Departing Kimland

One last day of waking up at 6am on 'vacation'. Only a few more chances to be harried into hurrying by Mr. Baek and Mr. Huk. Only a few more hours until being able to get a real newspaper and watch some international CNN . . .

That's what ran through my mind as I hung up the phone from the wake-up call and rested my head back on the lumpy pillow. Only a few more hours and I'd be out of this place. I couldn't imagine the isolation people on extended assignments in Kimland must feel. It had only been four days and to a man we were all dying to get out. I can't remember the last place I'd wanted to leave as much as North Korea.

We had our last meal down in Dining Room #2 and boarded the bus for the quick ride back to the airport. For a nice change everyone actually arrived downstairs on time and ready to go. Apparently the Americans in the group weren't the only ones looking forward to getting out.

The 30 minute ride back out to the airport was for the most part quiet and uneventful. Just talking to the guides about how unusually busy they were with all the tourists in town for Arirang. One of the guys on the trip attempted to use the time to surreptitiously snap some last-chance pictures (see the bottom of this page) of people walking off to work in the morning along the, apparently unused, train tracks. Mr. Baek seemed to catch on though and suggested, loudly, that it would be nice if everyone were to put their cameras away until they got home.

Once at the airport Mr. Baek and Mr. Huk helped us get our boarding passes, check-in our bags and, most importantly, finally give us back our passports. In the waiting area just before heading to immigration we pooled some money together to tip the two guides. More out of curiosity with whether or not they'd accept it than anything else.

Mr. Baek, the experienced hand, knew what was coming, thanked us and that was it. Young Mr. Huk though was all kinds of confused. Tipping was definitely outside his party-approved frame of reference and he struggled with what to do. Which, after three days stuck listening to his rote parroting of the party line, amused the hell out of us.

On the one hand, taking money for a tip would certainly be a bourgeois capitalist no-no. On the other hand he'd been taught to try and please his guests by adjusting, to some extent, to their ways and customs. We tried the, "just donate the money to the poor if it makes you feel uncomfortable," line of reasoning but all that got us was a strong denial that North Korea had any poor he could give the money to! Finally we convinced him that it would be a cultural affront and our feelings would be hurt if he didn't take it. With a sigh and, "well, if that's your culture I guess I should accept it" comment, he finally took the tip.

I wonder how long he felt guilty about it. From what I got to know of him during our short but intense time together my guess is this moral dilemma probably bothered him for quite some time. Just the same I'd also be willing to bet that a return trip would find him far more open to the practice.

As we talked with Mr. Huk, just before stepping into the immigration departure line, we asked him what he thought of his first time being a guide and dealing with foreigners. With a truly puzzled look on his face he uttered what was probably the most honest thing he said the whole trip, "I don't understand many of your ways." After seeing the huge emphasis the regime placed on getting dollars it's my cynical guess that tipping would be one of the first of "our ways" he would come to understand.

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Everyone checking to see if there is any sign remaining in their passport of the trip to North Korea - something that could have gotten us into trouble upon re-entering the South. Fortunately all evidence had been removed by North Korean immigration.
Photo courtesy Brian Stuart

Finally the line at departure had worn down and it was our turn to show our boarding passes and begin moving through immigration. We started working our way through the process, with Mr. Baek and Mr. Huk watching over us to make sure everything went smoothly.

It didn't.

One of the people in our group had a discrepancy with his passport number. A bored clerk somewhere along the line in the visa process had accidentally transposed a couple of numbers from his actual passport when making out our official visa. A typo that unfortunately, no one had noticed until now. Apparently in North Korea your papers are checked more thoroughly on the way out than on the way in!

While he was held up the rest of us, whose numbers hadn't gotten screwed up, were cleared to go through. While our friend forlornly stared off at us, we gathered 10 meters (30 feet) away on the other side of immigration and offered whatever help ("Don't worry, I'm sure they'll find you a great job in the salt mines!") we thought he needed.

At first. After 10 minutes or so, with departure time bearing down and everyone else from the group already on board the plane, we all started to get nervous. The last thing anyone wanted to do was abandon our friend in North Korea. Plus, later that day (and light years away) in Seoul, have to explain to his wife that Tommy got stuck in Pyongyang due to a typo. We watched as the immigration officials really grilled him and our two guides. His look of irritation gradually turning to concern and outright panic. He was going to get left behind in North Korea while all his friends took off, and all because some idiot bureaucrat had flipped a couple of numbers!

Finally, with the sound of the plane's engines warming up outside, our two guides convinced the customs officials to let him pass. Apparently the matching pictures on the two documents convinced them that it really was, in fact, just an innocent mistake.

Once he finally got the clearance to proceed Tommy practically time-traveled he moved so fast across the line and into the departure area. With one last wave to the guides we ran out the doors and to the bus for the 10 second ride across the tarmac to our waiting plane.

It was finally time to begin putting North Korea behind us.


Off into the mist . . .
Photo courtesy Brian Stuart
If you're interested in reading similar travelogues from Iran and Iraq,
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Interested in reading more on North Korea?
Drop Phones, not Bombs! (a new policy option for dealing with North Korea)
Every time North Korea pops into the headlines, whether for testing nukes, starving its people, or killing South Korean sailors, the media is filled with articles demanding something be done, this time ... and then, further along in the story, lamenting the lack of decent policy options. After dismissing the old standbys - diplomatic remonstrations, tighter economic sanctions, and, for those trying to be particularly tough (while hiding safely inside a beltway think tank), military strikes, most articles settle for ... (more)


The Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), founded in 1996, maintains an excellent, extremely informative website on life and human rights in North Korea. The 'Witness Accounts' section contains some utterly harrowing stories on life in, and escape from, North Korea. I highly recommend a visit to the website (part of it is in English).

The group itself is, "a non-governmental, nonprofit and nonpartisan organization working to improve the human rights situation of the people in North Korea as well as of those North Koreans who have fled their country for various reasons."

The Aquariums of Pyongyang:
Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag
Aquariums of Pyongyang

by Kang Chol-Hwan, Pierre Rigoulot, Yair Reiner (Translator)

The author, Kang Chol-Hwan, tells the awful story of his life growing up in a North Korean prison camp. How his family was ripped away from its upper-class Pyongyang home, forcing him to come of age in the inhumanity of a North Korean gulag. A quick, compelling read.



Kim Il-sung's North Korea
Kim Il-song's North Korea

by Helen-Louise Hunter, Stephen J. Solarz

A good book for someone wanting a general introduction to North Korea culture, lifestyle and history. Hunter's book is broken down into chapters on family life, romance, hoodlums, marriage, overwork, housing, etc. Originally a report prepared by the CIA in the mid-80s, the text has since been vetted, updated and converted to book form.

Korean Endgame: A Strategy
for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement

by Selig S. Harrison - May, 2002

Quite simply the clearest, best written analysis of US-North Korean relations I have ever read. The author has been intimately involved in the subject for decades and brings a level of personal experience and knowledge to the field as yet unequaled by other American researchers.

Korean Endgame

For more books on North Korea please head to the Books page.


Since putting this story on the web I have received numerous e-mails asking for information about traveling to North Korea. Conditions can change rapidly for visiting the North so my best recommendation would be to visit Koryo Tours at (no relation to this site) for the latest conditions and prices.

Download Journey into Kimland as a single pdf (opens in new window).
1. Getting Ready
2. Arrival in Pyongyang
3. Monuments of Kimland
4. Yanggakdo Hotel
5. Arirang Festival 6. DMZ
7. Traditional Kaesong 8. Pyongyang Circus
9. Mt. Myohyang 10. Kim's Birthplace
11. Departure
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