From September 1, US citizens are barred from travelling to North Korea because of “mounting concerns over the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention”, according to the State Department. Prior to this, Juche Travel, the North Korean travel agency, said, “American tourists are permitted to visit the DPRK, however they can only enter or exit the country by plane and cannot spend more than 10 days in the country.”
The countries have a fractious relationship. I met many American tourists during my six trips to North Korea, however, and most were surprised to be so warmly welcomed by the guides and locals, a far cry from the aggressive propaganda and menacing official statements issued by the regime. The Americans were allowed to go everywhere except the homestays in the Chilbo area, where tourists sleep in [carefully selected] local farmers’ seaside homes. There was no explanation given, just, “It is not possible.”
North Koreans are quick to use images and symbols of America in their own propaganda. During the Cold War, they seized the American spy boat, the USS Pueblo. It is now a Pyongyang tourist attraction. The guide on the boat explains that the US soldiers wrote letters of apology, ashamed of what they did to North Korea. After Bill Clinton went to North Korea to seek the release of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, arrested by the North Koreans while researching human trafficking, a director made a movie from the TV footage.
In the giant “Gifts Museum” that displays all the gifts the Dear Leaders received from around the world (mainly from communist countries), the guides are proud to point out Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s gift to Kim Jong-il: a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan. No photos allowed!
Most of the propaganda posters depicting North Korea’s hatred of the US have been removed from the streets. Photographing the only such billboard I saw during my latest stay in Pyongyang was not easy as the guides always found an excuse not to stop the bus. “Too much traffic,” they said, on an empty road. The only posters against the US I could find were in kindergartens and the old amusement park where people were shooting at mannequins dressed as US soldiers.
I came across both fake and real American products, but most of the time the guides will tell you that they come from China! Once, I was taken to a study hall where I saw students working on computers running Windows. “They are using Windows?” I asked to make sure. “Yes,” replied my guide proudly, unable to see where I was going with this. “Windows is made by Microsoft,” I said. “Yes,” he replied again, a little less certain. “But Microsoft is American,” I finished. “Maybe,” he admitted.
Ironically, what North Koreans hate more than anything is false propaganda directed at them. For example, on many American websites, writers say that the people in the subway are actors, just there for the tourists. This is incorrect and actually increases the country’s paranoia and xenophobia. I was once having a conversation with an American at a restaurant. My guide told me to end it, explaining, “He is a fox, a spy.” The North Koreans use the symbol of the fox, a dangerous, crafty animal, to represent Americans. When I asked why they allow Americans to enter if they are spies, he answered, “Well, they pay a lot of money.”
The guides are well aware that the US has drugs, crime, unemployment and strikes. They take every opportunity to say that they don’t have any of these problems.
I got a chance to meet the wife of a North Korean diplomat who lived in New York. Now she runs a restaurant in Pyongyang. She confessed that life was hard for her in the US, as the state does not provide for you like in the DPRK. She loved the food and was impressed by the fresh fish in the markets. She said she met some very nice people in the US who befriended her even after finding out she was North Korean. There were some rude ones too of course. In truth, she didn’t even know if they were Americans since so many nationalities live there!