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Seven Days on a Voyage With Gov. Richardson

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    Saturday, Day One
    Six hours in the air; live in Tokyo
    With the Albuquerque media gathered for Gov. Bill Richardson's Santa Fe send-off to broker nuclear disarmament talks in North Korea, and the news conference being aired by live feed in Tokyo, Albuquerque Journal reporter Russell Max Simon asks the perfect question: "Governor, why do the North Koreans like you so much?"
    It's a question that hangs in the air for the next six days, a question that I hope to answer by watching the governor interact in what is surely one of the strangest places on the planet today.
    For reasons that are his own, the governor has invited a writer from the Journal to accompany him and eight others on this trip to nudge one of the odder and most unpredictable countries in the world closer to peaceful behavior.
    Reading up on the destination, the misnamed Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and its gulags and work camps for those who do not pay complete deference to the communist party's exacting message, I begin to hope the North Koreans do like the governor so much. His stature will determine how coldly or warmly we are received.
    We leave in the dark and soon the governor has changed into a buttery sweatsuit and Turkish slippers, ordered a glass of red wine from Jason, an Air Force sergeant who is the steward on the flight, and settled into a chicken dinner and some magazines— Cigar Aficionado, People and Affluent Traveler.
    The jet is not Air Force One but it's not Southwest, either. Our home for the next too many hours is a swanky Gulfstream G-5 with Direct TV, leather seats and two impossibly tall security guards armed with handguns and impressive collections of movies on DVD.
    Uncle Sam is footing the bill, giving Richardson and the rest of us a plane that has flown vice presidents, first ladies and secretaries of state. It's the first symbol that this trip, although not official, comes with the blessing of the White House.
Sunday, Day Two
    Veal Farm at 40,000 Feet
    While the pilots get their rest, the delegation cools its heels in a hotel in downtown Anchorage. From the governor's office are his deputy chief of staff, Billy Sparks; his scheduler, Siri Trang Khalsa; and a member of his security detail, Antonio Gonzales.
    Richardson has been asked by the North Koreans to bring experts in a number of fields. Sitting knee-to-knee on the flight are Public Service Company of New Mexico chief Jeff Sterba and former New Mexico Attorney General Paul Bardacke. New Mexico State University President Michael Martin and cardiologist Barry Ramo will join us in Tokyo.
    In the air again, with eight hours of flight time, all of it daylight, and a jump across the international date line ahead of us, the plane takes on the eerily comforting atmosphere of a veal farm: We are fed constantly and not allowed to move.
    Shrimp cocktail arrives first, followed by steak, potatoes and broccoli. Cheesecake. Bowls of fruit and chocolate. I spot Tostitos and salsa heading to the front of the plane. A bowl of salted nuts. Here comes the microwave popcorn.
    We are headed to a country where, by estimates, two to three million people have starved to death in a sweeping 10-year famine. We are coming from one that, I am ashamed to say, is spending your tax dollars to feed me yet another chocolate bar.
    (The Journal is paying some of the cost of Linthicum's trip.)
Monday, Day Three
    Welcome to Fantasy Island
    The plane approaches the Korean Peninsula poetically— slicing in right at the 38th Parallel, the arbitrary line that divided Korea into two nations, two peoples, two worlds at the conclusion of World War II.
    From the air at dusk, the country looks like a more rugged version of northern Arizona— all mountains and canyons and almost no roads.
    The plane taxis toward the airport in the capital city of Pyongyang and there— huge on the roof— is our first glimpse of the image we will see everywhere for the next three days: The chipmunk-cheeked face of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung.
    Met by soldiers and ushered into a large room, its walls lined with easy chairs, we sit and surrender our passports. Richardson is warmly received, gently scolded for not having come sooner and handed a schedule for the visit.
    It is a 12-page printed brochure, in Korean and English. A quick glance reveals we will "Appreciate the Grand Mass Gymnastic and Art Performance" on Tuesday.
    Uh-oh. The cadence of the Korean being spoken has gotten quicker and more tense. Something's wrong. A translation is given: There are 10 in your party and we've only been given nine passports.
    There is confusion, panic, mutual head counting followed by a happy realization: Paul Bardacke, the missing American, had ducked into the men's room. He emerges, hands over his papers and the trip moves on. It appears we will not sleep in cages tonight.
    The wide boulevards of Pyongyang are immaculate. Women sweep the streets with straw brooms and even the weeping willow trees have smart haircuts. Along the sidewalks, North Koreans walk and ride bicycles or wait in great throngs at bus stops.
