Here we lift the lid on the fiercely secretive and intensely strange country of North Korea
"Even so much as a grin would be like crapping on the Queen.”
I tried to hold on to these words, given to me none-too-eloquently by a North Korea veteran. I knew that to laugh at anything relating to either the deceased Great Leader (Kim Il Sung) or his son and heir, Kim Jong Il (the Dear Leader), would be hugely offensive. I had taken this advice on board: I’d bowed at statues without a smirk; maintained a straight face while looking at beaming portraits of the venerated ones. But now my resolve was receiving its sternest test.
A paternal, smiling waxwork of the Great Leader stood looking us in the eye. To its right were a couple of stuffed Bambis; on the painted pastoral horizon, fake leaves rustled. As we lined up and started to bow, my body began to shake. I was going to laugh – I couldn’t do this without at least a snigger. Suddenly, I was overcome: an uncontrollable belly laugh erupted from within. I wheeled away and made a hasty retreat from the room, my guide’s disapproving gaze shooting after me.
Any trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is an unavoidable homage to the father and son who’ve shaped the modern face of the country. State-organised tours – the only kind of tours – are full of adoration-demanding monuments for tourists to see, making for a strange yet fascinating experience.
Even the flight from Beijing to the capital, Pyongyang, was like stepping into another world. The Tupolev 154 plane blasted stirring, patriotic music over the PA; the first announcement made by the purser included a tribute to Kim Jong Il.
Pyongyang itself is a model city, crafted at high speed to repair the destruction of the Korean War and to venerate the leadership. As Robert Wiloughby notes in the Bradt Guide to North Korea: ‘Pyongyang is a mind-set, an ideal, an idea: the city as the manifestation of the state, the state as the manifestation of the man.’
It wasn’t long before we came face to face with that man. Visiting the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung is the DPRK version of a religious experience – like a trip to Mecca.
In fact, religious similarities abound in this secular nation. Sung, a church organ player in his youth, once reputedly walked on water and is often pictured with a halo-like aura. Instead of Christmas, North Koreans celebrate 15 April – Kim Il Sung’s birthday – and, rather than wearinga cross, everyone pins a red-and-gold enamelled badge of the founding father on their lapels.
The mausoleum trip was the first time I had been in the same room as a head of a state. Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, was made eternal president in 1997 – he might have been dead for 11 years but he’s still in charge, which perhaps explains the lethargy that grips the bankrupt economy.
At the mausoleum, in the Great Leader’s Pyongyang palace, thousands of North Koreans, all wearing black, patiently queued up with us to see their president. No cameras are allowed, so we checked them in before passing through a metal detector and boarding a red travelator, the first of many kilometres of moving walkway.
As we got closer to the room where the Great Leader is laid out, the soles of our feet were scrubbed and a wind tunnel blasted any dirt or dandruff from our bodies – all rather pointless as the corpse is enclosed in glass. The locals’ sombre tone stifled my giggles.
And there he was. He looked rather thin, like he’d been scooped out while being embalmed; his skin was waxy, the eyeliner on his eyebrows a bit too fierce. Behind us, their jackets tingling with medals, a solemn procession of 70-year-old veterans bowed at the feet of their Great Leader.
It was festooned with honours and certifications awarded to Kim Il Sung – my favourite being the one from Kensington University, California, which gave him an honorary doctorate in international relations.
Sung’s tenure lasted longer than Mao’s or Stalin’s; he saw nine US presidents come and go during his 48-year reign. But while other regimes have since moved on, the DPRK sticks steadfastly to its Juche philosophy. Juche is the central thesis around which the DPRK’s unique form of communism (described by author John Feffer as ‘Confucian-Christian-corporatist communism’) is hung. Essentially, it means self-reliance.
After several days of bowing to monuments, we left Pyongyang’s rigid concrete lines and were immediately transported into the countryside. The city of two million people does not sprawl – you need a permit to live there.
The rural areas we cruised through were different to the desolate images I’d seen before. Famine – referred to in classic communist rhetoric as the Arduous March – saw millions die in the mid to late 1990s, but 2005 had been a better year agriculturally.
Since 80% of the nation – which is approximately the size of England – is mountainous, every available flat space has maize or rice growing on it. It was day four and, by this point, we thought we’d seen it all. Nothing could faze us now. But I hadn’t reckoned on the International Friendship Exhibition.
