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Post Edward Mears Visits the USS Pueblo in Pyongyang
Created by John Eipper on 01/24/18 3:36 AM

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Edward Mears Visits the USS Pueblo in Pyongyang (John Eipper, USA, 01/24/18 3:36 am)

Edward Mears writes:

I noticed Paul Pitlick's post about the USS Pueblo this morning, and couldn't help but mention that I have visited the Pueblo as part of an admittedly foolish trip I took to North Korea in 2010 while Kim Jong Il was still in power.

The boat has become a floating museum used by the North Koreans to convince visitors of America's imperialist intentions on the Korean Peninsula. Almost all foreign tours make a stop at the boat, where visitors are indoctrinated of North Korea's version of events, centered on North Korea's contention that the USS Pueblo had clearly intruded into NK territorial waters. A point is made of showing visitors the ship's remaining surveillance equipment (fourth image, below) that was used for spying operations against North Korea. Naturally, visitors are told Commander Bucher's confession was not made under duress and was of his own volition.

Several pictures from my visit are below. Bonus picture of Yours Truly on top of the Grand People's Study House looking over Kim Il Sung Square and the Taedong River, where the USS Pueblo was moored at the time.

JE comments:  Far out!  The North Koreans probably consider that spy equipment to be state of the art.  Seriously, now, the Pueblo is the only commissioned US Navy ship in captivity, anywhere.  It has provided a half century's worth of pride to the Kim regime.

Fascinating photos.  Thank you, Eddie.  How long did you stay in NK?  How closely were you monitored?  North Korea strikes me as the creepiest country you can visit, anywhere.  If I may ask, Eddie, were you afraid?

Edward Mears at Grand People`s Study House, Pyongyang

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  • My Trip to North Korea (with Photos); from Edward Mears (John Eipper, USA 01/31/18 2:33 AM)

    Edward Mears writes:

    John E (January 24th) asked whether I was scared during my trip to North Korea.

    Due in large part to my naiveté at the time I can say: not really. Tensions with North Korea at that time (2010) were relatively low (at least publicly), and the tours were considered relatively safe, if ill-advised. As an undergraduate I had obtained a certificate in Asian Studies from Georgetown's SFS, with the Korean peninsula a focus of my certificate studies (my thesis examined cultural exchanges between Japan and South Korea following WWII through the early aughts).  As a result I took an interest in the Korean War and the division of the Korean peninsula.

    While studying abroad in Tokyo in 2006 I took my first trip to South Korea, primarily to visit the heavily fortified DMZ, which I took an interest in after taking a course on Japanese-Korean relations by Professor Toshimitsu Shigemura at Waseda University, who is considered a North Korea expert and had visited North Korea and the DMZ several times in a semi-official capacity. The South Koreans certainly made a show of the DMZ, and tours there felt designed to strike fear into the hearts of curious visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the hermit kingdom. The military presence was very pronounced and we were to obey strict orders about photography and where we were permitted to walk around the South Korean DMZ, reinforced by a threat of immediate expulsion from the tour and arrest if we wandered off course (that is, if we weren't abducted by the North Koreans first or dismembered by a land mine). Mind you this tour did not include the Joint Security Area and there was no real threat of interaction with any North Korean soldiers, so I was a bit surprised by the level of caution imposed throughout this tour.  I had a suspicion that much of the vigilance was for dramatic effect and to impress on the otherwise comfortable visitors that they had entered a war zone (which was, in fact, the reality).

    After catching my first sight of a North Korean Potemkin village from a military observation deck from the South Korean side of the DMZ, I became even more fascinated by North Korea.  I was curious of what life was really like for those unfortunate enough to be born on the wrong side of the 38th parallel, in stark contrast to cosmopolitan life in the prosperous South. Over the next several years I engrossed myself in the North Korea "watcher" community and spent far too much time pouring over NK-related blogs and google maps of Pyongyang and other points of interest. After hearing about Westerner-friendly North Korea tour companies from a friend who taught English in South Korea and who had American friends who had gone on such tours (and survived), I began looking more seriously into visiting North Korea and ultimately booked a five day tour to Pyongyang and Kaesong with Koryo Tours, operating out of Beijing.

    The first stop on this journey was a pre-departure orientation in Beijing with approximately 20 other Western tourists (mostly older and primarily from from Australia, Europe and Canada), following which we set off for Beijing Airport to catch our flight to Pyongyang on a very aged Air Koryo Tupolev Tu-204. Taxiing in this rickety Soviet aircraft on the tarmac at PEK, I had my only real moment of terror during the trip where the immense gravity and real danger of taking a trip to this rogue state finally sunk in.  But by then it was too late to bail, and I resigned myself to my decision and whatever fate awaited me in Pyongyang. It was on this flight, however, that I had one of my more interesting interactions of the trip.

