What do you want to do there ?
These were actually the words from each person (almost) that I spoke to before I left for this tour in one of the most secretive countries in the world. And it was absolutely stunning.
North Korea or DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) has been on my todo list for a long time. Coming from Germany, a country that has been divided by a wall for many years, I visited also Cyprus and Israel, each time from both sides of the wall. I feel appealed by nations that are cut in two almost unreunitable halves and I don’t trust much TV to tell me about such situations. I prefer seeing things with my own eyes.
Organized by a swedish operator, we took a plane from Beijing to Pyongjang end of April. The weird universe of DPRK started on the plane with patriotic musicals played on the displays during all flight. On arrival the adventure started right on putting our feet on north korean ground. After a thorough inspection of our luggage and paperwork, we were allowed to enter North Korea.
Tourists in Pyongjang are placed in a centrally positioned hotel that is located on an island. Unfortunately walking around is not permitted. The hotel itself dates back to the 90’s and consists in a huge tower with 47 floors and your room will give you a beautiful view of the city. As europeans we got the 32nd floor but it seems that every nation got his levels. Indeed the view is breathtaking.
From there you’ll embrace the entire city and what strikes you immediately is the 300m+ tower in the far that looks like coming out of the movie Blade Runner. It’s an unfinished hotel for now and the building is unfortunately not accessible.
Pyongyang downtown is quite different from any other city you might have seen. Few cars only, overdimensional avenues and many people on foot or on a bicycle. Brown & kaki remains the main dressing color. Big revolutionary slogans and monuments to the past leaders are reminding of older times. No advertisments as consumerism have not reached yet this part of the world.
Kim Il Sung square is huge and ideal for military parades and events like the May Day celebration I could attend with approx 10.000 dancers on site.
May Day was a quite special moment with all these people gathered in one spot. Kinda impossible to do a similar thing in our regions. As usual on such official gatherings, tourists were invited to join and to dance with the attendees. Generally speaking, there are huge efforts made to have every gathering look cool, natural and open. Unfortunately it is impossible to walk freely in the streets and talk to local people. And it seems also that speaking to foreigners without permission is not allowed for locals.
A Pyongjang specialty are traffic police officer that are often female and posted on strategic corners. They move in a somehow robotic manner (same in South Korea btw) and guide actually weak traffic but are definitely beautiful. I’ve rarely seen so cute girls working in the Police force and we should clearly take an example here 🙂
Architecture is massive, no decoration or style, it seems all buildings are made by non professional builders like the army as shown on TV with almost no equipement. Walls are somewhat uneven, the concrete is poured level by level, showing a rather local way of building. Bricks are made on the riverside out of sand & cement, dried there and send into the city where they are assembled. I’ve rarely seen such a harsh way of constucting huge buildings as the economic sanctions probably deprives them from construction material ranging from cranes to mixers. Indeed the soldiers (I saw soldiers building everywhere) manage to get things done and many of these buildings from an older generation are still standing.
What is even more impressive is the amount of fine materials that are used for huge monuments to the glory of the leaders. I wonder if the resources used here would have been affected to road maintenance, the country would have maybe better roads. These spots are just incredible and the statues weigh hundreds of tons. The DPRK has become expert like no other in building such statues and even export them. As manpower is there plenty, maintenance is done every day with people kneeling down to painstakingly handpick any growing grass with tweezers. Same on the surrounding lawns. Incredible how much efforts are spent on these monuments.
Pyongyangs subway is also very special as it is 100m deep buried under the city. The stations are very beautiful and huge. High ceilings, prestigious decoration of course honoring the regime, colors, the place is just gorgeous. The trains indeed are from the 60’s and look pretty vintage but are in excellent shape. They came from East Berlin all the way to Pyongyang. Two lines with 8 stations each only. The museum of that subway gives you a better insight in the crazy almost impossible work that this place has been. Unfortunately (and for some obscure reason) you cannot take pictures there which is a shame. This subway is a bulwark and must have cost many efforts to be built. The guide when I questioned her about casualties during construction insisted that only a few wounded resulted in the construction of this place. This was kinda hard to believe when you think this was done in the 50’s.
Another place you would not be allowed to take pictures in is the War Museum. Given the simply stunning scupltures on the outside, all made in a style that would make Mao jealous, you can visit there a bunch of american material that has been left behind or captured during the war. Very interesting is the northern view of the way the war went. Basically after the 3 first victorious weeks of the north’s invasion, the war went over into a stalemate. No fall back, losses or whatsoever while history tells us that the north almost gave up if it weren’t the chinese that pushed back the americans with huge losses on their side. No word about Mc Arthurs’ landing in Incheon that rounded up the North Korean army. I guess these are the two ways of seeing a conflict…Nice to see : the USS Pueblo that is anchored there. The only still commissioned american warship that is in enemy hands (since 1967 indeed). North Korean pupils are thoroughly told how the NK navy captured this ship.
