By Christina Larson

An interview with me, originally published in


On special guided trips, arranged for tourists and permitted by Pyongyang, Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing, has twice visited North Korea. On each trip, he and his fellow travelers were accompanied by official guides, only permitted in certain areas, and asked to delete “objectionable” photos from their digital cameras. Yet the visits afforded Chovanec a rare glimpse inside the Hermit Kingdom.

FP recently caught up with Chovanec to share his experiences to take us, vicariously, inside Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum, a North Korean classroom, and a gilded casino that has seen better days. What we learned: North Korea is indeed a real place, where ordinary people must make due in extraordinary circumstances.

Foreign Policy: When were you in North Korea — and where did you visit?

Patrick Chovanec: I’ve made two trips to North Korea. The first was two years ago, in October 2008. I visited the capital, Pyongyang, and some surrounding sites including the DMZ [demilitarized zone]. It was organized as part of a special U.S. citizen tour invited to witness the Mass Games. At the time, we were told our group marked the 1000th U.S. citizen to visit the country since the end of the Korean War.

I just returned from my second trip in July. This time I saw a very different part of the country, the Rason “Special Economic Zone” in the far northeast corner of North Korea, bordering Russia and China. Only a handful of Americans — or any Westerners, for that matter — have been allowed to go there. This is the border zone where the two U.S. journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, were captured last year.

FP: What kind of restrictions do foreign visitors face? Were you free to move about?

PC: Most Americans tend to assume that traveling to North Korea is illegal, like Cuba, but that’s incorrect. There are economic sanctions, so you can’t do business there, and since there are no diplomatic ties the State Department warns that you’re essentially on your own. But the main barrier has always been on the North Korean side, which rarely grants visas to U.S. citizens. That’s started to change in the past few years, but only a few groups are allowed in every year.

Visiting North Korea is unlike visiting any other country. It’s very restrictive. You cannot bring your cell phone into the country. When you enter, they mark down any books you bring in, and you’re expected to take same number out again. Bibles or anything related to [South] Korea is prohibited. Each group has two “minders” to keep an eye on everyone. You cannot leave the hotel without a minder, and when outside, you must stay with the group at all times (and that’s no joke — in 2008, a 53 year-old South Korean tourist who wandered off on her own to watch the sunrise was shot in the head and killed by a soldier). You must ask the minders’ permission before taking any photo, although most visitors end up taking hundreds of photos anyway. When you exit the country, however, the border guards may review the photos in your camera and make you delete any they find objectionable.

FP: What were your impressions of Pyongyang?

PC: Pyongyang is the country’s showcase. Living there is a privilege granted only to the regime’s most loyal and useful subjects. But besides the grand monuments — including a larger-than-life version of Paris’ Arc de Triumph — the buildings are all grey, concrete cinderblock structures. Few are taller than eight stories, because they have no elevators. If you look into the windows, every single room — office or apartment — has dual portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hanging on the wall. Along the street, there are no ads or commercial signage, just propaganda posters and billboards. Every few blocks, there are these little blue and white canvas kiosks that sell soft drinks. The sidewalks aren’t crowded like in China, and the streets are very broad. At every intersection stands a uniformed policewoman — handpicked, they say, for their beauty — directing traffic with parade-ground precision. One thing that really surprised me was the number of luxury sedans and SUVs, brands like BMWs and Mercedes, on the city streets. Obviously somebody has cash and connections.

Everywhere you go in Pyongyang, the skyline is dominated by a huge 105-story concrete pyramid, the Ryugyong Hotel, which looms over the city like the pyramid-shaped Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984. It was intended to be the world’s tallest hotel, but it turned out to be structurally unsound, so it was never completed. It’s been standing there, abandoned, since 1992. It doesn’t appear on any official maps, and nobody ever talks about it, because it’s such a horrendous embarrassment.

The most memorable thing about Pyongyang, though, is the total darkness that descends at night. Because electricity is in short supply, there are hardly any lights at all — a couple of bulbs here and there, and the headlights of passing buses. People are out and about, but all you can see are the dark shapes right beside you. Back at the hotel, you look out the window and there’s just nothing. It’s like the whole city was just swallowed up.

