Archive for the ‘Mount Chilbo’ Category

“What kind of place did I just leave that entering China feels like gaining freedom?!”
That’s what I was thinking upon leaving North Korea for the second time – because leaving the second time definitely felt different.

When I crossed the border at Dandong a few months prior I felt a bit wistful. Something was dragging me back instantly, I was mesmerized by my experiences. Dandong felt very surreal, like a completely different world. And although I wasn’t 100% serious that I would visit the DPRK again when I promised to do so to my Pyongyang guides, I somehow had a feeling that it wasn’t totally out of question.
When I was leaving North Korea for the second time I was actually glad to get out of there. The trip had been way too interesting to be considered a bad one, but this time was much more intense, I witnessed and found out things that would take me much longer to process than the lifetime worth of experiences I made in Pyongyang.

After Pyongyang I started writing right away. I went there ignorant on purpose, I wanted to enjoy the show and embrace the deception – which is so not me as I hate being lied to, but I figured it would be easier to go with the flow when visiting North Korea. (It’s definitely tough going against it when living in Japan…)
After the Northeastern Adventure I took a lot more time, hoping that I would be able to use it to process and structure my thoughts – to make sense of what I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, felt. In hindsight probably not a good idea as I don’t think it helped much, but I started to forget details. Details that weren’t essential, but details nonetheless. At least it gave me the confidence to write everything as I remembered it, because after my return to Japan (and seeing how messed up in its own way this country here is) it took me less than a week until the urge to go back rose. I wasn’t lying awake night after night trying to find a way to “go back to the island”, but North Korea is a decent size country that is opening up to tourism more and more, which is great for the half dozen travel agencies offering trips, because they can lure customers back easily. “You’ve been to Pyongyang, Kaesong, North Hamgyong and Rason, but… XYZ is open now – and you can be part of the first tourist group to get there!” And that is one of the selling points of North Korea, to boldly go where hardly any man has gone before.

Do I want to go back to North Korea? Heck yeah! I’m a sucker for remote and unusual places that offer photo opportunities, that’s what this blog is all about! Of course I would love to go back to North Korea, despite the fact that I was really angry (and happy to leave!) last time.
Will I go back to North Korea? Most likely not. Not under the current regime.
Why? Because I have the ability to remember. I remember Robocop and how he treated that boy at the market in Rason, I remember how I felt being ratted out by that old woman in Rason, I remember looking at GoogleMaps, realizing how close we came to some of the death camps – which hopefully will be remembered as a stain on the history of humankind once this ridiculous regime dissolves and all Koreans enjoy (relative) freedom.

There are some voices out there on the internet who are convinced that North Korea can be opened little by little if more and more tourists visit the country – sadly most of those voices are actually either fooled Pyongyang tourists or western tour guides to the DPRK. And I am not sure what to think of the idea. North Korea is so full of contradictions, yet the system survived for so long – can a couple of thousand tourists driven around in busses with tinted windows really make a difference? After thousands of tourists before didn’t make a difference?
When visiting Pyongyang you kind of get the image that the DPRK is a misunderstood country which is struggling to survive and doesn’t want no harm to nobody in the world; but that’s the microcosm Pyongyang, where only the elite is allowed to live and where resources from all over the country get concentrated. In North Hamgyong and even in the comparatively rich Rason I felt transported 20 or 30 years back in time – and I started to wonder why North Korea even allows those tourist tours, because like so many things in the country, the tours don’t really make sense. I don’t think it’s about the money, because there are not nearly enough tourists to the DPRK to justify the effort. In Pyongyang I can see it being about changing foreigners’ minds. The regime will never win over the western media, but they can create positive word of mouth. But why allowing western tourists to North Hamgyong and Rason? Korean is not the most common language in the world, but there are always one or two people in each group who are able to speak it – and if not, people know people who know the language. Sure, while at the clothing factory in Rason I didn’t know that one of the slogans on a pillar said “Ideology First”, but it didn’t matter, because I knew a few days later, so congratulations to the factory management, you fooled me for a couple of days! But that didn’t keep me from telling a couple of thousand readers that, while you seem to treat your workers well, you also bombard them with propaganda music and propaganda slogans – and that you use “Made in China” labels. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as you know, since I mentioned all the little things in the previous eight articles.
So why is North Korea allowing foreign tourists in the country, when it fails to deceive them and continues to indoctrinate its citizens. When things like the electric fence are continuously brought up (or maybe even revealed) by tourists? Why allowing small scale foreign aid that doesn’t get mass media attention, when Juche, Korea’s autarky, is the state’s ideology and most important goal?
The answer is: I don’t know. North Korea is full of contradictions, almost everything there is tied to a contradiction. The more you know about North Korea, the less it makes sense. And I’ve spend a lot of time in 2013 talking about North Korea and actually being there…

