As part of our trip to China for Nick and Catherines wedding, we decided to visit North Korea. We booked a four day tour, which turned out to be one day getting in, two days there and one day getting out. Only about 1800 tourists visit North Korea in any year, this isnt because its hard to get to, its just that no one wants to go…
But we thought, we should go and see if we could find out what one of the most secretive states in the world was all about…
Before we left for North Korea, we did some reading, so we knew a little about the regime, the cult of personality, the famine, the lack of electricity or infrastructure, the 3 inch height difference and 10 years less life expectancy compared to south korea, the long running blockades and sanctions, the surveillance, the disappearances, the labour camps, the ongoing starvation, the isolation of country whose main supporters have turned their back on them, the fifth largest army in the world and it’s megalomaniac leaders, but none of the words or books we read prepared us for the experience we had in three days in the DPRK.
The moment we crossed the river we stepped back in time, from showy and shiny China with all it tacky glitz and glamour, straight back to landscape that was more iron age than Internet age.
We caught the international train from Dandong, meeting our first NK security agent in the departures lounge! He was an overly friendly chap with a fantastic set of gold teeth, who spoke 5 languages, casually chatted to us, them after confirming what we did for a job and why and where we we going in DPRK, disappeared into one of the station offices, and didn’t get on the train.
As foreigners we were put in the first class sleeper carriage and we werent allowed to walk into the “real” section of the train, the 3rd class carriages. But that wasnt such a bad thing as we had two bunk mates, the first a North Korean business man, who imports Aussie wine into NK. The second a one man NGO machine, a guy who grew in SK, but now lives in the USA, his one man charity runs program’s in both china and NK.
We knew that it was a 9 hour journey with no food on board, so we bought a few snacks, to keep us full, but both our bunk mates bought enough to feed the NK army!
First the business man opened his bags, beer (from Japan), coffee in a can from Singapore, biscuits and cakes from china, and two whole dried squids (from the nearby harbour), so we started of our trip with a toast and a dried squid leg! A truly surreal start to the day.
Mr NGO spoke pretty good English, so he translated for us, the NK business man was keen to know our industry, and once he heard we had lived n Brazil, he wanted to know if we knew any Argentinian wine growers he could buy cheap stock off!
He was well known to all the train staff and immigration and customs officials, probably because he stuffed something into each of their pockets when they stopped by at our berth. He was a great bloke who smoked outside and only snorted when absolutely necessary!
Mr NGO was also a real character, he was doing gods work in mysterious ways, baking bread and making feminine products in two charity factories in NK.
We had read on a blog somewhere: do You know what NK stands for? Answer:
Not Known, because every day in NK you don’t know what is going to happen, or work, or appear, or disappear! Wise words I think.
The border controls were amazing, smiling helpful people, going through the many processes and forms that their great leader and his government require.
On the way out, we also spotted these customs blokes burning some dodgy material on the train platform and i like a junior james bond snapped off a shot of them:
Ok, we have no proof that this is anything dodgy, but it was a very strange thing to do!
They checked our electronics goods, flicked through our iPad and it’s contents, turned off our phones, stuffed them in a Manila envelope and wrapped that in half a ton of sticky tape and handed them back to us, apparently we can open them when we get out.
Our customs agent also checked that neither our camera or our IPad had GPS functionality (not that well though) and read all our magazines, not surprisingly he was more interested in Caths trashy celebrity magazine, than my copy of the New Yorker!
He quizzed Mr NGO over his laptop and had a good poke around, checking out his files and going through his stuff.
He reappeared half and hour later, shut the door smiling, and had a chat with Mr NGO, he got him to reopen his laptop, then plugged in a memory stick and copied 500 songs off him!!
All done with a lot of laughter and good humour.
Border controls and customs took approximately 3 hours, which we spent drinking beer and meeting the strange collection of tourists on our train, some East Germans (told you it was time travel), a Finn and a Belgian, all as you would expect nice friendly, curious people! Both the Finn and the Belgian were satisfying long held desires to visit NK, but neither of them could convince their wives to come with them, so they were both travelling alone!
Then after just three hours, the train was hitched to a much larger domestic service and we trundled off towards Pyongyang. Trundle being the key word here.
Here are some shots we got on the way into Pyongyang, i think they pretty well sum up the condition of the counrty side we passed through.
It is worth noting that upon arriving in PY, we were told by our tour guides that its not considered polite to take photos of folks from NK, so we stopped taking anymore without their agreement, but these ones we got before we met our guides.
For those of you not up on your NK history and politics, the country has been run since the end of WW II (after the Japanese lost) by a father, his son and as of last year, his son, the three Kim’s. There is no political parties, no Internet, one TV station, one radio station, a small mobile phone network, but no phones and not much else.
There is no private enterprise, no shops, no bars, no restaurants, no signs, no ads, no graffiti, just slogans extolling the genius of the three Kim’s. It’s pretty hard to imagine or comprehend, but we must be clear here, this is not a dynasty, because as good socialists, we know that dynasties are inherently bad, this is just a co-incidence that the socialist party elected three people from the same family to lead the country!
The country side reminded us instantly of Rwanda, there is different attitude to farming when the farmers are hungry, every spot of land is used for food production, we were told that the average farmer eats 300gms of food per day and earns 50c (US) per month.
No one has their own land, so all work is for their local collective, but the collectives are just big enough, that the farmers can’t link effort to output, so everyone just does the minimum. Thus the continue to be poor and hungry.
Here is a photo of Greg enjoying a “typical meal”, clearly we didnt go hungry while in NK.
The tools and vehicles were from another age, mangy cattle pulling plows, hand planting and steam powered trucks. Here is an old truck, converted to run on steam, with a fire and boiler built into the back tray
The roads were totally empty, not just quiet, but totally empty, with virtually no private vehicle ownership, the only traffic was trucks, buses, military vehicles and the odd new shiny, big expensive 4x4s (say no more, say no more).
We arrived at the station and were met by our guides, all tours have two government appointed guides and one driver, ours picked us out of the crowd and led us to our car, then onto our hotel.
It’s one of three hotels that tourists can stay in, but people are hesitant to confirm just how many of the three are actually open at any time!
So at the hotel, which is on a island that you can’t leave – We ran into a couple of the other passengers off the train and joined them for dinner and beers.
The dinner was suitably surreal, like the rest of the hotel, someone has visited a nice hotel and had a nice silver service restaurant, then repeated that over a bad Skype line to someone else who wrote it down in, then translated it and sent it to someone else who tried to recreate it here in sunny North Korea!
The 47th floor of the hotel has a revolving restaurant on it, so we settled in for what has to be smallest three course meal we have ever eaten, we were of course revolving around the whole time, but as it was dark and virtually none of the buildings in the capital had electricity on, so all we could see was darkness!!
It’s worth noting that the NK folks only refer to it as Korea, as they don’t believe the separation of the two states and they always refer to everything in terms of “the great leader” or the “the great president”, as in:
Can you see that building there? The great leader designated that building…. Etc etc etc..
Anywhere we went, that one of the three leaders had previously visited, we were given another enthralling story about the great leader and the wisdom they imparted while at that place, apparently the leaders are famous for imparting practical advice and philosophy to places they visit, one of my favourites was at a park we drove past in a small town. I pointed out what a nice park it was, apparently the great leader had also visited the park, and told the workers…… Wait for it….. You know this is going to be important….
That they should build more parks like this in NK…
He was clearly a genius!
Some more impressive feats by the countries glorious leaders included, Kim 1 composing several operas while fighting the Japanese, Kim 11, knowing how much his people like fireworks, created software that for the first time ever, allowed the release of fireworks to be controlled by a computer, then Kim 111, upon finding out that Kim 11 had died on a Saturday, decided in his wisdom (which he gained from his father) not to announce the death to the NK people until the Monday, so that the people would not have their weekend ruined.
Now I realise that Kim 111’s achievement pales in comparison to his dads and granddads, but he has only been in power for six months!
They also don’t let you touch the local currency, you can pay for anything you need in Yuan, USD, EURO etc, it’s as if they need hard currency!
Prices are dirt cheap with two beers in the hotel bar costing just £1.40!
But as usual, the bar experience was just weird, the fridge had Heineken, strawberry milk and something else with just Korean writing on it. So of course i tried to order the mystery Korean drink, the bar man said ok and got it out of the fridge but he couldn’t explain what it was, but then the waitress refused to bring it to me, telling me it wasn’t for sale, despite there being 12 cans of it in the drinks fridge!
We got picked up at 7am by our guides, both of whom were awesome, friendly, helpful, well informed.
We headed directly south to the border with South Korea, we were heading for the demilitarized zone, and hopefully to spot the American imperialist occupiers preparing for an invasion!
The trip down was amazing, directly south, about 150km, it took us three hours though, because though the roads were massive and wide, with virtually no other traffic, the condition of the roads was terrible, so we continually swung from one side to the other as we avoided the potholes and the small teams of workers filling in the potholes with the most basic tools.
We weren’t really sure what we in for with the visit, we got the usual bizarrely biased version of the events, but to be honest by now (like all the tourists we met) we had already learned to tune out when the propaganda began. But we didn’t realise that we would go right to the edge of the border, in the middle of the DMZ, where peace talks where conducted.
We learnt that the peace talks were conducted between the NK army and Imperialist Americans, no South Koreans were present, just those evil imperialists….
Here we are, smack in the middle of the DMZ, with two NK army guards making sure we dont defect to the south!
From there we went to see some old stuff, from pre revolution Korea, then some historical village with some rather odd collections of historical artefacts.
We also visited a stamp shop, full of NK stamps and post cards, we bought some post cards to send home, of course it’s well known that any post cards that don’t contain complimentary information about the country are not posted, so we made sure that ours we gushing with compliments, for the glorious country and even more glorious leadership! But of course its not as easy as just posting your postcards, when I went to the post shop in our hotel to post them (of course we could not go to the post office)! But the hotel staff wouldn’t post them until I told them my room an number and name, do,please let me know if you got yours!
We then got to see the American armed spy ship that was captured by the great NK people’s Navy, the small naval boat with a single 30 calibre machine gun was clearly something that NK is very proud to have captured, the 15 minute “informational” video that explained the story of the USS Pueblo was one of the funniest videos I have ever scene, I am sure it was the inspiration for “Team America World Police”.
Here is the full video for your informational pleasure
Whilst captured, the US imperialists tried to add a little humour into the whole affair. Whenever they were photographed, at least one of the crew would do “the bird”, this small gesture of defiance led to some smashing phots:
You can read more about the digit affair here:
For dinner that night we had Korean hot pot, the restaurant of course only had other tour groups in it, and there aren’t many tourists in the country (like 2,000 people per year) so we were getting to know the other tourists on our circuit. The food was great, the restaurant was in the embassy district, we could see the embassy’s of Iran, Syria, Romania and Switzerland, which was only as odd as the rest of the country! We dubbed it the”Axis of Evil Avenue”.
As with every evening there was a power cut while we were eating, which was a good thing, as it relieved us of the constant presence of north Korean TV – as well as pictures of The Great Leader and The eternal president, every restaurant room had a tv in it, with the only NK tv station blaring loudly at us. A weird mix of montages of war footage, homages to the countries leaders and eastern European opera performances….
To try and explain the level of propaganda we heard is pretty hard, It felt to me like a 6 year old kid telling lies, you know they are doing it, you can tell by their delivery that they know they are doing it, but you both smile and nod. What was impressive about our guides was that they stuck to their guns, repeated their Governments version of any story, and refused to be drawn into questioning what they had been instructed to say.
We constantly needed to remind ourselves that we were guests in this country, and that we chose to visit here, knowing all that we knew of the regime. Our tour guides were doing a great job of telling the official story that they have to tell, so it wasnt really up to us to correct things according to the version of history that we were taught. But there was an awful lot of tongue biting and leg squeezing as we resisted the urge to correct what were often ludicrous stories.
As a tourist in NK, you are not allowed to go anywhere without your guides, you cant get hold of the local currency, and even with your guides there is a very small list of approved restaurants and shops that you are allowed to stop in, so for a beer, there are very few choices. It wouldn’t really matter if you could leave the hotel on your own, there are very few shops or restaurants, and we only saw one pub the whole time we were there.
This was highlighted one afternoon, when we asked our guides to stop at a shop for a can of ice coffee, instead of stopping at one of the official government food stores, we took a 15km detour back to the place we had just eaten lunch, to buy one from the hotel restaurant! Despite seeing at least one counter on the road that did have them.
Our hotel had two bars, one with local beers, so at night in the sanctuary of the bar in the roof top revolving restaurant, we debriefed with other tourists over cheap beer and plenty of laughs. We all shared the same frustrations, we were being lied too, from the morning to the evening, which is fine, we are tourists and we know what we are in for, what was annoying, frustrating and ultimately saddening was that these same lies are repeated to the citizens of NK, they are bombarded with the need to be prepared for an impending invasion from the imperialist Americans from the south, and the never ending stories about the wisdom of their three leaders.
A full day in Pyongyang, we started off with another random breakfast, this time including raw onion and hot water, but at least from our 46th floor restaurant we could see it was clear and almost sunny.
Our guides picked us up and we went sight seeing for the day around the city, we saw towers, monuments, buildings, parade grounds, parks and many other odd things, all except one were tied into either the great leader or the eternal president.
There is definitely nothing wrong with the fundamental ideas of the north Korean ideology, where as the Russians had the hammer and sickle, the DPRK has the sickle, for the farmers, the hammer for the merchant class and the calligraphy brush for the intellectuals. The great leader and eternal president was at least smart enough to bring all the groups of society into his vision.
The idealogy is based around something called juche, which means that man is his master of his own destiny, and no one is his master.
So far so good, it’s all pretty decent human stuff, we are all equal and need a balanced society to achieve happiness, sadly the implementation of this ideology has fallen far short of its ideals.
