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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 October 2005, 15:40 GMT 16:40 UK
Eyewitness: US tourist in North Korea
American tourists have recently been given a rare chance to visit North Korea - usually out of bounds to US citizens - for the huge annual Arirang festival. Carol Rueckert, one of those who took up the opportunity, describes her experiences.

Carol Rueckert with a tour guide (image courtesy of Carol Rueckert)
Carol Rueckert found her tour guides friendly and welcoming
As an American resident in Beijing, I've known a handful of people who have gone to North Korea, and I have always been fascinated by their stories.

Knowing that Americans are not usually allowed in, I didn't ever think much about going.

But as soon as I heard the news that North Korea was issuing visas to US citizens in October, I jumped at the chance.

We arrived in Pyongyang on an old 1960s Russian airplane.

At the airport we were quickly rushed through customs, asked to hand in our cell phones and divided into groups, with Americans separated from non-Americans.

The first thing our English-speaking tour guide did was introduce us to the North Koreans on our bus - including a cameraman "who will be observing all of your behaviours."

Before we set off, we were forewarned that the tour guides might tease us for being "American imperialists," but that they would eventually warm up to us.

To be honest, I was surprised with how friendly and warm-hearted they were.

They had their photos taken with us, told stories about their lives, answered our questions - some to more of an honest degree than others - sang songs and had a few beers with us in the evenings.

Anti-American propaganda

Other than our tour guides, waitresses and store clerks, we didn't get much of a chance to speak with local Koreans.

Little boy throwing darts at a picture of an American soldier, Kaesong Youth Park  (image courtesy of Carol Rueckert)
At Kaesong Park, you can throw darts at an image of a US soldier
Obviously there was a language barrier, and the local people were also somewhat hesitant in speaking to us.

That's not to say that they weren't friendly, though. If we waved and smiled, they would wave and smile back. If we offered the children candy, they would happily accept it.

Though North Korea has been labelled the Axis of Evil, the people there didn't fit the stereotype - in fact they shared many of the same values as we hold; concern for family, politeness and courtesy.

We were told that, in the past, anti-American billboards and slogans could be found around the city. They have now been taken down.

In fact the only remaining anti-American propaganda I found was at the Kaesong Youth Park.

There, you could throw darts at an outline of a long-nosed American, or toss a ball into a hole in a picture of an American soldier with his hands cut off.

When we went on what we called the "Ride of Death", which did not have any seatbelts or harnesses, I did silently think to myself that they might like to see one of us get hurt.

But that's all speculation, and to be honest there was no way for most North Koreans to know that we were American.

A woman directing traffic with a glowing baton  (image courtesy of Carol Rueckert)
Young men and women stand at major intersections, directing traffic with a glowing baton like the Luke Skywalker sword
Carol Rueckert
When we were looking across the border to South Korea at the DMZ (demilitarised zone) in Panmunjom, one of the first things a guard there said to us was that North Koreans typically don't have warm sentiments towards Americans.

But we got the feeling, as he continued to talk to us - holding a box of American-made Marlboro cigarettes in his hand - that it was possible for people to separate the US government with the American people.

In fact regardless of nationality, all foreigners face restrictions when travelling in North Korea.

Guides must always accompany foreign tourists - even for a short three-minute walk outside the hotel - and permission must be granted for any photograph taken.

The authorities didn't think it was appropriate for Americans to see the Great Leader's Mausoleum, and we also missed out on the Military Museum, where paintings of historical events take the place of real pictures.

We were there on 10 October, which marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party.

On that day, masses of people, dressed in their finest traditional dress, walked for miles to make it to the centre of the city for a military parade in the morning and a soiree in the evening.

We were not allowed to attend those events, though we accidentally caught a glimpse of the end of the parade on the way back into town.

But we did see annual Arirang mass games, depicting a tragic Korean story involving lovers and separation that has come to symbolize the separation and future unification of North and South Korea.

Electricity shortage

We stayed at the three to four star Koryo Hotel, which has clean rooms and typical facilities - a billiards room, swimming pool, tea room and bar, and we had no problems with electricity, heat or water.

Mass Games  (image courtesy of Carol Rueckert)
US tourists were allowed into North Korea for the annual mass games
But outside our hotel, it's hard to say what local people were experiencing.

The first night, we went to an embroidery museum as the sun was setting and there were approximately 20 young women working on their pieces in dim light.

In order to save electricity, most roads are not lit up at night, and young men and women stand at major intersections, directing traffic with a glowing baton like the Luke Skywalker sword.

We were told that when it gets too cold for people to direct traffic in the winter months, they revert back to the use of traffic lights.

But each window in the apartment buildings had a light that was on, which was not only beautiful but also quite eerie. When was the last time everyone in your apartment complex was home at the same time?

Initially I had a few reservations about going to North Korea.

But having been, I highly recommend that others take any opportunity they can to go and see for themselves what Pyongyang is like - as soon as they can, as it won't be the same forever.

And there wasn't a single moment that I didn't feel safe - except maybe for a fleeting instant when the mass games performers each pointed a rifle at the audience as part of the performance!

Carol Rueckert travelled with Koryo Tours. The last opportunity for US citizens to visit North Korea this year is on a tour from 25-29 October.

What is your reaction to Carol Rueckert's experiences while in North Korea? Have you been to North Korea? Would you like to go? Send us your comments and experiences using the form below.

Future "tourists" to N. Korea should request tours of the several North Korean gulags, or concentration camps, e.g. in Yoduk, Haengyong, and Huaong where entire families are imprisoned, tortured, and subject to the cruellest labour, treatment, and often death.
Caroline Westort, Lake Pleasant, MA, USA

I thank the author for this report. As a British citizen with a North Korean wife, it is shocking to see the ignorance and propaganda that prevails in the west. Of course there are terrible facets to North Korea. It is also important however to differentiate, analyse, and understand the situation. The author attempts to do this.
Dave, London, UK

My father in law visited NK two times and met relatives for the first time in 40 years. One thing he said was that there were fear even among family members becasue someone might be a government informent.

I've never been to North Korea but I would love to go. Yet I can't help feeling that it is a Matrix-like experience. The tour guides show you what they want to show you, take you where other tourists go, and well-looking North Koreans are drafted in to look happy when then tourists arrive. Why can no tourist go outside Pyongyang? Why are they not let off a leash? Why are they always watched and accompanied?
Will Streatfeild, London

I'm a South Korean and North Korea is just next to my country but it is not easy to go there. Just few years ago I couldn't go there at all. Now I can only go to very few regions. But I would like to go to other parts of the country.
Chae Bok, Lim, Gwangju, South Korea

I have travelled to N.Korea on business regularly over the last year, and previously in 2001. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found for myself. Being a geologist I have been fortunate to see beyond the confines of Pyongyang, and have visited quite rural locations - usually unannounced and with no forewarning, although always in the presence of official guides and a security officer. I have been treated with the utmost courtesy and respect, and been shown great friendliness. The economy is not great, and many people have a hard life, but having lived and worked in some remote industrial towns in northern Russia, aside from the food shortages we hear about in Korea, living conditions seem no worse than I have seen in Russia and elsewhere such as parts of Africa.
Mike, London UK

Well, I am happy to hear that finally an American tourist had a chance to visit Pyongyang. I've spent more than four years in North Korea as an Indonesian diplomatic representative, The strongest memory that I have was the chance to meet the "great leader" Kim Jong Il, during the meeting between him and Indonesian president who visited Pyongyang in 2002.
Habib, Achsanul, Tokyo, Japan (now)

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