An insight into the world's most secretive country with fireworks, palaces and soldier selfies
29.12.2015 - 02.01.2016 -2 °C
So I know people have been waiting to read this blog! I've tried to split it up into bite sized chunks and obviously haven't included everything, but it's longer than my previous ones as there is so much to write about.
Firstly, I can only write about what I saw/heard. I'm aware of the terrible human rights abuses that happen in North Korea, but we clearly weren't about to be taken around forced labour camps. This whole trip is viewed as a PR exercise by the government so that they can tell foreigners 'the truth'. We were told things that were clearly untrue, but there were some things where I wasn't sure either way. Maybe you'll form your own views by the end (if you get that far 😊).
Flying into North Korea
Standing at the gate waiting to board a plane for Pyongyang at Beijing airport, was a little surreal. I was flying with Air Koryo (North Korea's national airline) and I knew that from this point forward, anything goes!
The plane was relatively new which was as a relief as I'd read that there are some very old planes in their fleet that don't need basic safety standards. I was given a magazine and newspaper on the plane which made for some interesting reading. Articles included how farms had delivered bumper crops after being visited by the leader King Jong Un and the life of a young national diver.
Waiting in line at immigration, I was a little apprehensive to see what would happen as I knew we would have to through different checks to usual. The guy in front of me spent a few minutes trying to convince the semi-stern immigration officer that the photo in his passport was actually him and that his black beard had turned grey because he had aged! He was finally let through and I wasn't overly excited about it being my turn. I handed over my passport and documents and the officer looked at them, held up my passport, smiled sand said 'you are very beautiful'. It took everything in me not to fall over laughing! I just smiled and said thank you before taking my documents back.
I didn't need to tick the blood ants box...
We then collected our luggage and I had to hand over any literature I had, my camera, phone and iPad for inspection. They handed me back my kindle, they didn't seem entirely sure what to do with it. They then looked through some photos and videos on my iPad and let me have it back. It took a long time, but was relatively painless, although I wouldn't like to see what happened if you had 'The Interview' on your laptop or tablet!
We left the airport in our group of 17 and we had three tour guides and a driver for the duration of our four night stay. I say three tour guides....I would say one tour guide and two 'minders'. We were given a brief overview of the country, including some rules, which I think are worth sharing:
1) When taking photos of pictures of leaders they must be the full pictures, no cropping or part photos allowed
2) Absolutely no photos of the military (although my selfie with a North Korean soldier I took later in the trip seemed fine!)
3) No photos of construction sites or builders
4) We must look after the magazine we were given on the plane as it has a photo of the leader inside and if you roll it, that's classed as being disrespectful
5) If you have religious material on you, you must keep it on you and not even leave it in the hotel room
And then we have my personal favourite....
6) Don't walk alone without a tour guide, people will think you are an American, the enemy, will call the police and you'll be taken into custody with a big fine to pay!
Throughout the trip we were told about some of the ways of North Korean society, but as a group we also asked questions on other matters and had some interesting answers. For example, Maternity leave is five months (paternity leave doesn't seem to exist), and after the five months women have off, they then work six hours a day but get paid for the full eight hours, like men. I wish I'd asked about childcare, but that chance has gone now.
Internet isn't permitted in North Korea, although the guide just told us that they only have intranet because they are a relatively new country and 'Rome wasn't built in a day'. Okay, so you can develop nuclear weapons, build some of the most incredible monuments in the world, develop sophisticated spyware, but you can't work out how to use the internet? Nice try.
North Korea is 30 minutes ahead of Beijing, and I remember reading about this last year, as they decided to create their own time zone. This is in addition to the fact that they have their own calendar. So whilst we were there we celebrated Juche 105 (2016) as they started their calander from the year that Kim Il Sung was born.
In terms of transport, there are many cars, new and old, from Chinese brands to VWs, which surprised me. The main method of transport was bicycle, especially when we went outside of the capital and saw farmers and locals travelling.
Housing, healthcare and education are free to all residents. When you marry, have a child or another significant life event happens, you apply to the state for a house. They review what you do and then assign you a house somewhere in the country. So people have no choice as to where they live. The state also group together professions, for example we saw one block of flats all for teachers at the university and one block of flats for singers. Interestingly as we were driving around, the guide said that their buildings were like those of Dubai.....just in case you were wondering that wasn't the case! Some newer apartments looked similar to modern blocks in the UK, but some of the older ones looked very run down, cold and showed that some people have a very poor standard of living with no chance to move.
