I have been to North Korea!
Not a lot of people can say that – probably not a lot of people want to say that. I am actually pretty sure that I scared away a couple of dozen readers just with the headline; and I probably will again during this upcoming series of articles about my recent trip to North Korea from April 27th to May 4th – most likely including the few North Koreans with internet access. I know I already pissed them off by continuously referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as North Korea, a term not much liked in North Korea… North Korea, North Korea, North Korea – Jehova… Jehova… Jehova…
Growing up in a divided Germany I’ve been interested in Korea as long as I can think, and that curiosity continued to grow step by step. Reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, going to *Pripyat & Chernobyl*, exploring an *abandoned North Korean School* in Gifu prefecture. Nevertheless I was hesitant going there for years, mainly because of two reasons:
1.) I didn’t want to support the system with foreign currencies.
2.) I didn’t want to travel a country struck by famines.
The economic situation in the DPRK is rather dull due to lack of useable land (most of Korea is rather mountainous), skilled labor, energy and means of transportation – and of course the international sanctions don’t help at all… Even if the government is able to scoop up some oil they have to pay in advance in US Dollars, so the country is desperate for foreign currencies – and I was hesitant to support the system with mine. Which only makes sense if you don’t think much about it, because tourism doesn’t keep the country running. About 3500 Westerners a year visit North Korea, but even if each one of them ends up spending 1000 Euros (which is way too high as some tours don’t even cost that much!) it would mean that the DPRK would have a tourism revenue of 3.5 million a year; minus their costs. Most ski villages in the Alps make more money than that! I highly doubt that you’ll be able to finance 1.2 million soldiers and a nuclear weapons program with that amount of money – with the *200 billion Yen Japanese pachinko players transfer indirectly every year* on the other hand though… (That’s 2 billion US Dollars or 1.5 billion Euros!)
The food situation though was harder to dismiss and I still kind of have a bad feeling about it. According to international statistics the food supply situation in the DPRK improved massively since the mid-90s when hundreds of thousands of North Koreans died due to famines, but the country is still depending on food imports (so is Japan, which is lucky to be able to pay for the high quality deliveries and doesn’t have to rely on handouts). I don’t know exactly where the food we were given came from, but I hope it was specifically imported with the money we paid for the trip, *like the meals that I had in Chernobyl*. But even if not 3500 tourists a year won’t make much of a difference – the amount of food thrown away in restaurants in Dandong right across the border between China and North Korea (and all over the industrialized world for that matter…) actually disgusts and worries me much more by now.
Western media paint a pretty clear and consistent picture of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – and it’s not a positive one, so I had certain expectations before travelling the country. I expected the Korean tour guides to be party principle hardasses, I expected to be spied on all the time, I expected to be not allowed to take many photos / hardly any video, I expected to have no contact with the locals at all – and I expected the tour to be one big scripted event. To my surprise hardly any of this came true…
I booked the “May Day Long Tour” of *Koryo Tours* like any other vacation via the internet, barely 4 weeks before departure; easy as booking a flight. On April 26th there was a pre-meeting at the Koryo office in Beijing to receive last minute instructions and get any open questions answered, on April 27th we met early in the morning to go to Beijing Capital International Airport to catch our *Air Koryo* plane to Pyongyang. The group consisted of 11 people from all over the world plus Sarah, our guide from Britain; all of them very well-traveled and highly educated – the DPRK isn’t exactly a destination for all-inclusive beach tourists…
Upon arrival in Pyongyang we were welcomed by two of our three Korean guides, Mr. Yu and Mr. Kim, who were joined by Ms. Pak the next day, a 21 year old tourism student in her 4th year at university. A friend of mine who has been to Korea three times told me that the first 24 hours are crucial for the relationship with the guides – and he was right. A bit stiff at the beginning of the tour our Korean guides clearly loosened up after we behaved commendably at the *Arch of Triumph* the same night, dressed up with shirt and tie as requested the next morning and paid our respect by bowing according to local customs when *visiting the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il*. We showed the guides that we came to Korea out of genuine interest and they instantly rewarded us with their trust. Don’t get me wrong, all of them were convinced socialists and wouldn’t even think of criticizing the system – but they didn’t try to impose their views on us and they were very interested in what we had to say; about politics, history, technology, pop-culture… everything. Their English was astonishingly articulate, especially considering them not being able to travel abroad, and their kind of humor was surprisingly compatible with the groups’; something I miss at times here in Japan… Overall all three of them were just fun and easy to talk to. (Mr. Yu actually appears in the recent “undercover” BBC documentary with the sappy and overly dramatic music (John Sweeny is not only good at reporting about manipulations, he is also a great manipulator himself…), where he is portrayed as a guard, not a guide – my experience with the man was completely different, and he never told me not to take photos. Whenever I asked in case of doubt I was given permission by him – though I saw people being refused by the staff of Air Koryo and shops; which I find perfectly normal as I wouldn’t want to be photographed without permission either…)
The guides were not only easy to talk to, they were also easy on us. At the meeting in Beijing we were asked not to take photos of random people, not to take photos of construction or poverty. None of that was enforced on us by the local guides. We even got permission to take photos / videos from the bus – not just in Pyongyang, but also in Nampo and Kaesong as well as on the overland drives between cities; a privilege not given to another Koryo Tours group arriving with us on the same day. Different guides and different behavior by the group results in different rules… Off limit for everybody: military, except at the DMZ.)