    We sweep past them in a motorcade. The governor is in a black Cadillac limousine. We follow in a line of gleaming white Passats and a shuttle bus.
    We're taken into what is called a guest house, but it looks more like an embassy. Made of white stone with a characteristically turned-up red tile roof, it goes on and on and on.
    Outside, amplified music and recorded voices cut through the night air. Though it is in another language, it is unmistakably communist propaganda. It is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the party and a nearby stadium is putting on a show.
    Because it is late and we've traveled so far, we're invited to a small dinner. Small here means 16 people formally dressed sitting around a table set with china and sterling silver chopsticks. There is beer, blueberry wine and ginseng liqueur and then the food: fried duck, marinated vegetables, sushi, kimchi, baked codfish— all served deftly by silent waiters.
    And toasts. And more toasts. At the first toast, Agent Gonzales whispers, "Now this is my kind of party."
    After the seventh food course he says, "When do you think the food will stop?"
    Not soon. There's still corn soup, fried rice, watermelon, cake and tea to come.
    Dr. Ramo likes the heart-healthy blueberry wine so much, he gets his own bottle.
Tuesday, Day Four
    100,000 Faithful With Bayonets
    With the governor off to negotiations higher than our pay grades, Sterba, Bardacke, Martin, Ramo and I are taken into the city to see one of the many monuments to Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader.
    The streets are busy but not crowded with people walking and riding bicycles to work. Every few hundred yards we pass a building guarded by soldiers with rifles.
    An English-speaking tour guide escorts us to the base of the 170-meter-tall monument to the Great Leader. I've read that this is standard fare for a Westerner's visit. She tells us the story, that the dimensions, each number of tiers, columns, even stanzas in an engraved poem are each some factor of the number 70, because the monument was made for Kim's 70th birthday.
    The tour guide, in rather perfect English, has more to say. She says that Kim is the master of everything. That if one relies on the people, the people will prosper. This, she says, is the bedrock of the North Korean life, a philosophy called juche that was a gift from the Great Leader.
    "How do you know all this?" Bardacke asks. "Did you learn this in school?"
    She laughs and says, "It's common sense."
    Our government translator says we have time for one more stop before lunch— the stamp museum. Guess whose face is on almost every stamp?
    We're all taken on another of the standard Kim pilgrimages— two museums high in the mountains dedicated to the gifts given over the years by governments and individuals to the late Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, and the Dear Leader, the son Kim Jong Il, who stepped into the role when his father died.
    We wind up the river valley in a bus, passing work farms and fields. The country is beautiful, with rice and vegetable fields stepping up the hillsides.
    Farm workers are everywhere, walking down dirt roads or standing in the fields, gathering rice that is threshed by hand.
    On the two-hour drive I see one tractor and a few 1950s-vintage trucks. Everything is still done by hand and with the help of wooden-wheeled carts pulled by oxen. It is a tableau from another century.
    Near each farm is a grouping of apartment houses where the members live collectively. In the afternoon we see legions of children, their red scarves marking their attendance to primary school, walking home.
    Each collective has as one of its central features a tall white monument to Kim Il Sung. And in the fields are huge signs with characters spelling out encouragement for the working day. We pass one that reads "Let's strive mightily to advance the ideals of our Great Leader."
    At one museum, we are asked to stand before a large lighted statue of Kim Jong Il and "greet the Dear Leader." We bow slightly and the tour begins.
    Imagine every gift anyone has ever given you saved, classified, marked and displayed in lighted glass cases. You would probably discover you had been given some really weird stuff. Then imagine you're a reclusive dictator known for nuttiness.
    Let's see. A crocodile briefcase from Fidel Castro. A gold sword in a beaded sheath from Moammar Gadhafi. A rifle from Vladimir Putin. A paperweight from Ted Turner. A little glass bowl (or is it the glass from the bathroom of a motel he stayed in?) from President Jimmy Carter. A couple dozen big TVs. A cooler to put fish in. A black Hyundai. Spears. A cell phone and charger.
    After a few rooms, it begins to look like a yard sale. The point of the museum, the guide tells us, is twofold. To show that the world respects the North Korean first family and to show that the leaders are selfless.
    Down the mountain and to the May Day Stadium, one of the largest outdoor arenas in the world with seating for 150,000. It is the 60th anniversary of the founding of an independent North Korea and the story is told in dance and song with— oh, wonder of socialist regimes— the bleachers filled with 50,000 children holding colored cards they switch on command to spell out party slogans.
    The performances are spectacular, with thousands of performers moving as one without a missed step. Imagine the Super Bowl halftime show: super-size it, then make it totalitarian.