So, we visited the juche tower, then the memorial to the founding of the party, then the massive memorials to the eternal president and his son the eternal leader (or vice versa, I still can’t tell which is which). For the record the massive statutes were definitely not solid bronze, they looked more like spray painted fibreglass, but we decided not to raise this, as there were constant streams of NK folks laying flowers and bowing to the dudes. Which we did too (through very gritted teeth).
Then it got interesting, we visited a massive nationally library, got to see the books, the teaching rooms (with classes running in English and maths), plus the music room (with tapes of music from all around the world). They tried to find us a tape from new Zealand, but sadly I am not sure what language they found, but it wasn’t kiwi! Like everything else it was elaborately stage managed, all the way down to computerised, electric book delivery system, which wasn’t computerised and wasn’t even electric, with a mysterious hand pushing the cart through a hole in the wall towards us with a randomly selected set of books, huckleberry finn, Shakespeare and a sailing manual!
We also visited the humble house that the eternal leader grew up in, it was definitely humble, I don’t know what more I can say, but when a country lies about so much, you start to doubt even them most simple things, did he really live there? was it really the families noodle press? Did he really have two brothers? Is any of this even remotely true? Looking at the thousands of ordinary Koreans who were queuing for hours to see this distinctly suspiciously humble site are going to be mightly pissed if the find out any of this is a lie!!!
We also drove down the street of 50,000 families. Housing like everything else is owned by the state, you dont get to buy your house, it is given to you by the state, and if you dont like, you lump it! We were told that everyone in the state lives in the same quality and size house, which sounds great, but we are not sure if it is true.
Like home ownership, the ownership of vehicles by private individuals is also against the rules, so the roads were virtually empty most of the day.
We saw a massive fun park complete with rusting rides and machines, we were informed that the park was only closed for the day as the workers needed a day off….
Then we got to do the most “real” thing of the whole trip, we rode four stops on the PY metro system.
We also visited the museum of the great war, their version of the war was suitably entertaining, apparently NK defeated the Imperialist Americans and signed a cease fire while they had the upper hand. The NK troops did it all single handedly, with no support from either Russia and China (despite rooms full of Russian weapons) and the imperialist Americans seemed to be invading on their own, no mention was made of the UN mandate of the other countries involved (not even the South Korean army got a mention).
Then we went to the children’s palace, I suppose it’s a socialists idea of an after school club, with room after room of kids playing instruments, doing takwondo and every other after school thing a young socialist could imagine, we went from room to room and the kids put on an amazing show in everyone.
Hilariously we headed to NK’s “tourist shop” we got to the pottery section – and surprise surprise – the electricity went off – AGAIN!
Then we headed for dinner, another tourist only place, this time for a lovely Korean duck BBQ, cooked at the table, delicious stuff!
We headed back to Alcatraz, in time for a final fitting of Greg’s new Kim Il Jung suit (coming soon to a BBQ near you)!!
Then up to the roof for more beers and another debriefing sessions with our fellow tourists. All of us where shell shocked at the end of each day, amazed at what the NK citizens lived with.
The next day we traveled backed to Dandong, China, the border crossing was again full of searches, numerous bribes and the customs officials burning something ceremoniously on the station platform. I never thought I would be glad to return to the relative freedom and liberty of China!
Despite the fact North Korean businessmen who filled our Dandong hotel and its bars and restaurants, who spent their evenings drinking and eating like kings, the average North Korean citizen people are the most isolated people in the world, with no access to independent news, a state media that is sadly comical, no private tv or radio stations, they are unable to travel or even make phone calls outside the country, they are not allowed personal email addresses and have absolutely no access to the Internet at all. They are a country who has no idea about Facebook, wifi, Wikipedia or any of the things that we take for granted.
Thanks to the ideology of their leaders (and i am sure the long running international sanctions) they are dirt poor, poorer than any other we have seen on our travels. They also looked hungry. We saw women pick weeds from the side of the road – we knew they would be used for cooking. Of course we were not allowed to take photos of this – for a country where people are told they have nothing to envy – they sure had a lot to cover up.
But whats most depressing is how sad they seem, we have been to plenty of countries where people dont have much in the way of material wealth, but you still see kids playing in the streets, and a smile is always returned, but in NK, a smile is returned with nothing, people look worried, then look away, and for us, each time that happened, the feeling of sadness grew.
The country is looking backwards, the battle for independence from Japan, the battles against south Korea, the USA and the UN forces were all amazing events and they can definitely be proud of some of them, but that was nearly 60 years ago, but the leadership has continued to make these events the sole focus for the country and to justify their repressive regime.
I think that until NK starts to look forwards, nothing will change and that’s really sad for the people of North Korea.
We travelled to NK with Young Pioneer Tours, they were great, cheap and always helpful and quick to reply to any questions we asked:
Young Pioneer Tours