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

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)

Part 7/9: Getting To the Truth?

Is it possible to discover the truth in a country like North Korea? In my experience, as a visiting tourist, the answer is ‘no’. I would say that I actually came away with more questions than answers.

Of course, I asked the guides questions but their well-scripted answers usually gave little away, other than what the government want you to know. To that extent, the guides did their jobs well. My more probing questions were normally met with evasion, blank looks or “I don’t know”.

Partly to test her, I asked Kang how many people were in the military. She said she didn’t know. However, there are many statistics published on this. I have read that some estimates put the figures at 25% of the population of the country are under arms. That is less surprising when you consider that North Korea keeps itself on a continuous war footing against its Southern neighbours and their “US masters”. (To them the Korean War did not end in 1953 but is still going on.)

Again, while driving along the southern section of the east coast (The East Sea coast) towards the border with South Korea, I saw a continuous fence, perhaps 50km long, just back from the beach. We were driving fast on the typically bumpy roads, so I was not able to check, but it appeared to be electrified. I have also read about this fence. The people are told that it’s to thwart any attempted Japanese invasion (Japan is also seen as a major threat) but, in fact, it’s to stop any would-be defectors getting into the sea and swimming to South Korea. I don’t know the truth but the fence looked too flimsy to hold back a military invasion but certainly substantial enough to stop individuals from reaching the beach in a bid for freedom. I asked Kang about this fence, to see if she’d give me the story about Japan. Again, she said she didn’t know.

At this point, I realised that there was no point asking any further questions about sensitive issues, such as prison camps or reports of public executions. And it felt disrespectful to push the guides too far on these matters. They had feelings, like anyone else. They were basically nice people, simply doing their government’s bidding.

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It was interesting and sinister during the week to note the absence of disabled people – no-one in wheelchairs, no amputees and no one who appeared to be blind. Throughout the world, people with such disabilities are common. In my experience, in the developing world there are far more people with such disabilities; they are often seen begging by the roadside. Not so in North Korea. This does lend credence to the belief by some in the West that these people are locked away, out of view, or even killed, and that babies with deformities are killed at birth to maintain the racial purity. If this is true, the regime is Nazi-like. But, again, I don’t know the truth so can only report my own observations.

I also noticed only about three dogs and one cat during the entire week. Koreans (North and South) are rumoured to be fond of eating dogs and cats. Could this be the reason for the scarcity of these animals, especially in the North where there has been such widespread famine in the past? Or are people simply too busy fending for themselves and their families to bother with pets? But, again, in Africa and in other parts of Asia cats and dogs abound. Not so in North Korea.

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How much poverty is there in this country? Again, it’s hard to tell. I spoke to a Red Cross worker in the hotel in Pyongyang, who said that poverty in the villages in some areas has even shocked her North Korean co-workers. Of course, I was not taken into or through any villages, which are always set back from the road. In the towns, when I looked between and behind the blocks of flats that lined the roads, there seemed to be a lot of squalor, grime and ramshackle housing, largely blocked from view.

grass

It is common to see people on grass verges, sitting on their haunches cutting grass with sheers or even scissors. Why were they doing this I wondered? Was it to eat it? The guides said they were tidying. In other parts of the world, this would by done mechanically or by goats.

How good were people’s diets? I have already said that I was surprised to see the apparent health of the crops in the fields, though it’s possible I visited only the more prosperous rural areas. What were conspicuous by their absence were markets and food stalls. I saw none. In developing countries, even in Europe, roadside vendors are common. No private enterprise is permitted in North Korea, which might explain it. There were few shops, either. Again, I found that slightly creepy and mysterious. Where do people buy their food? I was told that there are some state-controlled markets but saw none. Are they kept away from prying eyes?

Although the food I was served was adequate, it was fairly basic. I was sure, however, that my meals were sumptuous, compared to what the locals ate. Is that why the guides almost always ate separately from me? Most meals were served with a thin miso soup, usually with chopped spring onion and sesame seeds. On one occasion, a particularly watery-looking soup was served. It had the spring onion and sesame seed floating on top but, otherwise, it looked like water. It was water! Was it a finger bowl? Not with onion and sesame. Just then my male guide, Park, popped his head round the door to see if I was OK. I gestured for him to come over.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“It’s soup,” he replied.

