Friday, 15 February 2013

Five Days in North Korea

Additional photos on my North Korea Gallery link here.

The video of the journey is at the bottom of the blog.

Day 1

The cold, unheated concrete bunker heralded our arrival into Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – North Korea). It looked something out of a World War 2 airfield, and I guessed it was probably built shortly after the Korean War. Bad guess. Construction year: 2010. Oh dear!

Expecting a grilling at immigration, I was surprised how quickly a tall, slim, rather attractive border guard stamped my visa. No questions asked – literally. I really wanted her to ask something. Her eyes wanted me to start up a conversation – or so I told myself.

‘What would be my opening line?’ I wondered? ‘Can I have your mobile number?’

No, that wouldn’t work – DPRK has a mobile network but it doesn't connect internationally, unless they are elite.

I moved beyond immigration to the luggage belt. Stopping only once, for a brief electricity cut, the belt barely slowed my arrival to customs. I had three cameras, one video camera and a laptop. I held a concern that the official would not believe my declaration that ‘I was not a journalist’. Surprisingly customs took no interests in the camera gear but did register my iPad mini and iPhone. Steve jobs would be impressed. He is officially a threat to the state.

Few cars on the cold roads.
I told myself the few cars on the road must have been due to the Lunar New Year holiday. On leaving Beijing at departure that morning the roads were also deserted. In the 48 hours before I left China’s capital two million people had left returning home to their families for Chinese New Year.

Surprised, I was, over the next five days to find that the sparse roads outside of the airport were the busiest of the trip. A new expression has now entered my lexicon; the Pyongyang traffic jam – meaning an empty road.

The westerner in me automatically saw this as a criticism. No cars equates to no wealth. Yet everything has multiple perspectives. No cars means no traffic and no delays. No cars means no pollution. In how many developing countries’ capital cities can you take a lung full of air and think ‘ah, that is clean’?

The North Korean capital also lacks Coke, McDonalds and KFC signs, but did have the odd propaganda poster with words I didn’t understand. Never mind, the anti-American message comes through clearly in the pictures.

One of the less confrontational signs
We arrived at the hotel just before dinner. Our group was split over just two of the 47 potentially available floors. Each other floor stubbornly and suspiciously remained black when viewed from the car park. No lights on any other floor. Perhaps only two floors were operational?

After dinner the night view of the Pyongyang skyline was dark, dotted by a few lonely light bulbs. The odd car on empty roads showed this is not the wealthy country that North Korea’s internal propaganda might suggest.

Our guide told us that the government of the DPRK, in the interests of everyone’s health, encourages people to walk or cycle, and hence the lack of cars. Even at night. Even below zero.

A visit to the hotel’s pool and sauna facility brought me into contact with a few of the local elite permitted to use the facility. Elite or not, the nakedness of Asian style wash areas makes it hard for one to think of a naked change room colleague as an enemy in a deadly game of good and evil.

Day 2

The mausoleum
Day two started with a visit to ‘the’ Mausoleum. Both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lie in state in the former office of DPRK’s founder Kim Il-sung. ‘Office’ is a term to be used loosely. Palace, bastion, fortress or grand demonstration of the inequality of a dictatorship, might be a better description.

While the country starved through famines, the Kims lived in acres of marble, lit by millions of dollars’ worth of chandeliers. The rich irony is that the masses are now permitted to queue up and enter this grand palace to pay respects to the two leader’s embalmed bodies. The masses feel grateful to be allowed in to the previously forbidden building and somehow don’t get angry at the juxtaposition of the living environments. On questioning our guides, they didn’t seem to even see the juxtaposition, let alone feel angry about it.

There is detailed ritual around being allowed to lay eyes on the ‘great’ leaders. Bowing three times I circled clockwise around the bodies held in their glass sarcophagi. Like Ho Chi Min and Lenin, the two Kims looked more wax than human, begging the question why only communist countries do this to their dead leaders. Perhaps democracies throw their leaders out and by definition have no desire to lay their eyes on embalmed corpses into the future.

All of the rituals, the marble and palaces, could somehow be anticipated. I did not anticipate the gentle sobbing of people who looked upon their departed leaders. Was the sobbing and emotion real? Undoubtedly, in my view, yes.

Having lived in Yugoslavia under Milosevic and spoken with Islamic extremists in Pakistan, I have come to accept, although I may not agree with them, that people who receive only one source of information, believe that single source of information. Humans, when lacking competing information, tend to accept what they are told by those in authority – particularly if they have been through an education system that does not teach independent thought.
Most North Koreans will have been brought up on a diet of propaganda extolling the semi divine nature of the Kims. If you had been brought up on that diet, and had believed the rituals of the semi divine, you would sob in the presence of their bodies too.

If you are in doubt then think of this: One large group of people across the world believe a man died on the cross only to rise again three days later. Others believe in the God of Abraham, but not in Jesus. Others believe the Prophet Mohammad had the direct word of God flow through his fingers. At least two of those three MUST be wrong – yet around the world in highly educated countries, people believe in those, or other religions with deep passion and sob, flagellate and show deep emotion in rituals of these beliefs handed down over generations.

A 'Kimorial'. Kim 1 left, Kim 2 right.
Religion is a better analogy for the Kims than politics. The personality cult and propaganda around the Kims is more like a religion than mere political control. This is why a free media is more important than a free election as a foundation of democracy. Elections mean nothing if there is no real and informed alternative from which to choose. It becomes a mere exercise in ticking boxes. To have an election, one must have a choice. Hence building a civil society must be a precondition before elections.

Exiting the great hypocrisy of the mausoleum, but before heading to the De Militarized Zone (DMZ), we were taken to various monuments and statues to the Kims that dominate all areas of Pyongyang. Perhaps there is another new expression for the lexicon. North Korea does not have monuments; it has ‘Kimuments’. It doesn’t have memorials; it has ‘Kimorials’.

The subway, efficient and clean.
A short trip on the subway followed, which our official guides declared to be well decorated with art. Clean, efficient, quick and well used by many local people, who tried desperately not to make eye contact with the foreigners and were nervous of our presence. Well decorated and clean, yes, but art – no. Propaganda – yes.

Later in the afternoon we left Pyongyang and headed south towards the DMZ, through another ‘Pyongyang traffic jam’ of deserted highways. Beautiful landscape, powdered with snow and dotted with powerless, carless, freezing villages with no sign of fun and little life, passed before our eyes as our bus headed south on this, the lunar new year’s day.

We started to chat more casually with our guides.

“How much do cars cost here?” one of the group asked.

A bewildered look from the guide and a pause for thought. “Cost?” he asked. “Well, the state gives them”, he said with bewilderment on his face.

‘Who would buy a car?’ he must have been thinking.

This is the real reason that so few cars are on the road. Successful sports people, artists, actors or senior bureaucrats are given a car as their reward. It is not possible for normal people to buy them even if they had the money. So much for lack of cars as a means to keep people fit – they just can’t be bought.

The further south we headed, the more obvious the military defences became. We were told not to photograph out the windows by guides who are ignorant of Google Earth and that all these things are quite readily visible to anyone on the planet with an internet connection – i.e. not North Koreans.

Hotel in Kaesong
We stopped for the night in Kaesong using a friendly, hospitable hotel, with sporadic power and a promise of hot water from 7:15 the next morning.

Traditional under floor heating in the rooms and paper doors – not paper thin doors but paper doors like those you would have expected in Tokyo before the great fire – welcomed us. While atmospheric, the paper wall gave the under floor heating a great challenge given that it was minus something cold outside.

Day 3

The next morning, as my breath condensed in the air and the faded orange glow struggled in the light bulb, I imagined the warm shower.

Alas, the hot water pipe was ‘broken’, so we were given a bucket of warm water to wash in, followed by breakfast and a visit to the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ).

Four kilometres separates the North and South across the armistice zone said to be one of the most heavily armed zones in the world. Kashmir, Golan, DMZ; three areas competing for an honour no-one should want.

Military guide, DMZ
Whilst it was predictable to hear a lot of anti-American rhetoric, some of which might be true and much of which was probably not, there was no mention of South Korea. The two enemies to North Korea seemed to be Japan, prior to WW2, and the United States after WW2. It was also the first time I heard that it was the Russians who defeated Japan in WW2! My guide was genuinely surprised when I told him how many Australians died at the hands of the Japanese and that we all fought on the same side in 1939-1945.

At the end of the DMZ tour I pulled aside our additional military DMZ guide – a Colonel, and told him of my military past.

“Soldier to soldier, we all want peace” I said. He smiled, stepped back and we swapped salutes.

“I don’t want to write any more letters to mothers telling them why their son died needlessly”, a Filipino General once told me in Mindanao. Like that general I spoke with in Southern Philippines, desperate for his government to find a peaceful solution to the fighting in that province, this North Korean Colonel was training for a war he hoped he would never see. Few professional soldiers want war, but all will respond if their political leaders order it.

