From chapter 15 of the memoir Compass Points

Neil Plimmer (centre) with the PATA North Korean task force, beside the captured prize, the uss Pueblo, Pyongyang, DPRK, 2003

PATA Tourism Task Force

Rather more dramatically, I had a call from the PATA head office in Bangkok: North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, was wishing to open up to more tourism and had asked PATA to send a cross-disciplinary task force to view its attractions and report on how best to do this. Would I lead the task force? Of course, but then it was stalled with the negotiations between that government and PATA going on for ages. Finally it took place in late 2003.

I had to fly to Beijing, then to Pyongyang on Air Koryo on an old Ilyushin. The interior was from another age, brown with lace doilies over the back of each seat, but the flight seemed safe enough. I was well searched on arrival and had my cellphone taken with the promise that it would be handed back on departure. I was allowed to keep my camera. And then was taken to a most impressive-looking high-rise hotel, the Yanggakdo of over 50 storeys and 1000 rooms, on an island in the river running through Pyongyang where we stayed for most of the time.

Pyongyang has numerous skyscrapers built in the 1950s and ’60s, and some very large marble museums and other public buildings. Situated on wide tree-lined boulevards, these gave the city a superficial air of normalcy and even prosperity. But it took only a short while to scratch the surface — the traffic was remarkably thin; the highest of the skyscrapers was unfinished and had clearly been sitting there deteriorating for many years; the people, numerous only during the daily commutes, in monotonous uniform dress.

Our hotel had a fair enough ground floor and reception, and a pleasant dining room that served a single but adequate breakfast. I soon realised however that nearly all the floors were empty. I and the others of the team were somewhere around Level 48 with large bedrooms and bathrooms. But once I pushed the stop button in the lift at a random floor, maybe 35, and found a couple of maids ironing sheets spread out over the carpet in the lift lobby. The corridors behind them were dark and empty. The maids almost screamed in horror when they saw me and fled, as in a sense did I, quickly stepping back into the lift and continuing down. Only a tiny fraction of the hotel was functioning.

Once we were left at a souvenir shop and one of the adventurous team members raced into an apartment block next door, ran down a couple of corridors and then back to the shop before he was missed. He reported that the apartment doors were open and most of them were bare, with a tiny light-bulb and a couple of pieces of plastic furniture. We came to feel that the place was unreal, with the outside air of normalcy disguising an appalling poverty just beneath the surface. Once in the countryside our bus had to stop at a train crossing closer to a village than we would otherwise see, and the impoverishment there was even worse — houses with earth surfaces and plastic sheets over some windows.

I was given freedom to go jogging every morning, which I did without obvious company, exploring the neatly planted island, and crossing one of the bridges for a short venture into nearby parts of the city. Outside of the island we were accompanied on organised trips by an official guide. Once we were able to get ourselves onto the underground rail service and found this a bit like the hotel: the first two stops were at fancy stations like those in Moscow with chandeliers and other finery, but after that the stations were depressingly dark and run-down, not that we could go far. We had to be very careful about what we photographed, checking with the guide at each point and being told no if the building or site had any possible strategic relevance, such as the outside of the central railway station. Three days in, one of the party called the country ‘surreal’, and that stuck.

A reassuring incident, showing that in some ways things are the same the world over, happened one afternoon when we were taken to a large centre — perhaps it was the Children’s Palace — to see some sort of show. We were seated in the middle of a large auditorium, with plenty of seats empty around us, while the rest of the audience, mainly children, sat in the side sections. As soon as the lights dimmed many of the children quickly changed seats, racing to get into the vacant central seats, and squirming with pleasure at their success. It was the only and surprising show of anything approaching ill-discipline I saw the whole time, and deduced that the children present must all be from families of the ruling elite.

Our permanent guide was an agreeable young man totally fluent in English and capable of presenting everything we saw in a reasonable light. But at various institutions we were handed over to a specialist escort and these gave us a fuller exposure of North Korea’s view of the world. At one museum we were told in detail how the South had provoked and caused the Korean War, and at another we had the sins of the (USS) Pueblo spelt out in a farfetched story. It was always a moot point whether to challenge them on their history, but on the whole we let it wash over. We were taken to various other parts of the country on day trips and once an overnight outing. Memorable was the museum of the first leader Kim Il Sung, which filled a huge underground cavern. Every gift he had received, such as a plaque from, say, the New Zealand Communist Party, was carefully recorded and displayed. It was intended to show his global acceptance but in some ways revealed the opposite. The historic town of Kaesong had some gems and nearby we went to Panmunjom Village at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), an extraordinary experience to see it from the other side.

Twice we were exposed to the tougher side of the DPRK. Once we were returning to Pyongyang from a country outing and the guide stopped the bus to view a lake. But in the far distance was a building with a launch anchored alongside. Military guards appeared from nowhere and an intense shouting match ensued. It transpired that it was one of the residences of the Great Leader. I genuinely felt the guide was at risk of being marched off to prison or worse for stopping in sight of it, but an intervention from us would have made things worse. We sat it out and in the end were allowed to proceed with the guard on board. That guide will not stop there again when escorting visitors or under any other circumstances.

The second happened while we were overlooking the DMZ. The background to this was that at the time there were some embargoes on North Korean ship movements and Australia had intercepted one of their ships somewhere off the coast of Queensland. A North Korean guard came up to two of us standing together and raged about foreigners violating the DPRK’s sovereign rights, appearing to believe we were Australians and in some way responsible. He certainly had pent-up anger to release. We feigned total ignorance and in the end that too concluded without getting worse.

But most of the time we were well looked after. The food in the restaurants was good enough, although sometimes we were the only people present. We certainly felt safe under normal conditions and concluded there was no reason why overseas visitors should not have a worthwhile and pleasant enough stay. We found one small group of tourists in Pyongyang, from Singapore, and asked them why they had come. Their answer was: ‘Since the fall of Albania this is the last Stalinist state left on earth, and we wanted to see what it was like before it falls.’ It was a valid reason, and we all had something like that in mind ourselves in accepting the assignment, but it was not an approach we could put in our report: ‘Recommendation One — DPRK should promote itself as the last surviving Stalinist state, come see us while we are still around.’ Our report did say that tourism could be promoted with the country as it is, but also we recommended areas for investment and improvement. These ranged from liberalising aviation policy, to permitting some overseas investment in international hotel chains, to making it easier for foreigners to get entry permits, to exploring joint marketing with South Korea! We never heard a word back from the North Korean officials after the report was submitted, but I still have warm memories of them and their country.

It is inevitable that North Korea will have to change over time, but this must come about from internal momentum. The regime locking its people away from modernisation cannot go on forever. Perhaps the West can foster this by soft power means, the way Radio Free Europe infiltrated Eastern Europe over many years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The worst the West could do would be to try and impose regime change by military intervention, even with the excuse of North Korea developing nuclear weapons. We can only hope it, and the United States in particular, has learnt from its failures in Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere.