Introduction

In September 2014, I visited North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) for a week.

When I told people I was going there, I received two responses: “Do you really mean North?” (“Yes, North,” was my reply); or “Why?”

Both are fair questions. Most people don’t even realise you can travel to North Korea. (You can, but only as part of an organised and authorised tour.)

Invariably, western media references to North Korea are prefixed by phrases such as “the secretive state” or “the hermit state”. Branded by George W Bush as part of an ‘Axis of Evil’ (along with Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya), I think it will forever be tarnished with this soubriquet. In many ways, there is no place on earth like it. It has the world’s only totalitarian, socialist, hereditary regime; a vast military might, including nuclear weapons, yet grinding poverty; what appear to be concentration camps and public executions; and an apparently brainwashed population, who have no idea what goes on in the outside world. It has parallels with the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s or China during the Cultural Revolution. Yet there are differences, including the personality cult of the leadership, the Kim dynasty, and their almost God-like status in a God-less country. All in all, it is a unique and, hopefully, never to be replicated place. I had long been fascinated and intrigued by it.

Little is really known about what goes on inside the country. Would I get a real insight, or see only what the authorities wanted?

There are no major sites in North Korea of world standard. Simply being inside the country is an incredible experience. Although I have travelled extensively throughout the world, this trip was different.

CONTENTS:
1. Brushes With Security
2. Alone in the ‘Axis of Evil’
3. Meeting the Locals
4. Who Turned the Lights Out?
5. Is it Real, or is it North Korean Propaganda I
6. Is it Real, or is it North Korean Propaganda II
7. Getting To the Truth
8. Kingdom of the Kims
9. The North-South Divide

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Part 1/9: Brushes With Security

Entering the country from China, the group and I had no idea what kind of reception we would have. Nervousness of the unknown increased as the train stopped at Sinuiju station for the immigration and customs officials to come aboard.

All official uniforms in North Korea seem to include oversized peaked caps. These characters were no exception, with their Kim badges worn close to their hearts. The immigration checks were swift enough. We all had visitor cards, arranged by Lupine Travel in China. Customs took longer. Most of the bags were checked and items such as cameras and iPhones noted in a book. (What they did with this information was anyone’s guess.)

Flag

One official wanted to look in my bag. He was really quite polite, even charming, but he spotted my guide book – the only one I could find on North Korea itself on Amazon. I knew the Lonely Planet guide to Korea, which includes just one chapter on the North, has sometimes been confiscated (LP can adopt a cynical tone). My Brant Guide was more balanced, even sympathetic to the regime, it seemed to me. Anyway, the polite customs man started flicking through the book, especially looking at the photos. Then he asked if he could borrow it. I knew it was a new publication, so I naively thought perhaps he wanted to continue admiring the pics of his country but I noticed that my heart was beating a little faster.

After about 10 minutes, the official returned to inform me that my book was “not allowed”. “Why?” I asked, this time, faking naivety. “Because there are mistakes,” he replied. My book was banned because, in their eyes, it had errors in it. Presumably, these ‘errors’ were things that painted the country and regime in less than a glowing light. Little did they know that I had a PDF of the frowned upon Lonely Planet chapter hidden on my phone. After two hours of checks, the train continued slowly to Pyongyang. This was my introduction to the DPRK. I wondered if it was just a taste of things to come.

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Next day, I had another brush with authority. The group of us was driving in a coach towards the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). Our guides had already told us not to take photos of the military (of which there is a lot). As we got nearer to Kaesong and the DMZ, chief guide, Kang, warned us again that there was an increasing number of military and that we should not photograph any. (The DMZ is, actually, one of the most heavily militarised places on earth – on both sides.) We had already passed several roadblocks. I had taken up a seat at the back of the coach, with my bag several rows in front. I had my camera hanging on a wristband from my forearm.

slogans

At one particular roadblock a soldier noticed the camera on my arm and shouted something. Mrs Kang, stern faced, came walking to the back of the coach. “Did you take a photo?” She asked. “No,” I said – because I hadn’t. “That soldier thinks you did,” she replied. “You must give me your camera.” So, she took it, got out of the bus and walked off with two soldiers to their little hut. Was I going to see my camera again, I wondered? I could use my phone for photography, I thought, but I didn’t want to lose that camera. Again, I noticed my heart rate increasing.

