This will be a long one so I’ve had to split it down…..
I’ve never been told I’m an idiot for where I’ve traveled until I booked onto a Young Pioneer Tour of North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom. What had begun as an idle chat at the office between Adam and I got more and more serious until we found ourselves on a train from Beijing to the border at Dandong with a few other backpackers and Aussie tour guide Josh. You can’t go to The DPRK without a tour and I would thoroughly recommend YPT if you were thinking of one.
Anyway, that’s enough of a plug. After about 18hrs on a train, the last thing you really want is an intimidating looking North Korean army officer searching your luggage, but realistically, as with many things in the DPRK, you have very little choice over it so there is not point arguing if you like an easy life! With the debacle over we settled back to watch the pretty bleak looking landscape roll by. What people we did see were either People’s Army soldiers or incredibly poor labourers working the fields with tools that would not have been amiss in the 1800s – certainly no modern machinery in evidence here beyond an oxen or two.
After that, arriving in Pyongyang, the capital, is a noticeable contrast. Here, in the rarified air of the capital, the elites and party members live a (relatively) high life, their smart phones and karaoke bars a world removed from the alleged political reeducation camps, forced labour and starvation in the rural regions and northern cities. That of course, is not a line that the Korean guides and chaperones would push, with their firm insistence of the ‘single minded unity’ of the nation and the unconditional love for their ‘Dear Leaders’. More on that later.
We met with our three guides for the next few days – Mr Ri the tour leader, the charming Miss Ri (no relation) and Mr Pang, who would become our firm favourite and solid drinking partner over the next few days. We were staying at the enormous Sosan Hotel, a bizarre experience in itself because it has thirty stories, three restaurants, four bars and at that time had only twenty guests, all on our tour. This certainly made for a bizarre experience but I couldn’t fault the hotel in fairness, despite rumours of microphone bugs in the rooms….
Our first full day in North Korea would see us on one of the most intense sightseeing tours of my life. We started off at the Mansudae hill fountain park, where dasyl the water in the pipes was frozen so the fountains weren’t operating, before moving on to pay our respects to the statues of the ‘Dear Leaders’ – President Kim Il Sung and General Kim Jong Il. We were required to bow before the statues and show deference, including an order from Mr Ri to ensure that any photos we took did not crop any part of the statues and that they included both of the Dear Leaders.
The next step was the Grand People’s Study House – the closest Pyongyang seems to have to a public library. While we were shown several Western novels translated into Korean and a wide array of other books, you couldn’t help but feel that those North Koreans that were present were there for our benefit – standing/sitting reading pamphlets by the leaders but not really enjoying the library in the way you might expect, and certainly not reading the Western literature that we saw. A particularly strange highlight was the music appreciation room – 20 desks with boom boxes, no headphones and variety of North Korean folk CDs, with one copy of the Beatles Greatest Hits. Apparently there was more Western music on offer but only ‘in another room’…. Again, it seems that was for our benefit, not the Koreans.
We were then chaperoned thorough Central Pyongyang through Kim Il Sung Square (site of the famous military rallies which spring straight to mind thinking of the DPRK) and then on to the Juche Tower. Juche is the idealogy refined by Kim Il Sung from his Stalinist learnings and he built the tower to embody that – a 170m tall pillar crowned by a flame. It certainly gave a good view of Pyongyang from the top, including the world’s largest stadium (maybe the World Cup should be here one day) and the infamous Ryugyong Hotel (the giant pyramid shaped building which has been ‘in construction’ since the 1980s). It’s really just one of a series of white elephants and vanity projects that have been embarked upon over the years by the leaders, which now dot the Pyongyang skyline.
Next up was the house in which Kim Il Sung grew up before leaving North Korea at 13 to join the fight against the Japanese in China (if you follow the DPRK’s version of history anyway) before heading back to Central Pyongyang for lunch and a trip on the Pyongyang metro – a rattling old East German train passing through stations filled with endless streams of party workers and golden mosaics and statues of the Kim dynasty, which led us to the Arch of Triumph – another vanity project which Kim gave himself as a 75th birthday present about the same time as famine was killing millions of Koreans.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent getting a very propoganda heavy and truth light version of the Korean War, where the evil Americans invaded North Korea only to be repelled by the brave Peoples Army who miraculously managed to counter attack and invade Seoul in three days despite being unprepared and peace loving….. For more (and factually accurate) information on the Korean War, have a read of the history.com page, rather than me just spouting it all verbatim!
Finally, the sightseeing stopped and we were able to relax a bit more. We went to a department store in town and bought a couple of amusing fur hats which was the first time we were able to elicit a smile from the Korean people we passed, as I think we probably looked ridiculous, before being fed a resoundingly good meal at the restaurant run by the tour company. It took a couple of beers to digest what we had seen and to try to understand the day we had had and we were sooned joined by Mr Pang, who we were able to carefully ask some diplomatic questions to try to get a feel for the lives of the North Korean people. More on that the next night!