Wow, January, I know I said let’s dance. But gosh, I didn’t say kill me. In fact, I think I’ll declare a new new year, beginning today, 1 February. And high time to get on with things. Let’s not concern ourselves with the familiar places. Not just now. Europe, America, South-East Asia, you’ll get your turn soon enough. Today, we’ll dive right into the one of the world’s more curious corners, on an extraordinary journey. We’re going to have a long overdue look inside North Korea, folks.
However you travel to North Korea, it will have to be government approved. That’s just something you will have to accept and not waste time complaining about. Whether you travel with a group or if you prefer to travel by yourself, you will have two official guides with you the whole time. I travelled with a group, and would recommend it. This is one place where you’ll likely feel the need to have someone to share the experience with, someone to talk it over with over a beer at the end of the day.
Curious about the world’s most enigmatic country? Then grab a cuppa and read on.
Beijing to Pyongyang
It’s around lunch time, a sweltering hot August Wednesday in Beijing. About 30 people meet at a restaurant located near the central railway station. We’re an international gang: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Sweden, the UK, the USA, possibly others as well. Together, we comprise four groups. I’m in Group A, about to spend 6 days in North Korea, or DPRK, the country’s formal name: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Groups B, C and D are staying longer – 22 days for the keenest. Some of the people in Groups C and D have visited DPRK before, some even many times. Seems this very offbeat country has an addictive effect on some.
We go through the journey ahead, and are given our tourist cards (visas). As of today, if you get the visa in a DPRK embassy in your home country, you get a stamp in your passport. If your country doesn’t have a DPRK embassy (like mine), the easiest is to get the visa in Beijing. However, then it comes in the form of a tourist card, and you must return it upon leaving. Sadly.
We also receive our train tickets, and I discover to my horror I’m in a top bunk (of 3)! Me, with my fear of falling out (which I actually have done before). Oh well; surely a kind soul will offer to swap, if I only ask nicely enough…
We split up for lunch, and I’m joined by two Russians. They seem to have other things than tourism on their mind. One of them has been in North Korea many times, he says. Has some business dealings going on. It’s all a bit vague.
Then, at 17.25 we board the overnight train for Dandong. The Americans in our group have another day in Beijing, as they may only enter North Korea by plane. (That, by the way, is the only difference. Otherwise, American visitors abide by the same rules as everyone else).
View from the train window
Taking the train turns out to be a good way to get acquainted with fellow travellers. Unless you have a VPN (a virtual private network), there’s no Facebook or Instagram or even Google or gmail in China, so mobiles are mostly shut off. As the train ploughs through the Chinese landscape and afternoon turns into night, we talk, play games and drink coffee spiked with soju (a popular Korean liquor, a ‘friend of life’) brought along by someone who has obviously been before. And the bunk? A 19-year-old political science student on a gap year before Oxford, quickly offers to swap beds with me. I barely had to ask. There’s hope for the future.
Dandong, still in China
We arrive in Dandong at 07.00. Early morning, still in China, on the Yalu River just by the DPRK border. The Pyongyang train leaves at 10.00, so we have time for a brisk walk to the river and back, and to have a superficial look at Dandong.
So comes the interesting bit – the one we have all heard about. The border crossing! Stories of police or customs agents threatening to put you in jail for the most inoffensive of actions or misunderstandings, confiscations of cameras and the like. Oh, horror!
Well, nothing like that happens this time. The customs folks do have a look at cameras, phones and gear, but politely. I’ve had much worse experiences with customs in the Western hemisphere. Here, they don’t speak much English or any of our other languages, so it is mostly a case of pointing. At first they are very serious, but amazing what a smile can do, no? Soon bolder fellow travellers take selfies with them, and even borrow their uniform hats. North Korean border authorities are as diverse as the rest of us, people.
And finally, inside North Korea
As we enter the suburbs of the North Korean capital, one of the guides, a British girl, spontaneously sighs: ‘Ah, Pyongyang!’ She seems to have a genuine fondness for this peculiar country, and she’s not the only one. I’m getting increasingly curious; can’t wait to discover more of this place that seems to inspire such conflicting emotions.
