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Drunk at a noraebang in central Pyongyang, I finally worked up enough courage to ask my Korean guide if he’d ever seen any foreign movies. Well, yeah, of course he’d seen some — to learn English, that is. He could recall two that he’d watched. The first was Titanic, and when I admitted I’d never bothered to see it we both laughed. ‘You haven’t seen Titanic!?’ He couldn’t believe my misfortune.

Arriving at Pyongyang’s Sunan airport just a few days earlier, I very quickly understood that actually being in the county would reveal a side of the DPRK that’s often absent in the sensationalism of the news and popular documentaries about the impoverished nation. Namely, the country is made up of real people and not two-dimensional, ideological automatons.

The international air hub consisted of a single landing strip that was cleared by hand. Teams of workers used flat pieces of wood, rocks, hunks of metal or whatever they could find to scrape the ice from the tarmac.

Upon making it through customs, our group sat waiting in the arrival area of the unheated, single-room terminal. Our group arrived in two parts — one by train and one by airplane — and was assured that we wouldn’t be left in the lurch, that our Korean guides would be punctual for certain at this point. Strangely, they weren’t. For all that’s written about how orchestrated and tightly bound these tours are, we abruptly found out there were gaps in the paid programming; small spaces where unsupervised interaction could take place and unobserved observations could be made.

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The road from the airport to the city was sparsely populated with luxury sedans from various eras. Barring that, everyone else was either walking — often with large loads strapped to themselves — or those who were brave enough were trying their luck on the ice with a bicycle. Don’t they fall? (We were all curious.) A man riding near the side of the road plunked down without spilling his cargo. Yes, they fall.

Coming into the city, we started to get a better sense of how people get around. On the outskirts we passed what appeared to be a sort of public transportation graveyard: electrified busses rusting away in the snowdrifts, the accordion sections rotting to reveal antiquated interiors. Further in, we started to see them in operation.

Pyongyang’s public transit is functional, but only in the barest sense. Its vehicles range from cobbled-together rattletraps to new makes from overseas. During rush hour, the fleet is certainly overburdened; riders cram together on vehicles that probably lack heat and/or air conditioning. In addition, service seems unreliable. While we constantly saw trams plying their routes, power outages are frequent. Fuel for the non-electrified vehicles is also in notoriously short supply. At one point we saw an articulated bus roll past with a stovepipe billowing black smoke. While at the time we thought it might’ve been a makeshift heating apparatus, after a little research I found out that many North Korean vehicles have been retrofitted to run on wood burning stoves.

And that’s in the capital.

Nevertheless, people were moving around. Economic necessity and a little utopian planning had created a more sustainable model for getting around in a city than exists in many wealthy nations.

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I talked a lot about public transit with one of the Korean guides. She described how she didn’t really enjoy the train to work because she had to come all the way from the end of the line and change lines at the (only) transfer station. At rush hour she said the train was packed and quite uncomfortable.

That night, while drinking with the guides, I pulled up the Jihachul app to let her see how far you could go on the southern capital’s subway network. Her reaction was hard to measure. I didn’t expect paroxysms of shock as she finally saw the superiority of the capitalist system. Though I also can’t be sure that she wasn’t astonished and just hiding it well. She was certainly impressed. Possibly more by the app on my phone than the map itself.

Back in the noraebang on my last night in the DPRK, I asked the guide again if he’d seen any other foreign films, maybe even a foreign Korean film. He answered, saying he thought he’d seen one other American movie before, but it was dubbed in Korean (he was pretty sure it was American, anyway). With great relish he described a scene where a truck teetered over the edge of a bridge. The title was something like “A Lie Against His Own Wish.”

Months later, I would realize his description was of 1994’s “True Lies.”

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By Bill Strang