What’s a Smart Jewish Boy from Brooklyn Doing in A Place Like North Korea (?)

Alan Press

 Arrival Date: April 25, 2013

Departure Date: May 4, 2013

Why does growing up in Brooklyn have particular relevance to what has always seemed to be my special calling to wander and wonder? Well it all started there. Perhaps it was the result of happenstance. When I was six years old my parents bought a home in  Manhattan Beach. It was and still is, for all intents and purposes, an extension of Brighton Beach and Coney Island on the South Shore of Brooklyn. But it was special for me. In 1948 Idlewild Airport (since 1963 JFK International) opened on the South Shore of Queens. In those early days before the first Boeing 707s took to the skies, Idlewild was planned as the gateway for all air travel into the United States from Europe and South America. From our house I could sit and watch the incoming Douglas DC-7s, powerful turbo-prop Bristol Brittainias, and the incredibly graceful Lockheed Constellations fly south along the beach, bank into tight right 180 degree turns, and begin their final descents to the runway about 20 miles from our front porch.

I memorized the tail markings of all of the airlines whose planes thundered in over my head. I wondered what it would be like to go to the places they came from. When I was finally old enough to drive, and a girl whom I asked for a date said yes, I thought it was incredibly romantic to take her to the observation deck of the airport. We would listen to the boarding announcements, and watch the elegantly dressed men in suits and ties, and women in their smart dresses walk to the stairs to the aircraft.

I was filled with wonderment, almost to the point of tears. What kind of people were they, getting on those planes that would take them to places like London, Rome, Paris, or Rio? They had to be at least extraordinary, if not well beyond. Of course it took me quite some time to figure out why I could never get a second date with one of those pretty girls, whom I had taken to what at the time I thought was the most romantic, adventuresome destination in all of New York City.

North Korea

Why are you going to North Korea? Of all of the places you could go to, why there? Isn’t it dangerous? Aren’t you afraid that you will be kidnapped?” In infinite variation, those were the kinds of questions most often asked by my friends upon their learning of my plan to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea[1] (as North Korea prefers to be known).

My answer, depending on my mood, to whom I was talking, maybe the phase of the moon, or how much I enjoyed the corned beef sandwich I had eaten for lunch that day atthe Carnegie Deli, might have been one of the following: “Curiosity,” a reference to the old Gypsy proverb “He who travels learns,” a simple “Why not?” or an “If I’m kidnapped, so what?”

Prior to departure I gave explicit instructions to my wife Hanna as to her course ofaction in the event that I were to be kidnapped by hostile elements, as follows: under no circumstances are you to accede to any demand for ransom in order to facilitate my safe return. Rather I expect that before very long the miscreants will find me to be such a complete pain in the ass, that they will make a generous offer to induce you to take me back. You are to refuse to negotiate until the first offer is at least doubled, which I fully expect it will be. Upon confirmation of the deposit of a large amount of bullion in a numbered vault in Zurich, I will make my triumphal return.

Adventure Travel

There are a number of travel agencies that specialize in a category of travel known as “Adventure Travel (AT).” Mountain Travel Sobek (MTS) of Emeryville, CA packaged

our trip to North Korea. I consider MTS to be amongst the very best in the AT business. The downside of AT is that you risk experiencing some inconvenience, discomfort, boredom, and disappointment on your adventure. It is not cheap. You have to expect the unexpected, and keep your sense of humor. The potential reward is that AT offers the possibility that you just may have what turns out to be a spectacular National Geographic experience. If you want to travel knowing in advance precisely what to expect on your vacation, go to Disney Land or on a Caribbean Cruise. You won’t be surprised or disappointed. Nor, in all probability, will you have the thrills that AT can offer.

Fellow Travelers

About half of my trips are solo. I research where I want to go, construct an itinerary, and arrange with one of the AT companies to provide infrastructure, guides, vehicles and drivers. I like traveling alone––when I travel alone, all of the others in the group always laugh at the jokes I tell. If I think there should be a change in the itinerary, the rest of the group always votes unanimously to follow my suggestion.

The other half of my AT trips are usually with small groups. In the case of North Korea there were 10 travelers in our group, including an excellent American guide provided by MTS. Group AT is a lot less expensive than solo travel. But it can be dicey. You suddenly encounter people you have never met before, know nothing about, and probably will never see again after the trip ends. You then proceed to have three meals a day with them, and spend up to 14 hours in their company, every day. Within those constraints, most people who go on group AT trips quickly learn to try to give the others the space they need, and at the same time to reserve some for themselves.

My expectation prior to departure was that North Korea would be far from the most exciting trip I had ever taken. But considering how much about it was being reported upon and discussed in the media, and how far out much of what I was reading and hearing seemed to be, I thought that it would probably be an interesting place to see for myself. I was wrong on that one. “Interesting” is far too mild a word to describe the reality of North Korea. It was so appalling, so surreal, that nothing in the media can prepare you for what you experience once you get there.

