About the Author
View more articles by Park Ji Woo
Park Ji Woo
Park Ji Woo is author of the "North Korean in New York" series. She left North Korea in the mid 2000s and is now living in New York City, New York.
Editing by Nara Han / Artwork by NK NEWS illustrator Cammy Smithwick
When it comes to traveling, there are several differences between North Korea and New York City. First of all, unlike New Yorkers, North Koreans are not allowed to travel from town to town without government permission. In other words, they do not have the freedom to travel. If they need to visit their relatives in other cities, the first thing they have to do is to report it to the government. I know it might sound ridiculous to you, my readers, but it’s true.
My mother told me that when she was 19 years old, she visited her aunt who lived 155 miles away. Since it was her first time visiting another town, she was really excited; however, she had to wait for the “traveling certification” from the government for three days. When she arrived at her aunt’s home, she had to rush to the local security office and report to them that she was visiting. Since the local investigators visited the house every night to confirm if there were any suspicious people, she had to report her arrival immediately; otherwise, she would be in trouble if they discovered she was staying there without registration.
Another difference is the concept of traveling. For New Yorkers, traveling is a joyful time to take a break from work or study. They would go to some mountains for skiing or go to the West coast like California for winter vacation; during the summer, they would go to the beaches to enjoy the blue sea waves and the sunlight.
For North Koreans, on the other hand, traveling is nothing more than moving from one town to another. Before the great famine, most North Koreans traveled to visit relatives or attend national events. When the famine began in 1994, people increasingly traveled from town to town to seek food. However, over the last two decades, most North Koreans have been traveling to not seek food but to trade goods for business. People would take their local specialties to another town where people might need them.
I remember my mother used to take white apricots to other cities because my hometown, Hye-ryeong, is famous for white apricots. They are as big as peaches and very sweet. So everybody in North Korea likes to eat them. She would buy a huge bag of white apricots from the black market at a low price. The bag was always so big and heavy that it could completely cover my mother’s upper-body. I wondered how she could move carrying that huge bag.
She would be out of town for at least one week; sometimes it would take her two weeks to return. It was not because the towns were very far away from home but because the public transportation system in North Korea was incredibly inadequate. People were usually stuck in the trains for two days without moving because of the lack of electricity. Once my mother sold all her white apricots, she would return with a smaller bag of dried fish, such as pollack or squid. Since my hometown was far away from the sea, dried fish was a very popular item. Sometimes she would barter the dried fish for rice or corn.
The most interesting and surprising change in North Korea is that over the past ten years, people have been traveling without getting the “traveling certification” from the government. It was not because the government allowed North Koreans to travel freely but because of absolute necessity; North Koreans had to travel around either to seek food or to exchange products for their livelihood.
Every train station has investigators who would ask for the “traveling certification”. Officially, if people do not have their own “traveling certification,” they would be caught. The Social Security Police would send them to labor camps, where they would have to endure harsh living conditions, forced to work day and night. However, if they bribed the investigators, they could go on their way. Money talks, even in North Korea.
Most of North Koreans prefer taking a Servi-truck (Korean: 서비차) to the train. The servi-truck is a big truck that is run by normal North Koreans, I mean non-government officers. I think the name of the “servi-truck” comes from English word, service, because “servi’” is definitely not Korean. These people work privately, but they are really helpful. They go to most of major cities in North Korea. As long as you pay, they would take you to your destination. If you go to North Korea and see trucks with many people, they are the servi-trucks. I was wondering where they got the gas or oil, but I have not figured it out. They probably get the fuel from China through illegal trade.
Even though there are no servi-trucks in New York City, it is very easy to travel. All I need to do is to make a reservation for a tour group. I have been traveling to many awesome places during the last eight months. I have been to Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, Niagara Falls and the West coast. I liked all of them, but if I have a chance to choose one place to live, it would be Philadelphia. I really loved the atmosphere there. The city was much cleaner and less crowded than New York City. Most importantly, people were really friendly. I remember my friend and I got lost in the subway station, so we asked a woman who was carrying a huge suitcase. She kindly told us about the subway transportation system in Philadelphia; she even guided us to the train we needed to take, although she had her huge suitcase.
