It took over a month, following my time travelling in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that I got to a point where I felt I could write about it, or at least try to share the experience in some coherent form. Travelling to North Korea for seven days threw my heart and mind into overdrive. I was overwhelmed, confused, upset, surprised and generally lost for words – so much so that I haven’t been able to get them out for such a long time.
To say my perceptions were challenged is an understatement. Living in the western world means that I have always been exposed to a one-sided and exaggerated view point of what goes on there; a biased view that never mentions anything positive and which masks any forms of progress that might just pave the way for a better future, even if it does evolve slowly from an extreme belief system. It’s a country held high as the ultimate war trophy, whose extreme ideological policies (which I in no way condone) are mocked and seen as evil and its suffering people mocked, rather than put into context and explained. After all, the more we learn, the less inclined we are to make assumptions – I too had made many prior to my visit.
Getting to North Korea
You can’t travel in North Korea unless you are in a guided tour group. It’s very restricted and you almost feel as though you live on the tour bus as you can’t wander around freely – you have two guides who chaperone you every step of the way. It’s a completely different way of travelling, and as held back as you feel, the local people simply are not used to western faces and so this form of control allows them a slow introduction. North Korea is not a holiday.
I went with Koryo Tours, given their great reputation. Not only is it very expensive to go to North Korea, it’s also somewhere that I can’t just frequent regularly or easily, and so I wanted my trip to be the best it could possibly be. With the tour starting and ending in Beijing, and all your visa requirements taken care of, the whole process was hassle free.
The night before I remember sitting with a guy in my Beijing hostel, who was also going, and getting giddy at the thought of going to a country that not many people visit, or even know you can get to. In the morning, we were like two children: “We are going to North Korea! I can’t believe it!” which was quickly followed by “I’m scared”. Really scared of the million rules and regulations we had to adhere by, scared of what we might see, doing something wrong and being in trouble… and scared of what I would end up feeling.
In the departure lounge, nervousness and excitement was expressed through a mutual exchange of our knowledge and opinions as well as immature humour. We thought it best to get the jokes out of the way before landing in Pyongyang – the mimicking of the Team America film scenes, pondering over whether we would get to eat hamburgers invented by Kim Jong Il and so on. Better to get everything out of our system before we were exposed to the exaggeration, propaganda and overshadowed facts for real where we would have to keep a straight face. We will only be shown what they want us to see.
North Korea – Where Your Initial Perceptions are Challenged
Pyongyang, where the tour is mostly be based, isn’t a grim and frightening ghost town. Looking out from the top of the hotel, you are afforded with a view just like any other big city, including skyscrapers, factories, monuments and mass housing. And before you scream: “It’s ALL fake and set up”, you really can’t create fake on that scale. It is, after all, the centre of the country’s most elite – it exists as a centrepiece and to house particular people.
Strategically, I thought Pyongyang would be a small concrete city, hidden from view. Instead it sprawls for miles and miles and looks just like any other city, except it’s scattered with propaganda posters, mosaics and bronze sculptures of the Kims. It is both the pivotal destination for tourism, the capital and at the heart of the regime.
There is no denying that it is for show. This is not how the majority of North Koreans live. The city gleamed with new and pristine buildings, built in the grand imposing communist style façade of dominance, modern progression and increasing wealth; statues so immense that their towering presence automatically created an air of intensity; artistic propaganda posters you can’t miss and shop fronts we too often take for granted when at home but which were, in fact, empty. Or they happened “to be closed” that day, of course.
Aside from that, it was a functioning city full of local people going about their daily lives. Whether that was the queue for a building we could only assume is a ration station (there are only tourist stores open), the pockets of people disappearing underground to use the Metro station or walking en masse to the office, or the mothers out with their children, we got only a very, very small glimpse of daily life.
Daily life that is in some parts similar but also very different to our own, but nonetheless, not a giant hell hole of extreme poverty, malnourished unhappy people and mass electricity blackouts. But again, this is the elite city. The show city.
Therefore, I’m not denying the existence of this, because there’s proof from defectors and undercover reporters, but in Pyongyang, it is not on the scale we are told about, because the set up is very different. A city with absolutely no electricity and a mass of starved, brainwashed people makes for a great news article, doesn’t it? This is the showpiece city, although extreme poverty does exist throughout the country, as footage shows, and which you strategically don’t see.
When we drove out of the city we did pass shanty type towns with run-down buildings. It wasn’t pretty and people looked less affluent. This was a real glimpse into how some of the population live outside of the capital, and was the more shocking side to travel here. Construction was taking place everywhere, and we still wondered why many people were wandering around aimlessly, or living in semi-completed buildings. I’ve also seen similar neighbourhoods in China and other parts of Asia, where buildings are left to rot rather than being maintained and where wealth distribution is unbalanced. I wouldn’t say this housing is unique to North Korea, and proved the existence of the same underbelly of poverty (although from news investigations we know deep down it’s far worse than what we see from a quick glance out of a bus window).
What confused me the most was the beautiful countryside in Nampo and around – rolling hills of green and yellow crop plantations, trees and orchards. In a land that has around 70% mountainous terrain, it looked pretty impressive. Our British guide told us that North Korea had admitted to bad farming practice and that it lacked knowledge about beneficial methods, but it looked as though things are improving. Or could. If it was put into practice for the benefit of the people.
I’m no farmer, but I wasn’t expecting to see so much green and grain. Whilst this may not produce a plentiful supply for the entire population, there is food, although I have no doubt that it’s far from enough or distributed properly, if at all (hence the need for international aid). Still, our visit to an apple factory with its investment of millions of pounds worth of equipment looks as though a slow growth of manufacture and export is on the cards – or one could hope. The mechanism is there – it just needs to be implemented.
Are People Brainwashed? Is it Ethical to Visit North Korea?
Absolutely, but when you look into it a bit more deeply, we all are cut from an ideology of the society we are brought up in, except that in North Korea it is on a very extreme scale to what we will ever know. From what I observed and read, the majority of North Korean people know of nothing else and by having no comparison from which to become despondent (except the few who retain and obtain information and later defect), it appears they live in a world they assume is normal and from that have a genuine love for the Kims – nearly everybody wears a pin badge bearing one or both of them and many bow to the statues before work in the morning. They believe in everything they have been told as they have never known the full facts, or been given the means to find out or make a personal judgement. If you knew of NOTHING else, what would you do?
My point is that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge a nation of people without looking at their ideology in context. It upsets me that people have to live in such isolation in this day and age. We, in the western world, are lucky to live in societies where we have freedom of speech, freedom of expression, access to information and means from which to realise our aspirations and make informed choices, but we shouldn’t be so quick to brand a nation of people as odd, weird or crazy when they have no clue and are just going about their normal lives. The normal they know.
It’s the regime we should be judging, but judging it in scale to our own.
Yes, all of it is wrong, but it also doesn’t mean that the western world is perfect in comparison. Some argue that by visiting North Korea you are helping to fund the regime or government’s objectives, but remember this applies to many countries open to tourism. Think of the corrupt governments that still exist in Asia and the Middle East, but you still don’t think twice about heading there.
In fact, North Koreans are some of the kindest people I have ever met. Our guides were easy-going, approachable, witty and caring. Of course you couldn’t talk to them about half the stuff you would gossip about at home, or try and inform them of the facts behind the Korean War. This would be imposing (and against the rules set upon you), at risk to them and maybe they wouldn’t believe you. When it comes to be known one day, quite possibly it would have to be fed to them very slowly. Could you imagine how much of a shock that would be to many people?
Still, beyond the historical ‘facts’ they had to tell and the rules they had to impose (since they would be in serious trouble over any of our irresponsible actions) they weren’t lifeless robots. They became our friends, just like any other person.
On National Day we walked through a park where hundreds of locals were celebrating with their families, laying out a huge picnic, firing up the barbeques, playing music and dancing. While some were unsure of us, giving a stare that suggested a slight fear of the unknown and given what they have probably been told about the western world and its people, the majority were welcoming, offering food and pulling us into their dancing circles.
Even if they were told to be there (which is highly likely), holding hands, smiling and interacting was the only reassurance we could provide that we are not all bad, and I feel that is a positive start to what could be slow but positive change in this country.
Tourism could be the main drive to start opening the cracks.
What Do You Get to See in North Korea?
A trip to North Korea is not complete without the sites they want you to see – the show pieces of the regime, the points of hero worship – such as Kim Il Sung Square and the statue we had to bow to, the Tower of Juche Idea, the Founding Party Monument, the captured US spy ship USS Pueblo, Kim Il Sung’s native home etc.
Would you believe me if I told you that we also went to a fairground and bowling alley, places built for the locals and not just for western entertainment? Of course, when imposing such a strong ideology on people, you have to keep them happy and occupied – distraction keeps the ideological machine in motion. At least they have something aside from the propaganda-ridden TV channels. They are great at karaoke though – an Asian passion which hasn’t died here.
The main downside to what you see is the imposed order and structure as well as the exaggerated explanation, yet this is what you expect before you come on the trip. Some things you visit, such as a farm collective, appear a little too set up with the people ‘placed’ there, which didn’t feel right or real at all. But you only had to look into the distance to get a better picture, without taking an actual photograph.
Most things you experience in North Korea can only stay in your mind.
Propaganda literature and videos give an extremely one-sided argument to the history of the Korean War (which is frustrating, but you have to grin and bear it), everything is built in what they call ‘chollima time’ (“This would normally take five years to build, but we built it in three!”), local guides gush about Kim Il Sung more than you would declare the love you feel for your parents (he is often referred to as ‘my father’), films detailing milestones of the country such as the building of the West Sea Barrage dam are long, tedious and full of descriptions of the ‘revolutionary spirit’ behind its construction (although they do warrant a quiet giggle amongst your group), and every place of high importance bears a plaque of when one or both of the Kims made a visit, alongside a giant painting of them just to put the cherry on top.
This can become very tiring but does give a solid insight into the way the minds of the people have been moulded and the lessons to be learnt from that.
North Korea strikes me as the kind of place that paints of picture of what China must have been like in its early days of revolution – ox and cart farming, collectives and a desperate thirst for industrialism. While places of communist past have or are slowly moving on, becoming ‘socialist’ and slightly more progressive, North Korea lags behind by still keeping an ultimate grip on its people, yet struggling with the realisation that it needs to develop, trade and open up with the rest of the world in order to sustain itself in the modern age.
A country still at war, striking fear into the heart of its people is the only way it maintains control. This is something my generation in particular doesn’t understand as many of us have never had to live in a country in serious conflict with another. Whilst we would all love to see a united Korea, it wouldn’t be that easy. Think of the differences between East and West Berliners when the wall came down. Two ideologies and different ways of life colliding; two economic and education systems trying to integrate. I couldn’t imagine this would be an easy process of bringing immediate peace, but hopefully I will see some movement towards this in my lifetime.
Over 1,500 tourists visit North Korea annually. That’s 1,500 more than we ever thought possible.
From what we were told from the Koryo Tours representative with us, the more time goes by, the more tourists are allowed to see and do – a two-way trust process that slowly grows, where we can show the North Koreans a positive side to the Western world and its people and where we can try and understand them.