North Korea. Yes is it can be gone to, and yes, even American’s can make it. However, it isn’t exactly a convenient place for one to get. In addition to needing airfare to China, one also needs to go join an approved tour, needs a multiple entry visa to China, and as an American needs to fly into Pyongyang, whereas anyone else can take the train. One statistic I read remarked that since the foundation of the DPRK in 1953, something like only 2,500 American’s have made the trip. I think this number has been increasing lately, but I think the sentiment still holds. Despite the roadblocks to entry, one can not deny the obvious appeal of such a country as North Korea, or at least not to a person like myself. I had spent a lifetime hearing what the West had to say about how crazy everything they do is, so it was high time I went and had a look around.
Those who were flying into the capital met at the old arm of the Beijing airport, where we would be flying North Korea’s own Air Koryo. The plane I boarded had to be the oldest commercial aircraft still in service. I was sitting next to an employee at the Pakistani Embassy, and he was convinced we would be dying on the flight. I was also able to talk to him about what it was like to live in work in such a country. He said he was excited about it at first for the same reasons any tourist would be excited, but was now counting the days to get he next placement, there being so very little to do outside of the job. When we finally arrived in Pyongyang, we had to go through a lengthy security check. They wanted to check all the money we were bring into the country, any volumes we had, and also confiscated our mobile devices until our departure.
The Pyongyang Airport
The weather that first day was pretty wet, but once we got everyone on the other side we were on the bus and off to our hotel all the same. We would be staying at the Yanggakdo Hotel, where all the visitors of the country are put up. It also had the luxury of being built on an island, which let us walk around outside, without supervision. That first day we just checked in, and then met for a late dinner. Me and Gwen opted to room together again, since we only knew each other going into the trip. When I was finally lounging about is when I started giving thought to where in the world I was. North Korean serves as fodder history classes and its regarded as some barbaric and hostile country with an immigration policy akin to Willy Wonka’s. Yet, despite all that, there I was looking out my window at a respectable city, with treatment well within what the Geneva Convention would allow. It was a bit of a strange feeling. We went down to dinner where we had a decent buffet awaiting us, old beer and people happy to serve us. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that this is all a facade. I know they want to put their best foot forward to the rest of world so as to mask the ugly reality, though, I’ll give them credit for doing a good job at it. After dinner, we were left with nothing to do except frequent the casino and assemble at the bar. The tour was almost entirely comprised of people in my own age demographic, so all of the above worked out to be a great time.
The hotel lobby. Clearly a nice place, right?
The next day, we had our first day of tourism into this foreign land. We first went to Jeuche Tower, built as an embodiment of Kim Il Sung’s philosophy. The idea was that mankind was as the very top, having complete control and dominion over the world. After this trip, I would have really liked to learn more about it, since it did so much to shape their way of life. We were able to go up into this tower, and look out over a very foggy city. Not the best day for it, but I figured I wouldn’t get another chance anytime soon. While up there, they encouraged us to take pictures in the direction of nicer monuments, directing us away from the older apartments off to one side of the tower. From there, we went to a North Korean film studio. We were met with someone who was happy to tell us exactly how many times Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il had been there. As we walked around the permanent structures, they told how their sets were better, as those in America and the rest of the world were just wooden facades supported by planks. Um… OK. They had Japanese, Chinese, and Korean streets, as well as a set for something set in the feudal era. We also took a ride on the city’s metro line. The deepest in the world, we descended 100 meters to where the tracks lay. It was an old carriage, but something about it was well paired to the chandeliers and colorful murals that dressed the station. While riding our one stop, I had the chance to converse with my first real live North Korean, aside from my guides. He was a man who was studying English on the train, so after I sat next to him, we made some small talk and exchanged Facebook info.
Metro station – 100 meters underground.
After the short ride and our return to the surface, we went to an English Language bookstore filled with the works of the the Kims, as well as some other souvenirs. I picked up a few pins and trinkets. That was adjacent to the people’s square these communist countries tend to have, so we took a walk there as well. It was surrounded by all the government buildings and memorials I’ve not come to expect.. While crossing a street, I managed to do something a police officer didn’t like, so he went and had a chat with my guide. One other place we made it to was a shooting range, where you could try your luck at shooting pheasants. If you were to hit one, it was yours for dinner. No one but our North Korean guide had any luck, likely because he once served with the military.