    Sitting across the aisle from me appeared to be 6 younger North Koreans (perhaps 20 years of age), dressed in the drab and uniquely North Korean version of the "Mao-suit" made famous by the Kim family. They looked entirely the part in these ill-fitting and boring suits festooned with Kim Il Sung lapel pins.  However, I noticed that their hair styles were very youthful and patently "Japanese"--exquisitely styled and dyed with streaks of brown which were very much out of sync with the black and boxy hairstyles of other North Koreans who were on the flight. Later on the flight I heard several of them speaking Japanese to each other and could not help but further inquire about these young, fashionable (above the neck) Japanese-speaking North Koreans. After striking up a conversation in Japanese, I learned that they were Japanese-born Koreans of North Korean decent (known as zai-nichi) who attended one of the very few North Korean schools in Tokyo and were making a mandatory trip to Pyongyang following their high school graduation to learn more about their ancestral home, which I learned was their first trip to North Korea. Having grown up in very modern Japan (albeit as outsiders with few legal protections), I eagerly wanted to learn more about their thoughts about this obligation to visit the comparatively backward North Korea and what it was like attending a North Korean school in Tokyo.  However, I astutely recognized the danger of such a question (for both parties involved) now that we were on a North Korean-flagged airplane and diverted the conversation to harmless small talk about Tokyo.

    We were met at Pyongyang's airport by a group of three minders: two English-speaking guides and one gentleman whose sole job was to document our entire trip with a very dated VHS recorder (no doubt for use in propaganda to show the adoring North Korean masses footage of Westerners marveling at Pyongyang's sights and paying respects to Kim Il Sung). Much to our surprise, our main guide (unfortunately I have forgotten her name) informed us on the bus that we were free to take pictures of whatever we wanted on the tour and the only time we were forbidden from doing so was during the 3-hour bus ride from Pyongyang to Kaesong. We were also expressly prohibited from taking photos of anyone wearing a military uniform, but otherwise were free to take as many pictures and videos as we liked.

    Our time in Pyongyang was spent busing around to various monuments and museums detailing the Korean struggle against the Japanese in the first half of the 20th century and the Americans in the latter half, and extolling the great sacrifices and heroism displayed by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il to protect all Koreans from these imperialist aggressors. Our interactions with "everyday" North Koreans were extremely limited, and any such encounter was clearly scripted. One such scripted encounter immediately comes to mind: following a walk around Kim Il Sung Stadium (North Korea's soccer stadium), we were led on a short hike up the hill behind the stadium where we just so "happened" across a gathering of about 50 North Koreans who were partaking in a traditional dance at a pagoda. The guides marveled at our sheer luck in coming across such a "natural" scene of life in North Korea. We were invited in to dance (or attempt to do so) with the North Koreans--but not to otherwise interact or speak with them, which made for a very bizarre game of charades in trying to explain the choreography. As quickly as we arrived we were whisked away, with no real opportunity to mingle with the North Koreans as the dancing and loud traditional music foreclosed any chance for dialogue (given the language divide, however, this may not have made a difference). In scenarios that were not scripted, our presence was almost always eerily ignored. When walking through Kim Il Sung square or along some of the larger streets during the busy times of day, I would have expected that a group of 20 Westerners would have drawn significant attention and curiosity from a local population that rarely encounters the world outside of North Korea. Instead it felt as if we were ghosts, and that the North Koreans were going out of their way to ignore us: eye contact was entirely averted and our existence was hardly acknowledged.

    The "highlights" of the tour of Pyongyang included a visit Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where we were passengers on the world's longest moving walkway into the caverns of Kim Il Sung's former residence-turned-mausoleum to pay our respects to the embalmed corpse of Kim Il Sung; a ride on Pyongyang's incredibly ornate and spotlessly clean subway system; a terrifying elevator ride up to the top of Juche Tower overlooking Pyongyang; and finally watching a group of choreographers coordinate the marching formations of thousands of young North Koreans practicing for a military parade in Kim Il Sung Square from the top of the Grand People's Study House. However, the "main event" of our tour was attendance at a performance of the Arirang Mass Games, which is a mass gymnastics performance held at the world's largest stadium--Rungnado 1st of May Stadium on the Taedong River. There are many YouTube videos of these Mass Games that give a sense of their grandeur and the incredible amount of planning required to coordinate more than 40,000 participants (many of whom are school children) in synchronized gymnastics and elaborate mosaic pictures.  However, taking in this performance live was something else. It was quite possibly the most extraordinary performance I have ever witnessed in person and I was left entirely in awe at the discipline of the performers and their flawless coordination in a performance that lasted nearly 2 hours and included one of the largest displays of martial arts seen anywhere.

