I arrived in Pyongyang one Saturday evening last December, and the next morning I woke up at 5 a.m., not as a result of the 13-hour time difference between Washington and Pyongyang, but rather because of loudspeakers blaring out military-style anthems down below. I was staying on the 17th floor of the Koryo Hotel, the 25-year-old twin-towered colossus that, when it first opened, was hailed by Kim Il Sung as the showcase accommodation for foreigners visiting the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. I walked out onto my balcony in the chilly winter morning and tried to peer through the blackness that still, at that hour, prevailed over the relatively lightless city. I detected movement below, but could not definitely make out anything but a single train arriving at the nearby station.
When I had arrived in the city the previous evening, the sun had already set, so my imagination had to fill in the blanks of what the drive from the airport to downtown entailed. There were extremely few cars, pedestrians, streetlights, or lighted windows, so my mind painted a pretty grim picture of Pyongyang and its surroundings. I guessed it looked very similar to the Moscow I had first seen in 1993: a depressed gray skyline, down-at-heel buildings, and empty streets. I did see a slew of propaganda posters, statues, and slogans along the road during the 30-minute drive. But unlike the iron Lenins, Marxes, and hammer-&-sickles I had seen in Moscow 16 years earlier, the symbols in Pyongyang were touting a regime still firmly in charge of perhaps the most politically isolated country in the world.
I was part of an unofficial delegation to North Korea. It was backed by the White House and State Department, but consisted only of private business leaders. I was essentially the point man for the delegation in terms of working with the North Koreans at the U.N. to gain permission to enter, arrange logistics, and plan meetings, and that is why I arrived two days before the rest of the delegation.
On Sunday morning, the hallway outside my room was dark, with only a single bulb in the elevator foyer lighting my way forward. Downstairs, the chirping of electronic birds greeted me as I made my way through the labyrinth of corridors and stairs leading to the Koryo’s breakfast hall. My numerous trips to Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union had prepared me for the sometimes bizarre architecture that sprouted up in Communist cities. Pyongyang had been laid waste during the Korean War, so its buildings, roads, and general layout today consistently reflect the Communist patterns: utilitarian concrete monsters intended not only for mass housing, but also to imply industrial progress and proletarian triumphalism; wide but empty roads intended for the same purpose. Inside, these buildings often have empty corridors leading to unused and unneeded office spaces, and elevators arriving at half levels between two floors so as to cut down on the number of stops needed.
Ostensibly, the Koryo had everything a large Western hotel would have: swimming pool, massage room, barbershop, bookshop, business center, and multiple restaurants (including two revolving restaurants, one at the top of each tower). Behind the check-in desk, there was even an electronic screen showing arriving and departing flights at the city’s airport. However, a few notes on the above: The barbershop, located at the end of one of those empty corridors, was closed. The bookshop contained only the writings of “Great Leader” and “Dear Leader” (Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, respectively), along with a few approved “histories” of Korea and the Korean War. The restaurants served genuinely good food, but any attempt at culinary variety had succumbed to the prevailing collectivism — the restaurants offered generally the same menu no matter which one you chose to dine at. As for the business center, a solemn young woman was positioned in front of an old copier, a few telephones, and a fax machine. She waited silently and patiently for customers to arrive from around the corner. No one ever came. And the screen showing arriving and departing flights did not have much to advertise — an Air Koryo flight arriving from Beijing that evening, an Aeroflot flight arriving from Vladivostok the next day.
Arriving at the breakfast hall, I was greeted by a woman in traditional attire: a long, flowing pink dress tied at the waist with a silk scarf. The breakfast hall was large, decorated with the same faux-luxury elements as the rest of the hotel: cheap chandeliers, white Roman-style columns at either end, murals depicting Korean mountains, rivers, and lakes. But the opulence and gigantism made little sense. The Koryo’s staff, meanwhile, never failed to smile. But try to hold a conversation with any of them, or meet their eyes in any meaningful way, and they would politely step away or look elsewhere. The artificiality was stunning. This was an unnatural and claustrophobic place. I had been in North Korea one night and I already wanted to leave.