Before I went to North Korea I thought Albania was the craziest country I had ever visited. For sheer insanity it doesn’t even rate an honorable mention when compared to North Korea. The country from a geopolitical point of view is so interesting, so bizarre, that it now rates as the most exciting travel experience I have ever had.

And speaking of the media, North Korea does not welcome flacks. The visa questionnaire prospective tourists must complete asks if you are a journalist. If your answer is “yes,” you don’t get a visa. You don’t see crews from CNN, Fox News, or the BBC riding around in their trucks North Korea. Just about everything the press reports about the country comes from some place other than North Korea––most often from South Korea, China or Japan.

Almost no one who is reporting about North Korea has ever been there. Or if they have, it was not recently. So, the plastic pundits (who seem to have some of the largest, whitest, most perfect teeth I have ever seen) are all blathering on with information they have cribbed from others who haven’t been there. As it is written, you have to experience the experience, in order experience the experience.

The “Go, No Go” Decision

We were scheduled to arrive in North Korea right smack in the middle of the latest and greatest confrontation between that poor, benighted country, and the rest of the world that has the leisure time to pay attention to it. The issue, of course, was its program to develop nuclear weapons, and missiles capable of delivering them. The threat, in North Korea speak, was that it would turn the “Imperialist, War-Mongering, Aggressor United Sates, and its Puppet Lackey Regime in s. Korea”[2] into “Seas of Fire” in retaliation for any action deemed improper or disrespectful of its sovereignty.

My calculus in making the final determination as to whether or not it was safe to get on the plane to go to North Korea, in light of the threats, was based on the result of the simple equation that I always use when possible to guide me through my decision making process: “What does he have that I want? What do I have that he wants? If I have more of what he wants than he has of what I want, I play. If he has more of what I want than I have of what he wants, I try not to.” I had the necessary time and funds, and I wanted to see North Korea for myself. So it was a go.

It is obvious that the geriatrics on the top of the pile in North Korea prefer not to have guys like me wandering around their fiefdom. So why did they let us in? It’s simple. With the combined effects of the economic sanctions imposed by the West, the recent generous amounts from the United States and South Korea, North Korea is a country desperate for foreign currency. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­If you have little else going for you as a country, one of the best ways to increase revenue is to promote tourism. Therefore the North Korea mandarins will hold their noses and retch while we putter around. As long as we were there, they were going to make sure that nothing bad happened to us.

These are extraordinarily smart, tough guys. They have climbed to the top of a very greasy pole. They have a country of 25 million people with lots of resources under their complete control. They know if they do something really dumb like launch some missiles at population centers, with or without nuclear warheads, in all probability, they and their mistresses are all going to be dead within 24 hours. And I figured that they didn’t want to be dead. Therefore my equation told me that I would be perfectly safe going North Korea.

Air Koryo

The most convenient way to get to North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, is from Beijing on Air Koryo (North Korea’s only airline). Air Koryo’s small fleet is made up of antiquated Russian planes, the best of which are two old TU-204s that are used for the Beijing run.

The seats were hard. The upholstery was slack. The in-flight entertainment system consisted of drop down video screens that showed us propaganda about the glories of life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and how fortunate its citizens and the rest of the world are to have the glorious, wise, strong, generous, heroic leadership of the magnificent Kim family (more on this below). To say that the food on board the plane was inedible is an under-statement. SKYTRAX rates Air Koryo as the world’s only one star airline. Perhaps. My only criteria for rating an airline are did the pilot get the plane off the ground, find where he was going, and land the plane safely? The Air Koryo guy did all three, admirably. I never ask for more.

The Arrival

The terminal looked like a crappy old warehouse: dark, cold and drafty. We processed through immigration and customs quickly, with minimal fuss and baggage examination. The personnel on duty were professionals. Of course there were no other arriving planes when we landed, so when we appeared the guys there finally had something to do. There were no cabs at the airport. Instead, there were buses waiting to pick up arriving tourist groups, and mini buses for arriving or returning businessmen, diplomats, or trade delegations.

The Rules

There are many no-no’s for tourists in North Korea. When you get to North Korea you cannot rent a car and drive anywhere you want––there are no rental cars. Wherever you wish to go outside of your hotel, you must have at least one of your two government assigned tour guides with you at all times. The government sets your itinerary, what you will do every day, and which hotel you will stay in. Despite all of the restrictions, if you do some thorough preparation before your departure, you can observe and intellectually digest a lot of what you see––a lot that the government doesn’t want you to recognize. The primary rule for North Korea travel is keep your eyes open, nose clean, and mouth shut. Follow that not so simple rule, and there is a good probability that you won’t get arrested and put on trial.

