North Korea – part 2

All the fun of the fair

“We’re going to the funfair,” declares Passepartout, excitedly. Back in the UK, you’d be surrounded by running screaming kids and giggling people and chaos. Not here though. Without the aid of barriers (but with the occasional police whistle), the funfair visitors wait in perfect queues for a go on the rides. Your boisterous bunch of foreigners are escorted to the head of the queues and let straight on the rides (and so we should, at €3 a pop) and we scream and giggle our way around the park.

The park is also populated with a large number of soldiers on R&R. Soldiers, however, are expected to be manly and to prove that nothing scares them. So you have this truly bizarre image of dozens of uniformed men, stony-faced, being hurled around on fairground rides.

Being silly / truly petrified at the funfair

Now, I’ve always been a bit of a rollercoaster junkie: I’m occasionally seen at Alton Towers yelling myself hoarse on the rides. But I’ve always had that knowledge in the back of my mind that everything I’m doing has been built and tested by SCIENCE, and there’s a one-in-many-trillions chance of anything even going slightly wrong.

In North Korea, however, the knowledge that the Great Leader Himself personally attended to the design, safety, and maintenance of the entire theme park didn’t exactly instill in me the greatest confidence that I would exit the park with the same number of limbs with which I entered.

Which made it so much more fun.

My favourite of all had to be the revolving pendulum swing ride. The chest restraints are designed to go over the body and then clip into place, with a short seatbelt clip as backup. Only as the ride starts do I realise that mine hasn’t locked in place, and the only thing holding my entire weight as I’m fully inverted is a six inch car seatbelt taken from a 1972 Trabant.

To which I’d like to say: Screw you, Alton Towers, I’m never coming back. You hear me? Never. It’s communist theme parks all the way from now on.

Turning on the waterworks

Back to the more educational side of things now. North Korea has, as you can see by the map pictured, one hundred and twenty-three natural springs. In the South, there are twenty. You will also notice that the density of springs changes abruptly at the moment you cross the border. Which is all rather convenient.

123 springs in the DPRK, 20 in the South.

To show off their ability to exploit such abundant natural resources they took us to their famous mineral water bottling plant. We were greeted by… nothing. Upon arrival, our local guide phoned to enquire as to whether our factory guide would in fact be turning up to show us around.

The official answer came that the staff were on their lunch break and would be turning up shortly. A bit of wandering around and a lot of waiting ensued. The factory guide did turn up a little while later, and explained that the plant was closed for maintenance during the day currently and that only the night shifts were bottling. Which would be great if there had been any maintenance going on.

Our tour took us through the immaculate plant, and we were shown the machinery that apparently bottles so much water that it even exports to China.

The not-so-busy water bottling plant. Plus lunging.

We were even given a tour of the spring itself. In a separate building, we were able to take a sip of the water straight from the springs. However, while the rest of the group were doing that, a couple of us took a look around the back to see that there were in fact two boys unashamedly pouring water into the back of the building.

A further highlight of the trip was the USS Pueblo. An American spy ship back in the sixties was caught gathering information, allegedly within North Korean territory. The crew were imprisoned and the US government cajoled into apologising in order to secure their release. The Americans claimed a victory for diplomacy; the North Koreans claimed a win over the Imperialist Violator-Aggressors and kept the ship as a prize.

The USS Pueblo: Still technically on active duty

So, upon boarding the ship, still docked in Pyongyang’s river Taedong (and still technically on active duty), we first sit down to the compulsory video. Which you simply must watch too:

We still couldn’t work out though why there was an ice cream machine on board. Seriously. I mean, did they have a ship’s cow?

Propaganda and the future

Our tour took us to a wonderful sight, for which I should now apologise: we were not allowed to take any cameras inside the National Gift Exhibition. This is an enormous building, devoted to storing and displaying every one of the thousands of gifts that North Koreans (no matter where in the world they live today) have given the Eternal Leaders.

My descriptions can do them no justice. But I shall however try.