Children go to school from 5 years, until 17 years. They were very pleased to tell us that they supply milk to all primary school children everyday and there are free extracurricular activities after school. They also have schools for gifted children. The parents or teacher identify a particular talent and the children are then moved to these schools to focus on it. After 17 years they can go to university, join the army (all voluntary) or work. I read before I went that North Korea has the fourth largest army on the world. We were told that joining the army is seen as the greatest thing you can do and that it's also a huge hit with the ladies!
Whilst we we're there we went to many restaurants, all of which were very nice. There was always lots of variety and large bowls and plates full of food. We had fresh vegetables, tofu, egg, potato, kimchi, rice cakes, beer, tea etc. I felt uncomfortable thinking that we are eating so well, knowing that food supply is still something that the country struggles with. Some of our group had dog soup whilst we were there (obviously I didn't try this being veggie)! The national dish is cold noodles, which were actually okay and the countries main staple foods are rice and potato.
We asked one day if homosexuality was illegal in North Korea (playing ignorant is the best way to ask questions without offending). The guide said 'actually, we don't have have any gays.' Another moment of trying to keep a straight face a s I was sat near the front of the bus. She quickly followed by adding that it is illegal though. They also have no criminals in the entire country, or any prisons. Of course you don't...
Monuments/Places of Interest
Our first stop (before we had even dropped our bags off) was the Liberation War Museum. It was very impressive from the outside, but it was dark and unfortunately we couldn't see the weapons they used in the war, which they display outside. They tried to show us those kept outside that they had taken from the US and kept as war trophies. As my eyes started to adjust to the dark area we were in, I realised I was practically nose to nose with a burnt out fighter jet, with a U.S. tank next to it and other weapons and aircraft! Pretty eerie to say the least! I've managed to find a photo online to show you below.
We were then taken around the corner where there was a huge US warship moored in the river, the best 'war trophy' North Korea have. They say the US disguised it as a civilian ship but that it was actually used for espionage (I can believe this). We were taken on a tour of it and saw the espionage equipment inside which was interesting.
When we got into the huge museum we couldn't take photos. I've never wanted to take photos more in my life! There was a huge chandelier in the shape of the North Korean star and two beautiful large marble staircases. At the top was a colour statue of the leader which was about 30 meters tall. He is smiling and waving with fireworks in the background. It felt a like a warped Disneyland! We then watched a film called 'Who started the Korean War?' No prizes for guessing it was very anti US and included very disturbing images of dead children and apparent secret U.S. documents accepting they started the war for geographical reasons. Throughout the tour we were told that they have a confidential US document stating that they would start the war on a Sunday as no-one would believe it was them that way as they are a Christian country and another document explaining that North Korea is geographically key which is why they want control.
Parts of the war museum tour were just odd. We walked into a room with a display of dead US soldiers being eaten by vultures. I quickly learnt then that you'd just never know what was coming next in this country! I cant explain the extent of the anti US feeling and I can see why US advise all citizens against all travel (although there were some Americans on the plane anyway). There was a lot of talk about revenging the enemy and if you were North Korean and believe all you are told, you'd want revenge on the biggest scale possible.
On another day of our visit, we went to the statues of the great leaders. As we approached we were asked by our guide who wanted to pay respects with flowers... awkward silence! Some group members did buy some in the end. I personally didn't because I feel that having to bow every time we see a statue to pay our respects is bad enough (this bit isn't optional). When we arrived we were turned away as there was a bit of snow on the statues and they had to be cleaned first. We went and 'paid our respects' another day.
Another interesting place was the International Friendship Exhibition in the mountains. It's about a 3 hour drive from Pyongyang and built into the mountains and is over 70,000 sq meters! The building is very magnificent and has grand marble pillars and stair cases everywhere, it's just a maze of huge rooms and corridors (one over 400 meters long). Seriously - whoever builds and designs all of these buildings and monuments in insanely talented. The building shows all gifts (over 180,000) given by 185 countries. This includes the UK and supposedly one from the Labour Party in 1982.
