– North Korea

North Korea – October 2010

The myths untold.

The country often gets a bad press and most tourist reviews that I have read of it appear to have been written by foreigners with an agenda. I was bracing myself for a scary experience but was pleasantly surprised once I arrived. Thus, I’ve now got an agenda of my own; to spread my experience of it. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in North Korea… People often forget that as with any nation the North Korean government does what it thinks is best for itself and its people but also, North Korea isn’t just a government, it is a country with its own people who have their own lives like you or I. Here’s how it went:

The trip started in Beijing, China. I was travelling with a friend – we’d arrived from London the previous day – you can see pictures from Beijing here http://redpaperrose.com/gallery/china/

The airplane looked like it was something from the 80s. There were overhead luggage racks, literally racks, nothing to secure the baggage. I am sure I could feel a draft by my leg as the plane was in flight. I started to worry as we approached North Korea – I could see mud huts… I had read that luxuries in North Korea were limited but I didn’t think I would have to be staying in a hut. As we approached for landing I could see more “modern” buildings… thank god for that.

Baggage claim took a while… almost as if our luggage were the last to come out. Mobile phones had to be handed to security – a receipt was issued in return. At the time, North Korea did not allow foreigners to hold onto their phones during their visit – I understand the rules have been relaxed a little since then. We passed through security without issue, but then could not find our tour group. It seemed that the airport staff wanted us out of the airport but we did not want to leave the airport grounds unaccompanied by our tour guides as we may have found ourselves in the wrong side of the law – a stay at North Korea requires sensitivity and common sense. The airport staff did not speak much English – after many attempts we managed to flag down a local who looked professional and spoke a little English. Just as she was about to speak to the airport staff on our behalf we heard someone call out our names; it was the tour guide whose name I cannot recall. He led us to the coach – only moments ago we had been standing right before it looking for the tour group.

On the coach we were introduced to our other tour guides – Miss C and Mr. Lee. Mr. Lee, we later learned, had been in the Special Forces and had trained as a hostage negotiator.

We were given some instructions on the coach:

– The dear leader is well respected – he is not thought of as a god, but he is very highly regarded. North Koreans do not throw away newspapers that have pictures of him; they do not fold the picture etc…

I appreciate this. In many cultures people are held in very high regard – consider for example the great respect placed upon the Buddha.

– We would be visiting many sites, and sometimes we would be wandering around but we must remain within the site premises as instructed by the guides.

– We would have many photo opportunities. We are not to take pictures from within the coach as we are going from one place to another.

– We would not have access to local currency. Our transactions would need to be done in US dollars, Euros or Chinese Yuan.

– Our phones will be given back to us before departure from North Korea.

Whilst a lot of these measures are restrictive, one should appreciate that North Korea is under a real threat from outside forces and so the government must try to do what it thinks is best for its nation.

We arrived at the hotel – I was very surprised.

Yanggakdo hotel in North Korea…. More than 40 floors… Rotating restaurant at the top, bowling alley, karaoke room, lots of restaurants and so much more. Felt like a 4* hotel by western standards!

Dinner was arranged in hotel restaurant. The concept of vegetarianism is alien to North Koreans. Thankfully my guides were happy to ask me what foods I would be able to eat and what I would not be able to eat and were able to relay this to the restaurant staff. As everyone got their starters I got a plate of sautéed onions. Luckily, I absolutely love onions but I was wondering if this would be my diet for the duration of my stay. I did however end up getting a very nice meal, I can’t remember what it was now, but I remember feeling well fed. Most of my meals during the trip consisted of either vegetarian dishes or dishes with fried fish (I asked for it) for lunch and dinner, and western styled breakfasts from what I can remember.

The night ended with a trip to the hotel’s bowling alley.

I can’t remember the entire trip in chronological order, but here are some highlights:

Inside a subway station… It looked more like an art gallery than a subway station! The trains looked very old… they were very old.

Arch of Triumph

A memorial park

Scenes in North Korea

Looking out into Pyongyang from the Grand Monument

The Grand Monument on Mansu Hill

Looking down from a memorial cemetery for men and women who died fighting against the Japanese occupation.

A trip to the Joint Security Area in the Korean Demilitarised Zone – the world’s most heavily militarised border.

Despite the media claiming Americans are not welcome in North Korea, during this stretch of the trip we met a very large group of Americans… hundreds of Americans are welcomed to North Korea each year!

South Korean Freedom House and two conference huts as seen from the North Korean side of the border. Here a guard indicates enough pictures have been taken.