Outside of the capital
Once you get out of Pyongyang, things are changing a lot. First of all the countryside does not look like other asian countrysides. No trees. No birds, only fields to the horizont. And the only trees left on the roadside were all cut down in a nationwide campaign. When I asked our guides about this, I got weird answers. By the way, it’s pretty hard to take pictures actually as the roads are sometimes in bad condition and the bus driver was driving like mad, especially in towns & villages.
The countryside reveals that every possible space is used to grow something. All hills are cultivated. The lack of mechanization is an issue and makes work in the field rather manual which of course is hard.
The cities outside look a bit dull and you can see that here there’s often no pavement, no wirings and everthing is down to the minimum. Eastern Germany was the same back in the days and here the sanctions are rendering the supply of infrastructural equipment almost impossible.
But here & there you get to visit some nice temples, actually some really beautiful ones. Myohangsan was the most beautiful one, like a haven of peace in a poor and desolate countryside. NK was very religion unfriendly in the past and chased & executed many christians & bhouddists. Right now there’s a revival of religion and in Pyongyang there’s even a church where you can attend mass. But these temples as beautiful they look it seems not many people go there unfortunately. I met some pupils on the lawn right in front of one and they were laughing and playing together.
The DMZ was a mandatory stop of course and it is a famous spot. Very quiet, the americans and south koreans don’t get out anymore when visitors from the north korean side show up. This is a really strange place with the border passing in the center of the barracks. We could even sit down at the meeting table inside and sense what the past negotiators had experienced in there. This is actually not possible when you go in from the southern side which is a much stressier and regulated visit.
Cute were the little boys & girls from diverse schools we went to. Aged 4 to 6 these kids obviously don’t drink Coke while playing on a gaming console. They train hard to play instruments, singing & dancing. You can sense that their lives are pretty busy getting up early and training every day. Once the show was over many went on yawning. Distribution of candy directly to the kids was declined unfortunately. Very impressive performances indeed.
Getting further north
While our guides in Pyongyang were pretty lenient on pictures (except soldiers & checkpoints), the arrival in Orang/Chongjin had a different flavour. No pictures allowed anytime, except when invited to. Of course, after a while, we could start shooting pics again. Here, you get another of NK. It’s rudimentarier than around Pyongjang with roads that are more dirt tracks, no pavement, no lighting in the evening nor any kind of infrastructure. The Orang ‘airport’ was more of a military base with a group of Mig 17 standing on the side which are kinda outdated now. Good shots were hard to do because of the shaky bus and we could basically take a few pics only in the center of Chongjin.
The hotel in Chongjin was a very basic one, had no hot water and at night even no water at all. It’s part of the trip and you expect this when you go into countries that you know to be in economic trouble. It got much better in Rason where the economic situation is improving. Rason is as usual made of very large avenues, with its statues & monument on a hill and the same architecture than elsewhere. But the pavement is good and it was much easier to get around. Rason is an economic development area that seem to suffer from the sanctions. Empty seaport, closed refineries, steelworks with not running chimney (the ovens never stop usually in such sites) no trucks or traffic. Not much seemed to work here except a huge casino on the seaside.
Out of DPRK
Leaving the DPRK was really weird as we would cross a river into Russia that has a very small border with the DPRK. The ‘train station’ where we had to get through customs was just a building along the tracks. No platform, no trains except our 2 coaches that would takes us to Vladivostok. Customs were a bit harsh searching and inspecting our stuff. But we were short of time and they finally let us go.
Crossing the bridge and entering Russia felt indeed a bit like a deliverance. 2 weeks without Internet, phone and contact with family and friends is definitely not so easy. Not speaking of the praising speeches and anti-imperialist speeches that really start nerving after a week. I shot a movie from the rear window of the last coach. This is definitely a strange spot in the world with China, the DPRK and Russia in a corner. After almost 2 weeks in North Korea we left for Russia which despite its highly communist past seemed to be a paradise of freedom. But the DPRK left me a mixed impression and I think I’ve to go back there.
Food…last but not least.
North Korea is in hardships but tourists are greeted and covered with food of all kinds. It was a treat all along and we were served like kings. I must say that we were stuffed on each meal and it was mostly delicious – even for me who does not eat spicy food !
What to say ? Go there before it changes ! The DPRK is a strange country, unique in its genre. Don’t listen and go for it. I recommend Korea Konsult, a swedish travel agency that has really nice tours and good connections there. Getting a visa is easy with them and they deal with the better of the two north korean tour operators.
Anyway, the galleries are here, enjoy !