My first visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) was in 2014. That was a nine-day trip coinciding with the 102nd anniversary of the birth of the country’s eternal president, Kim Il-sung and the Pyongyang Marathon in which foreign amateur runners were permitted to run for the first time. I watched the marathon!
For many years, I have had a strong interest in North Korea. Some of my lingering questions on the country were answered during my 2014 visit, some former opinions and impressions changed but overall I came away with more questions than I had when I arrived. The net position was almost identical at the end of my second visit in 2018.
The four years since 2014 have seen tremendous changes both in terms of international engagement with what is commonly referred to as the Hermit Kingdom or the most reclusive and secretive country on earth and in terms of changes within the country itself.
Since my first trip I have had a hankering to return for a longer visit which would cover some of the same ground as before but which would also let me see parts of the country and things that I had not seen before. The occasion of my retirement gave me the perfect excuse for a little personal indulgence so I signed up for a 21-day tour coinciding with National Day on the 9th of September (2018) and the reinstatement of the justifiably famous and extravagant Mass Games, after a five-year hiatus.
National Day commemorates the foundation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on 9 September 1948, with the then Premier Kim Il-sung as its leader, following the liberation of the country from Japanese rule in 1945. Within North Korea credit for the ousting of imperialistic Japan is given to Kim Il-sung and his band of guerilla fighters while outside the country history tells us it was due to the efforts of the Soviet Union and the United States at the end of World War II. This is one of many conflicting historical accounts any visitor to, or scholar on, North Korea will encounter.
My reader may be aware that post my 2014 visit I wrote quite a number of blog entries. Rather than update those entries, which I will retain as an historical record, I have decided to prepare totally new entries based on my 2018 trip. Invariably there will be some duplication in detail though personal experiences and anecdotes will be updated. Also, rather than copy in entries related to places and sites visited in 2014 but not in 2018 or experiences unique to 2014 I will, at an appropriate point, direct my reader to the original 2014 entry. Accordingly, for example, as I did not revisit Sinuiju, a rough and tumble town on the Chinese border across the river from Dandong, in 2018 my original entries on that location will not be repeated here.
What has changed since 2014?
While I come back, in various entries, to the changes I have seen within the country since my first visit I will list some of the key ones here:
- A reinvigorated desire for the signing of a peace declaration to formally end the Korean War (the main hostilities ended in 1953 with the signing of an armistice agreement) coupled with the reunification of North and South Korea and the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the peninsula. While this has been the country’s long standing desire I believe the drive and determination is certainly there to make it happen now – other parties willing. Right now this desire for reunification in being reciprocated by the South Korean leadership. The South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, visited Pyongyang for ‘heart-to-heart talks’ while I was in the country and a visit by him and Marshal Kim Jong-un to the sacred Mt Paektu on the Chinese border thwarted our groups efforts to visit it. While this was a major disappointment for me, I (have to) accept it for the betterment of inter-Korean relationships.
- The people appear a lot happier. Very noticeably smiles and waves have replaced deflected heads and blank faces. The populace, at least in Pyongyang, no longer avoid eye to eye contact with foreigners and, recognising language barriers, are now markedly more inquisitive, trusting and keen to interact.
- There has been significant construction and other development, especially in Pyongyang. Very much a case of out with the dull grey Soviet style architecture and in with futuristic buildings in eye-pleasing pastel colours. The skyline of Pyongyang has changed significantly. They don’t just add the odd building here or there but rather they build whole new streets in lightening quick time.
- A phenomenal increase in the quality, quantity and variety of food available. Food ranged from standard Korean fare such as kimchi, cold noodles, banchan (small plates) to more speciality dishes such as barbequed duck and other meats, exotic mushrooms and squid – the latter being particularly popular on the east coast. While tourists are treated as honoured guests and receive the best of what the country has to offer I surmise that the diet of the ordinary North Korean may have improved, perhaps not consummate with the improvement in the quality and quantity of food offered to tourists but improved nonetheless. That of the burgeoning middle class certainly has – based on the flurry of new restaurant development, especially in Pyongyang. I should add though that my 2014 visit was in late spring and stores from the previous harvest may have been diminishing while my most recent trip was during what, on the face of it, seemed to be a fairly abundant harvest.
- The almost universal removal of anti-American rhetoric and propaganda right across the country. This has been replaced by a slight increase in anti-Japanese rhetoric (based on pre-1945 activity) and more generally by long periods of silence from the guides. The latter was pretty much unheard of in 2014, when every opportunity to berate the US was availed off, unless the guides happened to fall asleep on the bus!
- A love for Donald Trump. Yes, you read that correctly. Rather ironically, given that the US has banned its citizens from visiting North Korea and imposed/instigated the most strangling sanctions ever on the country, North Korea is perhaps the only country in the world that openly espouses a love for the President. My learned reader will be aware that this love is reciprocated. On 29 September 2018 at a political rally in Wheeling, West Virginia, President Trump declared that he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love” after the North Korean leader wrote him “beautiful letters”.
