Only a few minutes after arriving in Dandong, a Chinese city that borders North Korea, my assumptions about travel to North Korea were abruptly shattered. I was told by a Chinese employee of the tour company that it would not be wise to, while in North Korea, speak Korean or let anyone know that I am half Korean.
This employee told me that South Korean-style pronunciation was regarded with suspicion in the North, and that the Chinese tour company could not guarantee my safety if it became known that my mother is of South Korean birth, even though she long ago renounced her citizenship. I wondered how my mother would feel if she received a call informing her that her only child was being held in North Korea on suspicion of being a spy.
Nowadays, following the death of American student Otto Warmbier and the nuclear-armed battle of nerves playing out between the governments of the U.S. and North Korea, the general perception of travel to North Korea has gone from hipster fascination to all-out danger. Nevertheless, as a Portuguese-Korean person studying in China, I’ve noticed that here, North Korea’s appeal as an out-of-the-box destination still remains strong.
Putting aside fears generated by media reports and disapproving classmates and led on by an adventurous Romanian travel partner, we booked a tour for early October with a Chinese travel company based in Dandong, the border city separated from North Korea by the Yalu River.
Two WeChat messages — the first expressing our interest, the second sending a photocopy of our passports and residence permits — were all it took for the North Korean government to approve our entry. No questions about possible South Korean relatives or previous visits to South Korea.
The trip would take us by train from Beijing to Dandong, then into North Korea, a different approach from the Western-owned tour companies that typically fly from Beijing to Pyongyang. It had been seven years since I’d been to Seoul, so going back to the Korean Peninsula felt like a homecoming, a re-connection with my mother’s culture.
I was told by a Chinese employee of the tour company that it would not be wise to, while in North Korea, speak Korean or let anyone know that I am half Korean.
In Dandong, we decided to take a boat ride along the Yalu River, which separates China and North Korea. Walking to the riverside, we got to chat with a local street vendor. Asking me where I was from, I started explaining my Korean ancestry in Chinese when suddenly, my friend whispered in my ear, in French for the sake of secrecy, “There is a group of North Koreans behind us.”
Turning my gaze slightly to one side, I noticed seven North Koreans – identifiable by their matching haircuts and dark clothes – staring coldly at us. How much did they hear?
We hurried towards the river bank, at which point my travel partner advised me to pretend to be half Chinese when we arrive in North Korea. Boats leave from a quay every fifteen minutes, taking curious tourists close to the North Korean side of the river, where they snap photos of North Korean fishermen in ragged clothing using nets to catch shrimp.
Along the Yalu, anything associated with North Korea is commercialized for tourist consumption.
Next to the large crowd watching two men pound tteok — a rice-based snack usually filled with some form of sweet bean filling — with large hammers, a street magician announced his Korean black magic act by endlessly repeating “seumnida,”-a commonly used suffix in Korean language that has long been a trope for what Chinese think Korean sounds like.
Further down the strip, a stall sold a plastic figure resembling Kim Jong-un wearing a coat that opened periodically to reveal a vibrating phallus. I wondered what the North Korean residents in Dandong would think if they saw their Great Leader being mocked in such a way.
The following morning, after boarding the train to Pyongyang, I looked up in surprise as a group of North Koreans began shoving huge suitcases into the cabin where I would sleep. Realizing that they were sharing a cabin with a foreigner, they told me rather worriedly in Chinese that this was their room. I suppressed an urge to answer in Korean as we almost immediately arrived in Sinujiu, the North Korean city opposite Dandong.
The North Koreans stood at attention as a group of military officials walked in to check passengers’ documents. An official sharply criticized them for sharing the cabin with a foreigner. They bowed in deference whilst repeatedly saying sugohasheoseumnida, in this case meaning “thank you for your hard work.”
One of them tried to reassure the official by emphasizing that I was from Portugal, implying that a citizen from a small country that has diplomatic relations with North Korea should be no cause for concern.
I wondered how they would have reacted had they known my true identity. But fear had already got the best of me and so I put on the mantle of a half-Chinese rather than half-Korean tourist.
Arriving in the capital’s train station, I was immediately taken aback by how dimly lit everything was.
Nevertheless, even from far away one could spot the bright purple and green colors of the hanbok worn by a dozen or so North Korean tour guides. After they had walked over towards the hundred or so foreigners standing on the platform, the sound of snapping camera shutters filled the air. In our bus, people began taking videos and phone shots of our tour guide. She at times would cast an exasperated gaze towards the tourists filming or taking pictures of her, as if to say ‘come on guys, haven’t you taken enough?’ The cameras continued clicking away regardless.
Assuming this fake, half-Chinese identity became progressively harder as I witnessed more and more scenes of Chinese tourists treating the tour guides and the North Koreans like zoo animals. As we took the long escalator down to the Pyongyang metro, dozens of Chinese tourists shoved smartphones in the faces of North Koreans going in the opposite way.
I wondered how they would have reacted had they known my true identity.
At the Palace of Youth, our tour guide cringed as Chinese men put their hands around her shoulder while posing for photos. Just like the North Korean fisherman on the Yalu, our tour guide was turned into an object of exocitized fascination.
After three days of superficial sightseeing, I was back on the train to Dandong. Regret filled my heart as it was only in my last morning that I had the courage to talk in Korean.
I even told some of the hotel employees that my mother was from Namjoseon, the word North Koreans use for South Korea (South Koreans call their country Daehanminguk, which translates as the Republic of Korea). Their reactions were a combination of surprise and restrained curiosity. One of the valets I chatted with asked me if I would be free later that evening to go for a drink with him after he got off work. I regretfully told him I was leaving that day.
Arriving in Beijing, I called my mother and my uncle in Seoul to inform them of my recent trip. They were shocked to hear I had gone to North Korea, believing that I could have easily been labelled a spy by the government. They told me to keep quiet about my North Korea trip during my stay in Seoul, to avoid being labelled a commie by older people who have memories of the Korean War.
I can’t say I learned anything new about North Korea’s nuclear policy from the three days I spent in Pyongyang. But what I did learn is that the standard form of Chinese sightseeing trips — big tour groups, fixed itineraries, conspicuous consumption — is the same in Pyongyang as anywhere else. The rows of tour buses lined up in front of our hotel in Pyongyang can also be found outside the largest hotels in Lisbon, an increasingly popular destination for Chinese tourists.
There was nothing unexpected about the staged performances, grandiose monuments, and sumptuous foods that the DPRK regime provides to hordes of curious tourists.
As the train left Sinujiu, almost everyone in the train rushed to place their smartphones on the windowsill, filming the last strip of under-developed North Korean land in the knowledge that there were no North Korean military who could check their phones anymore. I simply sat in my cabin and looked out the window. I knew that the view was not my chance to capture the real North Korea, to have genuine interactions with fellow Koreans. I had had that chance while in Pyongyang, but I let it slip away, and will probably never get it back.
Cover image: Air Koryo crew members at Orang Airport, North Korea. (Source: calflier001 via Wikimedia Commons, CC by SA-2.0)