It was a chilly winters day when the plane touched down in Pyongyang. An cold chill ran down my spine as I saw the grey scene, amplified by the cloudy skies and rain coming down above us.
We took to the asphalt as we exited the plane, guided by North Korean officials towards the main building where all of our belongings would be checked. An hour later, we were on the bus with our three guides, all of which would be taking care of the five of us for the rest of our trip. A curious and excited Australian, two tall friendly Canadians and another two daring Americans.
How and where do I start? Well, firstly let’s have a quick look at the history of what has now become such an increasingly interesting and misinformed part of the world.
In 1910, Japan invaded and occupied Korea. During the Japanese occupation, Korea underwent some major cultural and economic changes much against the people’s will. From censorship of newspapers, changes to education and religion to the destruction and theft of historical artefacts, not to mention the forced labour of both men and women, the Korean way of life was changing rapidly in the name of “modernisation” by the Japanese government.
Fast forward to 1945, the United States and it’s allied countries marched to victory in World War II after the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left Japan with no choice but to surrender and leave the Korean peninsula. American forces quickly arrived in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula while the Soviet Army had stationed themselves in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula.
An emergency meeting was gathered and a proposal was made for the temporary split of the nation at the 38th parallel while negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union continued which eventually failed to lead to an independent, unified Korea. The United States supported the South, the Soviet Union supported the North, and each government claimed sovereignty over the whole Korean peninsula. In 1948, UN-supervised elections were held in the US-occupied south only. The anti-communist Syngman Rhee won the election while Kim Il-sung was appointed as the leader of North Korea by Joseph Stalin.
Hence, the beginnings of a state as such we see today held by the grandson of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un.
So now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about getting into North Korea. There’s a general misconception surrounding North Korea and not being able to visit the country. Maybe it’s because people call it the hermit kingdom because they “isolate” themselves from the rest of the world or maybe it’s because we only ever hear of people trying to escape the country. Whatever it is, it’s not entirely true. You can visit the country, but maybe not how you would like to. So, in saying that, the rules for who is allowed in seem to change a lot but essentially they are: 1) You aren’t a South Korean citizen, 2) You aren’t a journalist, and 3) You have some money.
You can visit the country, but maybe not how you would like to.
What most people don’t know is how you can actually visit the country. Well, for the most part it’s through a dedicated tour group. There are now quite a few tour operators you can choose from with a range of different prices, but most of them follow a similar schedule as you will see later in the *Tourism Plan*. The tour I went on was all inclusive paying for the flights and visa, hotel and food and also transport and guidance for $1,500. A few years ago most of the tour operators had a pretty good track record as far as not having had any detainees, but in this day and age of bible thumpers and sign stealers I think just about every country has had at least one tourist detained.
As our group met at the Beijing airport (currently the only way to get into North Korea), I got lucky. The group I would be touring with was very small. Only five people – myself as an Australian of course, two Americans and two Canadians. From places I had read online some of these tours can have as many as 30 people in them which would kind of suck. Another plus is that I quickly deduced that one of the Americans on the tour, who was … umm … interesting to say the least was definitely going to get detained before I ever would.
As I waited in the Beijing airport to board the Air Koryo (the North Korean owned airline and worst ranked airline in the world) the first thing that marked me was the number of North Koreans who were there waiting as well (they are easily recognizable because they all wear suits with flag lapels of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jung-il). I think the common misconception is that North Koreans cannot leave the country. In reality it is only about 99.998 percent who can’t leave the country. Those who can travel outside the country are the top class of North Koreans who really have no reason not return to the country where they are treated so well in.
As I boarded the plane to Pyongyang (North Korea’s capital) I really didn’t know what to expect. Would I be hated because I was Australian? Would I accidentally start World War III or maybe better yet I accidentally bump into Kim Jung-un on the street and we would smooth out all this nuclear blowing things up stuff? or would i be detained? even worse detained for something i did not do. Spoiler: None of those things would actually happen.
* Define: Imperialism – “A policy of extending a country’s power and influence through colonization, use of military force, or other means”
A Day In Pyongyang
Landing in Pyongyang the first thing that you realize is that the airport is actually really nice. In fact you soon realize that everything you see in North Korea is actually really nice. The roads are nice. The vehicles (while not common) are nice. Everything I saw in North Korea was pretty nice. This is because when you are in the DPRK, you only see what the DPRK wants you to see. The picture below from blogger Tim Urban that I am using without his permission describes it pretty well. We drove along the same roads so frequently that I actually got pretty knowledgeable regarding the layout of Pyongyang. But to be fair North Korea isn’t the only place that tries to hide it’s poverty.
Going through customs was simple. I was randomly selected to get my phone searched for western media. While GPS isn’t allowed into the country I was able to bring my smartphone, which has GPS allowing it to automatically tag my coordinates to any picture I take with it (that was a surprise).
After exiting the airport we were met by the two North Korean appointed guides who would be with us the entire week. These guides (often called “minders”) evidently always come in pairs of at least two – so one can watch the group members and the other can watch the guide to make sure no bribes or anything fishy takes place, oh they also stare at you as you take photos and videos and ask to see them. At first I found our interactions to be incredibly awkward and stilted. However over the week things improved tremendously and soon I found myself trying to share western media and lame jokes such as “What is brown and sticky?” (these are the foundations to world peace). By the end of the trip we even discussed a little bit about the upcoming US elections and yeah you guessed it, Donald Trump and even had a somewhat honest (or at least peaceful) discussion about the Korean War. Our guides were with us the entire trip. And by with us I mean they made sure that we never left their sight the entire trip. I have been known to wander off occasionally when something takes my curiosity so our guide always had to tell me to get back with the rest of the group.
The only place where we weren’t within constant eyesight of our guides was at our hotel. We were staying at the Hotel Koryo which was supposed to be Pyongyang’s nicest foreigner hotel. And it was actually pretty nice – complete with a Karaoke Bar, tailor, swimming pool, massage parlor and revolving top floor restaurant.
As far as the 1984-esque government surveillance – I never felt like that was an issue (at least as a tourist). First off North Korea is a country that doesn’t have enough energy to power half of its street lamps let alone be able to afford a slew of cameras or recording equipment to spy on visiting foreigners. The whole time I was there I saw maybe five cameras. “Maybe that is what they want me to think?” you say, and maybe that is. But then I think of the massive workforce that would be needed to surveil our group, especially considering they would need someone who spoke fluent English – a valuable commodity in North Korea. And if someone was watching my group the most valuable information they would have received would be how many pair of undies i carry in my backpack. Zero. Just joking. You’ll never really know. However there is one other thing worth mentioning and it’s that mysterious door with no handle right outside our rooms. Thank god I held my curiosity back at this point because we were specifically told not to stray from our rooms.
Touring North Korea was actually pretty exhausting though. I saw a lot of stuff in the week I was there. As a general rule I would say it was split 34 percent monuments to the Kim Family, 33 percent “Look at our children/farms/factories we are a successful country!,” 16.5 percent “look at how unbelievably fast we built this thing and that thing”, and 16.5 percent really old UNESCO World Heritage sites. Here are my non-serious thoughts on the most memorable places:
Mansudae Grand Monument: Larger than life bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jung-il. Pretty cool actually, you have to bow to them though.
Arch of Triumph: Big arch with cool carvings and a song engraved into the stone.
Kumsusan Palace of the Sun: Got to see the embalmed bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jung-il. Yeah, if you know what that word means then you’ll know that it was weird, very weird. All I could think about while I was bowing to their dead bodies was how many years of forced labor camp I would get if I threw my shoe at Kim Il-sung’s body. It would probably be record setting. I also got to see Kim Il-sung’s only honorary degree from a western university – Kingston University. An unaccredited university out of California that is now shut down.
