Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Days 164 to 170: The Good And Bad Of North Korea

It is cold in North Korea. Or at least is was from the 14th to the 20th of February, when I paid a short visit to the Land of the Kims. As many of you will know, in the mid-2000s I spent a couple of years living in South Korea, and ever since then I'd harboured a desire to visit the northern half of the peninsula. However, North Korea is not exactly known for its warm embrace of the outside world, and does not admit the casual tourist. Unless I wanted to get involved in politics or business, the only way for someone like me to visit was by tour group. Hence why before setting off on the Asian leg of these travels back in September, I bit the not-inexpensive bullet and signed up for one. It happened to be for the recently-deceased Kim Jong-Il's 70th birthday...

The tour agency I signed up with were Koryo Group, not the only agency that offer North Korea tours, but by far the most acknowledged, having been in operation for two decades and having pioneered travel there. From start to finish, Koryo were nothing short of excellent, combining the perfect marriage of friendliness and professionalism that every business in every field should strive towards. In a military autocracy such as North Korea, there is every reason to feel a little uptight, but Hannah and Nick were hilariously irreverent and honest about what was really going on, although never at all disrespectful to the nation. Our visit to North Korea was very tightly controlled - Koryo made it seem less claustrophobic.

I'll be honest - I had a great time. My week in Pyongyang, and a couple of other locations in North Korea, was one of the most interesting weeks I've ever had, not to mention relentless. I would love to have spent longer there - hell, I'd love to live there for six months. Never in my life have I experienced anything like North Korea, or the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) as they'd prefer we call it. It is a time capsule from another era, from a time when Soviet Russia threatened to engulf the free world, and when propaganda meant the same thing as news. North Korea is a cripplingly stifled place. It is not a happy place. The people are not free and the streets have a distinctly subdued air. But it is not quite the place the Western media would have you believe. The people were friendly, the streets are clean and the country unpolluted, Pyongyang is a surprisingly attractive and architecturally interesting city, and I had a lot more freedom there than I had anticipated - even if my so-called freedom was carefully stage-managed.

Each day was so packed with activities and food-for-thought that to attempt a chronological account would be like lining up noodles according to length before eating - i.e. time consuming and unappetising. Better the noodles are mixed and shoved into your mouth hot. So instead, my approach will be focus on the good and bad of the trip, based around my (often awful) photos.

Good: Monuments


Say what you like about Pyongyang, but it doesn't shirk from having a whole load of big monuments liberally sprinkled about (this may be the only time I use the word "liberal" in connection with North Korea). Though they may not all be to everyone's taste, I found them fascinating. North Korea, you may not be surprised to hear, goes very much in for big Soviet-style monuments, mostly honouring the workers, the heroes, or anyone involved in pro-revolutionary activities. They aren't usually subtle, or necessarily pretty, but they are pretty damn effective. Pyongyang is a very intriguing and original city landscape as a result.

Of most note... well, there's the large arch - The Arch of Triumph - famously like Paris's Arc de Triumphe, but a little larger. The tower with the flame on top is called the Juche Tower, named after President Kim Il Sung's revolutionary philosophy of self-reliance (propped up by China), and like all the world's best towers can be climbed, offering a terrific view of the city. Sadly missing from this collection is the huge statue of Kim Il Sung - it wasn't available for viewing due to work being done on-site for his 100th birthday in April (he died 20 years ago but his birthday is still celebrated).

Good: The Ryugyong Hotel.

Let it not be understated, I love this building. A colossal and steep 105-storey pyramid of retro-futuristic glass and steel, it dominates Pyongyang, which seems to pivot around it. Construction started twenty-five years ago, but funds ran out and for over almost two decades the unfinished hotel sat in the centre of Pyongyang as a very visible reminder of the nation's problems. Rumours of structural instability abound. But work has restarted, and it should be complete soon - in theory in time for the big 100th birthday celebrations. Like much of the buildings and monuments in Pyongyang, subtlety might not be its strong point, but it looks like nothing else I've seen before and is a massive icon of the city. I will refuse to visit North Korea again unless I can stay there.

Bad: Burness's Eye

Upon arriving in Pyongyang, Burness started complaining about an eye-ache. No crazy Korean conspiracy theories here - it had begun in Beijing - but from being an annoyance on the first couple of days it quickly became debilitating. He entirely bypassed one day of sightseeing, and for most of the others just stayed on the bus, eyes closed, in a lot of pain. He twice went to the UN compound to see a doctor, both times receiving a misdiagnosis (in fairness, due to the condition, the doctor couldn't have known from the early symptoms). By the end of the week, the condition had spread from his eye and half his face started blistering, as though he'd been set on fire. It was really quite gruesome, and extremely unpleasant for him. It entirely ruined his North Korea trip.

