North KoreaThe World’s Most Secretive Nation, Its Last Stalinist Dictatorship & One Of The Planet’s More Niche Travel Destinations
IMAGE || Offerings to the Great & Dear Leaders at the Mansudae Hill Grand Monument, Pyongyang, North Korea.
“…this is probably the most revered location at which to pay one’s respects to the dead august leaders, not to mention where the bizarre personality cult of North Korea’s founding dynasty can be witnessed firsthand by nescient foreigners like me.”
At three days and two nights, my trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), a.k.a. North Korea, was brief. Three days. Three days of being monitored. Three days of being chaperoned, guided, led to see only what I was supposed to see, the very best of what the North Korean capital is prepared to divulge to sceptical foreign eyes. Three days of eating where I was told and when I was told. Three days of watching what you say and when you say it. Three days of commenting how ‘normal’ life feels here for seemingly normal people, people just like you and me and people who know no different, and all the while knowing that life here is anything but normal in the Western sense of the word. Three days of being surprised, being impressed, being awed & being curious about the pariah state, the ostracised, aloof & so-called ‘most secretive nation on earth’ where fact is routinely stranger than fiction. Three days which seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. Three days of a surreal buzz the likes of which I’ve never experienced before.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) Overview
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)
Region – East Asia (dMb tag: East Asia). Capital – Pyongyang. Population – 25 million. Official Language – Korean. Currency – North Korean Won (KPW). GDP (nominal) per capita – US$1,000. Political System – Unitary one-party republic/totalitarian communist dictatorship. UN Member? – Yes (admitted jointly with South Korea in September 1991). G20 Member? – No. Size – 120,000 km² (one-fifth larger than South Korea, one-eightieth the size of China, its northern neighbour & only ally, and slightly smaller than the US state of New Mexico). Topography – Mountainous. 80% of the country is covered in mountains, the majority of workable land, most of it situated on a wide western coastal plain, turned over to crops. Climate – Hot & sticky summers, bitterly cold winters. Formation/Independence & Brief History – Independence from Japan – who annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910 ending centuries of dynastic rule – on August 15, 1945, thereafter the peninsula was officially divided by the U.S. & the Soviet Union at the 38th parallel. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), following the Soviet model, was declared on September 9, 1948, 3-plus weeks after the August 15 formation of the Republic of Korea, a.k.a. South Korea. The failure of talks to unify the peninsula sparked the 1950-1953 Korean War, the communist-led North invading the South (the North claims it the other way around). The war ended in a military stalemate, the country in ruins, the formation of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and the signing of an armistice (but no peace treaty). Ruled since its inception by the Kim dynasty, Kim Il-sung (ruled 1948-1994), a.k.a. The Great Leader, introduced the personal philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance. Distinct from Soviet or Chinese philosophies, Juche Socialism became a guiding light for North Korea’s development. The state, aided by the Soviet Union & in possession of most of the peninsula’s heavy industry, initially prospered and enjoyed a higher standard of living through the 60s & 70s than the politically & economically unstable and largely agricultural South (until the early 1970s, North and South Korea were pretty evenly matched in terms of wealth). Stagnation in the 1980s, as the country stuck rigidly to its state-run system, coupled with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 saw the county slide into isolation and poverty; the North’s agricultural system collapsed in the mid-1990s leading to widespread famine and death for countless North Koreans. A recent & contentious nuclear and ballistic missile programme, part of an aggressive military modernisation campaign the seeds of which were first sown in the 1980s, not to mention a hard-line stance against what it perceives as external interference (especially from the USA, public enemy number 1 since the end of the Korean War), has exacerbated North Korea’s rigidly maintained isolation from the rest of the world ensuring that today one of the world’s most secretive societies, and its very last Stalinist dictatorship, remains one of the planet’s more niche travel destinations. UNESCO World Heritage sites – 2. Tourism Catchphrase/Slogans – None (that I could find). Percentage chance of seeing any of North Korea unaccompanied – 0 Famous For – Being closed & isolated; having an unsettling desire to develop nuclear weapons & lob missiles around the region; for being a case study in effective societal brainwashing & one-half of an unparalleled socio-political contrast (with neighbouring South Korea); the absolute and unwavering slavish devotion of the subjected masses to the regime and its highly revered leaders. Highlights – Just being here; the surreal spectacle of clean, ordered and sparsely-populated Pyongyang, an Asian city like no other. North Korea Titbits – The country has its own time zone, Pyongyang Time, which is 30 minutes ahead of China & 30 minutes behind South Korea; it has a standing army of over 1.2 million, one of the world’s largest and the largest as a proportion of population; due to its closed nature, North Korea is probably the most ethnically homogeneous nation on earth (the few foreigners found in the country are mostly tourists); although divided by the DMZ, Korean culture is truly one of a kind with its own language, script (hangul) and food.
Visits – August 2017.
Selected North Korea Highlights
– Boring. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland, August 2017
Selected North Korea Highlights Gallery
– Pico Iyer, travel writer
The adventure started in earnest just after 10 a.m. Chinese time, 10:30 a.m North Korean time. It was a short and somewhat laboured trundle over the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge spanning the Yalu River from Dandong, China, the once-daily number 95 train, the lone rail service connecting the Chinese border town with the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, signalling its slow progress with frequent and shrill blows of its whistle. I wasn’t missing a trick, taking it all in and with camera at the ready. Once over the bridge and that was that. North Korea. Not from across the DMZ, not from the other side of a river and definitely not from the end of a mangled Korean War-era bridge, all places from which I’ve previously peered into North Korea. Nope. This was actual North Korea. In. The. Flesh. And that became starkly obvious rather quickly.
DAY 1 10:38 – FIRST GLIMPSE – Arriving on the platform of Sinuiju train station, northern North Korea. August 14, 2017.
