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By Ammon

Tourist in North Korea, told by my brother, Ammon, an air traffic controller and avid world traveller who has visited 135 countries to date and currently on a trip in countries 136 and 137, Bhutan and Bangladesh with our sister, Bree (stunt performer in Vancouver film industry, worked for films including Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Trek).

Starting from where we left off, the question that leaves everyone in suspense about his latest journey to North Korea, “AND, what was it like?!”

“You must go on a tour.  It can be your own private tour, but you must be accompanied by two North Korean tour guides at all times and all the arrangements are made in advance, generally by a middleman tour company, usually based in China. The majority of tours fly in and out of Pyongyang from Beijing. I wanted to see more of the landscape and get a glimpse of something more than just what they show you so one of my priorities was taking the train in from the border at Dandong in China. I flew into Shenyang in northeastern China and made my way to Dandong where I was to meet up with my group.  ExploreNorthKorea focuses on Chinese tourists so the tour group ended up consisting of myself and 18 Chinese tourists.  We had all been collected from a couple different companies and all funnelled into the same tour which was actually run by a N. Korean company.  We didn’t know who would be with us though and a handful of us were put on the train alone and told our guides would find us on the platform at the end of the ride.  And that is exactly what happened.  All the different tour groups got claimed by all the different guides as soon as we stepped off the train.

As I said before, all tours have two N. Korean guides.  In our case, one guide was for the Chinese tourists and spoke Chinese.  The other guide spoke English and was assigned to me.  Basically I had a private guide within the larger group. She was a 27-year-old single female that I am convinced completely believed and loved the N. Korean propaganda she was taught. Right off the bat she asked me what kind of tourist I was. She claimed there were two types, those that did nothing but take a ton of pictures and those that claimed to know everything about Korea already and didn’t need more info (the polite way to tell your guide to leave you alone).  Are you kidding me?  I did my internal evil chuckle and rubbed my hands in glee and promptly replied, “I know nothing of your country, I want you to teach me everything you can.” She then sat beside me on the bus or walked beside me at our stops (mostly to babysit me I’m sure) and I made her talk non-stop for days.

I asked everything I could think of asking without getting in trouble.  I danced around topics and did my best to piece together what I could from what she let slip, how she evaded questions and the personal stories of her life.  She was not quite joking at the end when she said she was looking forward to getting rid of me and getting some rest. I’m not going to get into all of what she said here, but my advice is to do the same thing if you ever go.  She was pretty good about it, though the main evasive topic revolved around the economy or money (because I’m not dumb and didn’t ask about politics or military things directly). It was amazing how a fairly simple, “yes or no” question like, “Do you get much pollution from China?” could result in a tangential propaganda story about how great their leader is. It kept things interesting because you never knew what kind of response you’d get.  Surprisingly she seemed fairly uninterested in the rest of the world and looked down upon our “backwards, capitalistic ways”. 

Overall though they do a pretty good job or setting up an environment where you can pretend things are normal. There are very clear and obvious rules to traveling in N. Korea, restrictions on where you can go, who you can talk to, etc but the tours are set up in such a way that if you were the type of person that just follows a group tour anyway and doesn’t venture off on your own or get overly curious, you could be anywhere else as well.  There were no obvious uniformed guards or weapons or intimidation necessary.  The guides take your passport as soon as you arrive and hold onto it until you leave.  It’s not unheard of elsewhere and I’m sure there are worse ways to make you feel like a prisoner.  We stayed all three nights in Pyongyang at the fancy Koryo Hotel.  They call it a 5-star but it’s a 3 or 4-star by normal standards and about the best they’ve got.  When we first arrived there on day one the guide told me that I shouldn’t try to leave the hotel because I wouldn’t want to get lost and it’s not a good idea to go anywhere without any ID.  A polite way of saying, “Thou shalt not leave”.  I talked to one of the Chinese guys in our group the next morning and he says he went out the front door (which would be allowed) but as soon as he tried to move away from it was called back by the “doormen” who were keeping a close eye on him. After a brief conversation with them about the hotel he was convinced they weren’t actually staff because they knew nothing about the hotel or its amenities.  It is quite possible that a large number of the “staff” were there just to keep an eye on us as there were a few guys I noticed that never actually did anything but stare at us.  But as I was saying, dressed up as staff and not police you could play ignorant and convince yourself nothing was going on and never really know. It also took four or five tries of my guide telling me that I needed a morning wake-up call before I finally clued in that there was really only ever one possible answer to her initial question of me needing one. There is also only one possible safe answer to, “So what do you think of Korea (they never refer to it as N. Korea, it’s just “Korea” and needs to be reunified) now that you have seen this?” which I was asked after nearly every stop.  But as long as you play nice, they play nice. The food was good and we took our meals in restaurants or hotels that were obviously intended only for foreigners or upty-ups.