I had approximately a day and a half to spend in Pyongyang before the rest of our delegation arrived. I had gone on ahead for two principal reasons: to ensure that the arrangements for our delegates were as we expected, and to leave the impression with my escorts that our group warranted the attention of the highest echelons of the DPRK leadership. Neither of these tasks proved difficult. I found our accommodations satisfactory, and our list of scheduled meetings included talks with some of the DPRK’s most senior officials. This left time for me to achieve some personal objectives over the next 36 hours. I wanted to see Pyongyang. I wanted to observe North Koreans out and about in the city. I wanted to probe my minders to try to detect just how deep the hatred of Americans went, how North Koreans viewed themselves in their current isolation, and how much their attitudes reflected their true opinions and how much they were toeing the party line. This was a chance I knew I would never again have. Americans were rarely allowed in the country, and usually only in guided tours from Europe or Russia. I would have the opportunity to meet some of the country’s most senior leaders, talk one-on-one with my personally assigned minder, and, I hoped, pierce a small part of the secrecy that shrouded the “hermit kingdom.”
I had many private conversations with my minder — I’ll refer to him simply as Mr. Kim — away from the hotel, the restaurant, and a second minder who was also nearly always present, but never spoke. I estimated Mr. Kim to be around 40 years old, though I never was able to confirm his exact age. When I arrived at the Pyongyang airport from Beijing, he met me wearing a long black coat covering a Mao-style “worker’s” uniform, complete with a red Kim Il Sung lapel pin. He would stay with me, and with the rest of our delegation once they arrived, throughout our five days in Pyongyang.
Mr. Kim was waiting for me when I left the breakfast hall that first morning at the Koryo. The night before, he had asked if I wanted to attend a church service on Sunday. I was surprised at this suggestion, though I knew from my research that there existed in Pyongyang both a Protestant and a Catholic church. All the accounts that I had read of these seemed to agree that they were state-run entities. I thought this would be a fascinating opportunity, and an excellent starting point for solving some of the riddles about North Korea that had obsessed me. I was not at all disappointed.
The trip out to the church was the only opportunity I had during my time in North Korea to travel beyond Pyongyang’s city limits, and at that it was not very far. On the way to the church, we passed many “volunteer” brigades. These work troops exist to plant trees, maintain gardens, and dispose of trash. Many were wearing military uniforms. The morning was cold and the roads were deserted of vehicles. Both the volunteer brigades and local residents had lit fires here and there in Pyongyang’s outer limits. Riding in our van, we turned from the wide avenues of the city down a pot-holed road, passed a few donkey-drawn carts, and suddenly were in the parking lot of a modern church completely out of place among the suburban shanties.
The parking lot was deserted except for our van and a man of about 60 in a suit standing in front of the church’s stairs. He was expecting us. His English was broken, but he knew who I was, and I soon found out who he was: the pastor. We shook hands, Mr. Kim snapped a picture, and the pastor led me in. The foyer was remarkable, not because of opulent craftsmanship, but because it could pass for any modern Protestant church in the United States. The tiled floor abruptly gave way to carpet as we approached the sanctuary, and we passed tables with religious brochures and church bulletins before its entrance. Indeed, the only unfamiliar aspect of the whole building was that it was freezing. The sanctuary doors were closed; without pausing, the pastor went straight for them, and we walked in.
The place was packed; most of the congregation was older women, but there were many men also. As we entered, the congregants turned around simultaneously, whispered among themselves, and watched intently as the pastor personally led me down the center aisle and seated me in the second-to-front row. I smiled at a few fellow churchgoers around me, but all the while feeling the fixed gaze of several hundred Koreans on the back of my neck. Not two minutes after I sat down, the choir broke into song. It wasn’t beautiful, but it wasn’t bad either. I became comfortable enough inside the church that I took a couple of pictures.
The first 30 minutes of the service followed the same pattern as in Protestant churches in the United States: congregational singing, performances by the choir, announcements, and prayer. However, politics did rear its head. The first time was when the assistant pastor (who was a woman and, like her colleagues at the Koryo Hotel, dressed in the traditional flowing dress) ascended to the podium to pray. She made an extremely emotional plea for the unity of the Korean peninsula (I had a small translation device that let me follow what she said). On the verge of tears, and with the congregation moaning in agreement, she beseeched God (and the United States) to create the necessary conditions for her people to reunite. A second injection of politics was at the beginning of the pastor’s sermon. He began with an “uplifting” report that the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, had, the day before, been in the north of the country imparting his famous “on the spot” guidance to field and factory workers. Surprisingly, however, the sermon ended up being essentially indistinguishable from many I had heard as a child.