Outskirts of Pyongyang
At Pyongyang station we’re met by the two local guides who will follow us everywhere for the next 6 (or 22) days; two young girls, early 20s. We’re brought in minibusses to Hotel Yanggakdo, situated on a little island in the river. The Yanggakdo is the second tallest building in town with 47 floors, at least 6 dining rooms and some shops, and is where most international visitors in Pyongyang stay.
In the basement is a sauna, a massage parlour, a casino, a bowling alley, and a karaoke bar. With a bit of soju inside, no one is too shy to sing. It’s something comfortingly ordinary about singing karaoke and bowling in North Korea. As per usual, I do well at the first, and mostly suck at the latter.
The Yanggakdo International Hotel
In the coming days, we do more ordinary things in North Korea – like going to the supermarket, queuing for ice cream, taking the metro, going to the waterpark, sharp shooting at the shooting range… OK, that last bit is perhaps not quite so ordinary. Not for a Norwegian anyway. But business as usual for some of the Americans in our group, so they say.
We also do less ordinary things in Pyongyang; more on that in a minute.
The first full day in the DPRK takes us out of town, to Kaesong and the demilitarised zone, the fabled DMZ. From the north side! I’ve been looking forward to this.
Driving from Pyongyang to Panmunjom, the little village at the de facto border between the two Koreas, takes about 2 ½ hours on the wide Thongil Highway, better known as the Reunification Highway. Here and there, we pass a village. Sometimes a larger settlement appears. Corn seems to be a prevalent crop. Cars are few and far between, people bike or wander along the roadside, some carrying bundles of wood, baskets of fruit, pushing the occasional cart with a pig onboard. Others are working in the fields, with scythes. Time travel.
Propaganda posters near the border
Photography in the DPRK: I had spoken with people who visited North Korea earlier. In 2009 (and possibly later as well), photography was only allowed with specific permission, i.e. you were told what you could photograph. In 2015, the opposite was true. We were allowed to photograph anything unless told specifically not to. Only once during the 6 days were we told not to; no snaps of soldiers near the border.
We stop at the check-in area, which comes with a souvenir/Korean herbal medicine shop. I’m particularly intrigued by a concoction called Anggunuhwanghwan, meant to help for a variety of ailments: “it is effective for non-consciousness due to cold and feverish shivering, cerebral hemorrhage, cerebral thrombosis, cerebral stroke, consciousness lesion and paralysis and its side effect, as well as for child paralysis.” Wonder drug!
Then we walk the final stretch along a sunken paved path bordered with bulky, square rocks and barbed wire.
At the DMZ Village in Panmunjon, we’re shown the conference rooms where U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Harrison, Jr. (representing the United Nations Command, UNC), North Korean General Nam Il (representing the Korean People’s Army), and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, signed the armistice agreement on 27 July 1953. The Korean War is generally considered to have ended then, although a peace treaty was never signed.
A KPA officer walks with us to the JSA (Joint Security Area). At the entrance, we’re met by a monument to the Great Leader, Kim-il-Sung, bearing his signature etched in gold and the date 7 July 1994, the day before he died. It’s a replica of his last signature, I hear. On a reunification proposal: one country, two systems.
And here we are. At the world’s most infamous border. The large, grey building in the background is the American/South Korean ‘Freedom House’. The blue buildings in the foreground are UN conference rooms. The armistice talks between the DPRK and the US were held in the middle one. Sad to think how miserably that diplomatic effort failed.
See where the ground changes from light to dark between the blue huts? Those raised concrete line is the MDL – Military Demarcation Line – the actual border. This is the only place you can walk across. I recommend you don’t try.
Here we’re allowed to snap photos. Of soldiers – and with soldiers. All friendly, smiling.
To me, visiting the DMZ from the North Korean side is a relaxed and relatively informal experience. It’s easy to forget we’re at what is probably the most militarised place in the world.
What about you? Will you find the experience intimidating? Tense? I don’t know. But I suspect it will depend on your state of mind more than the physical surroundings.
And what about visiting the border from the South Korean side? Fellow travellers have been, and I hear stories of dress codes, signing waivers, sombre mood, no laughing and messing about, in and out in a few minutes, very limited photography allowed; in short, a bit of fear mongering. Others claim it’s like visiting Disneyland. I’m very curious to find out for myself.
