I made it across the border and after nearly 24 hours on a train, I’m back in Beijing – and back to a land where I can walk freely along the street, use the Internet and not be presented with spiced cabbage at every meal.
I really don’t know where to begin. The last week has been one of the most strange of my entire life – totally eye-opening and thoroughly enjoyable, but very, very weird.
It started the moment I stepped on to the plane in Beijing. Air Koryo, the national airline of North Korea – sorry, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – is clearly a small outfit, as the air stewards on our flight were also the stars of the safety video. Furthermore, this video was set to a Casio keyboard (with Oriental keyboard function-turned-on) remix of Dreams by The Cranberries. The plane itself was a Tupolev and I think had seen better days flying under the Soviet Union.
The flight and immigration was pretty uneventful, which, in some ways, was somewhat disappointing… No phones confiscated, no dramatic bag searches and no awkward questions. At the other side we met out North Korean guide (whose name was difficult to pronounce but sounded like ‘come here’, so I called her Come Here – although when addressing her, I said it fast so it sounded more like her actual name – and Come Hither when I was being formal), Driver Lee (legendary dodger of potholes and, as we were proudly told, has driven nine years without an accident – although he did clip a cyclist in the countryside) and two university students (who were basically spies making sure we weren’t going anywhere we weren’t supposed to).
The group was a mixed bag of mainly British tourists of all ages. I was the youngest, followed by Shelly and we struck up a good friendship as the week progressed – bonding over the ludicrous nature of North Korea and our need for a good laugh to see us through.
Most of the week was spent in Pyongyang, the capital city of the DPRK. It is the size of Leeds – and looks a little bit like Leeds, with its endless rows of tower blocks and concrete delights. The first thing that struck me was the lack of advertising… There is only state-approved advert in North Korea and that is for a home-made car called Peace (we saw this only three times during out visit).
However, where there is a lack of adverts, they make up for it in propaganda posters, which tower over the streets below crying out messages to encourage people to work harder, grow more crops and generally revel in the fact that their army is the strongest in the world and the enemy will be defeated etc. etc.!
It soon got dark after we arrived and that brings about the next realisation that there is clearly an electricity problem in North Korea as there were hardly any lights on… anywhere – just the odd public monument (and they don’t do monuments by halves here – 80-100ft.-tall beasts that dominate Pyongyang’s skyline).
By day two it was pretty clear that everyone in North Korea is indoctrinated to the point that it seems unbelievable – almost like everyone living there is in on this international joke at our expense. But, everyone we meet seemed to truly believe in the Kims and what they’d done for the country since the Second World War.
Believe it or not, the country is run by a dead person. Kim Il-Sung, lying in state (I paid my respect to him and his son and bowed three times in front of both, as is customary), is the country’s Eternal President, with wearer-of-sunglasses Kim Jong-Il, their Dear Leader. Current leader, Kim Jong-Un, is known as the Marshall, but he is working on bolstering his reputation by modifying artworks of his father to make paintings across the country look more Jong-Un than Jong-Il.
Photographs of the dead Kims are everywhere – from school classrooms to train stations – and their influence is felt everywhere too… For example, every North Korean wears a pin badge featuring an image of one of the dead Kims. Higher ranking members of society also have an elusive ‘double Kim’, featuring both leaders – our guide was awaiting hers. You can’t buy these and you are only given them by the state.
Elsewhere, museums on any subject do not cover their topics as we would expect – they simply refer to when the Kims offered advice in that field, visited a place relating to that subject or quoted that area of life. Put it this way, most North Korean museums look like the website Kim Jong-Il Looking At Things. We went to one museum about farming and, instead of agricultural techniques, we were treated to some wellies that one of the Kims had inspected, grains of wheat that one had glanced over (as well as the chair he sat on whilst doing this) and a picture of Kim Jong-Il actually visiting said museum (sort of a Möbius loop for the whole concept).
Of course history is rewritten in North Korea – Kim Il-Sung ‘liberated’ the North Koreans from the Japanese (with no mention of the two large atom bombs dropped over Japan) and the Korean War Armistice is claimed a victory by the DPRK – which is brought up everywhere (North Koreans are living in a timewarp circa 1953).
But, I digress… In terms of interacting with locals, we were generally kept very separate and mostly had the run of most restaurants and museums we visited to ourselves. That said, there was opportunities for us to meet ‘normal’ North Koreans, though at times it felt staged. Although, we stumbled upon a group of people dancing in a park on National Day to some current hits (pop music there is like Eurovision classics from the 1970s) and I got involved, much to the crowd’s enjoyment. Despite feeling like that annoying guy on YouTube who dances all around the world afterwards, it was a really touching moment that seemed to transcend our different beliefs and way of life.
People we met did seem happy and healthy, but I had to keep reminding myself that we were spending most of our time in the capital city, where elite members of the Workers’ Party of Korea are invited to live. Still, in Pyongyang, public transport is made up of mainly old vehicles from the former USSR and new buildings resemble something that would seem more at home in the UK some 30-odd years ago (the DPRK seems to be finally entering the 1980s, with roller-blades the latest craze amongst its youth).
There are literally so many things that I can tell you about North Korea that will amaze – and bore – you, but, for now, I’ll give you a little tour through some of my highlights from my time in the DPRK.