  • A block of jade, carved into a life-size tiger, standing atop a four foot globe, its claw deeply embedded into the North American continent: I WANT ONE FOR MY FLAT.
  • Two ten-foot statues of the Eternal Leaders.
  • A Spalding basketball.
  • The world’s largest dining table. Actually, a miniature model of the world’s largest dining table. Which would happen to be the same size as a normal dining table. Which I guess would just be a dining table?
  • A coin counting machine.
  • A miniature of Frank Sinatra.
  • A back-projected Samsung TV.
  • Eight mp3 players from roughly 1999.

A miniature model of the world's largest pen.

Far be it from me to suggest that many of these items appeared to be confiscated contraband later presented as gifts, but the evidence was certainly pointing that way.

The pièce de résistance, however, had to be a two-sided oval painting. The obverse, Kim Jong-il in traditional Korean plate armour, sword in hand, riding a tiger. On the reverse: Kim Jong-il, post-ride, doing up the final button of his military uniform, cigarette in hand. The tiger, lying behind him, with an expression that I can only describe as “was it good for you?”.

View of Pyongyang from the Yanggakdo Hotel

The country and cities are not only dotted with pictures of the Eternal Leaders, but there are also the encouraging slogans wherever you look, ensuring that the people never forget what their purpose is.

Our very sweet tour guide for the Children's Palace

Some of our tour group (rightfully) questioned whether North Koreans truly believe everything they’re told. I saw one of the group wearing a crucifix on a chain and I understood that yes, they probably do believe most of it.

In the way that some Catholic people truly believe that the wafer and wine literally turn into actual flesh and blood and bits and pieces, North Korean people do believe that they are under a great leadership. They believe that they are all destined to each play an important part in the struggle towards finally reuniting with their family across the border.

They are born into a society where there is this one version of the truth. They are taught it at school. They have almost no access to the outside world, so why would they question?

This does not lead me to believe that they are in any way stupid, or that they do not question the minor cracks that appear in what they’re told, or that they do not sometimes think that one person may have an unfair advantage over another. But I tell you what: enough people are singing roughly the same tune at the same time.

"Courage towards the future: let's move forward!"

Should the country decide that its fate lies in opening up to the rest of the world, I think there would be a culture shock beyond all culture shocks if the whole thing weren’t handled carefully and slowly. But that’s another essay for another time.

Interestingly though, at the very end of our tour, our senior guide asked for understanding that she couldn’t always answer every question that we had. A knowing nod, at least, to our differences in backgrounds and idealisms about the world around us.

The Epilogue

Exit stamps: Unfortunately we weren't allowed to keep our visas

I originally approached this (incredibly lengthy!) blog post with the intention of trying to prepare you for the possibility of visiting North Korea. As you’ve seen, I think that was rather an impossible feat.

Although, if I could give some tidbits of advice it would be the following:

  1. Focus on the details. If you ever try to think about the picture and ask the big questions, you’ll never get anywhere. Just imagine the final third of the movie The Truman Show and you’ll see what I mean about details. There are chinks in the armour: and they’re what make the whole trip that much more interesting.
  2. The people are extremely well behaved for a reason. The government tells them one single truth. They are strongly discouraged from dissent or misbehaviour by many means, some of which are less nefarious than others. This does, however, mean that it’s absolutely the safest country I have ever been to as a tourist.
  3. Wave and say hello. Especially to children. The people are incredibly friendly and inquisitive and they are happy for a smile and a Korean greeting from visitors (even if like me, you’re hopeless at memorising the eleventy-bajillion-syllabled honorifics that suffix themselves to each and every noun). One of my favourite things to do was to wave at people from the bus and train windows. Obviously, there is only limited contact with local people and you’re not going to just have a lengthy conversation with someone, especially those who don’t work in the tourist industry.
  4. Bring European cigarettes. As with prisons, a pack of snout will get you a long way: especially if it’s European, and not the Chinese crap that usually gets itself into the country.

I’m not entirely sure how to conclude all of this: I think it was one of the biggest learning experiences of my life. It turned out that the people in the tour group were all of a similar mindset in many ways (someone described it as “people who don’t like tour groups”!) and that helped to cement it as one of the most fulfilling and fun things I’ve ever done.

