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Richard Walden Headshot

My Miserable Week in North Korea as a VIP Guest

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After 10 years of on again, off again invitations by North Korea's United Nations delegation and after a highly publicized (via a Huffington Post blog) "non-public visit" by North Korean Foreign Ministry officials to Los Angeles in 2010, I went to Pyongyang in December of that year to follow up on a donation of medicines to two major hospitals and to evaluate whether a nation which watched 2 million of its most vulnerable citizens die in a several years-long famine was willing to accept humanitarian aid on terms the rest of the civilized world would consider routine and responsible.

I went to North Korea at a time when just seven U.S. groups routinely worked in North Korea -- five of them evangelical Christian and long active on the Korean peninsula, and two which were actually funded by the U.S. government's foreign aid program. Some United Nations humanitarian agencies are there but still other NGOs (like Medecins Sans Frontiers' French chapter) have come and later left in public disgust at the lack of access to the people of North Korea and the stultifying oversight their staffs face from security officials. Not for nothing is this place called The Hermit Kingdom.

After more than 30 years of humanitarian aid operations in some of the world's most dangerous and/or autocratically-run places, I felt that it was at least worth a try to see what access an international NGO could have to people in need. No one I asked wanted to come with me on this trip -- a first-ever occurrence.

I was met at Pyongyang Airport by a humorless demand for my laptop and cell phone which would be kept "safe" and given back to me on my departure (no doubt after everything in them was downloaded, hence my having earlier left them in a hotel safe in Beijing before flying to North Korea). One of the church groups operating there advised that I bring in cigarettes and chocolates as a thank you to my "helpers" at the end of my stay. (I usually prefer stealthily-imported copies of "Playboy", folded over to the articles pages, which in most places is better than the basketball autographed by Michael Jordan given by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il when she went there during the Clinton administration -- which probably led to the messy and embarrassing Dennis Rodman visit to North Korea at the invitation of Kim Jong-Un).

I had asked for one of Pyongyang's "better" hotels but I was told that, instead, I was going to stay at a VIP guest house -- which turned out to be a roughly 10,000 sq ft, 10+ bedroom mansion with a large (empty) mosaic tiled indoor pool and two inoperable bowling lanes on the outskirts of Pyongyang and isolated next to a lake on a well-guarded road. Other than the ambassador of Brazil, his private chef and two somewhat furtive Americans working for a U.S. government-funded consulting firm, no other guests were in residence. My "crew" of driver, interpreter and representative of a host ministry were decamped in basement rooms at the guest house -- to their apparent delight as food there was no doubt far more plentiful and fresh than they experienced at home.

When I asked about the heavy metal gate leading into a small hill behind the house, I was told it was a bomb shelter built long ago in case of war. An official said he believed it ran into a network of other such shelters running for 28 miles and very deep under the surface to the Port of Nanpo. He seemed proud at the magnitude of the engineering feat so the elite could escape in the event they launched a war which would inevitably lead to everyone else's destruction.

The morning after my arrival I was taken to the two hospitals which received the medicines we sent to North Korea via Beijing. The doctors, none of whom spoke English, reportedly said the medicines were just what they needed and requested more of the same. They showed me written records of the distribution to date of the pharmaceuticals we sent. They seemed no different from their colleagues in the 100 countries where Operation USA has worked over 34 years... the walls of the two hospitals were festooned with photos of the "Kim" Family leaders, much like other countries' iconographies running from Lenin or Chairman Mao or Simon Bolivar or Jesus, for that matter.

(Fascinating Note: there are no U.S. government travel restrictions on Americans travelling to North Korea like those imposed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury for travel to Cuba -- since visitors visas granted by North Korea are quite rare and it's not exactly Shangri-La "in season" and this was a December visit and bitterly cold. American relief groups can send food and medicine but not equipment without a required U.S. Commerce Department license under the Trading With The Enemy Act.)

I asked for permission to visit rural hospitals and clinics to do a "needs assessment" but was denied by the Health Ministry despite my having explicitly asked to visit these types of facilities long in advance of my trip. Instead, I was handed a tourism itinerary for the remainder of my stay which included a trip to a snow-bound mountainous area which is apparently quite beautiful, a library, the very tall Juche ("self reliance") Tower, and a "compulsory opportunity" to pay for expensive lunches, dinners and a karaoke night with officials of my host ministry.

