“Does Kim Jong Un live in Pyongyang?” A rather ‘safe’ question I thought to myself. The response I got “probably”, with minimum eye contact as our Korean tour guide hastily looked away. Other members of the group looked at me as if to say ‘that was awkward’. The secrets of North Korea stay in North Korea…
In August having found a super cheap ticket to South Korea and China, I decided it would be my big long haul holiday for the year. In my interest, I looked at whether there were any tours to North Korea whilst I was there. I came across a few but struck gold with a tour run by Lupine Travel which perfectly matched my timings and price range. I mentioned to a number of people I would be going to North Korea in December. The resounding response I got was “wow” followed by “you won’t make it out alive” or “you will get arrested”. I said it would be fine, though at the back of my head did have some worry. Even a number of the Chinese I spoke with in China were shocked that I was going to visit “third world” North Korea.
There was something about the secretive kingdom that intrigued me. Whether it was to experience what I believe to be the last truly functioning socialist society or to experience daily life in the hermit kingdom I can’t quite pin point it. Ultimately, it was this intrigue that lead me to book a tour to the country, but also the same intrigue that was shared by a number of my friends who asked me to share my experience of North Korea. Prior to my trip to North Korea I had done a lot of reading on the country. I read a range of travel accounts, human rights accounts and books written by those who had previously lived there or defected from the country (thanks to my friend Jess for lending me her book “Without You, There Is No Us”). As expected, the majority of literature was somewhat negative in tone, with the occasional horror story thrown in to make you think twice about going. One of the facts I came across is if a person commits a crime, three generations after him or her will have to stay in a North Korean “rehabilitation” prison camp. Also interestingly, suicide rates amongst North Korean defectors are amongst the highest in the world. Those who defect from the country cannot bare the guilt of their families being tortured in a prison camp as a result of them escaping. Of course, a lot of these facts need to be taken with a slight pinch of salt, given that many come from South Korea which has its own political agenda to promote.
Travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) is highly restricted. Only 2000-3000 western tourists and around 100,000 Chinese tourists visit a year. In recent years the number of Chinese tourists has decreased as relations have strained due to the North Korea taking a relatively lax approach to the Crystal Meth drug trade with China (according to the Chinese) and China’s anger at the North Korean nuclear weapons programme. Our group of 12 had one Chinese guide accompanying us and two North Korean guides with us at all time. We were the last western group to visit the DPRK of 2015. It’s important to note, tourists are not allowed to visit the DPRK freely, and must join a group or private tour accompanied by local guides.
Crossing from China to North Korea
My trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) started in the Chinese town of Dandong. Dandong is one of the few entry points in to North Korea via the “Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge” which crosses the Yalu River. As one of the few crossings in to North Korea, it’s interesting to see difference either side of the river, particularly at night. Whilst Dandong is lit up with high rise buildings, barely any light comes from the North Korean side.
Starting at Dandong railway station, we set off on train 51 which runs from Beijing – Dandong – Pyongyang twice a week. The mood at Dandong Railway station was one of excitement, but also worry as to whether we would even be allowed in the country.The group was split between two six bed sleeper compartments, in one of the three carriages that departed from Dandong. We departed China at 10:30 and within minutes, having crossed the bridge were met with images of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il as the train stopped Sinuiju station. We were in!
In a matter of seconds, immigration and military officials poured in to the carriage…and so proceeded the most intimidating customs and immigration experience I have been through, lasting around an hour and half in total. Prior to the tour we were warned to delete any controversial images or videos from electronic devices and leave behind any controversial literature at the hotel in Dandong. As expected books, and magazines we searched (page by page) and some electronic devices were searched – laptops, tablets and mobiles. My copy of ‘Time’s Person of Year’ was thoroughly checked. Thankfully, there was nothing about Kim Jong-un in the magazine! After what seemed like a lifetime of waiting, we finally got our passports back, and the all clear to continue on to Pyongyang – some 227km away. The journey was painfully slow, and we arrived in Pyongyang around 18:30 in the evening. Though a relatively short distance, the journey took a long time due to a number of stops along the way where carriages were added to the train. Poor railway infrastructure also meant the train had to travel very slowly. This was somewhat surprising given it was one of the few routes used by tourists to enter/exit the country, but also the key route used by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to visit Russia and China, due to their fear of flying.
First impressions of North Korea
Despite the train travelling painfully slowly, it did give us a good opportunity to experience the real North Korea as we passed through small towns and villages. With 80% of the nation covered in mountains, it’s no surprise we experienced these along the way. With the mountains in the distance covered in snow the natural beauty was truly stunning, reminding me of the Swiss Alps, particularly at sunset. Though, you just have to look in the foreground at the poorly constructed housing to realise life for citizens of the DPRK is far from stunning. Stopping at various stations along the way and seeing many military men guarding bales of hay on a train in a daytime temperature of -6oC, or those on the few other trains that passed us, which clearly looked like they had no heating I couldn’t help but feel sorry. There we also a lot of bikes and people walking, but very few cars. We are later told the primary reason behind this was because the North Korean regime wanted to limit the greenhouse emissions they send to the atmosphere. The reality is the country is so poor many simply cannot afford a car or motorbike.
Arriving in Pyongyang
We arrived in the capital of the DPRK, Pyongyang after the sun had set. Pyongyang has a different vibe to the other areas in North Korea we had passed. Though it was night time, it looked like any other city, just with fewer lights. This was something which was confirmed in daylight as I peered out of the window of our hotel room on the 23rd floor, surrounded by high rise socialist housing and monuments in the distance. Pyongyang is where the North Korean elite live, so it is distinctively different from other parts of the country, and relatively well maintained (at least the parts we were allowed to see). Having originally been told we would be staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, on Yanggak Island in the middle of the river Taedong, we were pleasantly surprised to be told we would be upgraded to the DPRK’s best hotel – the Koryo Hotel – as we were the last tour group of 2015. The Koryo Hotel is primarily used by North Korean and International delegations whilst the Yanggakdo is primarily used by tourists. We were later told the hotel had problem with its heating and with such few tourists around logistically it made sense to close the Yanggakdo and move us to the Koryo.
The upside of staying at the Koryo was we were surrounded by some local people and the military, though I had no interaction with them other than maybe sharing a lift with 10 other military personnel or passing them in the hotel lobby. As we entered the hotel there were two long lines of hotel staff with garlands, party poppers, streamers who we thought were there to welcome us. They were actually there to welcome the DPRKs fishermen who walked in just after us, and wow what a welcome it was! Sharing a room with one of the guys in my group, we were on the 23rd floor with a city facing view. The hotel and room, was like any western hotel room, just that interior design hadn’t progressed much from the Soviet style, and the room smelt like “nans house”. The room even had BBC World News, Russia Today, Al-Jazeera and CCTV of the 15 TV channels available, alongside North Korean TV. I very much doubt the North Korean delegations staying on other floors had access to these channels. We were given a strict warning by our two North Korean guides that we were not to leave the hotel grounds under any circumstances unless accompanied by one of them. The same was also true for certain floors of the hotel which we were not allowed to visit. Towards the end of my time in North Korea the hotel almost felt like a prison. On the plus side, we quickly learnt that North Koreans make amazing beer (who would have thought!), which definitely helped to pass time some of the evenings. Who else can say they got drunk in North Korea? The love of North Korean beer was also shared at a brewery we visited, which had 7 different types of beer on offer. Our guides took our passports for the duration of our stay which was somewhat worrying. Welcome to Pyongyang …
Dinner was at the hotel restaurant serving a large selection of Korean food, tofu, meats and eggs for the vegetarians. Breakfast the next morning was a standard western breakfast of toast, eggs, tea and coffee, albeit a limited selection.
‘Exploring’ the DPRKs capital – Pyongyang
We spent the remaining days of our tour exploring Pyongyang and the De-Militarised Zone which separates North and South Korea. We had a strict schedule that we stuck to and were driven around between sites in a modern Chinese Yutong coach. After a while, I realised we were driving on the same roads again and again between sites and shared this observation with some of the others in the tour. On the last night the coach even crossed the river to travel on the road we usually went through on town, only to cross back across the bridge to get to the restaurant. Perhaps I was looking in to this too much, or our movements were restricted such that we could only see the better roads of Pyongyang. Interestingly, when we travelled close to some monuments, the coach always went around the monuments unlike the rest of the traffic which always drove through the monuments.
The first site we saw in North Korea was Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. This is the mausoleum in which you can see the bodies of the previous leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lying in state, alongside the medals/awards they were given and some of the transport methods they used. The palace is massive in size with strict security, who go as far as to check contents of your wallet. Once inside, you take a series of travelators with images of the leaders on each side. An observation I made was that a number of the images looked photoshopped with shadows facing in different directions and what appeared to be people floating above the ground.
We then got to the room where Kim Il-sung’s body is lying in state, prior to which we passed a small tunnel of fans – I presume to blow any dirt off us before we see the Presidents body. Inside the room, Kim Il-sung’s body is in the centre with a Korean flag surrounding the casket on which his body is rested on. The room has red lighting with exception of white lighting on his body. We were told to bow once at the feet, once on the left side of his body and once on the right side of his body. Our guide made a point to mention the lower you bow, the more respectful it was, so I was somewhat paranoid to make sure I bow as low as possible so as not to offend anyone. After this, we moved on to a room showcasing the medals and awards Kim Il-sung received domestically and internationally, before going through a similar experience viewing the body of Kim Jong-il lying in state. Interestingly, before we bowed there were a number of military personnel who bowed before us, quite a few of whom were crying as they bowed. Whether these were genuine or forced tears I don’t know. The last few rooms we visited in the palace were the rooms documenting the travel they both did alongside viewing the train carriages, car and boat both used whilst alive. Kim Jong-il’s train carriage (also the one he died in) had an Apple MacBook laptop. Someone I spoke to on the train from Pyongyang back to Dandong mentioned that model of MacBook wasn’t available until 2012, despite Kim Jong-il passing away in 2011, though I don’t know enough about MacBook’s to verify whether this is true. Following this we went back on the “never ending travellator” and took some pictures of the exterior of the building.
From the palace went to the Grand Monument on Mansu Hill. The focal point of the monument comprises of two statues – one of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il which is placed on the highest point of Pyongyang. The statues are 22.5m in height and overlook Pyongyang. One of the anecdotes we were told by our guide was that a South Korean delegation visited the statue and asked a girl how high the statues were, to which she answered the correct height. The girl was then asked, how much the statues weigh, to which she answered “the hearts of the North Korean people”. At the statues some group members placed flowers, and we all bowed. After some photos, in which we had to frame the full statue in the picture, we then proceeded to take a short city walk in Pyongyang’s chilly -11oC temperature. We passed some of the high-rise buildings, reserved for some of Pyongyang’s elite residents. I couldn’t help but think of an article that I had read on the Guardian a few weeks ago which made reference to how many buildings in Pyongyang have collapsed due to the poor construction practises.
Walking in the city centre was a surreal experience. Absolutely no one who passed us on the streets showed an interest in us, whilst those who passed us in buses were super interested in looking at us. I couldn’t help but think those we passed on the street were strategically placed there. We continued on, passing the People’s Canteen (effectively a large restaurant) and the Grand People’s Study House (national library) at Kim il-sung Square where our tour ended. The square is the principle place in which political events, mass demonstrations and parades take place, covering an area of 75,000 square meters. Across the river from Kim Il-sung Square we could see the Juche Tower. Reminding me of the Washington Monument, and less than a meter taller than its US lookalike (very convenient), the Juche Tower commemorates the North Korean Juche ideology. Juche is often viewed as a variation of Marxism-Leninism, and was developed by Kim Il-sung following the idea “self-reliance”. The three key principles of Juche follow political independence, economic sustainability and self-reliance in matters of national defence.
After recovering from the cold with a hotpot lunch, we moved on to President Kim Il-sung’s childhood home in Mangyongdae. Four generations of the Kim dynasty lived in this simple thatched house in which relics used by Kim Il-sung and his family are preserved for the North Korean people. Officially, all North Koreans are required to visit the house at least once a year. My personal favourite was viewing the walking stick presented by Kim Il-sung to his grandad!
Our time in Pyongyang continued with a visit to the circus. Unlike any circus I have been to in Europe the circus was a purpose building, but rather than a traditional circus it was more of an acrobatics show. The circus was the first place where we really got to “interact” with the local people. Many of these locals had mobile phones and where flicking through or letting their children play games on them before the performance started. We were definitely in the company of the North Korean elite I thought to myself. The performance itself was incredible. Acrobats were flying all over the stage, many without any safety ropes. The interlude acts as they set up the harnesses, rigs and safety nets were also super interesting making the most of audience participation to get some laughs. Mid way through the performance they bought out two bears for a mini acrobatics performance. Looking around, the North Koreans were thrilled at this, my fellow western tourists weren’t anywhere as near as impressed. On the plus side, both the bears looked well fed, even if they were placed in restrictive harnesses.
The Pyongyang Metro was also on our jam-packed itinerary as we joined the locals at rush hour for short ride on the Pyongyang metro between two stops. At over 100m deep the metro along with buses, trolley buses and trams make up the lifeline of the city’s transport network – particularly as cars are in their scarcity. The metro currently uses former German rolling stock from the Berlin U-Bahn, with each carriage featuring a portrait of the former leaders President Kim Il-sung and General Kim Jong-il. We boarded the train at the terminus Puhŭng station and went one stop to Yŏnggwang Station travelling on one of the two metro lines in Pyongyang the Chollima Line. Both stations were immaculately maintained reminding me of some of the grand metro stations in Moscow with its columns and great attention to detail when it came to the art that flanked each side of the platform. It’s safe to say I have never taken so many pictures inside a metro station in my life. But I couldn’t resist it. There was something strangely fascinating about riding the Berlin U-Bahn in Pyongyang, almost an oxymoron in itself. In the centre of the platform, glass boards held up sheets of the local newspaper for people to have a quick scan of as they were waiting for the train. A great idea I thought to myself. I remember thinking to myself it’s quite strange they take us on a metro ride as part of an organised tour, but in hindsight I guess North Korea is keen to show the small number of tourists who visit that it is like any other country. The fact we only visited two stations was strange however, and I recall thinking whether all the other stations were the same, and indeed if other stations even existed. I can confirm after doing some research, other stations do exist.
We exited the station jumped on the bus and headed to a local school. Approaching the school, we could hear music playing from one of the rooms and kids playing football. We headed inside in to a large auditorium where we watched a performance put on by some of the girls at the school aged around 14 or 15. The performance consisted of traditional North Korean song and dance accompanied by some of the girls playing music instruments. The only downside, was that the school wasn’t heated! This was interesting given we were likely taken to the best school in Pyongyang. I hate to think what the other schools were like. Whilst we were freezing cold in Pyongyang’s -13oC, the girls – many of whom were traditional dresses – couldn’t wait until the end of the performance!
We left the school at dusk and headed to the Arch of Triumph. Modelled on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris our tour leader was keen to point out Pyongyang version was taller than the one in Paris – the ultimate snub to capitalism I thought to myself. The Arch of Triumph was inaugurated on the 70th birthday of Kim Il-sung in honour of the role he took fighting Japan to gain Korean independence. Lit up in all its glory, starting at the Arch of Triumph, for a split second I forgot I was in North Korea. We were called back in to the coach and I remembered exactly where I was.
My time in North Korea had been super interesting. So much had happened in such a few days, with such a jam packed itinerary, I really had no chance to take it all in at the time. Having almost every movement watched, a carefully orchestrated route and fear of breaking the rules I was somewhat happy to leave North Korea and head back to China. Paranoia had led to paranoia, and even more paranoia, to the extent I wondered if our hotel room had been bugged. Time and time again I found myself questioning the smallest of situations again and again, wondering whether people had been strategically placed for us, whether things even existed, whether there was genuine love and respect of the leaders and what of the outside world people knew about. Questions led to more questions many of which will forever remain unanswered. Yes, people are extremely poor, yes national unity verges on psychotic and yes, by no means is life easy, but underlying all of this is a beautiful and completely fascinating country. That is, if my organised tour showed me the “real” North Korea…
Please note, this post one of two on North Korea.