Kids sharing roller-blades
For lunch we stopped at a local café. Outside, local kids were taking up the new fad of roller blading. We were permitted to photograph in this tightly controlled space. Strong faces desperately trying to avoid our eyes fled from cameras, lest they be snapped. Every now and again a brave soul would smile back or risk a wave. A few small children waved back. They were quickly grabbed by parents yet to give the anti-fraternisation lesson normally learnt sitting on parental knees.

Under all the reservation and fear, one gets the feeling that somehow the people still want to reach over and say hello. There is friendliness here, desperate to come out but held tightly inside by indoctrination.

We headed to the Myohyangsan for an overnight stay, dinner, exposure to great northern scenery and a new take on the personality cult slowly turning into a religion. We arrived in a grand hotel with freezing cold common areas and mercifully effective under floor hearting in individual rooms. Hot water was put on for an hour before dinner. I showered and dressed, ensuring my thermals were on for the unheated dining room. I’m sure the great leader needs not his thermals at dinner.

Day 4

Quick to jump out of bed in time for the 7:30 hot water, I bumped my knee into the chair barely illuminated by the flickering orange glow of the bulb struggling for life. Exiting from the shower the day awoke outside my window.

Magnificent winter scenery 
Fine powdered snow, a beautiful lake and lovely mountains filled my window. Nature still knows what she is doing here. Ignoring the politics for a second, North Korea is a spectacularly beautiful country with magnificent mountains, streams and lakes. If not for the politics, North Korea would surely be a favourite tourist destination.

Our first destination for the day was the ‘gift house’. It was an opulent, marble encrusted, chandelier filled multi-million dollar building constructed for no other purpose than to show all the gifts given by visiting national or business delegations to leaders of North Korea. For some reason this made me more upset than anything else I had seen.

Two things wounded me. The first was the opulence of the place which has to be considered a waste when looking at alternative uses for the spending such as health, education, electricity or water. The second was the propaganda effect. Our guides were telling us that these gifts were all demonstrations of how much the world respected their leaders and how people from all around the planet came to shower the dictators in gifts, as if it were three kings coming to a baby in a manger.

The lying and the deliberate misrepresentation of the gifts from my country really annoyed me. Australia was counted among the 183 countries that had given a gift to Korea. However, I did not accept the Australian Socialist Party, whoever they are, as true representatives of Australia. Here, in the ‘gift house’, the DPRK was lying about my country. They were lying about me! This was now personal.

Near the end of the day we were given the news that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea had undertaken their third nuclear test. Discussion on the bus back to Pyongyang ensued.

I recall a conversation I had with a group of 20-somethings in Teheran some years earlier. For those young men and women the capacity for Iran to have nuclear technology was a point of pride. It was also, for them, a point of fairness. If others have nuclear weapons and power, why couldn’t they?

For our North Korean guides, the conversation started a similar way, except that our group included Belgians, Finns, Norwegians and me, an Australian. We also had two Americans. One was big, strong and silent. The other was younger and had not yet learnt that the best form of American communication is subtlety.

After the initial spiel around national pride and fairness, the Scandinavians and I put our view that our countries could have developed nuclear weapons but chose not to. We saw it as a sign of strength to not develop the weapons. As nationals of countries that all had the technology to develop nuclear weapons but chose not to, we lent strength to our argument that nuclear testing was a bad idea. We also launched a strong defence of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In the same way I pointed out that Australia had led in rocket technology in the 1950s, but stopped developing the technology and used money for health and education instead. Perhaps the DPRK could take that choice too?

"But what about the Americans?" Our guides legitimately ask.

The Europeans in our group launched a strong critique of US foreign policy. More than anything else this critique had our guides thinking these foreigners were not patsies for American foreign policy. Instead, by launching a harsh critique of the United States, the Europeans lent strength to their other arguments against North Korean testing. Perhaps this would have our guides thinking a little.

Day 5

Day five started with toast and  breakfast in conversation about the nuclear tests announced the day before. We then headed to the study house, where Pyongyang youth went for post-curricular studies, and perhaps the most clever bit of North Korean propaganda.

The study house
We were shown the study hall were students were allowed to access the internet – or so we were told. A quick look at IE 7’s set up showed access to a Local Area Network with pre-saved sites mainly in Korean. Students were told that the computers were accessing the internet. No longer did they have to complain of lack of access. What these students didn’t know was that they were accessing a complete fraud of pre-saved sites held in a central server. Very, very clever control by the authorities.

The Study House was another palatial, marble filled but freezing cold monumental construction. The cold gave us yet another phrase. Pyongyang central heating: when you need hat, gloves and coat inside.

It wasn’t until we got to the railway museum, where mentions of the ‘Great Leader’s’ name outnumbered mentions of words such as ‘train’, ‘railway’ and ‘track’, that we twigged. A railway museum is not a museum of railways. It is a museum about Kim Il-sung’s ‘heroic and patriotic’ role in railways. Likewise the Heavy Industry Museum was not about heavy industry. It was a museum to the ‘Great Leader’s’ role in heavy industry. The museums are in fact a test of the cult of personality, not museums.

The cult of personality is all pervasive, invasive, evil, but very, very clever.

Day 6

Day six saw our train ride back to China. As the train crossed the border we sighed a breath of relief to be welcomed back to the comparative freedom offered by the People’s Republic of China. We would now get the internet, but not Facebook! The comparative freedom we immediately felt crossing into China tells us more about North Korea than it does about the Asian giant.

On the train the whole group started to digest what the trip to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea really meant to them. For each person it would be slightly different but similar.

Kids playing in the street - like anywhere else
At the end of the day for me the trip is more about people than monuments and buildings. One of our guides, a 28-year-old, intelligent young woman, clearly loved the country and her people. She was a normal person like the rest of us. She wondered who she would marry, how many children she would have and what the future would hold for those children. She was no different from most 28-year-old single females anywhere in the world.

I would have liked to have stayed in touch with her and seen what the future brought her and perhaps the family she wanted to have. This question of how to stay in touch demonstrates that divide the politics and leadership places between us, or any other people from within and outside the DPRK.

The way I live my life, with constant travel, makes it very hard to send me an old-fashioned physical letter. I travel too much to risk posting a postcard or a letter that may never find me. I rely on email and social networks. But there is no internet in North Korea. There is no option for a North Korean to stay in touch by electronic means.

So here we have it, two potential friends reaching across political and cultural divides, separated by politics with no way of being able to stay in touch.

Additional photos on my North Korea Gallery link here.

NB: This was a private visit through one of the State permitted tour companies, Koryo tours. More information here.

Video of the journey:


  1. Thank you Andrew! You have expressed many of our feelings and impressions so well! This trip surely leaves us with many thoughts to ponder on.

  2. An amazingly condensed account of the sights, sounds and images of a rather "mysterious & intriguing country". Thanks for sharing, gives a fairly clear perception of life and environment in North Korea.
    Thanks Andrew, it’s another splendid contribution par excellence as usual.

    Agha Farooq

  3. hairdresser can wait...

    here's a diamond,

    "a free media is more important than a free election as a foundation of democracy.

    Elections mean nothing if there is no real and informed alternative from which to choose. It becomes a mere exercise in ticking boxes. To have an election, one must have a choice. Hence building a civil society must be a precondition before elections.... "

    I love this Andrew & you know why- years of dedication to an idea, shining the light of press scrutiny into those dark places, 'article 19' and lots of hard yakka yielded the outcome we'd worked so hard for. And you too witnessed the result of a sustained media campaign, albeit international, culminating in a free and fair if not brave and bloody ballot in 1999 in East Timor; so subscriptors to "Howard's letter" & alike theorists I believe, got it wrong. Without an overwhelming 78.4% of the vote there'd have been no point. So good to have shared that day with you mate.

    with love always, in all things

  4. The various gifts and honours from "the world" were a rather odd collection of items. For example, the thing about the Communist party in Finland is exactly that, it is communist, not socialist as on the bronze plate. Not to mention a very awkward spelling mistake on the plate.

    Did you notice that the poorer the donour country was, the more magnificient were the medals and chains?

    By the way, there was Coca Cola in the gift shop at the Demilitarized Zone we noticed.

    The absence of ads was rather calming, although sometimes heavily replaced by the propaganda monuments and pictures of the Kims.

    noted by the two Finns

  5. Well written. A fascinating insight into the Kims's Korea complete with contemporary contrast by very profesional but admittedly amateur political journalist on tour. Thanks Andrew.

  6. Enjoyed the Video Andrew, I'd best not go there. I'm a bugger for slipping away from guides, I'd be banged up within days.

    I photographed in Ceausescu's Romania in 1990. Fear perpetrated by the state was very apparent in the people I met then. VERY similar to this In many ways. It can be gone in a generation.


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  8. Thanks for the great post. I was always interested in DMZ tour but didn't had some useful information.