I think that people’s greatest fears arise almost exclusively from things that they simply don’t know. People are worried about what the North Korean government might do next, because they know nothing about what they do right now. In the same way, they’re afraid of the North Korean population as a whole. But once you do go there and get to even get a tiny glimpse of what happens in people’s daily lives, you realise that they’re just as human as me or you.

Wow. That was deep.

To end on a lighter note, here’s some of the group doing Gangnam Style in Pyongyang:

Gangnam Pyongyang in front of the Arch of Triumph

North Korea – part 1

Hi everyone! Sorry that it’s been a very long time between posts: what with work and travel, it’s been hard to squeeze in a good few hours of writing time. I’m presenting here my experience of visiting an insanely brilliant country. There’s no way I could fit in everything, so here’s a link to my travel buddy’s blog for even more entertainment.



The Prologue (some time in late 2011)

“I’ve always wanted to go to North Korea: and you should come too,” announced Ian, halfway through a work lunch appointment. I’d already got used to what my friend-and-co-worker regards as an acceptable tourist destination. The man’s been to the Antarctic, for crying out loud.

“That’s too far away, and far too expensive,” I spluttered into my spätzle, “I’d have to go all the way to China first before even considering that. And I have no plans to go there.”

Sitting in the hotel lobby next door to Beijing train station, waiting for Ian to arrive from the airport (he is now hopelessly late due, it turns out, to him being in China and his luggage being in Frankfurt) I start to wonder if this is a good idea after all.

The Impossible Introduction (mid September 2012)

Shuffling awkwardly in my seat to grab a photo of the man on ice skates balancing a pole on his chin, on top of which is sitting a baboon in a pink leotard and ice skates, it occurs to me that I can only be in North Korea…

A man balancing an ice-skating monkey on a stick

No no no. Wait a minute. That doesn’t work. Let’s try again.

Admiring the gigantic picture of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, standing atop a wind-swept, snow-covered mountain, pointing wistfully into the distance, I realised…

No. Not quite. I think this might work:

Each one of those pixels at the back is A PERSON.

As I observe, jaw hanging open and not knowing where to look, a perfectly synchronised, gigantic, human cannonball display in an eighty-thousand seater stadium, I wonder to myself what on Earth could lead these thousands of people to spend months of their lives learning how to flip card books in beat-perfect synchronicity for the benefit of their visitors…

No. That doesn’t work either. OK: how about:

Sitting at a piano in a Pyongyang pizza restaurant, playing and singing the classic disco hit, “I Will Survive”, it is at this moment that I understand that North Korea…

Scratch that. I understand nothing.

You see, I’m pretty sure that there’s no possible way to introduce an adventure to this country. Richie, our tour guide from the excellent Young Pioneer Tours (there’s your plug, Richie) met us on day zero in Beijing to give us the briefing of what to do and what to absolutely not do in the People’s Democratic Republic. It was essentially hopeless to try to tell us what to expect, so he kept it to how to behave.

Richie, our Passepartout, showing us how a real man eats ice cream

As you can imagine, the “do not”s far outweighed the “do”s. We should listen to our Korean guides at all times. We shouldn’t take pictures if they tell us not to. We should discretely tip a pack of Marlboro red where appropriate. We shouldn’t question their belief system. We should buy noodles for the 24 hour train journey. We shouldn’t smuggle local currency out of the country. And so on.

It was essentially a case of behaving ourselves and listening to our local guides, and we would expect to have a very enjoyable time. And it did not disappoint.

We were not only educated a lot, but we were also very much entertained.

Yanggakdo International Hotel

Entertainment and Reward

You see, wherever I visit, I have always enjoyed finding out about what passes for an evening of entertainment for the people who live there. For instance, Germans enjoy clapping on the downbeat to jazz music. Brits will happily watch a man in drag telling self-deprecating jokes. The French love an evening of someone impersonating their iconic 1970s chanteurs. For Americans, it’s patriotism and university sports. But the Democratic People’s Republic enjoys something else altogether.

For them, entertainment is an encouragement, and a reward. And boy, are they rewarded.
It is an important part of the culture that the government repeatedly remind the people what they are working for and why they are being rewarded.

And one particular rewards was the highlight of our trip: the Arirang Mass Games.

