Jack’s story (part 1)
What prompts a young guy and his friends to book a trip to North Korea I asked myself driving towards Suffolk? Are they a group of intellectuals going on some fact-finding tour in preparation for a collaborative joint thesis on the politics of the Secretive State, alternately are they simply “cool dudes” looking for a bit of adventure and like to live dangerously I mused. We all know the type; those guys who hang out in Newquay with a surf board, ridiculously good looking, super fit and are generally surrounded by groups of equally beautiful women, any one of which could get a part in Baywatch, or whatever it’s equivalent is today.
Jack Lewis turned out to be neither of these rather stereotypical generalisations, but fell somewhere between the two. Definitely closer to the “cool dude” than the geeky guys category, but upon meeting this laid back very personable young man, I suddenly imagined him transported back to Bletchley Park circa 1940, working in small groups attempting to crack the German Enigma code.
Originally from Suffolk, this tall, energetic tousled haired young man casually began to tell me about their decision to visit North Korea and his overall feelings of the country that many regard as the last outpost of Communism, led by a despotic Swiss educated kleptocrat who maintains a political system that has unnerving parallels with Orwell’s Animal Farm and other dystopian literature, such as Zamyatin’s WE and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
I began by asking Jack what was his motivation? In laconic style he informed me that after completing his BA degree in finance and with the pressure of university behind him, world travel was definitely on his agenda. Italy and the USA (taking in Las Vegas, naturally) were first on his list, then he decided upon Norway as his next adventure. I got the feeling that perhaps the land of Ibsen had stirred something in him and the beautiful yet slightly isolationist aspect of the landscape had been the prompt, perhaps even the darkness of Ibsen’s work, paralleling aspects of the Hermit State as it has become known, could be a more recondite reason. I pressed him on this point but, whilst he accepted the subliminal possibility he moved swiftly onto the substance of an article he happened across in the Mail on Sunday by Peter Hitchen, the well-renowned journalist and author.
Hitchen’s detailed piece was Jacks eureka moment, as how can such a place exist he wondered. On the surface a pariah on the world stage; belligerent, sealed to the outside world and with a political system most countries consigned to history long ago, yet apparently functions on many levels and its people are (on the surface) relatively happy. Jack immediately contacted two friends, and after some internet research discovered that a company called Koro Tours arrange an entire trip over five days to the capital Pyongyang with various tours included on a short but detailed itinerary. Simon Cockerall has been running Koro Tours for a number of years and has made a success from this unusual destination. So after making contact and arranging various visas, at a basic cost of £1500.00 he and his friends were ready to go.
Sometime in 2016 Jack along with his two buddies and a party of approximately twenty others landed at Beijing. After a long briefing on the strict codes of behaviour, edits and strictures of this isolated country they left for Pyongyang, capital of North Korea. Upon arrival at Sunan airport they were warmly greeted by smart, colourfully dressed and smiling young women and ushered into the modern and well-appointed airport, immediately moving to the internal customs area, and then a discernable change of mood.
The officials were stern faced and primarily seemed no different to any other customs officers who become tired at the antics of often foolish members of the travelling public who, despite the myriad of signs and warnings, still seem unable to observe the rules of travelling and cause endless hold-ups by falling to comply with basic rules of good behaviour and generally act gormless. However Jack and his two buddies are sharp and on the ball, and in the weeks leading up to their trip had read voraciously about the country they are about to visit. Nonetheless they all became slightly nervous when the customs officials demand they had over all electronic devices and warn them not to have concealed about their person any hidden cameras, as to do so will instigate immediate arrest and deportation. What they don’t mention, is that deportation will not take place contemporaneously, but after summary imprisonment and a media release that a UK citizen has been arrested trying to enter North Korea whilst deliberately subverting the regulations, and as such, could be held indefinitely. Thereby prompting the UK government to apologise, creating an immediate media coup for the xenophobic leadership.
Jack described to me in detail how, with a fervent zeal and a forensic like detail, the officials took each electronic device, plugged it into a reader and carefully studied the test results. He was unable to see from his vantage point the exact tests that were being undertaken, but they were obviously looking for applications that could be used to download and compress large amounts of data, cables accompanying their devices that unusually matched certain North Korean USB ports, high resolution cameras, and importantly, any application that could match the North Korean cell-phone system, more of which later. He told me that for a few moments, twelve seconds or perhaps a fraction longer, he lost sight of them as the customs officials moved behind their machines. Whether at this point some bugging device was downloaded into his and the others iPhones and iPods he was unsure, but they definitely appeared to have plugged something else into their phones. Without trying to move into the realms of storytelling, it is possible that a date sensitive (basically self-destructive) surreptitious and highly sophisticated hidden application was downloaded into their devices. Having written at length about the regime, personally I am convinced that this happened. Let’s be honest, if Mossad can crack the code to an iPhone and North Korean can routinely produce perfect counterfeit US dollar bills, then that is just another available tool that no doubt exists in the clandestine ether of the espionage business.
Eventually after passing all the stringent customs checks, Jack accompanied by his two friends and the rest of the party arrived by bus at the Yanggakdo Hotel. This is a showpiece building that sits squarely on a small island called Yanggak, thirty minutes to the south of Sunan airport and located directly in the centre of the Taedong River. He told me that a noticeable lighter mood shift was becoming evident. From the overtly sinister events with the customs officials, to an atmosphere of hearty enthusiasm boarding on the slightly sycophantic, as the hotel staff warmly welcomed their guests and generally made a genuine fuss of them. Each of their rooms were bright, contemporary and with all modern accoutrements. Perhaps obviously I had to enquire if he suspected the rooms had listening devices. Jack did not believe so, despite the intrusive inspections at the airport, he says that thought did not occur to him or his friends, but as any travelling diplomat knows, in an arena such as that, the possibility is an even-money bet.
