Alternate History



In April 2016, I visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea. My interest in visiting was purely anthropological. I wished to observe one of the most isolated cultures on the planet without judgement, or at least as much as was possible. I am indifferent to politics and I stopped consuming the media years ago. There is no hidden agenda in the following account, except to show that there are two sides to every story and both are just as real to the people to whom they have been taught.

With the exception of the final quote, all italicized sections of this post are quotes from the book, “The US Imperialists Started the Korean War” by Candidate Academician Ho Jong Ho, Dr. Kang Sok Hui, and Dr. Pak Thae Ho. This book is translated into many languages and is available for purchase at propaganda* bookstores throughout the DPRK.

*The use of the word “propaganda” is theirs. In the DPRK, no attempt is made to call it anything other than what it is.

Chapter One: The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

The US imperialism’s vicious policy of world domination was based on the insatiable avarice of the US billionaires who had fattened to the utmost.

She strides towards us. Chin forward, steely eyes. A tight smile as she is introduced as our museum guide. We follow her down the path. Statues of fighting men rise beside us. Faces forever frozen in fury. First stop: a row of battered war machines. Planes, Jeeps, tanks. Captured weapons from the US aggressors. She bares her teeth in a smile. Trophies.

I lift my eyes to the photos displayed above. Soldiers with arms lifted in surrender. Lifeless faces.


Next stop on the tour: the Pueblo. It was an armed US spy ship that had disguised itself as a research ship, the museum guide explains. It was captured in DPRK territorial waters. We step inside the vessel. Each bullet hole is circled in blood red. We sit in darkness as a film about the incident is shown. I settle back in the seat and try to focus. I’ve had only a couple of hours sleep every night over the past four days. The grainy images blur. I close my eyes and take slow, deep breaths. The retro-dramatic musical score drowns out the heavily accented narration. From time to time, I open my eyes. Images flicker: the Pueblo crew with arms raised; President Johnson’s face contorted with cartoonish rage; a closeup of the official apology from the US government; the crew striding past the camera, one by one, to freedom.

(Below is the actual video.)

The Korean people’s great victory in the Fatherland Liberation War was a brilliant victory of the Juche-oriented, revolutionary military strategy of President Kim Il Sung, the ever-victorious, iron-willed brilliant commander and gifted military strategist, who had accumulated rich experience in the protracted arduous anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle and combined a great revolutionary idea with outstanding leadership ability and brilliant military art.

No photos are allowed inside the museum. The guide waits for us to put our cameras and phones away before leading us inside the massive building. It is both austere and opulent. Marble floors, soft gold military insignia. A color statue of Kim Il Sung presides over the central hall. He stands against a backdrop of fireworks, arm raised, beatific smile. He is reacting to the crowd.

I whisper to one of our Korean guides, “The Marshall** really looks like his grandfather.”

A soft glow lights up her eyes. Her voice thickens with fondness. “He does.”

The museum guide turns our attention to the flower carvings in the wall. Magnolias are very special to the Korean people. The last part of her explanation is muffled.

As she leads us through the vast corridors, I approach her. “Excuse me, did you say that magnolias represent the pure hearts of the Korean people?”

My question provokes a glimmer of delight and a twitch of annoyance. “Clean hearts,” she corrects me. Her face relaxes into a slight smile. “Thank you for asking.”


For the next hour, we wander through a labyrinth of reenactment and commemoration. Life-size dioramas of field life. All four seasons are represented. Birdsong emanates from the speakers for summer; icicles hang from the huts for winter. We continue through replicas of soldiers’ tunnels and rooms lined with memorabilia. The mood darkens. The museum guide raises her tiny porcelain hand, palm up like a show model, to the glass jars displayed on the shelves. These contain some of the actual insects that the aggressors used as germ warfare. Millions of flies, spiders, mosquitoes, beetles and other insects were infected with cholera, typhus and other epidemic bacilli and then they were dropped on the Korean people.