    From goose-stepping soldier characters to distraught peasants torn asunder by the Japanese monsters to sobbing North Koreans longing for loved ones at the DMZ, it is as beautiful as it is bizarre.
Wednesday, Day Five
    Who's Up for a Road Trip?
    The governor has scored his first coup, an invitation to tour the nation's nuclear reactor. It is this power plant and its used fuel that is the source or at least one of the sources of plutonium for North Korea's nuclear weapons.
    I don't know it at the time, but no reporter from outside the country has ever been let into this plant.
    The first sign that this is not Palo Verde comes when we make a left turn onto a dirt road and bump and weave for 20 miles until we reach the plant.
    The second sign comes when we're informed we have a bit of climbing to do because the elevator is broken. The third sign comes when we walk into the control room and it's run by three guys wearing little yellow hats staring at computers that appear to be a couple of decades old.
    Then it's on to the reactor hall, where there is no door. Richardson smiles broadly, one missed step away from being vaporized. "Why are you guys standing back?" he asks. "Afraid you'll fall in?"
    Then it's on to the fuel cooling pond, another low-tech experience that requires us to wear linen coats and hats to protect us from the radioactive muck that lies a few feet below our feet. On the way out, a technician pulls out a World War II-era Geiger counter to show that no harm has been done.
    Some experiences defy understanding. On the long ride back to Pyongyang, I keep thinking: This dingy place that looks like an Eisenhower-era soda pop plant is the source of our fears?
Thursday, Day Six
    Questions for the Philosopher
    We're joined by the governor for a tour of one of the city's prizes, the Grand People's Study House. It is a huge library with grand hallways and twin pictures of the two leaders in every room.
    We are shown room after room and eventually Bardacke states the obvious: "There aren't any books."
    Sterba points out there aren't many people either, although our guide tells us 10,000 visit the library each day.
    The guide also points out the desks, which may be tilted to each patron's desired pitch. This was the invention of the Great Leader, she says, who one day looked at a flat desk and said, hey, it would easier to read if this table-top titled. And so all the desks in the library now tilt.
    Richardson, a good sport through these propaganda tours, sits at a desk while the guide proudly tilts it up and down and up and down.
    The governor also happily sits down in the room where North Koreans with questions can ask them of a resident philosopher, or, as Richardson calls him, "the Q&A guy."
    Bardacke attempts a stab at plumbing the depths of Kim Il Sung's beliefs, asking through a translator if the Great Leader as a boy read and was influenced by any other great thinkers. Nietzsche, maybe? Or Rousseau?
    The Q&A Guy is stumped.
    We next visit the People's Presidium, a grand building where the number-two man in North Korea meets us in a ballroom-sized room with elegant chairs placed in two lines. Americans on one side and North Koreans on the other, we are served tea and quite formally revisit the issues of the week.
    It is another grand building, elegantly appointed with marble floors and beautiful carpets and devoid of people. One of the frustrations of this trip is reconciling the grandeur of the elite with communist principles.
    Then it's on to one more Great Leader show— his ancestral home— and another demonstration of just how great a show you can put on when people are afraid of screwing up, this one a children's song and dance performance.
    At 9:30 p.m. we retrieve our passports and fly away from Fantasy Island.
Friday, Day Seven:
    Lunch in Tokyo, Dinner in Seoul
    Going from programmed Pyongyang to chaotic Tokyo takes some adjustment. The good news here is a Starbucks espresso only costs 350 yen.
    Richardson is here to reveal the results of his North Korea trip to the news media and he attracts a panting crowd of about 100 who question him for an hour.
    Richardson chows down on Kobe beef for lunch and then we're on to Seoul, where the differences between North Korea and South Korea are unbelievable. A little less than 50 years ago, there was no difference between the Korea that sat below the 38th Parallel and the one that found itself above.
    In North Korea we drove for two hours and saw perhaps 25 other cars. It is a country without a stoplight and where young women in smart blue suits and tidy white bobby socks direct traffic in precise pantomimes.
    In South Korea, it takes us two hours to drive into downtown from the airport and all along the route are huge cookie-cutter apartment buildings.
Saturday, Day Eight:
    Please Get Us Off This Plane
    The governor has a meeting with the South Korean foreign minister in Seoul and repeats his Tokyo press conference, but with a Korean translator.
    Then we're gone, flying 4,300 miles, probably eating that many calories and returning to Santa Fe, where Richardson says he'll get back to being governor again.

E-MAIL Journal Staff Writer Leslie Linthicum