A Travellerspoint blog

Recollections of a Trip to North Korea

A tourist's perspective.

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Mansudae Grand Monument

Mansudae Grand Monument

The first question people asked, with raised eyebrow and furrowed brow, when they discovered I had visited The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) was “why”? This was usually followed by “was it, like, horrid?”

North Korea was never, even remotely close to being on my travel radar. I knew very little about the country except for what I read in the news which was usually negative and chilling. However, in 2012, my hiking buddy and friend, Philip, told me about the mass dance that was to happen in North Korea in celebration of the 100th birthday anniversary of the Eternal President Kim Il Sung. Deep in my mind, I remembered seeing a video of a mass dance and was fascinated not only by the sheer grandeur of the event but also being vastly impressed with the discipline and organisational logistics it took to train the 100,000 plus participants.

This was my why for visiting the country and so Philip and I booked a whirlwind four day tour. Given the political events of recent months, it seemed a good opportunity to reminisce about our trip.

Independent travel was not and is not allowed in North Korea. Philip and I traveled with Koryo Tours, an agency based in Beijing that specializes in trips to North Korea. Prior to flying to Beijing to start our tour, we were given a list of events and places we could see and visit, and had to make our selection before we departed Beijing.

To help us prepare for the trip, we were given a one hour mandatory induction and 10 page instruction handout at the Koryo office. Our instructions included not to fold our copy of the Pyongyang Times that would crease the faces of the leaders Kim Il Sung (1912-1994) and Kim Jong Il (1941-2011), being willing to bow to any statue of Kim Il Sung, and not to expect a shopping haven. We were also informed that our guides were responsible for everything we did: if we caused a problem, our guides could get into very serious trouble.

Despite our induction, neither Philip nor I were prepared for the illusory world we entered. We quickly discovered that visiting North Korea was like going to a restaurant with a set menu and waiters wearing blinkers. Everything was exact including how we got there, where we stayed, where we ate, what we saw and how we should think. North Korea was not going to be a place for Philip and I to kick up our heels, meander, and meet the locals.

With our Tourist Card card in hand, we boarded the Air China flight (with both of hoping we kinda understood what the “Service Location of Groove Escape Slide meant). After a easy pass through customs and immigration, we were met at the Pyongyang arrival gate by our two guides; the young, stylishly dressed, English speaking Miss Lee and the middle aged Mr Lee whose English extended to the word ‘ok’ and the phrase ‘hungry man angry man’. We all became immediately joined at the hips. A white van picked us up from the Potonggang Hotel at 7 am each morning and dropped us off at 7 pm, shuttling us around to our various destinations with Miss Lee and Mr Lee continuously in tow.

Our intrepid guides Ms Lee and Mr Lee

Our intrepid guides Ms Lee and Mr Lee

As we were informed by Miss Lee “you don’t speak Korean and you may get lost. That is why you must stay in the hotel until the morning.”

Ironically, I was given a complimentary CD with the title “Pyongyang at Night” in Russian, Chinese and English. When I played it once I got home, it didn’t have a thing on it – it was as dark as Pyongyang was at night.

Our first stop was the Arch of Triumph, a replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan. After the obligatory pictures, I noticed a very detailed mosaic directly across the street. Without thought, I started to cross and to my surprise, was immediately pulled back to the sidewalk by Mr Lee. I seemed that one does not just walk off, even 10 m across the street. However, our guides did accommodate us and Mr Lee called what I assume was “Central Office”. We received permission to cross the street and we were able to appreciate the highly detailed and superb craftsmanship of the mosaic.

Arch of Triumph

Arch of Triumph

Detailed mosaic by Arch of Triumph

Detailed mosaic by Arch of Triumph

Details of mosaic of workers

Details of mosaic of workers

Pyongyang had been totally devastated by the United States Air Force during a sustained bombing campaign in 1951-1953 and then reconstructed into today’s modern city. The streets we drove along were wide, clean boulevards with little traffic in comparison to western cities and pine covered hills surrounded the city.

