02 September 2009

Impressions of North Korea (Day 1)

"Journalists Jailed", "Nuclear Missile Tests" and "I don't think that Bill Clinton will come to rescue you" were some of the comments I received when I mentioned where I was going on my next trip. I knew, however, that ironically the biggest threat to my safety was an attack on the North. We were there on a government sanctioned propaganda tour whose objective was to show the best the North had to offer. I must admit that I did get a bit spooked when chatting to a friend in the US Navy who said "we hear things that you don't", but it all turned out okay. Ironically the person who expressed the least concern when I told her about the trip was my Mom. "So why North Korea?" was the other question I frequently got asked. There was no compelling reason, but when a friend said that he was going and I was able to take the time off work - the question was "why not?" It was an amazing opportunity to visit somewhere different and off the beaten track (but we weren't able to get the passport stamp and I forgot to ask to keep the visa.)

Bridge of No Return - Looking back on Dangdong, China

We left Beijing Central Station on Monday evening on the train for P'yŏngyang. We'd met with the tour company rep earlier in the day and she'd tried to give us some pointers on what to expect - but she was flying in and would meet us there, leaving us to fend for ourselves at the border. We were a little bit apprehensive as to what to expect. We knew that our mobile phones would be sealed in an envelope, the size of our camera lenses checked and our luggage just generally searched for anything that could be construed as suspicious or seditious. Printed material was particularly suspect and a previous tour member had had her guide book confiscated. There was also the issue of language. None of us spoke any Korean or Mandarin. We'd gotten by on the Chinese side of the border by using gestures, but what if something went wrong? How were we to communicate then? Finally after an endless wait at the Chinese border in Dangdong we crossed the River Yalu and saw the Bridge of No Return and formally entered North Korea. As it turned out, the border checks were carried out by very friendly guards and we had nothing to fear. And FINALLY (after waiting for about 5 hours between the 2 borders) we were on our way.

Crops Growing Everywhere
Every one was glued to the windows for their first sights of the country side. And these were endless fields of rice, maize (corn) and beans. It is the middle of the growing season and every spare piece of land was being used to grow crops for the country for the upcoming winter. We didn't see many people in the fields and very few cars. The bicycle was the predominant form of transportation after walking.

We arrived at sunset and on walking out of the station we saw a rainbow in the sky, an auspicious sign for the rest of our trip. After meeting our guides - both from the tour company and the North Korean guides - we were whisked away to our hotel.

20m Statue of The Great Leader at Mansu Hill
The next morning after breakfast we were assigned to our busses and the sightseeing started. Our first stop was the statue of The Great Leader at Mansu Hill, which is flanked on either side by statues portraying images of the class struggle, the Workers Party Flag and the North Korean Flag. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are never referred to by their names, but as Great Leader and Dear Leader respectively. In our initial briefing we had been warned about taking pictures of the Great Leader and Dear Leader. The picture had to be whole and as we got off the bus we were reminded with a “do not chop off the feet, else the pictures will be deleted at the border when you exit”. Some of our group had purchased flowers which were laid ceremoniously at the feet of the Great Leader while the rest of us bowed in silence. The next stop was The Arch of Triumph (notice the lack of vehicles on the road) which celebrated the end of the Japanese occupation, followed by Mangyongdae, the birthplace of Kim Il Sung which has been made into a park. As this was mid-summer there were many other visitors who had come to pay their respects to the Great Leader.

We stopped off for a while at the Mangyondae Fun Fair where I went for a ride on the merry-go-round, but other braver souls made a bee-line for the rollercoaster. As everyone climbed into the cars the operator started hitting buttons on the control panel and another person ran to the top of the initial climb on the track. Shortly thereafter everyone got off thinking that the Koreans had “saved face” by hitting the buttons – but it probably didn’t work anymore. On my walk around the track I’d noticed that the rails were shiny – so it had obviously been used recently. Everyone then wondered off and had a ride on the merry-go-round and we then sat and chatted under the trees. But, there was more to come… They had managed to get the rollercoaster working and were followed into the car by one of our group who was very quickly shoo’d out with “no, test, no, test” – which returned safely and then those brave enough went for a 90 second thrill ride (all the more thrilling because you weren’t sure about the maintenance history – or you didn’t think about it).

After a delicious lunch we had a visit to the film studio where some of us got to "dress up" in traditional costume. I was wondering what the point of this excursion was, but found it really interesting. We took a walk through the different period buildings – Swiss Chalet; Japan in 1940’s; Chinese houses; Korean village and others. We were going to be shown into the cutting room – but that didn’t happen (probably an electricity outage).

At that point I went back to the hotel. I’d picked up a cold and the thought of seeing MORE monuments (Tower of Juche Idea; Monument to the Party Founding; Daesong Department Store) just wasn’t at all appealing.

Dinner that evening was Korean Hot Pot and then we went to the Koryo Hotel to await permission to do a walk through the streets. We had all agreed to the rules of walking together in double file, not taking pictures and keeping quiet – else we would not be allowed to go to the Diplomatic Club on the last night. The permission didn’t come through and we returned to our hotel for the night. The whole premise of the tour was to keep our interaction with local people to a minimum.

One of our group had arranged for 2 members from the British Embassy to come and join us for drinks. For them it was a great opportunity to meet with people who were not part of the tiny (about 200 people) foreign community living in P'yŏngyang. For us it was a chance to ask “difficult questions” and to find out a bit more about the reality of North Korea – remembering that even our news is heavily biased to a particular viewpoint. I was heartened to discover that following a food shipment from Russia and a good harvest there should not be a serious food shortage this winter. I will talk about more of this in a later post.

At which it was time for bed as we had an equally busy day ahead of us, which I’ll continue with in the next post.

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Related Posts:
North Korea, China and Vietnam - The Communist Tour

Impressions of North Korea (Day 2)


Daphne said...


Good on you for going! It's something not many people do and you're amazing for jumping at the opportunity. Loved the pictures too!

Kim said...

@ Daphne: It was an amazing experience. Glad you enjoyed the pic's.

Flying Fish said...

So interesting how there's conditional rewards for good behavior - like being able to go to the diplomatic club if you recognize their public order etiquitte.

Kim said...

@ FF: The "reward" came about after the tour guides had trouble controlling our group in other situations. There were 36 of us and 4 of them and we were quite rowdy. I'm going to explore the "clash of cultures" further in the next couple of posts.

SA Expats said...

Wow! I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Daniel said...

Interesting, but sounds like the North Koreans haven't quite got the hang of "relaxing holiday" or "fun night out" yet.

Kim said...

@ SA Expats: Its on its way - I'm sorry for the delay.

@ Daniel: US visitors are limited to 96 hours in the country - which means you've got to pack a great deal in 3 days.

julochka said...

wow! what a trip! that's just totally amazing. i'm not sure i could handle all of the restrictions (especially the picture-taking), but it must have been completely fascinating to get even a little glimpse behind those closed borders.