Thirty peace activists from 15 countries arrived in Beijing on May 17th. I knew 11 of the women before arriving but most of the women knew maybe one or two others and a few knew no one. Our work for peace and justice had taken very different paths and it was striking that many of those paths had not crossed. We spent the first day in the hotel conference room meeting each other and learning what we could about the Koreas.
Deann Borshay Liem introduced her crew who followed us for the next 10 days for the film she is making about the walk called "Crossings." As part of our education she screened her latest film, "Memory of Forgotten War," a painful look at the separated families in North and South Korea. We were all in tears at the end, with a deeper insight into the price of the war and the DMZ. Many of the delegation members had been working much of their lives on reuniting Korea. Now I realize what we learned then only scratched the surface about our role in Korea as American citizens.
The first day in Beijing ended with a delicious banquet a few blocks from the hotel at the Yunnan Restaurant which gave us a chance to walk in the streets of Beijing -- a bustling city, full of smells, noise, cars, taxis, horns, people, endless lights and signs. The streets were filled with young people as we walked back from the restaurant, This was a stark difference to what we found in Pyongyang.
Tuesday our journey to North Korea began with a press conference at the hotel.UN Nobel Laureates Leymah Gbowee and Mairead Maguire, with the visionary and leader of our walk, Christine Ahn, shared our story and purpose. Theytook questions from the room full of reporters as we had to race to the airport on a bus. (By the end of the trip, film producer Abby Disney could be heard humming, "The wheels on the bus go round and round.") The North Korean airline was full, and I appreciated that the overhead bins were the largest I had ever seen. Checking our bags at the airport reminded me of flying to Cuba, with fellow travelers rolling in piles of large boxes covered in plastic.
From the time we landed in Pyongyang it felt as if we were back in the '50's. We walked down the stairs to the tarmac and across the airfield to a simple two-story gray building with little signage or bustle.
We had heard horror stories about going through immigration at the airport, threats of them taking our computers and phones, so I brought a totally stripped computer and Gay Dillingham had left her phone and computer at home. They only looked at a few computers and mostly to see if we had "bad" (whatever that meant) movies on them. They didn't really look at the phones, making me regret stripping mine of everything.
Again we boarded buses, and began our first ride through the streets of Pyongyang. I was shocked by all the tall apartment buildings and wide boulevards but more shocked by how empty it was; it felt like a ghost town. There were people but not enough to match all the buildings. And they walked with a purpose, mostly lone walkers and others on their bikes. So few cars for the 2 million I was told live in this city. It felt more like being in a small town. Sometimes all that was on a boulevard was our bus. A huge street for as far as you could see, the width every city planner longs for and few cars. There were more buses, and they seemed to always be packed, standing room only. The people on the buses were serious, focused, and I didn't see a lot of talking or laughing.
My translator pointed out a street that had been built in one year with beautiful high rises with a more modern, Soviet-style flair. They had been built for the University professors and included swimming pools, restaurants and gyms. She pointed at another building and said it is the highest building in the world. It didn't look like it to me, but I didn't argue. Later we drove under an arch that looked much like the Arc de Triomphe and I suggested that to her, she answered it was 10 meters taller.
Our hotel was on an island in the middle of the river that runs through Pyongyang, an ugly gray building with smallish windows, weather-damaged and desolate-feeling, with very few cars in the parking lot. We walked into a vast entry hall but we were the only ones there, again that uncanny sense of being in a ghost town. Check-in was fast and easy but it was hard to give up my passport, which they kept hostage until we got to the DMZ. I am sure it helped keep our behavior in check, even if it was not their intention. We were taking it all in with wonder and curiosity. Every detail was interesting. What was this place of the dark secrets?
We had a few minutes to run to our rooms and change for our welcome banquet, hosted by the Korean Committee for the Solidarity with the World's Peoples, part of the Cultural Foreign Relations Committee. We arrived at the hallway outside the banquet hall and were startled by the bright and formal dresses of our hosts. The ages ranged from over 80 to early 20's. We fell easily into relationship with the North Korean women, taking pictures and introducing ourselves. I got very excited by all the pink dresses; the waitresses were also in pink.
The banquet hall was madly formal. An enormous pastoral landscape mural filled the largest wall, marble floors, and a very elegantly set table, a huge room for the 6 tables of guests. Medea Benjamin sat at the exceptionally large head table with the director of the Cultural Foreign Relations Committee who had spent a lot of time in South America and so they were able to talk in Spanish. I sat with her deputy who had excellent English. The younger they were, the better their English. I learned they all take it in school, and there is more English than Chinese taught in North Korea. Medea's table was painfully formal, as was the entire room. Speeches were given, and it was all very polite. The dinner was amazing, too much but was excellent. The courses felt like they would never end: chicken, beef, duck, noodles and rice at the end along with the excellent kimchi that came with every meal, including breakfast. The young women at my table were in awe that I was so proficient at chopsticks; their chopsticks are thin and metal. I think everything about us was surprising them that night. None of them had met an American, and we were nice, funny, playful and interested in them. We were less afraid of them than I think they were initially of us. They were slower to open, it wasn't until the last two days they really opened up to me about their lives.
Our rooms were on the 31st and 38th floors and we discovered there actually were others in the hotel, not many, mostly businessmen from China and tourists from Hong Kong or Japan, but on the lower floors. They were a bit rundown and the smell of cigarettes filled the halls. The elevators were sketchy and stopped at your floor when they felt like it, and during the occasional blackout you were stuck in them for awhile. Coleen Baik walked up the 38 flights a few times, starting with the first blackout.
The next day we had a full schedule of things to see in and around Pyongyang. We started at Mangyongdae, the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, founder of the DPRK. We arrived along with thousands of school-age kids in uniforms with red scarves around their necks. They didn't seem as interested in us as we were in them. The line was longer than the eye could see, in a rough formation, they seemed to fall into formation like a dance when needed, and relax in it while waiting to move. There was an adult to every about 30 kids. They were very well-behaved and orderly but would relax into being kids.
The tour guide was hyper-serious and all of them had a way of speaking that was theatrical, lots of passion and uplifted sentences with heightened meaning. Kim Il Sung was the Che Guevara of Korea, he had fought for many years to free Korea from the Japanese occupation.
We were told over and over about the HUMBLE beginnings of the great leader, Kim Il Sung, and how he came to visit his parents who just wanted to stay in the humble small house and not follow him in the city. He continued to visit them until they died. It was all quite serious and included the laying of flowers at thedoorway by the head of the Women's Union. Cameras were following us constantly from the North Korean media in addition to the two reporters, David Guttenfelder of NatGeo and Eric Talmadge of AP, who were connected to our delegation.