My Experience Inside North Korea
Last week I visited North Korea. Yes, the nuke threatening, totalatarian government run North Korea.
A Short History Lesson: In 1910 Japan invaded and occupied Korea. During the occupation the Japanese tried to eliminate the Korean people's language and culture. In 1945 America and the Allies won World War II and Japan left Korea. Then the Cold War began. The US and Soviet Union decided that it would be best to cut Korea into two pieces - one capitalist and one communist. In 1950 North Korea invades South Korea. BUT, North Korea's propaganda says that it was actually South Korea that invaded first (largely at orders from America). This war between North and South Korea essentially ended in a tie. but, the myth that it was America who caused the Korean War has continued in North Korea and is still taught in North Korean classrooms to this day.
Getting into North KoreaI hadn't planned on traveling to North Korea during my 75 Day Asia Trip. The country had always intrigued me, but the negatives had always outweighed the positives. While staying in Beijing I came across a few people who had traveled to North Korea and had positive things to say about their trip. But I was still not convinced. It wasn't the concern of being detained or being killed that worried me. It was the ethical issues with helping bolster North Korea's economy by being a tourist in their country.
However, as my time in China was winding down an opportunity presented itself. Someone staying at the same hostel as me had booked a tour for North Korea but was unable to go. He couldn't get a refund, but could transfer the booking to someone else. It was at this point that I figured if anything not going to North Korea would be ethically wrong. North Korea was getting the money no matter what. If no one went that would just mean that the country would save money on the unused food, travel, and hotel expenses that it otherwise would have paid for. I paid the guy the original price of the tour - $1,500 and the next thing I knew I was off to North Korea.
But before I get to far in my story I think most find it suprising that it is even possible to travel to North Korea. I am a citizen of the United States of America. North Korea has stated that the United States of America is its main enemy ... So I was surprised at how easy it was to travel to North Korea. It took me ten times as much work and time to get my Chinese visa than it did to get to North Korea. The only requirements to get into North Korea are:
- You aren’t a South Korean citizen.
- You aren’t a journalist.
- You have some money.
I met my tour group at the Beijing Airport (currently the only way for an American to get to North Korea is to fly out of Beijing). I got lucky and found out that my tour group was very small (I've read some of these tours can have as many as 30 people). There were only five of us - myself, another American, two Canadians, and an Australian. You have to be a bit strange to want to travel to North Korea, but everyone seemed pretty cool. Except for the other American. He was a bit odd. For example he only ate pizza and crackers. As a plus the rest of the group decided that if anyone going to get detained it would be him and not us.
As I waited in airport to board our plane to Pyongyang (North Korea's capital) the first thing I noticed was the number of North Koreans who were there waiting as well (they are easily recognizable because they all wear suits with flag lapels of Kim Il-sung and Jung-il). A misconception I had before going to North Korea was that no North Koreans can leave the country. In reality it is only about 99.9 percent who can’t leave the country. The top class of North Korean's are able to travel out of the country for diplomatic negotiations, trade negotiations, et cetera. They have no reason to defect to another country because they are already treated so well in North Korea.
As I boarded the plane to Pyongyang I really didn't know what to expect. Would I be hated because I was American? Would I accidentally start World War III? Or would I bump into Kim Jung-un on the street and we would figure this whole nuclear armageddon thing out? Spoiler: None of those things happened.
A Day In Pyongyang
Landing in Pyongyang the first thing that you realize is that the airport is actually really nice. In fact you soon realize that everything you see in North Korea is actually really nice. The roads are nice. The vehicles (while not common) are nice. Everything I saw in North Korea was pretty nice. This is because when you are in the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) you only see what the DPRK wants you to see. The picture to the right from blogger Tim Urban that I am using without his permission describes it pretty well. We drove along the same roads so frequently that I actually got pretty knowledgeable regarding the layout of Pyongyang.
While going through customs me and the other American had to have our laptops searched for any illegal western media. It was a very haphazard search though as the customs officer didn't seem to know how to operate my Mac very well and ended up just looking at a few pictures of my cat. I noticed this unmethodical rule following a lot. For instance we were told that GPS devices weren't allowed inside the country, however I was able to bring my smartphone in, which not only has GPS but automatically tracked everywhere I visited. We were also told during certain parts of our bus rides that we couldn't take pictures or videos, however one person in my group put his GoPro on the dashboard of the bus in the beginning of our ride and videotaped the entire journey.