We waited for what seemed hours. I felt embarrassed and guilty about delaying the group, embarrassed that they might think I’d been stupid enough to photograph soldiers. Eventually, I spotted Mrs Kang returning. From a distance, I could see something in her hand. I just hoped it was my camera. It was! She returned it to me with another warning to “be careful”. She said they had, in fact, found one photo with a soldier in it, who I didn’t know was there, and had deleted it. I was mightily relieved and slightly intimidated that a soldier at a quiet, rural checkpoint had the know-how to get into my camera and delete that pic – which is not that simple, a multi-stage process – especially considering the number of different models of camera around. This country was feeling creepier than ever.

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Ironically, after a short time, we arrived at the DMZ, where it is positively encouraged that you take photos of soldiers – for political reasons. (They want to emphasise the point that the Korean peninsula has been divided by the evil Americans and their South Korean lackeys.) We peered across at ‘enemy’ soldiers (South Korean) on the other side.

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Part 2/9: Alone in the ‘Axis of Evil’

Crossing the Yalu River from Dandong, China, the group of 17 entered the DPRK at Sinuiju. About 200 yards in, I looked at my phone. I was still connected to a Chinese network. I was excited, I could send a text home from within North Korea – or so I thought. Famously, the NK authorities have so isolated their country that, not only is there no internet access, no ATMs or credit cards, there are no mobile phone networks that connect internationally and foreign smartphones just don’t work (for the week I was there, I was only able to use my phone for taking photos and telling the time). So, thinking I could get around this close to the border with connection still to China, I attempted to send two texts before we got any further, “A sneaky text from inside North Korea”. Neither went through. “Not Delivered”, my phone told me. Within a few yards, they had managed to jam the phone signal. We were alone and disconnected from the outside world – cut off in this strange and somewhat sinister country (part of George W Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’).

At least it was good to have the company of the group. However, a few days later we all went our separate ways. Most of the group returned by train to China, the Scottish couple, Jim and Linda, had booked a day excursion to Mount Myohung. But me – I was off on a four-day private tour, just myself with the ubiquitous and statutory two guides and a driver.

mine

As we left the by now familiar sights of Pyongyang, it was a wired and slightly unnerving thought that I was alone in the ‘Axis of Evil’ with three North Koreans. What was to stop them driving me in the minibus to one of the country’s notorious prison camps and leaving me there – just because they could? If they did, there would be nothing I could do about it. This reinforced the view I had adopted since entering the DPRK that it was wise to be on one’s best behaviour, follow instructions and not insult the regime or the leadership. Not the most relaxing of holidays, perhaps, but unique.

I got used to the unusual circumstances in this country, though the sense that it was not entirely safe did not quite leave me. However, at no point did I sense any actual threat or pick up on any imminent danger. The sense of unease was entirely in my head.

Hotel lift

Certain floors of the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang are reserved for foreigners (the contents of the mysterious and strictly out-of-bounds 5th floor remains unknown – there are no lift buttons for this floor – it’s probably a communication centre). The group of 17 had been on the 20th and 21st floor of this 46-storey hotel. When we returned to Pyongyang after three nights away on the private tour, I was given the same room, 2117, as if it had been kept ready for me. Imagine that happening anywhere else. Though there is no permitted foreign TV, radio, media or internet in North Korea, in this hotel foreign TV channels are allowed on these foreigner-only floors. In my room, I had some Chinese channels and BBC World News – in hermetically sealed North Korea. Why they allow that, I don’t know.

