Also know as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the local’s would rather have you not name their country North Korea, as they still see the Korean peninsula as one nation. Whether this will eventually become the case again is anyone’s guess. The “hermit kingdom”, having secluded itself from the rest of the world for many decades now, has drifted so far from the rest of the planet that it can nowadays hardly claim to still be part of it. Indeed, travelling in the DPRK is just as otherworldly as it is a constant challenge to our conception of the world, more specifically, the western one.
Although it was surprisingly easy to go to, I still feel a sense of privilege of having been allowed to spend a couple days in what is possibly the most mysterious modern nation to have ever existed. For various reasons, I normally avoid going on organized tours but in the DPRK, showing up with your backpack at the border and hoping for a tourist visa is not an option, the only way to enter the territory is with a company (in my case Young Pioneer Tours) that has accredited ties to the Korean International Travel Agency, the regime’s own (and only) tour operator in the country. However, the DPRK is not many people’s idea of a vacation and it’s not that obvious at first that it’s even possible to come for a visit so consequently, most if not everyone on the tour was a seasoned traveler. A bunch of non tour-goers getting together for a tour, which made for an eclectic group and many North-Korean beer fueled nights of recounting adventures back at the hotel.
Some might find in the following paragraphs a downright abuse of superlatives (awesome, spectacular, immense, etc.) I’m not going to apologize, it was how I perceived it and moreover it was how it was meant to be perceived as when it came to buildings and monuments dedicated to their regime, the Korean spared no expense. As for myself, it has been one if not the best travelling experience I have ever lived.
Recipe for a North Korea
North Korea is a textbook totalitarian Stalinist nation the likes of which the world has never seen, not even Soviet Russia at its apogee. Even more surprising is the fact that it has managed to survive on its own this long, all the way to the information age we are in right now. All this due to the regime’s control of some key aspects of the life of it’s citizens, through which I will narrate my own experience during this trip.
- Personality cults
- A great war, a national enemy and an omnipresent army
- An ideology and a way of life
- Limitation on Freedoms
The country certainly holds within its borders beautiful unspoiled landscapes and archaeological sites but let’s face it, it’s not the reason why most come to visit. What really is interesting and fascinating about this place is its people, its regime and the social and urban environments they coexist in.
Upon entering any city in the DPRK, the one thing that will strike you the most (and possibly what sets them apart from any other agglomeration on the planet) is that there is no advertising whatsoever, only propaganda: portraits of the Great Leaders, slogans, paintings and sound broadcasts through the form of music or voices. In Pyongyang, the capital, I’ve found it to be omnipresent; out in the country side, not so much. At times the cityscape feels like those found in visual renditions of the many great dystopias in literature: immense murals of the great leader surrounded by proud workers and pointing a decisive finger at the sky or massive fearsome Korean script symbols displaying “Prosperous and Powerful Nation” like messages. Villages most often only had to do with some columns and portraits but regardless, propaganda was everywhere and pervasive.
All Koreans learn music from a very young age. Through singing, playing and dancing they practice cohesion and unity much like I did during my time in the army. We were taken to performances from artists of all ages, at a high school back in Pyongyang or in a primary school in smaller city and overwhelmingly they were of a caliber far superior to everything that I had ever seen. Sometimes downright disturbing as 11 years old exhibited the amount of comfort and confidence on the scene we normally would only expect from an experienced adult artist. You did not need to understand the lyrics to figure out that they were all about the feats of the great leaders, the glory of the nation or its war exploits. Music is an integral part of the system. It was played in the metro, at the train station and in many buildings, monuments and squares. Day and night I do not know, but certainly when tourists were around.
During one our our visits to a primary school, we were taken to a few classes where kids were either learning to read an write, reciting in chorus the sounds of characters in Korean scripts (it may not seem like it but just like our writing system, is phonetical) or learning about comrade Kim Jong-Il’s life in a special room that appeared to be devoted to the life of the Supreme Leader. Through pointing at drawings of him at a very young age, the teacher had the children recite by heart excerpts of its biography or feats that he had done as a child. Plastered around the hallways and staircases of the school were propaganda images of U.S. and Japanese soldiers perpetrating atrocities against the Korean people and drawings of childish figures weilding tools or weapons in combative postures. Every classroom was outfitted with a piano and in one we were treated to an endearing dance performance by children in the middle of which they all gathered in circle while a boy and a girl started jumping around one one foot, attempting to make the other fall to the ground. Outside the playground had as a centerpiece a low-scale concrete tank shaped amusement module.
