For years now, I had been dreaming of travelling to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom and, to the North Koreans, simply Korea). Unfortunately, my work with the Canadian Government made a potential visit a little touchy. It’s not that I couldn’t go; I just didn’t want to be “that guy”. After deciding to travel full-time, all excuses went away and the DPRK went straight to the top of my list of priorities, even above Tristan da Cunha. Travel logistics is the only reason I delayed it for so long.
Well, the visit was absolutely incredible and has left me with so much I want to share about this mysterious country that I will have to break it down into many different posts. I will start with the simplest topic: how does one travel to the DPRK and what was my general impression of the capital, Pyongyang?
My fellow travellers and I all faced the same reactions when mentioning a planned trip to the DPRK. It ranged from “You can go to North Korea?” to “But you’ll never be able to come back!”. Many countries are misjudged when it comes to travel safety. For example, the Island of Socotra, off the coast of Somalia and belonging to Yemen, is a perfectly safe place to visit. But, at least the fear is based on a real danger elsewhere in the region. In the case of the DPRK, the worries are based on something completely unrelated: the country’s bad behaviour on the international scene. Why unrelated? Because the Koreans may have nuclear or chemical weapons, but I can assure you that using them on tourists is really not their primary strategic goal. So, in a nutshell, traveling to the DPRK is:
1 – Easy. For me as a Canadian, much easier than getting a visa for other dictatorships like China, Russia, Bhutan, Belarus, etc.
2 – The safest destination in the world, by far. The only possible threat would be a drunk fellow tourist. The idea that a local citizen would attempt to rob or attack you, a Government guest, is completely ridiculous. Even the risk of traffic accidents, which kill thousands of tourists each year worldwide, is mitigated by the very low number of vehicles on the roads.
3 – Expensive. More on that later.
4 – Incredibly cool. An absolutely unique experience you can get nowhere else.
5 – A Government run tour. That comes with great advantages, and great restrictions. Again, more later.
6 – If you are South Korean, forget everything I said, you can’t go. Americans can, but face a few very minor restrictions, such as not being allowed to enter or exit the country by train, and not being allowed on the few tours lasting more than 12 days.
The uniqueness starts before you land. I have filled customs cards in 74 different countries now, and never before was I asked if I carried a GPS, a phone, a “killing device” or “publishings of all kinds”. As is often the case in the DPRK, reality is often not as strange as appearances – although sometimes, it’s the other way around!
I declared all my electronic gizmos, including a MacBook and an iPhone, which of course both have a GPS, a 300 mm lens which technically is not allowed in the country, and they didn’t really take a look at any of them, except the phone, which was turned off. Didn’t check the luggage either. The same happened on the way out; they looked at all the things I declared, but when I said my main bag had clothes in it, the border guard pushed a finger on it and, feeling it was rather soft, didn’t bother to look any further. I didn’t care anyway, as I had left all my killing devices in Beijing.
I was told they are far more interested in what their own citizens bring in and out of the country. On the way in, it was pretty simple: every last one of them was carrying a Chinese made flat screen television! Obviously allowed, since it is rather hard to hide. Immigration was also totally painless, which I suppose makes sense, since they already know exactly who you are, where you are going, at what time, for how long, with whom and what you are going to eat!
My Austrian friends, Suzanne and Matthias, landing in the DPRK. On the stairs, Tyler, a US Imperialist, as we would come to know all citizens of Canada’s southern neighbour. The flight there was surprisingly – perhaps disappointingly – unremarkable. I was secretly hoping Air Koryo, Skytrax’s only “1 Star” airline in the world, was going to give a crazy show. There was nothing special to the flight. The PA system didn’t work well and the food was horrible, but I have seen much, much more chaos on a number of airlines (Yemenia Airways and Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano come to mind). It seems obvious Skytrax likes to have an airline in their “1 Star” category and they know Air Koryo couldn’t possibly care or have an effective way to complain. If anything was exciting, it was to look at the people around me and think: “Wow, they are North Korean!”. A completely silly reaction, but perhaps an indication of the mystique that surrounds the country. It was similar to what I felt on my first day in Afghanistan, minus the fear.
I will mention however that as a frequent flyer, I am very familiar with the engine noises of Boeing, Airbus, Embraer and Bombardier aircrafts, but not so much with an Antonov 148. Shortly after take-off, I heard what I thought was the rather loud noise of the landing gear retracting. When it failed to stop, I realized the strange sound was actually coming from the engines. Perfectly normal I am sure, but given the bumpy weather and my lack of experience on Soviet machines, I will admit this frequent flyer was happy when the thing landed, and happy to take the train back to Beijing!
Ground transportation was quite another matter; only 17 of us in this enormous, brand new tour bus that could probably seat 40, with AC and a PA system that would eventually turn into a karaoke system…
Our Pyongyang hotel, the Yanggakdo International Hotel, is located on Yanggak Island, a 5 minute drive from downtown. It is the largest hotel in the DPRK, and one of the 2 “Deluxe” hotels in the capital, along with the Koryo Hotel. The Korean hotel ranking system goes like this:
– 1st Class; a tour group could stay at these hotels, but they would have limited entertainment choices at night, given that one cannot leave the hotel without the guides.
