3 mins

Pushing boundaries: Travelling to North Korea

You can’t go where you like. You must have a guide. You have to bow to the Great and Dear Leaders. But still: is restrictive, secretive, bizarre North Korea the world’s most intriguing country? M.A. Ryder investigates

Military parade in Pyongyang, capital of North Korea (Shutterstock: see credit below)
We lined up in the hot Pyongyang sunshine facing 20m-high bronze statues of the ‘Great Leader’, Kim Il-sung, and the ‘Dear Leader’, Kim Jong-il. Recorded funeral music wafted across Mansudae plaza. A nearby inscription read: ‘Let us drive out American imperialism’.

“We must show our respect to this sacred statue,” urged Guide1. With bouquet laid, we bowed deeply in unison. Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

It seemed I’d travelled back to Stalin’s USSR or the demagoguery of Mao’s China. In Beijing, two nights before entering the DPRK, our tour leader, Julia, had briefed us about visiting the world’s most secretive state: “No leaving hotels without a guide. No photos of soldiers. No smirking at memorials. No creasing newspapers featuring images of Kim Jong-un – you can be arrested for that.”

Strictly itemised group travel is the only way to see this totalitarian autarky sandwiched between eastern China and South Korea. So I’d joined a group of eight travellers and was on my way in. As you might imagine, journalists are frowned upon, so I concealed my occupation from our two enchanting local Korean guides. Guide1 and Guide2 waited for us at Pyongyang Airport – and certainly weren’t the automaton minders I’d expected.

Government building on the Central Square of Kim Il-Sung, Pyongyang (Shutterstock)
Government building on the Central Square of Kim Il-Sung, Pyongyang (Shutterstock)

Testimonies given by defectors condemn North Korea as a serious human rights abuser: a country that indoctrinates citizens from birth into the Kim personality cult; that detains and executes dissenters in inhumane labour camps; that, spurred by its failed socialist policies, has caused its people to endure famine and starvation.

So was it ethically right to be visiting – and thus handing over hard currency to – this international pariah?

However hard I moralised about this I couldn’t dress up my justification for going as anything other than selfish curiosity. I wanted to see it with my own eyes, drawn by DPRK’s unremittingly negative and often bizarre publicity. Also, is imposing isolation on a country already suspicious of foreigners a helpful way forward?

Guide1 laughed when I said I’d heard that North Korean men were required to get Kim Jong-un haircuts: “That’s your propaganda. Tell me if you see anybody with this haircut.” I never did.

Big Brother is watching...

Showcase capital Pyongyang immediately triggered flashbacks of the Moscow I once visited pre-Perestroika.

It was a vertical, airy city of grandiose squares, fountains, parks and marble-clad monuments, with apartment blocks organised as urban collectives incorporating government shops that ration everything from rice to state-manufactured underwear. Broad avenues with little traffic rattled to occasional antique Czech trolleybuses. Everywhere, Big Brother watched on. Giant billboards in Socialist Realist style depicted the omnipresent Kim Il-sung alongside militaristic murals of revolutionary fervour and anti-imperialist slogans.

Many comrades wore uniforms: from marching soldiers in khaki to Youth League schoolchildren in red neckerchiefs and blue-suited traffic ladies twirling their batons. Above all, Pyongyang was spotless – and oddly empty given its reputed three million inhabitants. Those inhabitants are said to be the privileged caste of the ruling Workers’ Party possessing a positive songbun – filial loyalty towards the regime accrued over family generations.

We were accommodated in the colossal 47-floor Yanggakdo Hotel, which sits on an island in the River Taedong (thus ensuring we couldn’t go walkabout). The hotel’s entertainment complex is the opium of the tourist masses: ten-pin bowling, karaoke, a casino and cheap beer to keep us amused while Pyongyang slept. My 19th-floor view over Taedong’s skyscraper-fringed riverbank was ever so slightly Manhattan.

During three days in Pyongyang there was no escaping the Great Leader’s gaze. Pyongyang’s supersized Arch of Triumph glorified Kim Il-sung’s revolutionary path towards liberation from Japan. We were pinpricks on the immense 75,000 sq m Kim Il-sung Square (site of goose-stepping military extravaganzas). We visited Kim’s idyllically propagandised birthplace, an immaculately reconstructed adobe-walled farmstead.

North Korean soldiers at a military parade in Pyongyang (Shutterstock)
North Korean soldiers at a military parade in Pyongyang (Shutterstock)

The most propaganda-drenched experience was the bombastic Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, recently opened to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War’s end in 1953. A young female army guide offered a partisan slant on the war, not least underplaying China’s intercession to ensure the stalemate between the two Koreas that remains today.

