Yesterday I met with Christopher Graper, the North American representative for Koryo Tours, the company handling my trip to the DPRK. I had already had two lengthy phone conversations with Christopher since I had settled on Koryo as my tour operator, and we have also exchanged dozens of E-mails. He was open to the idea of a face-to-face meeting and was more than willing to come over to Mark’s place. This arrangement gave Mark the opportunity to ask his own questions and to make him feel at ease about my upcoming trip.
When Christopher came in he immediately presented me with the Russian edition of the Pyongyang Metro guide. It was a short colour booklet all about the Pyongyang subway system. My tour will take a ride on the Pyongyang metro, and we will visit five or six stations. There is an urban myth about the Pyongyang metro, in that it doesn’t really exist apart from two stations that were built just for show. Tourists seem to go to the same two stations and only those two stations on their tours, hence the myth. In fact there are two lines in the Pyongyang subway system.
Christopher and I talked for hours, going nonstop from the time he arrived (15.30) till the time we parted (20.00). He shared his photos from his trip to the DPRK, when he and his girlfriend visited on their own. Even though they were but a pair, they still had two guides. I myself will be accompanied by two guides when I will be visiting Pyongyang on my own after my group tour has ended.
I shared in intimate detail my reasons for wanting to visit the DPRK. I have only written here a condensed version of these reasons but in expressing myself to Christopher I didn’t realize that I could be so passionate about it. This is where phone conversations and E-mails are lacking; I can express my reasons for wanting to visit the DPRK better with the spoken word. I was also preaching to the converted, and I didn’t have to worry about Christopher thinking that I was an idiot for wanting to go to the North. When my audience is the choir and I am the preacher, I can express myself without insecurity. I will be in the DPRK in four months to the day as of tomorrow, yet I have told only a very small number of people about it already. My trip to the DPRK is not a secret, but I could do without the shocked reactions from people who think I am an idiot for going.
I told Christopher that I was worried about any inappropriate behaviour of people in my tour group, and how that might jeopardize the tour for all of us. Christopher reassured me that most “inappropriate” behaviour is minor, and the guides are responsible for keeping these tourists in check. I plan to be an obedient tourist who will earn the trust of my guides. Once I show that I can be trusted, I will be given more freedoms, while the guides will be kept busy having to corral the members of the tour group who wander where they shouldn’t or photograph things they are forbidden to.
Another worry of mine was the impression I might make on my fellow travellers. Readers of my book reviews know that I have read a lot about the country already. Yet I am going to the DPRK without prejudice. I will listen to the guides’ official version of North Korean history and I will accept it without question. I will bow before the statue of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung and bow again when I view his embalmed body. I will do so with the respect that I have of being an invited guest in their country. My worry is that I might come off as being a sycophant, an easy target among my group of western visitors. Christopher reassured me that the average North Korean tourist is–surprise, surprise–just like me. Think about it: no one decides on a whim “Let’s go to North Korea!”. Tourists to the DPRK are already well-informed and have a very good idea what they will see and what they will be expected to do. Being well-behaved is not going to make me the laughingstock of my tour group. Any misbehaviour is minor, and well-behaved tourists are not treated as ass-kissing teacher’s pets.
After I heard the news about US forces killing Osama Bin Laden, I realized that I will be in North Korea on the tenth anniversary of the 11 September terrorist attacks. The anniversary made me wonder: do the citizens of the DPRK even know about 9/11? If they do, what is their version of the events of that day? On the date of the tenth anniversary, I will ask my guides to see what news about the terrorist attacks, if any, reached the North.