Pyongyang calling… Into North Korea

It’s difficult to know where to start… Anyway, when I was planning my world trip I found out that a few specialist tour companies ran tightly-controlled trips into North Korea. Whilst expensive, I reasoned that I was unlikely to be in Beijing at any time in the immediate future with cash and time to spare, and was fascinated by the concept, so signed up.

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of paying to visit a country which is so roundly demonised in the international press. Obviously as a socialist state with government control of all aspects of business and trade, most of the money I spend will be going directly to the Government… Will this benefit the people or fund the excesses of the leadership? In any case, it’s important to see and understand as much of the world as we can- As one of the last closed countries in the world I wanted to see for myself behind the ‘wall’. Maybe to some extent the view they want us to see, but it’s a start.

As an early point of order, the official name for the country is the Democratic Republic of Korea, or the DPRK. I’ll refer to it as that throughout this post, although I do not in any way agree with the “Democratic” title.

We met in the centre of Beijing in order to board the evening train to Dandong on the Chinese border. Beijing on this day was utter, utter chaos- Maybe even more so than normal- due to the impending National Day celebrations. A good time to be leaving, and the crowds at the train station confirmed this. 

Slow train to Pyongyang

I was pleased to see that there was a really good bunch of people from all around the world on my tour, which proved to make it an extremely fun trip. This started with copious amounts of beer on the evening train, and a strange show-down with the officious head of the buffet car who did not want to serve us with food, then beer, then a combination of the two. One of the fluent Mandarin speakers from our party confirmed they were simply being stubborn rather than it being a language barrier issue. I will admit that the selfie wearing one of their train conductor’s hats probably didn’t help though…

In any case, we arrived in Dandong early in the morning and had an hour to kill around the city, looking at the old and new bridges linking China with the DPRK. We were joined on the trip by a sports team from the DPRK, who seemed to have stocked up well on Chinese goods, judging by their numerous boxes and bags.

Dandong to the DPRK border at Sinuju is literally a 5 minute rumble across the Friendship Bridge, but a whole world away. As the train pulled into the station one of the regular sights in the DPRK came into view: Constant activity.

You can witness this around the parks and public spaces- Large groups of older women cutting grass by hand to within an inch of its life, clearing vegetation or, as was the case at the train station, sifting the track ballast. These people are apparently volunteers, mainly retired women as there is no expectation of work once they are married. Apparently. 

I think there is a degree of truth in this assertion however suspect that, as with all aspects of true Socialist life there is an expected path and activities which can help to enhance or damage one’s standing in society.

Make no mistake, the customs checks at the land border are both lengthy and tedious. Every electronic article is examined in detail, and there are many forms to fill. Few people have problems getting in, although I gather from others that the examination on the exit side can involve the deletion of unacceptable photographs depending on the whim of the immigration officer. This didn’t seem to be an issue on the plane out.

Our home for the duration was the Yanggakdo Hotel, the one on the island… There are other ones in the city but I gather the degree of control over your movements is similar. It’s similar to any international hotel you’d expect to stay in, marble everywhere and a range of restaurants and bars, as well as the typically Korean additions of a bowling alley and karaoke bar.

KTV fun times

View from the Yanggakdo Hotel, the giant arrow in the background an unfinished hotel.

After dinner we committed our first faux-pas of the trip… Trying to take a wander outside the hotel. Now, this probably wasn’t sensible but tell Brits not to do something…and they instantly do it. We managed to get about 100m up the access road before waving torches appeared from nowhere and a ‘guide’ gently suggested that we should return. Failure! Good to know where one stands however… BEHAVE YOURSELVES!

The next morning marked the start of our whistle-stop tour schedule of the DPRK, bright and early at 8am. A few parks and public spaces around Pyongyang provided the first introduction to the omnipresent photographs of the Leaders.

The Two Kims

Billboard featuring a scene from the early life of the Leaders.

Their portraits adorn every public building and public space. Strangely I think this constant exposure has a bit of a weird effect as I found myself developing warm feelings towards the smiling heads everywhere. I’m sure there is something in the psychology which is entirely deliberate. In any case, we purchased some flowers from a nearby stall and continued on to the enormous monument nearby celebrating the successes and conquests of the DPRK and their leaders.