Her hand falls to her side. She beckons us into the next room, which depicts a wasteland of defeat. White crosses and corpses. Blood red sunset. A crow picks at the flesh of a dead US soldier. An endless loop of cawing pours out of the speakers.

The US mercenary troops, on the order of Harrison, tore the babies away from the bosoms of their desperately resisting mothers and locked them up in another warehouse. The hills and air of Sinchon reverberated with the babies’ cries for their mothers and the screams of the mothers calling for their darlings. The US cutthroats gave gasoline to those innocent babies crying for water to burn their hearts to death. They starved and froze them to death. They threw rice straw over the heads of the mothers and children, poured gasoline over it, and set fire to it. Not satisfied with this, they threw more than 100 hand grenades into the warehouse through the window to murder the detainees cold-bloodedly. As a result, over 910 people, including 400 mothers and 102 children were killed together in the two warehouses.

The museum guide invites the ladies of our group to take the elevator to the second floor. I shake off my daze and break the silence, “It’s all really interesting.”

She beams. “Thank you.” She begins to quiz me on things that she has told us. Dates and names of battles.

I stammer. My answers are wrong. She sighs and her shoulders slump, but her hands finally unclench.

I’m not usually such an airhead, I want to explain. I haven’t slept properly in days and I’m going through caffeine withdrawal. Tea just doesn’t have the same kick as espresso. I’ve always had problems memorizing rigid facts. My brain works with the abstract – observation and feeling. But somehow I don’t think she would understand the concept of jet lag, insomnia brought on by travel excitement, or a brain that does not follow rules.

The grand finale of the tour is a 360 degree panorama of the Battle of Taejon. The museum guide stands before us. Schoolteacher enthusiasm. Gentle condescension. How many figures are in the panorama? How deep is the image? Some venture guesses, but none of them are correct. She smiles at the effort. The lights dim. The reenactment commences. The battle orbits the audience. Gunshots, explosions, and smoke.

As we ride the elevator back down, I say, “The museum is very impressive.” Exclamations of agreement arise from the others.

Again the radiant smile. “Which was your favorite part?”

“The panorama,” we say in unison.

She clasps her hands together and bows her head.

After we buy souvenirs and refreshments, she leads us outside. A group of school kids has begun their tour. They fidget and giggle. Some of them make goofy faces at us.

I linger by the guide. “Can I take your photo?”

“Only if you are in it,” she says.

“Thank you,” I tell her afterwards. “I will always remember this.”

Her handshake is warm. “Thank you very much for your respect.”


Chapter Two: In the Zone

The data released later show that Dulles met Syngman Rhee and Sin Song Mo at the US embassy housed in the Pando Hotel, Seoul, and re-examined the “northward expedition plan” behind closed doors. He instructed them to “attack north Korea along with the counter-propaganda that north Korea had invaded south Korea first” as planned and hold out for two weeks at any cost.

The parking lot is filled with tour groups awaiting their turn. Chatter hovers overhead. Chinese, Russian, and English mingled with other languages. Some of our group stands in a circle.

One of the Americans shakes his head, “I can’t believe they believe that the Americans started the war.”

One of the Canadians says, “Well, it’s not entirely impossible. There are a lot of gray areas when it comes to wars and history. It’s not like the US hasn’t started wars on false pretenses before.”

The American stiffens. “What do you mean?”

We all look at him and reply in unison, “Weapons of mass destruction.”

“Oh,” he nods. Rolls his eyes. “Yeah.”

The conversation turns to the upcoming US presidential election. My eyes glaze over and I slip away. Maybe they sell iced coffee in the gift shop. I pounded two on the long bus ride down here, but it has had little effect. No sleep again last night, dammit. I am exhausted to the point of incoherence.

No iced coffee for sale, but I do score a “Meet Me in Pyongyang” t-shirt for my husband.