FP: What about the region you visited more recently, in the northeast? How did that compare?

PC: Rason is about as far from Pyongyang as you can get, in every sense, but it’s equally important in many ways. The northeast was the epicenter of the devastating famine that took place in the 1990s. People there had to improvise to survive. They set up private marketplaces to sell vegetables they grew in their gardens, or rabbits they raised on their own.  The border zone along the Tumen River became the main crossing point for refugees fleeing into China, and for smuggling Chinese goods back into North Korea. After the famine, the government tried to co-opt the situation by establishing a special economic zone, which was supposed to attract foreign investment. Other than a big gambling casino, though, nothing much has really happened.

So Rason offers a window onto a much grittier reality than Pyongyang. Most roads are unpaved. The town’s main square — emblazoned with the slogan “Kim Jong Il is the Sun of the 21st Century!” — has long ago crumbled into potholes. At dawn, the whole town wakes to recorded patriotic songs and messages blared from loudspeakers. During the day, people walk around pushing their belongings — including their children — in makeshift wheelba
rrows. At night, police jeeps cruise the dark like sharks, shouting harsh commands over their megaphones at passersby. The economy is very basic. Farmers rely on bony oxen to plough their fields. The local fishing fleet consists of rusted hulks that belch so much oily smoke they look like they’re on fire. When you visit Pyongyang, you’re shielded from a lot of these things, but in Rason, you get a better look at what life is really like for most North Koreans.

FP: Did I hear you mention a gambling casino?

PC: That’s right, when the North Koreans first set up the Rason special economic zone, they cut a deal with a somewhat shady Hong Kong business tycoon to build the Emperor Hotel and Casino, a $180 million five-star seaside resort. It became a really hot spot for Chinese tour groups to come and gamble. Then in 2004, a local official from Yanbian, just across the Chinese border, blew RMB 3.5 million (nearly half a million dollars) in embezzled public funds at the Emperor’s gaming tables. The Chinese launched a huge crackdown on visitors, and the place has been deserted ever since. We stopped by to check it out. The hotel is open and it’s fully staffed. There’s a bright red British phone booth in the lobby, a fancy buffet with an ocean view, and girls running around with big electric fly-swatters shaped like tennis rackets. Everything’s ready to go, but I don’t think any guests have checked in for years. It’s pretty surreal.

FP: Did you encounter any other investors in the “special economic zone”?

PC: Matter of fact, we bumped into some Americans. They actually were missionaries, based just across the border in China. They can’t preach in North Korea, of course, but they’ve come as “investors” to build and run an orphanage, a bread factory, and a soy-milk factory. These “businesses” don’t make money; they’re just there to help people. To this day, one of most popular themes in North Korean propaganda involves evil Christian missionaries who inject Korean children with deadly germs, before the revolution. They even put the story in comic books for kids. Officially, they’re inhuman monsters. Unofficially, the government invites them in because they’re the only people willing to extend a lifeline.

FP: One of the big news items in North Korea this past year was the disastrous currency revaluation. On this last visit, did you see any evidence of its effects?

PC: Only indirectly. One of the most interesting parts of our trip was when they took us to see the local market in Rason. Like I say, these markets sprang up on their own in response to the famine, and the government is very ambivalent about them, so it’s rare for foreigners to be allowed to see them. No cameras were allowed, and they called out the reserves — about a half dozen extra minders — to keep their eyes on us.

The market was pretty lively; it was certainly packed with people from all walks of life — soldiers, school kids, families. It was housed in a large corrugated metal building, with different sections devoted to shoes, clothing, plastic knick-knacks, and school supplies. Most of the goods appeared to be imported from China. All the vendors are middle-aged women. Because of recent crackdowns, they’re the only ones still permitted to sell; everyone else was forced back to their work units. The currency change also hit hard. A lot of vendors lost all their working capital along with any profits they might have saved. Some speculate that was the intent all along.

