2016 marks the quarter-century anniversary of my taking up karaoke. On my birthday in March 1991 I sang karaoke for the first time; and during the ensuing summer I first began to embrace karaoke as a passion. You can read more here about how I got started as a karaokeist. Never during those formative days of my obsession did I imagine that I’d embarked on a journey that would one day culminate in my performing karaoke in North Korea.
And yet, although my singing appearance in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, which is what North Korea officially calls itself) was 25 years in the making, I almost blew it. Things worked out in the end, but I’ll never know just how close I came to screwing up my chance to sing in North Korea. This post discusses how my stupid mistake put my long-anticipated trip to North Korea in jeopardy; then it covers what happened when I finally got the chance to sing inside a totalitarian state.
Prologue: I don’t want this plane to land
June 4, 2016
About 2:15 pm Standard Time of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
As Air Koryo flight 752 from Beijing made its final approach to Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, I grabbed my daypack from under the seat in front of me. Anticipating my passage through immigration, I wanted to gather together all the documents that I’d need to present upon entering the airport: my passport, my entry visa, and the three landing cards I’d filled out during the flight. As the first step, I unzipped the compartment in the front of my daypack in which I always carry my passport when I’m in transit.
The passport wasn’t in there.
I proceeded to riffle through my backpack’s other compartments. After I’d made at least two sweeps through the entire bag, it was clear that my passport was nowhere inside it.
Panic began to set in. Had I unknowingly dropped my passport in Beijing Capital International Airport, then boarded the plane blissfully unaware of its disappearance? I unleashed the F-bomb, and with such volume that the Australian guys who were seated four rows behind me would later tell me that they heard me deploy that expletive.
What would North Korea do in the case of an evil American such as myself arriving without a passport in his possession? Possible scenarios drifted through my mind; none ended well. The best outcome that seemed plausible involved my forced return to Beijing on the next flight out of Pyongyang (which I’d heard was two or three days hence). If that was indeed my fate, would I be required to remain in the airport in the interim, similar to Tom Hanks’s character in The Terminal?
Mind you, ejection from North Korea was the best-case scenario that I could conjure. Among even worse potential outcomes, I wondered whether I might be “detained” (i.e., arrested) for the crime of showing up in the country sans passport. Prior to my leaving New York City a couple of weeks earlier, I’d pooh-pooed concerns expressed by friends back home that North Korea had a propensity for arresting American citizens and that my tour of North Korea could turn into a one-way journey. My dismissal of those concerns was predicated on my confidence that I wouldn’t violate any laws or do anything else to give the authorities a reason to arrest me. But what if my missing passport provided the North Korean government with all the excuse they needed to lock me up? Even worse, while I doubt that any of North Korea’s prisons is a pleasant place to serve a sentence, Americans who are incarcerated in North Korea tend to be sent to North Korea’s notorious labor camps (although reportedly, they’re spared from the absolute worst conditions, which often prove fatal to prisoners, as the Americans are more useful alive as political bargaining chips with the U.S. government. Still, their days are harsh.). Would I soon be breaking rocks in the hot sun?
Regardless of the particular fate that awaited me, I couldn’t imagine that I would be permitted to leave the airport and officially enter the DPRK. (In at least some countries, such as members of the European Union, an American whose passport is missing upon arrival would be allowed to exit the airport, obtain an emergency replacement from the nearest United States embassy, and then proceed with his travel plans in the country. However, such a resolution wouldn’t be possible in North Korea; like most countries, the U.S. doesn’t maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea and doesn’t maintain an embassy there.) It began to appear that my tour of North Korea wouldn’t happen, and my plans to make it the 42nd country in which I’ve done karaoke wouldn’t be realised. After spectacular highlights during the preceding days such as hiking on the Great Wall of China, my holiday in East Asia would end with a colossal failure and disappointment. And oh yeah, the possibility loomed that I might end up doing hard time in a work camp.