We file into a small building where a steely-eyed colonel awaits. He responds to his introduction with a glare. He whacks the pointer on the wall map. Words flee his clenched jaw. He stares over our heads and blinks while one of our Korean guides translates. Another whack. Some of us flinch. Whack. More words are spit out. He sets the pointer aside and stalks out.

Before we enter the gates, we are instructed to line up in five rows. One row will go first, and then each row will follow behind in turn, in one long stream. Once inside the entrance, we are again instructed to line up in rows, but this time we will walk in our respective lines. The colonel waits until we are ready, and then marches forward. As soon as we set forth, our rows blur into each other. We are disheveled, bewildered, and some of the guys are bleary-eyed after late night partying in the hotel. Our guides beckon us forward in our slovenly march.

One little white building and then another. The locations of the armistice talks and signing. More dates and facts. My mind drifts out the window to the spring blossoms and chirping birds. Behavior reminiscent of Catholic school. Even at a young age I resisted anything that I was told I must believe, no matter what it was.

As the complete failure of the “new offensive” plan of the US imperialists was obvious, the US imperialists had no choice but to give up the daydream of an “honourable armistice”. They turned up at the armistice talks without regard to the prestige of the United States around which the myth of “mightiness” had been crystallized. On July 27, 1953, they fell to their knees before the Korean people and signed the armistice agreement.


The Joint Security Area is the neutral zone surrounding one section of the military demarcation line. We shuffle forward in our listless rows. Surveillance cameras are perched on every ledge and corner, monitoring the slightest movement. Someone mentions that the South Korean soldiers are not present today, because the current situation is too tense to have the two sides staring at each other. We are led into the blue buildings in the neutral zone and then the colonel takes a group photo with us. He accompanies us back to the bus, exchanges a few curt words with our Western guide, and then strides away.

Our Western guide takes a seat next to me. “Whew. I’ve never seen him so angry. He grabbed my jacket and said, ‘Why are you wearing this stupid jacket? You look like an imperialist asshole.’ He’s usually really cool. I wonder what’s going on.***”


Chapter Three: That Which Does Not Exist

The big bus churns up the narrow, pothole-pocked road. My superficial doze dissipates. Rather than return to Pyongyang after the DMZ tour, we have received permission to visit an outpost and view the fabled concrete wall.

We file up a steep path. Pink blossoms frame the small white building at the top. A colonel steps out to greet us. We follow him into a white room. Photos of the two departed leaders and a large map are the only decorations. He gives us a short lecture, which is translated by one of our Korean guides. Soft-spoken voice, gentle demeanor. He couldn’t be more different than the other colonel. The concrete wall was built by the imperialists to divide the Korean people. According to the United States, this wall does not exist. But now we will see it for ourselves.


We move outside. While the others jostle for a look through the binoculars, I step up on the mound and use my zoom. The landscape has not yet awakened from winter. Look, there is a building on that hill. South Korean and UN flags flying overhead. And there, just to the left, a long concrete ribbon stretches across the muddy brown hills.


Note the beige line to the right of the colonel’s shoulder. It was visible even without binoculars.

All these past facts show that the US imperialists, travelling a downward path ever since the armistice, have not given up their criminal ambitions to cling to south Korea and, with it as the base, to invade the whole of Korea and Asia and that to realize this aggressive ambition they are scheming to ignite a fresh war of aggression by putting the south Korean puppet clique to the fore as they had enkindled the Korean war in the past by egging on the Syngman Rhee clique.

Chapter Four: The Aftermath

Conversations over meals. Reaffirmations of what was seen and heard and felt. I will remember these as much as the tour itself. Yes, it really happened. Yes, we are really here. It’s possible that I’ll never meet such a fascinating group of travelers again. Spirits of curiosity and defiance.

I glance around to be sure our Korean guides are out of earshot. “My great-uncle was a prisoner of this war.” The others fall silent. “It was for a few weeks, I think. He was injured. Shrapnel was embedded in his broken leg. They didn’t set it properly and it got infected. Somehow he lost his rosary, which was giving him the will to hang on. He got really sick. Delirious. The Blessed Mother appeared to him and gave him back his rosary. For his entire life, he has remained devoted to her.”

