I grew up in Germany, a country that was divided for 45 years. When the wall came down I was 12 years old – and not interested in politics whatsoever, but of course I understood that this was big news, like *Chernobyl* three years prior. My family didn’t have relatives in East Germany, so I didn’t have a personal relationship to the German Democratic Republic, as the neighboring country was officially called. I learned about the situation in school, but like most kids that age it was stuff I learned because I had to, not because I wanted to – my interest in history started to bloom a couple of years later…
You can’t fully understand the history of Japan without knowing at least a little bit about the history of China and Korea, so after I enrolled at university to dedicate my next few years to Japanese Studies I also took seminars and lectures about China, Korea and Taiwan. At that point Germany’s reunification was history for more than a decade, but Korea was still divided; still is to this very day. Like most people I grew up “knowing” about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (isn’t it interesting how most states using the term “democratic” are everything but?), nevertheless I actually didn’t know much about it, so the university studies sparked my interest.
History lessons in German schools are not necessarily set up to teach you about history in general, they are conceptualized to educate you to be a good democrat, a person who cherishes freedom and despises dictatorships. You usually start with the Old Greeks, to learn about how democracy was invented. Then you jump to the French Revolution, to learn about how modern democracy came to Europe. Next you jump to the year 1848, to learn about the revolutions in the German States – and after you know how the good things started you learn about the opposites, World War 1 and World War 2; especially World War 2. It seems like 50% of German history lessons are about World War 2 – which is good and bad at the same time…
At university I finally understood that history is so much more than just Greeks, French and World War 2 – and that you have learn about history in general to fully understand how everything is connected, though you only learn pieces at school.
In 2006 I moved to Japan, and my attitude towards visiting North Korea was still ambiguous. On the one hand there was this attraction of evil and the many similarities to East Germany’s history – on the other hand it was morally totally out of question that I would ever go there, supporting the system of supervision, nepotism and torture with hard currency.
That attitude changed gradually while living in Japan – mainly because of two factors:
1.) Japan’s obsession with pachinko that rolls 200 billion Yen a year into North Korea. (Again, that’s 2 billion US Dollars or 1.5 billion Euros currently!)
2.) Japan’s concept of honne and tatemae.
As I mentioned in the previous article, it wasn’t until I explored an *abandoned Pachinko parlor* in Shikoku that I realized that the money I would spend on a trip to North Korea wouldn’t change the course of the world. Those trips are not cheap, but even if the DPRK would earn a couple of hundred bucks it would be nothing in comparison to the billions the Japanese transfer indirectly and probably partly unknowingly every year.
A friend of mine back in Germany once told me that I was “too honest”, so understanding und living with honne and tatemae for years helped me to deal with certain expectations the local guides in Korea would have on me. “Honne” (本音) describes a person’s true thinking, their feelings and desires. “Tatemae” (建前), literally façade, stands for how a person acts in public – often in contrast to their “honne”. 10 years ago I wouldn’t have bowed in front of bronze statues of a dictator, but sometimes you gotta be a two-faced bastard and go against your own principles for the sake of peace and harmony… which Japan is all about.
In late March I finally booked a tour to the DPRK, basically last minute and on the height of the 2013 tensions. German media outlets were all over the topic, even reporting that tours to South Korea had to be cancelled due to German Angst, but Beijing based *Koryo Tours* offered a “May Day Long Tour” from April 27th to May 4th – which coincided with a series of national holidays in Japan, generally known as Golden Week. So I took 5 of my 15 paid days off (no Statuatory Sick Pay in Japan…) and went on vacation from April 25th to May 7th, adding a couple of days in China before and after the main event. I had to be there on the 26th anyway, because technically the trip to the DPRK started with a briefing at the Koryo Tours office – the next morning we met to go to the airport to catch our plane to Pyongyang (more about that in the upcoming *Air Koryo* article…). From that point on it was a group tour till we left Pyongyang by train via Sinuiju / Dandong – which I used for a 24 layover in Dandong with some fellow DPRK travelers before returning to Osaka via Beijing.
Contrary to the widespread opinion that there is no visa needed when travelling to the DPRK you actually have to have one. Depending on where the travel agency is located you might not get your passport stamped though. Visas issued by travel agencies based in Beijing for example are a separate piece of paper you barely ever see; and Koryo Tours does all the paperwork anyway. (If you look at the highly censored scan (censored by myself obviously…) please note the mythical winged horse Chollima and that the dates are given according to the Juche calendar, based on Kim Il-sung’s birthday.)
The visa for China on the other hand I had to organize myself – I was able to get in and out the first time on a 72 hour transit visa, but that is only available when entering / leaving through Beijing Airport (or Shanghai Airport), so for entering by train at Dandong I needed a regular visa. Which turned out to be a much bigger problem than I thought, given that I am a German citizen living in Japan. The German consulate in Osaka referred me to the Chinese consulate in Osaka – and they told me to go to a Japanese travel agency, which had no idea what to do, because Japanese people can enter China for 15 days without a visa. And what Japanese person has the time to do that? So Japanese people usually don’t apply for Chinese visas, which means that Japanese travel agencies don’t know how to get Chinese visas. After half a dozen agencies, including the big players that have offices all over Japan, I gave up and got in contact with Koryo Tours. Luckily they were able to help: 2 passport photos and 60 Euros would get me a Chinese visa issued in Pyongyang. I wasn’t happy with the solution as I would have preferred to get things done before starting the trip, but sometimes you gotta roll with the punches. So on April 28th I met a guy from the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang and a couple of days later I had my visa to enter China by train. To make a long story short:
It is easier to get a Chinese visa in Pyongyang than it is in Osaka!
(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)