SHANGHAI — Some of the passengers were clutching their heads, complaining about hangovers, staring with glazed eyes out of the tour bus at the rural scenery. For many of the people on our package tour of North Korea — mostly men in their 20s and 30s — drinks in our small hotel bar near the DMZ the night before had led to dancing with the waitresses until the early hours.
My own hangover came with pangs of guilt. I felt uncomfortable partaking in what is essentially voyeurism of the politically repressed.
Tourism in North Korea — one of the world’s most secretive countries — is on the rise. I went with mixed feelings but left believing that traveling to the Hermit Kingdom brings more benefits than not.
I visited last month during the state gymnastic extravaganza, the Mass Games. The hotels in Pyongyang were full and our group had to drive an hour and a half from the city center to find a room.
Critics like to point out that the government uses photographs of Westerners bowing before statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il for propaganda. All tourists are brought to multiple monuments on obligatory stops.
A more serious concern is that tourism brings hard currency, helping to prop up one of the most frightening totalitarian regimes in the world, where survival for millions of people depends on food aid from abroad. We made almost daily stops at foreigner-only shops that sold everything from North Korean soccer shirts to hand-painted propaganda posters. Tickets to the Mass Games cost up to $410 per person (on top of the more than $2,000 for the five-day trip).
And the tours are closely supervised. We did not see any of the estimated 200,000 prisoners living and dying in gulags, nor could we see inside ordinary homes where state radio is broadcast incessantly all day. We could not leave our hotel at night.
Yet tourism has one big advantage: It broadens North Koreans’ contact with the outside world, providing a glimpse, however small, of an alternative universe. Some tour operators use their unique access to the country to promote exchanges and outreach in sports and the arts.
From cradle to grave North Koreans are indoctrinated to hate “American imperialists.” Americans are blamed for everything, from starting the Korean War to murdering school children.
In the 2004 BBC documentary “North Korea: A State of Mind,” which followed two teenage gymnasts preparing for the Mass Games, one scene shows the electricity failing in a girl’s Pyongyang apartment.
“Bloody Americans, it’s their fault,” mutters a family member.
A young North Korean male guide told me passionately: “We hold our Great Leaders in esteem so that we can survive and can continue victory against the American imperialists. They have created untold suffering for 60 years.”
Still, not all North Koreans toe the party line quite so aggressively, and my sense was that things might improve. One amicable guide in his 30’s confided in me: “I like the American people. The government is bad, but the people are good.”
Later, during a bus ride around Pyongyang on Sept. 11, a rain storm struck. “Do you know why the sky is crying?” the same guide asked over the microphone. “On Sept. 11 so many people died by terrorists – so the sky is crying for them.”
The benefits of tourism, of course, work both ways. Movies, such as the recent remake of “Red Dawn,” depict North Koreans as faceless villains. Media reports tend to focus on the country’s military saber rattling or the weird and the wacky behavior of its leaders.
I was surprised by the humanity that binds us: a couple in military uniform walking hand-in-hand; a girl in a bowling alley powdering her face in the bathroom mirror; a father bending down tenderly to give his small daughter a piggy-back ride.
According to people who visited just a few years ago, North Koreans tended to ignore foreign visitors. But I saw a different country, in the capital at least.
Children waved and said hello, encouraged by their parents. On National Day, when North Koreans celebrate the founding of the D.P.R.K., we came across an impromptu dance of men and women in a Pyongyang park. An elderly man in a khaki uniform, his Kim Il-sung badge pinned to his chest, whisked me away in a waltz.
The total number of Western tourists is still small: roughly 5,000 Westerners travel to North Korea every year. But these numbers will continue to increase.
The government in August announced plans to attract more tourists through new direct flights and has recently opened its borders for the first time to visitors all year round. English speaking guides at the state-owned Korea International Travel Company have ballooned from around 15 a decade ago to more than 100 today, a spokesman from my tour company told me.
In North Korea there is a proverb: “To see is to believe.” On National Day, as we walked around a festive Pyongyang where students played cards in the park and families picnicked, I heard the sounds of a song trickling through the woods. I asked my guide whether it was a national or a revolutionary song.
“Ah,” he said, shaking his head. “Neither. It is a song about human life.”
Featured photograph and photo gallery © Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore.