It’s not easy for Americans to travel to North Korea, a country we’ve been pretty much at odds with for the last 60 years. Casual travel is limited to authorized tour groups. However, as president of the Fuller Center for Housing, an Americus-based non-profit organization that builds homes for the poor, I’ve been traveling to North Korea under government auspices, which makes it easier to get into the country and to travel a bit.
Visas are approved in Pyongyang and issued at the North Korean embassy in Beijing, so a trip through China is part of the deal.
Air travel to Pyongyang is by the state airline, Air Koryo, which operates Beijing flights on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Koryo flies Russian-built Tupelov jets, some of which are new and some of which are not. Instead of closed overhead bins, the older planes have open luggage racks overhead, much like you’d find on a bus or train. These planes are the first tip that a trip to Korea is a trip back in time.
Pyongyang is a city of about 3 million dominated by high-rise apartment buildings. It’s not a festive city, but it is one of the great monuments to North Korea’s leaders and history. The best views of the city are from the Reunification Highway, the road that goes to the border with South Korea. The buildings on that end of town are painted in pastels, in contrast to the gray that dominates much of the city. Pyongyang was pretty much destroyed during the Korean War, so despite its ancient heritage, it is relatively young. Much of the post-war building was influenced by Soviet architectural styles, resulting in massive structures that speak to the power of the state.
There are few privately owned cars in North Korea, keeping Pyongyang rush-hour free. Traffic is controlled by a corps of blue and white uniformed traffic police, mostly young women, who stand in the major intersections and perform a military ballet as they keep the cars moving. There are a number of hotels set aside for foreign guests. I’ve always stayed at the Koryo, a 44-story, twin-tower structure in the heart of the city. Foreign visitors are greeted at the airport by a translator, who accompanies them whenever they leave their hotel. Mine have been very pleasant and helpful young men, and though the assignment surely includes keeping an eye on their charges, I’ve never felt oppressed by their presence.
One of the hardest adaptations for Americans, who are accustomed to the availability of instant communications, is the isolation that comes from not having cell phones, e-mail or Internet access. You can call the U.S. from the hotel, but it’s expensive so a little bit of a luxury.
On my travels there I’ve been able to visit a number of homes in the countryside, near where we’ll be building houses, and to interact with some families. The houses are tidy and well kept. They don’t have much furniture. Koreans sleep, eat and pretty much live on the floor, on pallets and mats that are stored away when not in use. The kitchens feature a tiled area with holes to hold the cooking pots. The rest of the floor is made of wooden slats that can be removed to tend the fire under the pots. All of the kitchens I visited had a methane stove powered by a holding tank for the latrine and animal waste—a practical and earth-friendly feature.
My travels to North Korea have convinced me that much of what we know about these people is about as wrong as much of what they know about us. Everyone I’ve met, from rural farmers to government officials, has been friendly and gracious, and all have shared their personal desire for peace.
I’ve come to believe that if the people were running things instead of the politicians, peace might be within our reach. The Fuller Center project will bring Americans and Koreans together, working side by side on a good cause. Our dream is that those encounters will help engender a level of trust that might someday lead to a meaningful and lasting peace.
David Snell is president of The Fuller Center for Housing. For more information, click here.