Only upon returning to Beijing and seeing a specialist, who diagnosed it as "Crazy Virus" (my words), has he received the correct drugs, and has been resting and recovering, and is getting far better.

Good: The Hotel I Stayed In

The Yanggakdo Hotel was very comfortable and with a whole bunch of facilities: post office, bowling, table tennis, bars, restaurants including a 46th floor revolving restaurant, karaoke, souvenir shops, grocery shops, and a tailors. This, plus the fact it was on a river island in Pyongyang, was clearly supposed to be a gentle reminder that it was best to stay within the hotel grounds, and not stray into the actual city. The entirely frozen river meant the island aspect of our luxury prison wasn't too effective, however.

Every evening was spent at the tea room. This was, in fact, a bar.

But Bad: The Mysterious Surveillance

Not content with having us prisoners of the hotel, rumours abounded of mysterious surveillance being conducted. During the day that, due to illness, Burness remained at the hotel while the rest of us went on the tour, he reported his movements being closely watched - despite staying in his room the entire time. Several times he was phoned by the guide appointed to make sure he was ok, and several times the cleaner entered the room each time asking if he wanted laundry done. On the one time she came in and Burness was in the bath, he very soon after got a phonecall from the guide asking "Where are you? Where have you been?" "I was having a bath..."

I heard reports also that a Dutch or German (I forget now) guy in our group was told to speak in English when making an international call, but one of the biggest talking points about the possible surveillance was focussed on the mysterious "Fifth Floor." The lift missed out the number 5. In Korean and Chinese superstition, often the fourth floor is missed out as the number four sounds similar to the word for death, but never the fifth floor. The popular rumours were that it was the surveillance level, packed with screens from secret cameras and shady agents, but nobody was able to access it to find out. One source, more in the know, first claimed the floor simply didn't exist, but in an unguarded moment also said that they'd simply never been there, before quickly covering their tracks - "I've never been there because it doesn't exist of course!"

Some people took the conspiracy mania a little too far, claiming the archaic radios in our room were actually a (somewhat blatant and massive) recording device - "I heard it crackling for no reason" - but I would generally agree that there was some kind of behind-the-scenes action going on.

Bad: The Karaoke

North Koreans, just like South Koreans, love their karaoke. Even the full force of Communism, sadly, has not been able to quell this.

Good: The Beer

North Korea might be lagging behind South Korea in most things that regarded as desirable (quality of life, wealth, health, sexy pop videos) but it does one thing much better: beer. Seriously, North Korean beer is good. In my two years in South Korea, the beer was relentlessly terrible, a crime of formaldehyde that wreaked ghastly hangover disasters. North Korea's good beer is due to a microbrewery, with the hotel having draft pints from it. We went to the Pyongyang bar that makes it, as well as simply enjoying plenty of bottled beer at other bars and restaurants in the city, and the beer was unfailingly good.

Good: The People

I think there's probably a popular image of North Korean people being droids. If only they were, they could cope with the awful, inhuman system imposed upon them. The North Korean people, despite sixty years of insanity, are still just like the South Korean people: they are Korean; they are people. It's fair to say that most are a little more guarded - for good reason - and it's also fair to say that anybody we were exposed to were good citizens, unlikely to be spreading dissent anywhere near us. Nonetheless, the majority of people we met weren't actors, they were just nice people. Passing by on the bus, we got loads of smiles and waves.

Like the South, North Koreans retain a fierce pride for being Korean - it's not just being part of a pariah state that gives them an "us against the world" feeling, it's just part of the Korean national mindset. During the week, I heard the exactly the same stuff I did during my time in the South - the "5000 years" of Korean history, the weird pride at having four seasons, the aforementioned predilection for karaoke, and of course the ingrained hierarchy based on age.