“Most of the cars are made in North Korea, but some are Japanese” Miss Lee informed me. “We don’t have classes as we are all equal, but not everyone can buy a car. But many people walk. As you are old, you need to wear good shoes”.

Thanks.

People walked purposefully. Being the end of winter, there were no leaves on the trees, but flowers had been planted in abundance in commemoration of the birthday celebrations.

View of Pyongyang city and Taedong River

View of Pyongyang city and Taedong River

Pyongyang

Pyongyang

One of the most enjoyable spectacles of Pyongyang was the female traffic police officers. These women, wearing tailored blue uniforms with nary a crease in sight and high heels, guided the traffic with military precision using their brightly coloured batons and perfectly choreographed movements.

Traffic police lady

Traffic police lady

Modern high-rise office blocks and stately buildings housing museums, universities and theaters flanked the broad boulevards. Socialistic monuments and statues, most depicting soldiers and guns, dotted the city including the Tower of Juche on the banks of the Taedong River, the statue of Chollima, the legendary winged horse who sped great distances in a day to perform heroic feats in Korea’s time of need, and the Party Founding Memorial with its mammoth hammer, sickle and writing brush gripped by hands symbolizing the workers, farmers and intellectuals.

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Propaganda posters were all pervasive, many depicting scenes of workers holding hammers and sickles, and mentioning or alluding to Juche, the national ideology of self-reliance developed by Kim Il Sung, and the reunification of Korea.

Propaganda sign

Propaganda sign

Reunification flowers

Reunification flowers

Regardless of where we went, we could not get away from depictions of President Kim Il Sung and Leader Kim Jong Il nor the intensity of the admiration and adulation the people held for these leaders. We had to bow to every statue of both leaders. The most impressive were the 20 m bronze statues of these two men at the Mansudae Grand Monument on Mansu Hill, backed by a detailed mosaic of a scene from Mt Parktu, the highest mountain on the Korean peninsula and long considered a sacred site.

Statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il

Statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il

On the day of our visit to this monument, after watching masses of locals pay their respects and giving the obligatory bow, I was given a bouquet of flowers by Mr Lee to lay on the dais of the monument. This was not something I was comfortable with, but I recognized that not doing this was going to greatly offend Miss Lee and Mr Lee. So I gritted my teeth and headed to the dais. What I did not expect was the photographer that came out of nowhere and started taking pictures of me laying the flowers at the feet of the two dictators. It was the only time I lost it, albeit only a little bit, and had to step away from our group to regain my composure. I was not in the least bit impressed to become a piece of North Korean propaganda.

One of the highlights of our trip was our drive to Mt Myohyang (which means mountain of singular fragrance and is a string of forest covered peaks lying about 160 km north of Pyongyang) and subsequent hike up the mountain to Murung Falls and Bison Falls. We arrived at Mt Myohyang following an immaculately tidy four lane dual carriageway. In the distance we could see villages of white brick houses with tiled roofs and the occasional flock of goats. People were sweeping both the road and under the trees lining the road. The land was bare and in the midst of being prepared for spring planting, the farmers using hand tools. I don’t think we passed one car in either direction nor did we see any agricultural machinery but, at best, oxen pulling ploughs.

River on way to Mt Myohyang

River on way to Mt Myohyang

Prior to our hike, we visited the International Friendship Exhibition which enthralled us with the showcases of weird, kitchy and glorious gifts given to Kim Il Sung.

Both Miss Lee and Mr Lee accompanied Philip and I up the mountain trail which had been cut into the rock. Neither of our guides had proper walking shoes and had never walked so far up the mountain. We hiked about three kilometres to the falls and although our guides were sore footed, Mr Lee very much enjoyed his cigarette at the top, and Philip and I got the impression that both of our guides were quite pleased with their achievement. Our tiredness was forgotten when we sat down to our lunch of cucumber salad, pickled seaweed, chicken, fried fish, rice and kimchee to die for.