When this, my first glimpse of the ever-present portraits of a smiling Kim Il-sung (left) & Kim Jong-il (right), rolled into view as we were coming to a stop on the platform of the train station in Sinuiju, the North Korean town across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge from Dandong, the realisation that I was in North Korea hit home. It was neat moment, one of those will-live-long-in-the-memory travel experiences. The station itself was boxy & spartan but polished, much like everything else I was to be shown over the proceeding days. Seemingly I shouldn’t have photographed the dead but very much still revered leaders. Respect and rules, rules and respect… yada yada yada. It might have been before or after this moment – or both, I can’t quite remember – when we were briefed on the dos & don’ts of brandishing a camera in North Korea (oh, & we also practiced how to bow properly… in the departures hall of Dandong Train Station some hours earlier… honest). In hindsight it seemed unnecessary as by and large photography restrictions were few, completely unenforceable, or sidestepable where they did exist, much to my pleasant surprise. I always do, but I especially loved the latest photography challenge the North Korea provided.[/caption]
DAY 1 10:52 – BORDER FORMALITIES – Document checks on board the daily number 95 train from Dandong, China to Pyongyang in Sinuiju station, northern North Korea. August 14, 2017.
Everyone was on their best behaviour, at least initially, when the officials, a lot of dapper officials, boarded the train carriage we were confined to in order to check documents and bags – the mood slowly lightened and the atmosphere became more jovial, more laid-back once it became apparent that the North Korean officials were actually human beings capable of a smile just like the rest of us. And they were obviously used to dealing with diffident foreigners; they knew what they were doing, we didn’t. Some laughs were shared and pictures, although officially not allowed, were conspicuously captured, something that really didn’t seem to bother the officials who noticed (those who bothered to react at all did so in such a way as to halfheartedly wave the cameras away). Will our bags be searched? Most were, mine included, although it really felt more like the need to make an expected fuss rather that a bona fide search for prohibited items (Korea-related literature, pornography, communications equipment etc.). Will they confiscate my zoom lens? Of course not (but they did give it a quick once over… it doesn’t look that ‘professional’). Will they review the contents of camera memory cards? No, although this is more likely to happen upon departure, if it happens at all (it didn’t). Will they find something not to their liking? Not on me, no (paper maps of the peninsula were initially confiscated from Matt, our tour company representative/guide, but eventually returned once common sense prevailed). They noted those carrying mobile/cell phones, at least those who owned up to carrying one via some kind of unspoken honour system; they checked the passenger manifest against anticipated arrivals (they were expecting us); they did their searches; and they took off with our Tourist Cards (a.k.a. visas, which we’d only received/seen for the first time some two hours earlier during the initial group rendezvous in Dandong Train Station) and passports, dozens of them piled high. After that we didn’t really know what to do. We waited, espying real North Koreans, pretty & healthy-looking North Koreans, on the platform outside the carriage. I don’t know why but that sight surprised me and I remember commenting to myself how North Koreans looked just like South Koreans, until I reminded myself that that are, of course, the same people. There’s an unwanted 4-kilometre-wide, heavily fortified Demilitirized Zone separating them, not a continent.
DAY 1 11:35 – THE WAIT – Aboard the daily number 95 train from Dandong, China to Pyongyang train as seen from the platform of Sinuiju train station, northern North Korea. August 14, 2017.
With the train going nowhere, no one seemed to know if we could get off or not. No one dared, not until we were told we could. We were – told we could – so we did get off eventually. Again, and just like on the train, we were initially on our best behaviour off the train, sheepishly taking our first steps on North Korean terra firma – it felt like pushing boundaries by taking those first steps away from the familiar confines of the carriage, where we knew we were unlikely to ruffle any feathers. We eventually returned to the carriage to get our luggage to facilitate yet another bag check, this one on the roomier platform. Leaving our bags behind, we got back on train again, this time to collect our passports. We got off one more time to continue the wait before eventually transferring to a different carriage for the 5-hour journey to Pyongyang, a carriage added to the train while we waited and a carriage that was earmarked to transport only us foreigners (there were at least three tour groups on this day en route to Pyongyang). Pictures were not allowed on the platform of the station, but I captured a few regardless including this one of passengers happy to wait out the formalities by staying on the train; the majority of the train’s passengers were returning North Koreans and visiting Chinese, but it seems only foreigners are required to disembark. And embark. And disembark. And embark.
All in all, the border & customs procedure took about 3 hours, 3 hours of waiting and 3 hours of not really being sure what was going on, a situation everyone was more than happy to roll with (what choice did we have?). Everything felt relaxed and beers were had on the platform to pass the time, the chilled ones selling out from the trolley lady in double-quick time; fresh stocks were needed and arrived promptly, but none were chilled. And once the seal was broken on the platform the beers invariably kept flowing when on the train, too. I didn’t know it at the time but North Korea was to turn into quite the session.
DAY 1 14:30 – TAEDONGGANG #2 / (NORTH KOREAN) BEER – Taedonggang #2 on the daily number 95 train from Sinuiju to Pyongyang, North Korea. August 14, 2017.
Beer. North Korean beer. By all accounts North Koreans like their beer, Taedonggang #2 being the preferred option among them because, I assume, it’s the one that’s most widely available. An eminently drinkable lager (when chilled), it’s cheap, even at the vastly inflated foreigner price of CNY10 (€1.30) for a 600ml bottle, but a little inconsistent and has a tendency, at 5%, to cause both amnesia & pain in that order.
DAY 1 15:15 – RURAL/REAL NORTH KOREA & COOPERATIVE FARMING – The northern North Korea countryside as seen from the daily number 95 train from Dandong, China to Pyongyang, North Korea. August 14, 2017.