I'm lucky enough that I speak some Korean, which turned out to be a big boost over the week. It meant I was able to have a few conversations with locals that, had I only spoken English, would not have been possible. The best was with a waitress at a lunchtime bar we were at, who was very interested in talking, and exercised the correct amount of patience needed when trying to converse with me in Korean. It broke the ice a few times over the week, as most North Koreans speak little English, and in many cases were quite relieved when we could communicate in Korean, even if it was just ordering the drinks,

One unexpected difference however was in how the North Koreans spoke to each other. The Korean language takes different forms depending on the relationship and ages of the speaker and listener, varying from casual informal, polite informal, formal, and very polite formal (to give a rough picture). In South Korea, most people will talk in the polite informal way, even strangers. But in North Korea, I mostly heard the formal way spoken. This is the same way you would address an audience or show respect, and I almost never heard it in casual conversation in South Korea. But in the North even between people who clearly knew each other it was used. From this, I can only make the uncontroversial guess that life and society in the Communist North is far more formal and disciplined than in the Capitalist South.

Weird: The City

Pyongyang is a weird city. I liked it, but it was weird. It is certainly the quietest city I've ever been in. Traffic is very low. Vehicles exist, but they roll on unhurriedly. People fill the streets - everywhere, people are walking, presumably to work or home, or to pay respects yet again to a Kim. But they don't seem to make much noise. This was underlined during an evening walk during which, at one point, half our group was on the other side of the road. One of us called to them to cross via the underpass, and their voice calling across the road seemed to fill the air with an unholy noise. One person calling shouldn't have this effect in a big city.

The only time this differed a little was during a street walk which ended up in Kim Il Sung square. In the square, children were rollerskating, and making the usual noises of excitement. The square was still quite peaceful, but the atmosphere was, for once, a happy one. Our group was captivated, simply by the normality.

Added to the very subdued air of Pyongyang was the total lack of advertising. No signs for Coke here - is this the only country in the world not to have Coca-Cola? The shops weren't adorned with big signs and logos; instead they simply had the words (in Korean) "clothes shop", "restaurant," "department store", or whatever. In place of advertising was propaganda - large letters spelt out rhetoric praising the Kims or their philosophies, and their pictures were round every corner. This was ubiquitous.

Pyongyang is extremely clean, litter-free, and unpolluted, and really the antithesis to the usual big city. It is very calm. I'd have loved to have been able to walk freely. I guess the Pyongyang citizens feel the same way. Because though the streets felt calm, they also felt controlled. But perhaps the freezing weather had something to do with this - in summer, the atmosphere may different.

Good: My Group and Guide

I had a terrific group and a terrific guide, that made the whole North Korea experience a pleasure. My group were mostly European, with a number of British, as well as a couple of Americans and Australians. Everybody got on well together, helped by a mutual appreciation of North Korean beer, and we were able to share our gobsmacked wonder at what was going on, as well as discussing what we thought was happening behind the scenes, and sharing a disgust at the opulence of the ruling dynasty compared to the obvious poverty of the nation.

Our guide was the sweetest girl in all Korea. She started off the week a little nervous, but by the end I think everyone in our group had fully fallen in love with her. On the last day, she sang for us in the bus. As a guide, she knew all the facts and figures, all the correct rhetoric, and a kept a relaxed rule over the fifteen of us. As a person, she opened up as the week went on, and broke my heart. Her life is ruled and dictated by the regime. She can never travel, she can never go wild, she can never really express herself. She can't have a day of crazy shopping or take a year off to work in a bar. Her life belongs to the state. She's not free, and although she never said so, she knows it. Through her work she meets lots of foreign tourists, and she sees that we're happy, we're wealthy, and that we've travelled extensively around the world. We're not the imperialist enemy. At the end of the week, as we waved goodbye to her on the train, she had tears in her eyes.

Good: The Metro

A lot has been written about the Pyongyang Metro in the media. Most seemed to focus on the claim that it was all a sham. Tourists went from one stop to another and all the locals present were just actors.

Well: nonsense. I went about six stops, saw three stations, and the quaint carriages were absolutely packed with people. Again, with all the "normal" activities that were included on the tour, it was carefully stage-managed to show us the nice stations, but I'm happy to report that Pyongyang has a functioning - and charming - metro system.

Probably. A couple of girls in a different group thought otherwise, and I had a fairly long discussion with them about it. They seemed to think that because the metro was heated and because the people there were well-dressed (I hadn't observed this point) that the whole thing was a set up A thousand people told to be there to fool fifteen tourists. If this was the case, well, congratulations North Korea, I'm one tourist you've fooled. Because although I can believe that the metro may only operate at peak hours, I don't believe it's a pretend operation.

The very fact that the metro system is one of the highlights of the tour does raise a few questions of its own though. Where else in the world would a special subway ride be regarded as a key attraction? And where else would they have a gigantic (and unheated) museum ostensibly about the construction of the metro, but actually an astonishing assault of propaganda extolling the virtues of the two Kims, who seemed to daily inspire the workers and virtually single-handedly build the entire system?

Bad: The Lack of Freedom

I spent a lot of time on one of these.

Tourists have no freedom in North Korea. We did everything in a group, and spent a lot of time being driven from place to place. Sometimes we walked down the street, but it was a controlled walk. Everything we did was planned in advance at approved locations (we did visit a bar unannounced, but it took them fifteen minutes to "get ready" before we could enter). Were there people watching us? It's difficult to say - it's easy to become paranoid. What are the authorities afraid of? What do they think we're going to do? I don't think even they know now.

In fact though, our experience was a pretty authentic one - North Korean people have no freedom either. They can't visit different parts of their own country without approval. The difference is, my freedom was restricted for a week, theirs for their whole life.

Bad: The Rice

The food overall was pretty good in North Korea, but for some weird reason the rice was almost always brought at the very end of the meal. Why was this? Rice should be there from the start, to be eaten with the meal. North Korea - sort this out.

Bad (but interesting): The Propaganda

Propaganda is everywhere: on buildings, in bowling alleys, in schools, in museums. It ranges from praising the workers to praising the Kims (a lot) or to showing the US Imperialists getting murdered by the powers of socialism. That last one, unfortunately, I don't have a picture of, but visit the same school we did, and wade through the astonishing amount of propaganda posters adorning the walls, and you'll find it. From birth, the people are assaulted with propaganda. It's pretty much all they have - the music, the art, the books, the news, the museum, the history, all of it is garbage propaganda. Having grown up with books like 1984 and having read a lot about Maoist China, the North Korean propaganda is almost comically unsubtle, almost like a satire of itself. In one week, the only place I visited - of many - that didn't have some kind of pro-regime agenda was the burial mounds of some ancient king.

Incidentially, every time the Kims visited somewhere, it was faithfully and lovingly recorded. Kim Jong Il visited the film studios 594 times, we were proudly told. I'm not sure if I heard anything else reaching double figures.

Bad: The Kims
These pictures are just the tip of the iceberg. Like the propaganda, they are everywhere, and Kim Jong Il's rapidly spreading since his death (none, apparently, were on display during his lifetime).

I don't think anyone in our group left with anything less than a resentment of the two Kims, President Kim Il Sung and General Kim Jong Il. Kim Il Sung, dead for twenty years and kind of the architect of the nation (the Koreans don't mention the Soviet or Chinese backing essential for his survival) has become somewhat of a mythical and remote figure. No doubt he had considerable leadership skills, and was watching closely Chairman Mao's methods for developing the personality cult as he developed his own. Ultimately, he responsible for the state of North Korea now, and while the people may look to him as a father figure he is only so in the sense that Josef Fritzl was a father to his seven children he kept in the dungeon.

Kim Jong Il on the other hand... He's an amazing example of how even the most unappealing and uncharismatic of jowly bawbags can be dressed up as a hero by the regime of the personality cult. Did you know he only ever addressed the public once, and for only one short slogan? He was useless, frankly, hence why during his twenty years in which he pushed the military as the focus of the nation, North Korea has slumped into desperate poverty, with the suspected starvation of millions. That's ok - they blame the Imperialist US.

Possibly the moment that lost the Kims any little regard they might have had was our visit to the International Friendship Exhibition. These are essentially two buildings about 150 kilometres from Pyongyang that act as massive display cases for all the gifts Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il have received from abroad. Yes, everything they've ever received goes on show, in two colossal and lavish palaces. I couldn't take photos there, unfortunately, but the gifts were astonishing, ranging from train carriages from Stalin to bears' heads to African thrones to a whole range of tacky souvenir-giftshop items from minor Communist organisations in the UK. The latter was the most hilarious - these were the kind of things you'd pick up at the airport. I also particularly appreciated the gift from Nicaragua - a stuffed crocodile holding a wooden tray of cups. The gifts themselves weren't the point, it was the astonishing opulence of these purpose built palaces to house them.

Kim Jong Il died just a few months ago, and his son Kim Jong Un is taking over. I can't pretend the TV images I've seen of him inspire much confidence. But the wheels of the propaganda machine are slicked and in motion - he's appearing at all the rallies, and during the synchronised swimming show I saw, the swimmers at the end all in unison started chanting his name. In the newspaper, he's started opening factories, with a smile. I suppose the only hope I can offer is that he can't be as bad as his father...

Bad: The Temperature

Wow, North Korea was cold. Always in the minus temperatures, the freezing conditions were an apt metaphor for the nation - frozen, rigid, still. The huge river that ran through Pyongyang was completely frozen - it was a surreal sight to see people walking across it, sometimes gathering round holes cut in the ice where I guess they were fishing.

Added to the cold was the lack of heating in North Korea. Most places we went to were unheated, sometimes they were even colder than it was outside. One hotel restaurant we visited was so cold that we had to keep our hats and coats on, and the food had to be eaten within a minute or it would be stone cold. An entertaining military circus performance was so cold that the people were just clapping to keep warm. The museums were always cold. Our hotel had some heating, but not very much (it was always a good idea to sit next to the electric heater in the bar, but the rooms weren't too bad).

The bus was heated, fortunately, and the hotel had lovely hot shower water. The wrapped-up people walking for God knows how long along the side of the road had none of that.

Interesting: The Subtext

Everything we saw had layers of meaning. Whether it was the underlying propaganda, or simply the real meaning behind a facade, there was always a subtext. There was the story the North Korean government were trying to portray, and there was the real story we could see underneath.

This school performance, for one. Excellently performed, with clearly lots of rehearsing and musical talent. I'm sure that is the one sentence I'm supposed to have taken from it. But there are more. It had just followed the tour of the propaganda-filled school. The songs they were singing were clearly all pro-revolutionary ones. The girl who announced the show at the beginning had precisely the crazy, emotional warble to her voice that all the North Korean presenters did, as though they were both bursting with pride and about to burst into tears. There was a robotic quality to the children, as if clockwork toys. And there was the fact that the hall we were in was freezing cold.

Bad: The Heartbreak

One thing resounded throughout the tour - the sadness. North Korea is like a jilted lover that has never got over the breakup. Over and over, we heard about the war, we heard about the split, we heard about the reasons for the split and the desire to get back together, and we heard about all the guilty people. One thing we never heard - any self-criticism or self-awareness. Like the jilted lover, North Korea seems unable to move on, and unable to (at least publically or officially) recognise that just some of the problems over the last sixty years might have been caused by its own actions.

It's desperately sad. The North Koreans call it their national tragedy. I suppose it is, as the Korean war and subsequent changes to the nation have left it a shell of what it could have been. The North Koreans can't let it go - "The US Imperialists broke our country up!" all their history cries. And repeatedly the desire for reunification was expressed, although with no suggestion that they might have to change or concede very much.

None of this I heard during my two years in the South. It was barely a conversation topic. The war was something that had happened a long time ago and they had moved on. Sure, reunification would be nice, but it didn't seem likely, or at all practical. The South looks to the future, not the past.

That's the national heartbreak, and it resounds throughout the people, who know their desperate situation even if they're kept ignorant of the full history behind it. The people yearn for reunification, as that's how they are able to express their yearning for a better life. Everything will be better if the lovers can make up and be one again...

Good: Dog

Sorry Rover.

Although I've written quite a lot here, it is still just a snapshot of the country, and a snapshot of the week's packed tour. It was a fascinating experience that ultimately no amount of words can do justice to. North Korea is a weird, weird place and I'm extremely glad I was able to visit such a country. Now I only hope that it can swiftly change and be more normal. Kim Jong Un, it's over to you.


  1. Wow, what an account and what a country. Sounds truly fascinating.

    Was the Ryugyong Hotel not lined up as a possible wonder?

    Hope Burness is better, what a nasty thing to have happened.

  2. Excellent summary (and pictures).

    I am glad, that I enjoyed this fascinating and weird experience with you guys.


  3. Fascinating and in an uncanny way almost exactly like my experience visiting Moscow in 1975 -- from the stilted tours to the gigantic monuments, from the real decency of citizens to the glittering subways.

    Russia did manage to change. Now maybe North Korea will, too.

  4. Thanks Simon. Ryugyong Hotel was never seriously considered as a Wonder candidate, and I was never able to get terribly close to it on this trip. However, I was quite mesmerised by it, and it made a far bigger impression on me than many Wonders I've seen so far.

    Cheers, Maxime. The weird experience was made quite enjoyable by a good group.

    Anonymous - that's really interesting. I've been saying to a few people that North Korea reminded me of a Soviet time capsule. Change depends on leadership, and unfortunately the new boy doesn't inspire me much. The hope I do take is that the normal people are still people, and no amount of oppression can remove the desire for freedom.


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