“You try it,” I suggested.

He did. “It’s water!” He exclaimed.

“Why?”

“I don’t know!”

He looked genuinely puzzled. Had a mistake been made in the kitchen, or was this what passed for soup in some parts of North Korea?

What other mysteries were there here? The group’s ride on the Pyongyang Metro did not provide any answers to speculation that large parts of the system are closed. We were told we were going to go two or three stops but, unexpectedly, only went one. Kang did say that she was told the stations had been closed but it did seem like a surprise to her and she appeared to be thrown as to what to do with us (see Part 3).

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I had read that rousing speeches by the leaders, mainly Kim Il Sung, were played through speakers in the metro and in the street – continuous indoctrination. But I can report that I heard none in the metro – there were just patriotic murals of workers, industry, agriculture and the Leaders. Though there were Kim Il-Sung slogans and quotations everywhere, there were no speeches playing in the streets or even at the national monuments. At the latter, it was strange to hear patriotic music from speakers hidden behind bushes. Imagine Rule Britannia being played on a loop in Trafalgar Square or outside Buckingham Palace!

To what extent the almost mythological, and semi-god-like, reverence in which the Leadership is held genuine, it is difficult to tell. The people are taught to revere them incessantly, throughout their lives. Of course, they cannot express dissent or criticism, even if they feel it. But I heard nothing from the guides to suggest that they regarded the Leaders as anything less than flawless and faultless. Apparently, defectors who have sought a better life elsewhere still seem to regard the Leaders with love and affection.

Mass work units (that I was not permitted to photograph) were visible everywhere – on building sites, notably at the airport and repairing the road. When on the move, these groups marched in time, with military precision and coordination, but I could not tell if they were soldiers or just well-drilled civilians who were once in the military.

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Part 8/9: Kingdom of the Kims

One of the most powerful features of North Korea is the all-pervading personality cult of the leaders, Kims I, Il and IlI and the Kim dynasty.

Statues of Kim Il-Sung (Kim I) and Kim Jong-Il (Kim Il) dominate Pyongyang and other major cities. Even in small towns and villages spied from the train and bus, huge murals of the Kims stand out. Slogans singing their praises in giant red lettering are everywhere, even in the fields. Quotes from Kim Il-Sung’s speeches compete for people’s attention. There is no advertising of any kind but there is brainwashing from birth. Portraits of Kims I and Il stare down at you wherever you are, with the notable exception of the Yanggakdo Hotel that, inexplicably, seems to have a dispensation.

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In conversation, there is no getting away from the Kims. One if them is mentioned in every sentence the guides utter: “…as shown to us by our President, Kim Il-Sung”, “…on a visit by our General, Kim Jong-Il”, etc.

Incidentally, the first DPRK president, Kim Il-Sung, is still the president, the eternal president, even though he died in 1994. North Korea is, thus, the world’s only necrocracy!

Kim Il-Sung’s son, ‘General’ Kim Jong-Il succeeded him and his statutes have assumed their place, next to his father’s, everywhere. The grandson, Kim Jong-Un, has not been in power long enough yet to be immortalised in bronze, marble and gold.

We visited Kim Il-Sung’s humble birthplace, a farm on the outskirts of Pyongyang, now preserved as a museum, but I was disappointed not to go to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun, the lavish mausoleum, the ‘holiest’ of all sites, where the embalmed bodies of Kims I and Il lie on view, much like those of Mao and Lenin. When I asked about this, I was told it would take too long to arrange.

Visiting the statues and paying homage to Kims I and Il is obligatory and bowing one’s head to them mandatory. Our first port of call in Pyongyang was an evening visit to Mansu Hill, with its two massive bronze statues, the Mansudae Grand Monument.

It is also customary to buy flowers to lay at the Leaders’ feet. Not wishing to offend, our tour company rep did the honours. But another day, before my guides took me back there for a private tour, I spent five euros on flowers and dutifully lay them down myself as I bowed, tongue firmly in cheek.

It is considered a grave offence to photograph only part of the statues. If you take a picture, you must include the complete figure. Similarly, it is an offence to fold a picture of one of the Kims. I bought a couple of copies of the Pyongyang Times, which daily feature cover photos of Kim Jong-Un and his visits. As the newspapers wouldn’t fit into my bag, I had to be careful to fold ‘underneath’ the photos.

Newspaper

Kim badges are worn by everyone, unless they are wearing a uniform or national costume, such as the waitresses. The badges feature Kim I, Kim Il or both. They are worn on the left breast, close to the heart. A good rule of thumb in the DPRK is that anyone not wearing a Kim badge is a foreigner. A North Korean not wearing one would be severely frowned upon. I asked a guide what would happen if she forgot to put her badge on before she went out. She shook her head. “I would never forget it,” she replied. The badges cannot be bought – they are awarded. Despite that, I managed to blag one as a souvenir.

Badge

The two bookshops I visited, one in the Yanggakdo Hotel and one in the city, really only stocked books about the Kims or written by the Kims. I bought Anecdotes of Kim Jong-Il’s Life, which includes stories of him influencing the weather, for example, making the sun shine when he arrived somewhere after days of rain, the Kim’s ‘Building of a Thriving Socialist Economy’ and ‘Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un in the Year 2012′, in case I got insomnia. The best-seller list displayed had Kim books and those about their Juche philosophy at the top.

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It was odd to talk to the guides about the current leader, ‘Marshall’ Kim Jong-Un. The North Korean people, at least our guides, seemed to have been unaware of his existence until shortly before his father’s unexpected death in 2011.

The guides seemed to know little about him. They didn’t know who his mother was (fuelling my theory that he is not the grandson at all). When we mentioned Kim Jong-Un being schooled in Switzerland for three years, the guides said it wasn’t true. When we insisted, they responded: “That’s what YOU believe.” End of conversation.

No doubting and criticism of the leaders could be imagined. I’m sure the consequences would be severe. But the high esteem in which they seem to be held really knows no bounds.

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Part 9/9: The North-South Divide

One of the first things that becomes apparent when you enter North Korea is that the people (at least the officially appointed guides towing the government line) feel aggrieved about the division of their country following the Second World War by the hated Americans. And they do rather go on about it – it crops up in most conversations.

Of course, according to the international community Stalin set Kim Il-Sung up to rule over the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, which had been divided, much like Germany, into a Russian zone and a US zone at the end of the war once the Japanese occupiers had been driven out. Then, in 1950, civil war broke out. Western history books state that the Korean War was started by the North; the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) faced a US-led United Nations coalition comprising some 20 nations, including Turkey, Canada, Thailand and Australia. After three years of war, the line between the two sides remained pretty much where it had been at the start of the conflict.

Our guides emphasised that the people of the DPRK see Koreans as one people but they see the government and state of South Korea as a puppet of the US and consequently their enemy. Ironically, their Southern brothers are the only people not allowed to visit the DPRK (with one exception, see below). Even Americans are allowed in.

Kaesung

A visit to the Demilitarized Zone (the DMZ) is included in the itinerary of every tourist who visits the DPRK. We were taken there on our first full day in North Korea. The DMZ forms the border between North and South – and was the ceasefire line on the 38th parallel at the end of the Korean War. The term ‘DMZ’ is, in fact, a misnomer: it is actually the most heavily militarised zone in the world, with North Korean missiles, presumably some of them nuclear, facing US missiles. (South Korea has no nuclear weapons of its own.)

As we neared the DMZ, there was an increasing number of checkpoints on the road. But when we reached the edge of the zone, a two-hour drive on the bone-shaking so-called Unification Highway from Pyongyang, we found a souvenir shop filled with militaristic, anti-imperialist posters and postcards, T-shirts… and ginseng jelly. Next, we passed tank traps – massive blocks of concrete poised above the road, ready to drop to make the route impassable. No missile silos were apparent – presumably, they are underground.

Tank trap

Despite minefields, some of the gently rolling land of the 4km wide DMZ is farmed on the North Korean side. There are also buildings we visited where talks between the two sides were held at the end of the Fatherland Liberation War, as they call the Korean War, in 1953. There was a table with a North Korean flag on it and another holding the light blue UN flag.

At the centre, where the two sides facing each other were close enough to see the whites of each other’s eyes, is the so-called blue hut, where the armistice was signed, right on the Military Demarkation Line marking the actual border. The hut is part of the Joint Security Area.

We entered the blue hut from the North, obviously, with our guides and three North Korean soldiers. Two of the soldiers were posted to the door to the South to prevent anyone entering or leaving that way. Through the middle of the room, and the table where the signing took place, is the border itself. Here we could stand with one foot in North Korea and one in South Korea. Alternating tours from North and South use this same room. Tours from the South enter the same hut, through the South door, with their soldiers guarding the North door.

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Outside, on a viewing platform, we could peer into South Korea and observe SK soldiers moving around beneath a large South Korean flag. Behind us, atop a massive mast, the North Korean flag faced it.

Another oddity about the DMZ is that it is the only place in the DPRK where photographing the military is not forbidden. In fact, it is positively encouraged. The reason is that it makes a powerful point about their divided land. I had my photo taken with a young soldier, who spoke good English and who had a wide, warm smile, belying my preconceptions.

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Of course, Koreans, North and South, may be one people, ethnically and culturally, but there are huge differences politically, economically, socially and physically (due to a poorer diet in the North).

About 10 years ago, there was a brief thaw in relations between North and South. During this time, the South Korean company Hyundai, the CEO of which had been born in the North before the division, funded the Kaesong Economic Zone in the North, pumping a fortune into industries outside Kaesong, which we passed, just off the Reunification Highway. The Zone has since closed, as relations turned sour again.

Another Hyundai-funded project was the Kumsangan Tourist Resort, towards the eastern end of the border. The final part of the private tour took me there and we stayed overnight. The idea of the Resort was to bring South Korean tourists in (a special road and railway were constructed from the South, with South Korean money) to this beautiful mountain region with its waterfalls and lakes.

The hotel was unlike anything else I had seen in the DPRK. It was a 4- or 5-star, western-standard hotel. After only six days in this country, it came as a shock to walk into the plush reception area, bar and up to a well-appointed luxury bedroom via the high-tech lift. (Note: there was still only one TV channel.)

In 2008, a South Korean woman wandered away from her guides on the beach here and was shot and killed by soldiers (after repeated warnings, according to the North’s version of the story). Hyundai pulled out and the hotel and resort, staffed by North Koreans, are now virtually deserted.

Waterfall

On my last morning, I was taken on a two-hour walk into the mountains by the young male guide. We went up a stony track to a waterfall, accompanied by Chinese tourists. It was the only walk I did during my week in North Korea. It was a relief. Later, we drove along the South Korean-built road (the only smooth road I encountered in the country) with its unique, green-painted fence running the full length to stop the two sides mixing, and crossed the railway line, now abandoned.

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Twenty-four hours later I flew to Beijing, before going to Seoul, South Korea. It was necessary to go via Beijing because there are no flights between the two countries (even though Seoul is not much more than 40km from the DMZ).

Although there are no major, world-class sights in the DPRK, travelling there is an experience like no other. I would recommend it to anyone. I’m glad I went. Would I go back? Maybe not, unless there is radical change – which I don’t see happening anytime soon.

I expected South Korea to be a contrast. I was only there one day but that was sufficient for me to see that Seoul and Pyongyang – the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the DPRK – are about as different as it’s possible to be. They could be on different planets! (The difference is supposed to be five or six times the difference that existed between the former East and West Germany.)

From the moment I stepped off the plane, I could see that South Korea was clean, modern, hi-tech, glitzy and prosperous. They had the most modern and sophisticated communications available. There was a bright, modern subway system, heavy traffic and the Seoul nightlife pulsates. The drab greyness, Stalinist monoliths, ox carts and weather-beaten people walking like robots gave way to bright, neon advertising hoardings. I was able to walk at will wherever I wanted. And there were no Kims!

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