We were shown around captured American military hardware used by the “puppet South Korean regime”, including an American spy ship, USS Pueblo, genuinely caught snooping off the coast in 1968. A drawer in the map room marked ‘TOP SECRET’ possibly gave the Americans’ game away.

On another day we took in citywide views from the 170m-high Juche Tower. It commemorates Kim Il-sung’s state philosophy, Juche, a nationalistic self-determination preaching that Koreans must be masters of their own destiny without foreign interference. “We must fight against domination by foreign imperialists and their flunkies,” the tower guide demanded.

Fear factor?

An accusation levelled against visits to DPRK is that the Koreans you meet are actors. “People say we’re just robots and spend our whole life living in fear but it’s untrue,” insisted Guide1. Building a rapport with our guides was the highlight of my stay. They were intelligent, mischievous, funny; they liked to tease their charges.

Whether they responded to more serious questions with true belief or scripted indoctrination is impossible to say, but they spoke more candidly than imagined on some issues. For instance, when we asked about North Korea’s terrible famines of the 1990s, Guide1 admitted, “Life was difficult then. We suffered shortages because of the collapse of the USSR’s international socialist market and droughts.”

However, a bedrock of party loyalty lay beneath their easy charm. Both explained that they volunteered for work details in rice paddies on collective farms. “It’s our duty,” said Guide1. “If you do not work to produce food, you do not eat.” On another occasion, Guide2 casually observed: “I like Americans, they’re cool, but they’re imperialists who want to hurt our country.”

Having visited South Korea in the past, I noticed that shared cultural traits persevere despite the two nations’ divided political systems. For instance, in Peony Hill Park we encountered a wedding, and the bride was wearing the traditional Chosŏn-ot Korean dress, just as you’d see in South Korea. Meals were similar too – as in South Korea, the norm here is to eat communally with multiple dishes; we ate classics familiar from the South, such as cook-your-own duck bulgogi (barbecue) and kimchi (fermented pickle), which appeared with every meal – even breakfast.

Sometimes the leash loosened. We joined commuters for a five-station ride on Pyongyang’s stunningly ornate subway – much like Moscow’s, with chandeliers, marble pillars and revolutionary murals. At the retro Mangyongdae Funfair, we rode the rollercoaster as out-of-town Koreans, unused to foreigners, called ‘Ni Hao’ (Hello in Chinese). This particular foreign imperialist then reassured a watching crowd of the West’s military capability by missing all ten shots on the air-rifle shooting range.

Military parade in Pyongyang (Shutterstock)
Military parade in Pyongyang (Shutterstock)

Heritage big hitters

After exploring Pyongyang, we drove 2.5 hours south down a deserted freeway to near Kaesong, where tensions manifest between the two Koreas along the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). We broke the journey at the Hyonjongrung Tombs. With North Korea so couched in anti-imperialist dogma it’s easy to overlook the fact that several millennia of royal rule once unified Korea.

The grass-mound tombs of King Kongmin (1351-1374), 31st monarch of the Koryo Dynasty (AD 918-1392), and his Mongolian wife, rest on a wooded hillside. Carved stone sentinels of soldiers and scholars guard them – although they failed miserably to stop the Japanese looting the tombs in 1905. Guide2 explained that feng shui determined the tombs’ location: “If the king didn’t like the choice he would kill those who chose it.” Absolutism runs through Korean history.

Former royal capital Kaesong has other Unesco World Heritage-listed treasures such as a private Confucian school, where a museum hosts exquisite centuries-old celadon ceramics and brass weaponry. The Ri Dynasty (1392-1905) is represented in the 14th-century Namdae Gate, with its 14-tonne bronze bell adorned with Buddhist iconography. Buddhism persists in North Korea, Guide1 told us. I suggested that this seemed unlikely. “Oh yes,” Guide1 insisted. “We have these monks. They are old. I have heard them chanting… blah, blah, blah. They sound really boring.”

A further 8km from Kaesong is the DMZ at Panmunjom: the world’s most militarised border. At Panmunjom’s briefing centre, another soldier-guide with an exaggeratedly peaked cap explained that the DMZ stretches 246km across the Korean peninsula and is roughly 4km wide. His rhetoric ramped up nicely: “No heavy weaponry or aggressive actions are allowed inside the DMZ,” he said, “but the South Koreans ignore this.”

