At the end of last year, I was 6 months into my complete life upheaval (moving to Sydney) and couldn’t quite contemplate the idea of any New Years Resolutions. So I set myself a goal for the year instead – this would be the year that I would go to North Korea.
I’ve wanted to go to North Korea for a long time. It’s like a secret place, no-one really knows what happens there. Now I’m back, and I still don’t. But my friends – especially those friends with US passports – have long thought I was mad. One of my Chinese friends said that we would just “sneak in” if I went to visit him and his family in Northern China. Even I thought that was a bad idea.
Anyway, I was lucky enough to meet Narelle at the start of the year, and she put together A Plan, because she’s an incredibly organised travel genius. I had only got as far as finding some tour operator, and refreshing the page that should have listed tours for this year, which was never updated. Then Narelle put together The Plan, and soon 8 of us were heading on the Victory Day Tour with Young Pioneers Tours. You get your two Korean guides (to watch you, and each other) and also a Western guide, which theoretically makes things easier.
There are three stories about North Korea. The one the outside world tells. The one they tell the outside world, and the one they tell inside. This trip was an experience of the story they tell inside. Throughout the trip, I struggled to find much relationship between these stories.
I’d deliberately not done that much reading before we left, unlike my friend Anna who claims to have read “everything about North Korea on the Internet” – and yes she still came on the tour, she even took the train! I have notes and pictures from each day, which I will write up in a post for each day. There was an incredible amount of information there, and to lump it all together would be too much. I realised towards the end that I had some serious confusion about which Kim was which – the 2nd one (Kim Jong-Il) was sick and aged dramatically, and was doing a lot even before his father died – I think when the 1st Kim (Kim Il-Sung) died, he looked younger than his son did.
There were things that were really odd – in none of my travels, have I ever spent so much time in such grand places. I escaped the group briefly for maybe 20 minutes, which was exhilarating. I longed to see this half-finished hotel, but the western guide was clear that breaking away from the group would lead to arrest, being kicked out the country, and a bad time for everyone else – not just you. Besides, without Google Maps I was lost and disorientated – I would never have made it anywhere.
Some initial thoughts – over the course of writing about the events of each day, I’m sure I will process all of it – it’s overwhelming, the amount of information – and so these are my partially formed ideas.
- Our passports were taken from us for the duration of our stay. I was not ok with that, and the reasoning was not clear. My passport was returned to me unharmed, as far as I can make out.
- People actually seemed very happy, and happy to see foreigners (although soldiers were often reluctant to have their picture taken – no doubt afraid of the consequences). They would smile and wave at us, be happy to have their picture taken by the foreigner. Yes, we were taken to the sanitised bits, and mostly stayed in Pyongyang, but just driving around you would see people – lots of people – dressed “normally” (western) and going about their business. Lots of people on public transport, but private vehicles. We also encountered people in parks, and at the theme park, celebrating what they call Victory Day - I was right at the front of the mass of people as the tanks and other artillery drove through the centre after the Parade. I think we were the first Westerners to get that close – it was pretty incredible.
- Some things are just confusing, our guides told me that you could leave the country (one of them even had), and that it was fine to marry a foreigner. Pressing the question – but does it ever happen? Gets evasive answers. We saw the hospital and it did not appear to be in much use (this had freaked out my mother – a doctor – after she saw the Panorama episode), although perhaps because of that a couple of patients were displayed to us with their newborn babies. That was probably one of the oddest moments.
- There are pictures of the Kims everywhere, and in fact when we went to the mausoleum our guide described it as their “holy” place. It does feel religious, and to me (an atheist) the statues don’t seem that different from a lot of the religious (Christian) symbolism that fills many european countries, whilst the rhetoric doesn’t sound so different from the American “God and Country” patriotism. The difference is that the 1st Kim (Il-Sung) died within living memory. Isn’t that in some ways less weird? Liberating the country from occupation seems like an understandable thing to be grateful for. The values of independence and self-sufficiency were very highly spoken of, continually.
- That being said, some of the descriptions of him seems… overly-glorified? No worse than any other religion though. I’m sure, less harmful than many. In all his pronouncements that we heard, there was nothing that dismissed women, or advocated genocide.
- There was a celebration of killing “the enemy” that made me uncomfortable. We toured the USS Pueblo on display at the War Museum, on the day that the first westerners got to visit. The museum also featured a couple pictures of injured/killed US soldiers that I found distasteful. We sanitise war in the western media, but when the weapons come out people die. Perhaps I’m just usually insulated from that – the article linked above quotes a US soldier saying “It would have been nice to take out some of the guys, some of them…”.
- There is no internet access. I actually saw more computers in glass cases on display, than I did in use. It is like travelling back in time. This was less hard for me than I expected. In some ways refreshing. That being said, GPS works fine. If you’ve downloaded maps, you’ll be able to see where you are.
- My phones (I took all my photos on my iPhone 5, but also carried a Galaxy Nexus) were never checked, nor was my laptop or iPad. They just checked quantities.
By the end of the trip I was starting to wonder – is this about hiding from the world, or protecting a way of life? Communism has been a failed experiment everywhere it has been tried, but Capitalism has it’s own problems. In the US, people who are born poor, are more likely to die poor than in Canada or Western Europe. There is a horrifying racial divide (also read this Quora answer, I defy you not to cry), and crushing poverty – look at Detroit, for example. And the system fails people catastrophically – look at New Orleans.
Either side I stayed at the Langham Place Beijing Airport Hotel – some much needed comfort either side of a trip that was (for me) decidely “roughing it”. It is exhausting, so building in some R&R time either side is a good idea!