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