If Winston Churchill perceived Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, the same could be said for North Korea tenfold.
Of course, Churchill was speaking about a place that no longer exists. Under the Soviet Union, Russia was without a doubt a very different country to what it is now; however, in our modern age of smart phones, social networking and global wireless culture, North Korea’s succession from the world is all the more notable, lending this notorious hermit nation a unique air of mystery.
Generally labelled communist, the self-styled ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ is perhaps better described as a military theocracy. The armed forces enter into all walks of life here, from traffic control to construction, and the power of North Korea’s military is absolute. As for the notoriety, one need only scan the news to see a disproportionate number of reports on North Korea, including the many bizarre tales accredited to this secretive state. The truth however, is often stranger than the fiction.
Tourism to North Korea is only possible by approval of the KITC, or Korean International Travel Company. A number of foreign travel companies run short tours of the country under the KITC’s approval, and each group is appointed a pair of Korean guides – employees of the KITC itself .
Having read stories about bugged hotel rooms, rigorous visa background checks and even entrapment by undercover government agents, I was apprehensive to say the least. Worst of all are the harsh penalties that supposedly befall journalists and writers who find their way into the country without the proper approval . Even though I had focussed on the consultancy aspect of my job for the visa application form, a quick online search would soon reveal examples of my written work… I wondered how easily it could have been mistaken for journalism, and whether such a conclusion may have put me on thin ice.
In reality though, the DPRK is full of surprises. Korean culture prides itself on hospitality, and our group of nine were treated like honoured guests throughout our stay – from deluxe hotel suites to private performances of song and dance by children at the local school.
One of the most pleasant surprises about the DPRK is the refreshing absence of advertisements. Billboards in Pyongyang tend to display gaudy pop-art designs of happy workers and smiling children, accompanied by morale-building socialist slogans. Yes, it’s communist propaganda. In its purest form. Personally though, I much prefer these simple, feel-good posters to the manipulative advertising which plasters Western cities… often playing upon our subconscious lusts and desires to encourage us to open our wallets.
Another of the more commonly perpetuated stereotypes of the North Korean people is their blind devotion to the country’s leaders; from founder Kim Il-Sung through his successor Kim Jong-Il, and now down to the young heir Kim Jong-Un.
Well, reality would appear to corroborate this. Each classroom in Pyongyang’s main school bears the twin portraits of President Kim Il-Sung and the posthumously promoted Generalissimo Kim Jong-Il. The same likenesses are present in every train carriage on the Pyongyang Metro, and resplendent on the walls of every dwelling – although the latter I was unable to see, as it still remains illegal for a citizen of North Korea to entertain foreigners in their home.
Hospitals, universities and streets are named after the country’s leaders, and in the heart of the city, their likenesses appear on twin bronze effigies towering over Mansu Hill. On visiting the statues our group was asked to observe the usual formalities – which involved forming a solemn line before the bottom step, before advancing the long walk up to the monument as one, and bowing low at the metal feet of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.
However, despite the apparent devotion it can sometimes be hard to tell how deep these sentiments run.
Founding father Kim Il-Sung, without a doubt, is deeply loved by his people; in his youth Il-Sung was a high-ranking officer in the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army, at a time when the Korean peninsula was suffering under fierce Japanese rule in the wake of WWII. Once the country was liberated he went on to become President of the newly founded DPRK… leaving his mark on the fledgling nation with a legacy of schools, hospitals and universities, a metro system and a film studio.
His son and successor Jong-Il however is remembered best for watching a lot of films; for developing weapons of mass destruction and for persevering through the great famine of the 1990s – during which time laws were drafted to make cannibalism punishable by hard labour. There is something in the way people here speak of Kim Jong-Il, which struck me as just ever-so-slightly robotic.
Late one evening I got into conversation with another employee of the KITC, who was off duty, and drinking in the hotel bar. After a few beers I broached the topic of politics and asked what he thought of the country’s latest leader, Kim Jong-Un.
“Our Dear Leader has only been in power for a few months,” he said with a sly grin, “we haven’t been told what we think yet.”
The tour itself proved to be exhausting.
We would wake up early each morning, grab a quick breakfast in our hotel, then pile onto a tour bus with our guides. After each long day of museums and monuments, studios and schools, we’d try out a range of Korean delicacies – ice cold noodles, barbecued duck, kimchi and even dog soup – before retreating to a bar somewhere to wind down with one of the fine local brews.
Our accommodation, the Yanggakdo Hotel, was situated on a small island in the middle of the Taedong River that divides Pyongyang in two. A suitably inaccessible location, considering foreigners are allowed nowhere in the DPRK without their approved escorts.
