Tuesday, October 16, 2012

North Korea

Many people have asked me why I wanted to go to North Korea...I have always had a bit of a fascination with communist regimes (probably since living in Eastern Europe under Soviet rule growing up) and was looking to head to somewhere that is vastly different from anything I had seen before. So I google-searched North Korea tourism and was surprised at the number of companies offering tours. You can't travel there as an individual, it must be through a company that is recognised by the North Korean government and can organise visas and guides etc. So I signed up with a tour group and they issued me with my North Korean visa, ready for action!

I met up with four of my group at the Beijing train station and boarded the train to Pyongyang in the evening and arrived in Pyongyang the next evening, 26 hours. The rest of the group were flying to Pyongyang - we had the option of either going by train or flying, apart from the three Americans in the group who had to fly as Americans are not allowed to go by train. We crossed into North Korea over a river which separates China and North Korea and spent two hours at the border where we had to have our mobile phones sealed, with strict instructions not to open them until we crossed back into China (the punishment being that the tour company could lose its tour licence and the local Korean guides suspended). Our bags were searched for books, religious materials or other foreign media such as DVDs and CDs. Unfortunately a North Korean visa is not placed in your passport, instead you get a piece of paper, so no cool stamp! We saw a couple of Korean men ('elites' who were allowed to travel abroad) in our carriage whisper something to the guard and then hand over a sneaky cash bribe which he put inside his hat in order that their bags didn't get searched, brilliant! Turned out the bags contained a whole lot of portable Chinese neck massage machines...?!

Bridge over river border, stops halfway on the Chinese side - a tourist attraction to look at trains coming in and out of North Korea

My phone, sealed by customs for the entire journey
My visa paper
It was stunning countryside to go through by train, big fields everywhere with masses of people working in them, all in very drab colours, and lots of army everywhere (North Korea is the most militarized country in the world with the fourth largest army as well as compulsory military service). There were slogans everywhere in the fields and on buildings encouraging the people to work harder for the good of the nation. There was absolutely no commercial advertising anywhere and everywhere there were photos of the two famous leaders, Kim Il Song and his son Kim Jong Il, referred to throughout the trip by our local guides as the "great leaders". The current leader is apparently not yet considered great as he is yet to prove himself! The trip could be summed up as a tour of what the great leaders had done for the country as everywhere we went the local guides described how the great leaders had helped the people, in everything from solving farmers problems to building dams and protecting the people from the "imperialist" USA. The US was always referred to as the "imperialist US" (despite having several Americans in the group). There was also much talk about how much the north wanted reunification with the south, but the imperialist US were preventing this.

Oxen and carts in the rice fields
Workers harvesting rice - almost all farming we saw was done by manual labour
Sign encouraging workers to work harder for the nation
We arrived in Pyongyang and met our guides, we had three of them for our group of 18. They went with us everywhere and were great at explaining the history and significance of places we visited.  Often if you asked a question that was slightly too probing they would ignore you or give you a blunt yes/no/I don't know kind of answer. They also told us what we could and could'nt photograph, and sometimes they asked us to delete photos we had taken. They were very friendly though and were keen to practice their english and ask questions about home. It was interesting trying to explain the wide ranging internet access we have at home, things like google and youtube, and how we use email etc. Here they have an intra-net which has no access to foreign sites. They even have a Korean version of facebook called red-star. There are no rock bands or foreign films shown and much of the media revolves around nationalistic themes. There was no such thing as "free time" on the trip to wander off on your own and explore, much like being a teenager on a school trip, except the punishment for sneaking off to the pub is slightly more severe!

Our three guides and bus driver enjoying favourite meal of clams cooked in petrol, clams are laid on stone, covered in petrol and set alight then eaten!
There were many massive statues of the leaders everywhere and whenever we stopped to look at them we had to line up and pay a silent tribute, which meant bowing, and one of the group had to purchase a bunch of flowers to lay at the statue. The statues were in all kinds of different poses from riding horses to posing on a film set. There were also many pictures of them in equally rousing poses, often with the common people, and always smiling - everything is designed to depict a happy and prosperous nation.

Locals posing in front of statue of leaders galloping on horseback. You can just see a small red badge they are wearing, all North Korean adults wear these - a small red flag with photo of the great leader on it, and are presented to them by the government as a sign of their devotion
Me placing flowers at the great leaders statue at collective farm on behalf of the group
Local people lining up to pay tribute to the statue of the leaders. Massive mural on the wall behind of Kim Il Sung
Mural covering entire wall of a building depicting the people of North Korea
and another...

and another...

and yet another...this one is in a metro station which were amazing places with murals and chandeliers

This one is a painting in a museum, showing the leaders riding some kind of hilarious futuristic train and being adored by Korean children

School children posing for a photo on a school trip, also wearing the youth version of the red badge

Apparently there is no unemployment, crime or homelessness as all people are given a job and housing by the government and rations for food and other essentials. Then they are then given a small wage from their job to buy luxury items. We never went to a local supermarket or store so didn't get to see what was on offer, instead we were shown the international supermarket with a lot of imported goods on sale, accessible by diplomats and the elite Koreans. We were not allowed to photograph inside the store. Foreigners are not allowed to have local currency either so we either had to pay for things in Euro, USD or Chinese money. I did manage to get my hands on a souvenir note though which I snuck through customs in my undies!

One crazy place we visited was the National Gift Exhibition hall which was this enormous marble building that displays over 20,000 gifts that have been given to the great leaders by Koreans living in Korea or overseas. There were some hilarious gifts on display, including an old desktop computer, a normal desktop phone, heaps of tacky marble statues, and my favourite was a large tapestry of Kim Jong Ill riding a tiger through the mountains!

Most of the trip was spent in the capital Pyongyang with a couple of nights in smaller cities. Pyongyang is the showpiece of the country with some impressive buildings and monuments.

The Korean version of the Arc de Triomphe, 11m higher than the one in Paris apparently (pissed off the two French in the group!). It was constructed in the 1980s to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan from 1925-45
US Naval ship captured in 1968 and kept as a 'trophy'
View of main square where military parades take place

Square at centre of Pyongyang, famous for it's military parades
Photo of military parades - foreigners are not allowed to attend
Dots and numbers on the ground indicate where people in parades must stand

Worker's Party Monument, hammer, sickle and paintbrush representing industry, agriculture and intellectuals

School children visiting Revolutionary Martyr's Cemetery, Pyongyang in the background

More school children visiting Revolutionary Martyr's Cemetery

The army elite travel in style

Whereas the average Korean travels in a beat up Soviet bus
Typical ousing in Pyongyang
Another major highlight of the trip was the famous mass gymnastics performance called Airirang. It was one of the most incredible live performances depicting the history of Korea, with over 100,000 performers. The choreography was magnificent, something the koreans are very good at - apparently the Chinese asked them to help with the design of the Olympic opening ceremony in 2008. The images at the back are actually formed by 20,000 children holding up individual coloured cards, transitioning them in perfect synch to form each new picture. Children, some as young as 5, are taken out of school and practice for a year to perform. The year 1912 is significant as it is the birthday of Kim Il Sung, this year celebrating 100 years since he was born. We were really lucky to get tickets as it was one of the last performances of the year (they have three a week from August to September). Have a look at this youtube video


We were taken south to the border with South Korea to visit the demilitarised zone (DMZ) accompanied under security by military personnel and could actually briefly cross into the part which was South Korea. We couldn't see any tourists visiting from the south, apparently they time it so the two groups are not there at the same time. The DMZ is a 4km wide stretch of no-mans-land where both sides are only allowed limited arms under an agreement signed in the 50s.  

Sunset from viewing area of DMZ

A Colonel of the North Korean Army pointing out the fence at the northern edge of the DMZ, lights of South Korea in the distance

Me and the Colonel, fully authorised picture of course!
Site where the Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953 to end the Korean war and set up the DMZ
At the DMZ, North Korean guards in North Korea in the foreground, two US soldiers in South Korean section in the background

Entrance to DMZ area. Massive concrete blocks are positioned above the road ready to be positioned to cover the road and block advancing troops should South Korea invade.
Our hotel in Pyongyang was on an island (to keep the tourists in?!) in the middle of a river that runs through the city. The hotel is famous for its 5th floor which it is rumoured to house surveillance equipment to keep an eye on foreigners in the hotel. There is no 5th floor on the lift buttons, but we had fun late one night trying to sneak down the fire escape for a look, only finding a locked door. The very top floors of the hotel were for foreigners and the remainder for locals. We had a look at one of the lower floors and the contrast from 5 star to 1 star was incredible. If you looked at the hotel at night most of the lower floors were dark as the electricity had been turned off on the floors for locals. 

No 5th floor button in the lift, mysterious
Sneaky midnight mission to try and get to the 5th floor...Clement trying to get through but unsuccessful!
View of sunset over Pyongyang from hotel room on 43rd floor. Coal fired power station pollution adding to the red sky
Electricity issues are nothing new in North Korea, several places we went to at night including bars and restaurants had periods when the lights went out! Driving through the countryside at night was pitch-black, with no street lights and no lights in houses except for the occasional gas lamp or torch you could just see through the windows.

The other thing in short supply was cars, most of the roads outside of Pyongyang were used for people to walk or ride bikes. There are different coloured number-plates, one for government, one for military, one for diplomats and one for private cars. The whole time we were there I only saw one private car. Driving in the country side there are checkpoints everywhere. You must have a reason and permission to travel from one area to the next - no such thing as a lazy Sunday drive round here!

Six lanes in each direction leading into Pyongyang, useless given the number of cars but apparently very useful for military and a show of national might
Main road from Pyongyang to southern part of the country. Big concrete pillars are in place ready to be placed (by explosion at the base) across the road should South Korea invade
                                                    Typical road through countryside

View from the entrance to our hotel in Kaesong, near the DMZ, with army propaganda poster in background
Street scene in Kaesong. Kaesong used to be in South Korea so survived much of the bombing during the war and therefore has more traditional older buildings
We went to visit a collective farm, which is essentially just a farming village complete with schools, but all produce and work are shared amongst the people. All farms are either collective farms or state farms. Workers get a portion of the harvest based on how hard they work and then there are 'prizes' for any extra work done. The farm we visited appeared to be set up for visitors as it was very tidy and it was one of the farms which the great leaders had frequently visited. People from the city spend two weeks every year helping out in the farms. There was a small amount of sketchy information from the guides about the situation in the north of the country where it is reported there is massive food shortage. We were told that there had been natural disasters such as floods and that it was very cold, but that the great leaders had been there and solved the problems by introducing double rotation harvests and potato crops which grow better in the cold than rice. 
State farm just outside Pyongyang. The massive 330m pyramid like building in the background is a new hotel (construction started in 1987 and it is still not finished)
Rural housing on a large collective farm
After five days we again boarded the train back to Beijing. At the border we were searched again and had our cameras checked for any 'illegal' photos. I had several of mine deleted, mainly ones taken out of the train window of the countryside which had local people in them, or photos with military people in them. It was strange to arrive back in China and be bombarded by colour, in particular cars, people's clothes and neon advertising. Overall a fascinating trip, a real eye opener into one of the most mysterious countries in the world. Arrived back in Beijing after another 24 hour train journey and had a 6 hour layover before jumping on another train to Kunming in southern China to start the next adventure...into Laos and Cambodia.
Waiting to board the train at Pyongyang


  1. Awesome post Bec, sounds like a really interesting experience!!
    Glad to hear you're enjoying your travels! :)

  2. nice! good to see more and more people are visiting the place. which company did you go with?

  3. All very fascinating. Glad you didn't get arrested! I would have done the same....