Why would you want to visit North Korea, a country where a quarter of the population is starving and slagging off the government can buy you a trip to a prison camp? It turns out that it’s a surprisingly nice to place be, on the surface…
North Korea was forged in war. Annexed by Japan in 1910, Korea was divvied up between the Soviet Union and the USA after World War II. But while East and West Germany were able to survive the same treatment and reunify in the 1980s, the conflict between North and South Korea was always more volatile. A war over sovereignty that began in 1950 was never officially ended. The two nations still co-exist under an uneasy ceasefire.
Though it claims to be a democratic state, North Korea is controlled by a single family - a totalitarian regime lead by the Kim dynasty and their Worker’s Party of Korea. And they don’t call it “North Korea” – they call it the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. DPRK for short.
“It’s a dictatorship of the most extreme kind,” says travel writer Tim Urban at his site whatbutwhy.com, “A cult of personality beyond anything Stalin or Mao could have imagined.”
You probably know that. You’ve seen Team America: World Police.
What you may not know is that foreigners are allowed in to visit North Korea. No, really. A country whose citizens are forbidden from leaving has its own tourist industry.
This is what they see.
Take the tour
You can’t just fly into North Korea via EasyJet and check into a Holiday Inn. Nor can you, curiously, cross into the country from South Korea. There are other restrictions too.
“You cannot travel on passports from the US, South Korea or Israel,” Australian journalist Ari Sharp discovered on a trip in 2005, “You cannot travel around freely within North Korea, but must at all times be accompanied by two North Korean government officials (the second one, presumably, to keep an eye on the first).”
North Korean visitors have to sign up for organised trips. They’re carefully controlled by government appointed guides and managed by one of three state controlled travel companies. Small groups of western tourists are politely allowed into the country for a few days, politely shown around a selection of sights, then just as politely taken back to the airport for their flight home. Though, in recent years, the tour has expanded to other areas, it tends to focus on the golden showcase city of Pyongyang; DPRK’s capital.
Don’t get ideas about wandering off too far either. The UK’s official travel guidelines are quite clear about that: “In 2008 a South Korean tourist who strayed into a restricted military area was shot dead,” the site warns gravely.
It also cheerily claims that crime against tourists is refreshingly low. So, that’s OK then.
The go-to hotel
As travel writer Tim Urban notes, just about everyone who lands in Pyongyang ends up in the Yanggakdo hotel.
“You know why they put all visitors here?” says Urban, “Because it’s on an island in the middle of the city”
Music writer Fraser Lewry, who visited North Korea on a carefully orchestrated tour, confirms this:
“The place feels completely different to the rest of Pyongyang,” he wrote in a blog post about his travels, “Probably because it sits on an island in the middle of the Taedong River, effectively isolating it from the rest of the city.”
The presence of so many western tourists gives the Yanggakdo a peculiar ambience.
“It’s a bit anarchic after everything else we’ve seen,” says Lewry, “There’s a nine-hole golf course out front, a ten-pin bowling alley, rumours of a brothel in the basement, and an Egyptian-themed karaoke bar.”
“Even when the rest of the country and much of Pyongyang is without electricity, heat or air conditioning, the Yanggakdo is always bright and comfortable, says Tim Urban, “All part of the plan to project a certain image of the country to visitors.”
Seeing the sights
The Yanggakdo, with its late bar and karaoke nights is a decadent contrast to the rest of the tour, which plays out like a crash course in contemporary history, North Korean style.
Tourists are treated to a militarily precise series of visits to a checklist of sites. This is an alternate world where America began the Korean war, the US is routinely referred to as the “American imperialist aggressor” and is blamed for everything wrong on planet Earth.
That’s what the tour’s for; to reinforce North Korea’s side of the story and, almost incidentally, to show off a society with a creepy sense of precision and order. The Pyongyang Metro does a remarkable job of the latter
The Metro is almost always described in utopian terms – a tribute to North Korean precision, politeness and local largesse. But you’re only allowed to ride one stop.
Fraser Lewry described it as “the only part of the tour that feels stage-managed” as the group was driven to Puhung (Rehabilitation) station and took the train to Yonggwang (Glory). Few foreigners know what the rest of the network looks like, but this bit makes the Jubilee line resemble like a series of forgotten sewer pipes.
“Chandeliers hang from the ceiling, some formal, others attempting to represent fireworks exploding above us,” says Ari Sharp “Whilst to the sides, behind the tracks, were majestic murals, at one station depicting Kim Il Sung in all his deceased glory.”
About those Kims. One of the big, early stops on the tour is the mausoleum of Great Leader Kim Il Sung and his late son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. This is not like going to see any old celebrity resting place. This is not Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris. This is a full afternoon’s excursion to a repurposed palace – the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.
Formerly Kim Il Sung’s official residence, the palace was converted at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars when the elder Kim died in 1994. Both former leaders lie within, embalmed by Russian specialists, on public display under glass.
Despite its vast size and the fact that it’s on the official tour, you can’t turn up in your “I’m with Stupid” t-shirt wearing flip-flops.
“Today we’ve been requested to wear more formal attire, and locating clothes that fit comfortably hasn’t been easy for a man of my sporting bulk,” recounts Fraser Lewry, “We quickly learn that this isn’t going to be a straightforward visit.”