We saw an armoured car sent by Stalin for the leader during the Korean War, along with a huge bullet-proof train carriage. I thought nothing more could surprise me until I walked into a room off the corridor with many other rooms on it to see.... a HUGE passenger plane on display in a room. I'm serious. I was so taken aback, I was actually speechless and momentarily forgot my fear of standing near aircraft! This was also gifted by the USSR. We saw the wax works of the former leaders in their own rooms (they looked spookily real), but had to do up our coats before they opened the doors and we then bowed as instructed (there are some strange rules sometimes). We went to the top of the museum which looks out to the mountain and had tea, before leaving to see the Pohyonsa Buddhist temple.
On New Years Eve Day we went to the least celebratory place you could think of - the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Once we'd gone through the check points and seen the museums we went to the actual area where negotiations take place, in a small room (centre blue building in the photo below). The border line runs through the middle of the room, and I got to 'cross' into South Korea. The photo below does a better job of explaining the layout, but essentially you've got the U.S./South Korea and North Korea facing off to each other. The buildings are directly opposite each other and both have dozens of CCTV cameras on them. The photo is taken from the North Korean side.
Managed to get a selfie with a soldier too! The strict no photos of the military rule bizarrely didn't seem to apply in one of the most heavily militarised zones in the world....
Whilst we visited many other places, the last place I'll cover is the Palace of Sun. This is where Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il lie in state. As you'd expect this was another unimaginable huge building with many long corridors and very strict protocol. I seemed to have missed the part in my intro pack about dressing smart whilst there, so whilst some people were in full suits and dresses, I was rocking around in my walking boots, jeans and jumper! We had to be briefed on how to pay respects whilst in the rooms and we bowed in lines of four as we walked around their open coffins, covered by clear glass. After we saw each leader there was then a room with all of the medals, titles and certificates that had been given to each leader by other countries. I was keeping an eye out for the UK and found one. Apparently in 1984 we presented (wait for it...) The Medallion of Derbyshire County. I've literally never heard of some thing so made up 😂 did a quick internet search but unsurprisingly, I haven't found anything!
The metro is worth a quick visit as it had very old trains and beautiful stations. Of course all of these grand monuments, palaces and stations which must be amongst some of the biggest in the world, is such a waste of money when the people need it more, but this country is all about statements.
With a lot of time spent on the bus going from place to place, the tour guides would use this as time to tell us about a site, history of the country, or....tell jokes. For this reason I feel a section on 'bus banter' is justifiable.
The first joke ended with a punchline about throwing Americans off a plane that's crashing as they are extra weight not needed. Another one was about the Taliban capturing three world leaders in Afghanistan and Bush ends up being shot. I asked if these were taught at tourism university (I genuinely did) and was told no (hmm). There were also some light hearted riddles in there- 'Why was number 6 scared of number 7? Because 7 ate 9'. All in all it was pretty hilarious and surreal!
On the second day, one of the guides stood up and said he would like to do a presentation. He said that we were now all one team and we proceeded to talk us through Tuckman's group model of 'forming, norming, storming and performing'. The short 2 minute speech concluded with us needing to perform like a united team whilst on the tour and basically, could we not be late tomorrow morning!
Another occasion our guide spoke to us about the history of Korea. This included mentioning that the U.S. now has 1,000 nuclear weapons and 40,000 U.S. Army in South Korea. They said it was true that they have nuclear weapons and that they are clever enough to hold them. One guide in particular was very informative and passionate about international relations. He felt that the North and South will be reunited one day, but that the U.S. should not be involved. He feels sanctions are unfair and it means that there is not a level playing field when others are allowed nuclear weapons. He believes that dialogue is the way forward. Obviously it's not that simple and the way in which North Korea conduct themselves is not helpful (especially with recent testing of nuclear weapons again), but putting yourself in a citizens shoes, with the information they are provided, I can see why everything seems grossly unfair.
We stayed at the Yanggakdo international hotel, where most foreigners stay. The hotel itself has 47 floors with a revolving restaurant at the top. The rooms have everything you could expect and they very much cater for international visitors. I was still amazed to find BBC World News and Aljazeera News channels- clearly this is part of them showing how 'normal' they are. Interestingly we had two occasions where we saw breaking news about North Korea on TV, which was slightly disconcerting when this headline broke....
