I visited The Democratic Peoples Republic of North Korea in February of this year. It has taken me a couple of months to digest my experience there, hence the delay in putting pen to paper… The couple of days I spent there were a pretty mixed bag of emotions – I was shocked, I was thrilled, I was confused, I was fascinated, bewildered and so on and so fourth. I will do my best to try and convey the sensory overload that is – traveling to North Korea.
You cant travel to North Korea without a specialist tour company. After doing my research I decided to take my adventure with Global Village Tours. GVT are one of the newer companies to step into the strange and wonderful world of DPRK travel. From the get go I really liked their no bullshit approach. Their itineraries seemed to have a tendency to get you stuck in with the locals, a little bit of drinkin’, and an all round emphasis on fun and authentic experiences ie. real traveling! GVT’s main office is in Ireland but they are one of the most popular tour companies in Europe for North Korea and other similar locations. Im based in London so flew to Beijing where I met with the rest of the group and our two Western guides. After our orientation we had a meal together and caught the train from Beijing to Pyongyang. There is also an option to fly – but I wanted to catch some views of the countryside so opted for the longer 24hr trip. The train was alot of fun – we got to know each other over a few beers and the scenery is stunning as you pass from China and into the DPRK. My first real DPRK experience was border control – an official guard of the DPRK army came and checked our visas, there were also a few spot checks of some cameras and laptops. I gazed at his 70’s Soviet style uniform as he flicked through the photos on my digital camera. He got as far as my mothers 60th birthday photos when he gruffly nodded his head at me before handing the camera back. Upon disembarking the train our Korean guides met us at the station and we were off…
So is it really what is cracked up to be?
The first pretty mind blowing experience of the DPRK was just how calm and peaceful the place appears. My perceptions were challenged on numerous occasions on this trip – and none more than on the journey from the airport to our hotel in the middle of the capital Pyongyang. The streets are quiet, very clean, and the view from the rooftop restaurant in the hotel showed an enormous sprawling city of skyscrapers, factories, monuments and mass housing. A voice in my head that had been conditioned by Western media was screaming “this is all fake – its for show!”, but its impossible to fake on that scale. Pyongyang is the epicenter of the North Korean empire – and is inhabited by the elite. I have traveled all over Asia and it is easily one of the better developed, cleanest capital cities in this part of the world. There is no denying there is a certain facade about the place though – large communist style buildings and numerous monuments of the Kims tower over the quiet city streets. The impressive pyramid shaped Ryugyong Hotel stands 105 stories high like something from a sci-fi movie, and is completely empty.
Aside from these few oddities, it is a city full of local middle class citizens who appear to be going about their daily lives normally. There is a notable peace about the place – no traffic jams, no one in a hurry. I suppose when everyone is getting the same pay out at the ration station theres no point in rushing out the door every day trying to get to work early! In fact Pyongyang was a welcome change to the polluted madness that is Beijing. One of the newest features Global Village Tours had introduced was taking us to a Korean shopping mall where we could exchange our US dollars for Korean currency (not something that was possible until recently). We shopped around the mall for a while and observed families purchasing food and wine with their rations, and even toys for the kids. Its the subtleties of normal life that are more shocking than anything – when seen in a place that is known in the West as a hell hole of poverty. Although the locals were shocked to see us, they were not a malnourished unhappy people as we might have expected. But after all, this is the capital. Im not denying an existence of the above, as many defectors have eluded to it being the case, but in Pyongyang it is definitely not on the scale we are told it is by the media. A city with a population of starving, brainwashed citizens makes for a great news article though. When we left Pyongyang to visit neighboring Pyongsong and the Demilitarized Zone we traveled through beautiful countryside and acres of farmland. We saw many people tending the fields and crops with simple tools, no machinery. This was a bit more an honest glimpse into how some of the population live outside the capital – much more basic shanty-town dwellings and lots of manual labor. Its nothing I havent seen in places like India and parts of China, but various news investigations and asylum seeker reports tell me there is much more severe poverty to be seen in DPRK than this.
Are they brainwashed?
The North Korean ideology is known as ‘Juche’, and it was established by Kim Il Sung the grandfather of Kim Jong Un. Most totalitarian ideologies could be labelled as being brainwashed, I went to school with a few hardline Christians who I might even say were brainwashed! Really and truly, Juche is all the people know there. Such is the isolation of North Korea, the people have nothing else to compare their values to. They are taught from an early age that Juche is the one truth, and critical thinking is not something that is encouraged in North Korea…
As extreme as the doctrine of Juche may be, I was once again made challenge my own perceptions as I learned about some of its tenets. The truth is that alot of the Juche philosophies are surprisingly rational. A few examples:
Equality of the sexes: In Korean society women are respected – the official stance of the government is that women should avail of all the same rights as men, and with the exception of some reports this appears to be the case. Women often have high ranking jobs and are expected to attain third level education (if born in the right class of course). Obviously this seems like a given for anyone from a developed country but I did find it interesting given the our perception of North Korea and its attitude towards human rights. Not to mention, many of the surrounding nations in this part of the world do not appear to hold the same standards.
Wealth and possession: There is a notable modesty to the Juche way of life. The prioritising of material goods is regarded as a ‘petty human trait’ therefore it would be frowned upon to flaunt wealth or envy the possessions of others. I once read somewhere that this is one of the reasons that theft or petty crime is apparently uncommon in North Korea – if most people have the same general salary and standard of living then they may not have much of a motive to steal from each other? This apparent modesty is unfortunately not extended to that of the regime however, as they seem to take every opportunity possible to express their power and wealth in the numerous monuments that tower extravagantly over the Pyongyang skyline, not to mention many reports of opulent palaces and warehouses full of luxury cars.
Is it ethical to travel to North Korea?
Ive been asked this question a few times. I believe the gap will be bridged between North Korea and the rest of the world by information. On both sides we have been conditioned to think that the other is some sort of devil when this is not the reality. As isolated as North Korean people may be, they are now interacting with more Western tourists than ever before. This is slowly eroding away the misconceptions that we have for eachother. Speaking from experience they are some of the warmest people I have met – and they are abundantly curious about our way of life. In the Pyongyang shopping mall I stopped to chat with two Korean boys in their teens. They were tentative at first but eventually became more inquisitive. Through broken English they asked if I played soccer and if the weather is cold where I live. In stark contrast I have a friend who visited North Korea back in 2009 and he recalls the people of Pyongyang being afraid to even make eye contact with tourists at that point!
When I speak of North Korea I am not referring to the regime but the people, as they are the blood that flows through the veins of the nation. Tourism is undoubtedly helping to break down barriers and develop a sense of familiarity between North Korea and the rest of the world. “But what about your money being used to support a military dictatorship?”… maybe so, and maybe its feeding an impoverished nation? But the highly secretive inner workings of the North Korean government will most likely insure that the answers to that question will remain a mystery. And if we’re asking ourselves these questions we should really pour the same scrutiny on anyone that travels to any of the hundreds of corrupt countries around the globe.
North Korea in a nutshell, is a mystery to me. It has lasted longer than any other country in history as a Communist nation and remains one of the most peculiarly isolated places in the world. As you can probably gather from my descriptions above, I am conflicted by all the things that I loved and disagreed with during my time there. I remain confused and bewildered but more curious than ever. I can only implore people to go see it for themselves, it really is an undescribeable traveling experience…
Click here to see more of our group tours to North Korea.