Visiting North Korea
Arriving at North Korea’s Pyongyang airport, you need to relinquish more than just your phone and GPS devices. You also have to check-in any preconceptions you have about North Korea because everything you think you know about the country is about to be challenged and, in many cases, greatly altered.
We’ve heard about the nuclear weapons, concentration camps, the famines that have reportedly killed millions, the Dear Leader’s predilection for Hollywood classics and the rumours that he even has a rollercoaster in his garden (it can get quite ronery at the top).
But over the course of a week in North Korea, we came to see it as a country of natural beauty and undeniable human accomplishments. Most of the people we met had huge hearts full of goodwill and, by staying timelessly trapped in an era the world has left behind, the culture has avoided the dangers and self-destruction of capitalism and technological advance.
North Korean news
The problem is you’re never sure how accurate a picture you’re getting of the notoriously secret and isolationist state. You know there’s a lot you’re never going to see and never going to be told.
The only way to travel in North Korea is with two local minders who will control your access to everything. Even the hotel Westerners stay at in Pyongyang is on an island in the river with guards at the entrance to prevent you leaving the grounds.
There are rules about photography – nothing from a moving vehicle (although this wasn’t strictly enforced), nothing of military people or buildings (this was strictly enforced), nothing of locals without their permission and definitely (definitely!) nothing that would make the country look bad like poverty or unfinished buildings of national significance.
Tour groups are taken to a seemingly never-ending array of monuments to celebrate The Great Leader Kim Il Sung, his son The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, the glorious Korean Workers’ Party and the Juche ideology that defines the state (but reflects very little of the reality of most people’s lives). These are massive edifices, often made of granite or marble, that would seem out of place in such a poverty-stricken country if there weren’t so many of them. Their purpose is apparently not just to galvanise the near-deity status of the Kims but also to prove a superiority over the rest of the world (the guides tell us with suppressed glee that the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang is a few metres taller than the one in Paris!).
Driving through the streets, walking in the parks and visiting the countryside does give us much more of a sense of what living in North Korea is like (and I’ll write about that in another blog post soon). But, like a good PR agency would do, everything is being filtered through the guides.
North Korea’s propaganda
Our guides, Mr Lee and Miss Kim (as we called them) turned out to be lovely people who the group formed a strong personal relationship with. It was always their job, though, to keep us under control and spin a positive message. I’d been told that poor people in the countryside often panned for gold in the rivers and when I saw it for myself one day I asked Mr Lee what they were doing. “Catching salmon because there are so many great fish in our rivers”, was the reply. I let it go but when I heard someone else ask more directly a few minutes later he told them the people were “washing their gold”.
The guides proudly pointed out the glorious universities on the streets of the capital but they failed to mention that (as I later found out) no students are allowed to go to university this year because they’ve all been recruited to build monuments ahead of the celebrations of the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung in 2012.
As another example, our final day in Pyongyang coincided with North Korea’s National Day and we hoped we might see some celebrations. Instead we were told by the guides that nothing was happening and ushered to a shooting range for a couple of hours (rather ironically) – only to discover on the BBC the next morning that a huge military parade had marched through the city and was attended by the leadership.
Some tourists were convinced that entire groups of people or locations were set-up or faked just for the foreign observers who visited. Certainly, there were a few times when it seemed a bit too convenient that groups of locals would break into ‘spontaneous’ singing and dancing as we arrived. We also visited a farm and a factory that seemed a bit too sanitised to give a real sense of what it’s like in the country.
Ultimately, though, we were able to have limited interaction with real North Koreans that would have been impossible to stage. The man who pushed his son aside so I could have a seat next to him on the subway; the young men sitting behind us at a soccer game who offered us food (a dried fish!) at half-time; the children who wanted to play games with us in a rural city we visited; the man in the military-coloured khaki suit who grabbed my hand on a ride at the funfair; and the hundreds of smiles and waves we got as we drove by in our bus.
During those moments it felt like we were the tourist attractions, rather than the other way round. It made you realise there’s a great disparity between the North Korea you hear about in the media and the North Koreans you meet on the street. It’s country cocooned from time and information, where a lack of knowledge keeps the public repressed but also creates a childlike innocence and sense of wonder.
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* If you would like to visit North Korea, I recommend looking at Koryo Tours.