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From Jerusalem to Pyongyang: A crazy Israeli in North Korea

You have to pass extensive and arduous tests and you have to show them an infinite number of documents, which prove two things: that you are not a journalist and that you are mentally healthy.
ShowImage2 Lior Dayan arrives in Pyongyang.. (photo credit:LIOR DAYAN)

Pyongyang, North Korea – I think only at 10 p.m. did it sink in where I was.

I was in a bumper car in the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground, an amusement park in central Pyongyang. A small green car with a senior North Korean military officer behind the wheel sped out in front of me. He shouted what sounded like a battle cry in Korean, then drove straight into me.

As my body reacted to the powerful impact of his car, I suddenly realized for the first time that this was real. I was really and truly in North Korea, in the capital city’s new amusement park – the very same park that the country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, himself inaugurated three years ago, and in which he was caught on film grinning from ear to ear as he rode the roller coaster.

When I first came across that amazing photograph, I printed it and hung it on the wall of my study. Since then, I’ve been looking at the picture every day, dreaming of the day that I too would get to go to the amusement park in Pyongyang.

That was three years ago, and all this time I’ve been obsessively investigating the tourist visa requirements for this closed country. Surprisingly, it appears that thousands of Western tourists succeed in securing entry visas to North Korea every year, and so my next mission became clear: To be one of them.

BUT IT wasn’t an easy task. You have to pass extensive and arduous tests and you have to show them an infinite number of documents, which prove two things: that you are not a journalist (or work in the media in any capacity); and that you are mentally healthy. Of course these requirements worried me, because I didn’t qualify on either account.

So I had to find a false identity that wouldn’t have any connection with the media. It took me a while to think of a way to solve this problem, but then I remembered that my parents had argued over what to name me, and when they couldn’t agree, decided to use both names.

When I was born, my mother wanted to call me Lior, but my father preferred Amos. Neither of them was willing to give in, and so I was named Lior Amos Dayan.

Up until that moment, I’d never viewed having two names as advantageous, but now I was in luck – because the North Koreans use their names backwards (first they write their last name, then their first name). So if I just ignored the name Lior, I could say that my name was Amos Dayan, and they’d never know I was deceiving them. I tried googling Amos Dayan in Hebrew and English and nothing came up, so I knew I’d be okay.

But this was just the first step, since just because I had a new name didn’t mean I had a job and a boss with no connection to the media industry who could sign all the necessary paperwork testifying to the fact that I worked for him. I tried to think of a friend who had a business and would be willing to declare that I worked for him. And that’s when the name Nimrod Nir – he owns a PR firm – popped into my head.

I picked up my phone and called him, and within 10 seconds he’d said, “Welcome to The Brief: Creative Marketing, Amos Dayan. You are the new creative VP.”

“Thanks,” I played along. “I’m very excited to join the team. I’m ready to take this office to new levels and to stand up to the challenges that come with the job.”

“But I have just one condition if you want the job,” Nimrod said in a serious tone. “You need to bring me with you to North Korea. That’s how it works in this office; the creative VP and CEO always travel overseas in tandem. This is an old tradition that goes back generations.”

“Well, I don’t take tradition lightly,” I responded. “Scan your passport and send it to me, and I’ll take care of the rest, boss.”

Unfortunately, when the momentous occasion finally arrived and I found myself standing in front of the very same roller coaster the North Korean supreme leader had been photographed on, I suddenly felt lightheaded – and chickened out.

“The ride just looked too scary,” I explained to my younger brother when I got back home to Israel.

“Yeah, right, and going to North Korea is something you do because you’re looking to relax,” he replied sarcastically.

AND YES, there is the issue of danger.


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