On this particular night, 14th September, there was a story on BBC World News about an American journalist who had been sentenced in Pyongyang that day to six years’ hard labour for ‘entering the country illegally to commit espionage’ (tearing up his visitor card, apparently). This was scary, as I was due to fly out the following morning and face those same immigration and customs officials. I wished I hadn’t switched on the TV and I had a disturbed night’s sleep.

In actual fact, leaving was a breeze – much easier than entry by train. Maybe because there is pressure to get flights out on time (not that there were more than one or two) and a lot of people to process, I was more or less waved through, though my visitor’s pass was taken. I had removed the memory card from my camera and hidden it, in case it contained any offending pictures, and merely took scenic shots on the last day on a second card. No one even looked.

Air Koryo is the North Korean carrier. (Pretty much the only foreign destination it has is Beijing.) So, I was technically still under North Korean jurisdiction until we landed and disembarked in Beijing some two hours later. It was quite a relief to be in a relatively free country (not exactly noted for its liberal values – it’s all relative) and to be able to walk around at will.

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Part 3/9: Meeting the Locals

It’s pretty rare for a visitor to North Korea to have much contact with local people. One of the jobs of the government-appointed guides (minders) is to prevent contact, presumably so that the locals don’t get too much of an idea about the outside world. It’s sad for them and for the visitor. Other than the guides, contact is pretty much limited to waiters, hotel staff, drivers and souvenir-shop assistants. Other than the guides, they seem to speak little, if any, English.

I found it frustrating to be so confined — to be shuttled around from point A to point B, from door to door. We would drive from our hotel to a monument by bus, back in the bus to another site, from hotel door to restaurant door. It was rather like the way an accused person is transported from prison to court and back again, with no contact with, or sight of, the public.

One of the ways the government keeps control is to not allow any information about the outside world to get to its people. These people have been isolated from the rest of humanity for almost 60 years, fed only what the regime authorises, fed the belief that they live in a socialist paradise  – the “best country in the world”.

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One of the rare exceptions to this no-contact situation was on our ride on the Pyongyang metro. The accepted theory is that the inhabitants of Pyongyang are the elite, government employees, etc. While they are not free to travel to other parts of the country without a permit, others (the peasants from the provinces) are not allowed into the capital. Thus, the passengers on the metro were not going to be ‘ordinary’ North Koreans but at least this was something,

Metro

We were supposed to go three or four stops on the metro but only went one because the stations or line was closed (no clear explanation given). So we were unexpectedly at a station with our bus waiting elsewhere.

I could tell that our sweet but stern lead guide, Mrs Kang, was stressed. I assume she didn’t want to have us hanging around waiting for the bus with the ‘danger’ that we might speak to local people. So she hurried us on a five-minute walk to the ‘safety’ of an international hotel, where we could wait for the bus. I loved those brief few minutes on an ordinary street with ordinary people.

There were other brief glimpses – at a Pyongyang funfair, at the circus and at a school-children’s concert. But I assumed that these were the Pyongyang elite, soldiers, government people and their families, under instructions not to speak to foreigners.

Two days later on my private tour, we were staying in the mountains, near Mt Myohang. The hotel was in a small town. I persuaded Mrs Kang to agree to take me for a walk into town (I knew that she and the male guide would have to accompany me). We arranged to go at 7pm. We met in the foyer. She was wearing her jacket (the night was cool). It looked like we were really going. I was excited: “At last,” I thought. “I’m going to see the real DPRK.”

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The three of us crossed the car park and stepped into the road. Mrs Kang then stopped and looked up and down the three streets that led from there and said: “You know, I think it’s too dark. We had better go back.” There were no streetlights, even though we were right on the edge of town – a situation that is pretty common in the country.

I don’t know if she thought it was dangerous, if I’d actually meet people, get lost or run away. So it was back inside the hotel to my room for the next 13 hours. Thwarted! I was extremely disappointed.

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Part 4/9: Who Turned the Lights Out? The Dark Side

Many people will have seen satellite photos of the Far East with, in stark contrast to the blazing lights of China, South Korea and Japan, North Korea appearing like a black hole. Only the faint glow from Pyongyang is visible. Now, I know why.