The Big No-No: Photography

You cannot take pictures of lots of things you would like to in North Korea. The guidesare required to be very restrictive with what they allow you to photograph, particularlywhen the subjects that interest you will show how terribly backwards most of the countryis. They had no problem with anything we wanted to take pictures of in Pyongyang, because it is a very modern city, but they particularly did not want us taking pictures outside of Pyongyang in rural North Korea, through the bus windows of people walking with heavy loads on their backs, their bicycles, or bent over working in the fields. The photography dynamic between the guides and our tour group unfolded in an interesting way. I sat in the front seat of the bus across the aisle from the driver because I suffer from motion sickness. The only way I can be comfortable in a vehicle is to be able to look out of the front window. The two North Korea guides sat directly behind me. They could see everything I might do. Under the circumstances, I did not even bother to take my camera out of its case on the bus.

Everyone else was spread out behind the guides towards the back of the bus. As long as the guides faced front, they could not see what those behind them were doing with their cameras. And a few of them, slumped down low it their seats as if they were napping, were doing quite a lot with their cameras whenever a subject of interest presented itself.

If the guides don’t enforce the rules rigorously, they will lose their jobs. Tour guide jobs are very lucrative and prestigious in North Korea. Visitors know that. Tourists are a source of tips in scarce foreign currency. So most of us pretty much played by the rules.


The first thing we observed was that the road into Pyongyang was almost empty, with very few cars, and some trucks. We arrived in town at about 6:00 p.m. There was almost no traffic in the inner city. Buses and trolleys are plentiful. But many of the people were either riding bicycles or walking. Outside of Pyongyang, bicycles and legs are the primary means of transportation.

In all of the time we were in North Korea we never saw anything close to a traffic jam. Sightings of private cars, especially outside of Pyongyang, are a rare occurrence. When seen they are mostly new, large, black, Mercedes’, Audis, BMWs, Lexus’, and some Buicks, all made in and imported from China. They are available only to important government officials, or high business executives who, because all large businesses are owned by and managed for the government, in effect also work for the government. We never saw an automobile agency that sold new or used cars.

By far the most outlandish vehicles seen frequently on the roads of North Korea outside of Pyongyang are the coal or wood, steam-powered trucks used to carry produce, goods, people, and even military personnel. You instantly know one is near because of the racket the engine makes, and the smoke full of pollutant coal and wood particles rising and blowing directly into faces of the men, women and children who share the bed of the truck with the boiler. Diesel and gasoline, because they have to be imported, are very expensive by comparison to coal and wood, which are indigenous and plentiful.


The city was almost totally destroyed by bombings during the Korean War (1950-1953).

We carpet-bombed it into a pile of rubble. When it was rebuilt, it was as a planned city with wide avenues and boulevards (many of which are close to empty). Talented, imaginative landscape architects have created beautiful parks and open spaces full of lawns, flowers, fountains, and waterfalls throughout the city. There is not a city anywhere else in North Korea that I saw that displays anywhere close to resources that have been invested into making Pyongyang a showpiece city. The rest of them were dreary. Pyongyang is a sterile, antiseptic place. None of the people walking the streets of the city look like they are having fun. There are no young couples walking, laughing, or holding hands. No one is flirting (how sad). There are very few stores, and the ones that are there seem to be mostly empty. No one is window-shopping because there are no window displays. Most people are working.

There are no trash cans to be seen anywhere; there is no need for them. People don’t drop their soda cans, plastic bags, cigarette boxes and butts on the sidewalks or in the street. They know what will happen to them if they do. You never have to worry about stepping into dog poop anywhere in North Korea. I never saw a dog on or off a leash. There must be dogs somewhere because dog soup is available in some restaurants. It is considered to be a delicacy. I did not try it.

If Pyongyang has one great failing, it is that the air in the city is incredibly clean. Because there are so few vehicles, smog is never a problem. I could not exist in such a place for very long. Knowing what I was in for, I brought an inhaler full of rich, organic, holistic New York City air along with me. Whenever I had withdrawal symptoms (the shakes) for lack of a life-saving dose of proper, filthy smog, I gave myself a fix. A few quick puffs from the inhaler, and I was able to come back to my essential self. If the air looks so empty that you can’t see what is in it, you certainly can’t trust it enough to breathe it.


Incredible numbers of relatively new high-rise apartment buildings have been built, or are under construction in Pyongyang. They are architecturally exciting. Some are even audacious. Many have balconies that offer great views of the city. At the other end of the housing spectrum in Pyongyang and most of the rest of the country, are many old, dowdy-looking rectangular four and five-floor walk-up apartment buildings. They are best described in Eastern Europe as Khrushchev housing. Apartments are allocated by the government based on how important one’s job is to the government, or how close one is to someone who is important to the government.

The Military

For all intents and purposes, the military is by far the most powerful influence in North Korea. Whatever the country’s Spin-Meisters would have us believe otherwise, the generals rule the country.