Two Kims again… Kim Jong-Il was a later addition.

Monument- One either side of the Kims

They are flanked by massive statues showing the workers, soldiers and “thinkers” who are contribute to the success of the “Juche” ideals. 

We were joined on our trip by official guides from the KITC, Korea International Tour Company. All of the visiting Western companies have to go through them, so the degree of independence is low. We were also joined by another older man from the “tourist board” throughout our tour. An interesting character, well-read, well-travelled, very charming at times  (except for the times I caught him watching me out of the corner of my eye) with interesting lines in conversation. About, you know, our jobs, and our opinions on the country… I gather the Swiss diplomat on our tour got similarly interesting questions to me about the timing of her trip.

An intelligence officer, then. He escorted, sorry, guided us to the airport on the last day and I was desperate to look him in the eye and tell him that I knew, one cop to another, but my desire to get the hell out of the country was stronger.

Moving on, we continued a whistle-stop few days of intense touring. I couldn’t probably name all of the sights, aside from a common theme of giant monuments, the omnipresent Two Kims and clearly manufactured experiences. People were bursting into song, waving flags, playing instruments everywhere we went. Interestingly too, the roads we travelled on in Pyongyang looked to be very familiar every time. Set safe routes? I couldn’t possibly comment.

Entirely unscripted drumming practice on a visit

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that Pyongyang is a functioning city, and that actually the population of Pyongyang are probably doing alright in the scheme of things, but some things didn’t ring true, and strange little things that I as a naturally suspicious sort came to notice. On a visit to a reconstructed ancient city, the woman next to me making notes and then miraculously appearing talking to our ‘guides’ back at the bus a mile away.

Or the fact that virtually every restaurant we went to was devoid of punters. Or the strange ‘department store’ bustling with trade whilst every other shop looked deserted. Or indeed the impromptu performances by children outside these places. Or the flag waving outside the main train station every morning. Very odd. 

Department store- Spot the “tour guide”

The empty streets of Pyongyang

War cemetery

The metro seemed fairly “real” and unscripted, despite the fact we only went a few stops. For me this was a really interesting segment, with the omnipresent sculptures and art concentrating on the Leaders and positive aspects of the country. Seeing people reading at the communal newspaper stands was like being transported back in time. The metro is apparently the deepest in the world. In many ways it reminded me of the deep St.Petersburg and Moscow metros intended to double as bomb shelters, with the architecture very similar- Although the iconography is far more profound in the DPRK.

Striking statue in the metro

Lots of what I saw and heard both inside and outside the DPRK reminds me of the 1930’s Russia I’ve studied, whereby a narrow urban elite get to enjoy a reasonable standard of life within the party boundaries but the rural peasants bear the brunt. Some people describe it as being similar to China 30 years ago. I can’t say. It clearly functions, that much is clear, and anecdotally our Western guides say that people are starting to look better fed in the countryside but still the strain of daily lives shows in people’s eyes.

During our visit we got to visit a middle school, whereby we went into an English class and also watched a short, note-perfect performance by the children. I enjoyed the lesson, it was good to interact with the children who appeared pretty natural, and I also noticed that several had braces… Good to see that there’s that form of dental treatment available but I wonder to what extent these were ‘normal’ children. An amusing moment however was when we were all saying where we were from… The American guy’s announcement went down like a lead balloon, with stony silence rather than the cheers for other places. We reassured Buck that we all loved him afterwards though.

On the second day of the trip we got to visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. This is a genuinely remarkable place. Staggering in scale and unfortunately very, very high security so my camera wasn’t allowed in. This building houses the embalmed bodies of the previous leaders Kim il Sung and Kim Jong Il, as well as their official cars, train carriages and foreign honours. 