I wished that I could freeze time, thereby suspending my aircraft a thousand feet or so above the runway. Because once the plane was wheels down, I would have to face the music. Unfortunately, time, as it does, moved relentlessly forward, and the plane descended ever closer to the ground. Desperately I racked my mind, trying to envision a possibly overlooked place where my passport might be hiding.
It occurred to me that I might have stashed the passport in the inside pocket of my leather jacket, which was folded in the overhead bin above my seat. As soon as the Tupolev jet touched down on the runway, I leapt out of my seat, pulled open the bin, and grabbed my jacket. Its inside and outside pockets were all empty. My heart sank even further.
Then, while gazing at the contents of the overhead bin, I noticed one additional item that I’d forgotten was in there. Prior to embarking upon this flight, at a gift shop in Beijing’s airport, I’d purchased a souvenir t-shirt of that city. Apparently, for some unfathomable reason, I’d thought it would be a good idea to slip my passport into the shopping bag containing the t-shirt, and then place the shopping bag in the overhead bin before taking my seat. I had no recollection of putting my passport in the shopping bag, but there it was.
For someone who’s travelled to six continents, I sure had committed a rookie mistake. Any passenger on an international flight should know exactly where his passport is at all times. Fortunately, in this instance, my negligence didn’t have catastrophic consequences. (And by the way, I was lucky that my passport hadn’t slid out of the shopping bag. If it was lying loose on the floor of the overhead bin, I might have overlooked it; and who knows whether the cleaning crew would have then discovered it and reunited me with it before I was deported or arrested?)
Disaster having been averted, I literally kissed my passport. The passengers who’d been sitting nearby to me in the cabin, who were aware of what I’d been going through, were happy for me. And I proceeded to pass through immigration and customs without incident, and to embark on my multi-day tour of the DPRK. Equally important, I would be able to sing karaoke on North Korean soil after all!
Karaoke in a North Korean hotel
My North Korean karaoke debut happened on my very first night in the country. The setting for this momentous occasion was the Yanggakdo International Hotel — the Pyongyang hotel in which most foreign tourists in that city are accommodated, and the one where I myself was lodging. Conveniently, the Yanggakdo boasts a karaoke bar on-site, in its basement. So I didn’t have to travel very far to find a place to sing! (Also housed within that hotel’s labyrinthine basement are a bowling alley, a casino, and a spa. The casino, though, was shuttered for renovations at the time of my stay.)
The evening differed in one key respect from my usual overseas karaoke appearances. Entry to the Yanggakdo International Hotel is permitted only to foreign visitors; access is denied to actual residents of North Korea (with the obvious exception of hotel employees; and an additional exception is made for local tour guides who are accompanying the foreign tourists to whom they’re assigned). Ordinarily, the opportunity to sing in front of — and meet — people who live in a destination is one of my favourite aspects of karaokeing in foreign countries. But that wasn’t going to be possible in Pyongyang. Indeed, for my first song, my entire audience consisted of my two tour guides, one of whom was filming me. (The two Australian travellers whom I mentioned above moseyed into the bar prior to my second song. Their presence still left the establishment somewhat short of a full house. 🙂 ) The lack of any locals in the bar was consistent with the rest of my tour of North Korea, in which my interactions with DPRK citizens were tightly restricted and I wasn’t introduced into in any situations in which I could freely mingle with the public.
How to avoid getting murdered by the state
When the mic was handed to me, I kind of slipped up. As any reader of this blog knows, I perform all over the world under the stage name of “H-Bomb.” Before my arrival in North Korea, the only country in which I’d ever foregone the use of that sobriquet was Japan (which I visited in 2008), where I was concerned about possible cultural sensitivity over references by Americans to nuclear weapons, and where I therefore sang under the substitute handle of “Godzilla.” 🙂 In June 2016, out of an abundance of caution, I’d planned to make North Korea the second country in which I eschewed the H-Bomb moniker. Given the contentious atmosphere engendered by North Korea’s ongoing hydrogen-bomb testing, I worried that the governing regime might interpret my usual stage name as a deliberate mockery of its pretensions as a nuclear power.