For all the rules however, I was pleasantly surprised by the laxity and informal approach of our guides. While in ‘work mode’ they would tend to give us the party story – their account of the Korean War differed significantly from the version of history I had studied in school, for example. But, despite this they were both warm and approachable, and as the week went on they opened up more and more concerning their own thoughts and feelings.
Nevertheless, a curious traveller couldn’t help but question the need for having such a system in place… and often I found myself wondering how much was being kept from us. On Victory Day for example, as we were being shown an attractive marble statue set in the centre of a water feature, our guide informed us that we had just missed the fountains – which would be coming on again later in the day. The dry and dusty basin around the marble figures seemed to tell another story, though.
Later on we paid a visit to the People’s Study House – a vast pagoda-styled building which houses an extensive library of books in addition to classrooms, study halls and lecture theatres. These facilities are provided free of charge to any citizen who wants to put the time into improving their education, and the building was undeniably very impressive. As we came to leave however, passing by the large marble statue of Kim Il-Sung that presides over the opulent foyer, the lights cut out. Our guide cursed and shouted an order, the lights flickering back on a moment later. I was left wondering if the lavish lighting displays were perhaps reserved only for the benefit of visitors.
Yet another instance of doubt came during a visit to the Juche Tower; at 170m in height this iconic structure is ranked as the tallest stone tower in the world, and its design encapsulates the ‘Juche Idea’ – a Marxist ideology based on the principals of independence and self-reliance. (It is interesting to note that while intellectuals were often persecuted in Stalinist Russia, here they are celebrated – and the hammer and sickle motifs are joined by a third symbol, a calligraphy brush that stands for learning.)
Passing by half a dozen numbered floors as we took the elevator to the observation deck at the top of the monument, one member of our group asked what the other floors were used for. The question was met by an awkward silence from our guide, followed by a swift change of subject. Later, as we were being talked through the landmarks on Pyongyang’s skyline, somebody asked the guide if they could point out the home of Kim Jong-Un. Again, silence.
It is strange how a country can instil such a sense of paranoid suspicion; North Korea’s avoidance of certain topics, its distrust of global communications and general wariness of foreigners cannot help but arouse interest in the curious visitor.
As we strolled through Moranbong Park later that day though, we passed families and friends gathered around barbeques, some drinking, others shamelessly serenading one another on cheap microphones plugged into cheaper karaoke machines. At a pagoda located in the centre of the park, dozens of couples were dancing to lively Korean folk songs, while crowds cheered them on… our party was soon enveloped in a throng of middle-aged women eager for a new dancing partner.
There are some things which simply can’t be faked, have too much substance to be mere illusion; and the sense of community and festivity in the park that day was so tangible it became infectious. The DPRK do fun very well indeed, and for those content to live a simple life sheltered from the outside world, things could certainly be a lot worse.
As the week went on the tour guides took us for a ride on the Pyongyang Metro, down to Kaesong and the Demilitarization Zone in the south, and to a war cemetery where each grave bore a painstakingly detailed bust of the deceased. We were also fortunate enough to visit a theme park during our stay – this was the third of its kind to be built in Pyongyang, while the fourth had only just enjoyed an inspection from Kim Jong-Un a week previously.
It seems as though the new leader spends a reasonable amount of his time testing rollercoasters and water rides. At present, he is overseeing the construction of North Korea’s first dolphin aquarium. Considering many of these attractions are offered with no entry charge to the general public, it certainly makes for a generous gesture of comradeship… though I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the country as a whole would benefit more, had that same money been spent on agricultural machinery or healthcare provisions.
The DPRK seems to be very keen to show off the facilities in its capital city – and rightly so, as Pyongyang is a truly impressive capital – but while state services such as healthcare and education are provided without charge throughout the country, it is difficult to get an idea of how far these limited resources are being pushed. Questions about agricultural production levels, health provisions or educational resources for example, anything that sounds as though it may be leading toward judgement, are generally met with responses along the lines of:
“Why would you want to know that? That’s not interesting,” often immediately followed by,
“Look at this beautiful monument,” or:
“Would you like to have a go on the bumper cars?”
It is clear that there are some things they simply don’t want us to know about the DPRK.
Our holiday in Pyongyang culminated with a trip to the city’s only nightclub, ‘the Diplomatic Club’. It’s hard to gauge what the venue would have been like on a normal night, as we were the only people in attendance on this occasion – although one of our guides assured us that she had frequented the club often with friends, during her student years. The club was pleasant enough, featuring several sofas and a bar, a small dance floor and a modern karaoke machine. The list of songs on offer seemed extensive; though many of the more unexpected entries (Megadeth, Slipknot, Nine Inch Nails) turned out to be ‘temporarily unavailable’.
