“You bow, yes?” A visit to North Korea
“You bow, yes?” The head
guide looked anxious. He was standing up in the front of the bus looking at us
as we made our way through Pyongyang’s sparse traffic. It was the third
reminder we got that morning; one from each of our North Korean minders.
“When we come in, we line up and bow. Three times! At both sides and the feet! Alright?” He gave us a nervous smile. “Yes?” he asked again as he looked at us for reassurance. We all nodded. Regardless, he didn’t look too reassured as he sat back down in his seat up next to the driver.
I was on the third day of a tour of North Korea. We were a small group of tourists heading for what was considered the highpoint of our visit, at least according to our guides: The mausoleum which is the resting place for both Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung; a place where access was more tightly guarded than any high security prison. There were very specific procedures to be followed, a strict dress code and of course bowing, lots of bowing! We had been told, repeatedly, that if we couldn’t bow, we shouldn’t come to the mausoleum. As a matter of fact, we shouldn’t have come to North Korea at all!
Like most other first-time visitors to North Korea, I had no idea of what to expect when I first arrived. My entry into the parallel universe called North Korea had started already on Air Koryo, North Korea’s state airline. Forget about inflight entertainment and duty-free sales. The plane looked like it was from the 70s. Aside from the outdated interior the flight itself was fine. Service was quick and efficient. It was probably helped by the fact that North Koreans truly have to be any flight attendant’s dream passengers. Everyone sat quietly in their seat, no one moved around. No special requests, no loud talking and no oversized hand luggage; just polite nods when the infamous Air Koryo burger was served.
burger is actually a bit of a novelty. It has been the subject of several
travel blogs and source of endless speculations mainly around what kind of meat
is in it! The flight from Beijing – the only place Air Koryo is allowed to fly
to – was relatively short and most of the time was spent trying to fill out the
three different immigration and customs forms while my stomach fought a losing
battle with the Koryo Burger.
The returning North Koreans as well as my fellow travellers were all on their best behaviour when we landed and disembarking was very orderly. Everyone, especially the tourists, were excessively polite and really, really patient. The lines at immigration were not too long and there was no pushing or shoving. No queue jumpers here! We were all standing very nicely in line and without any expression of impatience, just nervous smiles. We had all heard the horror stories of what could happen to you if you got on the wrong side of the authorities. The whole set up gave you a clear impression that it was not a place where you challenged authority.
We were the only tourists arriving that day on the only flight coming in. The airport was small but looked brand new. Unlike most other airports, there was a complete absence of shops or any other commercial activity in the arrival hall.
The clearance by immigration was a formality. They knew all about me that they wanted to know. It was clear from the way the officer typed in the passport information, or rather didn’t. All details were in the system already. After clearing immigration came customs. That was a different story! They were thorough! All luggage was x-rayed and searched for contraband, and especially cameras and electronic instruments were carefully inspected to see if any of them had GPS technology. My dive watch attracted special attention and was thoroughly examined. For some reason they took no interest in my laptop. Books and any written material were likewise singled out for inspection. Everything was handed to a special customs officer for scrutiny before being returned to the owner – if the material was deemed not offensive or controversial. I had been warned beforehand not to bring any travel guide, as they had all been blacklisted because of their description of North Korea! Many horror stories have been shared about Pyongyang airport, but frankly, aside from the nervousness and the searching of the luggage, I found it a lot easier than pretty much any South Asian airport I have ever travelled through. It probably also helped that the place was almost empty. The lights were turned off behind us as we left.
Our little group slowly gathered in the arrival hall after each of us cleared customs. We were introduced to our guides who would follow us for the duration of our stay – the two Mr Lees and Ms Hang. They were actually quite charming. I had probably expected Soviet style hospitality but they genuinely wanted us to enjoy our stay. They were very sweet, hospitable and completely brainwashed. I looked around at our little group. All of us were individual travellers, and all westerners. We would be together as a group for the entire visit. No individual activities or walks were allowed, none at all! Even getting a little too far from the group would enlist a gentle but firm request from one of the minders to move closer to the others. When it came to the daily sightseeing tours, the choice was either to join or stay inside the hotel the whole day. No exceptions!