The Military Metrics[3]

                                                            North                          South
Country                                                Korea                          Korea
Population:                                           24,700,000                  48,955,000
GDP per capita:                                    $1,800                          $32,400
Active Military Personnel:                      1,119,000                     655,000
Military Expenditure as % of GDP:         22.3                              2.8

We traveled on the main north/south road from Pyongyang to Panmunjom, the southern most point in North Korea in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North Korea and South Korea. We saw no unusual military activity of any kind on the trip. We were stopped at a few military checkpoints. A soldier in a dress uniform with an AK-47 over his shoulder came out of a small guardhouse. He gave a perfunctory look at the bus, nodded to the guides, rolled back the light gate blocking the road, and saluted the bus as it rolled through.

When we finally arrived at the DMZ, on the North Korea side, we were ushered into a rectangular Soviet block-style building with an open pavilion facing south. Across an open area about as wide as Park Avenue in New York City, there is another building with a pavilion facing north. It is in South Korea. We stood on the North’s pavilion with a bunch of other tourists and some North Korea guards, and took pictures, but the only thing to take pictures of was the South Korea building facing us. There were no South Korea or American soldiers to be seen. This was at the height of the tension when, according to the media, all-out war was liable to break out at any minute.

We did, in North Korea, see large groups of men in army uniforms marching along the roads. Almost all of them were carrying shovels over their shoulders. A few were at either end of 3’ x 4’ platforms with handles, on which there was sand and gravel for cement. They were the North Korea road repair crews.

All of the North Korea military officers we saw wore large clips of campaign ribbons pinned to upper left side of their tunics. While we did not see any General Officers in person, we did see many portraits of the Kims surrounded by their broadly smiling generals (of course, the Kims were always the tallest figures in any group portrait).

In addition to their multiple campaign ribbons, the generals’ dress uniforms bore vertical rows of very large gold medallions, the kind one might think were awarded for extraordinary, courageous leadership in combat. The last war fought on the Korean peninsula ended in 1953. That being the case, one might wonder which battles they led their men to victory in, that earned them those formidable rows of ribbons and the enormous medals they wore?

There are many YouTube videos showing very impressive North Korea military parades, with huge numbers of heavily armed soldiers and sailors goose-stepping through the Kim Il Sung Square in the center of Pyongyang. But the military was nowhere to be seen in the areas of the country where it would have been needed were a war to break out. One could almost believe that North Korea’s 1.1 million man army is no more than a Potempkin military.

Agriculture and the Economy

Prior to the Korean War, the economy of the northern part of the country was primarily

devoted to manufacturing, while the south was largely devoted to agriculture. With the disastrous results of the Kims’ efforts to create a planned socialist economy modeled on the failed Stalinist experiment, as opposed to the embrace by the South of a market-driven economy, that pattern has completely reversed.

Now, there are very large state farms in North Korea. But there are very few tractors or pieces of mechanical farming equipment of any kind in the fields. Much of the work is equal-opportunity stoop labor. We saw women, in far greater numbers than men, doing brutal field work. That is because most of the young men away in the military, though in the fall, at harvest time, soldiers are also assigned to agricultural fieldwork.

Speaking of agriculture and tractors, almost all of the plowing we saw on the farms involved crews of one or two men, a bullock, and a wooden plow, which is pulled by the bullock. When two men are available, one of them walks in front of the bullock leading him with a rope. The other man is behind the plow, guiding it through the furrows. If only one man is available, he does his best to direct the bullock from behind the plow. In agriculture, as in many other dimensions of its economy, North Korea is a third-world country, about 100 years behind the developed world.

May Day

In countries with a socialist tradition, May 1 is a day of celebration. It is a worker’s holiday. In North Korea, the day is marked by concerts and picnics at which men, women, and children do things they rarely do in public. They celebrate. They sing, dance and have a good time.

Our group started the day at an amusement park. It was full of wonderful attractions: a carousel, a roller coaster, bumper cars, and all kinds of whirl-around rides. If I were to try to go on any of them, they would make me, always prone to motion sickness, so debilitated that I would be afraid I was going to die before it ended.

At the end of the park, a huge sound stage had been set up. One after another, talented costumed singers, dancers, gymnasts, and acrobats took their turns entertaining the 3,000 or so enthusiastic people sitting in the grass. Considering the security issues that generally apply when a large crowd gathers in an outdoor venue for a concert in our country, we experienced another surprise. There was not a policeman to be seen. Obviously none were needed; it appears that crimes of any kind rarely occur in North Korea.

In the afternoon we went to a much larger park. My guess is there were between 10,000 and 15,000 people in the park (in this instance we saw two policemen). Group after group of extended family and close friends were gathered around blankets on the ground, on which all kinds of picnic food delicacies had been laid out. In each group, there was someone beating on a drum. Perhaps someone else was playing an accordion, or some kind of wind instrument. And everyone in the group was singing and dancing. No rock, rap or hip-hop. Rather, it was music that had melodies, rhythms, and harmonies––music to which a geezer like me could relate. It was a scene that any amateur travel photographer would die for. I moved in with my huge Canon SLR and monster zoom lens for some close-ups.