The hotel has pool tables, karaoke and bowling lanes so that visitors can stay entertained. You aren't allowed to leave the hotel without a guide, so I guess having things for us to do also benefits them, by reducing the risk of us wondering off. Electricity is relatively scarce in North Korea and of the eight large lifts in the hotel, only two or three would run at a time. On one occasion, the lift we were in came to an almighty halt. It can't have been for more than 3-5 minutes until they sorted it, but that was probably the scariest moment on the whole trip!
Locals react differently to seeing tourists about. With around 3,000 international visitors a year (this includes tourists), it's quite a rare sight for them. Some people are very friendly and smile and wave. Others are not so, and stare at you so that you feel very uncomfortable, pretty quickly. This can only be expected given the things they are told about the outside world and how much they hate Americans (who are they to know we aren't from the U.S).
Tourism is all about North Korea being able to tell 'their side' of the story. The only reason they do tours of the DMZ is because South Korea were doing it and they didn't feel people were being told the truth. Of course, this was always going to be a tightly controlled trip, but there were some things that I didn't realise. There are a few companies you can book with to travel to North Korea. When you arrive though, everyone is with guides from 'KITC' (which stands for Korean International Travel Company). All the buses are branded the same and of course all the guides studied at the same place. So effectively North Korea set the agenda and have full control and a western company market it. I started to piece things together and it started to make sense to me as to why you can only go at certain times of the year; they only want to show off their big events, and they've recently added New Years Eve to that list. On a few occasions the tour guides would show us something and say 'seeing is believing', and this fits in with the idea that they only show us the side of the country that can be viewed as positive.
New Year's Eve/Day
On New Year's Eve we went to a restaurant right on the edge of Kim Il- Sung Square, where the fireworks were due to take place. As there were so many different nationalities on our tour, the evening consisted of sharing drinking songs, singing national anthems (feel sorry for those of us who were the only member of their country there) and some North Korean karaoke from our tour guides! At 11.50pm we headed out to the square where I played a balloon game with some locals, toasted the year in with strawberry champagne and said happy new year to the locals in Korean. Unfortunate the fireworks were cancelled, which was probably for the best as the fog was extremely thick, even with the flood lights on the square. Luckily we got to see them the next evening and they were pretty spectacular.
New Year's Day there was a large square with children playing lots of folk games, which we were told is a tradition on New Year's Day. I ended up in the middle of a large skipping rope with about 30 people watching. There were children playing with balls, roller skating or skipping around. Another interesting addition to the start of 2016 (or Juche 105...) was going to a shooting range and firing a rifle at a target 50m away. I did pretty well and the woman working there couldn't seem to believe how well I had done. This did lead to some locals clapping though and the suggestion I should join the army. I think I'll pass.
Some of what we were told during this was clearly untrue and I think that it's these types of things which throw doubt on everything they say. I personally feel like western societies are also engaged in anti-North Korean propaganda, as much as North Korea have anti-western propaganda. Ultimately the people suffering are the citizens of North Korea. Outside of what we were specifically shown, I saw run down houses, and a rather harsh reality of living.
I'm still unsure about how I feel about tourism in North Korea, at times I felt like a VIP visitor of the state and had moments where I didn't want to be a part of what was going on. For example, for locals to see westerners paying respect to their leaders who've committed such crimes, cannot be a good thing. However further isolation of North Korea cannot be a good thing either, and by locals seeing foreigners, having positive interactions where possible and allowing them to see another way of life, must be beneficial in the hope that this eventually leads to positive change.
Facts about North Korea
1) 80% of the country is covered in mountains
2) Leaving the country without state permission is illegal (and can lead to death if caught)
3) Saying 'North Korea' whilst we were there was frowned upon and we were asked to say DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea) instead
4) Sunday is the only weekend day that they have
5) They have amazing tea (Kaesong Koryo Insam Omija Tea)
Random things I can say I've done in North Korea
1) Been stuck in a lift
2) Shot a North Korean rifle
3) Had a selfie with a soldier
4) Entered South Korea at the DMZ
5) Shopped at a department store
For those who want to learn more, I've put a few starting links below
- Tedtalk from a North Korean who escaped to China http://youtu.be/PdxPCeWw75k
- My footage from North Korea (a little shaky but worth it for the fireworks at the end!) http://youtu.be/oyK-a05LN8A