“I was really being tough, and so was he,” President Trump said of Marshal Kim. “And we were going back and forth, and then we fell in love, OK? No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters. And they’re great letters. We fell in love.”
- North Korea has secured the rather dubious accolade of membership of the nuclear-war-ready group of nations capable of initiating unimaginable destruction and harm on others though, like all members of that exclusive club, it maintains that its missiles are held for self-defence. Why would an otherwise impoverished nation spend so much money on the development of a nuclear capability? As one of our guides put it – “we can live without sugar but not without security”.
- While the rules by which visitors must abide have not changed (with one exception I can think of) since 2014 there has been a relaxation in the enforcement of those rules, especially those related to photography. The exception relates to the propagation of religion – see below.
What hasn’t changed since 2014?
- Love for, and loyalty to, the Leadership. In simple terms and without aspiring to sound blasphemous, Kim Jong-un and his father and grandfather before him are worshipped, referred to and treated as if they were gods. Everything done in North Korea is done to adulate and thank the Kim dynasty for its benevolent and loving leadership.
- Adherence to Kim Il-sung’s Juche philosophy of self-reliance. I have never seen a people so focused on the collective betterment of their country – it is very much Leadership first, then country with themselves and their families a distant third.
While the Juche philosophy of self-reliance has existed since the 1950s it has become all the more important, and indeed necessary, in more recent times due to the collapse of the Soviet Union (a key donor), the at times lack lustre interest from China and the imposition of increasingly inhumane sanctions by the outside world.
- Rules to which a visitor must adhere. While there are a multiplicity of rules by which a visitor to the DPRK must abide two stand out above all others and breaches there-off are likely to land you in serious trouble. Disrespect towards the Leadership, past and present, is not tolerated and neither is the propagation of religion. In respect to religion, in 2014 visitors were allowed to bring into the country a Bible, Koran, etc for personal use on the condition that it was brought out again. This is no longer the case and no religious material in any format can be brought into the country. While there is constitutional freedom of religion in North Korea it is deemed a very personal thing between the believer and their god(s) and something not to be discussed with, or shared, with others. On entry we were asked if we were carrying any bibles, etc and our bags were thoroughly screened and searched for this and other prohibited items such as pornography, material in the Korean language or about North or South Korea. Yes, Lonely Planet’s Korean guidebooks are banned. Frankly, if you feel unable to comply with the rules (provided to you by responsible tour managers prior to finalisation of booking a trip) you should not go to North Korea.
Travelling in North Korea
Many people assume getting into the North Korea is difficult. This is far from the truth and the process is actually very simple. At present only South Koreans (with very limited exceptions such as official reunion visits) are banned from entry to North Korea and severe restrictions are placed on journalists from all countries. Additionally, the United States of America has chosen to ban its citizens from visiting North Korea, as tourists.
Tourism in North Korea is on the increase and while only 4,000 – 6,000 non-Chinese tourists visit the country each year about 150,000 Chinese tourists visit annually and this figure is rising. In 2015 Marshal Kim Jong-un sanctioned a tourist drive aimed at increasing tourist arrivals to two million per year by 2020. While significant infrastructure work has been completed and continues, particularly outside Pyongyang, aimed at supporting these numbers a figure of two million by 2020 remains fanciful as the infrastructure is unlikely to be in place and the demand for travel to North Korea is simply not there – much due to reasons outside the immediate control of North Korea.
There is no such thing as independent travel in North Korea. All travel is as part of a group (which can be one) and is booked through a western tour company, typically one based in Beijing, from where the vast majority of (non-Chinese) tourists enter North Korea either via plane or via train. Once you have selected a tour operator and a tour a visa (tourist card) becomes all but a formality handled by your tour operator unless you specifically want a visa stamped into your passport in which case you will need to personally front up to one of the few North Korean embassies around the world. When a tourist card is obtained no entries are made in your passport.
While in North Korea each group will be accompanied by a minimum of two state employed guides and a driver, at all times. Apart from within your hotel you will never be out of sight of your guides. These guides are in addition to any non-Korean tour operator guides who may also accompany you.
The Korean guides we had in both 2014 and 2018 were the most wonderful and charming people you could meet (as were our non-Korean guides). The Korean guides held their views very strongly but were not out to ‘convert’ anyone to their cause and likewise you should not go to North Korea to ‘convert’ North Koreans to your cause. While our guides were curious about events outside North Korea they were fiercely proud of their country. While guides will attempt to answer any questions I found that those related to politics, religion and other sensitive areas are best asked outside the group environment and left until a rapport has been built up with the guides. Generally the guides will not be interested in your views on who started the Korean War (the South/US did!), the presence of labour camps (all countries have prisons and rehabilitation centres!) or the private lives of the country’s ruling elite (that is private!).
