There were seven of us gathered in the Red Wall Hotel in Beijing—an Australian criminal lawyer for the insane, a Scottish lord living out his 007 fantasies, two communism-curious retired Italian mechanics, a retired Italian pilot who made a sport of traveling to the world's most inaccessible places and a young Italian accountant living in Austria. And me, the not-so-secret journalist from Canada who was surprised to even be invited. We had all signed up for a most peculiar adventure: we were going to North Korea. As tourists.
This was made possible by a little-known NGO based in Europe called the Korean Friendship Association, which has created "friendship" (a.k.a. tourism) delegations for foreigners who want to catch a glimpse behind the curtain of the Hermit Kingdom. Anyone can apply—anyone, that is, with a passport that isn't from the U.S., Japan or South Korea. I turned in my application in September, and two months later I was in Beijing, where I plunked down $4,000 in cash for the 10-day trip. The next day my fellow travelers and I received our visas and boarded a Soviet-era Tupolev plane belonging to Air Koryo, the national North Korean airline, for the two-hour flight to Pyongyang. We had no itinerary because our trip was considered "secret" information at that point. After landing, we were asked to hand over any cell phone, computer with GPS, radio and video camera—all forbidden from that moment forward.
Before we arrived at our government-run hotel (which had authentic North Korean touches like no heat or hot water despite the freezing temperatures), our minibus stopped at a statue of the deceased Great Leader Kim Il Sung, where we were told to bow and present flowers. Being a tourist in North Korea was going to be even more bizarre than we had thought.
Our tour guides were, of course, actually government minders. They led us through each day's treadmill tour of statues and museums dedicated to Dear Leaders past and present. But their real job was to keep an eye on us and to control the images we would take back home. For example, when we passed any sort of poverty still life—women washing dishes in the gutter, an old dirty truck piled high with cabbage—they either ordered us to put our cameras down or deleted our pictures after the fact. The guides also had an unsettling habit of taking pictures of us at every tour stop, for reasons they never quite explained. Every once in a while they let slip information that made it obvious they were electronically monitoring our hotel rooms and phone calls. All in a day's work for a North Korean tour guide.
How did we respond to Big Brother? Some among us were braver than others. The Austrian-based accountant tried to goad the guides into talking politics; the Italian retirees criticized the constant Kimilsungist propaganda, but only in Italian. After a while, I rebelled against the picture policing, even daring to sneak a snapshot of a grim military convoy with thousands of conscripts headed to points unknown.
Others on the tour just gave in. At a stop near the end of our trip, our Australian comrade wrote in a guest book, "Long live North Korea and good luck with the war against the United States."
If there was a highlight to all this strangeness, it was our visit to the demilitarized North--South Korean border. It was there, of all places, that we expected to be on a leash. But in fact, we were freer there than we had been anywhere else—permitted to take pictures of the soldiers on guard and given enough space by our minders that we could have even made a dash for the South Korean border. I don't know if tourists have ever defected from North Korea, but after more than a week of constant surveillance and ceaseless propaganda—basically, living like a member of its society—it didn't seem like such a bad idea.
GLOBAL DISPATCH For a new postcard from around the world every day, visit time.com