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What’s It Like To Visit North Korea?

June 26, 2014 | No Comments » | Topics: Interesting

by baggybobbo

What are we going to do about Korea? As I board the Soviet-built Tupolev Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang the sound of revolutionary music provides a background introduction to what is a very very different kind of society to anywhere else on the planet.

I’m on a brief four day trip to DPRK – the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea or more generally known as North Korea. It’s not your average tourist destination..DPRK is far from average in every way and western visitors are few and far between. 

The 90 minute flight from the glitzy Olympics crazed Chinese capital is an experience in itself. I grab a copy of the latest Korea Today from the stewardess. As the monthly ‘glossy’ newsletter of all things DPRK, Korea Today is a dated but intriguing taster of a system that qualifies as ‘retro’ in every way. 

The in-flight meal isn’t bad though and the native beer is pretty damn fine. The first of many in keeping with my status as an alcoholically inquisitive English tourist! Eventually our rather rickety rollercoaster ride of a flight comes to rest at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung airport and I’ve arrived in the Land of the Morning Calm and men in very big peaked caps!

After traversing the passport check and negotiating the oldest looking metal detector in the world – I’m sure it was made of wood – I headed outside for a cigarette. I was soon approached by my two friendly tour guides, one slim and attractive female and a very official looking fella! Let the fastidiously organised fun begin!

We headed off in a Vauxhall Vectra on the road to Pyongyang chatting and laughing and communicating as if we’d always been friends. I’m a laid back traveller but I take in every last millimetre of the views that greet me from the car window whilst simultaneously engaging in conversation. 

First thing that hits you is lack of traffic. Big wide carriageways empty of anything bar the odd bus, truck or myriad of cyclists heading somewhere to do something for some reason. First impressions were not of a supposedly hungry, bankrupt and poverty stricken society but of groups of school pupils laughing and workers chatting on the pavements as they headed home. Just like anywhere else…folks doing what comes naturally!

Soon the cityscape of downtown Pyongyang begins to take shape. The green parks that are everywhere break up the rather monotonous and monolithic socialist realist buildings but this is a real trip into the unknown and everywhere you look there’s something new to take in. 

From the iconic billboards and monuments that accentuate the revolutionary message to the unkempt, crowded and distinctly unroadworthy trams that scuttle off around every corner, this is the last bastion of a central command economy in the world. Prior to 1990 DPRK was one of many socialist nations. Prior to 1990 life was a lot easier here but now it ploughs a lone furrow, presumably not powered by modern tractors!

North Korea is a throwback. An example of a society in stasis locked into a timewarp and isolated from the modern technological platforms and flashy brands that can make much of the world seem much of a sameness. Visit here with an objective, intelligent and informed mind and plenty of smiles and it will be your most incredible travel experience. Arrive with preconceptions and a hidden agenda and you will learn nothing.

As we all seem to move forward with better gadgets, more stuff, faster cars and bigger houses the citizens of DPRK have just one TV channel (three on a weekend!), very limited access to the internet and a state controlled society that permeates everyone with the philosophy of Juche – also known as Kimilsungism.

To understand DPRK you have to understand its recent history. During World War Two Korea was ruled brutally conquered by the Japanese. The Americans controlled the south following hostilities whilst the Soviet Union had responsibility for the north with the 38th parallel providing a geographical and economic border that equates roughly to the current DMZ that, in the words of one great Pythonesque TV traveller, seperates one country from itself. 

The Korean War was almost therefore an inevitability as the USSR moved out. Whoever started it, it ended up as a clash of ideologies fermented by Kim Il Sung, DPRK’s Eternal President who died in 1994. His son, Kim Jong Il, the self confessed Dear Leader, took over the reigns and sought to protect and develop the Juche system which essentially maintains that mankind is master of his own destiny and the planet and should rise above the divisions created by money. It’s a sort of evolution of Marxist Leninist thought that’s been given a very distinct DPRK flavour and you wonder how long it can last in isolation. 

The city of Pyongyang was flattened during the Korean War. Almost everything you see has been constructed over the last five decades. It’s like a Milton Keynes with attitude and perhaps a bit more mysterious charm!

Korea’s long history of colonisation and conquest by other nations has nurtured two very different mentalities either side of the DMZ. Whilst the South continues to race ahead in the fast lane of modern economic development, the North has developed its own motorway with its own speed limits. Whether and how these roads will meet up in the near future is open to debate but at least the debate is now happening.