I was, and as were others, taken aback by the unexpected beauty of the North Korean countryside, joking more than once that maybe, just maybe, it was all staged for our benefit (the blue skies I hadn’t seen in China over the previous few days did nothing to hurt North Korea’s cause on this day). It was very rural, very green and very, very picturesque – the western coastal plain landscape from the border with China all the way to Pyongyang, a distance of some 230 kilometres and a vital region for farming and crop production in the largely mountainous country, appears as one continuous landscape of tidy crops and immaculate farmland. North Korea’s model of self-sufficiency relies heavily on cooperative farming to feed the population. This over-reliance coupled with torrential flooding, droughts and restricted Soviet food-aid contributed to the 1994-1998 humanitarian crisis that was the North Korean famine, a catastrophe which resulted in death for countless North Koreans (Wikipedia estimates anywhere between 240,000 to 3.5 million) – the state-coined term “Arduous March” became a metaphor for the disaster following a state propaganda campaign to deflect responsibility for the failure to prevent widespread hunger. This picture sums up the striking landscape for me – simple low-rise dwellings, dirt roads, greenery, peasants working the land, oxen, herded livestock, a total absence of rubbish (no consumerism as we know it means nothing to discard) and people on bicycles (there were few buses and even fewer cars to be seen).
“… the western coastal plain landscape from the border with China all the way to Pyongyang, a distance of some 230 kilometres and a vital region for farming and crop production in the largely mountainous country, appears as one continuous landscape of tidy crops and immaculate farmland.”
Real North Korea?
Sinuiju is connected to Pyongyang by the 225-kilometre-long Pyongui Line, the main corridor for overland traffic between North Korea and China and the country’s most important rail line. I spent a large portion of the 5 hours it took to cover that distance standing between carriages and peering out the (closed) windows, camera always in hand and viewing what I knew I’d never get any closer to, that being real North Korea, the North Korea foreigners would never get to see in person. While obviously rural, it all looked very normal. Simple, but normal. From my brief & restricted view of the North Koreans and their way of life, I didn’t pity them. Not one bit. They know of no other and yes, it appears to be a hard life, one with few comforts and a life void of material luxuries. But I’d imagine the North Koreans also live a simple life with few, if any, of the modern-day worries that beset people like me, people fortunate enough to be able to come here from various corners of the globe to gawk at the North Koreans in an attempt to develop an appreciation for their secretive way of life.
DAY 1 16:55 – GAUNT – As seen from the daily number 95 train from Dandong, China to Pyongyang, North Korea. August 14, 2017.
Two of many similarly dressed male adolescents (it’s really hard to guess their ages) doing something as a collective by the side of the tracks (gathering some greenery into their hats by the looks of it), one of which is shielding his eyes from the late afternoon sun as the train trundled past. I remember commenting how gaunt they looked.
Some more captures as seen from the train en route to Pyongyang.
DAY 1 16:30 – SENTRY POST – As seen from the daily number 95 train from Dandong, China to Pyongyang, North Korea. August 14, 2017.
The beautiful countryside was ever-present, but every so often we’d pass a rudimentary manned sentry post by the side of the tracks. The posts seemed spaced a similar distance apart (5 kilometres or so) and were always positioned a few hundred metres either side of a rail bridge. The proximity of the posts to the tracks and the inability to see them until just before they flashed by meant capturing this scene from behind the dirty windows of a moving train was a challenge, one I eventually rose to here, about an hour out of Pyongyang, having been frustrated at numerous sentry posts up to this point. I’m not sure if the soldier stands there all the time or only when the train passes (judging by the expression on her face I’m guessing the former). One of my favorite captures from the trip, this is my pictorial highlight of Day 1 in North Korea.
Songun - Military First
North Korea adopted Kim Jong-il’s Songun (military first) policy, meaning expenditure (a whopping 25% of the impoverished nation’s GDP), allocation of resources and all matters of national affairs are wholly prioritised towards the interests of Korean People’s Army. A policy of f’d up priorities, it means tanks before teachers, nukes before nurses. North Koreans are rather proud of having one of the largest active military forces on earth (the 4th largest after neighbouring China, the US & India, but easily the world’s largest as a percentage of population). It has an estimated active duty military force of up to 1.2 million personnel (about one in five of all men aged 17-54 are in the regular armed forces where standards of training, discipline and equipment are reported to be low) with a total of 9.5 million active, reserve and paramilitary personnel (that’s a lot of cannon fodder). Needless to say, chest-beating militarism pervades everyday life, both men and women indoctrinated early into accepting a strong military influence as a normal part of their everyday existence. For men, military conscription is a testing 11 years, the longest of any country on earth.
Pyongyang. It’s a visually unique Soviet-era project in urban regeneration. It’s boxy. It’s ordered. It’s clean. It’s colourful. It’s broad boulevards, empty & bumpy roads, wide expanses, surreal monumental monuments and some of the biggest & boldest structures/white elephants of their kind on planet earth. It’s compact and home to, and depending on your sources, anywhere between 2.5 to 3.5 million privileged North Koreans, but still feels sparsely populated. There’s activity, but it’s never bustling during the day and downright dead, eerie & dark at night. It’s North Korea’s showpiece, only the very best of which, and no mistake, is seen by visiting eyes. It’s an Asian city like none I’ve ever experienced before, and where Pyongyang is concerned it’s definitely a case of you need to see it to believe it.
DAY 1 17:45 – PYONGYANG STATION – On the platform of Pyongyang Station, Pyongyang, North Korea. August 14, 2017.Eight hours after leaving Dandong in China and we finally rolled into Pyongyang. Stepping off the train in Pyongyang Station, the southern terminus of the country’s Pyongui Line and North Korea’s railway hub, was just the latest surreal moment of this day (and for some reason I was reminded of another surreal train disembarkation in another far-flung, off-the-beaten-path location some years earlier, that being in Lhasa, Tibet). Platform 1 of the 5 platform station, first built in the 1920’s and rebuilt in 1958 in typically Soviet style, was alive with people dispersing and going on their merry way. Again, everything felt very normal, the platform itself, curiously absent of leader, dead or otherwise, portraits (they, of course, adorn the external facade of the station), was another expansive and polished space the type of which I was fast getting used to. It shined and looked great in the late afternoon sunlight – the lighting was magical and a great welcome to Pyongyang.
