Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Dark Tourism: The Pyongyang Tour, North Korea

When Winston Churchill described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, it is clear that he had no experience of tourism in North Korea.

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.

Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

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.

Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

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.

Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

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.

Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

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.”

Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

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, barbequed 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.

Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

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.)

Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

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.

Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

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.

Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

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'.

Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

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.

Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

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.”

Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

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 na├»ve 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.

Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

Communism, on the other hand, is 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.


More on North Korea:
The Ryugyong Hotel
Kaesong
The Demilitarized Zone
Pyongyang Metro

More Dark Tourism...


*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.



37 comments:

  1. As ever, an eye opening account. Since we can't be with you on your travels, we can rely on your fabulous powers of description to take us there. One of your very best reports so far.

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    1. Very kind of you to say so, Dale! I hope I can maintain the standard...

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  2. Great article. Learned more about North Korea just now than I have ever thought to.

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    1. Thanks Christopher, that's pretty much the highest praise I could have hoped to receive.

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  3. It's interesting stuff and very well presented by you, but it's all somewhat inconclusive. You saw what they wanted you to see and didn't show you what they didn't want you to see. If things were all OK they probably shouldn't have this problem with their own people crossing over to China, which is a a fellow Communist country. Thought provoking article. Well done.

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    1. ...and isn't that interesting in itself? This is the unfounded sense of paranoia I referred to in the article - you find yourself wondering how bad things could possibly be elsewhere, that they're simply not prepared to let you see it.

      Or, perhaps it really isn't as bad as all that. Even if there are people going hungry in more remote areas of North Korea, I doubt it could be as bad as the situation in some African nations; or that their weak infrastructure is any worse than those in countries such as, for example, India.

      It crossed my mind that perhaps North Korea feels as though what it shows to the world is taken not just as a statement about their own country, but will be used in forming a judgement on their whole political philosophy - and so they are desperate to make us see that such a system *could* work.

      I have no idea what the truth is though, and my whole visit was massively thought provoking - I'm really glad that you got the same thing from reading my report.

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  4. I have nominated you for the Liebster Blog Award.
    http://dalecooper57.wordpress.com/

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  5. North Korea is one of a mere handful of nations in the world that are regularly hammered by western media & western politicians yet was largely unaffected by US export of tainted blood products that led to the AIDS infection becoming a world phenomenon.

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    1. That's an interesting point. The DPRK's succession from global culture could certainly be argued to have its benefits at times; I agree that it's worth considering the motives of those who actively look to damn the nation through media and political reports, rather than merely taking such information at face value.

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  6. nunca escuche que alguien haya ido a ese pais. buena informacion :)

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  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. It's a shame you deleted this comment Brendan, as it was my favourite. Luckily though, I have managed to salvage it from the email notification...

      "You're the kind of person who would've had a lavish dinner with Hitler, enjoyed some fine whiskey, and then declared that Germany was just misunderstood, and that the criticism is unwarranted. The Vice Guide to Travel took a very similar tour, and their outlook was totally different (and rational.)"

      Brendan,

      Aside from my initial concern that you seem to believe WWII-era Germany, as a whole, could be understood simply by looking at Hitler, I feel this comment also highlights the root of your misinformation.

      VICE Magazine is not to be trusted.

      In their report on North Korea, they claim that entry to the DPRK is near impossible, and that it took them a year and a half of negotiations to get a visa. In reality, there are around half a dozen tour agencies who would have issued them a visa with no more than a one-month wait. Seeing as their tour sounds almost identical to mine, I think they may have been exaggerating somewhat.

      They also describe visiting a bar where every other patron was in the employ of the North Korean secret service, and put there to spy on them. Their evidence? A friend of a friend who works at the Financial Times told them so.

      VICE don't concern themselves with reporting facts; they tell colourful, sensational stories, designed to shock and entertain. I believe the result to be dangerous, as it pushes people away from a true understanding of global problems; instead breeding fear and ignorance.

      It is certainly true that a lot of strange (and often unpleasant) things go on in the DPRK - but don't forget that propaganda works both ways, and don't believe every crazy, unsupported story you hear.

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  8. 3.5 million people starved by the North Korean military dictatorship, while they spent money erecting huge monuments for tourists such as yourself, importing more Henessey than any other nation, and bulking up their military to maintain control.