In fact my first encounter with DPRK propaganda even started back in China. As I was walking to enter the plane back in Beijing, I spotted a stack of this week’s Pyongyang Times whose headline read “King Jong-Un provides on-site guidance to various sectors” and had a front page photo of the smiling Supreme Leader in a food factory with it’s entourage dutifully taking notes. I immediately grabbed a copy. It appeared no text or image had been spared by the regime’s propaganda machine. During the trip we made several stops at gift shops and without exceptions they always had a couple of copies of biographical works such as The great man Kim Jong-Il or philosophical works like Let us Exalt the Brilliance of Comrade Kim Il-Sung’s Idea on the Youth Movement and the Achievement Made Under his Leadership, not to mention the ubiquitous Juche handbook. It would follow me back home too, as I bought a couple of issues of the Pyongyang times and some posters.
The both deceased Great Leader (Kim Il-Sung) and Supreme Leader (Kim Jong-Il) are revered to a god-like status by their subjects; every North Korean man worthy of it wears a red pin that sports both their portraits, portraits which can also be found occupying the facade of every single building appearing to have a government function. In the literature, both men are not only extensively praised for lives lived in total dedication to the Korean people but are also conferred supernatural powers such as the ability to have inanimate objects such as tractors or even the weather paying respect to their grandeur by complying with their will.
The respect or the Korean people for their dear leaders is such that during our visit to the mausoleum where both embalmed remains are kept under glass sarcophagus, some non-westerners visitors started sobbing at the sight of their beloved masters resting in peace. No expense was ever spared when the time came to build monuments in their honor. Immense bronze statues are common place but the most impressive testament to the leader’s divine status was that aforementioned mausoleum: the Kumusan Palace of Sun. Previously Kim Il-Sung residential palace, it was converted after his death to his final resting place and renovated again after the passing away of its successor, Kim Jong-Il. All cameras were taken from us upon entering the building, there are some pictures on the web but frankly it can only be properly experienced in person as no image will do justice to the magnificence and immensity of it. The two leaders stay in different wings of the building and their setup sort of mirrors each other. Hundreds of meters of escalators and travelators, long hallways, immense halls and finally a passing through a dust-blowing machine eventually get you to the room where the remains of the leader is kept. There, in rows of three, you have to bow to the feet and each side (but not the head!) of the body. Afterwards, you proceed to where all the awards (medals, honorific doctorates and so on) received by the deceased are displayed in a museum like fashion and finally a whole set of rooms where memorabilia used by the leader during his lifetime is held, notably its car, its train and in the case of Kim Jong-Il, his boat. The pilgrimage ends with a stop by the lamentation wall, built to symbolize the grief the of the people for their masters, where a sobering lady gives a very emotionally charged speech in Korean about how dearly they are missed.
The whole event was extremely processional, which added a great deal to an already very solemn atmosphere. All throughout the visit, we were kept in line or in rows, silent and surrounded by guards and followed by many many Koreans dressed their best and on special visits to pay their respects. It was so surreal we were bordering the absurd and could tell others in the group were sharing my feelings as I saw them grimacing, trying to repress a smile. Clenching my jaw the whole time in order to keep a serious face, it was clearly not a place to fuck up but inside, I was exhilarating with awe and fascination.
Pyongyang has tons and tons of monuments pretty much all dedicated to the Great Leaders or the Korean People’s Army (KPA). Many of them in massive bronze and kept completely free of rust by factions of maintainers, as opposed to statues more commonly found around the rest of the world who are generally left to tarnish away to a black-green color. The most spectacular example was the Mansudae Grand Monument, where two immense statues of Kim Jong-Un and Kim Jong-Il standing on a pedestal flanked by other tributes to the KPA. There we had to show our respect by bowing as a group and each laying flowers at the base. Here I guess a picture is worth a thousand words.