Anyway back to the perfectly manicured tour. We pulled up outside the Children’s Palace where 5000 gifted schoolchildren receive after school tutelage in everything from Tae Kwon Do to playing the piano. We move from one room to another observing a variety of classes of budding musicians, artists and athletes all performing on demand for their intrigued audience with an unerring unity of purpose. The youngsters’ curious and smiling faces suggest this is more than a lesson in socialist robotics. Behind their perfect cohesion lies individuals who are just as interested in us as we are in them but we are lucky enough to be able to ask the questions!

We are eventually corralled into a theatre and experience the kind of perfectly choreographed theatrical and musical extravaganza that would provide infinitely more entertainment to an infinitely higher standard than our paltry Saturday night X Factor culture. And these are the kids!

The theatre’s colourful curtain portrays a host of happy ants going about the business of building their colony. A very apt metaphor methinks. 

Off now to my residence, the 47 storey Yanggakdo Hotel that sits slap bang in the centre of Pyongyang on an island in the Taedong River shared by a football stadium and DPRK’s cinematic snail-like festival hall. 

There’s a ropey par 3 golf course, driving range and comprehensive leisure centre in the hotel grounds..essential sources of evening and early morning entertainment either side of the structured nature of any visit to North Korea.

I’m 43 floors up with a stunning view of a city that is littered with iconic landmarks including a 105 storey triangular hotel that points up to the sky and sits high above the morning mist. Unfortunately this incredible structure sits empty and unfinished and topped off with a rusting crane. The ambitious plan was never realised as the DPRK economy suffered but there are plans afoot for completion and talk of foreign investment. Maybe..maybe not but another metaphor for lofty ideological ambitions that have never quite hit the heights of the pre 1990 era.

I don’t have long. I’m off to the Arirang at the giant May Day Stadium which is the second largest arena in the world. It holds 150,000 and is undoubtedly impressive with giant pristine white arches forming the exterior structure. The Arirang is the DPRK in a very large nutshell and simply cannot be missed by anyone visiting between August and October.

Over 100,000 schoolchildren and young people take part in the display with a giant bank of 10,000 providing a colourful and constantly changing backdrop as well as surely the biggest projector screen in the universe! The 2 hour show is mind blowing. No one could not be impressed by the perfect unity of movement, dance, sound and colour. It cannot be described by words itself. It has to be witnessed first hand.

You leave the stadium perplexed and wondering as to how a society this unified and seemingly cohesive not be able to feed its own people properly. The annually devastating floods that hit DPRK two months before provide part of the answer as well as what can only be described as pitiful planning but the question still lingers long in the mind. 

The second day is Pyongyang and a tour of those iconic landmarks that we’ve all seen in our guidebooks and media. I’m up very early and wander around the hotel grounds. I head for the driving range and bang a few golf balls, rather badly, into the Taedong River followed by a hearty breakfast.

I meet my guides in the foyer and the first stop is the birthplace of Kim Il Sung. It’s a modest but perfectly preserved collection of huts that reflect the reverence held for their Eternal Leader. Then onto the Triumphant Arch that sits above an empty dual carriageway in the city centre just yards from yet another stadium. Built to commemorate Kim Il Sung’s exile in China, it’s deliberately only slightly bigger than the Arc de Triomphe. There’s a lot of rather funny one upmanship going on here!

The Metro is our next stop. Two lines dissect the city with 21 stations. We descend a seemingly endless escalator into what can only be described as an art gallery. I’ve visited the Moscow underground and it makes a similar impression. There’s stunning chandeliers overhead, intricate murals depicting breathtaking mountain vistas and at one end of the platform there’s Kim Il Sung flanked by an ensemble of DPRK workers. Curious folk watch on as I chat with my guides and await the arrival of a rickety old Czech train.

One stop on and we alight into another pristine palace dedicated to all things socialist! This tour is pure military precision but absolutely fascinating! We emerge at street level and are met by our driver who takes us over to a giant statue of their Eternal Leader looking out over Pyongyang with an arm outstretched. Prior to getting there we stop off at a flower seller and I’m invited to purchase a bouquet to place at the feet of this giant bronze man! When in Rome…

An enormous painting of Mount Paektu sits behind him on the front of a building. It’s an almost mythical location situated close to the Chinese border and it’s replicated all over Pyongyang…even in public toilets! 

Either side of Kim there are two revolutionary statues of soldiers and workers raising the flag of the ruling Korean Workers Party. We bow solemnly and then I begin to snap away closely watched by my guide who advises that I cannot crop any photos of the statue so I don’t! It’s the only place where control is exerted over what I photograph.

This is a spot that really sums up the DPRK more than any other. There’s symbolism in spades, deference in droves and a real sense that this is North Korea’s very own Mecca. 

From there we are off for lunch on an old steam boat moored next to the vast and packed square that’s become synonymous with military parades. There are few soldiers around but thousands of smiling children playing with kites or practising their keepy upy with bean bags. It’s like a giant noisy school playground during lunch hour!

The meal on board is laid out in a myriad of plates and bowls containing beef, pork, potatoes, noodles etc and kim chi – a Korean speciality of pickled vegetables that comes with every meal. I sit down with my guides as the boat meanders out into the Taedong and begin to devour what is a real feast washed down with a healthy amount of vodka and beer. There’s far too much to eat and in a country where there’s far too little to eat you feel distinctly guilty at leaving anything. A doggy bag is strictly out of the question!

My two guides and the driver are great fun! They’ve seen many foreign tourists come and go and are clearly more open minded than the average DPRK citizen but they are also very proud of their motherland. The conversations wander all over the place. From politics to football to beer and I answer as many questions as I ask which only strengthens the bonds we’ve created. 

After returning to the shoreline we hit the road again and make the short trip to the USS Pueblo which was seized by the North Koreans in the sixties. It sparked a major diplomatic incident but the severity of the affair is quashed immediately by a friendly female guide who cannot stop smiling and laughing and I get on board accompanied by my own tour guide. Adorned in very military looking garb, she has an excellent grasp of English and I’m distinctly enjoying the experience of being commandeered around a commandeered boat by two North Korean women! After watching a very one-sided short video account I get a conducted tour of the boat which really doesn’t happen. Once again we’re more interested in general chit chat, jokes and mutual curiosity! 

This was what it’s all about! Real communication unfettered by the enormous geographical, cultural and political divisions that separate us and imbued by a healthy dose of flirting! It summed up MY experience of North Korea and drew me closer to the intrinsic nature of its people. 

Next up is the Juche tower on the opposite shoreline. They do like their big features here and in front of the flaming structure there’s a party going on! Hundreds of women in brightly coloured dresses are dancing the afternoon away with hundreds of men! It’s a typical Bank Holiday in Pyongyang and the loud speakers blast out traditional Korean music as a handful of suited agents oversee the proceedings!

I look across the river. I can envisage a time in the future when the shoreline becomes ablaze with neon. The people here are all very disciplined just like all of the populations in this neck of the woods and you get the feeling that they’d do very well under our system. However for the time being and for my sake I’m quite happy they’re not. This is truly different. Freedoms may be at a premium but that doesn’t mean fun should go by the wayside!

A few more big imposing revolutionary statues later and I’m back at the hotel! Time for an evening of fun and games in the hotel’s leisure complex as I join my guides for a game of bowls, a few frames of pool and an introduction, for them at least, to the face curling delights of whiskey! There’s no rhetoric or political ideology in the air, only the sound of laughter!

The third day of my DPRK experience involved a morning at the War Museum and Pyongyang’s very own version of Hollywood! There’s not a great deal to be said about the War Museum to be honest as we shifted from room to room viewing a variety of seized American military hardware, got the North Korean version of events leading up the conflict and viewed a giant revolving painting that reflected their take on the hostilities however it was the very same guide that I met on the USS Pueblo so once again the questions were nothing to do with the Museum!

As for the film museum…well yawn! I could have had an extra hour in bed! Room after room devoted to the film making career of Kim Jong Il. Every thing he touched or wrote in relation to the movies is here! Not inspiring but a means to an end and another example of the near religious fervency of their passion and commitment to their Dear Leader! 

Back to the hotel for lunch and another slap up feed in the revolving restaurant that overlooks Pyongyang! Immaculate and friendly service as ever and the prospect of an afternoon on the golf course with my tour guides! It was supposed to be a trip to a giant dam project but I’d suggested a day earlier that we change the schedule and do something different! I’d tried to promote the merits of golf to them and envisaged, under my tuition, the creation of the first North Korean to win a Major! They were both intrigued and had never come across a tourist who wanted to change the schedule. That just doesn’t happen!

So onto the driving range to get a bit of practice in then to the little nine hole par three course! I don’t play very often and I was rubbish but what a way to spend a couple of hours! Great fun and laughs once again as we zig zagged our way down the short fairways! This was surreal especially as my female guide was tottering on a pair of high heels! Balls were lost and decrepid hired clubs were broken but it mattered not a jot! My only decent shot was on the ninth as a pitch ended just an inch or so from the hole and there were a gaggle of waitresses watching from the clubhouse! If only they knew the story of the previous eight holes! 

Straight to the bar and more booze! We had a round robin of pool and table tennis. Ping pong in Pyongyang! Then off out again feeling suitably sozzled to a wonderful duck restaurant in the city suburbs. Each table had a little barbecue affair in the centre where you cooked the duck and then wrapped it in lettuce leaves before showering it in soya sauce. Out came the vodka again as the four of us toasted everything from lost golf balls to the eradication of war! What a day! 

The final day saw us head down to the DMZ which is a two hour drive south of Pyongyang. The motorway is empty…the kind of empty that could only be recreated by a 500% hike in our own petrol costs! We pass the odd tractor chugging slowly along and the occasional military truck as well as a few buses of tourists as we head through some breathtaking scenery. Almost 80% of North Korea is mountainous which is another problem when it comes to agricultural self sufficiency but provides a very strong part of their cultural identity and indeed isolation. 

The road, built by the military, is punctuated by checkpoints, where we are either waved through or asked to present documents, and impressive examples of civil engineering with tunnels through mountain after mountain Large stone edifices sit astride of the carriageway every few miles. They are tank traps I’m told!

As we approach the DMZ the tension builds…but it’s a pantomime like tension which by now I found hard to take seriously. We pop into a map room at the entrance to the DMZ and observe the layout of this insanely illogical border area. From there we’re accompanied by a soldier to a small house where the Armistice was signed in 1953.

A table bearing the United Nations flag and one bearing the DPRK ensign were divided by a third which I suggested was for tea and biscuits. That cracked all of the tourists and guides up and it was a joy to see a relaxed and human reaction in such a weird domain.

Then onto the real border. Those ridiculously arranged huts that straddle a thin strip of concrete that divides the Koreas and I briefly wander into South Korea which is on the other side of the table! Michael Palin had it spot on but he was seeing it from the South!

The North Korean borderpost building is manned by a morass of distinctly smaller soldiers than could be witnessed on the other side. The food poverty here leaves many of their distinctive brown uniforms looking distinctly loose but they somehow contrive to be more intimidating than their Southern counterparts.

We head back to Pyongyang via a meal in Kaesong and a trip to their heritage museum where I find myself becoming addicted to gingko, a nutty fruit case indeed!

Halfway up the deserted drag back we stop off at a turquoise structure that sits above the road. It’s a motorway service station without the motors! Staffed by three smiling North Korean beauties, it must provide a respite for no more than 10 people a day! 

The entrance to Pyongyang is marked by a giant cross road sculpture that shows a North Korean woman reaching out to her South counterpart. It’s a symbol of the aim of unity that has sadly broken down on route one but all it needs is a bit of mechanical tinkering. 

We visit the circus and are subjected to another two hours of near perfect entertainment before returning to the hotel for my final evening.

I insist that my guides join me for the final meal and the three of us retire to a small room at the rear of the hotel where I’m treated to the finest of banquets, once again washed down by lots of alcohol. We’re in there for four hours chatting away, eating, drinking and reflecting on four laughter filled days. That’s exactly how it was!

The following morning we all head for the airport and it’s with a vestige of a tear that I bid farewell to my three accomplices who have asked for nothing, expected nothing and given everything. Back to Shanghai via Beijing and back to my very different world!

I’ve read a number of travel reviews of this feisty little nation in our media. Very few come even close to reflecting exactly what the DPRK is about and only pamper to our preconceived notions of what we expect to hear about this reprobate of international diplomacy. 

There’s an innocence here born out of a distinct lack of information on the outside world, a strong sense of morality that comes from strict control and a perplexing deference to their leader and his father which is unshaken even when I bring up details of the kinds of things I’ve read about the Kims. 

It’s all they know and there’s a wonderful positivity in their ignorance. They really do believe they live in Paradise and they really do believe that Korea will be unified soon.

My female guide said that it would be a perfect partnership. She said that all North Korean women are beautiful and all South Korean men are handsome and therefore it would be a match made in heaven! Her English was pristine and she carried around a notebook for jotting down new words. I taught her a few swear words, a bit of English toilet humour and a few football songs…not the loftiest of cultural exchanges on my part but in keeping with a fun but all too brief encounter!

I’ve only seen a wafer thin slice of life in North Korea..just dipped my toes in the water but I saw a people as interested in us as we are in them. The fact that their system pretty much forbids it is an irrelevance. You can never subdue human curiosity. Who knows what they really think as they bat away critical questions but then who knows what anyone’s thinking!

Go there with a patronising scowl and you’ll only see unhappy people. Go there with a smile and that’s exactly what you’ll get back in North Korea.

As I get back on the Tupolev and head for the bright branded lights I’m left with the distinct feeling that the North Koreans are just the same as us. They’re just trying to survive in what can be a very odd world.

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