remains unverifiable anyone can say anything they want and it can’t be debunked. “Sooner or later, we’ll get the internet here, too; you’ll see. They’re developing a firewall to control it.” Choe speaks without irony, believing it perfectly normal — even desirable — to have a censorship system to protect users from the evils of the web. It will be the next stage in the evolution of something that already exists: an intranet limited to the nation’s borders, which allows my guides to use their smartphone.
Smartphones showed up in North Korea about five years ago, most imported from China; two models are produced locally: Pyongyang and Arirang. There aren’t many in use, however. Inside the city I caught sight of a few, but outside the capital I see only traditional cell phones. Choe shows me her smartphone. Among the factory-installed apps, there is an encyclopedia (we consult it numerous times during our trip, mostly at lunch or dinner to figure out what we are eating), a Korean-English dictionary, and some games. There is also a red icon with a yellow flame, which I ask about. “It’s the complete works of our leaders,” Choe tells me.
My itinerary, in large part arranged before my arrival, includes a dinner at one of the two pizzerias in Pyongyang. It is located on Future Scientists Street, the main artery of a brand new neighborhood developed along the Taedong river (“thanks to Marshal Kim Jong-un who wanted it for the academics and technicians of Kim Chaek Polytech”) and inaugurated in 2015. There are dozens of futuristic colored skyscrapers such as those that form the skyline of the capital. The pizzeria, on the second floor of a low building encased in marble and granite, is a spacious hall with glistening floors, white columns with golden capitals, imported lamps, and shining wood chairs covered in velvet — a vague idea of European elegance, whatever that may locally mean, the luminescent panels with photos of menu items adding a dose of typically Asian kitsch. The room, full of set tables, is dominated by a long, marble counter that separates us from the cooks. At the oven, two women are inserting and removing pizzas with surprising skill. They lived in Naples for two years, Choe explains. “Did you learn any Italian?” I ask them. “No, we had an interpreter,” says one of the women, tall, thin, wearing leggings and a red apron, just like her colleague. I ask her if she liked Naples but unfortunately she never saw it since she wasn’t allowed to wander far from where she lived and worked.
As with almost all the other restaurants where we have eaten, we are virtually the only customers. We order pizza (not bad) and some spaghetti. While we wait for our order, a father and daughter approach the table near ours. The child is hanging onto his arm practicing how to walk. She is the only person on our whole trip that my guides invite me to interact with. The grandparents soon come over. The scene, common in every other country, is very rare here. Not only is it unusual to eat out in North Korea, but also seeing a father alone with his child is uncommon. Choe agrees, saying that women usually care for the children while the fathers do nothing, though maybe things are changing here too. A singer entertains us on the piano with a varied repertoire: “’O Sole Mio,” “My Way,” the Titanic theme, and, surprisingly, “Bella Ciao,” the hymn of the Italian Resistance movement.
At the friendship museum, a massive 70,000 square meters of marble filled with thousands of gifts to North Korean leaders from official delegations, heads of state, and prominent foreign individuals, I come across a scribbled piece of paper that reads:
“May you lead the Korean people to a long-lasting democratic peace on the Peninsula. It takes a passionate leader such as yourself to keep peace the way you have. […] Eternal friendship.” It is signed by Pras Michel, a major American rapper and record producer — “founder of the Fugees,” as the attached panel notes. This is a regime that will take praise where it can get it.
In the more than 100 rooms divided in two sections — Section One houses gifts received by Kim Il-sung and Section Two is dedicated to Kim Jong-il — the air conditioning is inexplicably kept at a temperature close to zero degrees Celsius. It is impossible to visit the entire museum; “somebody calculated it would take three whole days,” the guide, a tall, robust girl wearing a modern version (100 percent polyester) of traditional Korean clothing, tells me. She speaks in an affected manner while revealing the museum’s marvels, using suave tones, head slightly cocked. She’s been at the museum for a number of years and lives close by, in a dormitory for the staff.
Taking photos is prohibited inside the museum, which is a real pity given what it contains — a huge Persian tapestry (homage from Iranian president Ahmadinejad) featuring the figure of Kim Jong-il; a prop airplane donated to Kim Il-sung by the USSR (similar to ones gifted to Zhou Enlai and Ho Chi Minh); the train car Stalin gave to the eternal president; and a bench lined with 35 fox skins, tails hanging down along its length, also from Russia. In addition, to demonstrate how much their leaders are loved by the rest of the world, there are tea sets, glass sculptures, gem-encrusted daggers, a basketball signed by Michael Jordan (present from Madeleine Albright), and a soccer ball from Pelé.