– 2nd Class; notional, as there are none in Pyongyang.
– 3rd Class; where for example, a visiting youth Chinese football team might stay.
In my opinion, the Yanggakdo would rank as a solid 3 star hotel in the west, or as a 4 start in bad need of renovation and upgrading. At 47 stories and 1,000 rooms, it feels very empty in this city not know for massive influx of visitors. The ironic thing is that as a full-time traveller, hotel costs are where I have the most flexibility to save money. Basically, I generally look for the cheapest – although I don’t sleep in dorms. The funny outcome of this is that in more than a year on the road, one of the most comfortable hotels I have stayed at was in North Korea. Of course, if I had the choice, I may have ended-up with the Chinese football club!
The entertainment options are Vegas-like, including the casino, the 47th floor revolving restaurant, the bowling alley and the spa. I briefly considered a massage, but changed my mind when I noticed that on the billboard, the person receiving the massage was lying on their back, and the person giving it seemed to have one arm much stronger than the other.
Unless you are South African, you don’t need to bring an adaptor to the DPRK. Their plugs will conveniently take anything.
Even though everything seemed so normal, the DPRK has such a reputation that I couldn’t avoid that feeling of “wow, I am here”. And take silly pictures of me in front of the skyline. In the background, you can see the infamous – and unfinished – Ryugyong Hotel, the tallest structure in the country.
Having a room on the 38th floor allowed me great views of the capital (and unlike in the West, the windows actually open).
The two coal power stations don’t do much to improve visibility. The construction of a major hydro-electric project is supposed to improve the situation in the medium term future.
Looking the other way, foggy Pyongyang, at the crack of dawn. On the right, the Juche Tower. In the river, dredgers, which remove sand from the bottom, apparently 24/7.
And a close-up view of the Ryugyong. The kind of place where you would expect some arch-villain enemy of Batman to live.
So, how do you visit the DPRK? Simply put, through a tour agency, as independent tourism is absolutely impossible. There are several to chose from, but eventually I understood that they are only intermediaries, as tours are actually run by the Korea International Travel Company, a DPRK Government company. Don’t think I am suggesting the Western agencies are just a middle-man; they put the program together with the Koreans and are absolutely the ones who make sure everything runs smoothly from start to finish. But knowing that, I went for the cheapest, Young Pioneer Tours, which according to what I saw, had nothing to envy from the competition. They are a newer, but fast growing company, and they simply take a smaller profit margin. KITC would not allow them to put us in a cheap hotel or take the public bus around anyway, so the physical comforts and the local guides are the same.
The big difference is in the clientele. YPT attracts a much younger, 20’s and 30’s crowd, which inevitably turns the tour into a bit of a booze fest. The more established players have a mostly white haired customer base. Nevertheless, even with YPT, if you are used to travelling on $30 a day, you can forget about the DPRK. 200 Euros is pretty much the daily minimum, although it goes down on much longer tours. That being said, the price is pretty much all inclusive, including transport from Beijing and return. Show tickets, alcohol beyond what comes with the meals and tips would be extra. I also bought some propaganda books as souvenirs, but I cannot show them, because I forgot to take pictures before mailing them to Canada from China. I was afraid they could be confiscated by the South Korean Customs. Posters, both printed and hand painted, stamps, non circulating currency, pins, traditional costumes and other souvenirs are also popular. The pleasant surprise is that foreigner shops do not price gouge, although they easily could. I paid less than one Euro for 3 small bottles of water and a small pack of cookies. Roughly what it would have cost in a Chinese grocery store.
Troy Collins, part owner of YPT and the General Manager for the DPRK. Very smooth at all times, he reminded me of the lead character in “Catch me if you can”. During the visit, this New Zealander received some sort of official pin from the DPRK Department of Foreing Affairs, for his contributions to the development of tourism. This is apparently a rare thing for a foreigner and it gives you a lot of “street cred” when you wear it in the country. Behind him, one of the local guys, Mr. Kim.
There are actually two kinds of local guides: the ones who deal with foreigners and the normal ones. On the left, what the Koreans call a local guide, almost always female and always dressed in traditional costumes. They work at a particular location, like a museum, and guide local and foreign visitors alike, usually in Korean.
The KITC guide, Mrs. Park, is on the right. She was our main guide and followed us everywhere with her two colleagues, plus the bus driver and a videographer. At places like these, she translated what the local guide would say. She was incredibly entertaining; at first very formal and 100% business-like, she relaxed quite a bit due to the younger crowd on the tour and the fact it quickly became obvious that none of us were here to cause trouble. This resulted in the following memorable lines, some of which made me laugh for half an hour. They started tame, like telling us to follow the rules, because if you don’t: “You snooze, you loose!”. Then she started telling us stories about her misbehaving as a child and eventually relaxed enough to produce these lines, probably taught to her by Troy and not a North Korean foreign language university!
