Landing in Pyongyang

Once the plane crossed the Amnok River (the name of the river as it is known in Korean; English uses the Chinese name of Yalu) a flight attendant made the announcement that we had now crossed into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. I looked out the window, and stretched over two people, to see North Korea’s mountainous territory for the first time. We landed smoothly in Pyongyang, and taxied down a lengthy runway. Once I left the aircraft, but before I descended the stairs, I took photos of the airport and its terminal. I had read in recent North Korean travel blogs that the terminal at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport was under renovation and thus I wouldn’t be entering the famed building that’s dominated by an enormous portrait of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. A blue fence surrounded the terminal and I could see that it was being completely gutted on the inside. A temporary arrivals building greeted us after we stepped off the low-riding Air Koryo shuttle. 

During the tour briefing yesterday, the Koryo Tours reps warned us that the airport inspection was a lengthy process. I could tell it was going to be, just by the length of time it took me to approach the passport and visa control agents. Agents scrutinized my passport and visa photos and seemed to doubt that they were of one and the same person. My passport photo was black-and-white and taken after I had obtained a super-short buzz cut, while my visa photo was colour and I had slightly “longer” hair. I never doubted that I would get through, although I did wonder why they were taking so long. They stamped my visa:

and I went to stand in the lengthy double line awaiting baggage inspection. Shortly after I arrived in line I was approached by an agent who motioned for me to return to visa clearance.

In spite of the sudden circumstances I was not worried about what would happen next. I was more worried earlier that morning when I was separated from my tour group by an airport employee who mistakenly thought I was part of a flight crew. I had to return to the visa clearance desk and since neither I nor any of the agents could speak each other’s language, all I could do was stand before them and let them scrutinize my passport again. I was surprisingly calm during this second face-off with the North Korean agents. I felt secure that the Koryo Tours reps who were accompanying us on this tour would know how to handle things should there be a problem. Different agents were called in to inspect my passport and visa, and I was waved through a second time. As I returned to my place in the baggage inspection line I realized that everyone had been watching me. I never learned why I was called back for a second time and thus couldn’t answer everyone’s questions about what the agents wanted. It will remain a mystery.

Although our luggage passed through security when we were at Beijing Capital International Airport, we had to put all of our belongings through an X-ray again in Pyongyang. Once my suitcase passed through I was taken aside by a male guard who instructed me to open it for inspection. Women guards went through women’s belongings. The guard turned my suitcase inside out, pointing to and tapping at things that he did not recognize. I had to open up my alarm clock, which stored itself in a clamshell case, and I also had to demonstrate what my battery recharger was for. Since I pack all of my clothes and toiletries into plastic bags, none of which are see-through, the guard felt around inside the bags for the contents. He made an effort to put everything back to its original state yet I still had to linger for a minute while I repacked. Another guard came rushing through and he hit his elbow on the corner of my suitcase as I was lifting it off the table. He winced and made a sound of pain. I thought for sure I was going to get it, for injuring a security officer. Nothing came to pass so I headed for the exit. There were two sets of doors on either side of the building going out to the parking lot but both were blocked by people straining to get in. It was a scene right out of a disaster evacuation movie. Security officers were blocking people from entering the airport–and in so doing preventing me from leaving. I was trapped inside. Nevertheless I crept toward the exit and the guards let me through. All the time the people on the outside were literally waving their arms through the crack in the door yet they remained on the outside, oddly not venturing forward while I squished my way out. I don’t know what that was all about.

I was directed to our tour bus where I chose a seat in the back. Koryo Tours thoughtfully planned the tour such that each traveller would have a window seat, and that no one had to share a seat or lean to look out the window.

In my next post I will talk about the DPRK’s official tourism body, the Korea International Travel Company, and introduce our guides, who accompanied us everywhere–with the exception of when we walked off on our own with (or without) permission.

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