Archive for the ‘Pyongyang’ Category

The Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun (also known as Kumsusan Memorial Palace or Kumsusan Palace of the Sun) was built in 1976 and originally named Kumsusan Assembly Hall, serving as Kim Il-sung’s official residence. Upon his father’s death Kim Jong-il had the gigantic neoclassical building renovated (cost estimates range from 100 million dollars to 900 million dollars!) and turned it into a mausoleum – in 1994, when hundreds of thousands of people were starving the country. After Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011 the palace was closed for renovations and re-opened exactly one year after on December 17th 2012. (Hence the names Memorial Palace and Palace of the Sun – one of Kim Il-sung’s nicknames was “Sun of the Nation”…)

One great challenge when visiting the DPRK is stepping back from your own social and political views to see and experience places not only from your own perspective, but also from a North Korean one; and there is hardly any place in the country where it is more challenging and rewarding at the same time than at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. Remember that I wrote in the first article that I most likely will piss off some people over the span of this series? Well, there is a whopping one in three chance that it will be you this time…

But let’s start at the beginning!
The security precautions at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace are putting those at airports to shame. First you have to leave all your belongings either in the bus or at the checkroom within the building – everything but your wallet and tissues; so yes, that includes cameras and even keys! Then you’ll have to go through a metal detector and pass a body check to make sure that you don’t bring in anything else, like pens or chewing gum.
Visitors enter the complex via an underpass and reach the main building using a series of moving walkways and escalators, most walls being decorated with photos and pictures showing the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. Finally you reach a series of rooms that are filled with personal items of Kim Il-sung as well as honors and awards he received from institutions and universities all over the world. Well, communist institutions and universities, which is really interesting in the case of Germany (note: Germany, not East Germany!) as those honors stopped in 1989 – guess why…
In a rather big room you can see Kim Il-sung’s train compartment he used to travel in – not only within Korea, but also to foreign countries. The exact routes and dates are displayed on one of the room’s walls. So the Kumsusan Palace is not only about bling, it’s also about education – and grief.
Centerpiece of the tour is the big man himself, Kim Il-sung – and he really is the centerpiece, like literally! After passing through a dust blowing machine you enter a rather dark room aflame in reddish light. You line up, step forward and turn left – now being at the foot-end of the preserved remains of the Great Leader. 4 to 6 people at the same time step forward again, bow for a couple of seconds and then turn left to go clockwise to the right side of the embalmed body. There you bow again before you continue clockwise 180° to the left side of Kim Il-sung where you bow a third and last time before leaving the room – all under the eyes of four (e)motionless soldiers guarding the remains.
Contrary to Wikipedia you are actually allowed to talk within the palace, but with a soft voice – though the only person talking in the mausoleum room is the guide who hints when it is appropriate to bow and when it is time to move on. Speaking of appropriate: While wearing decent clothing is expected at all time when being in the DPRK it is no problem to wear jeans and T-shirts, even with prints as long as they don’t include flags of or political slogans about certain countries (including the States and South Korea, of course…). At the Kumsusan Palace though people really dress up. (Except for that one group of Russian tourists entering right in front of us…) Korean visitors wear suits, their best uniform or colorful dresses – foreign visitors are expected to at least wear button shirts and ties, if possible a suit jacket and cloth trousers. To meet those requirements I even had to buy a tie in China, as it was the first time in almost 7 years that I was wearing one – and somebody from the group had to tie it for me as I had no idea how to. Since we were visiting the Kumsusan Palace on the first morning of our trip to the DPRK our relationship with the guides was still shaky, luckily everybody played along and afterwards it was overheard that the Korean guides told our Western guide that this was a good group. So if you ever visit the Kumsusan Palace: Dress up, shut up and bow, no matter what you think about the two Kims and their regime!