Arirang is a term you’ll hear a lot in Korean folklore: the name pops up in many a song and many a poem. In short, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again. This is the classic love story. The couple find themselves apart, an unrequited love situation goes on, and all of a sudden there’s a bit of accidental killing but then everyone’s OK again and the lovers are back together forever.

It also happens to be an excellent analogy for the situation that North Korea fnds itself in. Portraying itself as a couple who have been torn asunder, who are then reunited after a joint adversity.

King Huseyin

We even managed (much to my surprise and excitement) to visit a real life film studio. All of a sudden, standing in a set that replicated a Korean street, I suddenly noticed that we were in a film set, in a country that was basically trying to be a film set. And then my brain exploded. They told us that Kim Il-sung personally wrote films and visited the film set on 600 occasions. They even made around thirty films a year. Which didn’t really explain why the set was completely deserted, despite them producing one film every twelve days. But still, it was pretty cool to see that they’d built all that.

I’ve yet to watch the DVD I bought of one of their more famous movies, but I shall be looking out for bits of the set as I watch it.

So close, yet so very far

As with any nation whose people are fed on a narrow diet of information sources, one hears a number of facts that are oft repeated yet never questioned. Of these, one I came across more and more frequently was that Korea is the only split nation in the world. Now, as many of you may know, half of my family originates from the small island nation of Cyprus. Without going into the boring details, there is very clearly a significant border and demilitarised zone (DMZ) that splits not only the island but its capital, Nicosia. This appears to be something that is conveniently missed out history and geography classes in the DPRK.

Our Traditional Korean Bedroom

The DMZ was however somewhat too close to home for me. After a pleasant night spent at the Korean traditional hotel (and a lovely dog soup dinner the previous evening), we ventured out to the borderlands. Our bus took us first to the crossing point before the DMZ (a hilarious term: it’s the most militarised place I’ve ever seen). Access to the actual border is timetabled so that tour groups from the North visit during certain hours and groups from the South visit at other times, so that there’s no mingling of groups from both sides.

After much waiting, we’re driven (“No photos!”) along to the border itself: where the two countries are allowed to meet.

The famous site of the North-South Korea border. You can see the concrete line going through the buildings. One the South side there's gavel, and on the North it's sand.

I’m no stranger to a DMZ. Standing there made it really hit home exactly what Korean people have gone through. There are striking similarities between what Cypriots and Koreans have gone through (although there are differences). And I cannot wait for the day when ordinary people might be allowed to show their passports at this very crossing and perhaps see bits of their land that they haven’t been allowed to see since the 1950s.


Being foreign imperialist capitalist violators, we asked our guide lost of questions about the typical working week. The Korean people work six days a week. They get up at seven and then get breakfast then go to work.

Later on in our tour: some people awake at six to clean the communal areas of the apartment block (each household takes it in turns). They then get breakfast then go to work. Halfway through the tour, we learn that farmers get every tenth day off, the first, eleventh, twenty-first and thirty first – if they’re lucky.

Later on, we learn that even our tour guides in their off season join in with whatever manual work is required of them. What is clear, is that none of the general population is left idle: the country clearly puts everybody it can to full utility. It’s had some pretty hard years, especially in the nineties, and in times when it’s snubbed foreign food aid and had to fend for itself.

But even then, we see that people are put to use tending to the roadside verges (we are told that they are all volunteer retirees who are volunteering to do this work of their own accord. I’m not sure why they needed all those uniformed supervisors with them. I’m also not sure why we weren’t allowed to photograph them).

The overseer

Usually on a guided tour for foreigners, you’ll have the guide from your tour company, then the Korean International Travel Company (KITC – North Korea’s only tour company) will send two guides to show you around. In our trip, Mr Kim was introduced as a member of the national tourism agency who will be checking that everything is “going well”. Even now I’m not entirely sure what he was there to report (or indeed on whom he was checking) but I tell you this: the man is a true badass.

It is common for North Korean men at the moment their ladies have withdrawn for the evening to immediately remove shirts and get down to some serious smoking and pool playing (and eating of dried pollock). Mr Kim always took the opportunity to do the same, and he even showed off his insane pool skills (and showed us on poor Richie exactly how good his taekwondo skills were). I miss Mr Kim.

Continued in part two