All faces are turned towards me. The mention of religion hasn’t provoked sneers or eye rolls. I sigh. “He has cancer now. He would never speak to me again if he knew I came here. He wouldn’t understand.”

Nods of agreement. Solidarity. Few will comprehend our compulsion to visit and many will criticize.

Kim Il Sung laughed heartily and said, “I have no worries. The US imperialists have said time and again that they will drop bombs on our country. Each time they do so Supreme Commander Kim Jong Il telephones me. We agree that if they drop a bomb on our country, we will do the same.”— “A Bull That Can Gore and a Bull That Can’t”, Anecdotes of Kim Il Sung’s Life, Volume 2

**Kim Jong Un
***When you take a tour of the DPRK, there is, of course, a total blackout of outside information. Upon our return to Beijing, we found out that on the day we visited the DMZ, the DPRK’s missile test in honor of Kim Il-Sung’s birthday failed.

Pyongyang Underground


Pyongyang, North Korea – April 2016

Some have speculated that the Pyongyang Metro is an elaborate hoax. The three stations that tourists are allowed to visit are the only stations that exist.* All of the commuters are actors. Everything about North Korea is an illusion, they say. You can’t trust anything you see.

It is a long, steep descent. As we glide down the softly lit escalator, an ardent female voice chirps a patriotic anthem. Commuters drift by on their way up. They stare ahead, faces devoid of expression. The few who turn to gaze as we glide into the depths respond with icy glints of contempt or flickers of curiosity.

We chatter. There is so much to talk about, so many things we want to know. We are still decked out in our Palace of the Sun finery. Most of the guys are wearing suits and DPRK pins. I’m wearing a colorful new skirt that swirls when I spin around. As the platform comes into view, a shiny new train pulls into the station.


Our Western guide claps his hands. “Cool! We get to ride one of the new prototype trains. I haven’t ridden one yet.”

The train hesitates as we take photos of the Kim Il-Sung mural. A warning bell sounds. We hop on. The doors slide shut. The passengers blink and shift in their seats, a gradual awakening from the trance of uniformity. The tour group spreads out. Some just ride, some take photos. We beam at each other. Why are we so exhilarated? It’s just a metro ride, for crying out loud. A schoolgirl gets up and motions me to take her seat. I shake my head. She insists, so I sit down.


Another member of our group sits across from me. The man next to him narrows his eyes at me. I keep my face neutral. No condescension. No pity. No desperate camaraderie. Smiles can backfire, make things worse. Out of the corner of my eye, I see his expression soften. When I look directly at him, the sides of his mouth straighten. I look away and look back at him a few times. His eyes light up and a slight grin appears. In spite of himself. He points at my camera and shakes his head. I nod. Okay. But I break my own rule of not taking photos of people without their consent. A quick flick of the wrist and the deed is done. The result is priceless.


Most of our group of twenty-four are men. There are two couples. Only two of us are solo women. Except for three, all of the men are young enough to be my sons. I find myself wistful in their presence. They are so inquisitive about this mysterious place. So respectful of the culture and of the older members of our group. Their parents deserve to be proud.**


The train halts. We spill out of the carriage. Kim Jong Il towers over the staircase. Candy-colored chandeliers illuminate delicate cityscape murals. Those of us with cameras scurry around. So many images, so little time.


The guides herd us towards the next train, a sturdy retro type. We embark at the back of the carriage. The stench of urine hits us full force as we step inside. Some of us look at each other and stifle grins. The Korean guides are embarrassed. They beckon us towards the front.

“Wow, they sure go to great lengths to fool tourists,” I whisper to one of my companions. He nods, eyes shining.


We weave in and out of the passengers. Again the slow reaction to our arrival. The initial coldness. I pause in the middle of the aisle. Two middle-aged ladies sit on the right. Two higher ranking military men sit on the left. Colonels, possibly. The force of their glares makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I grasp the bar above me and stare straight ahead, face neutral again. Just be with them. Just be.


The departed Leaders bestow their benevolent smiles upon the passengers. I step forward and peer through the window to the next carriage. The passengers stand motionless, phantoms lost in reverie. A slight commotion to the right. Some of the group have lined up to take photos of a pigtailed little girl. She giggles and squirms on her grandmother’s lap. Her grandparents are delighted at the attention. They give me an expectant look. I hesitate. She is adorable, but the ruckus around her makes me cringe. I smile at them, but I cannot bring myself to aim my camera her way. I retreat to my original place.

When I look at the military men, they smile at me in unison. Deep, sincere smiles. A soft radiance wells up inside, spreads through me, infusing my atoms.

We stop, but do not alight. People file off. People file on. An elderly woman takes a seat next to the military men. She notices me, starts to rise, and offers her seat. Sparkling black eyes. Toothless smile. Every line in her face glows. I shake my head. No way. The military men laugh. She laughs. Warmth emanates from the middle-aged women to my right. For this one precious moment we share a bond of simple happiness. It doesn’t get any realer than this.


Then it is time to leave. Waves of farewell. The doors slide shut and the train vanishes into the dark tunnel. We ascend, breathless. The chatter resumes.

“They’re just people going about their lives.”

“No one will ever believe us.”

“We may as well have witnessed an alien invasion.”

We look at each other and laugh.

It was just a metro ride, for crying out loud.


*There are now Pyongyang metro photography tours which visit all sixteen stations.

**On the last evening of the trip, I mentioned to one of the young men how pleased I was that they were so cool to me, since I was old enough to be their mother. He told me, “You would be the coolest mom!” I was stunned speechless for a few seconds. “Now, that’s something I’ve never heard,” I replied. “If anyone says anything about it, they say it’s a good thing I never had kids.” He was horrified that anyone would say such a thing, but I assured him it was okay. I am used to being scorned by the Motherhood. I’ll never forget his words. So many unforgettable little things, extraordinary in their simplicity, happened during this journey.

The Day of the Sun


Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea)
April 15, Juche 105 (2016)

Rise, children. Shine. On this day, the clouds never darken our skies. Rejoice in the 104th dawn of the Eternal President.


Highly impressed by his noble love for his compatriots and his great generosity, the businessman bowed deeply to Kim Il Sung and said sincerely, “Your Excellency Kim Il Sung, you are indeed the God of all the Korean people.” –Anecdotes of Kim Il Sung’s Life, Vol. 2


His earthly body lies in the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, encased in glass and bathed in the soft red glow of perpetual sunset. In another chamber lies the Son of the Sun, the Shining Star, General Kim Jong Il. Two days ago, I passed through those immense, silent halls. The only sound was the faint whir of the moving walkway that transports the living deep within. Photos line the walls. Material for contemplation. There he is inspecting farms and turtleneck sweaters and overhead projectors. Has another smile ever held such radiance? Everything in this world is astonishing and delightful. Every little thing.

In photos and paintings, the General is often with the Eternal President, pointing at something out of sight. The President’s response is, as always, a luminous smile. Something truly wondrous lies forever beyond.

When asked why the General almost always wore sunglasses, one of our guides replied, “It is because his eyes were often red, so the people were worried that he was too tired. He wore them so that we would not worry.”


The fog that has obscured the city over the past few days has indeed dissipated. The diffuse morning light casts a faint shimmer on the massive bronze statues at Mansudae Grand Monument. Rows upon rows wait for the invitation to approach and pay their respects. Women in traditional dress. Men and women in military uniform. Schoolchildren. Tourists join in, out of respect for their guides.