Ha & Yang – Our North Korean Guides
We were met off the train by our primary guide, Ha (her name is a tad more convoluted but for simplicity we were requested to address her as Ha). Of course we were; as a sine qua non of any visit to the secretive Hermit Kingdom, we weren’t going anywhere without her and her male colleague, Yang, whose name escaped me upon initial greeting. Yang, the more approachable of the two in my eyes, rarely divulged Pyongyang titbits, Ha doing the majority of the talking, her English impeccable but delivered in a somewhat annoying accent (gosh, the things that grate me). Two guides. Two sets of government eyes. Always.
DAY 1 18:00 – GRAND THEATRE – Fronting the Grand Theatre in Pyongyang, North Korea. August 14, 2017.Our first stop in Pyongyang was the vast space fronting the 1960 Grand Theatre, the first of many impressively boxy city edifices we were to become acquainted with over the course of our visit. There wasn’t a whole lot happening here, a nearby parked van blaring revolutionary music and chants/slogans distracting somewhat from the spectacle that is the huge facade of the theatre, but conversely adding to the surreal buzz of taking one’s first steps on the everyday streets of Pyongyang, a travel milestone by anyone’s standards but one that seemed to get totally lost in the brash surrealism of the moment. No one really knew what to make of it (a van whose roof was adorned with many a vociferous megaphone), the first of what was to be many Pyongyang curiosities.
It’s a short drive from Pyongyang Station to the Grand Theatre, although for us it was longer than it should have been. A distance of a little over a kilometre at its most direct (via Yonggwang Street), the bus decided to go the scenic route via the banks of the city’s Taedong River instead. Maybe this was to allow Ha more time on the introductory mic, but it – taking the roundabout way between points A & B – was to happen more than not during our time in Pyongyang, something I’d imagine only those cognisant of their surrounds would pick up on. Questioning Matt, our tour company representative/guide, about this on Day 2, I was told I wasn’t imagining it and that it was probably because some roads, and/or the views they provide, are not suitable for foreign eyes, but I suspect it was also done in a bid to give the impression of compact Pyongyang being larger than it actually is – in North Korea bigger is always better, the biggest always the best, as you soon come to appreciate on a visit here.
The 1-kilometer saunter down an almost deserted Sungri Street from the Grand Theatre to Kim Il-sung Square didn’t take long. I didn’t know that to expect, but I wasn’t expecting to be walking the streets of Pyongyang this evening and wasn’t quite sure what to make of it when in the moment; it was like, and even allowing for all the pre-trip anticipation, that Pyongyang snuck up on me. But again it all felt very normal, the dearth of people on the streets at this time of the day an obvious observation. I spoke a few words with Ha, questioning the city’s plans for tomorrow’s festivities (August 15 is Korean Independence Day, or Liberation Day as it’s known in North Korea). She didn’t divulge much or genuinely didn’t know details I assumed would be common knowledge, especially to a government tour guide. I got the impression Independence Day isn’t as big a deal here as it is south of the border (and as it turned out it wasn’t any kind of deal at all).
DAY 1 18:30 – KIM IL-SUNG SQUARE & THE GRAND PEOPLE’S STUDY HOUSE – The Grand People’s Study House as seen from across the expanse of Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea. August 14, 2017.The sun well since gone, it was dusk and very blue by the time we reached Pyongyang’s central Kim Il-sung Square, North Korea’s very own Red Square named after the state’s revered founding father, Kim Il-sung. Highly choreographed (colour-coded dots & markings on the ground dictate where participants must stand for maximum visual effect), high-stepping & propaganda-heavy parades demonstrating the DPRK’s military capabilities broadcast from this location give the impression of a space that’s much bigger than it actually is (but I guess that’s always the case). Still an impressive expanse and one of the largest public squares in the world, the 75,000m² square, built in 1954 as part of the post-Korean War rebuild of the city, can accommodate 100,000 people, many, many multiples of the number of people found here on this night. Surrounded by a number of government buildings, including the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s parliament, the square is dominated by the impressive hulk of the Grand People’s Study House. The 600-room building was built in traditional Korean style in 1982 to commemorate Kim Il-sung’s 70th birthday (as I was to learn, a lot of Pyongyang’s landmarks were built to commemorate this event). Serving as the city’s central library & with computer rooms providing access to the North Korean intranet, it’s very own ‘private internet’, it is said that the building holds 30 million books – any one of which can be delivered by an impressive system of conveyor belts – including many works by still dead and still highly revered leaders – it is a national centre for studies on Juche, or ’self-reliance’, the North Korean Confucianist-tinged communist ideology developed by Kim Il-sung as distinct from neighbouring Chinese & Soviet ideologies. Needless to say, massive portraits of both Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader, and Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader, are displayed on the facade of the building overlooking the square, portraits that tower over the tiny mere mortals that pass in front of the building.
Coffee, The Chinese, Dinner & Good Impressions
The bus was waiting for us just off the square and just opposite the Ryongwang Coffee Shop, a joint venture project set up by Austrian investors in partnership with North Koreans & seemingly the best place in Pyongyang for a coffee (it was closed when we were in the vicinity). Dinner followed, hotpot in a foreigners-only restaurant that was already busy with a large Chinese contingent (as I know all too well, the f**kin’ Chinese are everywhere, even where you least expect them and especially here in North Korea, making up about 90% of the estimated 100,000 foreigners a year that visit the country). The food and service was as expected – good and attentive (they were prompt dealing with my request for extra onions) notwithstanding the restaurant’s penchant for so-called watery kimchi, a new one on me. The first beer was free, subsequent tipples priced at CNY10 (€1.30). I forget how much the soju was. It was a good time and I remember thinking that if the North Koreans are trying to make a good impression – and of course they are, that’s the whole point – then they are going the right way about it.
“It was a good time and I remember thinking that if the North Koreans are trying to make a good impression – and of course they are, that’s the whole point – then they are going the right way about it.”
