We were a bit surprised when our Comrade-Guide, as he insisted we call him, gave in to our demands for a department store visit. Until then, touring North Korea had been a frustrating experience. Herded from one scenic spot to another, hustled through public streets and hindered from talking to locals, we found that the trip seemed hopeless. At last, then, our group—journalists pretending we were tourists—had arrived, a sunny afternoon in downtown Pyongyang. We made our way through the crowd in Department Store Number 1, surrounded, or so we thought, by those “brainwashed citizens of the last Stalinist State” we had read about.
Brainwashed? Couldn’t say. But there was something wrong with this place. On the street outside, there was not a single pedestrian in sight. The customers seemed to file out of the subway and into the store, like an army of toy soldiers. And why were all the men wearing ties? Inside, cigarette lighters lay painstakingly arranged on a shelf, undisturbed, as if none had ever been bought. Books and note pads were in neat even piles, obviously untouched. Even prices were bizarre: why pay over two thousand North Korean won for an accordion if a bicycle costs less than two hundred?...
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