I have to admit that I was slightly paranoid about visiting North Korea. It is after all rare to read news or travel stories praising the country or its tourist industry. In the end, my curiosity had gotten the better of me, but still the fear was lingering in the back of my mind whether I would ever leave the country again. The fear in no small part originated from the many horror stories being told about North Korea. People getting arrested for the smallest offence or more or less unwittingly committing some kind of trespass. When I was there it was only a few months after the tragic story of Oscar Warmbier, a young American college student who managed to get on the wrong side of the North Koreans. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for trying to steal a poster. It was an offence, which in most other countries wouldn’t warrant more than a lifted finger, or perhaps a fine. Not so in North Korea! Oscar didn’t survive his time in a North Korean jail.
‘tough on crime’ approach of the North Korean authorities means that the
country is actually extremely safe when you talk about petty crime or even
assault and muggings. It is probably helped by the fact that as a foreigner you
are never alone, but always with three or four North Korean guides. The biggest
risk to us probably came from unintended transgression of the very fine lines that
cannot be crossed without serious consequences. The invisible lines could be surprisingly
easy to stumble across by accident if one did not pay attention. One such line
was the local newspaper! North Korea only has one weekly English paper, the
Pyongyang Times. It was never ever to be folded on the middle. The reason for
this peculiar rule was that every single issue would have a picture of Kim Yong-un
on the front page. To fold the paper, and the picture, would be to disrespect the
leader. As matter of fact, any disrespect of the newspaper was to disrespect
him. So, to even think about using it for anything other than reading, such as
polishing shoes or wrapping around something, was unthinkable. That also meant
the paper couldn’t be thrown out afterwards. I am still not sure what they did
with unsold copies. They are probably stacked in a warehouse somewhere. I
packed my copy nicely in my suitcase, not folded!
With rules like that the majority of travellers would probably put their foot it in sooner rather than later unless they got a thorough introduction into North Korean etiquette. So, the guides from the company I went with gave us a solid briefing before we even crossed the border. A whole evening was dedicated to the dos and don’ts – mainly a long list of don’ts along with a couple of ‘don’t even think about it!’ In addition to the briefing, we got regular reminders throughout the stay. Remembering what had happened to poor Oscar was enough to make sure everyone in the group paid very careful attention.
From the airport, we were put on a bus and taken sightseeing. It was the first sign of the hectic pace that would follow in the days to come. First stop was the Kim Il-sung Square, well known for being the place where North Korean parades are held and various military hardware shown off. The square has signs several meters high on top of the surrounding buildings. As we walked from the bus, we passed a small grocery shop on the way. It was a long rectangular room with a desk running along the length of the shop, dividing it into two. An old style set up with all the goods on one side and a couple of customers on the other.
The visit to the square was followed by a visit to a souvenir shop, something which proved to be a recurrent pattern. No stop was complete without a visit to the adjacent souvenir shop. They all pretty much stocked the same type of stuff. The only difference would be that one would have a bigger selection of stamps, the next a bigger selection of posters etc. This one had books. Being a sucker for books, I got a few outlining the North Korean version of the Korean War. It proved to be surprisingly different from anything I had read about the conflict earlier. A lot about heroic North Korean soldiers fighting murderous imperialist devils and more of that sort. From the square we were ushered to a new site and then on to the next, always keeping us busy, nonstop visiting museums, sights, and entertainment alleys. It was late before we finally were taken to our hotel and could to check in.
Our hotel was massive but it was not the infamous Ryugyong Hotel which dominates the Pyongyang skyline, as it is still under construction and has been so for the past 33 years. Instead, we were taken to the Seosan hotel which is much lesser known but at least construction has finished. We were the only ones there, some 20 people in a 500+ room hotel. It had been an intense day and I was relieved when I finally got my room key. Exhausted I just wanted to crash in my bed. Judging from the look on my fellow travellers faces they were feeling pretty much the same way. We were about to head off to our rooms when the head guide got us to gather around.
“Now, you will not leave the hotel? Promise?” he asked.
“Yes, we promise!” a couple of those who still had energy responded, while the rest of us nodded.
“Yes, for sure!”
We had to promise yet again before we were finally allowed to go to our rooms. The head guide looked confident. He could be pretty sure that we would stay in the hotel, or at least if we tried to leave it wouldn’t go unnoticed. Anyone from the group would stick out like a sore thumb on the streets of Pyongyang.
The hotel itself was alright, nothing fancy but clean and decent enough. It had a fantastic view out over Pyongyang. Overall, we were well looked after during out stay. We were only served local food but it was good. There wasn’t much choice. It was the same for all. No individuality either when it came to eating. We got three meals a day but were not overfed. It seemed there was always just enough. Whenever I left the table, I was almost full, but never more than that. One guy in the group didn’t handle foreign food well and had packed enough rations in his suitcase to sustain him the entire time he was there. Even by North Korean standards, it was a bit eccentric.
The first morning in Pyongyang, there were two things, which caught my attention. One was the crystal-clear air. From the upper floors of the hotel there was an unrestricted view for miles. No pollution, no chimneys letting out smoke or cars polluting, just clean air. The other was the absence of planes in the sky. In most other countries there is a constant crisscross of planes at 10,000 meters. Not so in Pyongyang. The skies were clear. The complete absence of planes was so strange that when we one day actually did spot a plane up high, someone joked that perhaps some kind of international crisis had broken out and we were about to get bombed! We had a complete news blackout the whole time while there.
The bus pulled up in front of the entrance to the mausoleum. The nervousness among the guides was clearly visible. We received detailed instructions from them about expected behaviour. The dress code had already been reiterated several times the evening before. Suit pants and ties for men, no jeans. For women dresses. Again, and again, the need for good behaviour was repeated. Just to make sure, the head guide took us through the list once again. ‘First, you will hand in overcoats and everything electronic. No credit cards with microchips, no watches, no jewellery and definitely no mobile phones. Remember to bow.’ The list went on.
After going through the rules yet again and realising that if we hadn’t understood by now, we would never get it, we were allowed out of the bus. He sent us off with a final instruction to ‘respect their traditions’. We all got registered by the local attendants and lined up in rows before we were allowed inside. Once inside the entrance hall, as the head guide had instructed, we emptied our pockets. We proceeded through metal detectors to ensure we hadn’t ‘forgotten’ to hand over any contraband. Our shoes were brushed under the soles by sets of rotating brushes we stepped on as we made our way past the metal detector. We continued on to a very long corridor, leading to the main building. We did not walk but were standing on a moving walkway, which inched forward at an incredibly slow speed while we were listening to North Korean funeral music. On the other side of the corridor was an equally slow-moving walkway going in the opposite direction. There were quite a few people there, but we were the only foreigners. All the North Korean men were in dark suits, with dark ties. All the women in traditional dresses. No one spoke. We got a few stares. I couldn’t tell if they were hostile or indifferent.
We finally arrived at the end of the walkway and entered an enormous hall. I recall seven giant chandeliers hanging down and two giant statues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, staring down at us from the far end of the hall. Before we even got to the main rooms, we had to bow to the two oversized statues of the deceased leaders. There was a line and we patiently waited our turn while listening to the Korean version of events given by a tour guide to a group of local party leaders. I couldn’t understand what was said but the speech was delivered with a voice almost breaking and the guide sounded on the verge of tears. Apparently, the guides are trained to talk like that, to emphasize the sadness of the situation. It became our turn. We lined up, as instructed, in rows, and bowed. No talking! Then we proceeded through a low passage way where powerful blasts of wind made sure we were dusted off and rotating brushes cleaned the soles of the shoes yet again. The passage was so low that you had to bow a bit to get through. From there we entered into a giant room, where the first of the former leaders was lying in a glass coffin.
There was a distinct feeling that any kind of infringement would not end well at all. The stone-faced armed guards, the countless officials and the groups of loyal North Koreans, some crying while paying their respect to their dead leaders, made it clear that it was not the place to suddenly develop any rebellious ideas, or do anything even remotely stupid.
“Remember, no bowing at the head! Only at the feet and the sides,” the head guide whispered. We bowed three times before we were allowed to move on. A funny anecdote is that a foreigner visiting the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung started laughing hysterically when he was in front of the body. Obviously, that’s a thing that can get you in some really serious trouble very quickly in North Korea but the poor guy couldn’t help himself at the absurdity of the whole situation. He covered his face and instead pretended that he was crying. It saved him. As a matter of fact, the story goes that he later got some kind of recommendation from the North Korean government because he had gotten all emotional at the sight of the departed leader…
Each of the departed leaders had his own mausoleum and attached to it was a dedicated museum. The museums included maps of where they had travelled, lots and lots of orders and recognitions from various countries, cities and universities. They had even made room for Kim Jong-il’s favourite boat in his museum! Both leaders also had their personal train carriage included in their respective museums.
After the visit was over and we had recovered our cameras, etc, the guides were all smiles and looked really relieved. I think they were more worried about getting in trouble for not having us under control than they were about us actually disrespecting the dear leaders. The departed leaders were objects of religious veneration, and not just at the mausoleum. Their portraits, statues and murals were everywhere across Pyongyang.
Though we moved around in public, walking on the street, or taking the metro, we never actually engaged with any North Koreans aside from our minders and guides. It was like there was an invisible wall between us and everyone else. We would pass people on the street, or when visiting monuments but our presence was never recognized. People would pass us even without looking. It was only at the Mausoleum that I noticed people stare. The only real opportunity I had to interact with non-guides was during the visit to a (the!) local supermarket in Pyongyang, but again there was no attempt to start a conversation or otherwise engage, though language probably also played a role. The supermarket itself was like any other poorly stocked small supermarket. There were a number of goods for sale but overall, the selection was limited. The main attraction for us tourists was to stock up on snacks for the train ride back to Beijing. The visit to the supermarket also offered the only opportunity we had to get our hands on some North Korean currency. I couldn’t help noticing at the supermarket that the North Koreans shoppers had their bags inspected by security as they left the shop, to discourage shoplifting. Perhaps capitalist greed is seeping in and corrupting the socialist minds after all despite the regime’s best effort.
One of the many stops on our tour was at the Mansaudae Hill Grand Monument. It is probably one of the easiest recognizable sites in North Korea with two giant statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. They towered some 20 meters over the square. We started off with bowing, of course. We were all lined up, and all bowed at the same time on Mr Lee’s count. We were also ‘invited’ to buy bouquets of flowers to place in front of the statues, ‘one bouquet each, please’... The flowers were to be paid for in US dollars. North Korea has perfected the art of making giant bronze statues so much so that it has become an export commodity. As a result, many of the giant statues, which can be found in various countries around the world, particularly Africa, were made in North Korea. In Maputo, the statue of Samoa Marchel, the Mozambican freedom fighter, has distinct Korean features. But it’s definitely a larger than life statue!
One of the few sights we saw which was neither political nor a glorification of the leaders was our visit to the metro. Opened in 1973, it was built with help from the Chinese and Russians, which also helps explain why it looks very similar to the Moscow metro. It is small but clean and orderly. Each station is also beautifully decorated with worker inspired paintings and mosaics. It is slightly ironic that the underground of Pyongyang is more beautiful and attractive that what’s above ground. The trains themselves were clearly from the 70’s and each carriage had the ever-present pictures of the dear leaders. It also happens to be the deepest metro in the world. Whether the ability to act as a shelter in the case of nuclear war was an unexpected bonus or planned, one can only speculate…
me one surprising observation was that were very few guns visible. For a
country so highly militarised as North Korean there was an almost complete
absence of guns in public, aside from at the border, checkpoints and a few
other select sites. I see more weapons when visiting the US. There were plenty
of men and women in uniform but none of them armed. Despite the lack of arms in
public the mentality was very much still on a war footing. The fighting might
have stopped in 1953, but it was clear that in the minds of ordinary North
Koreans, and even more so in the minds of the North Korean leadership the
conflict was still very much alive. It seemed as if all monuments were either
about the war or American aggression.
One of the many stops on our tour included a school. Of course, the place was a show piece with well-behaved kids in uniforms. Regardless, it was an interesting insight into the North Korean psyche. There were plenty of posters on the walls, showing brave and muscular North Korean soldiers ready to meet American aggression. Some depicted American soldiers, all with ridiculously long noses, getting shot by young North Korean boys, or illustrated the unjust horrors committed against the local population by the US and the Japanese. There were also posters showing Americans and Japanese killing babies, and one of the tamer ones, strong hands ripping up the UN security council resolutions against North Korea. The militarisation was visible everywhere at the school. In a computer programming class, the programmes were simple ‘shoot American soldiers’ kind of games. In the biology room there were a large miniature scale model of the country, outlining the habitats for different species of animals but also with the rocket launch sites clearly marked. It was also at the school were, for a brief second, I saw an entirely unscripted moment. A group of young girls came out into the school yard. Their faces lit up with joy when they saw it was snowing and immediately started playing. Children are the same everywhere.
I am not sure if it was a deliberate plan or if it is normal practice on a charter tour, but there were never any breaks. Every day was a constant bombardment of the senses. We would leave the hotel at 7:30 or 8 every morning, often not returning until 12 – 13 hours later. The hectic schedule made it impossible to process impressions before the next set hit you in the head! It was a constant rush from one place to the next. Visit a sight, and then on to 45 minutes bowling, rush on to the next event. The sights and experience were a peculiar combination of trying to present North Korea in the most positive light, complain about American aggression and get foreigners to part with their hard cash.
The constant bombardment of the senses also
meant that it was only in the evening when arriving back at the hotel, sitting
in the bar with a beer one finally had the time to process all the impressions
of the day and think, “that was weird!”
With regards to weird, like so many other things, political correctness hasn’t really made it to North Korea yet. In the constant effort to get us to part with our US dollars, we were taken to a shooting range. It had the usual range of various targets and some small caliber rimfire rifles. There wasn’t much interest in the group, but the guides kept egging us on to try, at the cost of several US dollars per shot. When no one showed any interest, one of the attendants pointed out a large cage at the far end of the range. It took a while for us to figure out that there were live pheasants inside! The birds were sitting, well, like ducks... The guides encouraged us to shoot them, promising that we got to take them home if we got one! Someone in the group decided to try! (Don’t ask me why!). After a couple of shots, he managed to hit one of the birds. It went flapping on its back and one of the attendants ran down and retrieved it. It was handled to him in a plastic bag. When he looked at it, it starred right back! Despite being shot, the poor thing was still alive. The staff at the shooting range didn’t care. They had done their bit. He had to finish it off himself with his bare hands. The hotel staff made soup of it the next day. Another completely non-PC event was dog meat dishes served in special restaurants, again something that required forging over a few US dollars for a chance to find out what Lassie tastes like. The Lees were surprisingly sensitive to Westerners’ love of dogs. I suspect that they may have had more than a few less favourable reactions to the offer of this unique culinary experience. They went to great lengths to explain how the dogs that were cooked were not family dogs but specially raised for the purpose of being eaten. Somehow, despite their best efforts it didn’t sell well.
Aside from the guides assigned to our group, the two Lees and Ms Hang, the vast majority of the other guides we encountered in museums or at different sights were female and absolutely stunning! I suspect they were especially chosen for that reason. Ms Hang herself also attracted quite a bit of attention from some of the younger male members of the group. Despite their competing and quite resourceful advances she didn’t seem to have much difficulty in resisting all their efforts. Remembering what had happened to Oscar, for trying to steal a poster, I wasn’t sure what the punishment would be for seducing a North Korean tour guide and I had no intention of finding out.
Our guides really tried their best to keep us entertained. On the longer drives in the bus they would take turns to tell political jokes. They were all pretty lame, but what was funny was that they had not been updated. The majority of jokes were about George W Bush, though his presidency had ended more than 10 years ago. No jokes about Obama or Trump.
Despite our guides’ best effort to talk up the glory and prosperity of North Korea there was no hiding that the country is poor, or rather, it is dirt poor. The signs were all around. The ancient trucks and the use of manual labour in the fields instead of machinery along with the absence of cars outside Pyongyang. The capital was shrouded in darkness at night and the infrastructure was crumbling. One evening, we were taken up in the Juche Tower, named after the official development ideology of North Korea, described by the government as ‘Kim Il-sung's original, brilliant and revolutionary contribution to national and international thought.’ We were running late and it was dark by the time we finally got up there. There was a splendid view out over the capital, but most of it was blacked out. There were only a few areas with light, including, of course, the giant Kim Il-sung square just across from the Juche Tower on the other side of the Taedong River. It wasn’t just the blacked-out capital that suggested the economy wasn’t doing well. The crumbling infrastructure was evident everywhere and especially on the road to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Aside from offering a glimpse into rural life in North Korea, the road to the DMZ is also an interesting study in anti-tank defences, as is the road between the DMZ and Seoul, the capital of South Korea. The four-lane road was clearly constructed with military strategies in mind. The way bridges and tunnels were designed and placed allowed for easy blocking of the road. Similarly, at places where the terrain made it impossible to go around there were massive concrete pillars standing upright along the road. In the case of an attack, they could be tumbled down onto the road to stop or delay any advancing enemy tanks.
The only traffic we saw on the road down to the DMZ were people walking or bicycling. No cars or motor cycles. At one point we passed several large groups of workers digging ditches with shovels along the road to lay pipes. The groups of all male workers were being cheered on by local female cheer leading groups. The Mr Lees informed us that they were both local volunteer groups who were doing their part for the development of the country. I couldn’t help thinking that the work was something a mechanical digger could have handled in a few hours.
The visit to the DMZ was one of those I was most looking forward to. The name is rather perverse for the most heavily militarised place on earth. The visit did not disappoint. It was a surrealistic experience even by North Korean standards. We started off with a tour given by an officer, who guided us around the place where ‘the Americans humiliated by their terribly defeat were hiding their shame behind the UN’, or something along those lines. It followed the theme of the lectures we got elsewhere. The sense of the whole country was on a war footing was even more prevalent there, and the usual villains were rhetorically bashed again and again. North Koreans were still very much at war, with the US, and pretty much the rest of the world. During the tour, the officer asked where I was from. I told him and felt obliged to try to ask something in return. So, I asked what his rank was. He was a lieutenant. Unable to think of anything more intelligent to ask, I asked him how long he had been posted at the DMZ.
“Why are you so interested in North Korean soldiers?” Suddenly, the conversation turned defensive. It was no longer idle chitchat. “Why do you want to know that?” One of our minders, never far away, came over.
“Why are you asking these questions?” the minder wanted to know.
“It was just a question,” I answered rather sheepishly. It was clearly a mistake, there was no such thing as ‘just a question’. When my answer didn’t have the intended effect, I tried to elaborate. “Well, it just that you must have seen thousands of tourists, here at the DMZ,” I said.
There was an exchange in Korean between the minder and the officer. The officer nodded. My lame excuse was accepted and the tour could continue. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who managed to put my foot in it and cross the invisible line of what is acceptable and what is not. Someone from our small group had the audacity to ask where Kim Yong-un resided. After all that is a pretty forward question. Most, if not all, other countries have an official residence for their head of state. But not in North Korea.
“Why do you want to know that?”
I watched as the offender squirmed while getting grilled by the minder, as to why he could possibly even think of asking such a sensitive question. There was a constantly lingering suspicion that no matter what you did there was some kind of ulterior motive behind your actions or questions.
The highlight of the DMZ tour was a visit to the hut which is right on the border with South Korea. As a matter of fact, half the hut is in South Korea, the other half is in the North. The hut is used for meetings between the two countries. Outside a line of tiles marked the exact location of the border. We were allowed inside, with North Korean soldiers placed by the door at the South Korean end of the hut, just to avoid any defections. Similarly, there were North Korean soldiers at either side of the hut to prevent anyone from attempting to dash across the border. I had visited the hut, from the South Korean side a few years earlier so I knew that they followed the same practice of guarding the exit to the other side. We took photos and looked at the various propaganda efforts both sides deploy – giant flags and loud speakers – each trying to outdo the other.
The drive back from the DMZ felt even longer than the excruciating long trip down. Perhaps it was because the Mr Lees used the opportunity of a captive audience to deliver a very long lecture on North Korean economic theory. The lecture didn’t just cover the North Korean economic system but also focussed on reunification with South Korea. A Korean version of the Chinese ‘One Country – Two Systems’ used for Hong Kong. The Lees did their best to convince us with regards to the validity of their unusual theory of economics and how easily it could work. Having done a course or two on economics some years back, I feel safe to say that their vision was utterly naïve to say the least. That didn’t stop them from continuously flogging it, always using China’s annexation of Hong Kong as an example. The implicit understanding of their version of the One Country - Two Systems was of course that the North Korean system would dominate but that the south would be allowed to continue as a capitalist economy. It was not immediately clear how it would work with a planned communist economy in the north and a capitalist economy in the south of the same country. Any attempt to point out the inconsistencies in their theory was only met with blank stares or a polite smile. When finally, the topic of North Korean economic theory was exhausted, we got a lecture on why North Korea needed nuclear bombs, which unsurprisingly was because it had to defend itself against the US aggression. There was no room for challenging the discourse, and when the case for a nuclear armed North Korea had been presented, the Mr Lees went back to arguing for a united Korea. Finally, Pyongyang appeared on the horizon and we got a break from the reunification lecture. We were taken directly to an area touted by Mr Lee (senior) as ‘Pyongyang’s Dubai’. When pressed a bit after we arrived at a street with a few high rises but still largely shrouded in darkness he admitted that ‘it was what foreigners called it.’ Something tells me that sarcasm isn’t well understood in North Korea. Though we had spent a long day on our trip down to the DMZ, even when we finally got back to Pyongyang there were still sites to visit and opportunities for us to part with a few US dollars. The evening’s dinner involved traditional North Korean song and dance. By the time we finally arrived back the hotel some 13 hours after we had left, I was exhausted!
I have several times watched programmes from North Korea filmed by Western journalists, where the journalist whispers how they are filming illegally in downtown Pyongyang because it’s not allowed. All I can say to that that is crap! I could, and I did, take as many photos as I liked. It is true that there was a long list of places that were off limits with regards to photography, mainly the usual ones that you will find off limit in most non-democratic states: train stations, military, police etc. However, the often-told stories of strict prohibition against filming or taking photographs around Pyongyang were definitely not true. Whenever we approached a location where photography was restricted, such as a police check point, of which there were quiet few outside the cities, our minders would shout ‘Cameras down’. It was pretty undramatic. At one point we were passing a group of young boys walking along the highway carrying shovels and hoes. One of the ever-vigilant guides quickly looked back with a worried expression on his face trying to see who had managed to snap a photo of the children. I did, but I was never asked to delete it. When it came to photography of statues it was almost encouraged. However, the photos had to be full size. Only taking a photo of the head or other part of the statue was a big No-No. That was more of an honour system than anything else as no effort was made to check if we did indeed have the full statue in our pictures.
US citizens are barred by their own government from visiting North Korea and the country’s leadership’s constant sable rattling does little to promote the country as a tourist destination, along with the fact that North Korea rarely feature on any glossy magazine’s ‘must visit’ list. Consequently, tourist numbers are way down. Or rather should I say, they are supposedly down because no official statistics are ever published. However, one of the guides did let slip that there wasn’t much work compared to earlier. According to the info I could find on the web, North Korea gets around 4,000 visitors a year, though this probably doesn’t include the day trippers from China up along the norther border. Still 4,000 isn’t that many. To put it in perspective, some 40,000 people visit Everest Basecamp deep in the Himalayas every year, pre-Covid-19 of course.
I had opted to take the train back to Beijing along with a few of my fellow travellers. It was a pleasant opportunity to watch the landscape roll by. The trip through the country was interesting but the landscape was bare. The fields had been harvested and there were no trees or forest. I only saw a couple of cars, but plenty of bicycles and oxcarts. We passed some villages, all one-story buildings. The few towns we passed had higher buildings, ghetto like concrete structures. As we got closer to the border, suddenly the houses started having bars in front of the windows, as you see in urban high crime areas. Perhaps North Korea also suffers from some of the same problems as the west, despite the authorities’ best effort to portray a rosy picture of the situation in the country.
There was a subdued atmosphere as the train got close to the border. I think at some level or another we were all wondering if we were going to get let out of the country or get dragged off the train. To add to our anxiety, there had been no shortage of horror stories about what happens at the border when the North Korean border guards go through the luggage. After the train came to a halt, the first that happened, and probably the most terrifying, was that my passport was taken away by some immigration officer. I watched as he disappeared into the station building carrying a whole stack of travel documents. We had been warned not to smuggle out any North Korean currency. Of course, the temptation was too great not to try. Some of my fellow travellers hid large wads of cash for souvenirs and gifts. I only had a few and hid mine in a bag of dirty laundry. There wasn’t even an attempt by the border guard to search it. A half-arsed look through the suitcase and the officer turned his attention to my camera. He looked through some of the photos, checking if I had the GPS function on. I had heard that sometimes one would be ‘requested’ to delete specific photos. I wasn’t too worried. As a precaution, I had already copied all of them to my laptop, in which he showed no interest. Rather it seemed like the guard was more interested in looking at the photos than looking for any security issues. He asked me to delete one photo. I don’t know why. It wasn’t that different from the other ones, but perhaps he felt a need to look like he did something. Finally, the inspection was over and the guard continued on to the next cabin, to look at the next set of holiday snaps. In all it took an hour or so before my passport reappeared, just as the train started slowly rolling out of the station. We all let out a collective sigh of relief; mainly that none of all the horror stories we had heard came true, at least not for us. The train rolled slowly onto the bridge over the Yalu River. The sun was setting and the North Korean side was shrouded in almost complete darkness, only some feeble lights shining from a few huts. We crossed over towards the Chinese side with the entire riverfront lit up like Times Square with hundreds of restaurants, shops and bars. As we got closer, we could see large groups of people who had gathered along the riverfront, staring at their blacked-out neighbour like a tourist attraction.
Am I glad I went? Definitely! I have always been fascinated by “strange” places and North Korea for sure qualifies in that regard. Would I return? Probably not. On day three, I was starting to have enough of the constant lectures of Dear Leader’s achievements and never-ending stories about American aggression. The relentless brainwashing was getting to me. Combined with the constant bombardment of the senses and the packed daily schedules it got a bit too much in the end and it was hard to keep pretending and keep bowing. Still, the visit helped me put my own life and the opportunities I have been given in perspective and not least appreciate the freedoms I enjoy.
Did I contribute financially to an authoritarian dictatorship? Yes, undoubtedly, but not by much, I hope. I fully realise the only reason why tourists were welcomed, was because of the hard currency they brought with them. Regardless of all the smiles and the Mr Lees’ constant encouragement to tell ‘all your friends and family to visit’, it was clear that the end goal was hard currency and perhaps wining a few hearts and minds amongst the enemy. Despite the smiles and politeness, one should not be fooled. The constant monitoring and restriction of movements was a reminder that it was all only skin-deep and suspicion and paranoia ran deep.
I went with Koryo Tours based in Beijing. They did a good job – and they got us all back out again!