Standing on the North/South border inside a conference room. The soldiers in the picture are on the Northern side. These huts are the only place where you can enter into the south side from the north, or the north side from the south without issue. However, as we were in the south side the South Korean soldiers entered the hut and started to back us off to the Northern side of the hut. An interesting experience – slightly worrying when armed soldiers enter a room, walk you back and you know they’re the type that would fire if they felt the need… There have been incidents of people being shot in these premises.

Conference row and Freedom House as seen from the Panmungak building in North Korea

We heard about how the North Koreans want to unite with South Korea, to be one nation even if under two different governments… The North would benefit from the South’s resources such as consumables and wealth and the South would benefit from the North’s impressive military power… The north are more than happy to sit down and have discussions with the South… what they do not want however is for outside governments to be bringing in back door politics by manipulating the south… North Korea wants America to stay out of discussions with the south.

Captured US Ship (USS Pueblo), North Korea

At the guns on the USS Pueblo – where else would I be.

During one of our coach trips, I was talking to Mr. Lee. Whilst various online sources suggest not discussing politics with North Koreans Mr. Lee was more than happy to have an open discussion. Sure North Korea has nuclear weapons… if there are aggressive outside forces in possession of nuclear weapons wouldn’t you too arm yourself? Why should one country have nuclear weapons and not another?

We stopped by a “typical” North Korean village for a traditional lunch.

Saw this cool looking spider whilst there

and another

Standing inside a hollow tree.

Celebrations in North Korea – plenty of dancing with the locals…. sure they might not have a great standard of life, but that doesn’t mean everyone in North Korea is depressed… people in third world countries know how to make the most of what they have and enjoy it… It could be said that those in third world countries appreciate the smaller but more significant aspects of life more than the rest of us.

Our coach broke down… there are two guys under that wheel arch

Breath-taking mountain view

A tram

Gorgeous view from a spa hotel – the nights were absolutely amazing, clear skies and a million stars to look up at.

A police car

A tank

Main Monument at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

There was a trip to a hospital and orphanage at some point that I don’t have pictures of. It was one of the low points of the visit – especially upon hearing about what happens with triplets – triplets are taken away from parents at birth. For boys, the parents are given a gift of a dagger or something and for girls a ring. The idea, as it was suggested, being that “since families might struggle to look after three babies simultaneously, the state will instead take on the responsibility”. I’ve since read contrasting reports about what happens to the babies – some suggest that officially they’re meant to be returned to the parents after they turn 4 but apparently it doesn’t happen.

Mass games

We took an overnight train from North Korea to Beijing for the return trip. Phones were returned in sealed packages… we weren’t to remove the seals until we had crossed the border. The only slightly unnerving part of this trip was when the border guards on the North Korean side board the train and randomly check all electronic devices… I had a problem… this trip was the first trip I had taken my camera on. I did not have a charger… at the very start of the trip the battery quickly depleted and I had under-estimated how quickly the memory card would fill up… that’s why many of the pictures are dark and that’s why there aren’t many pictures… during the mass games the battery went completely flat…. so, when the guards asked me to turn on my camera I had to try and explain that the battery was dead… they did not understand English, but when I showed them that I was turning it on but it was not turning on they understood… they allowed me to keep my camera and the memory card…. take a moment to think about that… now consider the UK airport laws whereby if you cannot turn an electronic device on at the security checks when asked to do so, you cannot take them on a flight… Will an excuse of “the battery died” be accepted? nope… you would be told to pay for the device to be posted to you or ditch it… and we’re told the North Koreans are strict… aren’t we all!

I saw a beautiful country far from the dark image that the internet paints. We had running hot water in all but one of the many hotels we stayed in. At no point did we experience electrical power cuts. I had read reports about how people staying at the Yanggakdo hotel were restricted to one floor and told other floors were off limits… this was not what I experienced… we were told there were a few floors the elevators did not service, but other than that we were free to explore the hotel… Our North Korean guides would take us to a site and let us wader off alone within reason. I did not feel like I was being constantly watched and I rather liked that there was someone around to make sure everything was comfortable. One member of our tour group fell ill during their stay and at one point had to remain at the hotel whilst the rest of us went to a restaurant for dinner… the guides made sure they asked the restaurant to provide a take away meal for that individual… I’ve been on tours where the hosts would have just let the ill person go on without dinner. I truly felt like a welcome guest. I felt our guides had pride in their culture and their homeland and regardless of the politics of their government; they wanted to treat their guests right.

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