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Traveling in the North Country

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By Greg Larson

Each year, a limited number of tourists are allowed to visit North Korea, the most isolated nation on earth. All tours are highly scripted and follow a similar pattern. Tourists are only allowed to visit a limited number of preapproved sites. Most days you are confined to the bus; government minders accompany tour groups everywhere and dictate everything, corralling you through tightly circumscribed itineraries. Our tour was coordinated by a travel agency in Beijing. Leading up to the trip, the agency sent our group, composed of 15 students, informational PDFs that read like inverted Miranda rights. "Foreign visitors to North Korea may be arrested, detained, or expelled for activities that would not be considered criminal in any other country." Prohibitions included straying from the group, practicing religion, and interaction with the local population.

After flying into Pyongyang, we spent a couple days on the east coast, touring factories and schools and statues of the Kims, then headed back to the capital. The drive was supposed to be a long one, so I snagged a window seat. But for three hours, all we passed were rice paddies. Every once in a while, through a crack in distant hills, I got a peek at a village. But otherwise, the road was an endless green loop, broken up every few miles by farmers crouching in the shin-high water in clusters of ten or twenty.

I turned to Mary, our student leader on the trip. Mary was the only fluent Korean speaker in our group, and was able to understand the guides. Throughout the trip, Mary could be relied on to provide much-needed insights as to what the hell was going on at any given moment.

"Sort of remarkable," I said to Mary. "All the farming."

She looked at me for a few seconds.

"Drinking the Kool-Aid, are we?" she asked.

I gestured to the green fields outside our bus, extending to the horizons on both sides. "You have to admit, this is a lot of rice farming."

Mary was about to speak, but then glanced at Mr. Lee and said she'd talk to me later. I understood; anything even slightly anti-North Korean couldn't be uttered within earshot of our guides. It had become obvious that their main professional duty on the trip was to extract as much information about us as possible. Each of us was at some point subjected to a brief "hangout session" with one of them, during which they'd casually ask personal questions -- about our family backgrounds, our finances, and whether we would ever consider a career with the United States government.

At the next bathroom break, Mary pulled me aside to talk about the rice paddies. She said she thought they were mostly all for show. She thought our drive along the farm-lined highways was designed precisely for tourism -- proof that North Korea wasn't starving.

All the farmland in North Korea is government owned -- each grain of rice is state property. Any crops produced along the highways would be transported to Pyongyang and put into the nationalized Public Distribution System (the same system that has failed to provide food for the majority of the country since the mid-1990s). The military, of course, gets the first cut. Rations are calibrated by rank and status based on North Korea's social-class system, which categorizes family lineage by loyalty to the state along three main levels: the core class, the wavering class, and the hostile class. Peasant farmers are near the bottom of that pyramid, and their rations are almost never enough. Most people have private (and technically illegal) gardens to supplement their family food supplies.

I looked out at a watery field. Across the paddy was a group of shirtless farmers, the ribs on their crouching torsos visible from a football field away.

"Sure, they're growing rice," Mary said. "But do the people look fed? So, where does it go? Who is eating all the rice?"

We, for starters, were eating some of it. Over the course of the week, we had all varieties of Korean barbecue -- platters of thinly sliced meat grilled over charcoal, or over gas grills, or on our own personal hot stones. With every meal we drank from bottomless glasses of Taedonggang, North Korea's state-owned beer.

In 2011, North Korea increased its imports of Chinese "luxury food items" -- including about $500,000 worth of high-grade beef, apparently for lavish meals that Kim Jong-il used to maintain support among the power elite. My hunch, though, is that some of that luxury food is diverted to the tourist sector. On one of our last nights in the DPRK, we had a traditional Korean dinner of a dozen panchan served in individual bowls. Under brass lids we found pork sausage, french fries, honey cake, fried morsels of beef, and four or five types of fried vegetables.

But by the end of the week our group was a tired mess. All of us were sick -- some physically, all psychically. Taking photos of funny Communist billboards grew boring. Some of the more patriotic Americans in our group had grown hostile toward the entire notion of North Korea -- like my roommate, a former Army Ranger who had lost his leg in Iraq, and had hid his military service from the DPRK government. (When a guide pointed to his prosthetic and asked him what happened, he told a long and impressively detailed story about how his leg was chewed off by a bear in Alaska.) We all couldn't wait to get home. Visiting North Korea is a lot like undergoing sensory-deprivation treatment; you emerge a changed person, but with zero hold on reality.

As our Air Koryo flight took off, Beijing bound, none of us looked out the windows for one last view of the country. Our minds were migrating back; across the aisle from me, a guy was already playing Angry Birds.

I pulled out a Kit Kat from my carry-on and started daydreaming about dinner in Beijing. Harry had spent the entire week raving about a Middle Eastern restaurant he'd found, located somewhere near Tiananmen Square. "Best hummus in Asia," Harry had said. "Cheap food, good belly dancers."

Middle Eastern food in China -- I luxuriated in the thought. It was a nice feeling: to crave something. North Korea had dulled our appetites and sapped our spirits, and now Beijing would redeliver our stomachs to the world of food freedom. Americans have come to expect this as an inalienable right: to eat what you want and as much as you want, when and where you want it. The freedom to diet, the freedom to get fat.

This excerpt comes from the seventh issue of Lucky Peach, the Travel Issue, which hits newsstands today. If you loved this -- or even just strongly liked it -- why not subscribe to the magazine? At least visit our website or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Greg Larson is the former director of the VAD Foundation, a small nonprofit founded by Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers that builds schools in South Sudan. He is currently a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.