My window on the 21st floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang opened fully to the night air. Suicide would have been easy (is that the idea?) Leaning out and looking down gave me terrible vertigo but I was also struck by the darkness and the quiet.

Pyongyang - river

The hotel is in the city centre, yet there were few cars and few lights on at barely midnight. The only illumination was on the Juche Tower a couple of kilometres away (Juche is the home-grown philosophy, a combination of Marxism, Confucianism, ancient Korean traditions and personality cult sometimes called Kimilsungism, which dominates this country.)

The near silence was eerie for a capital city in the 21st century. Pretty much the only sounds were from what were either factories or construction sites on either side of the Taedong River. I could hear metallic pounding and grinding sounds. My imagination extrapolated these sounds to mean prison work camps, torture or even extermination camps. Who knows? Whatever the truth, they sounded spooky and ominous, pounding away in the night.

Next, I took one of the most unusual journeys ever – from Pyongyang over the mountains to the east, the other side of the country. The mountain scenery is spectacular but the roads, as everywhere, were appallingly bumpy.

Everywhere in North Korea people are walking or sometimes cycling (there is no private car ownership and few motor bicycles). It’s hard to gauge how far they walked but sometimes miles from anywhere there would be pedestrians. The guides shrugged it off, saying they were just travelling from one village to another, as if it was only a mile or two but, by the looks of them – thin, weather-beaten and tired-looking – I suspected that the truth was quite different.

Tunnel

At one point, there was a series of tunnels through the mountains, some of them quite long. Only the longest (8km) had lighting. In all the other tunnels (2km, 3km or 4 km) there was darkness, except for our headlights and the occasional oncoming vehicle. But still there were people walking – in darkness and breathing the acrid exhaust fumes that filled the tunnels. The first time I’d realise that there was someone walking was when we swerved to avoid this figure picked out in the lights.

Weirder still were blacked-out towns.

We drove up the east coast for some distance after dinner and long after dark, passing through several sizeable towns between 9pm and 10pm. In each the streetlights were out. The roads were lined by blocks of flats on both sides with only the occasional low-wattage bulb glowing. Still there were people walking in the dark, like ghosts.

tower blocks

Part 5/9: Is It Real, or Is It North Korean Propaganda? – I

My first sight of inside North Korea was with the tour group at the border station at Sinuiju. While we waited for the official entry procedures (see Part 1), I watched people walking up and down the platform. We were there almost two hours, during which time no trains passed, and yet there was a steady stream of pedestrians. As I watched, I was struck by several things: they were walking purposefully, not strolling or meandering as people on a station platform would do at home; though some were in pairs or threes and in conversation, there was little animation; their clothes were old fashioned, what we might call ‘retro’ (later, I found that hotels, public buildings and many other places also appeared to be stuck in a kind of 1970s time warp). The women carried parasols, which were to become familiar, to keep off the sun. A good description of them would be that they looked rather like extras on a theatre stage – even robots. I had never seen anything more like a scene from ‘Stepford Wives’. I couldn’t help but wonder if these were genuine passengers or whether it wasn’t some kind of bizarre and elaborate set up, to create the illusion of normality.

Slogan

The theme of the illusion of normality was to reoccur many times on this trip. In fact, I quickly got the idea that the whole purpose of the exercise, as far as the guides and their government employers was concerned, was to show – or convince – us that everything was ‘good’ and ‘normal’ in North Korea. The guides had a phrase they liked to repeat: “Seeing is believing”. The problem was we didn’t believe everything we saw and the more they tried to convince us everything was good the less we believed it. And we could see for ourselves that the country wasn’t ‘normal’.

For example, they really only wanted us to photograph good things – monuments, major buildings and sights. The lead guide, Kang, forbade us from photographing anyone working, such as on a building site or road construction, explaining that it was “not polite”. I think the truth was, however, that the work was so labour intensive, without the use of modern equipment (even tall buildings seemed to be constructed without using tower cranes or cement mixers), that it would show the country in a bad light.

One afternoon, in Pyongyang, we were taken to what would have to be the weirdest and creepiest ‘celebration’ I’ve ever witnessed. We were told it was to be the “Korean people marking their national day”, on 9th September. Assembled in a square were several hundred couples who looked to be students, dressed in national costume, who performed well-choreographed dances for an hour. It was certainly impressive but, after a while, I noticed that none of the dancers seemed to be enjoying themselves and there were few locals watching, only foreigners. The whole thing seemed to be being staged purely for our benefit. I wondered if the students had any choice about whether or not to be there. What might the consequences have been if they had refused? It left me with a bad feeling in my stomach that said, “This is not right”. Only in North Korea could a dance celebration feel so bad.

Similarly, a concert at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace included well-drilled and virtuoso performances by primary school children with fixed smiles. I wondered how many weeks, months years of practice were required to achieve such polished performances of song, dance and musical instruments. How much of the youngsters’ childhoods had been sacrificed for the national prestige of the DPRK?

Kim Il Sung Sq

A visit to the Grand People’s Study House, a gigantic library, provided more weirdness. I wondered if any of it was for real. People were tapping away at vintage computers. On the screens, I saw windows being opened and closed and text (in Korean) being typed, but it was impossible to tell if they were doing real work. On one screen I saw “No terminal server found” in English – it was not connected.

The guides were keen to show us the book retrieval system. They suggested three books be requested, one of which was Huckleberry Finn. Thus was duly done. And, in a few moments, the books appeared on a conveyor belt – Huckleberry Finn, a book authored by Kim Il-Sung and an Encyclopaedia of Chickens. Huckleberry Finn rang a bell to me. Then, I remembered a book I had read, which included a description of a visit to the Study House and the same book was requested. A close inspection of the books that had appeared revealed that they had no cataloguing system – no serial numbers or barcodes, etc. and no way that randomly chosen books could be retrieved so quickly. It was a sham! Then the lights went out.

Power cuts are common in the DPRK to conserve scarce energy recourses. I was beginning to question everything and even wondered if they kept the power on only when foreign visitors were present and, as we were running late, they had mis-timed the action and cut it off too early. There was some commotion and, within a minute or so, power was restored.

Cassette players

Next, came the music appreciation section, which comprised rows of antiquated desks each with 1970s-style cassette players on them. As we walked in, they began to play the Beatles’ Hey Jude. Was that what they thought was the kind of hip and trendy music that would impress us?

(CONTINUED IN PART 6)

Mountains

Part 6/9: Is It Real, or Is It North Korean Propaganda? – Il

(CONTINUED FROM PART 5)

Remember that from the North Korean authorities’ point of view, all foreign tourist visits are massive PR exercises (as well as hard currency earners).

In that vein, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum – in other words, the Korean War museum – was pure propaganda. The narrative was “The evil US imperialists started the war and the DPRK secured a heroic victory”. Yes.

On our final afternoon in Pyongyang we visited a school. Of course, we were not allowed to meet the children, who we caught a glimpse of being kept upstairs out of sight. The floor we inspected was more like a museum than any kind of school I’ve ever seen, complete with glass cases, stuffed animals and old desks. The walls displayed photos of the country’s leaders visiting and a rollcall of the staff and students. In none if the classrooms was there any evidence of the students’ work and I got the impression that it had been many years since they were used by real students for real lessons. Like everything, it was intended to impress – and failed.

Stuffed animals

The International Friendship Exhibition is like no other exhibition on the planet. It contains thousands of gifts given to the Great Leaders (mainly Kim Il Sung) over the years from all over the world. It is housed in two giant complexes in the mountains at Myohyangsan, amidst scenic splendour.

As you enter, through security, it is obligatory to remove your shoes and replace them with felt sacks to protect the marble floors, hand in cameras (strictly no photography), be on best behaviour, show respect, and, of course, bow in front of the Leaders’ statues.

From the outside, these complexes look like large, ornate Korean-style houses but as we ventured in, I found long corridors leading off in all directions, disappearing into the distance and lined with cavernous halls. I realised that the exhibitions had been carved into the mountains themselves – to protect from the predicted nuclear attack, I speculated.

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The exhibitions are organised chronologically and divided into sections: gifts from China, Russia, Europe, Latin America, the USA, etc. There is far too much to see on a single visit. One would think the exhibition shows the high esteem in which the leaders are held throughout the world and this, no doubt, is the message the exhibition is intended to give – for internal consumption, I assume. It is all part of the propaganda machine that continually feeds North Koreans the message that everything is wonderful in the DPRK. There were several groups of Koreans, dressed in their Sunday best, dutifully lining up in ranks outside waiting to enter. I wondered whether visits are mandatory for them.

Closer inspection shows the gifts for what they really are: kitsch and tacky. There is a car presented by Joseph Stalin to Kim Il Sung, Chairman Mao’s railway carriage, a stuffed alligator standing on its hind legs carrying a wooden tray and cups – a gift from the Sandinistas – some Kalashnikov-shaped vodka bottles and two jewel-encrusted Bedouin swords from Colonel Gaddafi. Gifts from the USA, though the arch-enemy, seemed to be, nevertheless, prized. But they turned out to be such things as plates from the Steelworkers Union of Michigan and the ‘Cowherders of Nebraska’, though there are several gifts from Christian evangelist Billy Graham and Madeline Albright, who visited Kim Jong-Il in 2000, and there were a couple of basketballs and a basketball shirt from Kim Jong-Un’s pal, NBA player Dennis Rodman. From the UK, there are gifts from several trade unions, academic institutions and a coffee mug from Derbyshire County Council. All these are presented with pride in glass cases and illuminated by spotlights.

It was funny and I couldn’t help but laugh at some of it. But this is a national treasure to the locals and taken very seriously, so I had to check my mirth and keep a straight face in front of Mrs Kang and the local guide. By the 1990s the gifts become fewer and more mundane. Consumer goods – such as TVs and personal computers given to Kim Il-Sung – became much more common.

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On the road between Pyongyang and Nampo (a road, like many in the country, wide enough to double as an airport runway), near the West Sea Barrage, we visited a collective farm. There were the obligatory murals of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il at the entrance and keeping watch over the farm. Again, it was difficult to assess what was going on. There were certainly crops growing but I didn’t see anyone working in the fields. The only workers I saw were making repairs on the road and, of course, I was not allowed to photograph them. I was, however, introduced to the farm supervisor, who showed me rice paddies, which are separated from one another by banks of soya plants.

Everywhere in the countryside that I saw, crops looked abundant and healthy and there was no sign of the famine conditions that had killed millions of people in the 1990s.

On the other side of the country, near Hamhung, we visited a large fertiliser factory. I had been told that these factories belched out noxious fumes but there was not much evidence of that. In fact, there was not much evidence that anything much was happening.

I was given a tour by the manager – from the pumps and mixing machines, which I was told produce a chemical process that results in the nitrate fertiliser, to the central control room with all of two computer keyboards and single TV monitor. The machines I inspected were grimy, antiquated and noisy, operated by a sallow-faced worker in his twenties. Other workers passed by on their bicycles to and from the factory gates, beneath rusting pipes and idle cranes. I could not tell if anything was actually being made.

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Finally, I was shown a warehouse containing sacks of fertiliser behind panes of glass. In the entrance was a single sack of white crystals that I was allowed to inspect. I had no way of verifying what the chemical was or where it had come from.

It was strange to be in a country with so many inconsistencies, contradictions, secrecy, control and obvious lies that one questioned the truth of everything. Much as they want visitors to visit the DPRK, they really don’t make it easy for them to come away with a good impression, however hard they try.

Hamhung street scene (from a distance)

Hamhung street scene (from a distance)