A Passage to North Korea

The recent death of Kim Jong-il reminded me of my passage to North Korea.

In the summer of 1994, a couple of weeks after the death of the great leader Kim II-Sung, I was asked by my firm to go to North Korea for a due diligence assignment commissioned by a South Korean company. I was to go to the very far northern corner of the country where it has borders with Jilin province of China and Primorsky Krai of Russia;  the “golden triangle” area known as Rajin-Sonbong ( name now changed to Rason).

I had no choice but to accept the assignment. Anyway, there was something in me that wanted to go. Not because it was a particularly glamorous destination but because it was so mysterious — literally and figuratively closed off to the real world. It was so isolated and today it’s still called the “hermit kingdom.”

North Korea left no traces in my passport, not even a visa. It showed that I left Beijing  and returned a week  later. There was no indication of where I had been.

Actually, I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang on a plane with propellers, it was the kind of plane which emitted white fumes that flowed down to the cabin when the air conditioners were switched on. I knew I was going back in time and the clock had started to rewind.

When I reached Pyongyang, my passport was taken away from me to be kept “in safe custody”,  to make sure that I would not leave their country without permission.

I was taken to the hotel and then to pay a tribute to their great leader who had just passed away. The street was meticulously clean ( they could not afford to have any rubbish), orderly ( who dared to disobey), no signs of animals (all eaten), no obese people (nothing much to eat, healthy diet?),  people all dressed up in similar manner (fashion?) , many buildings construction of which had been abandoned (lack of funds).

Then there was this long journey of 23 hours on board of a slow train from Pyongyang to Rason with villages and barren areas along the way. The train journey seemed to have last for ages.

Rason was basically a very remote and backward rural area and I stayed in a bungalow.  Guess what I had for breakfast?  A couple of small crabs eaten whole ie. with the shells so that, I was told,  I would have the necessary calcium!

A special economic zone with an airport was planned. The professional people I met were quite intelligent and also somewhat secretive but the assignment did not present any problems. From talking to people, you knew that they had limited knowledge of the outside world. There was strict control on what information was given to the people.

On returning to Pyongyang, for the first time in the week, I was offered meat. . . . . dog’s meat which I delightfully accepted.  In any case, it wasn’t man’s meat (re Tian & Di).

Flying back to HK, I couldn’t help thinking how lucky and blessed we were.  When the plane finally touched down on the Kai Tak runway, I knew I had travelled all the way from Di and had now reached Tian.