Day to day, life on North Korean tours is hectic irrespective of the tour operator you choose. They pack in an enormous amount and the days are long. We were typically on the road between 7am and 9am and not back to the hotel (assuming dinner was there) until after 7pm. There is no such thing as a morning or an afternoon at leisure without your guides on a North Korean tour!
In addition to visiting the grand monuments, museums and other shrines to the Kim dynasty we visited the DMZ, a fertilizer factory, a glass factory, various farms and a smattering of Buddhist temples. We also visited things one might consider rather mundane such as the underground, department stores, bowling alleys and western style coffee shops. These otherwise mundane activities take on a new meaning when in North Korea and I found myself taking photographs, and lots of them, of things I would not dream of photographing anywhere else. After a week or so the things that give most pleasure in North Korea are things like being allowed to walk down a street, go into a shop or otherwise interact with the locals in any small way. As you will see from my entries, my 2018 trip also afforded me the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time along the less visited east coast and its mountainous hinterland enjoying the country’s fabulous natural beauty – though still never too far from an inspirational mural or banner, lest I suddenly developed a need in that regard.
In terms of day-to-day safety on the tour, I would rank North Korea as the safest country I have ever travelled in. I have never heard of anyone being pick-pocketed, mugged or raped while travelling here. Knowing (or guessing) the consequences if caught, would you engage in any of these activities as a local or as a tourist? I would not. As long as you follow the basic rules, specifically those relating to respecting the leadership and religion you are unlikely to get into any trouble.
Should you visit this most fascinating country, go with an open mind to engage and accept you may have to take the odd cold shower and you will enjoy your trip and learn from it as everyone, almost without exception, in our groups did. While there were no Americans in our group in 2018 they made up about one third of our group in 2014.
My blog entries
Between my general entries and my location specific entries on this blog I have attempted to present a fair picture of what I saw and heard in North Korea and add a bit of levity here and there to what otherwise might be very serious blog entries.
The image presented in my blog is not a balanced picture of North Korea but rather, as I have just said, a picture based on what I saw and heard. Make no mistake about it, what you see and hear in North Korea is exactly as the Government wish you to see and hear – it is pro-North Korean, anti Japanese and anti-American (though to a much, much lesser extent than it was in 2014), in particular.
A lot of the views, etc presented in my entries are contested outside North Korea and the alternative view can be readily found on the net and elsewhere. There are two sides to most stories.
While writing on my 2014 trip I think I succeeded in keeping my own political view of things out of my blog entries. I have been less concerned about doing so this time round.
While there are rules and restrictions on travel to and within North Korea both my trips there have been among the most rewarding of my life. Though the country continues to open up to the outside world it remains possibly the last country in the world still very much living in the Cold War era.
Index to my blog
Though we darted all over the country and into and out of the capital, Pyongyang, on number of occasions I have ordered my reviews based on what, at least to me, is a logical sequence rather than in the actual order I saw things. I have then grouped and linked the reviews by location, as detailed below. I suggest you read my entries in the order listed – though of course you can read them in any order you like or indeed not read them at all!
(Links will be added as I build sections)
This section – non-location specific covering such topics as practicalities on travelling to and within the DPRK, the Kims, photography, money in the DPRK, television, Americans, etc.
Nampo – including Sariwon and the West
As noted above I did not visit here in 2018 so this is a direct link to my 2014 entries on Sinuiju.
More change afoot
Post 2014 I predicted change:
“While the current Leader is as dogmatic and authoritarian as his father and his grandfather I sense change. The world needs to let it change.
Whether the change will come from within (and I think it can) or without remains to be seen.”
The pace of change within the last four years has shocked even me, an eternal pessimist. During my 2018 visit it was announced that North and South Korea would be putting in a joint bid to host the Olympic Games in 2032 and there was much debate as to whether or not such a bid would be accepted by the Olympic Committee. Personally I feel it is rather a mute point as I anticipate reunification significantly prior to that point. Let’s hope my prediction comes true.
What to call the Country?
North Korea is an abbreviated (and not one accepted within the country) version of the country’s officially recognised and pretty much universally accepted name – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the DPRK).
While the USA seems to accept the official long form name of the country it uses North Korea as a short form. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade use DPRK as a short form.
Within the country it is referred to as Korea in the short form and the area covered by both long and short form titles, within the country, is the full Korean peninsula, the southern part of which is currently and temporarily occupied by foreign imperialistic forces.
In my entries I have, though not universally, referred to the country as North Korea, as this is the term used by most people and search engines (!) outside the country.
If you haven’t been to North Korea I hope my blog entries will inspire a visit to this remarkable country. If you have been, enjoy my take on the country – whether you agree with my musings or not.
I trust you enjoy reading my North Korean entries as much as I have enjoyed writing them.
My next North Korea – General review HERE