We were late – 21:30 – getting to our hotel; North Korean tours, especially one as packed and brief as this one, start early and end late in the day. The Chongnyon Hotel, a.k.a. The Youth Hotel, is located in the city’s Mangyongdae District, one of Pyongyang’s 19 districts. It’s a bit out of the way, purposely I assume, the roads noticeably bumpier on the city’s fringes than in its showpiece centre. Boasting hundreds of rooms spread over 30 floors, we were assigned, again purposely I assume, ear-popping rooms on the 28th & 29th floors, those furthest from the door. I was amazed to discover the room provided foreign news channels; watching an English language RT (Russia Today) report on the present tensions between Washington & Pyongyang over the latter’s on-going nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions while actually in North Korea was a moment I’ll not be forgetting in a hurry and just the latest in a string of unforgettable moments on this particular day.
CHONGNYON/YOUTH HOTEL – Captured on the last morning of the tour, the polished, shiny and reflective lobby of the Chongnyon Hotel, a.k.a. The Youth Hotel, in Pyongyang, North Korea. August 16, 2017.Opened in May 1989 and boasting a swimming pool (US$5 a swim), a sauna, a massage room, a karaoke room and a bar, the Chongnyon is a first-class rated hotel meaning it offers some of the best rooms on offer to foreigners in North Korea. The rooms were much like the hotel itself – spartan, dated and worn but functional. Not all the light switches worked, even fewer of the sockets, the beds were firm and the hot water only available between certain hours. We spent little time here, arriving late at night and leaving early in the morning while partying & sleeping, in that order, the majority of the hours in between.
We were told to heed the ‘No Access’ or ‘Staff Only’ signs dotted around the hotel, told not to pilfer anything (Otto who?) and were requested not to leave the hotel, ‘where would we go?’ the obvious retort to that restriction placed upon us. So we had beers in the ground floor bar instead (on night one, karaoke and beers on night two). We drank, discussed the day, played pool and smiled reading the propaganda being spurted by the English language Pyongyang Times. I finished off the night with beers at the bar with Jerry, a fellow Irishman, & Yang (my shout). I liked him. We liked him. He’s just like me. He likes beer, likes a laugh and wants nothing more than to live a happy existence (he’s all for unification as I was to discover during this and subsequent chats). We’re no different at all and under normal circumstances we could be good friends. But North Korea doesn’t do normal circumstances, that much blatantly obvious even after only a few utterly fascinating hours here.
Day 2 in Pyongyang. August 15. And while it was Liberation Day, it was a day like any other on the streets of Pyongyang, knowing all too well that I’ve no yardstick, no idea what signifies ‘a day like any other’ in this city.
Lots of Pyongyang must-sees were visited on a day when the packed itinerary was as changeable as they come. A day of surreal moments and mammoth monuments, some of the tallest of their kind, the deepest of their kind, and the biggest of their kind to be found anywhere on earth. I dodged the rain while offering up flowers and bowing, sufficiently I hope, to the Great & Dear Leaders at the Mansudae Hill Grand Monument; I walked the Pyongyang streets again; I went shopping, the for-foreigners Foreign Language Book Store cool but the 3-level for-locals department store, where we got to shop among real North Koreans using real North Korean money, infinitely cooler; I rode on and was sufficiently awed by the Pyongyang Metro, as deep as they come; I got sweeping views of the city, first from atop its Parisian-esque Arch of Triumph before going even higher thanks to the pointy & lofty Juche Tower, the physical manifestation of North Korea’s very own not-for-export brand of Confucianist-tinged Communism; I naughtily took photos of photos – photos of leaders, celebrities & controversial missiles – in a Cultural Exhibition Centre (cum museum cum gallery) were taking photos was prohibited; I drank more beer, this time North Korean craft beer in a North Korean ‘bar’; I visited a nighttime amusement park to witness a lot of North Koreans having fun and being nothing but normal; I had dumpling soup (for lunch) and Korean BBQ – lamb, no less – for dinner after which I was treated to an impromptu cultural performance by the restaurant waitstaff; and the day, and night, was rounded off a singing to the each other in the hotel’s noraebang (karoke room). Lots done, lots captured.
DAY 2 08:15 – MANSUDAE FOUNTAIN PARK – Statues in Mansudae Fountain Park, Pyongyang, North Korea. August 15, 2017.The first stop on this day was Mansudae Fountain Park on the northern fringes of Kim Il-sung Square. The sort of place you’d come for a wedding shoot, the park was opened in 1976 and houses many a beautifully designed fountain dedicated to the glory of, you’ve guessed it, Kim Il-sung. None of the fountains were in operation when we came calling, more water falling from the sky than was being thrust into it (it was a damp start to the day).
Mansudae Fountain Park is a short distance from the surrealistic overdose that is Mansudae Hill Grand Monument, our next stop. We got the fountain park statues out of the way before returning to the bus via a stop at a small roadside florist where we were encouraged to buy flowers to be offered up to the Great & Dear Leaders who we’d memorably get acquainted with in a few minutes’ time. Oh the anticipation.
DAY 2 08:33 – FLOWER OFFERING – Flowers for presentation to The Great & Dear Leaders of the Mansudae Hill Grand Monument, Pyongyang, North Korea. August 15, 2017.I got the last of the €5 bunch of flowers, those purchasing after me having to make do with a cheapo €3 bunch (tut tut). An appreciated show of respect beyond the measure of your bow once in the presence of 22-metre-high bronze greatness, I was actually thanked, by Ha, for making this purchase. You are most welcome.
Suffice it to say, and hyperbole aside, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this before. Our Pyongyang main event came early on Day 2 and was over as quick as it began, but it left one hell of a lasting impression.