In the square
One more stop we made that day was at the Korean War Museum, and it was quite interesting to say the least. To be fair, I don’t know much about the Korean War’s history. But, I don’t think I buy that the US started the war to prop up its own ailing economy, one based entirely on the sale of arms to warring countries. The video we watched suggested that we needed the war to bring us out of a time resembling the Great Depression, and stated explicitly that we made South Korea “Hell on earth”. I suppose that’s one take on it. In an account of the war by a guide, I heard the words ‘liberated’ and ‘ annihilated’ to describe every battle. Then when it got to the point where South Korea and the US had been pushed back to Busan, she basically stopped stalking. Finally, we went to a trophy room that was filled with US aircraft and land vehicles. This take on something close to home for the Korean was very interesting. That night, we had dinner at the rotating restaurant atop our hotel, and then made preparations to go to Arirang, also known as the Mass Games. One of the monuments we saw.
The Arc de Triumph. Of course its bigger than the one in France.
This was the whole reason I chose to come to North Korea at this time. Guinness certified as the largest display of mass gymnastics and held in the largest stadium in the world (seating 150,000 people) I knew that it would be a once in a lifetime experience. Just sitting in my seat at the beginning of the show, I was being swept up by just the incredible scale of it all. When the students working the placards started warming up, yelling at each thunderous change of cards, I was absolutely amazed at what was before me…and the show had yet to begin. Finally though, the show started and took us all for a ride through the history of North Korea. It started with the Japanese occupation, then went to the Korean war, detailed how Kim Il Sung led them to victory, and finished with a China/DPRK best friends forever bit. With over 100,000 people participating in the event, it was truly breathtaking to see such precision. At times, it had elements on par with Cirque Du Soleil and mounts of people that would have impressed any cheer troupe. It was about 90 minutes long, but it over in a flash. Everyone left that stadium with emotions running high.
About 13 minutes of the mass games. At some point Kim Il Sung’s portrait is displayed, notice the audience reaction to it.
The next day was another day packed with monuments and remarkable experiences. We left early to go to the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung, stopping on the way at some fountain park. Once at the mausoleum, we we required to empty our pockets of everything, cameras, candy, lint, you name it. Then, we needed to have the bottom of our shoes cleaned on some scrubbing device. From there, we took a moving walkway for about a kilometer on our way up to the actual monument. Once at our destination, conversation ceased and we were ushered down a hallway. When we made a corner, we were greeted with an enormous statue of the man, set against cool lights at the end of long corridor. There ceilings were all about 30 feet high, with marble decking it all the way to the top. As we walked down this hallway, and lined up before the effigy, we were all just in awe of the scene. While we stood there, triumphant music could be heard as well. After having our intimate moment with the statue, we were led into another room where we were given devices that had a recording on them. I don’t know who they got to write this thing, but it was the most colorful bit of writing I have ever heard. “And upon this day me, women, and children the world over wailed, and bawled in the streets…the lighting crashed and it was if the very soul of the earth had died.” After that little treat, we made our way over to the real attraction; it was time to see the pickled corpse of elder Kim. For this, we needed to have the dust vacuumed off our clothes, and then made our way into a dimly lit room. At the very center was the body of the man, and we lined up in front up it. In lines of 5 people, we bowed on each side of the open casket, and then made our way out of the room. When we were out, we could talk again. However, words completely failed to express how insane this all was to us. For as incredible as Arirang was, I was just as blown away with the opulence of this place. We exited in utter disbelief.
From the outside
The rest of that day was spent at a war memorial, the Children’s Palace and going down to a city close to the DMZ. Having just come from the mausoleum, we were still dressed formally, and it was quite hot. I was one of the few without sweat stains, which I felt pretty good about. At the monument, there were about 150 busts of significant people who died in the war, and of course a large granite memorial. The Palace we went to is where students would go after school to do extra curricular activities. The 5000-7000 students could do anything from sports to computer skills to honing any number of niche talents. We walked toured the different rooms and saw accordion, dance, and vocal ensembles, which were all extremely good. At the end of it, we went to a theater where we saw a number of performances from these frighteningly gifted children. It really was incredible, but they had that look and fake smile of a young performer where you couldn’t tell if they actually wanted to be spending all those hours training.
Video of clips from the Children’s Palace.
We later finished our drive to a city I believe was called Kaesong, where we stayed at a sort of traditional style resort. We stayed in rooms that hung off of a main outdoor courtyard. They were equipped with beds on the floor and mosquito nets, which was alright, though the electricity and water was pretty hit and miss throughout our stay. After a decent dinner, we were once again faced with the dilemma of being trapped in a hotel with nothing to do. As a group of like minded individuals, we dubbed ourselves Team Awesome and sought to be be placed in the same block of rooms. Someone had the foresight to bring some music and speakers, so we just turned the countryside of Best Korea into a party.