 The next thing I knew, someone shoved me into the center of the dancing group. A woman grabbed me and started to dance with me. Before long another woman cut in to dance with me, and then still another. As I moved from group to group, the same sequence kept repeating itself. Whoopee! It was Alan In Wonderland!

Fortunately for me, no one was discoing. Rather, the dancing might be best described as decorous. As a dancer, I would never be described, even generously, as anything more than a “severely challenged klutz.” But on May Day in North Korea, I was not going to miss the moment. I became their Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly shmooshed into one. I clomped around with the North Korea women as if I knew what I was doing. At first, in all modesty, I allowed myself to believe that the women who fought to dance with me, were fatally attracted by my animal magnetism, or perhaps by a certain essential, elemental, existential musk that I secrete when I am thrust in such situations.

But alas, it soon became abundantly clear that the fantasy was no more real than the rest of my fantasies. If truth must be told, the women wanted to dance with me because I was obviously an American. In each group, there was at least one person with a cell phone camera, recording the scene of the women dancing with the American. It was one of those extraordinary travel moments that I will never forget.

Of Cults and Myths

Before I left for North Korea I had read of the country’s efforts to create a cult of personality around the succession of father to son Kims, who have ruled the country for 70 years since 1945. They are, in sequential order, Kim II Sung (the Eternal Great Leader, born April 15, 1912, began rule September 9, 1948, and died July 8, 1994), Kim Jong Il (the Dear Leader, born February 16, 1942, began rule July 8, 1994, died December 17, 2011), and Kim Jong Un (the Supreme Leader, born August 8, 2014, began rule December 17, 2011).

I pride myself on being a skeptic. But nothing that I read could possibly have prepared me for the suffocating pervasiveness of the huge portraits of Kim I and Kim II that hang on the facades of just about every public building. Then there are the giant statues, the outdoor billboards with poems and hymns of praise, and the seemingly millions of paintings and photographs on display everywhere, all devoted to celebrating the wisdom, courage and brilliant leadership of the various Kims. The regime’s propagandists are, as it would appear, with singular success, attempting to turn mortal men into gods, a cult into a religion, and a state into a church.

Just a few particularly grotesque examples will give some indication of the lengths to which the regime will go to accomplish those objectives.

Mansu Hill

In a park in the middle of Pyongyang, there are two 60-foot bronze statues of Kim I and Kim II. They share an enormous single pedestal that is about 5 feet high. On their assigned days, busloads of citizens arrive from their factories and offices, as do buses full of school children. Every bride and groom is required to make the pilgrimage of obeisance to the gods before their marriage ceremony can take place. And, all tourists make an obligatory visit to the golden statues on their itineraries.

Each of us, including the children, was required to buy a bouquet of flowers from a nearby kiosk for four euros. When we reached the area in front of the statues, we formed shoulder-to-shoulder lines, approached the pedestal, and laid the flowers on it. Then we backed up 10 paces, and, in absolute silence, were instructed to bow from the waist to the statues. When the floral pile grew to a size that it was almost unmanageable, a man came along, gathered the bouquets, and returned them to the flower kiosk for resale.

The Kumsusan Memorial Palace

About 10 miles out of the center of Pyongyang, at the end of a subway line, is the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the mausoleum of Kims I and II. It is, of course, a required stop on any North Korea itinerary. Before we left the United States, we were instructed to pack a jacket, collared shirt, and tie in order to be appropriately dressed for the occasion of our visit with the eternal ones.

The building design is inspired by the Stalinesque Wedding Cake School of Architecture. The building itself is about 115,000 square feet in size. A bit of a hike from the huge parking lot, immediately upon entry with the exception of your wallet, everything you have with you must be checked.

We proceeded on people-mover walkways through seemingly endless marble corridors, which were lined on both sides with gilt-framed painted portraits of the Kims. We came to what looked like a security gate. It was a device that had mechanical rollers on the floor that cleaned the bottoms of the soles of our shoes. A short distance further was a second gate. It let loose a blast of air to blow off any dust that might have been on us.

We then entered successive rooms that memorialized each of the Kims. On display in glass cases were endless medals awarded and proclamations published in their honor, in addition to honorary degrees, academic gowns, gifts of swords and daggers from other socialist countries’ Heads of State, armored black Mercedes’, private armored railway cars, and a yacht (in this instance used by both I and II).

 We finally entered Valhalla, an enormous hall about 30 feet in height. It contained the embalmed mortal remains of the “gods.” Each of them was lying on an enormous bed, covered up to his neck with a royal crimson quilt. Their heads were raised on crimson pillows. The beds were enclosed in glass walls that rose to the ceiling of the hall. In each corner of the hall was a member of an honor guard with an AK-47 on his shoulder, while others were spread around the hall.