Arirang Mass Games
No words can truly describe one of the most incredible things I have ever seen – 80,000 dancers and acrobats flanked by 20,000 students creating jaw-dropping mosaic patterns from little flipbooks performing to a stadium crowd, all accompanied to propaganda songs, fireworks and more synthetic fibres than you can shake a stick at.
It’s performed every summer for three or four nights a week and volunteers rehearse for up to six months beforehand. People in our group said the spectacle was worth the trip alone and I found it hard to disagree.
Although highly political, the sights and sounds made hairs stand up on my neck and the scene at the end featuring most of the performers was breathtaking. If they could enter Eurovision, they would win for sure (and the half-time show would be the best ever). I mean, when you’ve got ballet dancers dressed as soldiers, what’s not to love!?!
Pyongyang Railway Museum
So I sniffed out this gem pre-departure and twisted Come Here’s arm to get us to go there. Naturally, it was mostly full of pictures of the Kim’s on trains, but there were some impressive full-size locos (all of which carried the Kims at somepoint – obvs.!).
Pyongyang People’s Cultural Palace
Here, at this huge library and teaching facility, I was invited to speak to some students learning English. All good, apart from there was a mix up and I was actually addressing the Chinese class… Bless ’em, the students tried, but they didn’t have a clue. Once the mistake was realised, I went next door to the right class of what seemed like 200+ and spoke to the students who, when asked if they wanted to ask a questions, glared back. I don’t think they get asked to ask questions often. 😦
The Palace also had a room full of over 100 boom boxes for listening to music. They had a Beatles’ CD ready for us to enjoy. When we asked for the list of other Western pop music they held, we were told it would not be possible to see it. 😦
National Day Parade
Although we weren’t allowed to see the main parade – with all the tanks and bombs and the likes – we did see the secondary parade through Pyongyang, which basically involved 9,000 soldiers (10% of the British army fact fans) driving past in trucks smiling and brandishing various weapons (although the rocket launchers looked a bit suspect).
Kumsusan Palace of the Sun
The resting place of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jon-Il saw us bowing to their pickled bodies (and their statues) before seeing their trains, cars and a yacht, as well as all the medals and honours they have been given from around the world – including one from the County of Derbyshire. Peru seemed to have bestowed the most awards on the Kims – FYI.
Mangyongdae Children’s Palace
A huge complex for extra-curricular activities. Clearly there are some talented children in North Korea, but it felt somewhat staged as we passed from room to room seeing another group of child geniuses excelling in dance, art and music. There was a random room with children just typing too. The computers were very old.
Afterwards, we were treated to another propaganda-fuelled performance by the children singing about their love for the Kims. I got the giggles when some members of the choir were actually wheeled on to the stage on some kind of track. Just bizarre.
Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)
During our trip we ventured inside the buffer zone between North and South Korea along the 38th Parallel. I thought it was going to be scary, and there was certainly lots of barbed wire and armed guards, but both sides have turned the area in to a tourist attraction. We did get to stare in to South Korea, but the guards on the other side seemed to be having a day off and there wasn’t much happening there.
Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
As well as rewriting history, the museum featured a display of captured enemy aircraft, vehicles and weapons, as well as the moored USS Peublo – the only ship of the U.S. Navy currently being held captive (and as a tourist attraction). There was also a huge recreation of what Seoul looked like after the North ‘liberated’ it from the U.S. – but, they never mentioned that they lost control of it soon after.
Everywhere in Pyongyang there were massive monuments praising the Kims and their ideologies, including the Arch of Triumph – which is just that little bit taller than the one in Paris.
There was more vehicles in Pyongyang than I thought, but certainly nothing that would rival a small town in the UK. Away from the capital, we would travel along four-lane highways and not see vehicles for miles. Most of the roads were poorly maintained apart from the Youth Hero Motorway, built recently by students and lasting for all of a couple of miles. It was the smoothest ride we had all week.
Although a poor country, we lived in relative luxury (it was always sad when we passed packed trams in Pyongyang, whilst we sat in our air-conditioned coach two seats apiece) and although the food generally lacked in quality, it was made up in sheer quantity.
Every meal would by a shower of meats (mostly fat), fish, rice, egg (I’d be happy not to see an egg for a while, actually), bracken (really), cucumber, cabbage, broth – and it would just keep coming in all its oily and fried forms. Plus, we’d be plied with local beers and spirits at every sitting.
Needless to say, I’m currently enjoying a detox now I’m back in China. Although we did try some ‘delicacies’ and traditional dishes – dog soup, anyone? – we tended to get separate food to what our minders had and I think they were offering their interpretation of Western food at times.
On the last day we were even taken to North Korean’s only fried chicken restaurant. It was similar to KFC, although the coleslaw was clearly replaced by the spicy cabbage.
I think I’ll leave it there for now, although I’ve not even mentioned the West Sea Barrage (!), the National Gift Exhibition (featuring all the gifts given to the Kims from Koreans from the North, South and around the world – including a fantastic set of golf clubs, an mp3 player and a furniture set that wouldn’t look our-of-place in DFS), the Pyongyang Metro (imagine if the inside of Buckingham Palace was underground and had trains running through it!?!), or even the Ryonggang Hot Spa Hotel (it sounds better than it actually was)…
The blog post was original written immediately following the trip in September 2013