Back in Kaesong, lunch is at the Thongil restaurant. Food is served in traditional bronze bowls. Dog soup is available for an additional 5 Euros, if you’re interested. I’m not. Drawing the line!
For us, food is plentiful, varied and delicious. Food for North Koreans are, as we all know, not as plentiful. Our young guide acknowledges the famine of the 1990s and talks rather freely about how difficult that was.
The afternoon is spent having a look at the local history museum –
– and at the 14th century mausoleum of King Kongmin, located in a pretty green valley outside town. These historic sites in Kaesong comprise one of the DPRK’s two World Heritage sites.
King Kongmin’s grave
We return to Pyongyang along the Reunification Highway, and stop to stretch our legs and snap pictures of the Reunification Monument, an impressive statue of two women in traditional dress, representing the two Koreas and the dream of once again becoming one. Reunification, we hear again and again, is the most fervent hope of North Koreans. One country, two systems is the mantra.
Again, traffic is light. I stand for several minutes in the middle of the highway, taking photos from varying angles.
Mansudae Fountain Park
Mansudae Fountain Park is one of the most famous sights in Pyongyang, and where people come to show respect by laying down flowers in front of the Grand Monument to Kim il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il, Great Leader and Dear Leader, respectively. Kim il-Sung is looking towards the horizon, pointing his people in the right direction.
The monument is enclosed by two enormous, 50-metre long revolutionary sculpture groups, each sculpture 5 metres tall.
On the way to the Mansudae Grand Monument, we meet these lovelies:
Kim il-Sung Square and the Grand People’s Study House
At 75 000 m2, Kim il-Sung Square in Pyongyang is one of the largest public squares in the world. Venue for political rallies, dances and generally a place of action, it’s surrounded by museums and government buildings, with the Grand People’s Study House, the central library, as the centrepiece. This is the country’s centre for Juche studies. Juche, as you may know, is the central philosophy behind the DPRK, the ideology of self-reliance, according to which each one of us is the master of our own destiny.
Inside, we’re welcomed by Kim il-Sung himself. Just for fun, I ask if the library happens to have any books in Norwegian. They do! Or close enough: a book in German about Norwegian knitting patterns!
The Study House has large, airy computer rooms – with access to the North Korean interwebs (using Windows!) – and hosts lectures. We’re invited to sit in on an English class, and the students are encouraged to ask us questions. We introduce ourselves, and the students politely repeat the names of our countries.
- Me: ‘I’m Sophie and I’m from Norway.’
- ‘Ah, Norway.’
- Dan: ‘I’m Dan and I’m from England.’
- ‘Ah, England.’
- Matt: ‘I’m Matt and I’m from the United States.’
- Dead silence!
Sorry, American friends. But you are the bad guys here.
We also have a look at Pyongyang’s Foreign Language Book Shop, featuring the works of the Great Leader, as well as children’s DVDs. In my former life, I worked for the Ministry of Transport; naturally I’m pleased to see that North Koreans take traffic education seriously.
The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery
On this curious journey, perhaps the most curious place of all is the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the monumental mausoleum of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader.
This is a serious place, a place of pilgrimage, the most important in the country. We have to dress accordingly, and can’t miss our time slots. No photos are allowed; cameras and all other belongings must be handed in at a cloak room. Access is via underground tunnels – miles and miles of them, it seems. Quietly excited North Koreans in national dress join us on the travelators.
Along the tunnels, we’re treated to orchestral concerts and large photos in gold frames of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il shaking hands with world leaders. There’s Fidel. Mao. Stalin. Carter.
And then: Kim il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, dressed in suits on their eternal lit de parade, almost God-like. As Lenin in the Kremlin and Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, the two leaders lie embalmed in glass cases for all to admire. Our guides have explained that proper etiquette is of the essence: complete silence, stand straight, arms to the sides, single file, bow before the glass sarcophagi. Three bows: on the left side, at the foot, and on the right side. Not at the head!
Then comes large rooms full of treasures: professorial gowns, certificates proclaiming academic achievements and degrees, trophies, medals, awards. Many from foreign nations. Further along are various items used by the leaders: chairs, cars (Mercedes, in case you wondered), a yacht, and my favourite: a train car, built to order and including a desk with a laptop (a Mac). Everything spotless, naturally.
Back outside, we remain quiet. Anything else would feel wrong, somehow. School classes file past, about to go through where we have just been.
Not only the great leaders, but also hundreds of heroes that fought against the Japanese is lavishly memorialised. On top of Mount Taesong, just outside Pyongyang, is the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery, where each fallen soldier has his/her individually sculpted tombstone with a bronze bust.
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and the USS Pueblo
This museum with its rather cumbersome name is difficult for some of the Americans in our group. Here, we’re given a resume of the Korean War as seen through North Korean eyes. We see pictures of Americans surrendering, and one rather distressing photo of an American shot in the head.
Outside is various captured American military equipment: planes, helicopters, tanks, and the like –
– as well as the USS Pueblo. The only American vessel in captivity, it’s docked in the Taedong River next to the museum. We tour the ship and hear about how it was captured while spying in North Korean territorial waters in 1968.
What is it with the communist world and their metro stations? Pyongyang’s metro is the deepest in the world, more than 100 metres below ground.
The metro stops are beautiful, almost like an ideological museum –
– and they are buzzing with activity. While you wait, you can catch up on today’s Pyongyang Times.
Arch of Triumph and Tower of the Juche Idea
We hop in and out of the metro, wandering around several stations, then leave at the Arch of Triumph, built in memory of the Korean resistance to Japan 1925 – 1945, and the second largest triumphal arch in the world (only the Monumento a la Revolución in Mexico City is bigger).
Close by is Juche Tower, a monument to the eternal Juche ideology, and a fitting end to this round-up. From the top, we have excellent views of Pyongyang, and I’m reminded the city looks like many others.
The Tower of the Juche Idea by day, and as a beacon during the dark Pyongyang night
Leaving North Korea
After 6 days, it’s time for me and 5 of the others to leave. I’m meant to take the train back to Beijing, but can’t really face another 24-hour train ride. Fortunately, there’s a seat available on Air Koryo. If you’re going, that’s the way I’d suggest you do it: train in, plane out. Unless you’re American: then it’s plane in, plane out.
Pyongyang Sunan International Airport has undergone a vast modernisation, and Terminal 2 was opened in July 2015, just weeks before I’m here. There’s a slightly futuristic feel to this terminal. I like it. Makes me think of the Jetson Family. And we are, after all, “living in the 21st century.”
Customs and police checks are again minimal, and my cameras are not subjected to scrutiny. The whole process takes 5 minutes. Maybe I’m just lucky.
Air Koryo has one of the oldest fleets in the world. My flight is on a Tupolev-204, which doesn’t look all that old. A fellow traveller is an aviation geek and tells me all their pilots are army trained. I feel quite safe. But then I usually do. I’m seated in 13D (no ridiculous skipping of row 13 here, who do western airlines think they’re fooling?), next to a kindly man who insists on giving me most of the contents of his box of sweets. Entertainment is communal: a TV screen showing a classical Korean concert, sound on for everyone to enjoy.
What I found the most interesting was encounters with North Koreans: observing teens having accordion lessons in the park. Kids on the metro, pushed by eager mothers and fathers to talk to us strangers, practicing their English. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Sophie. What’s yours?’ Giggles and hiding their faces in mum’s skirt. Students interested in practicing English and asking questions about our countries. Shy smiles and more giggles from women along the aisles of the supermarket. Splashing, laughing kids and adults in the water park. Business men insisting on sharing sweets with me on the plane to Beijing. Kind, caring, approachable people. Not depressive robots.
Are they brainwashed? Probably. As we all are to some extent, by the culture we grow up in. But whereas we have the advantage of comparison, they do not.
Contrary to how Western media presents it, not every North Korean citizen is an actor, all placed strategically around town to coincide with our visit. How would one even choreograph and direct such an enormous production? They’re people like you and me; sometimes serious, sometimes silly. People who go to work, people who care about their children, people who fall in love. Ordinary people. Who live in extraordinary circumstances. This is the normal they know.
Disclosure? Nope, nothing! This journey into the world’s most enigmatic country was entirely on my own dime.