That being said I am very glad that I did those two trips. I made a lifetime worth of experiences, good and bad, met some extraordinary people (also good and bad…), saw and did things I wouldn’t have thought of in my wildest dreams. First I went there during the political crisis of 2013 and then again just weeks before Merrill Newman was arrested and Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed – and in-between I could understand very well why some friends and my whole family were worried about my security.
If you are interested in visiting North Korea, I hope my two travel reports were helpful to you. If you are just interesting in North Korea, I hope I was able to show you a different, a neutral side of what it is like to be a tourist there. And if you are mostly interested in urban exploration, I hope you enjoyed both series nonetheless – thanks for sticking with Abandoned Kansai, I promise I will make it up to you on Tuesday with a mind-blowingly amazing deserted hotel! (There will be two or three more articles about North Korea in the future, but none of them will put my urbex articles on hold for weeks…)
Since I came back from my second trip I’ve been asked a lot of times where I will go next, by both friends and strangers. Where can I go next after I went to North Korea? For a while I didn’t have an answer, I was considering Siberia or Alaska, but now I can tell you what the main event this year will be: I will go back home to Germany for almost three weeks (a.k.a. annual leave) to celebrate the wedding of one of my best friends – and I can’t wait to do so!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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Alone at that beach on a rough coast, the sun rising, an ice-cold wind blowing – Day 4 of the Northeastern Adventure was off to a perfect start!
At first it didn’t look like it though. I am not an early riser, yet my third night in North Korea ended 10 minutes prior, when our host brought hot water to our room at around 6.20 in the morning. At the same time a dog started to bark and all of a sudden I knew that I wouldn’t go back to sleep, so I jumped into my clothes instead. Still a little bit sleepy and not yet used to the cold (in Osaka it was still around 30°C!) I stumbled down the dirt road for a few dozen meters until I reached the beach, slightly irritated by the patches of frost on the grass ground – you see that about two days a year in Osaka… which means that Osakans start to wear North Face jackets when the temperature falls below 10°C; at night! I was looking up then, the sun still scratching the horizon, when happiness about my decision not to stay at the room and to head outside instead rose within me. There is something about the combination of nipping air, solitary and beautiful raw nature that puts a smile on my face.

It turned out that Day 4 was actually all about the stunning nature of Mount Chilbo, so we headed out to the Hadok Falls and several viewing points within the Inner Chilbo area. Some we drove up to, but sometimes we hiked for a while (up to a kilometer or two) to reach our destinations. Again a beautiful autumn day at gorgeous locations! Irritating and amusing at the same time were the explanations of our guideguards, when they continued to telling us stories about pretty much every rock in sight. “This we call XYZ, because it looks as if ABC is doing DEF with GHI!” – and of course in most cases there were just rocks with no resemblance or relation to whatever we were told happened there. But Mr. Li came up with one mythological story after another. Stories he really seemed to believe in…
Quite a rare sight was the Kaesim Temple! North Korea isn’t exactly a religious country, so most “sacred” buildings surviving the Japanese occupation and the Korean War were destroyed afterwards. Not so this temple, founded in 826. Restored in 1377 and equipped with a bronze bell from 1764, the temple is an important depository for scriptures, sculptures and paintings.
An unexpected sight was a huge portrait of Kim Jong-il and three other guys halfway up a hill, depicting the group in the Mount Chilbo area. It seemed terribly out of place, but I guess with an increased amount of tourists in the future you have to remind people who was the boss and who started to develop the area for comrades on vacation. It was never mentioned specifically during the tour, but it seems like Kim Il-sung never visited Mount Chilbo as it was too rural and undeveloped during his days.