You can only build so high and large in bronze, it’s somewhat pricey. If you want to go for the sky, you have to use other materials such as stone wich is what the famous Juche tower is built from, in the form of a paint-brush and dedicated to the Juche ideology, the philosophy underpinning the functionning of DPRK’s societal system. While it can be resumed as “self-reliance” I was told it was quite complex and not really meant to be understood by mere mortals. At more than one hundred meters high, it offers a spectacular 360 degrees view of the whole of Pyongyang, perhaps only surpassed by the yet-to-be completed Ryugyong hotel.
The Arch of Triumph, buit to commemorate the Korean war, also deserves a special mention, for beating it’s French counterpart by a couple of meters. Take that French.
A great war, a national enemy and an omnipresent army
The DPRK’s great war, is as everyone will easily guess, the war of Korea. North Koreans hold completely opposite view points on many historical issues and political ideas to what we generally accept as the truth but the outcome of that war is probably the one we most disagree on, as they are entirely convinced that it was started by the “sneaky US imperialists” and that they came out victorious. After some reading on the subject, I’ll admit they are not entirely in the wrong, but great struggles make great nations and hence the government had to come up with a rearranged version of the facts to give grounds to their ideology and find someone responsible for the great hardships its citizens have had to endure all the way to present day, where seemingly arbitrary UN sanctions are still adding more fuel to the fire of hatred.
This all sort of justifies the omnipresence of a massive army (the KPA) all throughout the country (pretty useful to maintain a police state). Yet, the only way I got to really come near them was at the demilitarized done along the border with South Korea where they are justifiably in greater number there but everywhere else I could see people in uniform doing all sorts of tasks (like snow plowing entire stretches of highways with shovels). Later on, I read that the army not only has a public working role but is also used for construction, which again goes towards explaining why I saw so many but still, I could not really take any decent pictures of them at work due to strict restrictions on what we were allowed to photograph.
One very notable build of the KPA is the war museum in Pyongyang. To remind its people of their historical struggle, the regime has erected countless monuments to that great war and its many heroes but they all pale in comparison with the newly opened museum, which also really puts Canada’s own war museum to shame. Whatever we were told there was severely skewed to fit the regime’s view of thoses historical events but the quality and number of the exhibits was outstanding, let alone the building into which they where housed, that rivaled the great leader’s mausoleum in splendor and luxury. We enjoyed a private visit of the place (empty of locals) that unsurprisingly concentrated on the KPA’s bounty of American equipment. We especially spent a lot of time visiting the USS Pueblo, a spy ship captured by the Korean Navy in 1968 and a source of great national pride.
The Japanese also hold a dear place in the Korean’s hearts as, prior to the Americans, had subjugated much of Asia through colonialism. A few monuments in the DPRK are dedicated to the struggle against their rule on the peninsula, but contrary to the U.S., they did not appear to me as Korea’s own worst enemy as the Chinese also seem to really still hold a pretty big grudge against them. For that matter, as I am typing those lines at the cafe in my hostel, the TV is playing a series depicting the Chinese rebellion during the Japanese colonial rule. Still the Koreans loved them well enough to almost always refer to them (along with the Americans) as the “sneaky Japanese imperialists” or variations on that theme.
An ideology and a way of life
Officially, the DPRK is governed according to its own ideology, the Juche idea, which in reality materializes it self in some variant of communism. Almost nothing private, everything is government run, the stores, the bars. Food is rationed, everyone is entitled to a certain amount of rice and you can buy at fixed prices whatever else you can afford. Parks and amusement facilities are numerous and according to the regime, top-notch. On their single free day of the week, citizens get to spend leisure time in many pools, sports fields, entertainment facilities that dot the city. Apparently, seeing them enjoying picnics and playing sports on Sundays is a sight to see but the late autumn weather with did not lend itself to any sort of outdoor fun. At nighttime, it gets somewhat gloomy because electricity is limited to only certain areas (and monuments) of the city, leaving entire districts in almost complete darkness and also I suspect without heating as even at daytime every building we entered had little or no warmth inside.
To keep themselves warm I suppose, men are given a monthly ration of 5 liters of beer they can redeem at the many bars around the city. Sadly, transferring this privilege is not permitted and getting caught doing so can lead to losing it entirely. During our stay we had the chance to go have a few pints at a local micro-brewery and to everyone’s surprise, the beer was excellent. With the exception of Soju, a strong liquor brewed with rice, all of the locally brewed beverages were of decent quality, but due to sub-par sanitization procedures of the bottling lines, slight overconsumption could give you a massive hangover, which I got to experience myself one morning.
