I have just returned from the most amazing trip–5 days in Pyongyang, North Korea. Over the next few days I will post a number of notes, photos and videos from the trip. Hope you enjoy. First, why did I make the trip? Because I love a good adventure. North Korea it is one of the hot spots that, if it were to change, could affect the prosperity of the entire region, including China, Japan, S. Korea, and Taiwan. The 6 party talks over the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula have not been going well. We have a new administration. I think this is the perfect time. And then, of course, I was invited to visit.
Last summer I had the chance to spend 3 days with one of the senior members of the NK government. He told me he had a serious interest in improving communications, completing the agreements and opening NK for economic development. As you may know, NK has been having a punishing food shortage which has taken the lives of a large number of children and old people. I wanted to be there first when it opened.
First, a small disclaimer. I am not going to use this piece to whine about North Korean government policies or behavior. There are plenty of other forums to do that. I am just going to tell you what it was like to be there. There are also some people’s names I can’t talk about. Sorry.
So, after making our live call-in show for entrepreneurs on Fox Business (1-2PM SAturdays. Be There!) I hopped an Air China flight for Beijing to catch one of the 3 weekly flights to Pyongyang. It turned out to be interesting timing because the day I arrived the country was celebrating the birthday of Kim Jong Il.
In Beijing I stopped by the NK Embassy in Beijing to get my visa. ($100). Then booked a flight to Pyongyang and back. ($700). It’s only a 90 minute flight, which makes the airfare about 3x the prices in the US. That was my consistent observation. Everything in NK had a higher price tag (at least for me) than the equivalent prices in either China or New York. Strange, I thought, prices are always lower in countries with low per capita incomes. But that’s because we always see prices in low income countries that are open to trade with the rest of the world. North Korea has been closed to trade with most of the world by the U.S. embargo. There just aren’t many things to buy there at all–similar to Moscow pre 1989. More on prices later.
Arrived at Pyongyang Airport. It’s about the size of Long Beach airport but with a lot less planes. I counted 10 total aircraft including military aircraft. Ours was the only commercial flight at the airport. When we landed I got to pretend to be a big shot and got whisked off on a private bus to the VIP entrance where bags are not inspected and formalities are waived. Good thing too. I had an armload of cartons of Marlboros–the accepted form of currency–and boxes of macadamia nut chocolates to give to all the people who helped organize the trip.
We drove from the airport into the city on the immaculate airport expressway. We very rarely saw a car on the expressway but we saw lots of people walking into and out of the city alongside the road. One of the sites entering the city is the Arch of Triumph, above. The arch commemorates the end of North Korea’s 4 decade occupation by Japan and the birth of the new NK state, known as the DPRK. This photo also shows how few cars there are in North Korea. You can see a total of 2 cars on the highway.
I took the picture above at 4PM last Tuesday of the main street in downtown Pyongyang. You can see that during “Rush Hour” there are lots of people walking down the road but only 2 cars and 1 bus on the road. The temperature was 15 degrees F. Everyone I saw wore a ski jacket or overcoat in good condition but very few had gloves.
I will write more about my visits to the schools tomorrow and add some photos I took of the kids. Great kids, a very heavy culture of nationalism/patriotism, pictures of Kim Il Sung (the father who led the guerrilla army against the Japanese) and his son Kim Song Il who has governed the country since the father died at age 84. But again, no heat in the schools or classrooms, with kids and teachers wearing heavy coats.
All of Pyongyang is this way. Lots of people, perfect roads but no vehicles. After dark, looking out the hotel window, the city is almost completely dark.
Needless to say, North Korea did not fit neatly into any of my previous experiences. I will try to make sense of it in my next post, which will include pictures of my school visits as well as my meetings with senior officials.
Every time I travel to a foreign land I kiss the ground when I return to America. This time I kissed it twice.