After a rather late lunch at the Outer Chilbo Hotel (with a group of exile North Koreans living in Japan on the next table – probably pachinko people…) we spent almost two hours on the bus on our way to Kyongsong. We arrived at the Yombun Revolutionary Site during dusk, with just enough light left to take a couple of photos before heading to the Kyongsong Local Hot Spa House (part of the Kim Jong-suk Sanatorium), where some of us took a hot bath. After seven years in Japan still not a fan of the onsen culture there, two other guys and I headed for the Kyongsong Guest House, the local and really basic accommodation – no blackouts, but again neither hot nor running water.
(Funny story: At least one of my fellow travelers took their camera with them into the spa house, but for obvious reasons not into the bath. Later that evening they were told by our western guide that the Korean guides recommended to delete some of their photos! Nothing like privacy, eh?)

The night at the Kyongsong Guest House was not only our last evening with our first set of guides, it was also the 40th birthday of Mr. So, who did a good job keeping us on schedule and ironing out any problems in the background, while Mr. Li kept us entertained and within limits. Dinner was even bigger than usual and after a rather melodramatic speech by Mr. So the celebrations began – including lots of alcohol and songs. Even our third guide, Mr. Sin, loosened up and wouldn’t stop singing, dancing and drinking…
(Speaking of third guides: A third guide is only present if Americans are part of the group! The western tour guides were always vague about it and kind of made it sound as if it was coincidence whether or not a third guide would be with a group, but according to more experienced fellow travelers it really depends on the presence of Americans…)

My twelfth day in North Korea across both trips was probably my favorite one overall. I love spending time in the countryside and this day had it all. A wonderful sunrise at a gorgeous beach, light hiking at a stunning mountain range and a beautiful sunset at the wild cliffs of a revolutionary site – in addition to that good food and interesting conversations. An almost perfect day…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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The most surprising and shocking revelation of the third day was the electric fence along the coast of North Korea!
After breakfast at the Chongjin Hotel we drove south through the city, past the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex (guess who originally built it!), which is dominating the look and economy of Chonjin. It seems like the little town of Ranam is supposed to become the new city center of Chonjin, with its rather modern apartment buildings, shopping mall and university, but it looks like it’s still a long way – and of course we weren’t allowed to take photos. Even when we stopped outside of Ranam the three guardguides made sure that we only took photos of some strange rock formations, not back towards Ranam and Chongjin; despite the fact that both of them were out of sight anyway. Free photography would be allowed in the Chilbo area and at special stops on the way, but not from the bus, they told us.
Several kilometers outside of Chonjin we finally reached the Sea of Japan (a.k.a. East Sea in South Korea and East Sea of Korea in North Korea) near the town of Orang. The beautiful coast of North Korea to the left, all of a sudden half the bus had “What the f*ck?!” written all over their faces, but of course nobody said anything – there was a multi-layered electric fence on top of a wall separating the beach from the bumpy dirt road! My rather loud DSLR prohibited me from taking photos, and so did the rather fast driving bus and the tainted windows. (I took a photo without asking the next morning, when I was alone at the beach of the Homestay Village, but I still had a bad feeling about it, given that there was supposed to be a memory card check when leaving North Korea through Rason – which actually didn’t happen in the end.)

Shortly afterwards we made a quick stop at a rather new saltworks, consisting of dozens of evaporation ponds – they actually built a viewing point for tourists to have a look.

To our surprise the next stop was just a few minutes away, when we headed inland again and passed Lake Mugye. It didn’t look that special and the concrete foundation at the shore was crumbling away, but almost everybody was happy about every opportunity to take photos, so none of us complained. (I guess the real reason to stop was using nature as a restroom – which didn’t work out for all of us, since there is hardly any place in North Korea without locals. The country’s population density isn’t that high (#65 in the world), yet you see locals at the strangest places in the middle of nowhere… everywhere.)