As tourists, we were comparatively given outstanding treatment, with varied delicious meals at restaurants for lunch and dinner and easy access to bowling, ping-pong, pool and karaoke back at the hotel. No limitations on the amount of drinks and snacks we could order too. Rooms were heated all night long and so was the water. Not that I really cared but the only thing that left to be desired was the decoration and furniture that, just like everywhere else in North Korea, had not been updated since the 1970s. It made for very interesting trips back in time that went all the way back to the 50s I would say during the snail-paced train ride out of the DPRK, where the passenger car was kept at a comfortable temperature using … coal.
Architecturally speaking, Pyongyang is a communist’s dreams, with massive avenues crisscrossing the city and huge intersections controlled by the awesome looking traffic ladies for the lack of traffic lights. Bombed to ashes during the war and rebuilt from the ground-up under Soviet guidance, large rows of bland box-like concrete buildings painted in pastel colors (or not painted at all) extend all around. Between them, Koreans walking about with a purpose but never gathered in large groups as this could arouse suspicion. Transport-wise, most of them get places using the tram, the bus or the metro but a recent influx of Chinese-build taxis has had drivers in the capital city get stuck at an intersection for more than one red-light. Despite that, I believe Pyongyang remains an incredibly bike friendly city, given the abundance of two-wheelers on the road.
Since fuel is still very scarce and that really most of the vehicles are government owned, the roads outside of the city limits were almost entirely devoid of cars. 8 lane long straight highways with no human in sight really make for post apocalyptic scenery. In other cities, save for a few trucks and tractors, everyone was on foot or riding bikes. Given the communist architecture love for large, open spaces, I could not help but feel sorry for the Koreans who, devoid of the luxury of transportation we enjoy, have to commute this way every day of the year, rain or snow.
Limitation on Freedoms
We were not allowed to grab pictures of anything related to the military and generally were advised to ask for permissions whenever we wanted to press the shutter button. Talking about sensitive matters was not recommended, especially with our Korean guides, who accompanied us everywhere we went. At night, we were confined to our hotels where thankfully, there was plenty of activities to entertain us with but during daytime, we followed a strict schedule of visits where no one was allowed to wander off to explore. Do I need to mention that there was no Internet too?
Pyongyang has a gigantic library where citizens seem free to browse many works from inside and abroad in many media forms and many languages. Just for fun, some of us asked at the counter which were the latest English books that have been returned and the titles that came up were The Encyclopedia of Chickens and The Commercial Value of Sea Cucumbers Around the World. As you might have guessed it, whatever forms of literature available there is limited to technical works or those rendered innocuous through the passage of time such as Shakespeare’s. Interestingly though, our guide showed us a copy of Ann Frank’s diary that was lying about and confessed us it had been one of her favorite books.
Take whatever you want from what I have written here, my intention was not to paint a grim picture of North Korean, it gets enough bad reps on its own. Besides being a most fascinating experience, my time there was also extremely pleasant, especially thanks to the Korean people in general and especially our guides from inside and out of the country.
Life is not easy in the DPRK, but people were smiling, children were waving as our bus was passing by and girls were giggling at the sight of us bunch of tall westerners. We even had a snowball fight at the DMZ under the watchful eyes of the soldiers. Everyone was polite, kind, courteous and appeared generally happy that we had made the journey (even the Americans) all the way around the planet to their country, braving the cold, to learn more about their way, their culture and their aspirations. Around some beers at night, where Mr. Lim was showing off his outstanding skills at ping-pong, me and Mr. Ju were having a casual conversation over how the workweek is set up in our respective countries, he has a wife and a kid, she used to be a tour guide as well had to quit working to raise their offspring.
The DPRK may be on a different planet, it’s still inhabited by humans.
Note: Most if not all photos were taken by Jean-Michel Paris.
Many thanks to Young Pioneer Tours for having made such an amazing experience possible
For those wanting a different account (in French) of the same story, Jean-Michel has posted his travel log on his blog.