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    1. These are very real concerns, but you need to be more objective in your understanding of the facts.

      * The 3.5 million is an estimate from outside sources, as the DPRK is unwilling to release actual figures. Whatever the number though, I agree that this is an atrocity.

      * The vast majority of monuments were built long before tourists were welcome into the country, so you are failing to grasp their true purpose and significance.

      * Kim Jong-il was the Hennessey drinker - and as you'll note from my report above, I got the subtle impression that he is not remembered with the same deep love and respect that his father, the Eternal President Kim Il-sung is.

      * While the DPRK has one of the largest militaries in the world (particularly when considered per capita), you should be aware that it branches into all walks of life; and so these figures also include the military building corps who erect schools and hospitals, as well as the localised militia who police traffic.

      I genuinely sympathise with your concerns, and I'm only playing devil's advocate here - but the point I'm making, is the importance of researching your claims more thoroughly in order to better understand the problem.

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  9. And are you seriously arguing that government propaganda is more pleasant than advertising? I don't think you'd feel that way if you were being starved by your government and were forced to see "Great Leader!!" signs everywhere.

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    1. Define 'pleasant'.

      My actual words were: "Personally ... I much prefer these simple, feel-good posters to the manipulative advertising which plasters Western cities…"

      It's an aesthetic preference, which I acknowledge that I am lucky enough to be able to enjoy in complete naivety.

      How's your Korean, Brendan? Because you realise that none of these signs actually say "Great Leader!" right? Aside from the portraits, the majority of slogans refer to the strength and purity of the Korean race. Motives aside, they're aimed at making the people feel good about what they have.

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  10. We should have sympathy and understanding for the North Korean people, not the government that oppresses them.

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    1. I completely agree.

      But, this sympathy would be more useful if bolstered by an understanding of the socio-political factors which have led to the current situation... it needs to be accurate and supported by fact.

      What would you suggest we do, send in the US military?

      Personally, I feel that the solution will come through building greater understanding on both sides. I believe tourism is helpful, because the Koreans are constantly being brought into contact with foreigners who don't seem to fit the stereotypes fed to them by government propaganda. Conversely, people like you need to stop getting all your 'facts' from VICE.

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  11. Oh deary me Brendan, it's fortunate for the rest of us that you have so clearly been to North Korea, and not only that, you are an expert too!
    I can only assume that to be the case, as you obviously know more about the place than Mr Richter. Despite his admission that he wasn't allowed into areas the government didn't want him to see, you appear to believe that he is part of their propaganda machine.
    The article does state that his travel was restricted, and I think he does a fine job of getting across the feeling of global isolation experienced by the general populous.
    As for preferring the propaganda posters to advert billboards, he did state this was a personal preference,
    I look forward to reading your (no doubt, more accurate) analysis

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I'm glad you liked it.

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  13. great article darmon.is anybody want to know more about DPRK read a mig-15 to freedom by Kum-Sok No.wartime north korean defector.This book describes much of the life in North korea

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    1. Thank you very much for the recommendation, Vikram - I'm really fascinated in learning more about first hand accounts of NK defectors, so this has definitely made my reading list!

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  14. I like your approach of playing "against the man" (describing Korea in a way most people don't, but I think there is some flaw in it, and you know it too.

    Of course for tourist they make the place look lavish and excellent, and you mention how you think Pyongyang would be a great place to live if you don't mind working 6 days a week and had educational areas, lights, etc, and for a moment I thought "yeah that isn't too bad!"

    But lets be realistic here. There is a reason your tour is restricted and they're dodging questions. You mention it because you know it, I know better than to lecture you on this. Do we REALLY know what kind of lives the people outside of the tourist zones live?

    I have a deep interest in North Korea (watched and read as much as I could, hence why I'm here.). I feel like if you're in the equivalent of the upper middle class in the USA, you would be the middle class in N. Korea. This means to me, that their middle class is most likely (none of us can prove it), living in conditions we'd consider bad or poor. That saddens me. I hope Unny can stir the nation in the right direction so people can live a better life style.