After exiting the airport we were met by our two North Korean guides, Lee and Kyum-che, who would be with us the entire week. These guides evidently always come in pairs of at least two - so one can watch the group members and the other can watch the first guide to make sure no bribes or anything fishy takes place.
At first our interactions were awkward and stilted. However over the week things improved and soon I found myself trying to share such Western gems as what being "Facebook Official" meant and why the riddle "What is brown and sticky?" was funny (these are the foundations to world peace). By the end of the trip we even discussed a little bit about the upcoming US elections between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (they hadn't heard of Bernie Sanders) and even had a somewhat honest (or at least peaceful) discussion about the Korean War.
Our guides were with us the entire trip. They made sure we never left their sight. I have been known to wander off occasionally when something piques my interest, and Lee would always be telling me to hustle along and get back with the rest of the group.
The only place we weren't within constant eyesight of our guides was at our hotel. We stayed at the Hotel Koryo - Pyongyang's nicest foreigner hotel. Compete with a Karaoke Bar, tailor, swimming pool, and revolving top floor restaurant. It also had a skywalk connecting the hotels two towers but we were told we couldn't see it. Back in US I found out this was due to a fire in 2015 that damaged most of the top floors of the hotel and has yet to be fixed.
There were some fears in my tour group of 1984-esque government surveillance. My Canadian friends were so paranoid about it that they didn't say anything bad about North Korea while in the hotel for fear of being spied on. I was not as concerned. While I have no doubt that there were recording devices at the hotel I doubt they would waste time monitoring us. We were simple tourists - we didn’t know any state secrets or anything that North Korea would find useful. It would also take a tremendous amount of fluent English speakers to monitor every English speaking tourist who visited North Korea. Even if someone was watching my group, the most valuable information they would have received would be a few new dirty jokes.
Touring North Korea was exhausting. I saw a lot of stuff in the week I was there. The things I saw split into three general categories. A third was monuments to the Kim Family, a third "Look at our children/farms/factories we are a successful country!," and a third really old UNESCO World Heritage sites. Here are my non-serious thoughts on the most memorable places:
Mansudae Grand Monument: Larger than life bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jung-il. Pretty cool, but you have to bow to the statues to show respect.
Arch of Triumph: Like the one in France but bigger.
Kumsusan Palace of the Sun: A large palace where I got to see the embalmed bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jung-il. Also got to see all of the awards that the Kim family has received including Kim Il-sung's only honorary degree from a western university - Kingston University. An unaccredited university in California that is now shut down.
Kim Il-sung Square: Chances are when you think of North Korea this is the place you are picturing. Nice view of the Grand People's Study House and the Tower of Juche Idea, but just isn't as cool when it's not filled with a military parade.
Manygyongdae Native House: Kim Il-sung's birthplace. Super boring. Next to a deserted amusement park though.
DPRK Metro: The deepest metro in the world. Make sure you notice the three blast doors at the bottom of the escalator for use in case of nuclear Armageddon.
Tower of Juche Idea: Best view in Pyongyang. No lines to get in. Costs five euros to go to the top though. The elevator has buttons for other floors but when asked the attendant wouldn’t say what they were for or where they went...
Grand People's Study House: A very large if not rather dark and musty library.
Science Technology Complex: Lot of computer terminals where people seem to be researching or watching videos. I saw one guy watching the Discovery Channel's Modern Marvels. The Science Library had the second to last edition of Grainger Industrial Supply catalog in it, which is odd considering that Grainger doesn't ship to North Korea. Nevertheless I contacted Grainger to see if we can't get them the latest edition.
Victorious War Museum: The accuracy of the information was questionable. However the presentation was absolutely beautiful. Definitely check out the captured USS Pueblo and the 360-degree diorama of the Battle of Daejon.
Three Tombs of Kangso: UNESCO World Heritage my a$$. Three big humps in the ground where some old people were buried. If you want to see inside the tomb you have to pay 100 euros.
The DMZ: Our assigned military guide said that he wanted peace in the world. But he also said that if the US tries to invade there will be a big boom.
Now that I'm back in the United States I've gotten a lot of questions from people who themselves are considering traveling to North Korea. I have mixed feelings as to what to tell them.
The biggest issue that most people will have is the likelihood of being detained and sent to a labor camp. I think that this is a completely reasonable fear. After all, if you don't travel to North Korea you have a 100 percent guarantee of not being detained in North Korea. For what it's worth it was surprisingly easy not to get detained in North Korea - just don't do anything you aren't supposed to do. If you look at the list of American detainees every single one of them had actually done something they knew not to be doing. I'm not saying it's right, but everyone who goes to North Korea knows the risks. That being said North Korea is an unpredictable nation and you never know what it will do.
