Spellbound by the gorgeous green, pink and golden chandeliers adorning the ceiling of Yonggwang train station, my gaze was suddenly dragged back to ground level. A petite lady, perhaps 70 in years and half that in kilogrammes, was demanding my attention.
"Where are you from?" she asked. As I muttered an answer she said "enjoy your stay" and scurried away. Government agents were circling and the men in black heard everything.
This exchange took place 100m underground in a Pyongyang Metro station that can double as a bomb shelter, as do others deep below the North Korean capital. It was the sum total of impromptu conversation I managed to have with ordinary citizens during a stay of more than a week. Everyone else we encountered on the visit had been given permission to talk to foreigners; they were government guides, agents, officials, army officers, hotel employees or a combination of the above.
An extreme level of control is exerted on tourists to what is probably the least-visited country on the planet, but in many ways foreigners are freer than citizens.
My trip took place a few months after the death of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il, an intriguing time in the country's history as power was handed over to a new generation. Since then, the regime has breached United Nations sanctions by sending a rocket into space, detonated its third nuclear bomb, and flamboyant former basketball pro Dennis Rodman has become God's gift to diplomacy by travelling there.
While the average tourist won't get to sit courtside with Kim Jong-un, the state's youthful new head honcho, much can be seen and experienced for a price. Visitors are typically taken around the highlights: statues of his father and grandfather, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, whose images are everywhere; the square where military parades take place; the Tower of the Juche Idea (which is bigger than the Washington Monument); and the Arch of Triumph (more imposing than the one in Paris).
There's even a fortress that's become a mausoleum for the two aforementioned tyrants. If George Orwell's 1984 had inspired a theme park, this would be it.
Since independent travel is not permitted in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, most tour groups heading there meet in Beijing to get their visas, and then fly into Pyongyang on Air Koryo.
One of that airline's chief attractions is its Soviet-era planes. The Ilyushin Il-62M is no Dreamliner, but it is still in use nearly 40 years after first going into service (although Air Koryo is increasingly relying on its more modern Tupolev planes). The cabin crew don't seem to notice the worrying noise from outside, all too audible to passengers as we come in to land, so I assume that's normal.
The young women in red-and-white uniforms who serve the men in greys and blacks (not that there's sexism in North Korea) are efficient and cordial. Prior to take-off, they change from sexy, high-heeled boots to more sensible flat shoes for the duration of the flight. A rather obvious apparatchik sporting a briefcase may walk up and down the aisle before departure and again after landing. Don't mess with him.
It’s a really cool visa. Seriously. It looks great in your passport. In years past, many visitors to North Korea were given visas on separate pieces of paper, but this one, issued last year, is a full-page sticker bearing an image of Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph (did I mention that it’s larger than the one in Paris?) in the background and the official coat of arms. You may not be able to bask in the glory of having a genuine DPRK permit straight away, though: on our trip our passports were taken away for a few days for some bureaucratic purpose that was never fully explained.
Once in Pyongyang, your security is assured. You will never get lost or have your camera stolen or be asked to pay anything above the official rate because a trusty guide will be with you every step of the way. Having that escort _ read government minder _ means great peace of mind, not that you get any choice in the matter. Chances are exceedingly high that he or she will be ex-army, so be friendly. Buy them a drink, because they aren't paid much.
Do try the beer. Even better than having a beer in the Axis of Evil is having a beer made in the Axis of Evil. Taedonggang makes a decent pilsner; it comes in a green bottle and can be found in the souvenir-cum-convenience store in your hotel for about 0.50 (20 baht). A bargain in anyone's language, but especially so considering that Heineken and San Miguel will be going for at least twice that in the hotel bar. (Euro, yuan and US dollars are the currencies they like best.) Ponghak is a rougher lager in a brown bottle with a blue-and-white label. It's got a bit more character and flavour, though, and is appropriately proletarian. Drink enough of either and you start to forget what you may have read about gulags and torture chambers and famine.
The tour guides represent your best chance of getting familiar with the citizenry of North Korea, even if much of what they say seems pre-approved or pre-scripted. You'll want them on your side, especially if you're travelling in a small group, because they control access to attractions and landmarks _ and whether you can linger longer to soak in the atmosphere at a particular spot.
There's an eerie calm here and a sense of all-pervading oversight and order: the streets are too clean and quiet, the monuments to military might far too perfect.
In rhetoric and in deed, North Korea is still fighting with its former colonial master Japan, with that ''great devil'' others know as the United States and its ''puppet'' south of the 38th parallel. The ballistic-missile programme and bellicose rhetoric might grab the lion's share of international attention, but the indoctrination and control that flows from North Korea's military-first policy instills crippling fear in its citizens.
Intriguing, exciting and troubling as a trip beyond the bamboo curtain and into a Cold War time-warp can be, visitors will only get a few days inside this dictator's Disneyland. The 24.5 million people living in this fanatically nationalist, nuclear-armed state don't get to see anywhere else.
The president’s a dead dude. But that’s Eternal President Kim Il-sung to you, okay? The country’s founder would be turning 101 next month — if he hadn’t passed away in 1994. Having become Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in late 1948, he is still only warming up to the task of running the nation forever. Actually, that’s not right. He’s not warming up at all because his body is in a temperature-controlled section of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. His portrait is everywhere, but this image in Kim Il-sung Square, where the regime he fathered often shows off its military hardware, is one of the most prominent.
Pyongyang’s roads are not completely deserted — as they were reported to be during the devastating famine of the 1990s — but they are pretty empty. In this city there’s not much chance of getting caught in congestion or having to fight for a parking space. Word from a frequent traveller is that the crash rate is relatively high, however, simply because local drivers have got so used to being practically the only ones on the road. Good thing there are traffic police to keep watch, eh?
Depictions of army men and women waving AK-47s or running with missiles in their arms or scientists engaged in ‘‘peaceful’’ rocket research are scattered throughout Pyongyang. These Soviet Realist-style propaganda posters are welcome splashes of colour, though; other forms of advertising are outlawed and in winter the city can look rather monotonous. Hand-painted, movie-poster sized versions of state propaganda art can be found in a shop near the Arch of Triumph. The less confrontational ones retail for 40 (1,600 baht) while the more violent, aggressive images may be under the table and will set you back 45. Elsewhere, you’ll have no trouble picking up booklets of stamps or postcards with pictures of anything from wildflowers to supreme leaders (past and present) to Japanese or US imperialists getting crushed by the might of the Korean People’s Army. Best souvenirs ever.
On almost every tour group’s itinerary is a visit to the Demilitarised Zone and the village of Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice agreement was signed. This called a temporary halt to hostilities, but didn’t officially end the war between the two Koreas. The socalled Joint Security Area is the one point along the heavily militarised border where North and South Korean forces stand face to face. The blue huts straddle the frontier, so it’s entirely possible to walk from one country into the other, although you have to leave the same way you entered.
Forget the Batmobile, the car to die for is the giant, black, bulletproof limousine Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave Kim Ilsung during the Korean War. This beautiful and faintly terrifying machine is housed in one of two International Friendship Exhibition halls, one of which was carved out of a mountain at Myohyangsan in North Pyongan province, about two hours’ drive north of Pyongyang. They don’t allow cameras beyond the cloakroom and there are soldiers with shiny machine guns by the door to reinforce that point. This is the regime’s official treasure trove, a display of gifts presented to previous supreme leaders. Kim senior got nearly four times as many items as his successors, opulent train carriages from Stalin and Mao Zedong being the largest objects. The gift that fascinates most is the Stalinmobile which, I’m told, billionaire car buffs keep trying to buy for exorbitant sums. Sadly, it’s not for sale.
Like his father, Kim Jong-il is quasiimmortal. And since his death, statues have been popping up to prove it. He was named Eternal General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which doesn’t sound nearly as impressive as Eternal President. But Kim the Younger can console himself in the afterlife with the knowledge that he, unlike his father, has a basketball signed by Michael Jordan.
- Entry to North Korea is restricted and is organised by state-owned tourism operators or authorised agencies. All tours are guided. Higher-priced packages generally allow for greater flexibility and the chance to visit locations outside Pyongyang.
- Koryo Tours is a long-established company and its standard packages range from 1,560 (about 60,000 baht) per person for an all-inclusive, threenight stay and return flight/train ride from Beijing to 2,300 for a seven-night stay. Its exclusive packages cost upwards of 2,720 per person. There are discounts depending on the size of the tour group. For more information, see www.koryogroup.com.
- Young Pioneer Tours offers a budget alternative, with prices ranging from 845 to 940 for a five-day trip and all the way up to 2,125 for the 11-day MountPaektu Adventure Tour. For more information, see www.youngpioneertours.com.
- Air Koryo is North Korea’s national carrier and operates three flights a week (in each direction) between Beijing and Pyongyang. There are also flights to Vladivostok and Shenyang. However, most tour packages include the price of a flight from Beijing.
- Euro and yuan are commonly accepted at places to which tourists are taken. USdollars can also be used. Change may be given in another currency, or a combination. Foreigners are not permitted to use North Korean won and are subjected to a different official exchange rate. There are no ATMor credit card facilities.
About the author
Writer: Michael Ruffles