Letter From North Korea

I’ve been to North Korea only twice _ in 2002, as part of the press with then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and with the Foreign Ministry delegation that went there ahead of Koizumi’s trip.
I don’t know what I was expecting. But it was definitely one of the most memorable places I have visited ever.
Things we take for granted simply aren’t there.
There aren’t that many places you can go in this day and age to have that kind of eye-opening experience.
And it’s just as about depravity of mind/soul as materialistic poverty.
We stayed at Pyongyang’s top hotel, but the hallways were dark at night because of the energy shortage.
I had to feel my way, touching the walls, to find my way back to my room.
The toothbrushes in the rooms were primitive wooden sticks with barely any bristles at the end.
The bed was a hardened box.
The night streets were also totally dark.
Streetlamps, skyscraper lights, neon signs and car headlights we are used to as providing visibility just aren’t there.
And because of this, you can see the stars so clearly it’s dazzling.
The mornings start with blaring broadcast speeches and militaristic singsong music tearing through the air.
The TV, which has maybe two channels, only shows those weird propaganda we see on news footage about North Korea.
It is surreal.
It is like being on a movie set where everything that looks real is a cardboard facade, and the people you encounter are actors, all putting on suspiciously cheery faces pretending to love their dictator.
We were given official tour guides to “babysit” us during our entire trip.
But surprisingly we were pretty free off-hours to roam around as much as we liked, although we couldn’t go very far, given that we as reporters had to stick around to go to briefings, and there aren’t any cabs to hop on or anything.
When a photographer and I went across the street to eat dinner at a barbecue place, we ordered dishes by pantomiming a bird (for chicken) and mooing (for beef).
As I said, I don’t know what I was expecting.
But I wasn’t expecting everybody to be so nice.
We don’t expect friendly human beings with what we are fed about North Korea, day in and day out_ not the restaurant waitress trying to decipher our orders, the “babysitter” guides, everyone far nicer than people on average, say, in New York.
It’s more like visiting a forsaken rural area where people aren’t used to visitors and see them as guests who need looking out for.
The landscape (before driving into the city through the famous arch) is also pastoral and untainted.
The sloganistic billboards we associate with communist nations are absent outside the city, and because the nation is too poor to have many cars the whole place looks fairytale (so Nihon mukashi banashi) _ winding dirt roads through luscious green and fresh air.
All picturesque, untouched by the modern world.
It reminded me of Show Era Japan.
Naturally, the press group I was with got taken to the obligatory tourist spots during our free time _ controlled and orchestrated.
We went up Juche Tower.
We went to the statue of Kim Il Song.
We went to the reimen restaurant.
Some reporters put in a request, and we also got to go to a department store.
It was more like a drug store or a Daiei by American/Japanese standards, and the strange thing was that the shelves were filled with the same product (eg., plastic alarm clock) over and over (like a miniature shabby version of a Costco).
A small booth inside the store offered foreign exchange services.
Apparently, the department store caters largely to diplomats and other visitors as regular North Koreans can’t afford to shop there.
It was obvious throughout our assignment the country was eager to get foreign currency from reporters:
We were charged an exorbitant fee for transmitting our stories.
You often see in Japanese TV how North Koreans guides speak fluent Japanese.
This is true.
One North Korean man, while we were waiting for a briefing, told me he could sing Japanese songs.
He demonstrated his skill by singing in perfect Japanese: “Konnichiwa Akachan.”
It was bizarre to be sitting in Pyongyang and watch this North Korean sing “Konnichiwa Akachan.”
But besides this brief rendition of “Konnichiwa Akachan,” the standard music there was all numbing blaring militaristic songs.
On my flight back to Japan, the jazz wafting through my earphones (music we take for granted but music that speaks so clearly and so fundamentally of a free, democratic, creative society) literally brought tears to my eyes.
Not only because Music is so beautiful.
But because it is so unfair the people of North Korea don’t have the freedom to just reach over and listen to that Music.