DAY 2 08:41 – MANSUDAE HILL GRAND MONUMENT – Paying respects to Kim Il-sung, The Great Leader (left) & Kim Jong-il, The Dear Leader (right), at the Mansudae Hill Grand Monument, Pyongyang, North Korea. August 15, 2017.Save for Pyongyang’s Kumsusang Memorial Palace, where this pair lie in state all Madame Tussauds like and a location that was not on our packed itinerary, however changeable, this is probably the most revered location at which to pay one’s respects to the dead august leaders, not to mention where the bizarre personality cult of North Korea’s founding dynasty can be witnessed firsthand by nescient foreigners like me (see ‘The Kim Cult’ below). Mansudae Hill Grand Monument used to be only half as unbelievable as it is today; there used to be only one 22-metre-tall bronze statue here, that of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founding father, he immortalised here on the occasion of his 60th birthday in April 1972, 22 years before his death (upon initial unveiling it is said that the statue was covered in gold leaf, an over-the-top display of opulence the Chinese, who reportedly funded the monument’s construction, were none too happy about thus prompting the erection of a more modest bronze statue in its place). His son, Kim Jong-il, joined him on the rostrum during the 2012 Centennial Celebration of Kim Il-sung’s birthday and shortly after his own demise in December 2011. The centrepiece of a larger complex, all eyes – and devotion – are obviously directed towards the statues, the base of which provides ample space for flower offerings and which front the wall of the Korean Revolution Museum building; the wall displays a massive mosaic mural of a scene from Mount Paektu, the Korean peninsula’s highest peak and considered to be the sacred mountain of revolution and where North Korean state media claim the Dear Leader was born (the Russians take issue with this titbit, claiming he was actually born in a Russia while Kim Il-sung was in exile in the country during the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula).
“… this is probably the most revered location at which to pay one’s respects to the dead august leaders, not to mention where the bizarre personality cult of North Korea’s founding dynasty can be witnessed firsthand by nescient foreigners like me.”
Surreal as it may seem/is, locals expect visitors to this place to take it all very seriously and show respect to the monument. One must dress respectfully (tank tops, flip-flops, jeans and shorts are a big no-no, my shorts waiting for me back on the bus for when we got this experience out of the way). We were reminded how to bow, as deep as you can go (but there’s no need to overdo it) and in unison (“1-2-3… bow”), but only after the flowers had been deposited by those offering them up (doing so gets you that bit closer to greatness, if only for a few seconds). We were also told to avoid framing the Great & Dear Leaders in any way that would crop their colossal form – it’s full frame or no frame at all, if you don’t mind (a wide-angle lens wouldn’t go amiss here). A semblance of respectful silence was observed by all, amplifying the sound of the ever-present and somber elevator-esque music. Needless to say, it was all a bit phantasmagorical, a bit ‘is this real?”, but kind of expected at the same time. The highlight of the day? Probably. The highlight of the trip to North Korea? Possibly. It’s certainly a 10-minute moment that will live long in the memory.
DAY 2 08:56 – MANSUDAE HILL GRAND MONUMENT – Flower offerings at the Mansudae Hill Grand Monument, Pyongyang, North Korea. August 15, 2017.There’s no need to overdo it with the bowing, but it’s fair game where the flower offerings are concerned.
The Kim Dynasty & The Personality Cult
North Korea officially describes itself as a self-reliant socialist or workers’ state. In reality, it’s a regressive totalitarian dictatorship, the world’s last, ruled by the Workers’ Party and presided over by the Kim family since the country’s inception in 1948 amid the chaos following the end of the Second World War.
Kim Il-sung, a.k.a. The Great Leader (1912-1994, in power from 1945 until 1994)
Kim Il-sung came to power after the overthrow of Japanese rule in 1945. Wielding almost unlimited power over his subjects for almost half a century, he surpassed all others of his time in longevity as a national leader, outliving Stalin by four decades and Mao Zedong by almost two decades, and he remained in power throughout the terms of office of six South Korean presidents, nine US presidents and no less than twenty-one Japanese prime ministers. Referring to himself as Suryong, or Great Leader, as early as 1949, it was he who authorised the invasion of South Korea in 1950 igniting the Korean War (not that any North Korean would believe/admit this). Shaping political affairs for almost half a century, he introduced the personal philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance, which became a guiding light for North Korea’s development, its very own brand Confucianist-tinged Communism and an ideology distinct from neighbouring Chinese & Soviet ideologies. Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack in July 1994, an event that rocked the country. A 10-day mourning period followed after which the post of President was assigned to him, and for eternity no less.
KIM IL-SUNG, PRESIDENT FOR LIFE ‘CLOSE TO THE HEART’ – A Kim Il-sung badge ‘close to the heart’ of our tour guide Ha while navigating the streets of Pyongyang, North Korea. August 15, 2017.The first thing I noted about the officials who boarded our train carriage in Sinuiju, and one of the very first subjects I broached with Ha, our female guide (having been told not to ask anything during our time in North Korea about the leaders or the regime), was the metal lapel badge every North Korean adult wears ‘close to the heart’, a badge depicting the face of either president-for-life Kim Il-sung (earlier editions, as seen here) or both father & son, Kim Il-sung & Kim Jong-il (more recent edition). An extremely sought-after keepsake but not readily available for purchase by Westeners, not for love nor money (categorised more as national necessity for adult North Koreans, these are no souvenirs), they are distributed to the masses by ‘the party’ and are largely responsible, along with an abundance of leader portraits, state-fed propaganda, chest-beating revolutionary paraphernalia and us-against-them rhetoric, for keeping the regime and its leaders front & centre in every facet of everyday life for every North Korean.
– The Two Koreas, A Contemporary History, Third Edition (p16)
Kim Jong-il, a.k.a. The Dear Leader (1941/42-2011, in power from 1994 until 2011)
Pint-sized (he was a rather squat 5ft 2in (157cm) tall) & with a well published fear of flying and a penchant for bouffant hair, jumpsuits and platform shoes designed to make him look taller, Kim Jong-il’s leadership is thought to have been even more authoritarian than his father’s. He presided over a period in the country’s history in which it suffered from famine, partially due to economic mismanagement, had a woeful human rights record and ratcheted up a thorny nuclear armament programme the country is said to have acquired from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. A near-obsessive film buff with a reported collection of 20,000-plus video tapes (Rambo was said to be one of his all-time favourite movies), he was also fond of the finer things in life, reportedly consuming over half a million euros worth of cognac a year, while his private train journeys were as luxurious as befitted a leader of North Korea, despite the millions left behind starving due to famine; one Russian emissary who travelled across Russia by train with Kim described how live lobsters were airlifted daily to his train. Hailed as a demigod, his biography claims, among other superhuman feats, that he shot a 38-under par round of golf that included 11 holes in one, wrote no fewer than 1,500 books in three years while at university and apparently composed six operas. Notoriously reserved, he is said to have broadcast to his people only once, in April 1992 during a parade in Pyongyang to mark the army’s sixtieth anniversary, when he uttered into a microphone at the grandstand: “Glory to the people’s heroic military!” Not surprisingly, a personality evaluation report on him compiled by psychiatrists suggested that the “big six” group of personality disorders – sadistic, paranoid, antisocial, schizoid, schizotypal and narcissistic – which were shared by dictators Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein were also dominant in the late North Korean leader. His narcissism reached an all-time high in April 2009, 2-plus years before his death in December 2011 of a suspected heart attack, when North Korea’s constitution was amended to officially refer to him (and his later successors) as the “Supreme Leader of the DPRK” (but because his father was named ‘Eternal President’ upon his death, Kim Jong-il never officially became president of North Korea).
KIM JONG-IL – Photos depicting the Dear Leader in the Cultural Exhibition Centre, Pyongyang, North Korea. August 15, 2017.Bill Clinton, whose 8-year term as president of the US (1993-2001) was one of concession and productive engagement with the North (the largely positive outcomes of which were undone by the hard-line approach to the North as adopted by the George W. Bush presidency of 2001-2009), visited Pyongyang for a day – August 5 – in 2009 to satisfy a stipulation by North Korea for releasing two American journalists who were detained by the North for straying illegally across the border from China and who were subsequently sentenced to 12 years’ hard labour. No sitting US president has ever visited North Korea, a longstanding wish of Pyongyang that would be seen to lend credibility to both the North Korean regime & its policies among the wider international community.
The Juche Calendar
Notice how the dates on the above picture captions are listed ‘Juche 94′ & ‘Juche 98′, North Korea shunning the traditional Gregorian calendar in favour of its very own ‘Juche’ calendar, one pivoted from the date of President Kim Il-sung’s birth in 1912, Juche 1.
Kim Jong-un (1983/84- , in power from 2011 to the present)
Scion supreme, hailed as the ‘Great Successor” and elected unopposed to the Supreme People’s Assembly in March 2014, little is known for certain about the young, plump & baby-faced Kim Jong-un, the first North Korean leader born after the country’s founding. Nothing, that is, aside from his fondness of basketball and his desire to piss off his neighbours by further destabilising the region all the while giving two fingers to the big, bad US of A. He had barely been seen in public before assuming power and many of the activities of both Kim and his government remain shrouded in secrecy – even details such as what year he was born and whether he did indeed attend a Western school under a pseudonym (it’s almost certain he did, in Switzerland) are difficult to confirm with certainty – but he seems to be someone not to cross, especially if you’re family; official North Korean news outlets reported that in December 2013 he ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek for alleged “treachery” while in February of this year he is said to have ordered the assassination of his brother, Kim Jong-nam, in a Malaysian airport.
KIM JONG-UN – Cultural Exhibition Centre, Pyongyang, North Korea. August 15, 2017.Often depicted looking eerily similar to Kim Il-sung, North Korean watchers say it’s no coincidence that Marshal Kim Jong-un is consistently presented in a way that emulates the likeness and mannerisms of his endeared and long-since-dead grandfather.
– The Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un referencing his grandfather, ‘the President’, & his father, ‘the General’, as reproduced from a display in the Cultural Exhibition Centre, Pyongyang.
The Kim Cult
While other countries have had cults of personality to various degrees (Joseph Stalin’s in the Soviet Union & Mao Zedong’s in China two obvious examples), the pervasiveness and extreme nature of North Korea’s elaborate personality cult is unmatched. The personality cult began soon after Kim Il-sung took power of the new country. And while it had its beginnings as early as 1949 with the appearance of the first statues of Kim Il-sung, the veneration of him came into full effect following a mass purge in 1953, was aided by the 1967 appointment of Kim Jong-il to the state propaganda and information department (where he began to focus his energy on developing the veneration of his father) and was greatly expanded after his death in 1994. To this day the personality cult surrounding The Great Leader is by far the most widespread among the people and while there does seem genuine affection for dead leaders, it’s fair to say that it has largely been manipulated, fabricated by the government for political purposes. Marked by an intensity of the people’s feelings for and devotion to their leaders, many defectors claim there are often stiff penalties for those who criticise or do not show “proper” respect for the regime, fear seemingly playing a big and unspoken part in maintaining the cult and thereby in sustaining the regime itself.
We didn’t have much time to process what we just experienced at Grand Monument on Mansu Hill as we were pretty swiftly back on the streets of Pyongyang engaging in a spot of shopping and a spot of enjoyable people watching.
DAY 2 10:00 – FOREIGN LANGUAGE BOOKSTORE – Propaganda. Foreign Language Bookstore, Sungri Street, Pyongyang, North Korea. August 15, 2017.The Foreign Language Bookstore is small and it felt more like a library than a bookstore, but what it definitely is is a well established stop on all North Korea tour group itineraries. There are ample opportunities in here to spend much-need hard currency, most literature relating to the regime, its leaders and the Juche philosophy. Revolutionary posters, some priced at €30 a pop, were something of a hit with certain members of our tour group, as were recent copies of the English language Pyongyang Times. I spent some time reading the issue dated July 15 2017, the headline of the article ‘Peerless and brilliant commander’ (referring, of course, to Kim Jong-un) catching my eye.
– The Pyongyang Times, July 15 2017
Activity on the streets outside the Foreign Language Bookstore was a little less contrived than the text on display inside it.
DAY 2 10:08 – NORTH KOREAN ATTIRE – Traffic control on Sungri Street, Pyongyang, North Korea. August 15, 2017.Aside from the obvious spectacle of uniforms on schoolchildren & public servants and fatigues on military personnel, oversized and loose-fitting shirts & pants (on men) & neat blouses and skirts (on women) seem to be the de facto garb among your everyday adult North Korean as witnessed on the streets of Pyongyang. It’s functional attire with a dearth of bright, standout colours &/or patterns, and in a society with virtually zero market freedom, zero freedom of expression, an absence of branding/advertising on clothing is both very noticeable and kinda refreshing; you won’t find the latest Nike, A&F hoodies or Hollister t-shirts on these streets. Also, and in a society where most essentials are provided by the state, a materialistic keeping-up-with-the-Joneses culture is absent, there being no benchmark for social class or the accumulation of material goods among the general populous.
Some more captures from this day on the streets of Pyongyang.
DAY 2 10:13 – SPOTLESS – Somun Street, Pyongyang, North Korea. August 15, 2017.While certain buildings looked like they would benefit from some upkeep, an observation not unique to Pyongyang, the streets of the city were always spotless; it would be a challenge to find any discarded litter, cigarette butts or chewing gum, the sort of eyesores that blight the majority of world capitals. And as for graffiti. Forget it. Not a city for urban ‘artists’, graffiti and any kind of public defacement is strictly illegal, carrying as it does harsh penalties (and I’d imagine ‘harsh penalties’ in North Korea are harsh penalties). The rumour goes that in 2011 college graffiti denouncing Kim Jong-il brought the city to a standstill, the regime refusing to sell train tickets until the culprit was brought to justice. A little North Korea sensationalism that had more to do with defiling the Dear Leader’s name as opposed to a wall maybe, but you get the point. Best leave your spray cans at home if embarking on a trip to North Korea. I captured this picture on one of only two periods during my time in North Korea when I was both away from my fellow tour group members and not in eyeshot of either of our two guides. I lagged behind the rest while walking the small distance from the Foreign Language Bookstore back to the bus, our guides not seeming to worry all that much about a stray, albeit one going in the right direction. It was a small escape granted but an escape nonetheless, and in North Korea they are rare occurrences.
Going as low as we could go proved to be one of the definitive highs of our time in Pyongyang. The metro system in most cities, and especially former Soviet cities (think Moscow, Almaty & Tashkent), is typically built as a showpiece, the Pyongyang Metro, at least the potion of it as presented to foreigners, seemingly no different. Showpiece or no, this Pyongyang must-see awes on many subterranean levels, not the least of which is depth. Welcome to the deepest mass transit system on earth.
DAY 2 10:38 || Going down. Entering Puhung Station of the Pyongyang Metro, Pyongyang, North Korea. August 15, 2017.The banner (not seen here) above the escalator reads: “Long Live General Kim Jong-un, the Sun of Songun (military-first) Korea!”
DAY 2 10:44 – PYONGYANG METRO – Looking down as we look up. Puhung Station of the metro system in Pyongyang, the world’s deepest. Pyongyang, North Korea. August 15, 2017.Constructed between 1965 and the early 1970’s, the two line, 16-station, 22.5-kilometre-long ultra-nationalistic Pyongyang Metro system isn’t exactly extensive, but it sure is deep; at 110 metres underground, it’s the deepest metro system in the world. It’s a simple system, each station, the majority of which are named after themes and characteristics from North Korea’s socialist revolution, having only one entry/exit providing access to a single platform. Blast doors combine with the design and depth to ensure the system can double as an effective bomb shelter in times of war. Being so deep means the views from the platform up the escalator to ground level are rather sweet, aided by the trippy lighting on the (purposely?) unused central escalator. Jerry, one of our party, caused quite a kerfuffle by getting his flip-flop stuck while at the end of the 4-minute escalator ride from ground level (it’d be a hell of a walk if the electricity bill wasn’t paid), this causing the locals to take quite a keen interest in our arrival (as seen here). Elsewhere in the system – and while exploring the platforms and riding the carriages – our presence rarely raised a single North Korean eyebrow.
DAY 2 10:45 – PUHUNG STATION – Newer style Made-in-China rolling stock (left) and older Soviet-era rolling stock (right) on the platform of Puhung Station of the Pyongyang Metro, Pyongyang, North Korea. August 15, 2017.While the majority of Pyongyang’s surgically-clean metro stations were built in the 1970s, the two neighbouring showpiece stations of Yonggwang and Puhung, the latter seen here, were built in the 1980s. The newest and most finely decorated stations in the system and designed to bring a semblance of affluence and luxury to the lives of even the lower working class while serving as inspiration in pursuing national goals, both stations feature grandiose chandeliers and impressive Socialist realist art in the form of massive revolutionary mosaics – centrepiece mosaics adorn every station and each fit a unique theme, the mosaic seen here at the end of the Puhung Station platform entitled The Great Leader Kim Il-Sung Among Workers. This platform was impressively illuminated, bustling with the arrival of trains (every 5-8 minutes or so) and quiet in anticipation for the next arrival. Yep, and as presented, it was just like any other metro system anywhere else in the world. This just happens to be North Korea.
“Until restrictions were relaxed in 2010 tourists were only allowed to travel the 1 spot between Puhung & Yonggwang stations, this sparking something of a conspiracy theory that the two stations comprised the entire system, that the system was purely for show, and that the passengers encountered were actors.”
While it’s definitely the deepest, the restricted Pyongyang Metro must surely also be the most mysterious of its kind, although it is opening up and seemingly every station is now accessible to escorted foreigners; progress of this kind, all in the name of advancing the country’s fledgling tourism offering, is nothing to be barracked at in the bureaucratic behemoth that is North Korea. Until restrictions were relaxed in 2010 tourists were only allowed to travel the 1 spot between Puhung & Yonggwang stations, this sparking something of a conspiracy theory that the two stations comprised the entire system, that the system was purely for show, and that the passengers encountered were actors. For tourists today, the seemingly staged jaunt on the metro system is a little more transparent, a little more panoptic; we rode 5 stops in total via three different stations/platforms and aboard two different trains (one old & almost empty, one new & jam packed). And while I’ve ridden metro systems in many cities around the world, the sampling I got of the Pyongyang Metro was fascinating. Utterly, utterly fascinating.