A hammer for the workers, a sickle for the farmers, a brush for the intellectuals. All of them encircled by the unity of the Leader, Party, and people. Just below it: living, blazing color. Sound and movement are executed with fierce precision. Our group spreads out behind the crowd of locals. Curious glances on both sides. Our Western guide begins to clap in time to the music. The noise reverberates through the silent crowd.

I flinch. “Do they like that?”

“Yeah. Why not?”

Before his words are even finished, the locals follow his lead. It is an instinctive reaction. Eyes awaken. Faces brighten. They only needed to be reminded that it is an option.


Bloom, delicate creation.


Kimilsungia is not simply a beautiful flower of nature; it is a flower that symbolizes the greatness of President Kim Il Sung, who illuminated the road ahead for the world by means of his Juche idea, and a flower that has bloomed in the hearts of the people in the era of independence in honor of a great man. It gives our people an infinite dignity and pride in living and waging revolution in Kim Il Sung’s motherland, and inspires them with determination to devote their all to the consummation of the cause of Juche pioneered by him. Because it grows in the hearts of mankind and blooms among our faithful people, it is so beautiful, so ennobling and so precious. There are tens of thousands of varieties of flowers on the earth, but none is as meaningful as Kimilsungia.  —  Kim Jong Il, “Kimilsungia Is an Immortal Flower That has Bloomed in the Hearts of Mankind in the Era of Independence”


An afternoon stroll through Moran Hill Park. Beyond the wedding parties and picnicking families, I perceive her glow long before I can discern her features. The music hovers above the crowd, so ethereal that it’s almost imperceptible. One long breathless sigh. Arms float through the air like the wings of drowsy butterflies. Some of us are coaxed into the gentle fray. I am caught off guard. Self-conscious. I need some of what they’re drinking.


The crowd has swelled with curious onlookers. I stare into my partner’s aged face and imitate her movements. When the song finishes, she shoos me back into the crowd.


The Mass Dance has just begun by the time we arrive. Once again, we are encouraged to join. I shake my head. Not again. One of our Korean guides grabs Felix, the Venezuelan in our group, and leads him to a dancer. A spasm of panic seizes his face. He puts his hands on his hips and steps forward, out of time with his partner. He shakes his head at himself. Even so, his incorporation into the languid rotation causes no agitation. By the time he has come full circle, he is beaming. He waves at me and mouths, Photo, please! I aim my camera his way until he is once again swept away. Even the reluctant eventually fall into step.


I lay my camera down and gaze into the swirling rainbow, mesmerized by the effortless harmony. Spin, turn, churn. Serene gears in a reliable machine. A somnolent order. When the music takes on a military tone, the men perk up. Arms and legs stiffen. Otherwise the steps and gestures have the indolence of flowers swaying in a soft summer breeze. Dreamy smiles, half-closed eyes. When everyone cooperates, there is no need for fervor.


Wistfulness washes over me. Now I wish that I had joined in. The gentle motion seems so soothing. What would it be like to lose myself in the masses? For an instant, I allow myself to feel the profound relief of surrender. Gooseflesh rises on my arms.

Don’t you remember? You tried, all those years ago, to join the fold. To be normal. You failed. Your kind always ends up banished. Efficiently eliminated.


Somehow, we missed the fireworks. As compensation for our disappointment, we have come to Kim Il Sung Square to take some photos. Red signs smolder against the black sky. For days, we have seen large groups of people sitting in the squares. White caps, red caps. They are preparing for the torch-light parade that will take place during next month’s Worker’s Congress, the first such event since 1980. As soon as we reach the middle of the square, a military guard appears. He speaks to one of our guides and then marches away. “We have to leave now.” She beckons to those who have wandered off.

From out of the darkness beyond the square, they materialize. Many voices melded into one. A chorus of joyful unity. We pause, spellbound. After they pass, we move along. Another group jogs out of the darkness. A more forceful chant: Do it in one strike!

Some of us march alongside them and join in the Korean chant. They look over at us in surprise and break into laughter as they disappear, once again, into the night. Never once breaking stride.