The Palace…

Words, nor pictures from outside, cannot do it justice. There are multiple stages of security and an incredibly sombre atmosphere. Smart clothing is required. Once checked you enter a huge marble corridor and travel for quite literally a kilometre or so on a travelator before entering one of the largest, and most marble, rooms I have ever seen, containing an enormous effigy of the leaders. You enter the mausoleum through giant, Bond villain-style air blowers to remove any contaminants. Once inside the hushed, semi-dark room you approach in fours and bow on three sides of the body before filing onwards.

I found the “Foreign honours” rooms very strange. Filled with titles and awards from across the globe to the Leaders, including a completely random award from Derbyshire council in the 1980s. The world of international diplomacy is not one I understand fully!

We also paid a visit to the War Museum. I’d have felt slightly uncomfortable being an American here due to the openly partisan commentary and use of phrases such as “Imperialists” and “Puppet Army”. Here they proudly display military hardware seized from the Americans, including the showpiece boat, USS Pueblo, and helicopters along with graphic pictures of their surrendering/dead crews.

Our final day in the DPRK involved a visit to the DMZ- Demilitarised Zone between the DPRK and South Korea. Techincally the North and South remain at war, the current peace is only as a result of an armistice brokered within the border buildings. There is now a Joint Industrial Zone on the border and the DPRK guides speak of a strong desire to reunify but I’m not sure to what extent such diverse countries can now ever be reunited.

Our journey to the DMZ involved 3 hours on a very undulating road. Not necessarily badly maintained, just a bit more hand-made than most roads… Either way, it wasn’t a comfortable journey after a night on the pop. During the journey it was clear how uncommon private movement throughout the country is- We passed virtually no private cars or buses whatsoever. I understand the DPRK residents need a permit to travel anywhere, and there are numerous military checkpoints on the Pyongyang-Kaesong road. 

Empty roads…

Service station on the road… Actually just some stalls outside.

The DMZ is a fascinating but tense place. Due to an incident in the past the two sides now take turns to have soldiers stationed on the border line, although the battery of CCTV cameras on both sides are constantly watching in any case. It used to be possible to go into the buildings, with a border line in the middle of the room, although the doors are now locked. The DPRK side say the Americans locked the door, the South Koreans say the DPRK locked it, who knows? The story of the Panmunjon incident whereby hostilities nearly recommenced also seemed skewed, but who are we to know?

High ranking officer at DMZ 

Our visit to the DMZ included a local restaurant where we had a ‘royal menu’ involving, as per tradition, an odd number of dishes. Odd dishes, to be honest. Not one of our finest lunches. Lots of dried fish. And dog soup. Yep, they do.

Lunch- Ruff.

Naturally the last night turned into a very late one. Made even later by me unwisely poking around the hotel trying to find the mysterious 5th floor, which is missed out of the elevator buttons. This ended unsuccessfully, although conversations with guides and later blog research suggest that actually it’s just an administrative floor, the only controversial aspect the amount of vehement propaganda in the staff area.

A 3.30am bedtime and 5.30am alarm was an unpleasant combo, however I was glad to get to the airport (the new, shiny one built very recently) and out of the country on an ancient Soviet Tupolev aircraft via Air Koryo.

I enjoyed the visit. I don’t for a moment believe that everything in the country is rosy however reports seem to suggest that Kim Jong Un is a relatively progressive leader, and when one looks at the three recent amendments to the constitution this would appear to ring true. I was quite affected by the level of supervision which we were under during the tour, so much so that China felt like a beacon of freedom upon my return. I didn’t sleep well the first night back, mulling over the things I had (and more pressingly, had NOT seen) and the true role of our ‘guides’. Interestingly though, I saw a person very similar to our second ‘guide’ on the plane, who clearly wasn’t an airline employee but nonetheless was present and observing. Same suit, same demeanour. Very, very unsettling.

It’s definitely somewhere I recommend visiting, provided you can take things with a pinch of salt. The version of the DPRK which we were presented with was clearly a sanitised, groomed one however on the other side some of the Western rhetoric regarding the country really isn’t true. And, as our Western guides reminded us at the outset, the guides are nice people in a difficult situation. The genuine and non-genuine ones.

An interesting place to visit, and I hope that the future brings positive developments for the people.


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