The beaming portrait of Kim Il Sung on the roof of the Pyongyang Airport was the first thing that greeted us when we emerged from our plane. It was almost as if the building had been constructed primarily as a base for the florid portrait of North Korea’s beloved “Eternal President” (dead since 1994).
My mother and I were dazed to have come this far. My father, Pyongyang-born, had made several attempts to see his old hometown, flying all the way to Beijing only to have the North Korean consulate deny his visa at the last minute. He’d died, probably of sadness, not long after that final attempt. We stared at the tarmac and stood, dripping sweat, clutching our paper Koryo Air fans–what passed for air conditioning on North Korea’s national airline–until someone barked at us in Korean to start moving to the terminal.
North Korea was, as always, looming ominously in the news: the two American journalists had been arrested, detained, then unexpectedly sent home with Bill Clinton. A missile had been fired at Japan, Kim Jong Il threatened to blow up Hawaii, and most recently, the North and South had traded shots in a border skirmish.
We were aware that some State Department officials called this The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. Further, there was no American consulate or embassy here to back us up if something went wrong. Still, I believed we’d be fine if we followed the rules. I pored over the memos from our guides, WHAT **NOT** TO BRING TO NORTH KOREA (religious items, anything remotely political, cell phones, video cameras, books about North Korea, even notebooks—journalists were verboten).
We were herded to some booths barely shielded from the sun, doors wide open to the heat and humidity outside, not much different from the last foreign airport I flew into: Guadalajara, Mexico. But in Guadalajara, there had been chatter and excitement, people returning home with arms full of gifts. The North Koreans, dressed in grim gray suits, the women in white blouses and Mad-Men-era secretary skirts and pumps, both sexes with identical red pins displaying a smiling Kim Il Sung pinned over their hearts, stood somberly in line, unencumbered with luggage. Occasionally, a man would glare at our group. The women had softer expressions, but didn’t look at us at all.
I clutched my stack of paperwork, which included an accounting of every penny of every kind of currency we carried. We were standing on North Korean soil, but we weren’t in yet.
An official accosted one of our tour leaders. He looked bewildered, but went with the man to a side room, the door closing behind them. Not five minutes later, an angry looking official pulled out another member of our group: a young man who had just graduated from Columbia Journalism School. He was marched to a windowless room on the opposite side, door closed. Our line inched forward. I was sweating out of every pore of my body, a wet oblong forming on my back, under my knapsack, but I was too anxious to do anything other than stand at attention, wondering if my friend who had decided to err on the side of caution had been the smart one.
The man at the booth waved me on, but an official waiting at the other side motioned for me to follow him to a separate, partitioned area. The man asked me to open my suitcase. His expression was exquisitely neutral. He asked about books. I’d dutifully listed under “publications, books, reading materials, bibles, propaganda, etc.” my Korean language dictionary and two Chinese phrasebooks. He examined each item, rifled through them page by page.
I was waiting for him to go through the rest of my suitcase this way. Luckily, I’d remembered, before I left home to jettison the Obama shirt that I habitually used as pajamas as well as a book on North Korea (The Most Dangerous Place on Earth), tucked in a pocket from a previous trip. But I also worried: for safety on the overnight train through China, I’d spread my money around, tucking extra twenties into socks, secret pockets, my eyeglass case, and it was possible he’d come upon a forgotten, hidden stash of cash, which would indubitably look like I was trafficking in American currency. Through the doorway that led out of the cage that was the customs area, I caught a glance of the people in our group who’d passed muster. My mother wasn’t there, nor were the two who’d gone off to the secret rooms. The man paused.
Then he indicated I should close my suitcase. Paradoxically, I was disappointed. I exited the area at the same time as my mother. “They only looked at my books,” she said. Someone who’d tried to sneak in actual contraband–an i-Phone—was caught, but the officials only kept it for her, to be courteously returned when we left.
The two “detainees” rejoined us. They had been taken out of line for random temperature checks (swine flu), and with elevated readings (or faulty North Korean thermometer technology), they had been “detained” until their temperatures came down to acceptable levels.
But now we were free to go. In the front of the airport, the noise of cars, buses, taxis, and hotel shuttle buses of any other airport was notably absent. We stepped from the soundless curb into the care of our government minders, a young woman and two scowly men, who led us through two empty parking lots onto a waiting tour bus, luxuriously air-conditioned, that would take us to our hotel.