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Back in Pyongyang, it was non-stop attractions. We visited the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, the Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery and Mangyongdae Native House with the traditional mud-walled farmhouse and thatched roof which was the birthplace of Kim Il Sung.

At most of these sites, particularly during the visit to the vessel USS Pueblo, we were blitzed with very strong anti-American sentiment and propaganda and the wonderful life the leaders were giving the people. Miss Lee plied us with statements such as “Americans are imperialists who are causing us many problems. The United States tells lies against us so we let foreigners in to show them what it is really like. The United States caused the split with South Korea but the people want unification peacefully with a strong army. Our children will contribute to the country and dedicate their life to the country. They will work hard and become heroes and good revolutionaries.”

One activity Philip and I quite enjoyed was our ride on the Pyongyang underground metro which at 110 m (360 feet) was the deepest commuter system in the world.

Pyongyang Underground Metro

Pyongyang Underground Metro

It was an activity that resulted in two curious experiences.

We boarded the metro at the Puhung Stations which had a detailed mosaic of King Il Sung covering one wall and an extravagant crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. There were about 150 people at the station so the subway itself was very crowded. We seated ourselves on the green padded benches in one of the green and burgundy trains made in Germany in the 1960s. I made an inadvertent faux pas when I began to stand up to give my seat to a very elderly lady who had entered the subway car. My arm was gently but firmly taken by Mr Lee who plonked me back down on the bench. One obviously does not stand up for the elderly – or at least a westerner does not do this. It this because it may show that Westerners can be considerate and polite? Is it because the North Koreans would not have understood what the gesture was all about? I never got an answer.

Our exit was through Yonggwang Station with its multitude of murals and bronze etchings lining the track walls, romanesk columns and multi-coloured chandeliers. About 200 people were standing on the platform. Not one person paid us any attention which was really weird and very zombie-like. Everyone was standing stock still looking straight ahead onto the tracks. The four of us walked up the marble stairway towards the mosaic depicting Kim Il Jong at Mt Paekdu, North Korea’s sacred site, and for some inexplicable reason I turned around to look back. The scene was eerie: I was confronted with 200 pairs of unblinking eyes looking up at us.

As with all set menus, unexpected changes occur. Philip and I were not able to see the mass dance as we were told that Kim Jong Un had decreed that no foreigners could attend. Instead, on the day of celebration, we were taken to a park with a multitude of other foreigners where we were entertained by a cultural show of music and dancing mainly by children and silly group games. It was, however, delightful to see the finely embroidered Hanbok, the traditional Korean dress, that the majority of the ladies were wearing.

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Potentially unwittingly, we were able to watch a parade of trucks rolling along the main boulevard carrying various military personnel, the streets lined with people enthusiastically waving purple flags. That evening on tv we watched the parade of military might that had been held earlier in the day in Kim Il Sung Square in honour of Kim Il Sung and from which foreigners had been barred.

Cheering crowd

Cheering crowd

Was I glad I visited North Korea? Yes. It was an eye-opening, learning experience like no other. Although I was in North Korea for a ludicrously short time, I felt that I did get a smidgen of an idea of what the people and the country were subjected to based on the restrictions that were imposed on Philip and me. Many of the statements made by Ms Lee were definitely a propaganda tool - but the knowledge of the country's history gave Miss Lee's comments a degree of perspective. But most importantly, the constraints imposed on us certainly gave me an acute appreciation of the freedoms I have and enjoy in Australia.

Would I go back? I know that I only saw what I was supposed to see and this was not horrid. Ms Lee and Mr Lee were very fine hosts and the countryside was rather splendid. But, there would need to be really drastic changes to the political and social fabric of this country and I would need to be able to move around more freely before I would consider visiting again.

I hope that Philip and I played the part of minor ambassadors and showed Miss Lee and Mr Lee that Westerners were not ogres and were genuinely interested in their country. And we both felt a bit rebellious when we had the opportunity to describe what Google was all about to Miss Lee.

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Posted by IvaS 00:48 Archived in North Korea Comments (0)

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