    Our last stop on the trip was to Kaesong, a sleepy medieval village on the border with South Korea which was very close to the DMZ and the JSA, and one of North Korea's industrial hot spots. On the three-hour bus ride down the aptly named Reunification Highway, I and a few other Americans in the group had the chance to speak with the male minder in our group. When asked why he spoke English so well, he told us that he had grown up abroad due to his father's status as a diplomat and had been exposed to the English language and Western culture from a very young age (he stated that his favorite movie from abroad was Home Alone). Having built up a rapport and finding some commonality (who doesn't love Home Alone?), we felt a bit more free to ask more candid questions and share other experiences with each other. After he showed us all a picture of his wife and children, I told him that I had just come from Japan where I was visiting my girlfriend at the time (a Japanese girl) and showed him a very innocuous picture of myself standing next to my girlfriend with my arm around her shoulder. Although he did not say anything in response to the picture, I could tell from his unease that even this sort of display of affection made him uncomfortable, perhaps even especially so when such affection is being displayed between two of his country's greatest enemies (or maybe I was overthinking it). Sensing his discomfort, I moved the discussion to last night's Mass Games performance, the theme of which was the long and important relationship between China and North Korea (a significant number of Chinese visitors were also visiting the country and I suspected that this was arranged to coincide with their visit). After sharing my amazement at the performance, I sensed an opportunity to discuss China with our guide and asked him what he thought of China's policy of economic liberalization and how it had successfully transformed itself into a thriving "market" economy. As I quickly realized, this question had pushed far beyond the limits of our budding friendship, and our guide responded in terse and belligerent language that he would never permit his country to go the way of the China, emphasizing that he would gladly give his life in battle before surrendering the socialist cause. Myself and the other Americans were surprised by this strong reaction, especially after he had gone on about enjoying his life growing up in England. The contrast in our respective ideologies became incredibly clear for me at this moment, and all pretense of our short-lived "friendship" was stripped away. I spent much of the rest of my trip thinking about this incident and could not help but feel pessimistic about relations between the US and North Korea.

    Our last stop was the North Korean side of the DMZ and the JSA. In considerable contrast to the South Korean DMZ experience, there is very little pageantry leading to the North Korean DMZ and we more or less took a left off the highway, passing one small gate with a few guards, before finding ourselves staring at the iconic blue houses at the Joint Security Area. We were free to roam around the JSA (although not permitted to cross over to South Korea) under little to no apparent supervision from the guards. Having visited previously from the South, I was baffled at this lack of seriousness and supervision (though this attitude may no doubt have changed due to the recent defection of a North Korean soldier across the JSA). There were only a few (unarmed) North Korean guards patrolling the JSA at the time, and the South Koreans had seemingly retreated into the "Freedom House" on the South Korean side, denying us the chance for an iconic photo of soldiers from the two countries squaring off at the demarcation line. After a lecture from a military minder on the American's evil creation of the line dividing the two Koreas, we departed the DMZ and ate dinner that night at a Korean-style BBQ restaurant that only served very unsatisfying duck meat, which happened to be our only Korean meal of the entire trip (they had--perhaps intentionally--only served us "Western" food in our hotel, to which we were confined after each tour and where we ate each of our meals).

    Although there were times throughout the trip where I developed a new understanding or sympathy for North Korea (I remember having the distinct impression that they would just like to be left alone by the world), I was chilled by deplorable living conditions (especially outside of Pyongyang, where we were not permitted to take pictures) and the statist brainwashing that had terrified the populous into toeing the party line our of fear or death (or worse). They may want to be left alone, but that is because they have only ever known life under the Kim regime.

    Eight years removed from my trip to North Korea, my views on North Korea have become much more hawkish and I understand that permitting the Kim regime to obtain nuclear weapons capable of hitting almost anywhere in the world incredibly destabilize Northeast Asia and set a terrible precedent for other potential bad actors. War, however, may be an even worse option, and my only hope now is that somehow someway diplomacy succeeds and North Korea can perhaps some day be ushered in to the community of nations and its people can enjoy those freedoms which they have been denied.

    JE comments:  Brilliantly done, Eddie.  North Korea is nothing if not a country of hyperbole:  largest stadium, longest moving walkway, tallest unfinished hotel--as well as most reclusive, oppressive, and bizarre.

    The link below has an excellent photo essay of the stadium.  I cringe to add that it has also been the venue for high-level executions.  Ed Mears appended several photos to his post.  I will send them out in two installments.  Here's Part I:


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