Our ancient train had just started rolling clamorously away from North Korea's border with China when I made a simple, unconscious slip - reaching for my guidebook - that even a few years ago might have landed me in jail, or at least had me speedily deported.
"Can I have a look at that?" said one of the North Korean officials escorting us on the train. The official was referring to the Lonely Planet guide to Korea I had just pulled out of my bag, and it was clear from the curt tone I didn't really have the option of saying no.
My heart started to pound as I handed over the book, knowing full well that its chapter on North Korea referred to the country as a rogue state with "a human-rights record worse than anywhere else on Earth." Even more problematic, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, was described unflatteringly in the book as "Mini-Me" (presumably making his father, Kim Il-sung, Dr. Evil) and blaming him for nuclear brinksmanship as well as a famine that took three million lives in the 1990s.
I knew that it was a criminal offence to bring into the country any publications deemed "hostile to the North Korean socialist system." Worse, I had entered the country under not-quite-honest circumstances, identifying myself as a Russian historian rather than a Canadian journalist, something I worried would be discovered with a little extra scrutiny.
But instead of reprimanding me, the young official read every last word in the North Korea chapter, greedily gulping down information. The book was then wordlessly passed on to another official on the train. The second official passed the book to a third, carefully avoiding the eyes of the Workers Party of Korea cadres who were riding in the same car to keep an eye on me, photographer Sean Gallagher, who had entered by telling consular officials that he was an English teacher, another semi-true tale, and a 50-strong Chinese tour group with which we had fortuitously met up at the border.
As the book made its way around the cabin, I began to sense that the Lonely Planet's take on recent Korean history wasn't offending those assigned to watch over us, but was confirming their suspicions. Eventually, one of the officials handed it back to me.
Map and itinerary of the trip
- Monday, Aug 24: Dandong, China (red)
- Tuesday, Aug 25: Journey to Pyongyang (blue)
- Wednesday, Aug 26: Trip to Mount Myohyangsan (green)
- Thursday, Aug 27: Tour of Pyongyang (yellow)
- Friday, Aug 28: Trip to the DMZ (cyan)
- Saturday, Aug. 29: Fly home (purple)
"There are some mistakes in here," the official said, pointing out a name that had been misspelled and a date that was slightly off. Both errors were in the ancient history section. "But otherwise, it's pretty correct."
Catching a glimpse of the exchange, one of the Workers Party cadres leaned over, bringing me to eye level with the red Kim Il-sung pin he and every North Korean wears on their lapel. I started sweating again.
"Do you have a novel I could borrow?" he asked in soft, stilted English. "Maybe a love story?"
I gave him River Town , the memoir of an American who wound up teaching English in small-town China. Throughout two years there, the author and the locals slowly overcome long-held stereotypes and a history of adversity by taking the time to get to know each other better. The cadre smiled gratefully and read silently the rest of the way to Pyongyang.
We were just hours into our five-day stay in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and I could already see that the Kim regime's ideological grip on its citizens was weakening. The episode was the first in a series over the next few days that suggested to me that North Korea is changing despite the Dear Leader's best efforts, and that perhaps even the Hermit Kingdom can't isolate itself forever.
Little of the outside world seems to have reached the peasantry, who have known nothing but Workers Party propaganda since Kim Il-sung came to power after the Second World War. The rare glimpse of the rural countryside we got during the five-hour, 20-minute train ride from the border town of Sinuiju to the capital Pyongyang made clear that the vast majority of this country is desperately and heart-wrenchingly poor. But among a select but important few to whom the regime has given the privilege of travelling abroad and interacting with foreigners, there is an awareness of the country's massive shortcomings.
Though they're a tiny minority, these people are crucial to the survival of the world's last Stalinist state. They are the tour guides, the diplomats, the bureaucrats and even the cabinet ministers who help ensure the country brings in enough food, energy and foreign capital to keep the military fed and armed, and the vital organs of the state - especially its surveillance and propaganda apparatuses - functioning at least at a minimal level.
They are likely even more important now that Kim Jong-il is apparently in failing health, making few public appearances since suffering a reported stroke last fall. The Dear Leader is believed to be preparing the way to eventually hand over power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, further ensconcing the world's only Communist hereditary dynasty.
But some of the North Korean elites - and I interacted with nearly a dozen of them both inside and outside the country during my journey late last month from Beijing to Pyongyang - have been changed by what they've seen outside their isolated country. They know how poor their country really is, and how the outside world views the place they were raised to believe was a socialist paradise.
Map of Pyongyang and the places Mark and Sean visited
They crave the luxury goods they've seen on sale in the markets of Beijing, Bangkok, Frankfurt and Toronto (all places to which the North Koreans I met had travelled), and they've fallen in love with the Hollywood movies they've seen and English pop songs they've heard during their travels.
More than anything, they long to be united with their countrymen and women in South Korea, on the other side of the world's most heavily armed border.
Though they were likely chosen for their perceived loyalty to the system, those I met left the clear impression that none of them completely believes in it any more. What that means for the future of the Kim regime, especially as it heads into a potentially sensitive handover of power, is impossible to foretell.
None of the guides, cadres and diplomats said anything contrary to the party line, and all praised the leadership of the deceased Great Leader Kim Il-sung and his son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il throughout our trip. When they referred to their country's obvious economic hardships, they dutifully placed the blame on "American imperialism."
Under suspicion from the moment we crossed the border and repeatedly questioned about our backgrounds and reasons for travel, Sean and I were kept completely separate from the Chinese tour group and other foreign tourists once we reached Pyongyang. We were escorted everywhere by at least two North Koreans, an entourage that changed at various stops on our trip.
But what initially seemed like a handicap slowly revealed itself as a stroke of good luck. Instead of standing amid a tour group and mutely listening to explanations about the wonders achieved during six decades of Kim Il-sungism, the official state ideology, we had private, one-on-one conversations in and around the series of monuments, museums and memorials to which we were taken as part of the standard tour itinerary.
(Though no one spoke out against the regime, names and some details of the people we interviewed have been withheld for fear it will bring trouble to those who spoke with us.) The most frequently expressed feeling was an aching hope that the election of President Barack Obama in the United States will bring an end to decades of hostility between Pyongyang and Washington, paving the way for the North's reunification with South Korea.
Life in a constant state of confrontation has taken an obvious toll here. Wedged between the affluence and modernity of South Korea and a rapidly developing China, North Korea seems to exist in the past.
Some of the scenes we saw as our train rolled through a succession of crumbling towns and farming communities on its way to Pyongyang were startling. An entire village waded in a canal, dredging it with their bare hands. An old woman and a younger woman walked, kilometres from anywhere, carrying jugs of water attached to bamboo poles slung over their shoulders. Weaponless soldiers in mismatching footwear filled sandbags for a war the government insists could start at any time.
In a country with chronic food shortages, rice and corn fields are everywhere. The problem, however, lies in the outdated techniques on which the farmers are forced to rely in the absence of fuel and farm equipment. In the hundreds of fields through which we drove by train and car (there seems to be plenty of fuel for tourists and government officials) during our stay, I saw only two antiquated tractors, only one of which was moving. Even though the fields were many hectares in size, most of the work was done with hoes and spades, or by digging in the soil with bare hands.
There were few cars even on the streets of Pyongyang, and almost none outside of the country's showcase capital city. In the countryside, it was almost as common to see a farm animal in the middle of one of the divided four-lane highways as it was to see a private car.
Though our guides bragged of the city's mass transportation system, which costs just pennies to ride - a standard part of the tour involves showing off a metro system decorated with larger-than-life murals celebrating the achievements of Kim Il-sung - the vast majority of North Koreans seemed to walk wherever they were going, even if they were travelling from one town to the next.
It was obvious that even bicycles were too expensive for many. On the day we left, we saw dozens of uniformed pilots walking the 24-kilometre distance between Pyongyang and the capital's main airport.
It was also clear that for all the tanks and missiles deployed in the Korean peninsula, the strongest weapon the United States possesses is still the "soft power" that helped it win the Cold War in Eastern Europe, the lure of a culture that allows complete freedom of expression.
During our five days in North Korea, I repeatedly lent my iPod out to North Koreans I met, watching their reactions as they listened to songs and watched films unknown in a country where Internet access is denied to all but a very few and there's no such thing as a music store or a movie channel.
One Pyongyang resident who borrowed my earphones hummed along to the soft chorus of Nelly Furtado's All Good Things (Come to an End) , and gleefully started the song again as soon as it was over. At another juncture, I was asked to help write out the lyrics to Billy Joel's 1983 hit Uptown Girl .
Hip-hop and alternative rock music proved less popular, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall , the raunchy Judd Apatow comedy that, regrettably, was the only movie I'd downloaded for the trip, drew a slightly mortified thumbs-down. But the excitement generated by these rare glimpses of Western culture was far more revealing than the rote recitations of propaganda we received at stops like the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War - otherwise known as the Korean War - museum, the monument to the foundation of the Workers Party, or the Great Leader's mausoleum.
"Our hatred of American imperialism and our feelings for the American people are not the same thing," one 20-something woman said after revealing an affection for Britney Spears songs and Harry Potter books. She, too, wore a red Kim Il-sung button over her heart.
After a week of dining in restaurants that had the same five music videos on rotation - all of them melodramatic hymns to the Dear Leader and the mighty North Korean military - it was easy to see how Oops, I Did it Again would be a breath of fresh air.
Even the Arirang Mass Games, the dance and gymnastics spectacular that we saw on the second-last night of our stay, was filled with the same messages with which North Koreans have been bombarded since the day their state was founded in 1948. An astounding display of athleticism and precision by some 100,000 schoolchildren, soldiers and amateur athletes told the same story that everyone in the May Day Stadium had been forced to absorb countless times before: Kim Il-sung, almost single-handedly, saved the country from Japanese colonialism and American imperialism. Now, his son, the Dear Leader, was building North Korea into a force that was inspiring fear and awe in the outside world.
The dullness of the message overwhelmed a truly astounding display by the performers. By Act 5 of the 10-part performance, about the time Kim Jong-il's childhood house was being portrayed shining like a certain manger in Bethlehem, many of the North Koreans around us in the VIP seats were fast asleep.
The propaganda has been repeated so often that it no longer has any meaning, especially to those who have seen the rest of the world and understand how far their country has been left behind.
On one of the last days we were in Pyongyang, we were walking near another of the standard tour sites when a low voice started crackling over a public loudspeaker that looked like it was installed in the 1940s.
"What are they saying?" I asked.
"It's the news," one of the ever-present North Korean officials replied, sounding bored.
I asked for a translation, and the young woman listened attentively for a moment.
"The Dear Leader, Comrade Kim Jong-il, visited some factory or other today," she said. "Or something like that, anyway."
- Through the looking glass
- Inside the Hermit Kingdom
- Day 1: Dandong, China