Sima Nan’s Travel in North Korea (Part 1)

Sima Nan is a well known independent scholar and TV personality. He is first became well known back in the 90s for exposing the fraudulent nature of those people who claimed to have miraculous or magical powers .

His political view is moderate left, and his hard hitting and frank opinions attract considerable attention and also criticisms, usually from the so-called rightist and other pro-West intellectuals. His association with the fallen Bo Xilai added more controversies in recent months. He has very strong grasp of history and world events, and I do find myself in agreement and comfortable with many of his views.

Following is my translation effort on an article about his recent visit to North Korea.  Despite China being heralded as North Korea’s closest neighbout and supporter, the truth is that North Korean  does not trust any foreigner.  A visit to the Stalinist state is an eye opener for everyone, and the report below is a journalist account of Sima Nan’s recollection of his travel:

(Note: The original article is in Chinese ( . It takes time to translate and  I have broken it into 6 parts. Below is the first part. )

Sima Nan travels to North Korea

On 12 of April a Russian passenger plane descended into Pyongyang airport. Though the plane was small, it was not full. Inside were 10 Chinese diplomats and mostly journalists, which also included the independent  scholar, Sima Nan. Sima had already aroused much the interest even before he started to depart.

They have been invited to attend the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Kim Ill Sung’s birthday. Prior to the celebration, the North Korean announced that it would launch a rocket to carry its self-built Guangmingshing3(KwangMyongSong) satellite.

A small satellite arousing worldwide concern

The US, Japan and South Korea firmly believed that the North Korea was using the satellite launch as means to test its missiles. Hence on the 11th of April, when the North was fueling the rocket, the alert level has risen from level 3 to level 2. The US sent out its surveillance spy planes to the sea around the vicinity, while the South Korean deployed its Aegis equipped cruiser. Meanwhile Japan planned to intercept the rocket from its naval ships in the sea area, and would use Patriot 3 anti-air missiles on land if the ship based interceptions fail.

The plane landed, and when on approaching the airport terminal building, Sima Nan suddenly heard very loud roar that was just like from a soccer stadium packed full with supporters when a goal has been scored.

After completing the formalities upon arrival, Sima Nan hurried to the source of the excitement, and it came from the airport’s big screen TV. The TV was showing the 4th North Korean Workers Congress that was held the day before. Kim Jong Un was elected as the party secretary and the delegates in the meeting were boisterous in yelling “Kim Jong Un , Long live , long live !”.

During the stay in this very peculiar country as an esteemed guest, Sima Nan did not expect that he would be viewed with suspicion and never given any freedom of movement. His stubborn nature caused him to have conflict with his North Korean liaison officials.

However, he empathized : ” North Korea has for a long time being isolated, feel itself treated unjustly, and thus has become highly sensitive and prickly .

1. Gaoli Hotel

A large bus sent the group of visitors Gaoli Hotel. The hotel was the best in Pyongyang and was beside the train station. The hotel specially catered for overseas visitors, and there were foreign staffs servicing the great dining hall. Other amenities include a Korean cold noodle cafeteria, a revolving restaurant, a gym, a massage centre, KTV, a drinking bar etc.

On entering hotel hall, Sima Na observed that the magnificent hotel lobby was decorated with red and pink fresh flowers, and according to the translator, those on the top were the Kim Ill Jung flowers, while the Kim Jong Ill flowers were found below. The hotel guests were from many different part of the world.

“I could not really tell how many visitors in the hotel then, but there were a lot. There were black people, white people, cross carrying Christian priests, Cuban, Nigerian, Japanese, and there were also many foreign businessmen of North Korean descent, including those from China. “How many people then? 20 busses were used to sent the foreign guests to the public square to participate in the organized activities, of which there were 40 person in each bus. Hence the number should be close to 1000”.

Very soon, they realized that were just like being in organized tourist group – once they have stayed in the Gaoli Hotel, they have lost the freedom of movement, and can only accept programs organized for them. “You cannot move about on your own, and must follow the official programs that was organized daily”.

During a large scale activity, Sima Nan also happened to meet a few fellow visitors from other part of the world that have been invited by North Korean government. They experienced the same predicament. They lived in another hotel that was surrounded by water, and it was like living in prison.

In the afternoon when there was no activity being organized, and Sima Nan thought of walking on the street of Pyongyang and brought out his camera. Despite vigorous request, he was prohibited from leaving the hotel on his own.

“The most likely reason why the North Korean invited me is because I am among the small number of prominent scholars in China that have been supportive of North Korea. In fact during the 4 days there, I saw Kim Jong Un 4 times. At one time, Kim was just some 10 over meters away from me. This opportunity would be a very fortuitous one from a North Korean view, a great honor. But I am more interested in having to truly understand the North Korean circumstances and achieving deeper communications. Very regrettable though, I could not achieve their trust: I just could not talk freely with North Koreans, there was always someone accompanying me, not just the translator. There are also certain people that followed us but remained silent all the time. In most situations, cameras were not allowed to be brought along, and even when allowed to be brought along, one could not freely take photos. Surfing the net is prohibited in the hotel room. and there was no internet cafe. Mobile phones were handed over when entering North Korea. It is not that North Korean did not have internet facility, it is just that they would not trust you and thus would not allow you to use the internet”.

After dinner, the translator said he would bring them out for a walk in the street. “Just when we were walking, he would tell us not to enter the shops, and not to be separated from the group. After having just traveled 200m, we had to walk back from the same route, after giving excuse that the road ahead was under repair”.

That same night Sima Nan cautiously approached translator Kim, and asked : “if your people launch the rocket and the Japanese then intercepted it, what will happen?”. Translator Kim said: ” That will be a decleration of war”. When asked : ” What if by any chance the launch failed””. He replied: ” There is no what if !”.

(to be continued …)


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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