09/11/2012 12:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Will The Beatles Will Destroy The DPRK?

This is the fifth entry in a series on my trip to North Korea

The number and opulence of public buildings in the DPRK is remarkable. We go to the Grand People's Study Hall, a massive conglomeration of Chinese style buildings on a hill. Public buildings are not heated in Pyongyang. All that marble makes the interiors arctic. We learn to take our coats with us.

The guide leads us through a maze of nearly vacant reading rooms, a computer room (no Internet) and other study areas. Each space is invariably watched over by the twin images of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il. There are plants everywhere and flowers, fake and real. To find them in such an august setting is an unexpected delight.

The Grand People's Study Hall

Our last stop is the music room where CDs and cassettes can be checked out. Someone has set up a boom box. The Beatles: "Drive My Car" then "Eleanor Rigby" and finally "Yellow Submarine" blast from the speakers. It is a complete set-up; there's not a local in sight.

But it is also a moment of pure pleasure. I feel as if I'm hearing rock-and-roll -- all the promise of teenage sex and rebellion -- for the first time. We are all smiling like crazy. Even under the stern gaze of the Great Leaders, it feels like at any moment we might start to dance.

Sex is nowhere apparent in North Korea. Women's clothes are modestly cut and almost always some shade of brown or black or gray or navy. Occasionally you see a spot of color -- pink or red -- usually on a child. Since there are no advertisements apart from propaganda, there is a general dearth of scantily clad women selling things. Then you notice the shoes.

The first time I notice them is at the shooting range. We sit in rows of molded yellow plastic chairs, the type you find in an airport lounge. At the front of the room is a glass partition like the tellers windows at a bank. Above these are TV monitors with grainy green surveillance images of the targets inside.

Beyond the glass partition is a dimly lit room painted forest green. Six targets -- the standard humanoid shadow with bullseyes around the heart and brain -- hang from the ceiling. It costs €2 per person to shoot. The shooting gallery attendants, female soldiers in olive pantsuits with red stars on the breast pocket, wear lots of make-up and giggle, but they load rifles like they're putting cakes in the oven. It's fun to watch this reversal of gender roles: tiny women helping huge men shoot guns.

A soldier at the shooting gallery in Pyongyang

Suddenly, something catches my eye. From under the hem of a soldier's trouser, a black feather peeks out. It's not just one feather, it's a whole bouquet of them, and they're attached to shoes, and not just any shoes, open-toed sandals with a three-inch heel. After this, I see "The Shoes" -- patent leather pumps, platforms with sequins, even a pair or two of lace up go-go boots -- everywhere. I point them out to my fellow travelers. "Those," I say, "will be the end of the DPRK." Afterall, life really comes down to sex and death. Like all dictatorships, the North Koreans have the death part down. Desire, as Orwell knew, is less easily controlled.

In the viewing area we sit in the plastic chairs and watch the hits come up on the monitors. I want to see how well the young fascist does. I am relieved when he gets a 6.4/10. At least I know he's not a serial killer. The boyish J., a six-foot-four joker from Holland, asks me to take a picture of him firing a pistol. I can barely manage to hold the camera still. The noise is physically unbearable.

After everyone has taken a shot, two men in civilian clothes bring in a box with holes poked in the top. I retreat to the back. I know what is about to happen, and I don't want to be part of it. Inside the box are two live pheasants. The men take one into the shooting range. R., a psychology professor from Brooklyn, holds the other in his arms. For some reason, it sits amazingly still for him. I come over and pet the bird. It looks terrified, its black eye searching. The feathers are exquisite: caramel and dark green, scarlet and indigo. The crackle of gunfire startles us. The bird flies, but there is nowhere to go. It scrambles around on the floor until the man grabs it by the neck and flings it back into the box.

Lipstick Diplomacy
On the day of Kim il-Sung's birthday, our minders keep us away from the festivities. As thousands gather in the main square, they shuttle us to a children's performance at an old-fashioned amusement park. As we go through the gates, we see a hundred holidaymaking locals waiting to be admitted once we leave. Disappointed and dismayed -- we'd been promised access to the parade -- we shuffle off the bus. Then, an amazing thing happens. Allowed to wander, we experience an elating sense of freedom. Though the rides are still closed, there is a carnival atmosphere. We range through the park like dogs off a leash.

At the amusement park

I do not watch the performance. Instead, I snap ethereal photos with my Fuji Instamatic. I often travel with it so I can offer photographs on the spot. A few Korean families are picnicking on the grounds. When I motion that I want to take a picture, they refuse. At first I think they don't understand, then I realize that a photo is evidence of interaction with a foreigner, something they might one day have to explain. I offer them candy instead.


I consciously decided to bring American chocolate, Ghirardelli from San Francisco. This and red Revlon lipstick are my weapons of diplomacy. Each day, I leave a few stacked like a make-shift stupa on the T.V. hoping that the cleaning ladies will realize they are presents and not merely left behind. Sometimes I include a smiley face -- the universal symbol for happiness -- scribbled on paper ripped from my journal since there is no stationary in the hotel room.

Halfway through dinner that night, our Western tour guide J. tells us that the fireworks have started for the birthday celebration. We are not allowed anywhere near the square, but the tour bus can take us close to an overpass where we will get a partial view. We move as a group en mass through the unlit street. Sometimes the fireworks do not rise above the buildings. It looks like the invasion of Baghdad with bombs going off in the distance.

Freedom is always dangerous. But, here, we are acutely aware of it. With our keepers nowhere in sight, we have become rebels. I think we would walk to the square even if they told us to stop. Synchronized starbursts of red, green, white and blue illuminate the way. Then suddenly Mr. P. is in front of us screaming "Get back on the bus, get back on the bus!" There is genuine desperation in his voice.

We like him, we don't want him to get into trouble, so we trundle back obediently. Once we are seated, Miss Choi appears at the front, patting her hair, straightening her skirt. She is out of breath but composes herself instantly, "OK, fireworks all finished now," she informs us with a smile.