The next morning began with a small breakfast; some opted for the traditional Kimchi, a dish that whist slightly jarring to the western pallet does have well renowned health benefits. Added to traditional Korean foods there was a variety of western alternatives on offer, as per any international hotel and they found it well prepared and presented in the open kitchen style. Having been introduced to their three tour guides, initially at the airport and then again at the hotel, all the party were left in no doubt as to how things would be conducted and what was expected of visitors. They were instructed that at no time should they wander off as certain parts of the capital are strictly off limits, and to do so could jeopardise the entire party and result in immediate expulsion.
A chartered bus transported them to various historical monuments around the centre of the city, one of the first being the enormous Kumsusan (Palace of the Sun) Mausoleum that houses the bodies of the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong il. They were left in no doubt how revered these two leaders are regarded and to the deference that is demanded of the people. When I asked if Jack if he could imagine anybody daubing graffiti on these buildings within the complex, he thought that was a virtual impossibility. Primarily because the people seemed genuinely overwrought at just being so close to the embalmed bodies of their former leaders, most outwardly showing real unbridled emotion and love for their passing. And secondly to do so, would in his mind bring extreme and probably immediate retribution.
They moved onto an area where two enormous bronze statues of the Eternal Leader (Kim Il Sung) and his son (The Dear Leader) stand. Jack was struck by the striking similarity of those Saddam Hussain had erected of himself all over Iraq when under his control. Smiling broadly with a welcoming pose, but as with any despot; the omnipresent duplicitous undercurrent is always difficult to conceal.
He informed me that on this first visit they were instructed bouquets of flowers must be purchased before you get close to these statues. Their tour guides made everybody in the party aware of the rules of etiquette when approaching. From where to place the flowers to the correct way of bowing and showing reverence in how that task is performed. If the bow is not low enough, or judged to be “ingenious” then that person will be asked to repeat the procedure. Jack typically had gone into his “cool dude” mode and made me smile as he described arriving for breakfast wearing his intended day’s attire; jeans, a flamboyant shirt, and best of all, a Stetson style hat. I asked him if all that was deliberate to provoke a reaction, as surely he was aware of the caustic attitude the North Korean regime has towards American society, but I think he genuinely was just being a chilled out young guy with an obvious streak of devilment. It certainly had the right effect, as one of the North Korean guides told him in no uncertain terms that his apparel (in particular the oversized cowboy hat), was wholly unsuitable and would he please change into something more acceptable. Needless to say his friend who then appeared bare chested received the same fiery response from another of the guides with a sober warning of dire consequences, should they arrive dressed as they had originally intended.
One of the interesting aspects of all his time there was how Jack perceived his North Korean guides. Their English was of the highest standard and aside from a few moments when Jack and his friends would take unauthorised pictures and then be left in no doubt that if they continued their cameras would be confiscated; their guides were genial, fairly open to probing questions and joined in the entertainment willingly, even participating in an evening of karaoke. Their three guides were a Miss Choe, Mr Lee and a Mr Jo who was the more reserved of the three and his job appeared to be a cameraman, spending most of his time recording members of the visiting party. Miss Choe was well dressed and open, the only time she appeared upset was with Jack’s shirtless friend, although she later and candidly informed him that it was not just to show deference to the statues they were to visit, but the strictures of North Korean society view a bare chested man as at best tasteless, and at worse, sexually provocative. Nonetheless she seemed amiable and gave Jack and his friends a good deal of latitude. I then asked him about the omnipresent guides, did Jack and his friends, indeed other members of the party, not feel like absconding for the day just so they could be unaccompanied? This provoked an interesting answer.
He described how, following their arrival, Miss Choe and Mr Lee informed them of their own plight: If Jack and his friends did something like disappearing into the city unaccompanied and from there, possibly tried to communicate with the citizens of Pyongyang, or enter any unauthorised areas (which is basically anywhere in the city without a guide) it would be them, their guides, who would suffer the severe consequences. Jack and his friends are astute young men and despite their few rebellious antics, were fully cognizant of what price their guides might have to pay, and so with Hobson’s choice, they became reluctant conformists.
All of this led me to pose the next obvious question: Is this done intentionally? Having written two books set in and about North Korea, and having researched the often barbaric practises that are perpetrated by the regime against transgressors, (much of which is often reserved for their own citizen’s) the penalties are indeed severe. Jack was aware of not only the harsh penal system that exists in North Korea, but also the reality of Stalin style Gulags. As such, his desire to ignore all explicit instructions to not wander off, either accidentally or deliberately, would not only result in him and his friends immediate expulsion and a hefty fine (often not mentioned in tour guides), but the implications for Miss Choe and her two companions would, Jack was convinced, be in no doubt. Whether this is a carefully crafted scheme by the State or not is open to informed debate and conjecture, but from what I know and how well Jack described it, that led me to an interesting observation on the human condition. We are creatures that work in groups, we are social animals, mostly we live in open societies, we socialise, we interact; we care about our fellow man. The regime is acutely aware of this; they recognise those admiral qualities inherent of human beings can be used against us. By placing the burden of guilt on Jack his friends and the visiting party, they know that on a percentage basis, the chances of someone subverting specific instructions given to them by humble and honest ordinary men and women, who could suffer unspeakable harm, is in their favour by a high margin. The benefits of psychological study and engineering false perceptions are a constant tool in projecting power and fear in equal measure by the Orwellian State.
To be continued…
Note: Jack is my chosen pseudonym to protect his identity.