The biggest issue to me and the one that still makes me feel guilty about going to North Korea is the fact that
North Korea is a bad country Kim Jong-un and his government are bad. No matter how you look at it the things that the Kim family has done to the people of North Korea is extremely heinous. There are some arguments for how tourism in North Korea helps weaken the holds of the Kim family by exposing the people of North Korea to the outside world. I'm not entirely sold by this argument and in the end I think whether directly or indirectly as a tourist you are propagating the fiction that Kim Jung-un is directing.
In the end whether you go to North Korea is up to you, but I wouldn't recommend it to most. I will leave with this thought. The biggest reward I got from traveling to North Korea was getting to see the people of North Korea. Before traveling to North Korea, the country and its people weren't real to me - it was just a place we made fun of on the internet. I didn't care about them or whether or not they accidentally blew themselves up. Now after visiting North Korea - well to be honest most of the weird shit there still doesn't seem real - but the people seem real. And now I would be very saddened if something were to happen to them as I would be losing some friends.
Epilogue: The Weird Stuff
Everyplace was eerily deserted. When my group ate at restaurants we were the only ones eating. When we went to memorials we were the only ones there. When outside Pyongyang we would drive on eight lane highways and not see another vehicle for miles.
Foreigners can't use the local North Korean Won. Instead the shops would accept US dollars (USD), Chinese RMB, or the Euro. Each shop has a preferred foreign currency that gives you the best exchange rate. So when I visited the stamp store to pick up some anti-American postcards (a must purchase when in North Korea) their preferred currency was USD. Three anti-American postcards for $1 USD. If I had paid in Chinese RMB the price would have been twice as much.
Rolling blackouts occur several times a day but no one acknowledges them. They just wait until the power goes back on and resume their activities.
One of my guides was quite positive that there was not one but two McDonalds in Pyongyang. I am quite positive that there are no McDonalds in North Korea.
Right turn on red is legal in North Korea
I assisted two North Korean's attempting to leave North Korea. At least that is the way I like to phrase it. On the plane ride back to Beijing I sat next to two North Korean men who had obviously never flown before. They were struggling greatly in filling out their China entry card (the card is only written in Mandarin and English and they knew neither). So I helped them fill theirs out. Once we landed in Beijing they were so happy to have safely landed they gave each other a congratulatory pat on the back. To clarify, they were happy that they had survived the flight not to have left North Korea. I don't believe defection was on their itinerary.
The group I was touring with had an obsession with North Korean grocery stores. A prerequisite of visiting North Korea is to watch the not-very-good James Franco and Seth Rogen film The Interview, a film about two American journalists visiting North Korea and attempting to kill Kim Jung-il. If you haven't seen it you only need to watch this part to understand our intrigue. We drove past North Korea's frontrunner department store, Pyongyang Department Store No. 1, multiple times but were never allowed inside. However, based off my pictures it was very difficult to ascertain if the products at the store were real. We were finally able to convince our guides to let us walk into a small grocery store next to where we were eating one day. I can only imagine the confusion by the locals as they saw us Westerners with huge grins on our faces taking pictures of their produce section.
I sang western music at the karaoke bar in our hotel - despite western music being banned in North Korea. While singing the most American of songs I came to an awkward moment where I realized that Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA has the lyrics "So they put a rifle in my hand, Sent me off to a foreign land, To go and kill the yellow man."
I shot a gun in North Korea. In Pyongyang they have a shooting range where you can do some target shooting. Yeah $.50 a bullet is a ridiculous price - but who can resist the opportunity to tell people you shot a gun in North Korea? They also had a pheasant that you could shoot at for $10 a bullet. If you shot and killed it there was someone on site who would cook it for you.
My hotel room actually had satellite TV with stations like CCTV (China), NHK World (Japan), and Al Jazeera. So after a day of seeing the sights in Pyongyang I turned on the TV only to hear one pundit on Al Jazeera say "Everyone would like to see North Korea collapse" as they discussed the UN's recent sanctions against North Korea. It was interesting hearing about people talk about the likelihood of North Korea using a nuclear bomb while being North Korea. It should be mentioned that foreigners were the only ones with access to these channels. My guide told me that the only international news they get is a once a week segment aired on the state-owned channel.