Leaving North Korea was strange.
On one hand, I was happy to have had the opportunity to visit and learn about this unique place in the world. On the other hand, I arrived with 10 questions and left with 10,000.
On my last day, we met in the hotel lobby and our North Korean guides gave us back our passports and visas. They took them on the first day of the tour. While this was unsettling for some, they do it for good reason. They take everything to the Chinese Embassy and confirm with them that all of us will be allowed back into China. If someone lacks a visa or there is some other issue, it can be fixed sooner rather than later. If you can’t get into China on the way back, you certainly aren’t allowed back into North Korea and you may end up like this guy!
As our bus headed to the airport, another guy on my tour recounted a unique situation that he had just witnessed. On the tour there was a trainee for the British tour company I went with. He was training to become a full-fledged guide. This was his first training trip. He really liked the North Korean guide he worked with and said “I’ll get in touch with you next time I’m here.” But then both he and the North Korean guide paused for a second. The North Korean guide knew that getting in touch would be impossible, but the trainee slowly worked through the obstacles involved in getting in touch with someone in another country and realized it was impossible to be in touch!
Ways to stay in touch
- Not an option. Internet and email access are limited to a very privileged few.
- In North Korea there are two parallel cell phone networks. Foreigners can get a sim card at the airport and call each other within North Korea as well as call any country on earth for an exorbitant per-minute fee. The only people on earth you can’t call with a North Korean sim card are North Koreans on the domestic network. And those on the domestic network can’t receive calls from abroad either.
- This isn’t an option either.
These kinds of realizations make you realize you are in a parallel universe, unlike anywhere else on earth.
I also envisioned my experience leaving via Pyongyang airport would be similarly unlike anywhere else I’ve been. Customs officials can look through all your pictures to make sure you haven’t broken any rules, among other things.
I checked in, tagged my bag, got my boarding pass, and headed to the security check. It is here that they would give me a hard time. However, no questions were asked at all. They didn’t look at my camera or phone. I was through and done in less than a minute. Nice!
The Pyongyang Airport is new and modern, though it is quite small. There was a coffee shop, a restaurant, a lounge, a pharmacy, some bathrooms, etc. There was also a CD/DVD shop named “CD” that sold what had become normal at that point – North Korean music, propaganda videos, and North Korean movies.
Before I left I read many blog entries of people’s experiences visiting North Korea. Many took the train back to China. Americans aren’t allowed to take the train to China for whatever reason. It seemed like the customs officials on the train are much more thorough than what I experienced at the airport, but maybe I was just lucky. Either way, almost universally, people felt relieved to be back in China – noting the irony of feeling free in the relatively unfree country of China. I’m not going to lie. I felt the same way.
Upon landing in Beijing, something our British guide noted on our way to the airport came true. The Chinese have a sense of humor, apparently. The gate for Air Koryo, North Korea’s airline, is right next to South Korea’s national airline Korean Air. An interesting arrangement for two countries perpetually on the brink of war.
I titled this article “Goodbye North Korea.” In reality, I do hope to return again someday, but to a unified Korea.