Our guides repeatedly reassured us that the people had enough food and that each Pyongyang resident receives a ration of vegetables and rice every day. They didn't mention meat or fruit. When a member of the tour group spat out the tasteless meat that was a rare treat at one of our meals, the waitress standing behind him visibly stiffened. On one occasion, I drew a banana on a piece of paper and showed it to a waitress; she had never seen one. She knew about apples, but she had never eaten one.
I brought 150 Kit-Kat bars into the country, and I always took several out of my bag when I was alone with a North Korean. They would hesitate for a few seconds, look around to make sure that no one else was watching, and then stuff the Kit-Kats into their pockets.
Despite the lack of food, North Koreans work hard. They have been fighting a "150-day battle" since April 20. The campaign is designed to increase industrial output to "fight against American sanctions," according to our tour guides.
"We Koreans have long had a hatred for the United States. Those people bombed our land and killed our people in the war, and they reactivated the use of nuclear weapons in 1994. At that time we had natural disasters, and they imposed sanctions on us. So we had the Arduous March between 1995 and 1998. We were all hungry," one guide told us. "Now we don't have natural disasters, but the Americans are imposing stricter sanctions. If we don't strengthen our national defense forces, we cannot safeguard our motherland. If we don't make military construction our priority, we cannot safeguard socialism," she said.
In every urban neighborhood and every rural village there were banners proclaiming, "Work hard for 150 days and we will have the victory!" and "Kim Jong-il is the sun of the 21st century!" Large posters showed farmers, workers, soldiers, and students united under a shining sun.
The "battle" was being waged, but Pyongyang was a quiet city. There weren't many vehicles on its wide streets, and rush hour was marked by long queues at bus stops. On three occasions I saw passengers physically pushing their bus until the engine started up again.
The island on which our hotel stood was guarded, and we could not leave at night. There may not have been any point going out anyway: There are no streetlamps, and after sunset, the only lights came from the windows of residential buildings. Around 9 o'clock, all the lights were turned off, and the city sank into darkness.
Still, each day my desire to light out on my own grew stronger. On our second night in Pyongyang, there was a heavy rainfall, and the soldiers who guarded the bridge took shelter under their umbrellas and didn't notice whether I wore a Kim Il-Sung pin. That's how I got off the island.
The streets' only illumination came from the dim lights on the many bicycles that sped by. I soon lost my bearings. Then I looked up and saw the Juche Tower, Pyongyang's premier tourist destination, in the distance. The red, flamelike torch at its apex and the white lights along the body of the monument were the only lights in a dark world.
When I returned to the island, I visited the revolving restaurant on the hotel's 47th floor. It offered a panoramic view of Pyongyang, but there was nothing to see except the darkness.