A little blurry, but this was our courtyard party zone and the home of Team Awesome
When we woke up, most of us were unable to shower, so we just ate our breakfast and boarded the bus, bound for the Demilitarized Zone. While many people go visit this from South Korea, I wasn’t able to arrange the tour when I was there. The experience is essentially the same from the north side, though we could see the buildings used for the armistice talks, are are entirely on the north side. We were unable to go into the building that straddles the border, because the South Korean’s had “locked the door, preventing us from going in”. I watched one of the tour guides laugh and need to step away when she heard this bogus excuse for running behind schedule. Whatever, I wasn’t too broken up about it or anything. It was cool enough to see what I saw, and be where I was.
The rest of the day had us walking around a really uninteresting temple museum, and some mediocre park in Sariwan before making our return to Pyongyang. After a quick check in at the hotel, we split to go to a department store and a microbrewery. No pictures were allowed at the store, which was probably to cover up the fact that they had all sorts of imported good from Japan and other countries. Not sure how they got those. At the microbrewery, we had some really good stuff, each one was much better than anything I’ve ever had in South Korea. Then we had our dinner at a really nice BBQ duck restaurant, some of the best food we had had thus far.
Our last stop for the trip was at the Diplomatic Club, were we got a private room and a chance to all cut loose with our guides. Something about belting out the Ghostbusters themesong, with North Korean people was a little surreal. Again, going back to the impression we get from Western media, these people are presented as soulless drones. And yet, here we all were having an amazing time with them, in a very laid back environment. We even played pool with some of the women working the bar.
After some time here, it was back to the Yanggakdo Hotel where we kept the night going and finished up our loose ends. We spent some time in the casino at the blackjack table which left me 30 dollars poorer. The highlight of the night was our adventure to the 5th floor. Because it didn’t appear on the elevators, and we had heard some stories, we were immediately intrigued. So, we went to the 6th floor and went down by stairs. Once there, we wandered an unfinished hallway with a low ceiling. There was some really creepy propaganda posters well suited to the dimly lit passageways. We made a couple trips to make sure we had found everything. It really was a crazy place, that really had us on edge as we explored. We decided that nothing bad could happen, since they couldn’t kick us out of the hotel. We found a sort of command center that had a guy hidden in it, and he told us to leave. It turned into another of those late nights, with me joining our tour leader and his North Korean business partner at the hotel bar to chat. The tour leader was a younger guy from England and was hilarious. So together we all enjoyed the evening. Finally, I slept for a couple of hours before waking up to go to the airport.
Some of the video from the 5th floor…
The departure was about the same as the arrival, where I had to go through a security check, to make sure I wasn’t smuggling anything out I shouldn’t be, and I also got my cell phone back. I did manage to get my hands on the local currency and sneak that out, which will make a nice addition to my collection. The flight was just the same as the flight in, also served with the nicest in flight meal I’ve ever had. And back at the Beijing airport I had a 6 hour layover, which I wasn’t just going to waste at the airport. So, I split a cab with a couple other guys I met while there, and we headed into the city to check out the Temple of Heaven. I meant to go one of the other times I was in Beijing, but hadn’t managed to get there, here was my chance. So, lugging my big bag around I toured the grounds. Here, there were some really cool circular buildings that were once the site where the emperors would pray for a good harvest. I finished up, then flagged a cab to get back to the airport. It was time for a night in South Korea!
North Korea was an intensely fascinating place to spend some time, but we managed to go through the cycles of culture shock in a matter of days. When we arrive it was absolutely a honeymoon period, but it didn’t take long before we were done with the Kims. The extent to which they permeated life was almost suffocating. One is not to point at any image of them, but rather gesture with their entire hand. Another is that materials bearing a photo of either Kim must be folded properly before being placed in the trash. After the short trip, I was ready to leave, I couldn’t take too much more of what was going on there. The culture was fascinating throughout the trip though. North Korea is a country that was founded as a Communist state but has evolved over the years. They have managed to find a way to channel the power religion has into reverence of the leaders and jingoistic thought. The portrait pins that all people wear on their chest bear the image of Kim Il Sung, who is forever imbued into society. After my time there, it was apparent that it was simply Kim Jong Il’s job to be his son, and keep the country going. North Korea is a country filled with amazing monuments, at least within the capital city. Immediately outside the city borders are nothing but farmland, we were instructed not to take photos outside of the city. It seemed like every landmark on our tour was the world’s biggest or best in some category. I am overjoyed to have had the chance to set foot in such an environment. I don’t know if a country like this will be around forever, and I think it unlikely that another would come after it. I view coming on this trip, to experience firsthand the protection of truths and presentations of propaganda as something on a ticking timeline. What made everything I saw so different than seeing some other country’s big monument is that people truly believed in the things they represented. There is no other place like this on earth, and I am blessed for having had the chance to see it with my own two eyes, while also being in the midst of their mentality.
My North Korean Compilation