You can talk about it afterwards as much as you want. And people did, as many felt it was the most surreal situation they’ve ever been in – a statement I wouldn’t sign.
I grew up Catholic and my grandma dragged me to church every Sunday for about four years after First Communion, going irregularly for a while before that event. In middle school I finally had enough of it and went to a friend’s house playing video games before my family even woke up – when you spend an hour at an event you can’t relate to you have plenty of time to question it even more. My grandma didn’t like my “lack of enthusiasm” for Christianity, but accepted it after a while. When one of my sisters married 10 years later it was the first time for me to attend divine service in about 8 years since I even stopped going to church on Christmas and Easter. And boy, THAT was strange. During my church going days I was just bored by the long sermons (German Catholic Masses are nothing like the gospel stuff you see in American movies…) and terribly annoyed by all the contradictions, but I grew up with it, so at least it felt familiar. But after a decade I forgot most of the procedure and if you step back and don’t have a personal connection to a religious service it is really, really strange. No disrespect, but I remember sitting in the cathedral thinking “This is so surreal – it must be how Christians feel like when they see ceremonies of some previously undiscovered tribe!” – I just couldn’t relate at all!
So when we were asked to bow in front of Kim Il-sung’s embalmed body I just though “Whatever, if it makes you happy…” – and that’s it. At least they didn’t give me long boring speeches or expected me to sing! Or said “The Body of Kim” and gave me a consecrated host to eat – now that would have been friggin weird behavior! Bowing in front of a corpse? Pff, I can deal with that…
So dear religious people (in general), I didn’t write the previous paragraphs to offend you – I wrote them to stress how important it is to disconnect yourself and see situations from a different perspective. People visiting the DPRK have to understand that the personality cult about Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un in North Korea isn’t that much different from radical religions all over the world (heck, when the Kims punish whole families for three generations they actually act as written in Exodus 20:5!). North Koreans in general aren’t very religious, but to them the Kims have a godlike status – and not respecting any of the three the way they do is borderline blasphemy. Luckily most Christians outgrew the whole blasphemy thing, but for centuries you were basically a dead (wo)man if you said something against the church, thanks to the Old Testament. (“Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the LORD your God must be put to death.” (Deuteronomy 17:12 NLT)). And don’t get me started about the whole Muhammad drawings thing…

Anyway, now that I most likely lost some of my readers by ranting about religions and outing myself as an agnostic atheist let’s wrap up this article. (I am really curious though to find out if and how many people will unsubscribe over that little personal story…)
After leaving Kim Il-sung’s final resting place we basically did the same procedure with a Kim Jong-il setting. Awards and honors, personal items (including a boat and several cars – very interesting: his travel map was a lot more limited due to the fact that there were a lot less communist states from the mid 1990s on when he came to power…), embalmed body; though I am not sure about the order. Embalmed body might have been the second stop on both tours. But does it really matter?
Having seen both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (which is rare – it seems like most visitors only get to see one of them each visit) we went back to the checkroom by the opposite set of escalators and travelators to grab our cameras and take some pictures outside. The Kumsusan Palace is surrounded by a nice park and in front of the building is a huge square where soldiers put up hundreds of chairs for some kind of festivity nobody knew what it was about. (Oh, and if you plan a trip to the DPRK avoid the months of May and June as the Kumsusan Palace will be closed – every year.)

Overall the Palace of the Sun was a very impressive place to visit and definitely one of the highlights of the trip, even though it wasn’t the most surreal experience of my life. But since I told you about mine nonetheless, let me ask you – what was the most bizarre situation in your life?

(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*…)

Read Full Post »

The Yanggakdo International Hotel is North Korea’s biggest and most popular hotel. Well, until they finally open the Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang’s most famous unfinished building for more than two decades; named after an old name for Pyongyang itself, meaning “capital of willows”. The Yanggakdo Hotel on the other hand is named after the island it is on, Yanggak – located in Pyongyang’s main river, Taedong. Nicknamed “Alcatraz of Fun” due to the fact that foreign guests are not allowed to leave the Yanggak Island, the hotel features several restaurants and bars, a couple of shops (books, alcohol / imported food / local cigarettes, postcards / stamps, …), a tailor, a Chinese run casino basement and a Korean run basement with a three lane bowling alley, billiard tables, a pool, a karaoke bar, a massage parlor and much more.
Built from 1986 to 1992 by a French company called Campenon Bernard Contruction Company (now: Vinci) the Yanggakdo Hotel and its 1000 rooms (spread across 47 floors) opened in 1995; though you can imagine that half of the hotel is not used, given that there are less than 50000 tourists visiting all of North Korea per year – and there are several other hotels in Pyongyang, like the Koryo Hotel, the Sosan Hotel, the Ryanggang Hotel and the Chongnyon Hotel. Looking at the itineraries of several travel agencies it seems like the Yanggakdo Hotel is extremely popular to house the 3500 Western tourist per year. Probably due to the fact that it is located on an island – which means that they can prohibit random contact with locals without having to lock up people at the hotel.

Contrary to many other travel reports you are actually allowed to leave the Yanggakdo Hotel. Most people prefer getting drunk or getting some sleep after doing sightseeing for 12 to 14 hours a day, but on two evenings I decided to stroll around a bit – which admittedly requires some balls as the area doesn’t have any signs and potentially interesting places, like the tip of the island, are not easy to find; and at night you need a flashlight, too…
The first time I went for a walk I was the only member of my tour group at the Yanggakdo Hotel as the rest of them decided to have dinner at a pizza restaurant at Pyongyang – so I decided to go back to the hotel and have Korean food for dinner with the other May Day Long Tour group. I like pizza as much as the next guy, but I didn’t come to North Korea to eat pizza… (And although the restaurant was generally praised before the group went, my fellow travelers seemed to be a bit disappointed afterwards.) Poor Mr. Kim had to come with me to the hotel, too. You know, just in case… (One of those situations you can interpret both ways. Depending on your attitude you can claim had he had to go with me to keep an eye on me – or you can say it was a form of service, just in case I needed something. We actually parted in the lobby right after the arrival, even before dinner, where Mr. Kim did something tourist guides never do – he gave me his room number in case I had a question.) Since the pizza restaurant took more time than my Korean dinner at the hotel I told Mr. Kim that I wanted to go to the tip of the island to take some night shots of Pyongyang while waiting for the rest of my group to arrive – no problem.
Getting to the tip of Yanggak Island wasn’t that easy, especially at night, since entrance of the hotel is on a much higher level and there are no hints on how to get there. Luckily I met two of my dinner companions on my way there, so somehow we made it after a couple of minutes and several concrete staircases, narrow paths and dark corners. The view from the tip of Yanggak Island is absolutely gorgeous and totally worth the hassle of getting there, so I took a couple of photos and left when the wind got too cold to being outside with just jeans and a T-shirt.
The next night I went there again. This time prepared, i.e. wearing a jacket. I took the exact same route as the night before (*and marked it on the GoogleMap I created*), but this time I didn’t mention it to anybody and I was without company – to my surprise I triggered an alarm on the eastern side of the Yanggakdo Hotel. Sound, light, guard with a flashlight coming outside through a door. Since I didn’t do anything wrong I kept walking and the guy didn’t even try to make contact, but it felt kinda weird. On my way back I kept as far away from the building as possible without stepping on the grass – nevertheless I triggered the alarm again, with the exact same result. It was an interesting experience, because until then I didn’t feel surveillance at all. Especially after the two days in Beijing, where they have security checks at every train and subway station plus countless cameras everywhere. I don’t think I ever saw “security cameras” anywhere in the DPRK except for a couple of days later at the DMZ. But this little episode proofed that just because you don’t see surveillance it doesn’t mean that there is none – and it made me wonder if and how the system would kick in if I would have gone in the other direction, towards the Yanggak Bridge, which marks the southern limit of freedom on Yanggak Island…

(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*…)

Read Full Post »

The Arch of Triumph (개선문) in Pyongyang is the world’s tallest triumphal arch. Inaugurated in 1982 to commemorate the 70th birthday of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung and his achievements during the National Liberation War it is modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, just a little bit taller (60 meters vs 50 meters) and wider (50 meters vs 45 meters) than the original. An impressive monument in the neighborhood of the Kaeson Fun Fair (a.k.a. Kaseon Youth Park), the Kim Il-sung Stadium and the Kaeson Metro Station it stands on the foot of Moran Hill, where Kim Il-sung gave a public speech after returning from exile in 1945 to address his people and to celebrate the country’s liberation from Japanese occupation.

Important design elements are the year dates 1925 and 1945 – the first one marking the beginning of Kim Il-sung’s fight against the Japanese oppressors (according to North Korean historians…), the latter one marking the end of Korea’s occupation by Imperial Japan. Below both numbers are sculptures of soldiers and workers, both male and female, celebrating and looking forward to a brighter future. Above the archways you can find a depiction of Mount Baekdu (sometimes spelled Paektu), in Korea considered a holy mountain involved in the legendary foundation of the country, as well as the first two verses of the “Song of General Kim Il-sung”, a marching song praising the DPRK’s Eternal President.

I’ve been to both the Arc de Triomphe and the Arch of Triumph – and although the latter one is just 10 to 15% bigger it’s way more impressive. The Arch of Triumph was our first destination upon entering Pyongyang from the airport and I guess it’s safe to say that the whole tourist group was in awe! Our bus parked on the south-west part of the area and we were able to walk around a bit, first east towards Kim Il-sung Stadium and then north towards the Kaeson Fun Fair. There hundreds of people were practicing for the Arirang Mass Games – but unlike BBC “undercover journalist” John Sweeny we were allowed to take photos and videos of the practicing group. I think one of the guides asked us not to single out people by zoom, but in my opinion that’s common courtesy anyway. (Fun fact: Officially you are not allowed to bring lenses larger than 150mm to North Korea – my usual standard lens is 18-200mm, but nobody bothered me about that at any point of the trip!)
The sun was setting, the sky was blue without the hint of a cloud, the cherry trees were still in full bloom… it was such a peaceful, almost tranquil moment. Was this really the same country the media in Japan, the States and Europe were panicking about for months? It was hard to believe – and I was curious what the upcoming days would bring…

(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*…)

Read Full Post »

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*…)

Read Full Post »

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.

North Korea Countryside DPRK Countryside

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.

Sales Stand In A Park North Korean BBQ Park

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…

North Korean Theme Park North Korea - Shot From The Bus

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.

Pyongyang Fun Run Taesongsan Park
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.

Kindergarten Kids In North Korea Poor People Washing Clothes In A River Empty Road Between Pyongyang And Kaesong

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.

(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*…)

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!*)

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts