Can you visit DPRK? Absolutely! Is it easy? Nope! Here’s one writer’s account of what it’s like to travel to DPRK, including Pyongyang.
It’s not an understatement to say that visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was out of my comfort zone.
Unlike other adventure travellers, I am a McDonald’s-loving tourist that loathes hostels and seeks out tourist traps. I had only been to 20 countries by the time I set foot in Pyongyang; while others I knew easily had 50, 100, or more under their belt. But I decided to take a leap of faith and venture into unchartered territory.
When you decide to visit a place like the DPRK, most people share the news with the world. The last thing you want is a mother finding out from The Toronto Star that her son was detained for allegedly distributing bibles or defending the American government in one of the world’s most isolated countries.
I was the opposite. Three people knew of my impending trip. Alcohol was to blame when I let slip to two colleagues that I would touring DPRK. Few details were provided except for a cocky declaration. But as excitement and nervousness grew, I told another friend over breakfast on rainy Tokyo morning, a week before my departure.
My lack of enthusiasm to share my travel plans partly stemmed from my twin brother’s inability to go with me. Seven months earlier, my brother had died from leukemia. This country was high on Philip’s list of countries that he wanted to visit. As an aviation enthusiast, he was keen to sample the faux-meat burgers served by the world’s ‘worst’ airline, Air Koryo. He wanted to see the tacky décor of the Koryo Hotel and the ornate stations of the Pyongyang subway, while taking clandestine photos of life in North Korea. We had shared most experiences, and we planned to travel to the world’s most secluded tourist destination together. This had been one motivation for my visit.
My visit to the Hermit Kingdom was an eerie experience. Foreigners are accompanied by at least two government guides everywhere you go in North Korea. All tour itineraries are crafted with the regime’s tourism branch and include visits to mandatory attractions like the Demilitarized Zone. Likely the most mundane part of the trip was following revisionist museum guides and their translators as they explained every exhibit. I suppose repetition is the best way to convince someone of a supposed truth.
The best way to experience North Korea is to acknowledge the propaganda and move on. I doubt you can truly experience this strange place if you are constantly riled by the guides’ government-fed script. Respect the personality cult that consumes the country just like you would the beliefs of a highly religious society.
The nuance of the misinformation delivered throughout the trip was always a hard thread to follow. Rather than his official residence, the expansive Kumsusan Palace was portrayed as Kim Il-sung’s office. The leader supposedly lived in a modest apartment somewhere in the capital. Orphanages were schools. The dog supplied for a special soup was not a little girl’s pet. There are no labour camps. There are nuclear weapons, but the regime is peace-loving.
Pyongyang was enveloped in a constant depressing haze during my time there, and the smoky skyline was consumed by apartments. I doubt many houses are left in the city, which was largely rebuilt after the Korean War. Apartment buildings are typically assigned to specific groups – artists, doctors, teachers. Like many things I was told, I questioned whether this was true. Paranoia becomes second nature in a country like North Korea.
There were many contradictions, like the regime’s Juche ideology. The state philosophy teaches people they are the masters of their own destinies, yet government operatives live in every apartment block and neighbourhood to ensure loyalty. Another often-repeated idea is that Korean reunification will allow the South to see the virtues of the DPRK and peacefully choose the North’s system as the best option for a unified country.
North Korea is also a country of contrasts. One of the biggest is between Pyongyang and the rest of the country. The capital has elaborate monuments, a vast sports district reminiscent of an Olympic Park, bowling alleys and ice rinks, and other perks the dusty countryside lacks. Only comrades loyal to the regime are permitted to live in the capital. They typically descend from those who fought against the Japanese during the Second World War. Other regime loyalists live in smaller cities, while everyone else is banished to rural areas with undesirables like criminals and their families. What is considered a criminal was not fully elaborated upon by our guides, but rapists and murders are likely not distinguished from perceived enemies of the state.
The capital city and elsewhere in North Korea are overwhelmed by wide streets and squares, ideally suited for tanks and artillery. There are checkpoints around Pyongyang to ensure undesirables do not wander into the city. Tired people roam seemingly without purpose along largely deserted roads, especially in the countryside and small towns. Rather than horns and rushing cars, most streets are filled with the sounds of footsteps, the bells and turning chains of bicycles, and unnerving silence in between.
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is a fine example of propaganda porn forced upon foreign visitors. By the time I left, the defeat of the Western filth during the Korean War seemed plausible. The museum’s prized artefact is the captured USS Pueblo, an American spy or research vessel depending on who you ask. It also has lifelike dioramas of vicious battles, including dead soldiers lying over mangled flags from Canada and other enemy states.
