A journey into the Hermit kingdom of North Korea

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As we hurled balls down the bowling alley lanes and sipped draught beer from the onsite microbrewery, it felt like we could be anywhere in the world. Yet just 20m away in the foyer, North Korean locals gathered around a television set, watching the new supreme leader Kim Jong-un address a mass children’s rally.

The live images of 20,000 school kids crammed into a sports stadium, collectively starstruck in the presence of the great leader, were incredible. It was Beatles-mania, North Korea–style. In the context of where we were, it seemed perfectly normal to watch goose-stepping child soldiers march down the running track. The only weird thing here was us foreigners, 10-pin bowling in the capital of the Hermit kingdom.

For tourists, North Korea -- or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as it is known locally -- is very much a voyeuristic destination. Visiting is not just about discovering what makes the country tick; it is about garnering a sense of what is truth, what is spin and comparing what is reported in the Western media to how life actually appears on the ground. But this is not a country where you can simply stroll in for a casual look. Visits are only possible as part of an organised tour, with fixed itineraries and local guides to escort you everywhere outside your hotel.

While for most the idea of holidaying in the DRPK is one that borders on madness, it offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a rare glimpse into one of the most isolated, enigmatic and feared countries on earth. And while there are not too many feel-good stories coming out of the country, for most of the few thousand visitors who do make it into North Korea each year, it is one of the safest and most interesting, albeit bizarre, travel experiences around.

Pyongyang

Our group of 15 travelled on a five-night tour with Koryo Tours, a well-regarded company run by UK filmmaker Nick Bronner, who has made several documentaries on the DPRK. We arrived in style via North Korea’s national airline, Air Koryo, onboard a 1970s model Soviet plane, with wallpaper-like decor and patriotic music playing in the background to set the mood. The selection of reading material included the Pyongyang Times, which unsurprisingly featured Kim Jong-un on the front page alongside articles that were unapologetic in their anti-American and -Japanese stance; in a glossy magazine centrespread highlighted a military parade showcasing nuclear missiles. We had not even taken off, and already the trip was living up to my lofty expectations.

After handing over our passports and mobile phones to our North Korean guides upon arrival, it was apparent that this was not going to be an ordinary holiday. As the tour bus drove to our hotel, we eagerly took in our first glimpses of the 'forbidden land'. Pyongyang, the capital of the DPRK, has all the classic symbols of a workers’ paradise. There are rousing propaganda murals of Socialist realism art, shrines to the supreme leaders, grand Stalinist-style war monuments, austere high rises and an abundance of DPRK and communist flags. And while the city is unlikely to receive any nominations as the world’s prettiest, there are some attractive pockets, particularly along the scenic Taedong River.

Driving past the monotonous rows of concrete buildings, it took a while to realise the absence of shops or restaurants. Our guide explained that businesses in North Korea are discretely signed, and a blue symbol above the door indicates what items they stock. Sure enough, I soon spotted a store with a small blue shoe symbol on an otherwise nondescript building. Further along, I noticed a blue chicken and egg illustration. Even the showroom for North Korean’s car manufacturer, Pyeonghwa Motors, was hidden in a building with mirrored windows. The only shop our tour group was allowed to enter was a Western-style department store full of Chinese goods and very few shoppers.

The sights

Sightseeing in North Korea is synonymous with busy days spent visiting grandiose Soviet-style monuments and colossal statues. Often spectacular, the subject matter never veers far from commemorating war 'victories', the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea  or the supreme leaders, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il.

Quite simply, the leaders, three generations from the same family, are revered by North Koreans with a god-like status, particularly Kim Il-sung, the father of the DPRK, who 17 years after his death still remains president of the nation and will be so for eternity. Their images are seen everywhere: on propaganda billboards, plastered on building facades or on the red lapel-badge worn by all citizens (while not compulsory, we did not see one person without one). All trips to Pyongyang include a visit to the giant 25m bronze monuments where the two leaders Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il stand side by side (Kim Jong-il’s was unveiled in April this year after his death in December 2011). Protocol dictates that tourists lay flowers at their feet and bow to the figures, while eerie ceremonial music booms over the PA.

Another 'only-in-North Korea' moment is a visit to the Kim Il-sung Mausoleum, where you pay respect to the leader’s embalmed body encased within a glass sarcophagus, similar to the embalmed bodies of Lenin in Moscow and Mao in Beijing. Unfortunately it was closed at the time of our visit due to the preparation of Jong- il’s body, which will also be displayed here.