Following the rather short ride along the beautiful coastline and the equally short inland excursion, we finally reached the Sea Chilbo area and with it gained permission to take photos whenever we wanted (well, except for locals, poverty, military, …). Mount Chilbo, the Seven Treasure Mountain, is one of the most famous mountains in all of North Korea and is divided into three areas: Sea Chilbo, Outer Chilbo, Inner Chilbo – more about that in the next article as we spent almost a whole day hiking and sightseeing in the stunning Chilbo area.

After a nice snack at the scenic Soryangwha Waterfalls we continued to follow the winding road until we reached a homestay village between two small fishing villages – not the one for foreigners, one for locals! We made a quick photography stop coming down a hill, but surprisingly there was little to none activity in the village. I vaguely remember Mr. Li telling us a story how one of the Kims visited the village (or heard about it?) and sent them refrigerators to make the stay there more pleasant. By then we were already back on the bus to and on our way to THE Homestay Village near Pochon, the only homestay village in all of North Korea where foreign tourists are allowed to stay – except for Americans and Japanese for whatever reason.
There are not a lot of accommodations in the area (the closest one is the Outer Chilbo Hotel, about 15 kilometers away, where Americans and Japanese have to stay the night till this very day), so when the local government planned a new hotel, Kim Jong-il himself intervened and ordered to build a homestay village instead, as he thought it was the way of the future and at the time North Korea was one of the few countries not to offer this option. So in 2006 20 houses were built, some western style with beds (4 or 6 of them), the rest Korean style, with guests sleeping on the heated floor; the village center being a building with a restaurant and a small gift shop selling a few local products like beer and snacks.
After we chose a house, a member of the host family (most of them not able to speak English), picked us up and showed us our rooms. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, so all of us met outside for a relaxing walk along the beach. With no clouds in the sky it was just wonderful to enjoy this part of the Korean coast only a few westerners have ever laid their eyes on.
Next on the program, after most men returned from their regular work: a volleyball match against the locals. To avoid any “us against them” feeling we opted for mixed teams and it looked like everybody enjoyed themselves tremendously, despite the language barrier. After a demonstration of Korean wrestling, Kent, one of two Americans on the tour, sacrificed himself bravely when our group was challenged – and the Texas Yankee gave his opponent quite a tough time, much to the joy of Mr. Li, three young boys and pretty much everybody else present.
To get an even deeper understanding of Korean culture, we were able to participate in rice cake and noodle making afterwards, both of which we sampled before a delicious seafood and veggie dinner. But the evening wasn’t over yet! After a night walk with two fellow travellers, there were still two more items on the itinerary – first we met with the locals on the beach for a bonfire, then we all gathered at one of the houses to talk to the residents. I guess on previous tours people went home with their host families directly to have a talk with them, which tended to fail due to the language barrier and general awkwardness. Thanks to the bigger group and guides being able to translate, the whole thing was much more relaxed. The male head of the household came home late and didn’t have dinner before meeting with us, which didn’t stop him from chugging whole bowls of soju, local liquor with 20 to 40% alcohol, when being challenged – at first it didn’t seem to affect him, but then it hit him hard and we all left out of politeness; up to that point it was highly entertaining though. We were sitting in the living room and his wife, who understood English, but didn’t speak it, sat about a meter away from him in the kitchen – seeing them interacting with each other was downright hilarious!
Downright cute was the maybe two-and-a-half-year-old daughter of the village boss and his wife. They were living right next to the main building and we went to their house for the cooking practice in the afternoon – and their daughter was the cutest, most fearless toddler I’ve ever seen. Japanese kids tend to be extremely shy and most German toddlers seem to have a basic form of stranger anxiety, too. To see a fearless little girl in a country where most adults are horrified by foreigners was just heart-warming. She even attended the bonfire in the evening, laughing and dancing, trying to sing along – I really hope change comes quickly enough so she can keep her attitude and live an open-minded and free life!
Of course the homestay village didn’t put us in an average house with average Koreans. You can bet that all inhabitants are privileged local party members and that their interior is way above the DPRK standard, given that they have radios, TVs, plenty of kitchenware, … Nevertheless we experienced several blackouts during our 18-hour-stay – and none of the houses had working running water, and that included the toilets!

Which brings me back to the electric fences. I expected those around the concentration camps and of course regular prisons, probably near factories and of course everything related to military installations. Electric fences along the coast? That’s just bizarre! Of course the fences were not everywhere. Most of the North Korean coast consists of cliffs, so there is no need for fences there. The same applies for beaches within villages, where everybody can have an eye on each other. But as soon as you left an area that could not be directly controlled or quickly reached, one of those fences popped up. The North Korean government can’t provide sufficient electricity even for the privileged, let alone the regular population… yet there are electric fences along the coast?
One of my fellow travellers actually made a good point – those fences most likely are not active, since barbed wire and electric fences are deep in people’s minds. Everybody knows what happens if you touch them, so nobody dares to do so.
On the next day somebody actually brought up the topic to one of the guardguides and the answer was something along the line of: “The fences are there to prevent children from running into the water and drowning.”

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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My *first trip to North Korea* was a great experience. I went there with a certain amount of ignorance, to “enjoy the show”. And it was a good show, a great show… a fantastic show actually. It was so elaborate, that it was easy to believe most of it. No freedom of movement? Sure, their country, their rules. Regular blackouts outside of Pyongyang? Unfortunate exceptions. Taboo topics? Well, you avoid bringing up politics and religion in most parts of the world. The radio wasn’t working? Who cares, it would have been in Korean anyway – there was barely enough time to watch TV. Not much traffic? Well, it’s a poor country with fuel shortages, but everybody is trying to make the best of the situation. And the guides telling us that walking a lot is healthy anyway? Well, probably just North Korean humor – it’s not like Japanese jokes are much funnier…

North Korea is changing, no doubt about it – opportunities to “enjoy the show” are getting sparse, and now is probably the last chance to get a glimpse at the old regime, the strict, stiff, dictatorial North Korea. If you visit Pyongyang you already get a watered down, rather easy to swallow version. While a couple of years ago visitors had to refer to Kim Il-sung as “Great Leader” and Kim Jong-il as “Dear Leader”, nobody seems to care about the use of honorary titles like that anymore, as it alienates foreign visitors. The guides in Pyongyang speak English quite well and most of them have enough experience with foreigners to know how to handle them and follow the rather strict limitations (forced on them by their bosses) at the same time. It’s easy to get lost in that charade and blame all the evil things happening on America or the people themselves – if they would have followed the rules, they would not have been put in jail. (Which is bullshit, as we all know. In the Early Modern Age countless women were tortured and killed as witches, because their resentful neighbors made a claim and the victim had to proof their innocence. And that’s pretty much how North Korea works today.)

After my return to Japan and the series of articles I wrote about my trip to North Korea, I wanted to see more. I wanted to see a different side. I wanted a rougher version, to see myself whether Pyongyang was just a sample of an aspiring country striving for success – or if it was the exception, a Potemkin village to fool visitors.
In July 2013, while still writing articles for the first series, I decided to go back to North Korea. This time I chose a tour with a completely different itinerary with a route that wouldn’t even get close to any destination I saw on the first tour. The Northeastern Adventure was introduced in spring 2013 and opened the border crossing in Tumen for western tourists. Up till then the few visitors to North Hamgyong province used to fly in from Pyongyang or entered via Rason to visit the famous Mount Chilbo area. With the Northeastern Adventure I had the rare opportunity to see the Wangjaesan Grand Monument and to spend a night in Hoeryong. Next stops were Chonjing, the homestay village near Mount Chilbo and Kyongsong before spending three nights in the Special Economic Zone Rason. (*Click here for a GoogleMap to give you a better idea.*)
Believe it or not – I got what I bargained for. North Hamgyong and Rason were a lot rougher than Pyongyang and the places in the south of North Korea. The guides were rougher (“It’s comrade Kim Il-sung! / “No take photos!”), the conditions were rougher (no running water and no hot water for three consecutive days – which is not unusual in a poor country, but irritating when that poor country always pretends to be on par with the rich ones…), the locals were rougher. The cities were smaller and less colorful, the anti-American propaganda was less subtle, the infrastructure was less developed. While the southern parts were all about the Korean war, the northern parts were all about the Japanese occupation – down to the guide’s countless stories about Japanese atrocities, some of which started with “Sorry Mr. XYZ, but it’s historical fact!” as the Northeastern Adventure was accompanied by two Japanese citizens. (To everybody’s surprise as most Japanese people don’t want to have anything to do with North Korea.)
Speaking of my fellow travelers: This was an extraordinary group to travel with! When signing up for a group tour you never know what you get. While I enjoyed the Pyongyang group for several reasons (hey Jeff!), the Northeastern Adventure group overall was much more relaxed and less stressful – probably because it wasn’t the first trip to North Korea for anybody, with one exception. Everybody knew what to expect, everybody knew how to behave (at least most of the time), there were no “I am so cool because I am traveling to North Korea!” characters, it was just a great group!
Which brings me to related topic: You won’t find a picture of myself on Abandoned Kansai and, like last time, I tried to extent this courtesy to the rest of the group for this article series – which worked with two or three exceptions. If you see yourself on a photo and don’t like it, please drop me a line and I’ll remove the picture right away! As for you, dear reader: This time the group consisted of thirteen people plus one British guide (Amanda) plus three Korean guides during the first leg in Hamgyong province and three different Korean guides during the second leg in Rason, where the group shrunk to twelve people as one of our Japanese group members had been to the Special Economic Zone before and decided to leave early. (A “Special Thanks” goes out to my friend Mayu, who didn’t join me on the trip, but provided valuable translations afterwards. Whenever you see captions to Korean text on photos – those I owe to her.)

For the first trip I decided to write separate articles for each major stop on the tour, which resulted in more than 30 posting over 10 weeks – way too long for a blog that usually is all about urban exploration. So this time it’ll be more like a classic travel report: eight articles, one for each day; plus this introduction and an epilogue with some final thoughts. Some of the articles will be freakishly long (up to 2.500 words…), some of them will contain rants as I won’t stay away from hot topics this time. Nevertheless I hope you’ll enjoy reading what I have to say – my mind was blown several times during the trip and if everything goes according to plan you’ll make a “WTF?” face at least once per article… 🙂

Oh, and for all you hardcore urbex fans out there: The next abandoned place will be posted on February 25th – an amazing original find I explored almost two years ago!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

P.S.: I almost forgot – welcome, dear readers from North Korea! I know you don’t stop by often and I doubt that you are regular people who surf the internet after a hard day of work in the fields. But, according to the basic statistics WordPress shares with me, I had 12 page views from the DPRK between my first and second trip to North Korea, much to my own surprise. So again – welcome, comrades!

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I am a bit in a pickle here…

Do I write and publish the article I have been thinking about for several weeks now – or do I keep my mouth shut? In October I went back to the DPRK for a second time, an experience even more intense than *the first trip in spring*, way more disturbing, way more conflicting. On the one hand I enjoyed both trips tremendously, on the other hand I saw and experienced things I would like to share with all of you. But if I do it in an honest way, I probably shouldn’t show my face again in North Korea for a third time…

When I first visited the “Hermit Kingdom” in spring of 2013 I did it with a slightly ignorant attitude, willing to enjoy the experience, knowingly accepting that I will be fooled and restricted. And I actually enjoyed the tour. A lot! So much that I visited the DPRK again in October of 2013, this time the northern parts; North Hamgyong province and Rason.
The guides in Pyongyang were nice and surprisingly open-minded, the food was fantastic, Pyongyang with its high-rise buildings and solar-powered streetlights was a lot more modern than expected, the photography and video limitations were a lot more loose than (almost) everybody claims… and the bowing in front of statues, the bumpy countryside roads, the regular power-cuts outside of Pyongyang, the restrictions of free movement – all of that was commonly accepted as North Korean quirkiness in a combination of group effort and voluntary Stockholm Syndrome; it became natural within hours, everybody always gave the home team the benefit of the doubt. And I was intrigued, I wanted to see and experience more… despite my friends and family universally thought that it wasn’t a good idea, some of them being worried about the articles I wrote about my first trip, about remarks I made in the comments.
Of course I went anyway, fueled by what appeared to be authentic moments – and I still think that some of them actually were honest and unstaged, like the *picnic at the Taesongsan Park & Fun Fair*. I also believe that life in Pyongyang is decent, but I had to come back with a clear mind and travel to the countryside to get a look at the costs of it, because Pyongyang isn’t a typical example of North Korean progress – it’s an exception, a severely subsidized prestige project that only exists because the almighty political elite doesn’t care much about, and in some regards even sucks dry, the rest of the country. The power-cuts in Nampo and Kaesong weren’t the exceptions, they were just small glimpses at reality in the DPRK outside of Pyongyang – and the southern parts of North Korea are quite blessed. The temperatures are rather mild in comparison to North Hamgyong, the economy is comparatively successful thanks to the train and ship connections to China, and the much larger amount of Western tourists doesn’t hurt either…

Group Photo With North Koreans

Fool me once…

I really enjoyed my first trip to the DPRK, but after going there a second time, I have to admit that I’ve been fooled a lot more than I thought while writing about my experiences. The strange thing is: I liked my second trip to North Korea even more than the first one! Despite (or maybe because?) it dawned on me that this trip was a lot more real – a much better look at the current state of the DPRK, yet still just a scratch on the surface. On the first trip pretty much everybody ate up what the guides / guards / guardguides / guideguards had to say, but this time the vibe was different. People behaved even better, but for different reasons. Some were hardcore North Korea fans, others just wanted to allay all the worries our constant companions might have had about us to get a little bit more freedom and insight than previous visitors. I don’t think the minders were blatantly lying to us, but they were controlling all information – what we heard, what we saw, what we smelled, what we tasted. And when you are in almost total control and nobody questions that power, it is actually quite easy to shape impressions just by leaving things out. Some of it became very apparent during this second tour, some of it only while I was reconstructing the experience with the help of my photos, the adjusted itinerary, GoogleMaps and Wikimapia. (I added lots of new locations to my original GoogleMap about North Korea. *Please click here to have a look.*)

The fact that shocked me the most after my return was that we passed three of the biggest concentration camps in North Korea by less than 10 km! When we visited the city Hoeryong right at the beginning of the tour, our guide kept repeating that the city is famous for its three beauties: Beautiful women, beautiful white peaches and beautiful earthenware. I knew that he was bullshitting us just by looking at photos of Hoeryong’s most famous daughter, Kim Jong-suk, the wife of Kim Il-sung and mother of Kim Jong-il – no offense, but when I talk about the beauty of German women I don’t get Angela Merkel associated! (And after this comment I guess I better not return to North Korea…) Luckily Germans are more forgiving and Mrs. Merkel won’t throw me and my family into jail for the rest of our lives. Speaking of which: Hoeryong is famous for another thing, though it’s everything but beautiful – Kwan-li-so 22, Labor Camp 22; one of North Korea’s biggest and harshest concentration camps, where (according to two defected eyewitnesses) 1500 to 2000 people per year get worked or tortured to death, up to 4% of its total population. Maybe got, as the camp might have been closed in 2012 – which means that those prisoners were either killed or continue their sufferings in other camps. All of that I didn’t know at the time when I was spending a night at a hotel in Hoeryong, just about 5 kilometers away from the camp’s gate… (BTW: Prisoners only receive(d) a small amount of the food per day, despite a food factory in the camp’s labor colony Haengyong-ri. Like everywhere else in the country most of it was delivered to the capital Pyongyang, even if the locals and prisoners were starving, like during the Arduous March between 1994 and 1998.)

Kim Jong-suk With Husband And Son Food Factory In North Korea

Get them while they are young!