My first exploration in the US was the West coast. My friend and I joined a Chinese tour. Actually we were looking for an American tour because we wanted to improve our English during the journey; however, when we got to Los Angeles, it turned out we had reserved a Chinese tour. Since we can speak Mandarin, we had a great time with Chinese tourists. The most impressive place was Las Vegas. The tall buildings and colorful lights were really fabulous. I could not believe that this city was located in the desert. The most interesting thing was that during the daytime, the whole city was very quiet and only few people in the streets. But after 6pm, it suddenly woke up. I was able to hear its bustling in my hotel room. The clubs, the casinos, and the bars were all open during the night, so my Chinese guide always said to me “Good morning” even when the evenings came.
Los Angeles was also a great place to visit; the weather was especially perfect for me. It wasn’t freezing cold like in New York City. In Los Angeles, it always maintained around 70 F°, not hot and not cold. It was always sunny, so I was able to see the blue sky every morning I woke up. I liked Los Angeles so much, not only because of the favorable weather, but also because of Disneyland. Going to the Disneyland used to be my dream. I really wanted to visit Mickey’s house because Mickey mouse is my favorite character. Since the entrance fee was too expensive, I did not expect to go there during my trip. Fortunately, one of my American friends had a friend who worked in Disneyland. She asked her friend for free tickets, so I was finally able to live my dream of going to Disneyland.
I spent the whole Saturday in Disneyland with my friends. I was so thrilled and excited that I could not stop smiling. When I was in Mickey’s house, I danced and sang just like a child. I tried to ride all the famous rides; however since there were so many people, I was only able to get on five rides. Soaring over California was an unforgettable experience. I was able to witness all famous locations in California. While I was riding, I could also feel the wind in my face and breathe the fresh air from the mountains.
I had never been to an amusement park in North Korea. I had only heard about the Pyongyang amusement park, Mangyongdae Funfair, since the capital, Pyongyang, is not the kind of place that just anybody can visit. The government limits the number of visitors from other areas in order to protect the capital. People who are invited to participate in national events can have chances to visit Pyongyang. If not, they should have special traveling certifications, which are difficult to get. As a result, I had no chance to go there to ride the rides. When I watched the Mangyongdae Funfair on television, I saw people screaming and laughing excitedly. I used to imagine how I would feel if I could be on those rides one day. My parents went to Pyongyang only once for their honeymoon. Since my father’s social status was high, my grandfather arranged this trip for them. My mother told me that she did not really like the Mangyongdae Funfair because she was not familiar with those rides. But she really liked the people in Pyongyang because their fashion was very trendy. Also, she saw a popular actor in the street. She could not take her eyes off from him. That was her first time to see a man over 175cm tall, approximately 5’9”. She looked so happy when she shared this experience with me.
I sent my mother some great pictures during my trips. She was really happy that I could explore and learn about the world, even more than she had. Every time I experience new things or have a new adventure, I call my mother and say, “Thank you for giving me life.” I would not have visited the US and explored so many great places, if my mother had not escaped North Korea and brought me to China and South Korea. Actually, my mother was the very first tour guide in my life because fleeing to China was my first trip. Although the journey was so dangerous that it risked our lives and had sent us to North Korean labor camps three times, my mother kept escaping with me. I was always secure because my mother was with me and protected me.
Now I’m an adult. I want to be my mother’s first tour guide. The first place I want to take her is New York City. I would take her to the Central Park for a picnic. Spicy ramen bowls would be the most ideal food; it’s something that Koreans really enjoy as a reward for a hike. I also would take her to the Empire State Building in Fifth Avenue. I want to show her how the most fabulous city in the world looks like. I hope she can experience how beautiful and wonderful the world is.