Propagandist art in the form of patriotic murals are everywhere, even in schools. On a visit to Nampo south-west of the capital, our guides showed off what was characterized as a school. The children sang, danced and sat politely in a classroom as their teacher likely spewed something about resilient socialist comrades destroying their enemies. Along with paintings of cuddly animals, the hallways were lined with photographs of children being tortured and cartoons of the favour being returned to American soldiers.
Like so many stops during the five-day tour, the time spent at the school/orphanage felt orchestrated. There was a visit to an abandoned hotel where people suddenly appeared from darkened corners to usher the group to a room for lunch. Another time we ‘spontaneously’ visited a café next to the sprawling Kim Il-sung Square that was conveniently cleared out of other patrons, if there ever were any. Visits to the circus and symphony were carefully choreographed to ensure we sat away from locals.
Other aspects of the trip were less rehearsed, providing opportunities to catch unfiltered glimpses of Pyongyang. At Golden Lane Bowling Alley, my guides made fun of my graceless technique while I drank imported Chinese beer. The group went to a shooting range where the targets were chickens. Locals get to keep their feathered prey if they succeed. We walked through parks where locals had picnics and danced to celebrate the Day of the Sun (more on that later). Well-travelled members of the group often mingled with locals, and at one point started an impromptu soccer game that caught the attention of a large crowd and an unimpressed member of the secret police.
Before I left, the idea of walking around the streets of Pyongyang seemed impossible. To my surprise, our handlers took us on a few walks, both during the day and at night. They were opportunities to look into barber shops and grocery stores, share darkened underpasses with families running after their kids, and glimpse into neat and barren apartments. People stared at us, sometimes suspiciously but mostly curiously. I found myself walking ahead of the group and thinking about my absent brother.
During my visit, the country celebrated the Day of the Sun. The national holiday on April 15 celebrates Kim Il-Sung’s birthday. It was the most exhausting day of the trip with visits to the aforementioned symphony, circus and the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. People sang, danced, and paid respect to the former leader.
Paying respect to North Korea’s leaders is serious business. You won’t find portraits or statues of Kim Jong-un as idols are reserved for departed leaders. Taking a photograph that does not include the entirety of the statue or portrait is frowned upon. Offerings of flowers are not. The only other taboos I encountered were taking pictures of soldiers and the countryside as well as attempts to secure local currency, although only the latter was strictly enforced.
During the Day of the Sun we also rode the subway, an often-mentioned highlight of any visit to Pyongyang. I heard that actors populate the world’s deepest subway system to impress tourists. We explored four stations and passed through a few others. The miserable-looking commuters were either really good actors or more likely ordinary subway riders found anywhere else in the world.
Like many North Koreans and virtually every tourist in the capital on the Day of the Sun, we went to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun to bow before the embalmed remains of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. This was the most morally unsettling ritual I partook in, but nonetheless I did it out of respect for my hosts. The day ended with fireworks and a visit to the Fun Fair. I usually refrain from thrill rides at amusement parks, but I made an exemption. I embraced screaming like a sissy with soldiers and cadets next to me doing the same.
Most nights ended at a bar in the Koryo Hotel, a twin-towered building that exemplifies 1980s quiche. The hotel’s residents were a mix of government officials and guides, foreigners in the capital for a Juche conference, and curious tourists. I enjoyed many bottles of domestic Taedonggang beer in one of the hotel’s two revolving restaurants. The second is closed, supposedly because it offers views of government and military offices at Pyongyang’s Forbidden City. There are also rumours several floors in the hotel are used by government spies.
On the day I left the DPRK, I was escorted by a guide and driver to the airport. Most of the group made their way back to Beijing by train or continued on a longer tour. I couldn’t stop smiling. Perhaps I was still under the influence of the alcohol consumed during the previous night, when I butchered a fine Celine Dion ballad in the hotel’s karaoke bar. I fought against my anti-social, self-conscious and uptight tendencies that had allowed me to successfully resist karaoke for 34 years, just as I set aside my fear of heights to go on amusement rides at the Fun Fair. After days of seeing my travel companions doing the same, I waved at people on the street and in buses as the taxi whisked me away.
I was already missing the thrill of new experiences in North Korea en route to the airport. I had been cut off from the outside world for five days, and I felt overcome by an urge to share my experiences with my late brother. As I recalled my brother’s last gasps, I acknowledged that travelling would never be as it was. But much like travelling in DPKR, I have to acknowledge the reality and reluctantly carry on.
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