Pyongyang, North Korea
In the past year I’ve been to almost two dozen countries across five different continents. I’ve met some incredible characters, seen some of the world’s most spectacular landmarks, and eaten the strangest food. But whenever I start talking to people who have been following my journey, all they want to know about is my trip into North Korea.
In some ways, I don’t blame them. It certainly was a surreal experience that challenged so many of the preconceptions I had about the country. It felt like going into a time machine – being transported back to a land trapped in an old-style communist bubble while the world had changed around it.
The people there were startled to see me and the others I was travelling with. Nowhere in the world had I seen such a mix of shock, confusion and fear in the eyes of locals because of the presence of foreigners. The North Korean regime, with its isolationist polices, has kept much of the country a secret to the outside world – but, of course, it is the rest of the world that is really being kept secret from its own citizens.
I wrote a few stories about my time in North Korea and, if you’re interested, I would recommend checking them out.
- What it’s like to travel into North Korea and how you can do it
- The propaganda machine that is North Korea and how it brainwashes the citizens
- What life is like for people in North Korea
But the real reason for this post is to share some more of the photos I took while inside ‘the axis of evil’. I’ve realised, after speaking to so many people, that there’s a lot of interest in what I saw in there. Most of the world will never get a chance to see the country for themselves. Many people will never even see photos like this that aren’t filtered through the propaganda machines of the North Korean or foreign governments.
I hope this gives you a bit of a sense of what it was like to visit. Let me know what you think.
North Korea photos
One of the thing you immediately notice in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, is the focus on ceremonial activities. For instance, local people are brought in by the busload each day to visit the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung (the Eternal President). Here are some ladies dressed in traditional outfits getting ready to go in and see the leader’s embalmed body.
The flowers placed on the tiles here are in honour of the war dead. This is the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery, the graveyard of the greatest heroes who fought against the Japanese. When I visited, school groups were lined up ready to climb the steps and pay their respects.
Everywhere through the parts of the country I saw – but particularly in Pyongyang – the government buildings are decorated with flags, images of the leaders, and propaganda-style messages in Korean. Here, in the heart of the capital, the size of the offices and the signs dwarfs the number of people who are actually walking around through the main streets of the city.
This is Pyonyang, the capital. The river runs through the centre of the city and the buildings stretch out from it. The large construction you can see on the left is the hotel for the foreigners – conveniently built on an island so the bridges can be guarded at night.
And here is the view of the city from the opposite direction. As you can see, there are just lots of high-rise apartment buildings one after the other. At night, many of them are in pure darkness with either no electricity or no residents (or both).
Only about ten per cent of the North Korean population is allowed to live in Pyongyang. They are generally people who have a high status within the ruling elites. Roadblocks on the main highways stop people without permission from coming into the city. The rest of the population lives in rural areas – sometimes centred around medium-sized cities. Here are some people getting ready to go to work one morning in a rural town. Notice what they’re wearing and the consistency in the style.
This is the same town, just a few blocks away. In this case, notice the sign on the left. These are propaganda messages which are placed throughout the whole country to encourage people to work hard and to boast about the glories of North Korea.
There are also a lot of people in the rural areas who don’t work traditional day jobs. Here is a group of people resting by the side of the road. It’s not clear what all of them have been doing but some have clearly spent their time collection bundles of wood.
A few hours’ drive from Pyongyang is the Nampho Dam, one of the prides and joys of North Korea. It is seen by the country’s leadership as one of the greatest achievements in modern history. At a cost of about 4 billion dollars, the eight kilometre dam took five years to build between 1981 and 1986. Every trip to North Korea, which is always done under the guidance of local authorities, must include a stop here. There is no mention of how many people died making it, though.
There is a preoccupation with war in North Korea – probably not surprising seeing as the country has technically been at war for more than sixty years (the armistice between North and South Korea in 1953 didn’t officially end the conflict – it just agreed on a ceasefire). These two photos are from the curiously-named ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum’. The first shows the guide explaining the panorama of a battle at Taejon. The second shows some of the country’s tanks.
Speaking of war, in this photo you can see a large gate near the de-militarised zone (DMZ). Have a look at the people beneath it to get a sense of how large it is. It’s not just for decoration, though. The whole thing is designed to collapse down onto the road to block it if land forces ever try to come up from South Korea.
One of the things I found quite surprising about North Korea was how beautiful a lot of the landscapes were. There are certainly a few natural wonders to explore. In these two photos you can see a waterfall from a national park and the coloured lighting of a cave complex deep underground.
In the rural areas, there is a lot of greenery. Rice paddies dominate most of the landscape and the people you can see are living very simple lives without much electronic or mechanical help. The photo of this woman is typical of country life for the North Koreans.
Some people will work in factories to produce goods for the population. Simple goods, though. I was allowed to go inside and see a water-bottling factory where bottles are reused over and over again to provide clean drinking water.
North Korea proudly shows the artistic and sporting achievements of its country. By that, I mean that from a very young age people must train and practice hard in their particular expertise. One afternoon I went to a performance by school children at a massive theatre in Pyongyang. The skill of the kids was astounding – everything was perfect and precise with a lot of genuine talent on display. Here are a few photos from that performance.
There are also quite a few large and public festivals in North Korea, all which seem to have the aim of glorifying the country and its leaders. I happened to be there during a national holiday and caught this image of people walking to a square to perform in a mass dance. You’ll notice the monotony in their outfits and how they are walking in the same orderly way that school children might walk to assembly.
And finally, the great gate which marks the entrance to Pyongyang from one direction. It is an enormous structure that can be seen from a long way away. It’s just a pity that most people in North Korea can’t afford a car and so the roads are normally pretty deserted. It meant I didn’t hit too many traffic jams during my trip.
Are you interested in finding out more about North Korea? Check out my North Korea Travel Guide!
* If you’re interested in travelling to North Korea, I recommend checking out Koryo Tours.
To get an update on the next Time Travel Turtle story, click on the LIKE button below: