The power had gone out. I was lying on the floor in the pitch black, listening to waves crashing on the beach outside, wondering whether the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had heard similar sounds as he fell asleep here.
For two nights in 2006, “Dear Leader” slept in the same bed I was lying in: just a traditional, Korean-style mattress rolled out on the floor. Fortunately, kitchen stove channels heated the wood from below, keeping it warm even when the electricity failed – a regular occurrence given North Korea’s notoriously unstable power supply.
Kim Jong-il’s visit marked the opening of the Mt Chilbo Homestay – one of the few homestays in North Korea, if not the only one, that is allowed to host foreigners. (All foreigners, that is, except for Americans, who are allowed to visit during the day but cannot spend the night.) While the owners are proud that Kim Jong-il was a guest, they do not publicise which bed he slept in, or that visitors can stay there: doing so would be seen as disrespectful to the late leader. I was able to pinpoint his room only by befriending a guide, who let me in on the secret.
Billed by tour operators as an opportunity to see how locals live, Mt Chilbo is located in North Korea’s remote northeast – a forested region of stunning natural beauty. But as one might expect, parts of the experience felt staged. The 20 houses, for example, looked nothing like the average North Korean homes that we could see just beyond the electric fence at the property’s entrance. The houses of the neighbouring village – whose name we weren’t told and which we weren’t allowed to photograph – looked dark and dank, with villagers washing their clothes in the stream. The two-storey homestay accommodations, meanwhile, had running water, an (admittedly erratic) electricity supply and televisions proudly displayed in every living room.
But opting for a homestay like Mt Chilbo does have its benefits. Not only do guests have the unusual opportunity to mix with North Koreans who are not guides and minders, but they also can wander around the homestay grounds – rare freedoms in a country where visitors are always within sight of a tour bus and a guide is never more than a few metres away.
Going beyond the perimeter fence, however, is absolutely out of bounds. A guard checks the gate at sunrise to make sure no one has tried to slip out.
Throughout Mt Chilbo there were reminders of the dictator’s hold on the country. In House 16, where I stayed, portraits of Kim Jong-il and his son Kim Jong-un hung side by side in the living room, just as in every other home across the country. Here, however, was another photograph of Kim Jung-il: wearing his trademark dark shades, he is pictured walking up the paved pathway outside House 16, a party of officials and military men following him. A family of four is lined up to greet him.
Now in their early teens, the children in the picture easily remember Kim Jung-il’s visit; it was a landmark event in their lives. With a few words of English and plenty of excited gesticulating, they explained that he spent two nights in the guest room upstairs, which hadn’t been redecorated since his stay. With a retro 1960s feel that is common in North Korea (in many respects, the country has been frozen in time since the Kim dynasty took power in 1948), the walls were neatly wallpapered, as was the ceiling, and there were yellow polyester curtains and a vase filled with plastic flowers. A lacy white cover enshrouded the electric fan. I had to stoop to see myself in the full-length mirror – but that wouldn’t have been a problem for the house’s most prestigious visitor; he was1.6 metres tall.