PYONGYANG — In the Beijing airport, as I was preparing to fly to North Korea, you could practically smell the communism. Traders were checking large, beat-up bags of household items. A family was buying a large appliance in the duty-free shop.
The North Koreans were easily identifiable: They were required to wear buttons with portraits of the great leaders: Kim Jong-un's father and grandfathers. It was also clear that the North Koreans we traveled with were VIPs, for as soon as we arrived in Pyongyang, they were whisked away by an official while the rest of us — a bunch of foreigners, a dance group and a few business people — waited in line for the inspection and registration.
All of the travelers had to declare each and every piece of technology we brought into the country. Foreign SIM-cards are worthless in North Korea. Only foreigners are allowed to make overseas calls, and those have to be made from a special cubicle at the hotel and cost about 10 euros per minute. It's possible to send emails, but the process resembles the old way of sending telegrams: You write the text, in English or Korean, on a piece of paper at an official center, then someone else sends your email. The answer is delivered in a similar way. No one is permitted to go on the Internet.
Judging by the type of inspection on the border, another main goal is to prevent people from bringing in anything that resembles pornography or any film that shows that peoples' lives in the rest of the world — especially in South Korea — don't conform to what the official propaganda depicts.
On the plane, passengers got a glossy magazine called "Korea" in various languages. Every half hour the video screens showed a military choir singing about heroes and victory. Soon you discover that, no matter where you go in North Korea, there will be monitors and public televisions showing those same military shows and army concerts, all of which sing the praises of Kim Jong-un. Often, the shows highlight Kim carrying on a tradition started by his grandfather of "leading in place," where Kim goes to factories or military outposts to personally participate in events like "personally experiencing a plane prepared by the North Korean working class."
In both his hyperactivity and his universality, Kim Jong-un has surpassed both his father and his grandfather. His father, for example, visited 7400 sites over the course of around two decades. But the current leader goes further, hugging children, launching rockets himself, visiting hospitals and farms. The young Kim is presented as a master of all trades, and failing to listen to his suggestions can be disastrous. Rumor has it that the architect of the recently opened airport in Pyongyang paid with his life for failing to follow Kim's "recommendations." But like so many things in North Korea, no one is quite sure if the rumor is true, and verification is impossible.
City of contrasts
The airport seems modern, so do the buildings on the way to the city. But on second look, the high-rise apartment buildings aren't actually built to be lived in: It's like the set on a movie, built for the eyes of international visitors. Then there's the symbol of Pyongyang, a hotel in the shape of a rocket. Construction started on the hotel 25 years ago, and millions of dollars later, it's still not done.
It's all rather nice to look at as long as you're driving on the street, and don't stop. Nighttime can feel ominous, as there tends to be one dim light on in the center of an apartment. And that's in the center of Pyongyang — elsewhere, there's no electricity. As such there are 35-story buildings with no elevators.
The streets and the public squares in the city center resemble a Hollywood movie about the Soviet Union. There really are columns of students and soldiers marching through the streets, like in the USSR in the 1930s. Even the watchmen on the streets wear the same white jumpsuits as they did in Moscow back then.
One of the traffic policemen dressed in white makes a show of stopping traffic to let some important person's limousine pass. It's a useless show, since there are basically no other cars on the road.
Foreign currency and laughs
Visitors in North Korea are primarily a source of foreign currency. They are forbidden to convert their money to North Korean wons, and must pay for everything in dollars, euros or Chinese yuans. Officially, 900 wons is worth around a dollar, but in practice, if you're buying something, the actual exchange rate is several times higher.
That makes it hard to know how much an average Korean actually spends on any individual good. Apparently miners make around 50,000 won per month, but a Chinese-made shirt also costs about 50,000 won.
Many items can only be bought with special permission, anyway, and big-ticket items likes cars and apartments are only available directly from the government. Some special categories of people have been able to purchase cars: the class of nouveau riche businessmen, show business stars and Koreans who have family in Japan. Generally speaking, the government tries not to touch people with family in Japan, so as not to lose a good source of foreign currency.
Paradoxically, propaganda is another source of much-desired foreign currency. A propaganda postcard costs a dollar, while a copy of a 1950s-era poster depicting Koreans annihilating American aggression goes for $25. Tourists laugh as they buy the poster, but one wonders whether the North Koreans understand just what is so funny.