Fraser and others have described a journey into the mausoleum along moving walkways, up escalators lined with red velvet, into a vast white marble hallway. Finally, you reach the Great Leader, lying peacefully plasticised. The Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, has a room of his own beyond that. It’s the only part of the tour where photography is prohibited.
“On a visit with many tense moments, the time I spent in here was the tensest,” says Tim Urban, “We had to walk single file in and out and bow three times.”
Behind the scenes
The tour continues around museums and monuments – and even to the DMZ; the infamous Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea. It’s the only place outside Pyongyang that the tour visits. There, a series of blue huts straddle the demarcation line between where – at least once a year – representatives of North and South meet to discuss terms. At one time tourists were able to enter the huts, but no longer. It has the look of an abandoned factory, guarded by soldiers with assault weapons.
It sounds pants-wettingly frightful, but, as visitors often report, the reality is less intimidating.
“The atmosphere is surprisingly carefree,” says Fraser Lewry, “The military guide showing a scale model of the area before clambering on board our bus to guide us further into the DMZ. It’s here we learn how the two sides are still officially at war.”
There’s something of the film set about the entire tour. Though North Korea has the fourth largest military force in the world, giant monuments to war victories that are mostly imagined and lavish government buildings, there are frequent power cuts across the city and everything is a little worn and shabby. Even the chic parts.
“There will be a gorgeous museum with huge chandeliers and polished marble floors, but the water won’t be running in the bathroom,” says Tim Urban, “Or a high-end restaurant with upscale decor that’s also sweltering hot because the air conditioning isn’t working.”
That sense of being one step outside reality is helped by North Korea’s own citizens. They’re polite and helpful to an individual.
“Only one man, while in the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, hissed at us group of foreigners as he passed by,” reports travel blogger Derek Earl Baron, “He literally made a face like a cat hissing and hissed loudly at us.”
Previous visitors have reported suspicions that the tours were populated by actors – but as rules have relaxed over the years, it’s apparent that’s not the case. They’re just all drinking the same Kool-Aid.
“During a few experiences on the trip – such as on the Pyongyang Metro or whilst walking to the hotel in Kaesong – we were freely encouraged to engage with local people,” says Ari Sharp, “There was never a problem with us lingering a little behind the group, or meandering in a way that left us surrounded by North Koreans.”
And, why not? The government scripted version of the world is the only one North Koreans really know. North Koreans know about European football, The Beatles and the BBC, but this is a country with only four television stations, all of them state controlled. Great Leader Kim Jong Il published a book called “Guidance for Journalists” that advises that “newspapers carry articles in which they unfailingly hold the president in high esteem, adore him and praise him as the great revolutionary leader”.
“It pervades almost every aspect of life in this country,” says Derek Earl Baron of North Korea’s pro-government propaganda, “The amount of it, whether on display on large signs throughout Pyongyang, in North Korean films, on television, as part of everyone’s education, in theater performances and cultural events, books, newspapers, music and more, is unreal.”
Everything is awesome
In recent years, bloggers and travel writers have reported a greater degree of freedom than earlier visitors. Under current leader Kim Jong-un, rules have relaxed. Visitors are allowed to wander away from the group and explore a little. But only a little. After a day of sightseeing the group returns to the hotel for drinks and karaoke and dog noodle soup. Groups are now allowed to tour DPRK’s second city Hamhung and the newly minted beach resort of Wonsan. In general, everything seems awesome.
Except that it isn’t.
The carefully orchestrated tours of Pyongyangm Hamhung and the DMZ shield outsiders from the realities of poverty beyond these places. In a country with a yearly GDP per head of just $1800, the public wealth of the capital, its gleaming modern metro, palaces, nightclubs, vast parks and empty flyovers take on a sinister resonance.
80 miles north, in Kaesong, things are different. “The shelves in most stores are noticeably half-empty,” reports Tim Sullivan for the Associated Press “and dirty side streets lead to clusters of small houses, many little more than shacks, with bulging walls and broken roofs.”
The power crisis is more pronounced here, “We supply electricity in the evening, so people can enjoy their lives,” a Kaesong official told the Associated Press, “During the daytime the electricity goes to small factories. This is normal.”
While the rest of the world can be seen by satellite, North Korea disappears at night, unable to keep street lamps burning while citizens sleep.
A recent United Nations report suggests that a quarter of North Korean children are suffering chronic malnutrition. Investigators estimate that the country would need to import 507,000 metric tons of cereals to meet its basic food needs in 2013.
You would think that, in most countries, there would be protest and complaint; a grassroots movement to change the lot of North Korean people.
“Many people still think the poverty in North Korea is because of sanctions from the outside world, rather than the corruption and inefficiency of the leadership,” says Jae young, a North Korean who was able to defect to the South, “Even if people do have doubts, it is hard for them to talk to each other about them… Criticism of the leaders is something that can lead to someone being sent from their city to the countryside; to a prison camp, or even worse.”
While the travellers we canvassed saw bus-window glimpses of the real North Korea on their tours there are few visits to other towns or even trips to the high rise apartments on the outskirts of the capital where ordinary people live. Even the latest train tours cross country carefully shunt tourists from Pyongyang, to Hamhung and the resort of Wonsan.
North Korea is, by any reckoning, a third world country – and a tour of DPRK is as manufactured as a trip to Disneyland.