The other group that was hit really hard by the currency revaluation was Chinese traders. They also lost their shirts, and a lot of them have stopped coming. We only saw a handful of Chinese traders staying at our hotel. Despite the fact that North Korea depends on trade with China to survive, it’s not exactly an easy environment for the Chinese who try to do business there. This summer, two Chinese traders were arrested and beaten to death by North Korean border guards on suspicion of espionage, along another part of the border.

FP: What about the food situation? There are rumors North Korea might be on the verge of another famine.

PC: As you enter the market, there’s an outdoor section where people are selling vegetables they have presumably grown on their own private plots. When we left, I asked whether we could take a quick walk up and down the aisles. The answer was “No, absolutely not.” Food is way too sensitive an issue, and people growing and selling their own food is a real sore spot with the regime.

Some of the other members of our group, who know more about farming than I do, said the corn crops in the fields we passed looked stunted — just knee high at a time in season when they should have been shoulder high. If that’s true, it’s because there’s no chemical fertilizer, which requires imported oil to make. The only fertilizer they have is night soil — human sewage — which they collect in ox-drawn carts. They also plant the same crop year after year, depleting the nutrients in the soil. I guess they just can’t afford to let any field lie fallow, because they’re already living on the edge, but the result is going to be declining yields and ultimately crop failure.

There was only one time when a teenage boy came up to us to beg for food. He was very quickly hustled aside by the minders, and given a stern talking to. I hope that’s all that happened. It was a very distressing situation. Even if people aren’t starving, it’s pretty clear that life is hard.

FP: Any other revealing experiences?

PC: We visited a kindergarten in Rason to watch a performance by the schoolchildren. While we were waiting for it to start, we had a look around. On one of the walls was a painting from a popular North Korean cartoon series showing a cute forest animal hunched behind a machine gun blasting away at his enemies. Some of the children’s drawings were posted on another wall in the hallway. One showed a North Korean tank running over enemy soldiers, and another showed a North Korean jet shooting down enemy planes. Next to them were typical childhood drawings of balloons, birds, and bunny rabbits. The contrast kind of twisted your gut. Some other members of our group stumbled on a room devoted to teaching about American war crimes. The irony, we later found out, is that the school was partly funded by donations from Korean-Americans.

FP: How much are North Koreans able to travel about their own country?

PC: North Koreans are not permitted to travel freely; they must have papers. If they are stopped outside their hometown without appropriate papers, they can be arrested and imprisoned for a year or more. Work units, however, do organize mandatory “field trips” to important patriotic sites, like the Korean War museum in Pyongyang, as part of every citizen’s ideological education.

The high point of the pilgrimage circuit is Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum. It’s housed in an immense palace on the outskirts of Pyongyang, and makes even Mao’s tomb in Tiananmen Square look like a tiny cottage by comparison. The visit looks like an incredibly intense experience for most North Koreans, as they are ushered past a huge white marble statue of the Great Leader with the dawning sun glowing behind him, and into an antechamber where they hear how people all over the world wept and tore their hair when they learned of Kim’s death in 1994. Finally they enter the holy of holies, where Kim’s body lies in state. [When I was there in 2008] the room crackled with emotional energy. All around the body, I saw Koreans — especially older women in traditional robes — sobbing in tears. It was an unnerving and eye-opening experience.

Another important destination is the “International Friendship Exhibition” carved into Mt. Myohyangsan, about two hours’ drive north of Pyongyang. Essentially, these are two underground museum complexes, devot
ed to displaying the thousands of diplomatic gifts received by Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il. (The elder Kim, though dead, is still officially the country’s president, so even today he still merits a gift). Highlights include bulletproof cars from Stalin, a stuffed smiling crocodile from Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, and the basketball autographed by Michael Jordan that Madeleine Albright brought to Kim Jong Il. But the most interesting rooms displayed products — usually out-of-date VCRs, computer monitors, and MP3 players — sent by South Korean companies under the “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North. Absolutely nothing captured the vast chasm between our world and theirs than the looks on the faces of the North Korean work units as they pressed their noses against glass to catch a better glimpse of never-before-seen treasures that, to us, looked like items at a Best Buy clearance sale.