We were directed to line up four abreast at the foot of the Kim I’s glass enclosure. We were then told to proceed around to the left side of the enclosure as we faced the foot of the bed, bow deep from the waist, move around the back to the right side of the enclosure, and bow once more from the waist. We then repeated the ceremony as we marched around Kim II’s glass enclosure.

Every citizen who works in and around Pyongyang is expected to make at least two visits annually to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. They are notified as to the day a bus will arrive at their factory or office to take them there, and reminded of the strict dress codes required of them. On our return to the city we saw a number of groups of about 50 men in each marching along the road back to wherever they came from. Apparently there weren’t enough buses available that day for them.

Other Reinforcements of the Cult of the Kims

Throughout the country, one frequently sees vans with loud speakers mounted on their roofs, driving slowly through neighborhoods or towns blaring at high volume patriotic messages of praise for and obedience to the Kims and their regime.

Every man and most women wear a small lapel pin in the upper left sides of their jackets, with an image of Kim I on it, or a slightly larger one with both I and II on it. When I was there I did not see any lapel pins with III on them, but I was told that they are available, and some people are wearing them.

Portraits of Kims I and II hang in the entry room of every apartment and home in North Korea. Imagine if every time you entered your home, you saw 10” x 14” photographs of two dead Presidents of the United States looking down at you.

At one point during our trip, we were standing on the shore of a very beautiful little lake in the mountains in the south of North Korea. There was a sandy beach about 100 feet away from where we stood. One of our guides, who obviously drank a quart of the Kool-Aid every morning with breakfast, pointed to the beach and with great reverence, sonorously informed us, From that spot, our Eternal Great Leader, Guide, and President, Kim Il Sung shot a duck.”

There was silence from our group. Finally I couldn’t restrain myself. Impulsively, at risk of summary execution and with great gravitas, I responded, “I am sure the duck was very pleased to be shot by your Eternal Great Leader, Guide, and President Kim Il Sung.”

Why the Cult?

Cults have been around forever. They are most often built around a national, religious, or sometimes business leader who aspires to immortality. It is helpful if the aspirant is in some combination: good looking, charismatic, smart, talented, and ruthless. The more of those strengths he or she has, the better the chances of building a devoted following of acolytes.

The entire cadre of North Korea mythmakers and every resource of the giant state media apparatus are totally dedicated to the mission of building, reinforcing and maintaining the mythology surrounding the Kims. Of course, nothing can beat having control of a couple of hundred thousand guys with guns, not to mention some of the world’s cruelest gulags reserved for those who might be foolish enough to question the mythology. Those last two resources can add a lot of power to the equation.

If the cult leader can conveniently create a profoundly evil enemy for his followers to hate, i.e. “The Puppet, Lackey Regime of s. Korea, and the War-Mongering, Imperialist Aggressor United States,” with all of the passion with which they must revere him, the chances of success (immortality?) are that much greater.

On the receiving end, if ever since you were born, the guys building the myths tell you something totally absurd often enough, loudly enough, and are never contradicted, there is a good chance that you will come to believe it. And the guys on the sending end may even come to believe themselves, and particularly so when they know all too well what will happen to them if they don’t. If anyone were to mess up in any way, every North Korea citizen is mandated to attend a criticism and self-criticism meeting once a week.[4] They are required to publicly criticize any deviations from expectations that they know about by others in the group, as well as admit to any about themselves that may have occurred in thought or in deed since the meeting of the previous week.

The frightening fictional images created by George Orwell in his seminal novel “1984” of life in the Worker’s Paradise, aka the Soviet Union, are all too real in North Korea. You cannot escape from the Kims until you thankfully leave the country. If you are a North Korean, leaving the country is a very difficult undertaking. Kim I and Kim II demonstrated that they were smart enough and ruthless enough to build their dynasties. Of course it didn’t hurt Kim II when Kim I decided that the best way to ensure his own immortality was to arrange for Kim II to inherit the family business. Certainly both of them had access to more than enough guys with guns, and some of the world’s most brutal prisons, required to help insure their success. Kim II then made sure that III was in place to inherit Kim Inc. before, in 2011, he moved on to join Kim I in the Great Presidential Palace In The Sky.

Succession Planning

The future of the reign of Kim III is, for many reasons, an open question. For the moment at least, there have been no sightings of a Kim IV. A country is, amongst many different kinds of entities, a business. As with any commercial enterprises, such as universities, hospitals, houses of worship, NGOs, and governments, a country must be managed as businesses. If you don’t run the business as a business, if more money goes out of the enterprise than comes into it (with the notable exception of governments), the business will usually shut down.

