06/18/2012 05:14 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

My North Korean Magical Mystery Tour: How I Joined The Circus (PHOTOS)

This is the second post in a series on my trip to North Korea

The plane is new. It smells like plastic shoes. The man sitting next to me is a North Korean. Stocky, fairly tall, and most importantly, able to travel, he is one of the privileged ones. He took off his suit jacket so I can't see the lapel pin--one Kim or two, the mark of status and loyalty.

He is reading a North Korean paper. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a half page color photo of the baby faced Kim Jong Un with his too-short military haircut and adolescent pout. The man with the newspaper puts a pudgy hand to his mouth and delicately chews a nail. I feel an odd affection for him. It's not the act of someone in complete control.

He turns the page. I see photos of military men arranged in rows, side by side, as in a high school yearbook. Their faces are ugly -- cadaverous, but with thick, rubbery skin and pinhole eyes. The flight attendants -- lovely women in bright red suits hand out English language "newspapers" with stories like "World Demands South Korean Authorities Make an Apology."

Suddenly, loud music, part military march, part circus screamer fills the cabin. I keep looking around for something to happen, but nothing does. Then, just as suddenly, someone turns it off. They serve us a meal neatly arranged in plastic squares and an aluminum rectangle. The hot dish is white rice and gelatinous orange glue with what looks like a few pieces of fish tossed in. There is a fruit cocktail with a toxic red maraschino cherry and a slice of homogenized ham with pickle and a roll. The man eats everything except the pickle. I feel guilty for not eating more.

I take a picture of my North Korean visa. I've been warned that the authorities will confiscate it upon arrival. My passport will not be stamped either. I can take in my computer, but J., our guide, has informed me that, if asked, I should assure the authorities that "no, my Mac Book Pro does not have Internet capabilities." Turning on my computer in the hotel that first night in Pyongyang, I glance fearfully at the Wi-Fi bars. I'm not sure what I would do if I actually had a signal.

We arrive in Pyongyang in the early evening. The airport sits in the middle of farmland that is still tilled by oxen-pulled plow. It does not register yet that every available bit of land is terraced for growing. We know about the famine, of course, and, the prison camps in which, according to Human Rights Watch, over 200,000 people are interred. The soldiers that stamp our passports look like children playing dress up. The crowns of their officers' hats are flat and cartoonishly large. They sit at low desks fronted by a glass screen. In an odd reversal of authority, we, big Americans and Europeans, look down upon them.

After clearing immigration, we get on the newish green tour bus. The logistics of leaving are slightly madcap. It seems the North Koreans are not prepared to deal with the large influx of visitors here for centenary of the Great Leader's birth. The woman who wraps my cell phone in thick yellow paper and scotch tape turns out to be our local guide, Miss Choi.

Miss Choi wears prim Jackie O suits (she owns two it seems) and pumps and her hair back in a ponytail. I imagine her starring in a '50s T.V. show "Our Miss Choi" where she plays an unflappable and strict but loving school teacher who is taking her errant students on a field trip around Pyongyang.

There are two other men who sit among us and chat in varying degrees of English. They are vaguely explained as "guides in training" but it soon becomes clear that they are our keepers. If anyone starts to wander off, Mr. Park or Mr. Kim is immediately there to lead them back. Mr. Park is young and slim and shy. Dressed in a black trench coat and black wingtips, he looks like a cold war FBI agent. Mr. Kim is older. He sports a slight bouffant hair-do and his suit is always rumpled. I wonder if he sleeps in his clothes.

The first thing I notice is that there are no cars. A pedestrian could walk down the middle of this four-lane highway and not get hit. Occasionally I see a military dump truck packed with soldiers. There are a few people on bicycles who have apparently been instructed to keep to the grassy shoulder, but most are walking. It is remarkable, actually, since there do not seem to be any towns or villages for miles. Nearer to Pyongyang I see a few more vehicles, mostly unrecognizable put-puts from China, but, occasionally, a large American SUV or a Mercedes sedan with darkened windows driven by a young soldier.

A Look at North Korea