We were marched towards the Armistice Hall, where an end to the Korean War was negotiated in 1953. An American tourist (being slightly risqué) asked, “Why wasn’t your great Kim Il-sung here for the armistice signing?”

“Why wasn’t your President Eisenhower here?” the guide retorted. Touché.

In the Joint Security Area, the border itself runs through several blue huts; inside, I crossed the border by circumnavigating a meeting table. South Korean flags were flying but there was no sign of their troops. Meanwhile, the soldier-guide posed awkward questions to us. “What do they say about us in your country?” he barked. “Err… well… Of course, we recognise you have a very different system, and…” I was rambling. Would a careless response land me on the first plane home?

“Why does your country take part in aggressive actions towards North Korea?” he continued. I blathered on about paranoia of communism and not judging people by their political masters. He laughed. He’d heard it all before and knew exactly what the West’s view was on North Korea. “If the Americans ever try to invade we will destroy them with one-party unity and reunify Korea by force,” he ended, chillingly.

Pyongyang (Shutterstock)
Pyongyang (Shutterstock)

The most striking impression gained by speeding around the countryside south of Pyongyang on a tour bus was of an intensely agrarian society. Every inch of flatland in this mountainous nation coalesces into a watery horizon of rice paddies. We saw labourintensive work details (often soldiers) weeding the paddies; there were more ox-driven ploughs than tractors; loud mobile speakers exhorted workers with rousing music. Farm villages rose out of the paddies; each had its own obligatory obelisk, inscribed with the sayings of Kim Il-sung alongside billboards of him dispensing advice to farmers.

Our tour included an undoubtedly polished insight into rural life by visiting a 6.5 sq km collective farm called Tun Tan towards Wonsan. Kim, a woman in her 50s, guided us around geometrically neat paddies that fluttered with red flags. We visited a community shop selling dried persimmon, and a school where children waited to sing for us. She told us that ten villages form this collective, arranged into teams with production quotas. They keep 60% of their rice to share among the workforce while the state buys 40% for distribution.

Like all North Koreans we met, Kim dutifully recalled Kim Il-sung’s words and deeds with biblical devotion. “He came here 50 years ago and described our collective as paradise,” she purred. “He asked us how many fruits on this persimmon tree? We said 500 but he insisted 800. We counted 803 and were amazed.” She said they would work hard to increase productivity for when Marshal Kim Jong-un visited.

Kim also took us into her frugal little house, which was swathed by her own, much-loved garden of aubergines and cabbages. She showed us pictures of her family and told us with pride – like any mother – about her children’s university education.

A face to the name

In North Korea’s deep south-west is Mt Kumgang National Park. The North shares the park with South Korea – though pink-tracksuited hiking guide, Dae, insisted that the DPRK has the most beautiful side.

Kumgang’s rocky mountainsides were draped in forests of magnolia, maple and pine, and incised by serene gullies with natural swimming holes named things like ‘floating jade’. The pathway was inscribed with beautiful Japanese and Korean calligraphy left by Ri Dynasty Buddhist pilgrims en route to the 74m-high Kuryong Waterfall where nine mythological dragons are said to inhabit the plunge pool.

Village in North Korea (Shutterstock)
Village in North Korea (Shutterstock)

Modern hotels near Kumgang sit idly empty. A tall, green, wire fence hems the road all the way to the South Korean border at Sokcho. For a decade until 2008, during an interlude in hostilities, South Koreans arrived here to be reunited with relatives they hadn’t seen since partition in the 50s. The shooting of a South Korean tourist curtailed this accord in 2008.

Exiting North Korea I wondered for how much longer travellers would have the opportunity to witness this anachronism of totalitarian communism, elsewhere confined to the footnotes of 20th-century history? It is easy to revile and laugh at North Korea from afar but it felt right to have visited, to put human faces and emotions to some of those who have to live in this state.

Service 51 departed Pyongyang Railway Station for the 1,349km train journey to Beijing. For five hours we trundled westwards, past glassy rice paddies, to the border at Sinuiju. At immigration, the guard shook our leader Julia’s hand and politely said goodbye; no one had their camera memory cards deleted.

Crossing the bridge over the River Yalu into China, the neon glass-fronted waterfront of Dandong gleamed with economic progress. Looking out I saw Dandong’s traffic jams and thriving free enterprise. Just five hours away – but a different world.

Explore offers a 12-day small group tour Inside Korea, which includes international flights, 3 nights in Beijing and 7 nights in DPRK.

Main image: Military parade in Pyongyang, capital of North Korea (Shutterstock)

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