Of course there were certain restrictions though. In Nampo we were not allowed to leave the hotel, in Kaesong we were not allowed to leave bungalow resort and in Pyongyang we were only allowed to roam freely half of the island the *Yanggakdo Hotel* was on (which is half an island more than most reports on North Korea state…). One night I told Mr. Kim that I wanted to go to the tip of the island to take some night shots and he was totally fine with that. I found my way through the darkness outside with a flashlight and enjoyed the breathtaking view – when I did the same thing on the same route the next night without telling anybody beforehand I triggered an alarm twice, on the way there and on the way back; sound, light and a guard with a flashlight who saw me, but ignored me. I’m still not sure if that was a coincidence or not – because the rest of the time I didn’t feel spied on at all.
Despite those limitations we had several opportunities to make contact with the locals; in my case thanks to group member Jeff, who was fluent in Korean. When we visited the Pyongyang subway we were on the platform for several trains arriving and leaving – and when we finally entered one our group split spontaneously to board different wagons. At no point we were kept from making contact, sometimes a brave Korean kid even made use of an English word or two they learned at school.
On May 1st I participated in the Fun Run, the first charity run in North Korea (for an orphanage in Nampo). Basically a 5k along Taedong River up to Kim Il-sung Square in the city center of Pyongyang. While some participants were taking the run rather seriously I decided to use the opportunity to make it a relaxed photo walk with a snapshot camera (for weight reasons, others brought their DSLRs). There were track marshals every couple of hundred meters to show us the way, but other than that we were on our own – since my Korean is basically non-existent I wasn’t able to talk to anybody, but I could have if I wanted to.
My favorite stop of the tour was at the Taesongsan park and fun fair in the outskirts of Pyongyang. It was right before lunch time when we had a little bit more than an hour to roam freely, an opportunity we put to use extensively. I will go into more detail with the help of a separate article later this month, but the trip’s absolute highlight without the shadow of a doubt was when Jeff randomly approached one of countless families sitting on blankets, having a BBQ under cherry trees – a regular hanami party Japan is famous for. They invited not only the big guy without hesitation, but also the three foreigners in his tow. So we sat down and enjoyed some regular local food and alcohol, which was absolutely delicious. When more people of our group passed by and saw us, our temporary Korean hosts invited them, too. We were chatting (with gestures and Jeff translating), laughing, sharing photos and just had a great time – 3 generations of Koreans and foreigners from the States, Canada, Great Britain, Austria and Germany. I’ve never felt more welcome anywhere in my life! (And of course we contributed some bottles of local alcohol and snacks we brought from home, too – it was just a regular BBQ in a park…)
Believe me, I am very well aware that throughout the tour we were in a privileged position and that North Korea has more than its share of problems. It’s an incredibly poor country, the political situation is more than dubious and the human rights situation is atrocious. Every information given had to be taken with a grain of salt (our guides definitely got some numbers wrong…) and sometimes they clearly put on a show (like at the Pyongyang Schoolchildren’s Palace where they showed us some young kids drawing – though they were clearly not; more about that later, too).
BUT: That applies for every source of information, also and especially for Western mass media. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is definitely not a great place to live in and how conflicted it is shows by its name – as the country is everything but democratic. But the situation, judging by the superficial observations I was able to make spending 8 days / 7 nights in the country, is not nearly as bad as we are made believe by the sensationalistic mass media business where stories sell better the more dramatic they are. I was able to talk to North Koreans without having to rely on indoctrinated guides, I was able to see locals in three different cities and on hours of overland drives – and to be honest, I didn’t get the impression that they were overly fanatic or unbelievably unhappy, especially given that North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, a fact they seem to be very well aware of. Of course they are trying to masquerade that by showing flagship factories and stores to foreign visitors – but at the same time it’s more than obvious that most of the farming is done without any modern equipment, that some roads are in abysmal condition and that people are comparatively small and skinny due the sharp supply situation that is having a grip on the country for decades.
While in North Korea I was engaged in countless conversations with my fellow travelers about the country’s situation, especially since we went there in times of rather high political tensions. It became obvious pretty quickly that there is no easy solution for this incredibly complex struggle. As you know I am not a journalist and I don’t have a political or economical agenda, so I am basically writing this article to show you what I experienced and to make you aware that the situation isn’t black and white, but very, very grey. When I hear voices saying that North Korea should be leveled and that the Americans should just bomb the shit out of the country it makes me sick to the stomach, because I was able to get a glimpse at the unstaged, human side of North Korea. Or maybe I am just a gullible idiot and I fell for the greatest show that was ever put up, involving thousands of extras…
In the following days and weeks I’ll write a couple more articles about my trip to the DPRK to go into further details and to show you plenty of additional photos and videos – *you can find an overview here*. Until then please have a look at my *GoogleMap about tourist spots in North Korea* and enjoy the media published with this article.
Addendum 2013-11-19: I just posted a general article about my second trip to North Korea in October 2013 – quite a different experiece. *Please click here to read all about it!*)