Our tour began at the Arch of Triumph, the DPRK’s  piece de resistance, similar in style to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe but larger in size. It is a magnificent sight when illuminated at night, as is the Tower of the Juche Idea, a 170m-high granite tower that looks over the Taedong River and is one of the world’s tallest monuments. This tower is dedicated to the philosophy of Juche (which mixes self reliance with nationalism) and consists of 25,550 granite blocks -- representing one for every day of Kim Il-sung's life until his 70th birthday, which was when the monument was unveiled in 1982.

Nearby stands the Monument to the Foundation of the Korean Workers’ Party, another world-class sight with soaring granite symbols of the Workers Party of Korea (the hammer represents proletariats, the sickle the peasants and the paintbrush for intellectuals).  

The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum provides an interesting interpretation of the Korean War. And yes, as the name suggests, North Korea claims victory in the conflict. The huge basement is dedicated to wrecks of US planes destroyed in battle among other captured weapons, proudly on display as victory trophies. The Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War immortalises scenes of the Korean War with remarkable detail in a series of dramatic giant bronze-cast statues. Another prized keepsake is the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship captured in North Korean waters in 1968 and now permanently docked as a symbol of national pride.

Offering a welcome change of pace from grim memorials was a visit to the surreal Mangyongdae Children's Palace. Serving as a school for extracurricular activities, it is more akin to a centre of excellence for genius children. Behind each door lay a different surprise as we visited classes that ranged from kids practicing their taekwondo fly kicks  to playing accordions with fervour, to creating incredibly detailed tapestry masterpieces. But the best was saved for last, as the tour concluded with a performance in the concert hall where choirs belted out haunting military songs, ballet troupes demonstrated astonishing acrobatic skills and small children demonstrated almost superhuman acts, like a girl spinning around with a vase balanced on her head. It was all played out to a stirring backdrop of ever-changing propaganda images, including pictures of the supreme leaders (always met with applause) and sinister-looking marching soldiers. If this was the kids’ performance, one could only imagine how phenomenal the Mass Games  would be, which is held each year in a 150,000 capacity stadium.

Pyongyang’s metro system, the deepest in the world, is another fantastic sight. Plunging down into the subway via a steep escalator, we were blown away by the ballroom-like decor, with polished marble, palatial chandeliers and walls decorated with mosaic Socialist realism murals. It was quite unlike any train station I had seen in my life, and was surreal enough to be straight out of a Stanley Kubrick film. Each of the stations is dedicated to a different theme, ranging from glory to victory to liberation. Interestingly the trains used here are mostly from East Germany, dating from the late 1980s.  

Outside Pyongyang

As well as taking in the capital’s sights, most tours to the DPRK head to the demilitarized border zone at Panmunjom, where the demarcation line divides the Korea peninsula in two. In a fascinating standoff, both sides guard their side of the border mere metres from one another, as they have done since the Korean War ended in stalemate in 1953. It was intriguing to be briefed by a DPRK solider and to hear their version of events; one solider was sincerely apologetic he could not let us cross the line, and told us we had South Korea and the US to thank for it.

Also on the tour was Kaesong, the ancient capital of Koryo (a Korean dynasty spanning 918 to 1392) located 136km from Pyongyang . Here, we learned about the dynasty’s rich Buddhism legacy, even though temples are today more historical sites than working places of worship. Accommodation was in a hanok (a traditional Korean lodging) set around pretty courtyards and a peaceful creek, with the soundtrack of a crackly PA broadcasting propaganda all day and the option of ordering dog soup for dinner -- a surprisingly popular choice among our tour group.

Interacting with locals

Unfortunately opportunities to interact with North Korean residents are rare. Locals are generally guarded against interactions with foreigners (who by default are the enemy), but it is remarkable how far a wave and a smile goes. During a picnic lunch in the hills outside Pyongyang, we saw a large group of merry picnickers. With several bottles of soju (Korean rice liquor) and beer under their belt, they were having a grand time singing, dancing and banging instruments. Spotting our group, they beckoned us over and with gusto sang a welcoming song. After being starved of human interaction, it was a special moment that no tour schedule could succeed in capturing. For the first time we were genuinely made to feel welcome in the DPRK.