"Beyond these gates the land groans."
In many ways, North Korea wasn’t what I expected at all… and in other ways it was stranger still than the most sensationalising news stories could ever have prepared me for. I saw a lot during my short time in the country. Much of it aligned precisely with what they wanted me to see, as one might imagine. But over the course of that week I also saw cracks in the facade – and got to glimpse a few things that didn’t quite fit the image of the polished socialist state which Pyongyang attempts to present to its guests, and thereby, to the world.
I have written about some of those experiences in other articles on this website and elsewhere, but this post deals with my first impressions of the place; arriving in Pyongyang as a tourist, and with absolutely no idea what to expect.
Tourism in North Korea
The self-styled ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ (DPRK) is perhaps best 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. The country features so frequently in Western news headlines, that it’s easy to build a mental picture of this place as a bizarre, time-locked land of poverty, hunger and militaristic oppression… and while I’m not for a moment suggesting that those things don’t also exist, there’s a huge amount more to the place than what we’re used to seeing on the news. As I’d find out, the truth of North Korea is often stranger than the fiction.
Tourism to North Korea is only possible by approval of the Korean International Travel Company (KITC). A number of foreign travel agencies run short tours of the country under the KITC’s approval, and each group is appointed a pair of North Korean guides. My own visit to the DPRK was arranged through Young Pioneer Tours – an English-speaking company based in China – and the whole process of getting into the country was as easy as any visa I’ve ever applied for.
Having read stories about bugged hotel rooms, rigorous background checks and even entrapment by undercover government agents, however, I was somewhat apprehensive. Journalists have been imprisoned in the past, for attempting to report on the country without the state’s approval. On my visa application form I called myself an ‘SEO consultant’ – but 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 in potential trouble.
In reality though, I was overthinking it by far. 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 socialist-realist designs of happy workers and smiling children, accompanied by morale-building slogans. Yes, it’s communist propaganda. In its purest form. But personally, I much preferred these simple, feel-good posters to the manipulative advertising which tends to litter Western cities, usually with the sole aim of getting people to spend more money.
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 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 ‘Eternal 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 as twin bronze effigies towering over Mansu Hill. On visiting the statues our group was asked to observe the traditional formalities – forming a solemn line at the bottom step, before advancing the long walk up to the monument as one, and bowing low at the metal feet of these dictators.
There didn’t seem to be any pressure to comply. It wasn’t, as some journalists suggest, a case of foreigners being forced to bow before these figures. Rather, it just felt like the appropriate thing to do and no one in our group was looking to cause offence. I bowed to these statues in the same way that I would take my shoes off when visiting a mosque; a token gesture of respect to someone else’s belief system.
Despite their public displays of devotion however, it can sometimes be hard to tell how deep these sentiments run for the people of North Korea.
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 revolutionary army, at a time when the Korean peninsula was suffering under oppressive 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 film studios. He ran the country like a military brigade, and did not tolerate dissent; but it’s entirely possible that he did it all with the best intentions.
His son and successor Kim Jong-il, however, is best remembered for the Great Famine (in the local rhetoric, the ‘Arduous March’) and for involving North Korea in state terrorism. The praise I heard for him sounded ever-so-slightly automatic.
As for the youngest Kim, it was difficult to gauge exactly how the public felt… beyond the standard, predictable responses, that is.
Late one evening though 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 newest leader, Kim Jong-un.
“Our Dear Leader has only been in power for a few months,” he told me 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 on duty they would invariably give us the Party line – their account of the Korean War differed significantly from the version of history I had studied in school, for example. Despite this they were both warm and approachable though, and as the week went on they opened up more and more about their own thoughts and feelings.
Still, I often 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 figures seemed to tell another story, though.
Later on we paid a visit to the Grand 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 – we were told – and the building was undeniably very impressive. As we came to leave however, passing by the large marble statue of Kim Il-sung sat in the building’s 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.
Another awkward moment 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 supposedly embodies the ‘Juche Idea’: Kim Il-sung’s post-Marxist ideology based on the principals of independence and self-reliance.
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 uncomfortable 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 provoke such a sense of paranoid suspicion; North Korea’s avoidance of certain topics – and its citizens’ general wariness of foreigners – cannot help but arouse interest in the curious visitor. As the week went on I found myself questioning more and more about our surroundings… wondering what was real, and how much was a charade put on for our benefit.
As we strolled through Moranbong Park later that day though, we passed family groups gathered around barbecues, 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 and clapped. Our party was soon enveloped in a throng of middle-aged women eager for foreign dancing partners.
There are some things which just can’t be faked, which have too much substance to be illusion; and the sense of community and festivity in the park that day was tangibly real. But then, to assume that life in North Korea is nothing but endless suffering would be naive. People are people everywhere – they drink and dance and do their best to make the most of their situation.
Propaganda, Distraction & Denial
As the week went on our guides took us for a ride on the Pyongyang Metro, down to Kaesong and the Korean Demilitarised Zone in the south; and to a war cemetery where each grave bore a painstakingly detailed bust of the deceased. We visited a theme park too, during our stay – the third of its kind to be built in Pyongyang. The city’s fourth theme park, meanwhile, had enjoyed an inspection from Kim Jong-un only 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 dolphinarium. 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 from what I’d seen (and particularly outside of the capital) I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps the country would be better served by that same money invested into agricultural machinery or healthcare.
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 resources stretch. Questions about production levels, health or educational resources, for example, 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 was 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 was 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.’ Instead we listened to our guides sing traditional Korean songs, while the staff brought round after round of strong, local beers to our table.
The following morning our lead guide made a farewell speech, as we stood dazed and hungover beneath Pyongyang’s Arch of Reunification. This symmetrical statue bridges the city’s southern highway, and represents the national dream of a co-operative government ruling over one single 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 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. Nevertheless, the people show a genuine hospitality towards visitors, while Pyongyang itself is a truly appealing city (and particularly for anyone who shares my love of grand, monumental architecture).
Many of the preconceptions I took with me into North Korea turned out to be entirely unfounded. This is simply not the same place that features in the Western news media – whose over-played footage of grey military parades gives no idea whatsoever as to the reality of day-to-day life here. While much of the tourism experience feels contrived and illusionary, what stuck with me most was the small revelation of meeting North Koreans who really seemed to be living happy and fulfilled lives.
And there is a certain charm to North Korea’s Juche philosophy; the admirable naivety, the old-timey innocence of its (militarily enforced) culture. I found myself trying to explain Search Engine Optimisation to a guide one day – she grasped the idea quickly, summarising it: “Companies pay you money to make them seem more important than they really are, so that they can find more people to get money from.”
Later, we talked about popular video games (another forbidden pleasure in the DPRK), and I had to explain the purpose of the music simulation game Guitar Hero. “Why don’t people spend their time getting good at a real instrument instead?” she asked. Sometimes answers like these left me questioning my own culture rather than hers.
North Korean communism, Juche, is a beautiful idea on paper. Well, some of it is. Our guides – as representatives of the state – described their country in a way that really sold it. Equality, community, tradition; free healthcare, housing and education for all. For people happy to work a mundane job for six days a week, never travel, never have a say in the political discussion, never question authority but spend every Sunday getting drunk with friends and family… Pyongyang seems like it definitely wouldn’t be the worst place to live.
But that’s just the capital. The one percent, the North Korean elite. The way these tours are structured, we only saw selected parts of the country; the things they wanted us to see. We stayed in the areas equipped with mains electricity, running water, medical and educational facilities. I simply can’t comment on the standard of life outside of a few tourism-approved destinations in North Korea (there are few who can), as I wasn’t allowed to see them. It does make me wonder what they’re hiding.
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