“Mobile,” said the soldier at the Pyongyang airport. He wore a pea-green uniform, a red lapel pin signifying membership in the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, and no trace of a smile. He snapped his fingers. “Mobile.”
He wanted my cell phone. “We keep,” he said.
Another Party member confiscated my passport. I felt naked. Naked and alone in North Korea, one of the most restrictive nations on earth. Only a thousand or so Westerners are allowed into Asia’s so-called Hermit Kingdom each year. They are all presumed to be spies.
“We keep,” the soldier said, dropping my phone into a wrinkled manila envelope. “Give back if you go home.”
I think he meant when.
I’d flown in from China. No U.S. airline flies to or even over North Korea for fear of getting shot down. My flight from New York to Seoul had detoured carefully around North Korean air space. From Seoul I flew to Shenyang, China, where the faces of Leonardo DiCaprio and Gwyneth Paltrow peer down from giant Tag Heuer and Estée Lauder billboards, then caught a half-hour flight to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, on the state-owned airline, Air Koryo. Like much of the journey to come, that half hour felt like time travel. The plane was a rickety Russian jet. The flight attendants, demure young women in makeup and outfits from the Mad Men era, handed out copies of the Pyongyang Times, which carried “news” of young dictator Kim Jong-un (“Under his wise leadership, villages have been turned into socialist fairylands”), the “imperialist” USA, and South Korea, the “American puppet.” An editorial cartoon showed North Korean missiles destroying Washington, D.C.
The peanuts, however, were delicious.
South of the airport lay the boulevards of Pyongyang, teeming with cyclists and pedestrians. Cars are a luxury reserved for Party leaders. So is round-the-clock electricity. Satellite photos show busy, prosperous South Korea lit up at night, while North Korea is pitch-black except for Pyongyang, a dot of light. Even the capital goes dim after dark, its coal-fired power plants churning out just enough juice to illuminate the regime’s monuments to itself.
As the world’s last Stalinist police state, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) survives as a relic of the Cold War. Its planned economy collapsed after the Soviet Union, its sponsor and ally, fell apart in 1991. During the famine that followed, about a million North Koreans starved to death. Hundreds of thousands survived by gathering edible weeds and trapping sparrows. North Koreans are shorter and thinner than their capitalist neighbors to the south. The regime stays in power by keeping its people in the dark: Even when the electricity works, for the average citizen there’s no Internet, no international phone service, no foreign media, no way to know how much food and freedom outsiders enjoy.
One thing there is, oddly enough, is golf. That’s why I had made the 7,000-mile trip to Pyongyang – not to spy, but to play the world’s most exclusive golf course.
Twenty years ago, Kim Jong-il, the current ruler’s father, declared that his socialist paradise needed a world-class golf course. In 1994, he played his first-ever round at Pyongyang Golf Club. Anyone who’d heard of Kim’s first try at bowling – a 300 game – had an idea of what was coming. According to the Supreme Leader’s official score card, he shot a 34 for 18 holes, with five holes-in-one. If you believe this account, his round was by far the best performance in the sport’s thousand-year history.
So I could forget about setting the course record. But as I got over my initial alarm at being alone in North Korea, my worries about getting back out – or getting shot, like another golf tourist who’d wandered too far off-course – vied with fascination over an utterly un-American way of life.
On the shuttle-bus ride to the course, the driver picked his way along a highway cratered with waist-deep potholes. I saw soldiers marching in lockstep, work crews moving through rice paddies, schoolchildren walking in perfectly spaced rows. These were the fortunate few who consumed enough calories to thrive. The poor, hungry masses, unwelcome in the capital, would risk imprisonment if they were spotted anywhere near Kim Jong-il’s golf course.
And it turns out, Pyongyang Golf Club is nothing special. With patchy fairways and greens as slow as Velcro, the world’s most exclusive course could pass for a mediocre municipal layout in the United States. Only the caddies and the food stood out. The caddies, all young and female, spoke no English. They beamed winningly, bowed, and demonstrated which way putts broke by swooping their arms left or right. In the clubhouse dining room, where the lights were dimmed to save power, each golfer was served a lavish five-course meal of soup, fish, grilled vegetables, kimchi, dumplings, duck, beef, and pork – enough food to feed a family. We washed it down with cans of Tiger beer, a Singaporean brew. The beer was a month past its expiration date; cash-strapped North Korea apparently saves money by importing stale beer.
Later, riding past rice paddies and rocky bean fields on the way to central Pyongyang, I watched oxen pulling plows, school-age children doing fieldwork, elderly women stooped under yokes that held heavy buckets of water. The bus rolled through the smoggy capital to the Yanggakdo International Hotel, the second-tallest building in North Korea. My 33rd-floor window looked across the city toward the nation’s tallest structure, a 105-story silver pyramid rising 1,082 feet through the smog. A 105-story empty pyramid. The looming Ryugyong Tower, unfinished after Russian financing fell through, stands as a silent rebuke to the regime’s ambitions. North Koreans, who prize conformity, support their leaders by pretending it isn’t there.
Uniformity. Unanimity. Turning from the window to the grainy TV in my hotel room, I watched an exhibition of the national sport. Mass gymnastics – not a game, but a sort of organized, color-coordinated crowd control – puts hundreds, sometimes thousands, of North Koreans through precision drills to create vast moving pictures. Exquisitely detailed pictures of people, landscapes, flags and patriotic messages. Imagine a college-football cheer block using cards to spell GO HAWKS, then multiply by a thousand. That’s mass gymnastics. After a while, I switched to a nature program about ants. The ants too worked in concert, building a bridge of their own bodies over a stream. Flipping back to mass gymnastics – a panoply of flowers – I admired the precision shown on both channels but pined for a little all-American defiance. Where was the mass gymnast who couldn’t stand being an ant, who tossed his card aside and took off like a streaker in the middle of the pageant?
On my last day in Pyongyang, the morning newspaper sounded the usual themes: Evil, arrogant America was menacing the DPRK, forcing North Korea to build more missiles. Despite a seeming thaw in which Kim Jong-un, still in his first year as Supreme Leader, allowed (and applauded) a Disney show starring Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh, then took his wife to an amusement park, North Korea was as anti-American as ever. Soon the regime announced that its missiles could reach the United States.
All I could think of was a boy I’d seen the day before. Twelve or thirteen years old, yanking a rope tethered to an ox to keep it plowing through hard dirt, he looked up when a bus full of golfers went past. We must have looked like aliens to him, rolling by in air-conditioned splendor in our polo shirts and Titleist caps. Shielding his eyes, he picked one of us out. He stared right at me. I have never felt richer, fatter, or guiltier. I wanted to jump off the bus and give this kid my seat. I wanted to take him on vacation – take him to Whole Foods, watch his eyes pop, and turn him loose.
Instead I waved. Hello from another world. And as the bus passed, the boy waved back. See ya.
“Mobile,” the airport soldier said, handing me my cell phone.
He nodded. “Bye-bye.”
Free at last, or at least reconnected, I checked my messages. There was news from home: Your Verizon bill is overdue.