Kim Il-sung Square: Just isn’t as cool when it’s not filled with a military parade. Nice view of the Grand People’s Study House and the Tower of Juche Idea though.
Manygyongdae Native House: Kim Il-sung’s birthplace. Super boring.
DPRK Metro: The deepest metro in the world. Make sure you notice the three blast doors at the bottom of the escalator for use in case of nuclear Armageddon. Note that this was the closest we ever got to the locals.
Tower of Juche Idea: Best view in Pyongyang. No lines to get in. Costs like $20AUD to go to the top though. The elevator has buttons for other floors but when asked the attendant wouldn’t say what they were for or where they went …
Grand People’s Study House: Rather dark and musty but actually quite grand…until you see all the empty corridors and study rooms. You can definitely find some people acting like they are studying – not sure if they were actually studying. I found an old engineering textbook dating back to the 90s, makes sense why everything looks like it was form back then.
Science Technology Complex: Actually quite nice and beautiful. It opened early this year so it’s brand new. They have a lot of computer terminals where people seem to be researching stuff or watching videos.
Victorious War Museum: The accuracy of the information was questionable…very questionable. However the presentation was absolutely beautiful. Definitely have to check out the captured USS Pueblo and the 360-degree diorama of the Battle of Daejon.
Three Tombs of Kangso: UNESCO World Heritage my a$$. Three big humps in the ground where some super old people were buried. If you want to see inside the tomb you have to pay 100 euros.
The DMZ: Our assigned military guide said that he wanted peace in the world. But he also said that if the US tries to invade them there will be a big boom.
The Co-operative Farms: Even outside of the city, propaganda and statues of the Kim’s still instill themselves across the countryside.
The Arch of Reunification: Gorgeous arch with a strong meaning to reunify North and South Korea. The guides said that all of North Korea and it’s people will gladly sacrifice their lives to see their country reunited.
Why I Wouldn’t Do It Again
I have rather mixed feelings about my trip to North Korea, and have been struggling with how to explain it all. In the end I will say that the biggest takeaway from this trip to North Korea was getting to see the people. Before traveling to North Korea, the country and its people felt surreal to me – it was just a place people made fun of on the internet. I didn’t really care about them or whether or not they accidentally blew themselves up with a nuclear bomb. Now after visiting North Korea, well to be honest most of the weird shit there still doesn’t seem real, but the people, the people seem real. I am really at odds with how i feel about the people there and i still don’t think i know or may never truly understand their lives. North Korea is an odd place, it is odd because the word freedom is twisted in a different way. There is an entire generation of people here that have been taught to despise America, that have been taught to follow and never diverge, that have been misled* their entire lives. I don’t say these things lightly. I am not afraid of North Korea’s future as a country, but i am afraid for it’s people. On the outside they are just like us, initially you feel the bond between two humans, but there is a subtle difference, for example, in the way they walk (always marching) and in the way they talk (always praising their great leader). And now that i have been I would be bummed out if they accidentally blew themselves up, I would be losing some, what I consider, friends.
*When i say misled, it is because the propaganda is strong. Very strong. I could actually actually feel the propaganda during the short time i was there. It is hard to explain but when you are surrounded by 24/7 propaganda music all around the city (even in your rooms slightly) that signify the strength of being together, when you are surrounded by statues stating the leaders and how they make the country strong, when you are are taken to nice restaurants and guided through the “beautiful” parts of the city – You can’t help but understand why the people have become how they are today, why they seemingly stupidly bow down and break into tears when they see a statue of their leader. But understanding this does not mean i still don’t think it is absolutely ludicrous.
The Random Other Stuff
Everyplace was eerily deserted. When my group ate at restaurants we were the only ones eating. When we went to memorials we were the only ones there. When you get outside Pyongyang, other than a few cars here and there, the eight lane highways were deserted.
Foreigners can’t use the local North Korean Won. Instead the shops would accept US dollars (USD), Chinese RMB, or the Euro. Each shop has a preferred foreign currency that gives you the best exchange rate. So when I visited the stamp store to pick up some post cards (i had to get the anti-American ones) their preferred currency was USD. Three anti-American postcards for $1 USD. If I had paid in Chinese RMB the price would have been three times as much.
Rolling blackouts occur several times a day but no one acknowledges them. They just wait until the power goes back on and resume their activities.
One of my guides was quite positive that there was not one but two McDonalds in Pyongyang. I am quite positive that there are no McDonalds in North Korea.
My theory on recent American detainee Otto Frederick Warmbier. It was surprisingly easy to obtain alcohol (at least for foreigners) in North Korea. Beer was served at meals and alcohol such as the Korean wine soju was available for purchase at the hotel store. Warmbier allegedly tried to steal a propaganda poster at 2 am on January 1st … aka New Year’s Eve/ Day. I’m guessing alcohol had something of a role in the incident. I’m guessing the whole “church used car thing” is probably North Korean fiction.
I assisted two North Korean’s attempting to leave North Korea. At least that is the way I like to phrase it. On the plane ride back to Beijing I sat next to two ~25-year-old North Korean men who had obviously never flown before. They were struggling greatly in filling out their China entry card (the card is only written in Mandarin and English and they knew neither). So I helped them fill theirs out. Once we landed in Beijing they were so happy to have safely landed they gave each other a congratulatory pat on the back. To clarify, they were happy that they had survived the flight not to have left North Korea. I don’t believe defection was on their itinerary.
The group of Americans I was touring with had an obsession with North Korean grocery stores. A prerequisite of visiting North Korea is to watch the not too good James Franco and Seth Rogen film The Interview, a film about two American journalists visiting North Korea and attempting to kill Kim Jung-il. If you haven’t seen it you only need to watch this part to understand our intrigue. We drove past North Korea’s largest department store, Pyongyang Department Store No. 1, multiple times but were never allowed inside. From my pictures it was very difficult to tell if the products at the store were real. We were finally able to convince our guides to let us walk into a small grocery store next to where we were eating one day. I can only imagine the confusion by the locals as they saw us Westerners with huge grins on our faces taking pictures of their produce section. From what i saw there (a much smaller grocery store), the food seemed real.
I sang western music at the karaoke bar in our hotel – despite western music being banned in North Korea. While the other two Americans sang I came to an awkward moment where I realized that Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA has the lyrics “So they put a rifle in my hand, Sent me off to a foreign land, To go and kill the yellow man.” I shivered when they sang that part (sigh…Americans).
I shot a gun in North Korea. In Pyongyang they have a shooting range where you can do some target shooting. It was US$0.50 a bullet which is quite expensive, but who can resist the opportunity to tell people you shot a gun in North Korea? They also had a pheasant, a chicken that you could shoot at for $10 a bullet. If you shot and killed it there was someone on site who would cook it for you. I’m happy to confirm that no animals were harmed in the production of article.
My hotel room actually had satellite TV with stations like CCTV (China), NHK World (Japan), and Al Jazeera (yeah…iunno). So after a day of seeing the sights in Pyongyang I turned on the TV only to hear one pundit on Al Jazeera say “Everyone would like to see North Korea collapse” as they discussed the UN’s recent sanctions against North Korea. It was interesting hearing about people talk about the likelihood of North Korea using a nuclear bomb while being North Korea. It should be mentioned that foreigners were the only ones with access to these channels. My guide told me that the only international news they get is a once a week segment aired on the state-owned channel.
The Subway train was the one and only time i was able to get up close with the people of North Korea, not that i could speak Korean anyways but we definitely had eyes on us. However during the actual ride, everyone stared deeply into the television screens scattered around the train as cartoon propaganda depicting battles and shootings were played over and over. I did not think this was appropriate for the children to watch as there was violence involved.