North Korea left no traces in my passport, not even a visa. It showed that I left China in July and returned four days later. There was no indication of where I had been, except that I passed through customs in Dandong, a city in northeastern China that borders the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
In those four "lost" days, I traveled to Pyongyang and Kaesong, North Korea, with a dozen "potential investors" from China. Most of the people in the group were businessmen interested in buying factories, land, mines, and timber in the DPRK whenever the prohibitions on such purchases are removed.
With each passing day, the businessmen got more and more agitated because they couldn't use their computers or mobile phones—they weren't even allowed to bring them into the country. There is no Internet access in North Korea—the Pyongyang elite use an intranet to listen to music and watch movies. There are three TV channels, and North Koreans usually go to telephone booths when they need to make calls.
Faced with these anxious visitors, the North Korean guards were calm, determined, and patient. It took them two hours to inspect our luggage when the group entered the country and four hours to go through every picture on our cameras—and to delete the ones they deemed improper—when we left. They apparently didn't know that it is easy to switch out memory cards.
From our first moments in the country, it was obvious that some North Koreans receive special treatment. The train for Pyongyang had 15 cars, but only the three "international compartments" had fans to fight the sweltering heat. Well-dressed North Koreans took up the majority of seats in the compartment. The women wore silk blouses, nice skirts, and high heels, and the men were decked out in good T-shirts, which sometimes showed off their big bellies.
They were the only fat North Koreans that I saw on the trip. The people in the streets of Pyongyang and Kaesong were often downright skinny. In Pyongyang, I had my picture taken with two elementary-school boys in Kim Il-Sung Square, and I could clearly feel their ribs when I put my hands on their backs.
For the most part, though, photographing people was strictly forbidden. Nor could we take pictures of soldiers patrolling the border with China, of trains and stations, or of the rice- and cornfields outside the train window. Four railway policemen were seated right across from us in the carriage. When one of the businessmen tried to take a photograph of our compartment, they didn't hesitate to grab his camera. Later in the trip, our tour guides intervened whenever we tried to take pictures. "Our people don't like to be photographed," they explained.
It took the train seven hours to cover the 140 miles between Sinuiju and Pyongyang. When we arrived in the capital, we were whisked to a 47-story hotel built on an island in the Taedong River. In the hotel's basement, a few North Koreans joined the Chinese gamblers at Casino Pyongyang's four card tables and 10 slot machines. Most local people are barred from the island.
In the next two days, we were transported from one monument to another. Through the windows of the van, I could see that every street in Pyongyang had at least two unfinished buildings. Construction had begun in the early 1990s, halted around 1995, and had never resumed. There was a curtain beside my seat, which I could hide behind when I wanted to take pictures of the streets.
The men in the streets usually wore black or dark blue uniforms that looked like Mao suits, and the women wore cheap white or gray blouses with black or dark blue skirts. The most popular shoes were made of dark blue cloth, with white shoelaces and white plastic soles. The blue color ran and stained the laces when it rained.
While the guards ate their meals or watched the children's shows that were staged for us foreigners, I twice managed to wander into the streets and was able to explore for about 10 minutes each time. Once I walked into a grocery store on the ground floor of a residential building. The store was empty except for three 10-foot-tall heaps on the ground—one of cabbage, one of tomatoes, and one of turnips. There were no price tags and no customers. A middle-aged woman in a black uniform stood behind the counter, which held small piles of peanuts and pine seeds that looked as though they had been there for a long time.
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