I managed to avoid some but not all of those and remembered a decade-old magazine article by a well-known China scholar, Orville Schell, about how he avoided a similar fate on his visit to Pyongyang. He wrote that there was a huge, unmarked and until-then unreported-on VIP complex in Pyongyang which magically had a fresh food market, liquor store, restaurants, bars, a barber shop and a bowling alley with illegally exported U.S.-made bowling equipment. Orville Schell avoided getting his "Kim Jong-Il pompadour" haircut (his excuse for going somewhere outside his China-based tour group's itinerary) and instead found the bowling alley where he was able to have his only "free" conversations (in English and his own fluent Chinese) with the VIP elites or their kids then using the bowling lanes.

Surprisingly, my hosts agreed to the visit even though none of them had ever been there. While Orville Schell's excuse was needing a haircut which his hotel in town did not provide and they surprised him by taking him to the VIP complex, I mentioned trying out for a bowling team in Los Angeles and in desperate need of some practice time "if they had a bowling alley in town" since the guest house's two bowling lanes were not working. Of the 40-plus modern bowling lanes, only 15 were occupied that afternoon and they were being used by North Korea's International Bowling Team (!), some of whose members spoke a bit of English. I took the next lane adjacent to the team and rolled a strike on my first ball (that was their "Michael Jordan" experience and generated the North Korean version of "Wassup, Dude? Where you from?"). That led to a relatively open conversation about their lives, but these people were well travelled in bowling-crazed Asia and very lucky indeed.

Instead of the mandatory National Library visit, I asked to visit their philharmonic orchestra rehearsal as my young son (then 13) is a classical and jazz cellist. They have a very impressive concert hall in Pyongyang and, from what I witnessed along with a few members of the foreign diplomatic community, a world class orchestra.

I would be remiss if I did not describe the karaoke night I was required to host at the guest house. Since the place was isolated and I had humiliated myself and my former travelling companions by attempting to sing a Motown song in Lhasa, Tibet at a banquet in our honor many years earlier, I asked just who would be singing that night since there were only 4 other guests and no apparent professional entertainment in residence. They trotted out the hitherto nearly invisible cadre of house maids and waitresses all dressed to kill and in great voice (at least in Korean; and funny as hell when they attempted singing along in English). The $300+ bill for very few rounds of drinks was not amusing (nor was the thousands more they billed for my car, gas, the driver, the interpreter, a ministry official, my very basic but large guest house room, and various other charges for their "VIP").

All musings aside, the challenge for a humanitarian relief group (as opposed to a government aid contractor following U.S. government policy which so many brand name U.S. nonprofit aid groups have become) is to ask just how effective we could be rendering aid to so tightly controlled a state. The groups which tried and left North Korea mostly report that they had no meaningful access to the people they wanted to help, even in so massive a famine as the one which may have cost two million Koreans their lives. Add to this the recent change in "Kims" to Kim Jong-Un and his aunt and uncle who serve as "regents" in real charge of parts of his government and any famine relief we give may well wind up as war relief.

Here's what I think:

1. I hope the U.S. tells the Chinese and Russian governments that they are far more important to U.S. interests and even to South Korean and Japanese interests than is the survival of the dangerous-if-comical North Korean state. Accordingly and as a manifestation of how important China and Russia are to us, we will give them 24 hours notice to clear their diplomats and business people out of Pyongyang, Nanpo and other major cities if we feel to a high degree of certainty that there will be a North Korean precursor military action (like the now-threatened launch over Japanese airspace of a multi-stage missile or the detection of large-scale preparatory activity inside the North's many -- and U.S.-mapped with sophisticated ground penetrating radar and with seismometers and explosive charges to collapse them -- giant troop and tank tunnels under the Korean DMZ).

2. The U.S. is likely (or at least I expect so) to have long-since planned a massive military strike on the North in keeping with General Colin Powell's doctrine of overwhelming an enemy quickly and with finality.

3. This isn't to approve of taking any lives unnecessarily but to stimulate Chinese and Russian actions to get rid of the current North Korean leadership and start the non-military re-unification of the Korean Peninsula, which itself will require profound changes on the South Korean side as well.

4. We don't need another trillion dollar American financed war and thousands of dead, wounded or traumatized young Americans; but the cost of peace may be nearly as expensive (and hopefully more spread out among several advanced nations who can and should pay for it).

5. If the real Michael Jordan could make this all go away, that would be the best of all.