Family businesses are particularly dicey entities. Family Business Survival Statistics published by the Family Business Council, indicate that the percentage of family businesses making it into succeeding generations are as follows: second––30%, third––10-15%, fourth––3-5%. North Korea is a family business. Kim Inc. has been and is run for the benefit of the Kims. There is no indication that, when at age 29, Kim III inherited Kim Inc. and was anointed First Secretary of The Korean Workers Party, First Chairman of The National Defense Council, and Supreme Commander of the Korean Peoples’ Army, that the Toy Boy Generalisimo had any prior administrative or military, training or experience. Nor were his academic credentials any more impressive. As to charisma, III looks like he might have been sent by central casting to star in the role of First Chairman of the National Council of North Korea Village Idiots. I would give long odds against Kim Inc. successfully making down to the yet unborn Kim IV.

But for the time being, Kim III is in complete control. In celebration of Kim III’s recent ascension to the pantheon, the North Korea Mythmaking Machine has been cranked up to full power. Recent editions of The Pyongyang Times have included the following headlines:

·         Kim Jong Un Inspects Outposts and Different Sectors, Sees Live Shell Firings
·         Mass rallies vow to be victorious in face-off with United States
·         United States and S. Korean Puppets to be Responsible for Catastrophic consequences
·         No Mercy to the Enemy
·         We’ll Settle Accounts With The United States
·         Kim Jong Un’s Works Published Abroad
·         Evil Doers Will Never Escape Severe Punishment
·         No Mercy to Scum of The Earth

The Role Models for Change and Unification

Once upon a time, long, long ago in another galaxy, beginning in 1989, absolutely unthinkable, seismic geopolitical changes in Eastern Europe and Central Asia suddenly exploded. Then, to the joy of many and the horror of some, the changes accelerated and multiplied. Many of us who were fortunate enough to have witnessed the accelerated evolutions, and in more than a few cases, revolutions, still have difficulty believing that we actually witnessed it happen.

·The Soviet Union: The enlightened policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991, and the country’s first President from 1990 until it imploded in 1991, resulted in the miraculous destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1990.

·East and West Germany: The two former enemy countries combined into one country and became the democratic, capitalist powerhouse that Germany is today.

·Republics of the former Soviet Union: Fifteen former Soviet Republics, ten in Eastern Europe, and five in Central Asia, emerged from the darkness as independent countries. Most of them are now democracies.

·East European Satellites of the former Soviet Union (not including East Germany, which effectively ceased to exist): Seven previously independent countries, which were at the time behind the Iron Curtain and part of the Soviet Sphere of Influence, became independent democracies.

·States of the former Yugoslavia: In 1995, as a result of the Dayton Accords, eight independent countries in the Balkans emerged from what was once Yugoslavia. They would probably all prefer to kill each other, rather than to trade with each other. But, fortunately for the present at least, they are not killing each other.

·China: Under Deng Xiao Ping, China began to open economically, if not politically. The results have been nothing short of spectacular for the people of China, and astonishing to the rest of us. Any of us who have made multiple visits to China returns home in wonderment at the extraordinary changes seen.

·Vietnam: As a result of the Vietnam War, North and South Vietnam unified, initially to our sorrow. Under successive presidents though, Vietnam has gradually liberalized its economy to the point where, though it is not yet an Asian tiger, it is worthy of our respect. Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush made state visits to Vietnam. President George W. Bush received the country’s President Nguen Minh Triet for a state visit to the White House in 2007.

·Myanmar: Under the liberal leadership of former General and now President Thein Sein, the country is opening and evolving at an astonishing rate. Economic sanctions certainly contributed to moving the process along. With the political liberalization, the sanctions have been lifted. With the lifting of the sanctions the pace of liberalization has accelerated––sanctions work.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, has since been released from house arrest. She is now a leading member of Parliament, and has announced her candidacy for president in the next election. Similarly, all political prisoners in Myanmar were released, and many of them sit in Parliament with Ms. Suu Kyi.

Just as Vietnam’s relationship with the United States has improved, Myanmar’s relationship with the United States has enjoyed increasing political attention. In November of 2012, President Barack Obama visited Myanmar. In May of 2013, President Thein Sein came to Washington. Myanmar now welcomes tourists from the West. Those who choose to visit are richly rewarded.

The one element shared by all of the countries referenced above is that, like North Korea, each was a planned and failed centralized economy. In fact, there has never been a successful one. Prior to the time of their systemic disintegration as socialist states, most of us in the West could not imagine that they would collapse of their own dead weight. We thought the brutal authoritarians who ruled them were too powerful, had too many guys with big guns committed to maintaining the status quo, and too many gulags to be overthrown.

Nonetheless, the unsupportable built-in economic and social contradictions, as well as the inefficiencies of their economic systems were suffocating them. Most of the goons and thugs who ruled those countries realized they had two choices: they were going to allow substantive economic changes, or they were going to lose political control.