On Friday morning, the Discussion Café is underway at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). Students are divided into small groups, each with a topic assigned by the teacher. One has been chosen as moderator, while the rest respond to questions such as: “Your friend wants to get plastic surgery; what kind of advice do you give her?” or “You’re assigned to take on a new employee in your office. One of the candidates meets all the requirements but has a disability. Will you take him on? Why?” Debates ensue. Their English is good, in some cases very good, and they are by no means shy. “I’d counsel them not to get the surgery to save money,” one of the students pipes up. “I’d discourage her because plastic surgery is dangerous; you need a very good surgeon.” These young people are engaged in an activity that cannot be taken for granted by their fellow citizens.
PUST was opened in 2010 by an American businessman with Korean origins. It’s the only major institution funded by private foreign money, mostly from China and the United States, and mostly from members of the evangelical church. The staff is mixed, Koreans and foreigners. The curriculum is taught only in English, with tracks in finance and management, computer science, engineering, and agriculture. The government accepted the founder’s proposal in 2003 with the intent of forming an elite class with the ability to move and work internationally.
The goal of the Westerners on the staff, many of them evangelicals working for free for one or two semesters, is to teach the students critical thinking. “When I run management exercises, I try to get them to reason and express their ideas, something they’re not used to doing,” Colin McCulloch, a British retired professor who teaches business at PUST, explained to me when we met earlier in Italy.
At PUST, the students can even use the internet, but only with proper supervision, though the Korean professor who guides me during my visit at the campus assures me that they are completely free to browse. I ask if I can try it out, but after discussing the matter with a colleague, he apologizes and says it’s not possible. I’d have to register to get an access key; it’s complicated; the next time I come they’ll have it ready for me, he promises. I ask if it’s possible to meet with the two students who are going to study at the University of Brescia, in Italy. The Korean professor tells me they are in class and that I should have asked earlier, but then he says the students have not yet been selected. “There are many applications and we haven’t made our choice yet,” he explains. (Of course, I knew the two had been chosen months ago. In the end, they never made it to Italy, due to European Union sanctions forbidding university exchanges in sensitive fields like computer science.)
I walk into a classroom where an English lesson is in session. The students, all males, have been alerted to my arrival and have prepared a series of questions. They are very curious; they want to know what I think about their country, where I studied, and why I decided to become a journalist. Then it’s my turn. I ask them what they are going to do after graduation. “I want to follow in my father’s footsteps and become an engineer,” one responds. “I want to be a scientist and contribute to the growth of the nation, inventing new things,” another adds. “I know Italians really like music. Koreans like it too. I want to compose music with a computer.” “I want to become a professor at Kim Il-sung University.” I ask them if they know that two of their peers will be going to Italy for nine months and if they too wish to study abroad. All of a sudden, the class goes quiet. They stare at me blankly. They have no idea what I’m talking about.
On the last night before my departure, I wish Kim and Choe a good night and head up to my room. A little later, I notice that my phone is out of credits. There is a 24-hour recharging service in the lobby. I go back down and, while I wait, meet up with Kim again. “What are you doing here?” I ask. He’s clearly been dragged out of bed, since he’s wearing a different shirt than the one he’d had on earlier in the evening. He avoids the question, saying he is looking for someone. “You told me I could move freely within the hotel,” I say. “I’m sorry they called you down.” He insists that isn’t the reason, he’s just looking for some friends. We go outside for a smoke. “I know it’s because of your job, but really, I was just topping up my phone. You didn’t have to come down.” He smiles, lowers his gaze, and leans over to light my cigarette.
Coda: Back in Italy, I receive an email from Lucilla, a worker for a French NGO who lived in Pyongyang for four years. I had met her at my hotel the day before she left for another Asian country. She writes:
It’s painful. I never believed I’d feel like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, touching the tile sky of a false city. There’s a sense of panic, pure panic. Once those tiles are touched, the spell is forever broken. You can never go back, and the unknown is all that remains for you. And yet, I try and tell myself maybe I could’ve stayed a little longer. I leave never understanding the people, how they live, how they love, how they … It will remain an unsolved mystery to me.