The following morning our lead guide made a farewell speech, as we stood dazed and hung-over beneath Pyongyang’s poignant Reunification Monument. This symmetrical statue bridges the city’s southern highway, and represents the dream of a cooperative government ruling over a reunited Korea.
“We hope you have enjoyed your time in the DPRK, and we apologise if for any reason it has not been up to your expectations,” she said, “we have done our best to show you hospitality, so when you go home, please, speak kindly of us.” Or words to that effect, at least – I confess I was feeling somewhat worse for wear at the time.
I was left with a sense of North Korea as a country that is very much aware of its world reputation; the majority of Koreans I met came across as intelligent and cultured, and I’m sure those working for the tourism industry won’t have misunderstood the voyeuristic appeal that draws so many visitors to their country. Yet for all the truth in this, the people show a genuine warmth and curiosity towards visitors, and Pyongyang itself is an undeniably charming city.
There seems to be, amongst the people of the DPRK, a fear of being misrepresented in the global media. They refer to this anti-DPRK propaganda matter-of-factly, as if its existence is common knowledge… trivial, even.
I can confirm that many of the popularly-held beliefs I took with me into North Korea turned out to be entirely unfounded, and it seems likely that some degree of misinformation, or at least a strong negative bias, is at work in relaying the facts to us. I don’t want to speculate or suggest examples for fear of being labelled a conspiracy theorist, but take a moment to look at the facts of it: the very notion of happy, fulfilled communists would stand to threaten everything that our capitalist society is based upon.
Even more interesting, perhaps, are the things that North Korea is getting right. I found myself trying to explain the concept of Search Engine Optimisation to a young guide one day; I was taken aback at just how quickly she grasped the idea, before summarising it thusly:
“Companies pay you money to make them seem more useful to the world than they actually are, so that they can find more people to get money from.”
Later, while on the subject of mainstream video games (another forbidden pleasure in the DPRK), I had to explain to the same guide the purpose of the popular music simulator/game ‘Guitar Hero‘.
“Why not spend your time getting good at a real instrument instead?” she asked. Answers like these, simplistic and naïve as they may be, often left me questioning my own culture rather than theirs.
I can’t help but agree that capitalism breeds a certain kind of rot; our Westernised global culture can have the tendency to promote gluttony and confuse success with wealth, while often devaluing tradition, commonality and good, clean living. Excessive materialism is a disease, and our governments flawed at best; The best argument against democracy, to quote Winston Churchill once again, is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
Communism, on the other hand, is, in theory, a beautiful idea; and when it works, it really works. If you’re the kind of person who is happy to work a mundane job for six days a week, then spend your Sundays and annual holiday allowance eating, drinking, singing and dancing with your friends and family, then Pyongyang would be a truly wonderful place to do it – provided you’re living in an area which feature mains electricity, running water, medical and educational facilities.
I simply cannot comment on the standard of life outside of a few tourism-approved destinations in North Korea however (there are few who can), as I wasn’t allowed to see them… and despite my appreciation for the beautiful thing that they are trying to create here, this secrecy remains a problem.
The country clearly suffers from insufficient homegrown supplies, an overbearing government and an unrealistic attitude towards censorship; yet no system is without its flaws, and I can’t help but feel that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea could stand to benefit vastly from the resultant trade and tourism – if its leaders were to simply put all of their cards on the table.
 My visit to the DPRK was arranged through Young Pioneer Tours, an English-speaking company based in China. I couldn’t recommend them more – relaxed and informal, they offer an extensive, all-inclusive itinerary which deftly balances visits to sites of political and cultural significance, with the chance to sample traditional Korean cuisine, and fine local beers.
 I’m referring in particular to the case of Euna Lee and Laura Ling, two American journalists who in March 2009 entered North Korea from the Chinese border without visas – and with the intention of producing a documentary that would ultimately show the country in a bad light. The pair were captured by border guards and detained in a Pyongyang hotel, threatened with 12 years of hard labour. This is the story that spread through the media, and many news outlets sensationalised the event into a tale of wanton cruelty and persecution. Following negotiations with the US embassy and an unannounced visit by Bill Clinton however, Kim Jong-Il pardoned the pair after just 140 days. While much of the Western world was still up in arms at the way the DPRK had treated two illegal immigrants, Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy in South Korea, William Stanton, labelled the two journalists as “stupid”; while Kim Tae-woo at the Korea Institute for Defence Analysis in Seoul explained that their foolish behaviour had “weakened their government’s leverage against the North” at a time of important negotiations regarding nuclear armament.
North Korea has to be seen to be believed… and getting there is easier than you might think. If you want to tour the DPRK for yourself, check out my Tours page for information on discount trips around this notorious Hermit Kingdom.