On the tour itself I was told I could take whatever photos I wanted except anything military, which you don’t really see anyway.  I kept asking her at the stops if I could take photos and she would look at me like I was some kind of idiot and say, “of course”.  So again you don’t feel like you are restricted within the confines of the tour which is already cleverly confining enough in where it stops and what it drives past.  But every tour in any place is limiting to some extent whether intentional or not, which is why I prefer independent travel in general.  There were locals walking past us in front of the hotel in the morning, or in the squares that we stopped at and at the circus or on the metro.  They aren’t all fake “actors” as some urban myths would have you believe, but sometimes you think they might be robots.  There are a lot of blank faces walking by.  It was unnerving to see how little curiosity they displayed. Very few would even go so far as to glance our way.  I felt like a ghost which was far from the reaction I had been getting in China or even the Chinese tourists in my group.  While we might be restricted from interacting with the locals, I feel like there are probably some pretty strong incentives on their end to not interact with us as well. There are, of course, propaganda posters, and signs all over the place as well.

Pyongyang looks like a typical communist capital.  All the money is poured in there for the show-off mega projects.  Wide streets with no traffic (there are very, very few private cars), grand public buildings, large squares and huge monuments commemorating some great victory or idea and of course the many apartment complexes to house everyone.  We stopped at a handful of places to see a few monuments and the main square, but for the most part our view of Pyongyang was out the window as we drove through. Our visit to the metro (the deepest in the world) was a brief one and reminded me of the fancy stations in Moscow.

On day two we drove nearly three hours south to Kaesong and the DMZ.  In Kaesong, we stopped at a museum before picking up our military guide into the DMZ where we were shown the spot where the ceasefire agreement was signed “and where the Americans surrendered and admitted defeat in the war”.  At Panmunjom, the village in the middle of the DMZ where the two sides stare at each other all day, I was able to look into my own past at the viewing platform on the other side of the DMZ line where I once stood in 2003 on a tour from South Korea.  Not much has changed since then.  I don’t remember seeing N. Korean soldiers back then and we didn’t see any SK soldiers this time so maybe it was true when they told me they basically take turns guarding the place from each other.  I then made my biggest faux pas when the military guide asked how I felt “standing in the most dangerous place on earth with two great armies staring each other down, guns pointed directly at each other”.  My response?  A flippant, “Meh, I feel safe”.  Which I did.  Which was the wrong answer.  The instant disbelief on his face had me quickly back-pedaling along the lines of, “Um… because you can totally protect me from those guys over there…..”.  Until the first shot gets fired it’s just a chess match. After that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere nearby but I can think of dozens of places that are much worse today.

On day three we drove three hours to the northeast to see the Friendship Exhibition Hall, a very large building displaying international gifts to the former leaders, thus proving their international clout and respect they get.  Security was tight and so were the restrictions, like visiting the crown jewels.  We were shown a few of the rooms and some of the gifts were impressive but most seemed to be from Chinese companies (greasing the wheels of business?) or unheard of fringe communist groups in random countries whose membership probably doesn’t reach triple digits… But who am I to say? I just contented myself with following along and nodding at all the right times.

Speaking of the leaders, N. Korea has a unique set up.  While Kim Jong-un is the current leader of the country, he’s not top dog in the minds of the people. He hasn’t earned his statue yet so to speak.  His father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung have.  The two of them have statues and monuments and photos all over the place, especially over every public building.  Most N. Koreans that I saw also wore a pin over their hearts with either a picture of both of them or just Kim Il-sung.  We were also fed a constant near-mythological backstory of their lives and accomplishments as well.  They could do no wrong in guiding the Korean people to their current greatness, despite the best efforts of the “evil Americans” to undermine and alienate them at every opportunity.  Kim Jong-un has a lot to live up to which might be why he’s a little extra feisty…

The landscape in the areas we passed through on the west side of the country is largely agricultural and the rice fields were ready for harvest.  Outside the cities it looked poor.  The roads were dirt, most people were on bicycles or walking (though that was true everywhere), the little machinery I saw looked ancient and run down and most labour was being done by hand. Cargo trains were rusted through and some villagers were washing clothes in ditches.  Each small community was almost identical too.  It really looks like everyone outside the city lives in the exact same small, single-story white home.

We visited a working Buddhist temple, one of the oldest remaining in the country. My guide swore up and down that they have freedom of religion in N. Korea but I have a very hard time believing that one. We also visited a middle school in Pyongyang to see a musical performance. I’ve never seen a more unamused looking group of performers in my life.  The circus was fun despite the lack of a modern set up.  The crowd was mostly local and they were having a good time and the acrobats were certainly skilled though again we had no interaction with anyone.

By day four I was ready to leave and not too disappointed to spend an uneventful day on the train back to Dandong staring out the window.  Would I go back?  Sure, but it’s not high on my priority list and I doubt I ever will.