Today I welcome guest blogger, Wendy E. Simmons. She’s the author of the new book, “My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth.” Wendy has had a very impressive launch for her first book.
I enjoyed this witty and engaging book immensely and think you will too. It gives you a rare glimpse into the alternate universe that is North Korea from the safety of wherever it is you’re at.
I am and have always been a traveler. Exploring the world, meeting its
people, experiencing their lives, and sharing what I see are my greatest
passions. I’ve traveled to more than eighty-five countries—including
territories and colonies—many of which I’ve been to multiple times, and
I’m struck more and more not by our differences but by our similarities.
Beneath all the trappings of politics and religion, and apart from variations
in the way we live our daily lives, I have come to understand how
fundamentally the same we all are as human beings.
Then I went on holiday to North Korea. And like Alice in Wonderland, I
fell through the rabbit hole.
This is my tale.
WENDY E. SIMMONS
ALICE STARTED TO HER FEET, FOR IT
FLASHED ACROSS HER MIND THAT SHE HAD
NEVER BEFORE SEEN A RABBIT WITH EITHER
A WAISTCOAT POCKET OR A WATCH TO TAKE
OUT OF IT, AND, BURNING WITH CURIOSITY,
SHE RAN ACROSS THE FIELD AFTER IT…
- Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
It’s amazing how badly you want to go outside when you’re not allowed to. It was such a nice night in Pyongyang, and all I wanted to do was not be stuck inside my dim, drab, smoky, weird, empty hotel.
My handlers and I had just arrived back at the Koryo Hotel. It was only 6:00 p.m., but since foreigners aren’t allowed to leave their hotels without their handlers, I wouldn’t be allowed back outside until 7:30 a.m. the next morning, when they returned to fetch me. I felt like a dog with a shock collar on.
I moaned, “I feel like I’m being sent back to prison.”
Older Handler recovered quickly and volunteered to take me on a walk.
“Meet in the lobby at 6:55; walk from 6:55 to 7:05.”
Itineraries and meeting times are very strict in North Korea.
We walked two long blocks up and two long blocks back, with people
staring at me the entire time—clearly not happy to see an American
Imperialist. We stopped in front of a tiny enclosed stand. Older Handler asked me if I’d like to try a North Korean ice cream “special treat.” I declined, ruminating over the likelihood of an actual, real ice cream stand existing in the barren retail wasteland that is North Korea (probability: zero).
She was not having it. “You said you feel like you are in prison. Eat the ice cream!”
Her feelings, I guess, were hurt. I ate the ice cream, which tasted kind of like an orange Creamsicle, but without the cream, or the orange.
Depositing me back at the hotel at 7:05 p.m. on the dot, she turned and said to me, “There. Now you feel better,” like I was some kind of child who had been granted a magical five-minute ice cream mind-eraser furlough.
Yup, all better.
I asked (again) why the main hotel for foreigners couldn’t just put
a bench right outside the front door—right by all the guards and doormen—that tourists could sit on for fresh air and not be stuck inside the hotel all the time.
She responded in typical North Korean fashion (read: insane), “To be honest, because naughty Americans—but not you—are using this information to create false stories about our country to make it look bad, so not until the reunification of our country.”
Right, got it.
Coincidentally, we spent the next two days in the countryside at hotels that had benches outside in small courtyards inside the hotel grounds.
Older Handler was very quick to emphatically point out the benches to me, repeatedly letting me know I should sit there so I “wouldn’t have to feel like [I] was in prison.” By this point in the trip, I couldn’t tell whether she was trying to be helpful or just spiteful. I think it was a little of both.
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I am and have always been a traveler. Exploring the world, meeting its people, experiencing their lives, and sharing what I see are my greatest passions. I’ve traveled to more than eighty-five countries—including territories and colonies—many of which I’ve been to multiple times, and I’m struck more and more not by our differences but by our similarities. Beneath all the trappings of politics and religion, and apart from variations in the way we live our daily lives, I have come to understand how fundamentally the same we all are as human beings.
Then I went on holiday to North Korea. And like Alice in Wonderland, I fell through the rabbit hole.
This is my tale.
HOW DO YOU KNOW I’M MAD? SAID ALICE. YOU
MUST BE, SAID THE CAT, OR YOU WOULDN’T
HAVE COME HERE.
– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
It was June 25, 2014. China Air Flight 121 touched down at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport and taxied to a stop on the tarmac. The cabin door opened. I disembarked the airplane and descended the passenger boarding stairs. I was alone, a tourist in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, unaccompanied by an organized tour group or international liaison (unlike most other visitors to the country).
I had never been more excited.
Aside from our plane, twelve or so fellow passengers, the half-dozen soldiers and airline employees who’d met us at the bottom of the stairs, and a giant smiling portrait of Kim Il-sung affixed to the side of the terminal building, the area was completely empty. There were no baggage trains, no food or fuel trucks, no conveyor-belt vehicles, or vehicles of any kind for that matter. There were no ground crews doing their jobs. There were no other planes. We were it.
One of the soldiers pointed me in the direction of the terminal building. I walked to the entrance and went inside. That twenty-foot walk to the terminal’s entrance would mark the last time I was allowed outside alone for the next ten days.
The inside of the terminal was as devoid of normal airport activity as the outside was—something I would have expected had we just landed on a small island in the Philippines or a dirt runway in Uganda but not in the capital of North Korea.
There were three booths for immigration: two for “regular” people and a third for diplomats and other government officials. As if it was inconceivable that a foreign woman would travel alone to North Korea and not be a diplomat, my fellow passengers kept urging me to join the diplomatic line. I stayed put. I didn’t want to risk deportation trying to impersonate a diplomat when I hadn’t even been imported yet.
When it was my turn, I walked up to the counter, laid my papers and passport down, smiled, and chirped, “Hello!”
The agent grunted back without making eye contact.
He took one paper from me, stamped another, and handed it back with my passport, and I was in.
I was euphoric. The most exciting moments in my life, when I feel most alive, happen when I’m touching down anywhere in the world I’ve never been. I am reborn into a new world, where everything is a curiosity to wonder at, and even the smallest accomplishment is a victory. There was nothing but discovery and learning ahead of me. And I was in North Korea—the most reclusive country on Earth. This was going to be amazing.
Even though I’d done research to make sure the size and type of camera and lens I’d brought would be acceptable, cleared my iPhone of any applications I thought might be questionable, and had declared all of my other electronic devices and cash on my immigration forms, I still felt trepidation as I approached security.
“Cell phone!” demanded a guard.
I’d read online that North Korean officials take your cell phone and
examine it but give it back nowadays, so I handed it over without
argument. I put my bags on the baggage scanner, which looked about a hundred years old, and walked through the also-ancient metal detector. After being patted down, I stood watching as a gaggle of guards (soldiers?) huddled in a semicircle around my phone. I couldn’t imagine what they were doing with it, since it was locked. Installing a listening or recording device? They were probably just trying to unlock it.
After a few minutes, a guard returned my phone and pointed to a set of doors, indicating I was free to go. But my luggage was still inside the baggage-screening machine. I pointed to the machine and politely said,
“Bags?” hoping my luggage was merely trapped in the scanner’s inner sanctum, not confiscated. When the guard realized what I was saying, he began shouting at the other guards, who in turn began shouting at one another as another guard worked to dislodge my bags. To slake the mounting chaos, I smiled and jokingly said, “Don’t worry! Happens all the time!” I was summarily ignored.
Reunited with my bags a few minutes later, I emerged from security and was greeted by my two smiling, seemingly blissful North Korean handlers—the people who would be my near constant companions until I returned to the airport ten days later.
Older Handler stepped forward and introduced herself first. She was prim, wearing decades-old clothes that looked part Star Trek, part
1960s air-hostess uniform, only not stylish and in ugly colors. If we were the cast of a TV show, Older Handler would be the neighbor lady who always tries so hard to look put together
just so but can’t quite pull it off.
Older Handler then introduced me to her subordinate, Fresh Handler.
Older Hander told me she was “fresh” at her job—that is, she’d only been a guide a short time. Fresh Handler was young and diffident, and something about her shaggy-punk haircut and sweet demeanor told me I’d like her best.
As Fresh Handler said hello, Older Handler unabashedly looked me up and down, sizing up—as I would be called throughout my trip—the
American Imperialist. Then, without taking a breath, in a tone slightly less than suspicious:
You first time come Korea? You been South Korea? You been Japan? You speak Korean?
ME: Yes. Yes. Yes. No.
North Koreans’ antipathy for Americans cannot be overstated. They are taught aggressively from birth that the United States is their number-one enemy, that Americans are imperialist pigs hell-bent on occupying North Korea, and that we may attack North Korea at any time. The Party espouses this rhetoric to maintain its absolute power over the North Korean people. If there is an enemy from which the people need protecting, the Party can be their protector.
We exited the airport, and I was introduced to Driver, who had spiky hair and was standing next to our car smoking. He half grinned, revealing several gold teeth, then took my bag and loaded it into the boot.
Older Handler directed me to sit in the backseat next to Fresh Handler and took the senior position in the front.
My “North Korea Is Great! America Is Not!” indoctrination began immediately. The car doors had barely closed when Older Handler uttered “our Dear Great Leader” and “American Imperialist” for the first time.
As we drove from the airport to our first tourist attraction, the Arch of
Triumph, Older Handler turned to me with a smile plastered across her face and said, “Do you know what today is?”
ME: Umm, Wednesday?
(Which was true.)
OLDER HANDLER: It’s June Twenty-Fifth, the day the American Imperialists invaded our country.
(Which was not true.)
On June 25, 1950, nearly the opposite happened. North Korea invaded South Korea.
Unsure what etiquette dictated in such a situation, I awkwardly said nothing, hoping the conversation would end. She asked me the question again, perhaps thinking I hadn’t heard her the first time. I offered the same answer.
Unsatisfied with my response, Older Handler responded, her smile unperturbed, “It’s the day your country invaded our country.”
ME: Oh, that’s a coincidence then that I arrived today.
I quickly glanced at Fresh Handler with a look that said, “Ack. How did I screw this up already?” And like the new best friend I knew she would be, she giggle-smiled back at me the equivalent of “Don’t worry!”
I looked back at Older Handler, whose smile was now gone. Like a one-two-knockout punch, Older Handler said something to Fresh Handler and Driver, then Driver pulled the car over, and Older Handler and Fresh Handler switched seats.
Older Handler looked at me and said, “Now I watch you more.”
Welcome to North Korea