Dr. Watson E. Mills is a world traveler, and he’s eager to share the tales of his many journeys. Mills, who served as pastor of Sharpsburg Baptist for 27 years and was a professor at Mercer University for 23 years, is one of the most well-traveled people in the world, having visited more than 425 countries and regions, according to the Most Traveled Person (MTP) website. Among that group’s world-wide membership, he is the 187th most traveled person in the world and the 71st most traveled person in the United States.
His visit occurred during the reign of Kim Jong-il (the son of the Great Leader) who served until his death in 2011. Therefore this article reflects a less turbulent time in North Korean politics compared with the present. In 2011 Kim Jong-il died and was replaced by his son, Kim Jong-un, the present leader.
Mills has just returned from three weeks in Southeast Asia but has promised to stay home long enough to complete his next travel chapter: Bethlehem.
On a sunny morning in September 2008, I boarded an Air Koryo plane in Beijing, China for the short flight to Pyongyang, North Korea. Air Koryo, the official state airline of North Korea, has consistently been voted the World’s Worst Airline. Due to safety and maintenance concerns, Air Koryo was added to the list of air carriers banned from flying in the European Union in March 2006. Our flight featured one channel of censored in-flight entertainment. During the flight I happened to be seated beside one of our Beijing-based tour guides. During the takeoff roll, I asked him about the small golf-cart like vehicle just visible beyond the wing tip, moving alongside the aircraft. Without a trace of sarcasm he said, “Oh, that guy picks up any parts that fall off the plane so the next flight won’t run over them.” Was this guy kidding?
I was delighted and relieved when the plane touched down in Pyongyang. The prop-jet was, in fact, an old moth-balled Russian plane of pre-WWII vintage. We entered the small arrivals hall and someone produced visas for each passenger. Our visas were not stamped into our passports but rather on separate sheets of paper. The procedure for entering North Korea was not as bad as I expected. The thing I remember most clearly upon arriving in the hermit kingdom is how sad everyone looked. Their hapless stares were worn upon stern, tightly drawn faces and seemed to reflect a degree of dread that is rarely seen outside of the most impoverished of the third-world countries.
In our group of 60 folks, there were 10 Americans. We were separated from the others and put on a bus by ourselves. We exited the airport and met our guide, driver, trainee-guide, and back-of-the-bus guard. The purpose of the rear guard, apparently, was to insure that we Americans did not say anything defamatory about North Korea.
Our first stop was at the Taedong River where the USS Pueblo, captured by North Korea in 1968, is still moored. Today it serves as a museum of sorts. Once aboard I got my first glimpse into the world of North Korea’s propaganda machine. We were lectured about the dramatic sea battle in which 19 ships from the mighty North Korean navy captured this American “destroyer.” The truth is that the USS Pueblo was a spy ship which had been stripped of all armaments (except for two 50 caliber machine guns) and stuffed full of communication gear and spy apparatus.
The next day the bus headed south for a trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). I had been here several years before while visiting Seoul, South Korea. On that trip to Panmunjom I was warned not to take pictures unless given permission. Some of the tourists on my bus were very concerned because we had been told that if you do not obey the instructions regarding picture-taking or do not refrain from making suspicious movements around the border, the North Korean soldiers might open fire, something that had, in fact, happened during the previous year.
As the bus approached Kaesong I saw a monument devoted to the journalists who died at this border while covering the news. We saw ribbons in the trees symbolizing prayers for peace. At the actual DMZ line, our guide advised us NOT to talk to the North Korean soldiers who looked like statues – none of them even blinked.
Strangely, approaching the DMZ from the North Korean side there are no warnings about the possibility of being shot and almost no limitations on taking photographs. I could look across, just a few meters and clearly see the tourists on the South Korean side, many seemed almost frozen in place, if not a bit terrified.
There is an actual “line” that runs through this place. Inside one of the buildings is a large wooden table where the representatives sat and signed the documents which ended the war and divided the country in half. Visitors are invited to sit there for a picture. Of course the North Korean guide speaks about the glorious victory over the “imperialist forces of the USA” who had “surrendered” here.
When we returned to Pyongyang, we stopped at a huge square (the one often seen on TV during the regime’s large military parades) so we could photograph the monument to the Great Leader, Kim II-sung. There was one stipulation; the photo must include the whole statue—top to bottom, head to toe. After dinner, we went to the May Day Stadium where the Mass Games are performed. These “games” are a socialist spectacular with song and dance. The 90-minute extravaganza features over 100,000 people who perform in areas of gymnastics, acrobatics, dance, etc., accompanied by music and other spectacular visual effects, all wrapped in a highly politicized package. Performances are held every evening at 7 p.m.
One of the most interesting features of the Mass Games is the “largest picture in the world,” which is actually a giant mosaic created by individual students each holding a book whose pages link with their neighbors’ to make up one gigantic scenic panorama. When the students turn the pages, the scenes change. Up to 170 pages make up just a single book. The printed program states that 20,000 students take part in this one feature which runs throughout the entire program while other activities are playing out on the huge field below.
The morning after the “really Big Show,” we boarded the bus for our mandatory visit to the mausoleum where their “Great Leader” is entombed. Before leaving the USA, in order to obtain a visa to North Korea, all foreigners agree in writing to not only visit the mausoleum but to do so observing a specific dress code and to exhibit very specific behavior. In my case, the dress code requirement meant “a shirt and tie.” Perhaps most egregiously, each foreign tourist must agree in advance to bow before the perpetually re-embalmed body of the Great Leader (the body is shipped annually to Moscow for the same preservation treatments given to Lenin’s body). As offensive as that requirement may be, agreement is required in order for the visa to be issued. No bow, no Visa.
At the mausoleum I was struck by the sheer size. Later I learned that the mausoleum was once the palace of Kim II-sung. It is many times larger than the tombs of Lenin or Chairman Mao or even Ho Chi Minh, probably larger than all these combined! The size of the place is underscored by the fact that visitors must ride moving sidewalks just to reach the first check-point deep inside. At this stop I had to surrender my camera, sunglasses, watch, and money belt – even my handkerchief. Before I could do that, the red guard unzipped each compartment of my money belt and thoroughly examined its contents so as to insure that there was nothing in it that would threaten the remains of the Great Leader. Next, I stood upon a machine with whirling brushes to remove any dirt and/or dust from the bottoms of my shoes. Re-boarding the moving sidewalks, I passed thousands of school children on their way out of the mausoleum dressed in brightly colored school uniforms. This was truly an amazing sight. The small children were crying loudly, uncontrollably sobbing. Many of them literally shaking and swooning, waving their arms and rubbing their eyes. I wondered if some of these kids would one day face my grandchildren in war.
I finally arrived at the steps that lead up to the burial chamber which contains the fish bowl where the body of the Great Leader rests. There were armed guards everywhere. We approached in groups of four. I gave a half-hearted bow and then walked out. The whole exercise took maybe 20 seconds. Exiting the burial chamber required a winding walk through the various rooms where all of the Great Leader’s prizes, honorary doctorates, medals, awards, and books, are displayed.
Just as in Beijing at Mao’s mausoleum, the way out included a mandatory stroll through the gift shop where you can buy souvenirs with the Great Leader’s visage emboldened upon them (for hard currencies only). Once I had said goodbye to the hermit kingdom and returned safely to my hotel in Beijing, I booted up my netbook and began communicating freely with the outside world, thanking God that I am a citizen of the United States of America. And appreciating more than ever what freedom really means.