– “I have been confirmed as “the Man””.
– (starting a story, but then looking at Troy and hesitating) “No, I cannot tell that story, or I will be killed by The Troy!”
– (stern looking) “blah, blah… showing respect to the monument to our President Kim Il Sung and Leader Kim Yong Il. Then, we will go to the hot pot restaurant for dinner, and after, you can go to the bar and get shit-faced.”
– “It is a long day, but you will be able to sleep on the bus, because the place we are going to is at the ass end of nowhere”.
I can’t say Mrs. Park and I became buddies, but I did get her and Mr. Kim’s attention in this highly staged photo, where I showed them a picture of me standing on Kim Il Sung Avenue in Maputo, Mozambique!
And the sightseeing began. The Juche Tower, the tallest stone tower in the world. As I already knew, a lot of things in the DPRK are the tallest or the biggest in the world, if sometimes only by a meter (in this case, just a little bit taller than the Washington Monument). It commemorates the Juche Idea, Kim Il Sung’s socialist-like ideology of national self-reliance, and the number of stones in the structure apparently corresponds to the number of days in the Eternal President’s life. This kind of numerological reference is found all over the place in DPRK monuments. If a mosaic is 5 meters by 7, it probably refers to something that happened on a 7th of May, and it almost certainly refers to something that happened to, or because of, Kim Il Sung or Kim Yong Il.
At the entrance, the wall is covered by plaques sent by students of the Juche Idea from all over the world. I did notice that the number of plaques made after the collapse of the Soviet Union was rather small.
For 5 Euros, you can take an elevator to the top of the tower, where an observation platform offers great views of the city. This shot reminded me of the time I looked out of my friend Valentin’s kitchen window in Sofia, Bulgaria. “And this is a typical communist neighbourhood”, he said.
Unlike in the South, the North lacks arable land and is covered by many mountain ranges. This creates pressure to avoid urban sprawl and as a result, Pyongyang and the other cities we visited were all quite dense. But somehow, I found this little undeveloped area in the middle of downtown. Unusual in a dense city of 3.2 million. Looks like what would happen when you did something wrong in the old video game Sim City!
This view gives you a good perspective of Pyongyang’s many parks. While fairly empty during the week, they get quite busy on holidays. In the far background, the massive stadium where the Mass Games are presented.
The absolute centre of the city, Kim Il Sung Square, where all the major parades and events take place, and a bit of the new city on the right.
There is a small shop at the base of the tower, where you can buy souvenirs and snacks. I was amused to see a Chinese advertisement on the freezer, in this temple to autarky and socialist self-reliance.
As a matter of fact, at first I couldn’t put my finger on what looked so strange in North Korean streets. Then it hit me: no advertisements, of any kind. No billboards, no signs on stores or pictures of what they are selling, no banners or fancy lights or touts in the streets. The marketing aspect of the economy simply does not exist. In fact, since most of the restaurants we went to happened to be on the second floor of buildings, I never could have known a restaurant was there had I not been accompanied by a guide. Of course, many buildings have a sign saying what’s going on there, but it could never be described as an advertisement. In our hotel, these signs were translated, and they went something like this: “Restaurant 1”, “Restaurant 2”, “Chinese Restaurant”, etc.
I know it sounds unimportant, by it felt completely alien to me. In all my travels from the incredible lights and sounds of Time Square in New York City, to the small cinder block shop painted with the colours of the local cell phone operator in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, I had never seen a full-size city without advertisements. Only the occasional slogan, banner or statue adorned the street sides and building facades.
And those facades certainly have room for advertisements. As is typical in communist architecture, the Government buildings are all massive.
And so are the apartment buildings.
Although a few strangely reminded me of Miami Beach!
The hotels, like the one I was staying at, are also built on a massive scale, despite the lack of market for such an operation. The craziest example is the Ryugyong Hotel, allegedly planned to have 3 to 7 thousand rooms, depending on the source. The gigantic, 105 storey hotel was due to be finished in 1989, but delays and the collapse of the Soviet Union cause the work to come to a complete halt for a full 16 years. As you can see in this 2004 picture, the horrible structure was a symbol of failure impossible to miss in the Pyongyang sky.
Around 2008, construction resumed and the building’s exterior is now completed, but there are no dates as to when the interior will be finished, and no official word on what exactly the final product will be. Kempinski was supposed to participate in developing something, but the group has apparently pulled out of the project.
While the hotel project might be stalled, there is no denying the capital is going though a massive wave of construction. On the first night at the Yanggakdo Hotel, I saw workers hard at work well into the night on a building across the river. Most buildings in this picture have been built in the last couple of years, in an apparent effort to modernize the city. How much of these efforts are being deployed outside the capital? I am not certain, but certainly less.
In the next entry, I will address the following question: “Is the DPRK really such a strange country?” My answer might surprise you. But don’t worry, in my third post, I will completely contradict the second one!