Inside a gargantuan palace at the foot of Mount Myohyang are 212,673 gifts from 178 countries, all given to the Great Leader. In these 150 marble-walled halls, hung with grandiose chandeliers, sit electronics, wooden gifts, ivory (thousands of elephants worth) – even a symbolic slab of the Berlin Wall. There’s a heron statue given by US conservative televangelist Billy Graham and, from the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, a stuffed alligator standing up on its hind legs carrying a tray of cups. “It’s the largest display of useless tack I’ve ever seen,” whispered a Canadian beside me.
Romania’s Nicolae Ceaucescu had donated a bear skin, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe a rhino horn and the Chinese a tiger skin – was there a correlation between dictators and tough animal treatment?
The younger Kim has his own mammoth gift palace (containing 53,418 pressies from 163 countries), but there is a discernible difference in the nature of the offerings. He tends to receive trinkets from corporations not politicians, a result of the end of the Cold War and the DPRK being shunned internationally.
Cementing the dynasty is the alleged birthplace of the Dear Leader, a mountain considered by both South and North Koreans to be the most beautiful on their peninsula.
Mount Paekdu, an extinct volcano containing an ink-blue lake in its crater, purportedly spawned both Koreas 5,000 years ago; it is also where the apocryphal, Jesus-like birth of Kim Jong Il took place in 1942.
After an hour-long flight to the far north in a twin-prop plane, we were slogging up this revered mountain. The Paekdu excursion adds €300 to the cost of your trip but is essential both for its beauty and to appreciate the full Kim legend. The trek was tough but the views across the Chinese border were stunning. The purity of the place is even reflected in the scarcity of propaganda, with just a few memorials dotting the peak.
We were taken to the lowly cabin where Kim Jong Il was reportedly born. It happens to be exactly 216m from the mountain behind it, a distance that miraculously mirrors Kim Jong Il’s birthdate – 16 February (2/16). On this day, a double rainbow and a bright star shone in the sky, spreading the news far and wide.
Of course, the whole birth tale is myth – the Dear Leader was born by the Amur River in Siberia. In his book North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula, Paul French suggests this kind of fabrication is part of ‘the Korean tradition of deploying mythology as a tool to perpetuate tradition and inspire the people’.
Creating Confucian tradition has been a central tenet of the Kim regime, placing the family at the centre of everything. The DPRK is the only socialist place on earth where power has passed from father to son. Given the carefully crafted aura of Kim Il Sung, the man who could do nothing wrong, who else could take over but his eldest son?
For much of the 20th century Korea was a de facto colony, stuck in the 19th century and ruled by the Japanese. While all around have moved on and embraced the 21st century, North Korea is still living in the past. It’s a 1950s communist state mixed with a large dose of weird. There is no place on earth like it.
The best time to visit North Korea is August to October – the three months when the Mass Games takes place (though not every year – it’s worth checking). It’s a spectacle on a scale seen nowhere else, with 100,000 participants performing in a jelly-shaped stadium that seats 150,000 people.
The spellbinding, 90-minute show dwarfs any Olympic opening ceremony and thrashes the likes of Cirque du Soleil for its choreographed precision. The event features singing, dancing and death-defying gymnastics against a backdrop of 20,000 children holding up multicoloured clapboards to create mesmerising images – the best-coordinated Mexican wave ever. The show takes the audience through 12 chapters of Korean history, veering from army manoeuvres to kids cartwheeling to outlandish trapeze acts, with costume changes a-plenty.
The gruelling seven-month preparation for the Games knocks any individualism out of the performers, showing the power of the collective, deifying the leadership and giving the domestic audience a huge sense of strength.
Don’t take too many photographs You can only take photos with your guides’ permission. Taking photos of soldiers, checkpoints, poverty and close-ups of people without their consent will cause serious problems. Pay particular attention if you are taking pictures of Kim Il Sung sculptures (never photograph just the feet, for example). The Korean public is obliged to report all photography.
Don’t leave your hotel without your guide’s permission A stroll through the city is possible but only with a guide. It is possible to walk in your hotel grounds but ask the guide first and don’t take your camera.
Don’t criticise the DPRK’s regime This will only upset the guides. However, you will hear plenty of criticism of the West.
Don’t take lots of equipment Video cameras, mobile phones and laptops will be confiscated on arrival and returned on the way out.
Don’t expect to communicate with the outside world International phone calls cost up to €7 a minute; emails charge by the kilobyte. The DPRK is a good place to switch off.
Do act respectfully You are ‘invited’ to the DPRK and therefore you must respect the Koreans and their vision of the Great Leader – this involves bowing to statues etc. If you are not prepared to do this, don’t visit the DPRK. Also, don’t chew gum or eat sweets or wear scruffy clothing in places of Korean national importance.