Other examples for leaving out information we experienced at two kindergartens, where we were about to watch typical performances by local children; singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. At the first kindergarten we walked through long hallways on the first floor with Hello Kitty and other colorful child-oriented images painted to the walls, then we were rushed through a staircase directly to the third floor, where the children were waiting to perform for us. I was able to sneak five meters down a hallway on the second floor and took quick photos of a painting depicting two snowmen being attacked by armed children, a subject that didn’t go along well with the stuff I saw on the first floor. Back home I asked friends what was written on the snowmen: American Bastard and a derogatory play on words about a former president of South Korea…
At the other kindergarten (with a different layout) we weren’t shown much of the second floor neither – and this time it was a fellow traveler who found a room she later described as “a war museum”. Sadly I wasn’t able to see it myself, but it goes without saying that our Korean guides didn’t mention it. They also didn’t mention the huge chariot sculpture in front of the kindergarten. At first sight it looked a lot like a simplified version of the one in front of the *Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace* in Pyongyang, which is all about the future and having fun. The one in Rason? Well, the first child is holding an automatic rifle in his hand, the second one a missile. Nobody pointed out those details…
Chariot of Joy Chariot Of Destruction
Instead we went through yet another musical performance, because North Koreans like to sing and dance – I don’t. Malicious gossip has it that it’s because they don’t have anything else, but hey, they love it, so if it helps the understanding among nations I suffer through 20 minutes of creepily smiling kids at a kindergarten… or a guide singing the national anthem / their favorite NK pop song. Usually both the kids and the adults (guides, waitresses…) are pretty good at what they are doing, which eases the suffering. What really started to irritate me is that you never know when you get dragged into the whole thing. You are never safe… not at kindergartens, not at schools, not at restaurants, not at BBQs, not even on the bus. What is announced and starts as a more or less harmless performance can end with you starring it – and I HATE that kind of attention. At the same time you don’t want to be impolite, so you basically have to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. One time on the first trip all the guides, one after another, were singing the national anthem of North Korea on the bus – and then kept nagging all tourists into singing theirs. My only way out was to claim that Germany is so anti-nationalistic now, that it is actually punishable to sing the national anthem without written permission by the government; interestingly enough not only the Korean guides but also some of my fellow travelers from all over the world believed that story… (And yes, the singing and dancing was even more intense on the second trip!)

Hunger Games, The Musical

While I visited North Korea for a second time in October I felt like being part of “Hunger Games – The Musical”: A totalitarian system concentrating all the power and wealth in the capital… and everybody was singing and dancing all the time! This wasn’t the rather cozy Pyongyang bubble anymore, this was a glimpse at a system that is plain and simple batshit crazy. Back in spring I actually thought that the DPRK was a little bit misunderstood and just needs some good PR, that Pyongyang was just a sample of what’s going on in all of North Korea, but obviously I was wrong. North Korea needs massive change from the inside, the mindset of the population has to change drastically. And I don’t blame individual average people, most of them are just doing what they are told to do (look at the communism loving Russians that now hump capitalism like a pet bunny does its favorite plush toy…), they are simply trying to survive without getting into trouble themselves, probably being traumatized by decades of subjugation from psychotic despots! I’m sure it’s not all bad in North Korea, but it definitely isn’t as good as tourists are made believe when visiting Pyongyang…

It will take me a couple of months to write about my second trip, especially since this time I want to have the whole set written before I start publishing it. Like last time I have no political or financial agenda, and I will write about my vacation as I experienced it. I just wanted to give all of you a heads up that this time it won’t be as positive and naïve – it will be full of love for the coast and the mountains, for fearless toddlers and curious language students. But you will also read some completely messed-up stories about extreme poverty and regular power-outs, about electric fences along the coastline and despicable acts towards children, about denunciation, double standards and deception – and about how I will rather never go back to North Korea again than deliberately ignoring or even sugar-coating the things that I’ve experienced…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about both tours at GoogleMaps*.
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Border guards don’t like to be filmed, yet I managed to tape me walking from China into North Korea. (As far as I know we were the second Western tourist group ever to enter North Korea on foot from Tumen, China!)

At the end of the video you can hear a guideguard approaching me after he caught me taking this video, despite him announcing that it’s okay to take pictures from the bus just 5 minutes earlier…

One of the most beautiful hours I had in North Korea – sunrise at the beach of the homestay village while most of my fellow travelers were still sleeping.

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