An ancient citadel lies abandoned in the mountainous heart of Iran.
So there I was, on holiday in North Korea. I had signed up for a tour in Rason, a Special Economic Zone in the northeast corner of the country, and we had arrived in the middle of a fresh bout of North Korean sabre-rattling. The DPRK was – according to the Western media – poised on the brink of nuclear war with the South, with Japan, the US, et al., and at the same time I was hanging out in a small port town somewhere near the Russian border.
As is generally the case with tours to North Korea, I had visited as a part of a group; however, this was no ordinary group. Some of my contacts in the tourism industry, regular visitors to the DPRK, were putting on a ‘staff outing’ of sorts… and I’d been invited along for the ride. The details of that tour – as well as my own reflections on visiting the country at a time of seemingly imminent war – are the subject of another post on this site. What follows here, are the parts I left out.
One of our Korean guides – who I’ll call ‘Mr Kim,’ though it isn’t his real name – was supposed to represent North Korea’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Having him around certainly seemed to unlock doors for us; doors which usually remained firmly closed to tourists. On the standard North Korea tour package, a group will be allotted two Korean guides. It’s their job to keep you in line – a job which they usually handle with a cheerful yet firm approach:
Don’t go in there.
Don’t photograph this.
I can’t answer that… but wouldn’t you rather hear about our Dear Leader’s birthday celebrations?
Fearful of getting into trouble with their superiors, most North Korean guides err on the side of caution. They’ll impose a blanket rule of no photography from the tour bus, and if there’s ever any doubt the answer will invariably be “no.” Our Mr Kim was able to speak with confidence, though. When he answered in the negative it was absolute; but there were plenty of other occasions when he’d be able to flash his ID card, or call ahead to authorise our entry into restricted areas.
One of the first places we were to visit was the local bank. As we arrived, two Korean girls in make-up and high heels were struggling to carry a sports bag, heavy with banknotes, to the back of a waiting taxi. Inside the building, security seemed slim; business was not conducted through bullet-proof glass like the banks back home, but rather over tables in a series of simple offices.
We queued up to change our Chinese yuan into the local currency: North Korean won. I was aware just how unusual this was; the majority of tourists in the DPRK will be spending Chinese or US currency, and are usually restricted from handling the local notes.
With an exchange rate of roughly ₩1,450 to £1 (or ₩900 to $1), the notes were numbered into the thousands. Different denominations bore the face of President Kim Il-sung, an image of the president’s birthplace at Mangyongdae-guyok, the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang and, on the ₩200 banknote, a likeness of the mythical flying horse, Chollima.
Carrying roughly one quarter of a million won between us, we headed down to the market. Up until a few years ago, Rason’s market was off-limits to tourists for a long time; a friend in the company told me the closure followed an incident in which a Chinese tourist was pickpocketed. He had reported the theft to his embassy, and pushed for recompense from the North Korean tourism industry. As a result of the international drama which followed, North Korea decided it would be simpler not to let foreigners enter the market at all.
Mr Kim made a few calls, and pretty soon we were heading inside. We were urged to leave our wallets on the bus, instead taking a handful of local banknotes concealed in an inside pocket. Cameras were also strictly forbidden.
The market was a sprawling maze of wooden tables, overflowing with everything from fruit to hand tools. Immediately upon our entrance, a wave seemed to move through the crowd as several hundred pairs of eyes turned to assess the intrusion. If the streets of Pyongyang and other North Korean cities may appear empty, even desolate at times, this place was the exact opposite… and I was struck by the sense of having stumbled across that fabled thing which seems so hopelessly impossible to find: the ‘real’ North Korea.
As our group separated, moved through the stalls and began to mingle with the bemused locals, our Korean guides floated about us like owls on speed. I wondered what kind of trouble they’d get into if they were to lose sight of their Western wards. Luckily for them however, we didn’t exactly blend in.