    I also find it interesting how the Koreans respond to Kim Jung Il in a more negative light than his father, I never thought about that. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    I also agree, the lack of ads would be amazing. I hate our consumer culture and how they type into people's lustful desires. Absolutely hate K-Pop and the way it's advertised.

    Cheers and great review.

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    1. Thanks for the feedback - it sounds like you see exactly where I'm coming from. It's hard to find anything online which prepares you for the experience of actually visiting North Korea for yourself... and there are certainly moments during a tour when you find yourself thinking, as you say, "that isn't too bad!".

      Obviously most of us know better than to take such things without some degree of reasonable doubt, but that part is easy. I doubted most of what I saw and heard in the DPRK, and I would expect my readers to do the same; instead, I wanted to focus on chronicling the aspect which isn't so readily available, which is the way in which North Koreans present themselves.

      In a way I'm playing devil's advocate here, but I think it also raises a lot of interesting points. There is certainly a lot to like about Pyongyang, which, politics aside, has become one of my favourite cities in the world.

      In reality though, we know so little about this country. While this may seem immediately suspicious (and certainly should, in light of the famine, starvation and harsh judiciary system which have been documented there over the last few decades), there are also plausible motives for this secrecy - the very nature of the DPRK, as the last bastion of the communist dream, is likely to leave them feeling isolated from the rest of the world, and wary of foreign interest.

      I believe the truth of the matter is based on a little of each.

      Anyway, thanks again for the comment, and I'm really glad you found the report interesting.

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  15. What a myopic view on North Korea.

    ..."happy, fulfilled communists ", "Communism, on the other hand, is a beautiful idea; and when it works, it really works."

    Wow. These a brilliant.

    Personally, I tend to think this would paint a more realistic picture of the situation:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/9191998/What-North-Koreans-really-think-of-Kim-Jong-un.html

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    1. Thanks Zakhar, I'm glad you agree. The official tour of Pyongyang is one of the most myopic experiences to be had!

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  16. Might also be hard to "sing and dance" when there's nothing to eat. Just came across this horror story:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/north-korean-cannibalism-fears-amid-claims-starving-people-forced-to-desperate-measures-8468781.html

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    1. Here, I'll turn it into a proper link:

      North Korean cannibalism fears amid claims starving people forced to desperate measures

      In the post above I briefly mentioned the stories of cannibalism that were reported in some provinces of the DPRK during the 1990s - but it's alarming to think that something like this could still be occurring today. It's hard to imagine the hunger and desperation which would push someone to such an act.

      Thank you for sharing this.

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  17. It is a beautiful description of pyonyong. I feel it is really a good city to visit and wish to go there, though clouds of despair and war are shrouding over it since long..... War is no solution of anything, they should sit on the tables to decide issues peacefully and let the city visited by tourists :)

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Huzaifa. It really is a wonderful city to visit - both the architecture and the culture are fascinating, even without taking the dubious politics into account.

      Like you, I hope that some day things improve there, and that tourists are given greater freedom to visit this amazing city.

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  18. Interesting article, I'd love to be able to visit that city, but unfortunately I can't tolerate to be driven around by escorts like a sort of alien to baby-sit/brainwash and fill with propaganda (which, in my humble opinion, is as disgusting as advertising, and it certainly caused more deaths than the latter throughout the centuries)... Just one thought... Can you provide an example of a country where Communism actually worked, and where people have/had freedom of speech? :-)

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    1. It certainly is an interesting city... though if you can't tolerate being treated with suspicion and fake hospitality, then it's not for you. That's not to say the people are inhospitable - just that the whole nature of the tour feels rather fake.

      It's difficult to offer an example of communism actually *working* - and I'm by no means in favour of communism. However, one of the problems in comparing it to democracy is that communism sets out to do the best for everyone (an impossible, doomed task).

      As democracy only aims to please a voting majority, it's always going to look more successful on paper - as its aims are actually achievable.

      I don't believe communism has ever truly worked, though there are times when it has looked like coming close. Read up on the Spanish communist regime, for example - it was one of the more successful attempts.

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  19. I find the subject as a whole- so-called 'Dark Tourism', places shrouded in mystery- interesting and was really fascinated by your account of your tour through Pyongyang. It was thought provoking to say the least.

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