A visit to North Korea
Since our arrival into Beijing to work, a few of us from the Embassy wanted to visit DPRK (never to be referred to as North Korea we were advised during our pre-tour briefing by our travel company). We selected Koryo Tours (www.koryogroup.com) as our travel agency of choice as private tours are not allowed. Six of us ending up travelling together for a four day visit.
The day before our departure we had to attend a pre-visit briefing in Beijing where we were given strict instructions on what to do, what not to do and most importantly, what not to talk about and were given examples of questions not to ask. For example do not ask about the new bride of President Kim Jong-un (by the way when I got to DPRK I completely ignored the instructions and asked the question of our guide – who told us she was very happy with the wife).
We were also advised we could not take any mobile phones, computers or camera with GPS function. This was probably our best news…four days without contact from work!!!
The most important thing we were told is NEVER say a bad thing about the Great Leader, Kim Il-song or his eldest son and successor the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il or the current leader Kim Jong-un the Supreme Leader. And we were to never walk anywhere by ourselves, leave the hotel and had to remain with our guide at all times.
So the next day we make our way to the airport and boarded our Air Koryo flight to Pyong Yang. I had bought a business class ticket and my friends were flying economy but one of our friends had injured his shoulder quite badly (had an operation the day before we travelled) and the thing was if he didn’t travel then neither could all of us as we had to have six in our party. So he came along and I gave up my business class seat so he would not have to worry about being knocked on the shoulder by another passenger. He was very grateful.
As soon as we boarded I regretted my decision!! Such a small aircraft and really small seats!!! Anyway we had many laughs on the flight about the food, the quality of the seats and many other things…so it was fun in the end.
We arrive at Pyong Yang Airport and within a couple of hours we had landed and were in our bus on the way to beginning our adventure.
As we were told in our pre-visit briefing that we could not take any photos of many things including construction, military establishments or military officers without permission so we were initially apprehensive about taking photos but we got over that in about two minutes and all of started clicking away.
Our lovely tour guide along with another person (another minder probably) in the bus and our driver accompanied us on all our sightseeing trips – and monitored our photo taking during our tours. Excellent English and really sweet people. Each of the four days of our sightseeing we were told stories of past Presidents and then shown huge statues of the past leaders and other monuments.
We also saw other sights such as the Nampo Dam, and then monuments and more monuments and just when you thought it was not possible more monuments.
So what can be said about Pyongyang – it’s what I imagine it must have been like living in China in the 1950’s, but an incredible opportunity as it’s only 1.5 hours away from Beijing by plane and seeing a country that not a great deal of people in the world have seen, is incredible.
There are many parks in Pyongyang which are quite beautiful and on National Day we were lucky to see children out rollerskating and playing. The children are still a little shy towards foreigners but we got smiles and waves from a few, after a while. The children are awfully cute – no individuality of course – all wearing the same uniform apart from the boys wear long trousers and the girls skirts. We saw a few weddings and the costumes were very beautiful and colourful.
There were several cars on the roads in Pyongyang but on our way down to the DMZ it was bare with only tourist buses on the road. Sad sights of farmers with their goats along the side of the road or DPRK residents just walking along the road trying to get from point A to B without any transport. One interesting incident was us driving past a motor vehicle accident (a mercedes with another car) and our guide told us we could not take photos. I guess they don’t want tourists to think DPRK has motor vehicle accidents.
One thing I did notice is that the (traffic) police women who perform traffic duties are all wearing uniforms from the 1950’s; not a new style I will recommend for the AFP.
Of course, as six diplomats travelling together, we guess we were monitored more than others , but we knew we would be and just focussed on enjoying the experience. There is a lot of poverty out of Pyongyang which was very sad but our guides only showed us what they wanted us to see, of course.
There was definitely an up side to our visit – being able to see a country which is one of the last bastions of communism and driving around without a McDonalds, KFC or Starbucks in sight is a very good thing!. I particularly enjoyed seeing the buildings around Pyongyang. One of our days we experienced a torrential downpour which caused flooding in the capital – amazing to still see residents riding their bikes or just walking in thigh high water.
We also visited a school where the children put on a display of their dancing and singing. Really gorgeous children and we sought permission and were given approval to bring pens/pencils/paper/books and children’s cosmetics to give to the children. One of our party was taken up to dance and sing with the children – very cute!
People cutting grass with scissors was an interesting sight. Clearly this was one photo we should not have taken but did. We were told in our pre-brief that people who are cutting the grass with scissors are cutting it for their rabbits (I don’t think so!!!). I am sure they were cutting it for aesthetic purposes without the use of lawn mowers there is no choice but to cut manually.
One of our days we travelled to the DMZ which is the de-militarised zone between North and South Korea. There is one building that is used by both the south and north for meetings where the southern military and USA sit on the southern side and DPRK sit on the other side. Of course we had to have our photos taken doing the hand-shake one the table.
The north side is guarded by DPRK military and you can see the actual line (line of concrete where the two soldiers are standing) dividing south and north Korea. I am told that the reason there are two soldiers on the northern side is because they can stop each other from stepping into south Korea to stop defecting.
Whilst we were looking at the southern side, which is where the USA military are, there was a visitor who was looking at us through binoculars complete with many accompanying US military. Our DPRK military minder told us this was unusual (not sure whether this is true or not) but for me to see the south side from the north was incredible considering I have been on the south side looking over to the north.
Whilst at the DMZ we were given a military minder who took a particular fancy to one of the girls in our group. We really thought we had lost her to DPRK but she decided to return to Beijing with us. Our minder had a lot of questions about the US and Japan which we tried to deflect without being rude!!!
Whilst driving we saw a lot of interesting sights and stopped off to take photos and were able to go onto the USS Pueblo which was attacked and captured by North Korean forces in 1968, in what is known today as the Pueblo incident or alternatively, as the Pueblo crisis.
One place we were taken to was a shop that sold propaganda material i.e. postcards, posters, stamps etc. It was a great opportunity to purchase propaganda items as we had seen so many propaganda billboards around the city; a lot of them depicting DPRK history or photos of past Leaders.
One of my favourite sights was the Pyongyang Metro which is the metro system in Pyongyang. It is a beautiful underground station but also the train was incredibly cute. The Metro consists of two lines: the Chŏllima line which runs north from Puhŭng station on the banks of the Taedong to Pulgŭnbyŏl and the Hyŏksin line which runs from Kwangbok station in the southwest to Ragwŏn station in the northeast.
People estimated to use the underground is estimated to be between 300,000 and 700,000.
One evening we attended the Mass Games, which are held every August and comprise approximately 100,000 performers. With DPRK being a communist country the Mass Games emphasise group dynamics rather than individual prowess.
The Mass games are performed only in the May Day Stadium (highest capacity seating stadium in the world) and involves a 90-minute display of gymnastics, dance, acrobatics, and dramatic performance, accompanied by music.
Students practice every day from January onwards. The 90 minute performance is held every evening at 7pm and features the ‘largest picture in the world’ a giant mosaic of individual students each holding a book whose pages links with their neighbours’ to make up one gigantic scene. When the students turn the pages the scene or individual elements of the scene change, up to 170 pages make up one book.
Our rooms at our hotel were not too bad really, very basic but with a pretty comfortable bed – minor (major) complaint no wine anywhere in the hotel – only beer!! And considering we could not leave the hotel without our tour guide (minder) it was a long four days.
All in all – so glad I went – an incredible experience!! So time to say goodbye to Pyongyang and return to Beijing!!