It was interesting to see the range of reactions that our presence elicited from the unsuspecting people of North Korea. Some gasped in shock, covering their mouths and nudging their friends to look at us; children waved, giggled, shouted “hello” and then ran away; vendors called and beckoned us to browse their wares. Everywhere I looked there was a movement of heads turning quickly away – everybody wanted to get a good look at the strangers, but most wouldn’t hold our gaze.
One elderly man in a tired military uniform followed us through the market, scowling from a distance. Several times I felt tiny hands patting at my trouser pockets, then turned, to see dirty-faced children peering out from the crowds. On one occasion I was confronted by an actual beggar; the first and only time I’ve seen a North Korean ask a foreigner for money, and something which the DPRK leadership does its absolute best to stamp out.
I yearned for my camera, my shutter finger itching like a phantom limb.
At one point we bumped into a few of the girls from the massage parlour we’d visited in Rason. They stopped browsing to chat with us, and, for just the briefest of moments, I could almost have believed this wasn’t the strangest place I had ever been.
Things were to get a whole lot stranger though, as we approached the covered stalls at the heart of the market. While the outer yard had been stocked with fruits, vegetables and all manner of seafood, Rason’s indoor market is a repository for every kind of bric-a-brac you could care to think of… and most of it imported from China. Shoes, toys, make-up, cigarette lighters and DIY tools that look around 40 years old; clothing, military uniforms (which we were forbidden from buying), spices, chocolates, soft drinks, dried noodles, bottled spirits, beer and a whole aisle lined with mounds of dry, hand-picked tobacco.
We were just walking past the tobacco sellers when we spotted another stall ahead, piled with mounds of green, rather than brown, plant matter. It turned out to be exactly what we first suspected: a veritable mountain of dried cannabis plants. In the name of scientific enquiry, it seemed appropriate to buy some… and the little old ladies running the stall were happy to load us up with plastic bags full of the stuff, charging us roughly £0.50 each.
No one seemed to have a problem with us buying the stuff, and so we decided to put it to the ultimate test: purchasing papers from another stall before rolling up and lighting comically oversized joints right there in the middle of the crowded market. Bizarre as the situation was, it seemed a reasonably safe move… and with several hundred people already staring at us, we weren’t likely to feel any more paranoid than we already were.
At another stall we bought live spider crabs for our dinner, before leaving the market to continue the grand tour of Rason – with just one difference. From this point onwards, every time our group was walking on the street, sat in a park or being shown around some monument or other, there would be at least two fat joints being passed around.
Later that day, we visited a traditional Korean pagoda situated in a nearby village. “This monument celebrates the fact that our dear leader Kim Jong-il stayed in this very building during one of his visits to Rason,” our Korean guide was telling us.
“Far out,” someone mumbled in reply.
Getting High on the Bad Times
That night we settled down for a meal at a private dining room in the Kum Yong Company Restaurant. It’s one of Rason’s tourist-friendly eateries, by which I mean that the service and surroundings had been so carefully and thoroughly Westernised, as to give little or no impression of how real locals live. I guess the same could be said for five-star restaurants the world over, though.
One member of the group was celebrating a birthday, and the cake was the first thing to reach our table. This was followed by the usual selection of hot and cold platters (kimchi, salad, fried eggs, battered meat and bean sprouts) while the kitchen prepared the crabs we had bought from the market earlier. All this time we were rolling joint after joint, without tobacco, and the air in the room was thick with sweet, herbal fumes. In fact, coming back from a trip to the facilities I was almost unable to find my chair again – until my eyes grew accustomed to the haze.
The substance we’d bought was not strong – far from it, in fact. It was just the dried leaves, a far inferior product to what one might find in the West; but the taste – and the effect – was unmistakable. Besides, mild or not, at the rate that we kept rolling them it soon caught up with us. Once or twice the waitress came by to collect plates, and, coughing, made mock gestures of trying to sweep the clouds away with her hands. She didn’t mind at all, but rather seemed perplexed how something so commonplace could cause such unprecedented excitement.
In the corner of the room, a small television set was doing all it could to keep us abreast of important current affairs. The news presenter – an impassioned middle-aged woman with immaculate hair – was talking about a potential attack from South Korea, about US manoeuvres on the Korean Peninsula. Suddenly I remembered that I was in a country threatening to launch nuclear warheads against its neighbours, and that the whole world was holding its breath to see what the next days would bring.
The news programme came to an end, and was replaced by a film in which a Korean girl roamed the mountains in a fierce storm, looking for her lost goats. The waitress brought more beers, shots of the local rice wine known as soju, and someone passed me a joint. I had already forgotten about the nuclear war.
It wasn’t until the next evening – the last night of our tour – that Mr Kim decided to join us for a smoke. We were sat around drinking beers in a hotel bar, just across the town square from our own lodgings. Here the waitresses were taking it in turns to sing for us, clutching cheap Chinese microphones as they performed note-perfect renditions of one (Party-approved) karaoke classic after another. Many of these songs had once been written to celebrate the anniversary of a military victory… while each of the North Korean leaders is given their own orchestral theme (check out the Song of General Kim Jong-un, for example).
It was a pop song called Whistle that really got stuck in my head though, as it seemed to be on constant cycle during our trip – playing in shops, restaurants and offices. That evening I’m sure we heard it at least half a dozen times, and the melody would come back to haunt my dreams for weeks to come.
Sat around a long wooden table, we were drinking beer with our Korean guides – who up until this point had eschewed the weed. They seemed to be ever-so-slightly uncomfortable with our discovery of their ‘special plant’; it was their job to make sure we saw a positive representation of the DPRK, and I don’t think they had planned on chaperoning a giggling pack of red-eyed imbeciles around their country’s proud military monuments.
I sat next to Mr Kim, who, dressed in his usual dark suit and glasses, looked every part the intelligence officer. He was snacking on strips of dried fish to accompany his beer, and he offered me some. By way of a polite gesture I offered him a joint in return, very much expecting him to refuse it. Instead he smiled, winked, and put his arm round my shoulder as he started puffing away on the fat paper cone.
Things got even more bizarre when the Russians arrived – a group of dock workers from the Vladivostok region, currently on leave in Rason and keen to get some alcohol inside them. One of my last memories of the evening is of knocking back large tumblers of Korean vodka with a walking stereotype of a man; he had the arms and chest of a bear, a square head topped with a white crew cut and a well manicured ‘Uncle Joe’ moustache… as well as a superhuman thirst for vodka.
The first time I visited North Korea I saw the famous monuments in Pyongyang, visited the Korean Demilitarised Zone in the south, but remained very much aware of my distance from the world around me; I often felt as though trapped inside a bubble, which prevented any kind of real interaction. Here in the rural northeast however, far removed from the leader’s watchful gaze, things are very different. Chinese and even Russian contractors explore at their leisure, while Western tour groups are allowed far more freedom than they are on package tours of the nation’s capital.
My extra-curricular activities at Rason’s bank, its market and its bars, were a window onto another side of life in the DPRK; and, while they often painted a picture of poverty and dependency, nevertheless it was a refreshingly honest experience compared to the theatrics and misdirection so typical of normal tourism in North Korea.
Corrections to this Article
Updated August 2020
This article got a lot of media attention when I published it back in 2013… and much of that attention focussed on a claim I shared in the original version: that cannabis use was legal in North Korea. My source for this piece of information was an article about the subject in January 2013, in the reliable outlet NK News, titled ‘Struggle is the Enemy, Weed is the Remedy: The Truth About Marijuana in North Korea’ (which was also published on VICE).
I have since learned that this is not the case. NK News have taken down their article on the subject, and my own article above has been edited to remove all unverified claims, and now simply reflects my own personal observations on this trip. I have kept it online as a matter of record, and because I think it’s a good story – an honest account of visiting some lesser-seen corners of the DPRK.
In light of all I’ve learned since publishing this article, I believe the substance we smoked in Rason market that day was probably not so much weak weed as feral hemp. An un-policed roadside herb rather than an illegally cultivated drug, but with a THC content, in my opinion, closer to “low” than to “negligible.” For further reading on the subject, I recommend this article which explores the long history and current status of cannabis use on the Korean Peninsula.
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