As things started to wind down, I thought I heard, through my translation device, an invitation from the pastor to address the congregation. I looked directly at him to make sure that I had heard correctly (I was hoping I hadn’t). He threw a huge smile my way, and motioned with his hands for me to come forward. The congregation laughed in encouragement as I cautiously got up and moved toward the microphones. I was completely unprepared for this, and even as I look back now, I get a nervous feeling in my stomach. Whom was I addressing? Whom was I about to greet? Were these elderly people sincere in their faith? Perhaps many were. Perhaps some still remembered the Christianity of their youth, which had taken hold so fervently on the Korean peninsula. On the other hand, was attending this service, when foreigners were in town, these people’s job? Was contributing to this façade their service to Great Leader and Dear Leader? I stood at the front and attempted a confident smile, leaned toward the microphone, and said, “I am so happy to be here with you this morning. God bless you all, and enjoy this time.” The congregation burst into applause. I was relieved — I understood that I had said the right thing. In another few minutes the pastor escorted me back down the aisle, and I was in the van with Mr. Kim heading to lunch.
There were still almost no cars on the city’s streets. Those few people who were out and about were walking or riding bikes. Although after this first day the roads became busier with both cars and pedestrians, activity remained sparse. At all times, Pyongyang’s citizens walked quickly along the sidewalks, not smiling or talking with one another. Everyone who was out on the streets looked busy, but what work was being accomplished? No billboards existed advertising the latest products, and buildings remained lightless, making it impossible to tell whether or not their office spaces were being utilized. In the shops, I would observe five, maybe six different products spaced neatly on the shelves to give the appearance of abundance, while in the restaurants sets of tables and chairs were lined up symmetrically near the windows. But no one frequented the shops, and no one sat in the restaurants. People just walked, not stopping for a coffee, a newspaper, a chat, or pretty much anything.
We had lunch that afternoon at a hotel near the center of Pyongyang. We would return there at least three more times. Besides the Koryo, it was the only restaurant where we would dine. The food was plentiful, complete with Heineken and Coke (it was the only place in Pyongyang I would see Coca-Cola). The conversation initially consisted of cautious small talk. I had not yet been afforded much opportunity to get to know Mr. Kim, although I had already learned some things about him that I wanted to explore.
He was very approachable, and in addition to understanding and speaking English fluently, he claimed to know Japanese (although I would learn later from another minder that this was not the case). Mr. Kim had a wife and two children, whom I expressed a desire to meet. I invited them all to dine with me at the Koryo that evening — my treat, of course. He expressed thanks but politely declined, stating that his family did not live in Pyongyang, and hence such a meeting would be impossible. The conversation turned briefly to our delegation’s impending visit. I expressed how appreciative I was of the meetings his government had lined up for us, and tried to assure him that our remaining four days would be an eye-opener not only for us, but also for the DPRK. Not completely grasping what I meant by that, he thanked me and said he looked forward to productive discussions “that would result in a greater understanding between the two countries.”
Over the next few days we would become as close acquaintances as possible given our respective positions. However, having traveled extensively, and worked in environments where foreign intrigue was active, I was extremely careful never to let my guard down. Before arriving, I had rehearsed the narrative of my life and career I wanted the North Koreans to know, and I had hammered into my head what information was strictly off-limits to share. I was also fluent and up to date on U.S. policy regarding North Korea. I would never violate this in any discussions I had with anyone there. I also understood when to answer a question and when not to. I knew how to smile and make small talk when a sensitive issue came up. On more than one occasion in prior travels I had gained the trust of an adversary. I was confident I could do it again, even in a country as repressed as the DPRK.
– Reggie Gibbs was a 2009–10 Washington fellow at the National Review Institute. He was earlier a Marine Corps infantry officer, and is currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The preceding is the first installment of a two-part article. The second installment will appear tomorrow.