Like the Kims, they were not idealistic visionaries. They certainly had no intention turning their countries into shining models of democracy. The small self-appointed group who had crowned themselves as virtual czars and emperors understood that they had little choice. They were and in some cases still are world-class hard, calculating, ruthless survivors. Many of them had barrels full of blood on their hands. They chose what was for them, the least of the bad choices: painful, systemic, economic change.

By any index, North Korea is a failed socialist state. We need only measure the comparative achievements of its brethren in the South to see what North Korea could accomplish if it were to be reunited with the South Korea as one country driven by an open-market economy.

The Depressing Legacy of Kim Inc.

Data Summary [5]
Country                                                                      North Korea               South Korea
Infant Mortality Rate, per 1000 live births             26.21                                4.08
Life Expectancy at birth (total population)             69.2                                  79.3
Internet users per 100 people                                     < 0.1                                 81.5
Exports, $ billion (U.S. currency)                              4.71                                  552.6
Imports, $ billion (U.S. currency)                              4.00                                 514.2
Net official development assistance (ODA)
and official aid (U.S. currency)                           – $8,842,000               + $69,070,000

Kim I and Kim II have created a horrific legacy for their countrymen. They have succeeded in doing something that, without their guns and obscene prisons, would have been thought to be almost impossible. As the metrics demonstrate, and as anyone in the United States who lives in a neighborhood blessed with a large South Korean population can attest, you have to work very hard to make most Koreans poor. Kim Inc. has managed to make most of the citizens of North Korea poor.

North Koreans and South Koreans are one people. Today, they are unfortunately and artificially divided into two countries. Intellectually, linguistically, and culturally, they are the same. Innately, they share the same positive family values, aspirations, and work ethic. They will surely come together. Hopefully it will happen sooner than later. When they do, 75 million Koreans, along with the rest of the world, will celebrate. And the world will be a better place.

He Who Travels Learns

The Gypsies got it right. Given an opportunity, they would get a lot of things right. Not only can we learn new lessons from AT, but also re-learn some of the vital lessons that we absorbed long ago, and with the passage of time, faded from our memory banks.

Some of those lessons are still so important that they are worth re-learning. We re-learn the importance of our universal languages that have no relationship to the different tongues we are all taught to read and write in our childhoods. Music and dance are universal languages. Laughter is a universal language. So too, is sorrow. And let us not forget prayer.

North Koreans love to sing, dance, and laugh. They weep when the same tragedies strike them that make the rest of us cry. Given half of a chance they would pray the way we do. Perhaps not to the same gods, but pray they would, and for the same things the rest of us pray for.

Final Observations

Adventure Travel is a wonderful way to escape. Most of us live lives where, in order to make our livings, we must endure a goodly amount of repetitious drudgery. In return, every so often, we may be fortunate enough to experience an extraordinary moment. The kind of moment that the kind nebbishes[6] like me can only fantasize about, but do not expect, that anything special will ever happen to us.

For a short time, Adventure Travel allows us the possibility of becoming someone else––someone who we would prefer to be. Tall, elegant, urbane, athletic, witty, devastatingly handsome, somewhat dangerous, and certainly, irresistible to beautiful women. Why not? And, if one of the moments were, perchance, to occur on an AT trip, we would never forget that which once upon a time it happened to us. And no one can ever take it away from us. It’s ours forever. Maybe that’s why we do it.

I still get excited whenever I get on an airplane. I don’t care where it is going. If the plane is going to a place like Tashkent, Ulan Bator, Katmandu or Timbuktu, I begin to vibrate. I ask myself, “Alan, do you know where you are going? And what you are going to do when you get there?

In fact, I still love airline food. It is the last of my obsessive perversions. If I haven’t had an airline meal in a long time, I drive down to the United Airlines Commissary at Newark Airport, pick up a First Class Hawaiian Chicken Dinner, and bring it home. I go back to my big Lay-Z-Boy chair and wait. Hanna puts on her Continental Airlines Cabin Attendants’ uniform (a Chanukah present, 2005). She nukes the chicken, and with her dazzling smile brings it back to me. That’s all I need to make me feel important again. That’s all I need to make me happy.

I do so miss the observation platform at Idlewild Airport. And the pretty Brooklyn girls I took there, once upon a time, long, long ago.

[1] The formal name of the country is an interesting set of contradictions. On the bell curve of Democratic Republics, North Korea is out at the very end of the third standard deviation. It is governed by a very small group of people for their own benefit. All the other people work for them. It occupies about 50% of the Korean peninsula.
[2] When referring to South Korea, as a sign of its disrespect and non-recognition, the North Korea press limits itself to the use of a lower case “s” instead of using the capitalized word “South.”
[3] Source: The Guardian Data Blog
[4] Source: North Korea, a country study; pub: The Library of Congress
[5] Source: North Korea Economy Watch
[6] A nebbish is a Jewish Nerd