FP: How did people react to seeing your group?

PC: North Koreans are a pretty wary bunch — not just of foreigners, I think, but of each other as well. In public, at least, they’re very guarded. During our visit to Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum, we encountered looks of unmistakable fear and hostility, probably because they had just gone through a very intense experience of their own. More often, we either got blank surprised stares or people pretended not to notice us — although maybe you’d get a shy smile if they were particularly amused. The women vendors at the market in Rason actually smiled, laughed, and waved to us, which was unusual. But, you know, there were always surprises. One border guard, once he got through checking my luggage, said “thank you” in heavily accented English and flashed me a big proud grin.

People often ask me whether we ever got the chance to talk with regular North Koreans. The answer is no. It’s just not allowed. Every North Korean knows that, so they’re not going to initiate any contact. In fact, going up to a North Korean and trying to talk to them could put them in danger. And I don’t speak Korean anyway, so what’s the point? You can talk to the minders, though, and surprisingly, they end up providing a very revealing window into the way North Koreans think. Obviously they’re atypical, and they’re there for a reason, but even when they’re dissembling or hewing to the party line or just acting weird, if you listen and think, you can learn a lot from the interaction.

FP: The Mass Games are happening this month — tell us about them.

PC: The Mass Games aren’t games, in the competitive sense. They’re a huge performance that takes place in an Olympic-size stadium and features a “cast” of over 100,000 participants. Nearly all of the young people in and around Pyongyang spend a large part of each year practicing and performing. Half of them sit in the stands opposite the audience, holding up colored cards to form elaborate mosaic-like pictures extolling the country and its leaders. The rest perform mass-synchronized dancing, karate, and gymnastics on the field itself. The resulting spectacle is kind of a cross between Cirque du Soleil and a Nuremberg rally. It was hard to know whether to stand up and cheer or be totally appalled. Some have compared North Korea’s Mass Games to the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, but what I saw in Pyongyang easily blew that away. I mean, they were literally catapulting acrobats clear across the stadium, somersaulting in mid-air with no wires, and catching them in nets. For better or worse, there’s nothing else like it on Earth.

FP: Any celebrity sightings on either trip?

PC: Besides the body of Kim Il Sung, who North Koreans believe to be the greatest human being ever to live? Hey, it’s hard to top that. But if you’re asking whether we met Kim Jong Il, or the even more mysterious son who is supposed to succeed him, no, I’m sorry to disappoint.

Seriously, though, there was one rather amazing coincidence, during my first trip. On the bus down to the DMZ, someone mentioned that then-U.S. negotiating envoy Christopher Hill was supposed to arrive in Pyongyang any day now. But I figured he’d fly in. A few hours later, we’re walking up to the North Korean reception pavilion, right on the DMZ, when out the back door comes this white guy surrounded by several assistants, about 20 feet away from us. It was Chris Hill. I wanted to shout out, “Hey, we’re Americans!” — but that’s not something you do on the northern side of the DMZ, surrounded by heavily armed border guards. It’s pretty tense up there. So we just watched as he hopped in a van and headed off to Pyongyang. That was our brush with history.

Another tour group was taken by the North Koreans to witness them blowing up part of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. So, really, you never know what you’re going to see.

FP: What’s the most important thing you learned?

PC: One big difference is that now North Korea is a real place to me. For most of us, I think, North Korea occupies the same imaginary plane of existence as Mordor. But it is real, and one thing I came to appreciate is that most North Koreans are normal people living in abnormal conditions. It’s the only world they know, and they try to make sense of it, and cope with it, as best they can. I don’t know how things will play out, but one can only hope they find their way to join the rest of us intact.

The second important thing I learned is gratitude. It sounds corny, but it’s not. It really wasn’t all that long ago that a big chunk of mankind lived under systems like this. We look back now and it seems inevitable — the fall of the Berlin Wall, China opening up — but it wasn’t inevitable. I’m grateful to be able to go home at the end of my trip, and I’m grateful for the people whose convictions and sacrifices made it so this kind of place is an anomaly in today’s world, and not the rule.

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