My intentions went out the window when, out of force of habit, I promptly introduced myself as H-Bomb. I couldn’t help myself! Fortunately, the authorities didn’t burst into the room and drag me away, so it was all good. (It’s rumoured that every room in the Yanggakdo is bugged, although even if that’s true, it’s anybody’s guess how often any of the eavesdropping devices is listened to.) I may have lucked out; showing disrespect to the regime while performing karaoke has been known to constitute a capital crime in North Korea.
I’m not exaggerating! In October 2014, a high-ranking North Korean military official took some liberties during a karaoke session in his home. Specifically, while belting out a socialist anthem, he changed the words “Hate your enemies, love your country” to “Hate your wife, love your mistress.” If you ask me, his ad-libbing constituted an improvement on the original lyrics. But North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un didn’t agree, and the offending singer was grabbed from his house and executed by firing squad the next day. He had earned the death penalty for the crime of displaying a “rebellious spirit.”
Granted, there would never be any danger of my opting to sing a socialist anthem, even if an English-language version were available. This is because I only go for songs that have at least some entertainment value. 🙂 But the incident involving the military official stands for a more general point: a seemingly innocuous activity like karaoke can literally get you killed in a humorless totalitarian regime like North Korea, should your performance offend. (It’s conceivable that for political reasons, the penalty of summary execution wouldn’t be meted out to an American national who exhibited a “rebellious spirit” in the course of a karaoke performance, but that such a malefactor would instead be sent to one of the aforementioned labor camps. However, a “reduced” punishment of that nature wouldn’t seem like much of a reprieve.)
In a similar vein: I’m glad that I was unable to indulge a particular musical desire that I had. You see, I would have been highly tempted to sing Katy Perry’s “Firework” if it had been available in the karaoke songbook. In the 2014 comedy film The Interview, in which Seth Rogen and James Franco play Americans enlisted by the Central Intelligence Agency to assassinate Kim Jong-un, one plot point involves “Firework” being one of Kim’s guilty listening pleasures. Here’s a scene from The Interview that riffs on the great dictator’s love of that megahit by Ms. Perry:
Needless to say, that movie, despite its hilarity, was not well-received by the North Korean government. Thus, performing “Firework” could have gotten me in trouble. But the Yanggakdo’s karaoke bar had no Katy Perry songs at all to choose from; as a result, I was precluded from making a song selection that could have had adverse consequences for me. 🙂 Note: It’s not known whether the real-life Kim Jong-un enjoys rocking out to “Firework.” Also, I’m not saying that I definitely would have sung “Firework” in Pyongyang if given the chance; but the temptation would have been there.
H-Bomb sings: a big bang in Pyongyang
I’m pleased to report that I karaoked in North Korea, and unlike a certain unnamed military official, I lived to tell about it. Now we’re about to get to the videos that provide documentary proof. Something that you’ll notice from the videos of both of my songs: the sound system had really horrible reverb. I tried to mention this several times to the woman who was running the karaoke (as well as to my tour guides, who spoke English with some fluency); but the language barrier made it difficult to communicate the concept of “reverb” to the proprietress (and my tour guides didn’t seem to understand what I was trying to tell them, and were thus unable to convey to the hostess my comments about the technical difficulties). For whatever reason, the issue was never resolved. Admittedly it’s not like you can expect any kind of quality from electronic equipment in North Korea. 🙂
For my first song, I went with “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison. Of course, since I was practically singing to myself, my song selection really didn’t matter very much. Here’s the video of that opening number:
For my second song, I did one of my favourite tunes from the 1980s or any other decade: the great one-hit wonder “True” by Spandau Ballet. Check out that performance!
And that is how, on Saturday, June 4, 2016, North Korea became the 42nd country on my World Karaoke Tour. Country no. 43 is scheduled to be Hungary, when I make my first visit to Budapest in late November! In the meantime, I have plenty of blog posts in the works that will cover additional aspects of my recent trip to East Asia — as well as posts about other destinations I’ve been travelling to, such as the beautiful city of Savannah!
For a more comprehensive overview of my trip to North Korea, check out my guest post on the travel website JohnnyJet.com!