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NORTH KOREA

A trip to North Korea offers curious sites

Seeing the captured USS Pueblo, monuments to father and son rulers, and scrubbing workers.

November 15, 2009|By Dean R. Owen | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Reporting from Pyongyang, North Korea — Visiting North Korea is like peering in the window of a store that closed long ago but where old merchandise mysteriously remains. I walk through the aisles feeling privileged, fascinated and curious, a little nervous, but not scared.

It is unlike any other place in the world. Communications and information technology most of the rest of the world takes for granted -- the Internet, cellphones, GPS systems -- are unavailable to civilians. North Korean-sanctioned news about Western nations often is characterized by violence and aggressive government actions.

Business brought me here in June, making me one of a very few Americans who have seen close-up the world's most restricted nation. U.S. citizens are allowed to visit, but as tourists, they are limited to traveling between August and October, during the Arirang Festival, also known as the "mass games" (see sidebar).

In my four days here, all accompanied by government escorts, I will see perhaps the most curious tourist attraction in the world: Late on a Friday afternoon, I'm negotiating my way through the narrow passageways of an American spy ship.

The USS Pueblo, docked at the edge of the Taedong River in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, is the government's proud trophy of its resistance against "the aggression of U.S. imperialists." A female military officer greets me and, in near-perfect English, beckons me across the gangplank.

Once on deck, I feel as though I'm prying open a Cold War time capsule.

First, I watch an 18-minute film on the capture of the crew and ship in January 1968, complete with patriotic music and grainy black-and-white footage of President Johnson denying that the Pueblo had been on an espionage mission. Jagged holes on the ship's hull, circled in red paint, provide a stark reminder that mortar and machine gun fire from four torpedo boats and a submarine chaser were necessary to secure the now 65-year-old vessel.

The radio room is a cramped collection of vintage communications technology, with steel-cased radios, their green displays long-faded and brown knobs chipped and worn. A manual typewriter collects dust in the corner. In glass display cases, there are boots worn by Capt. Lloyd Bucher and the crew's handwritten letter to Johnson urging him, despite his public statements, to concede that they really had been spying. The Americans' letter was coerced by their captors, according to one surviving officer.

Our 40-minute tour ends at the ship's stern with our guide, the petite military officer, answering questions in soft but precise tones alongside one of the Pueblo's machine guns. I'm feeling a bit rushed, but our government "escorts" are insistent: We cannot be late for the next attraction -- a gymnastics show with jump-roping bears.

Inside North Korea, all is orderly -- a "workers' paradise" for most of the 23 million residents, with no unemployment and little crime.

In this paradise, no one needs an alarm clock. Rather, each day at 5 a.m., in cities and rural areas, residents awake to patriotic music blaring through speakers, followed by a woman's haunting voice urging people to work hard, thereby enhancing the beauty and greatness of their society. And, of course, honoring "The Eternal President of the Republic," Kim Il Sung, and his son, Gen. Kim Jong Il, the current leader.

On arrival

A massive portrait of the elder Kim, "the Great Leader," greets arriving visitors from the roof of the Sunan International Airport. Once my luggage is scanned, visa inspected and cellphone impounded, I meet my assigned escorts, settle into a Toyota SUV and drive 15 miles into the capital city. The few vehicles on the road are owned either by the government or the military. Most people walk in groups of five or 10; others ride bicycles.

One of the first landmarks entering the city is the Arch of Triumph built in 1982 to commemorate Korea's resistance to the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945. The structure is modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but is a bit larger -- intentionally. I glance at my visa and realize a drawing of the arch is reflected in a holographic image on the document.

Streets are swept several times a day. One morning we drive by Kim Il Sung Square, one of many monuments honoring the nation's founder. The plaza, more than 800,000 square feet, is nearly 10 times the size of San Francisco's Union Square. But there are no panhandlers or even pigeon droppings. In contrast, we witness more than 200 people on their hands and knees scrubbing the plaza's concrete floor -- a sight I will never forget.

The work of my employer, World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization, has brought me here, so we drive into the countryside to visit schools and hospitals benefiting from World Vision-funded programs. We pass roadside monuments, several feet tall, proclaiming the date Kim Il Sung stood there and provided local residents "on-the-spot guidance."

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