It’s been almost three years since I went to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and as I still get asked about it frequently I thought I should finally get around to writing about the trip. And hopefully, at some point in the not too distant future politically, economically and socially it will be very different to how it was then, and even how it is now, as it has already changed, and sadly, I think, not for the better.
So, how was it? The first word that comes into my mind when I’m asked that, genuinely is fun. I think this comes to the forefront of my mind as it was one thing I didn’t expect this tour to be. Interesting, educational, different, somber, and at times dull, but not fun. Given the recent attention a YouTube Vlogger got for showing a very one sided rich, privileged, party version of the country I was unsure whether to write that, but, it’s the truth. It was of course, so, so much more than that, and in no way did the fact I laughed a lot change my opinion on the political leadership. Cold also comes to the forefront of my mind. It was so very, very cold.
A visit to the DPRK was on the top of my list of places to visit for years. I almost went in 2004, thanks to finding out I had been forced to ‘save’ by the UK Government as they’d placed me on an emergency tax code, but opted for a 10 week trip around South East Asia instead. After all this time, despite the usual warnings to be careful, I think family and friends had come round to the fact I was actually going, and that was okay.
The most frequently asked question I received was ‘why are you going?’ usually followed by comments or questions on whether it is morally right to go to a country led by a dictator. The answer to ‘why’, in its simplest form is that the easiest way to learn about a country, culture, social norms, and its past and present, is to visit it. The same history I read about imprints in my mind better if I’ve been. I start to be able to actually differentiate places, leaders, wars, significant events. And as one of the most closed off countries in the world, the mystery and lack of understanding is even greater.
I mentioned in my Moscow ramblings that I’ve started to want to have my opinions and expectations challenged, and happy to be disproved and educated, which, if I’m being truthful is probably a little different to my teenage self! The more I feel I know, the more I realise how little I actually know, and how what I think I know (phew!) tends to stem from specific viewpoints under the influence of my friends, social circle, western media, western governments, and so the best way to be a little more educated is to go see for myself with an open mind.
“Ahh, but in North Korea they only show you what they want you to see!’
To a certain extent, yes of course this is true. It is a very closed, controlled, hugely poor society. Though I knew we would be restricted in what we could see, I didn’t believe that the regime would employ actors on the street, the metro, or in the schools for our benefit. There ARE people in the country; they have jobs, and move from place to place. They don’t need to employ people to show this! Kim Jong Un I believe, as demonstrated in his actions and speech, doesn’t care too much what the Western leaders think, let alone a random mishmash of foreign tourists. We came across a couple from the ex-USSR who said that for them it was strange being on the other side, as they remember being the children dancing for Western tourists decades ago.
As for the moral question – there are many, many, ‘normal’ holiday destinations built on modern slavery, with corrupt governments and appalling human rights records, that no one ever questions. Don’t judge me, and I won’t judge you.
Katie and I went withYoung Pioneer Tours and the visa process was incredibly simple. One A4 page to fill in, a couple of photos, and that was it. Katie, a freelance documentary film-maker was asked a few more questions, but there were no issues. Getting the visa for China was much more complicated and time consuming.
We turned up at the airport extremely excited, with all pre trip nerves quashed the day before thanks to a really informative, reassuring and fun prep meeting.
On the plane I spoke to a Singaporean gentleman who worked for a fast food franchise (phonetically pronounced Sam Tai Song) he had helped open in the DPRK. This came as a surprise to me as I didn’t think that would even be possible. He was off to a conference and this was his 15th visit. He was even trying to get Air Koryo to serve his burgers, which he said tasted much better. Looking at Katie’s I didn’t think this would be difficult.
The only difference to arriving at Pyongyang airport over any other small non English speaking airport was my the constant loudspeaker in my head shouting ‘Oh my god, you are in North Korea!!!! WTF’ I had to declare my three phones (yes, I had three), with no issue, had them handed back, and was waved through pretty quickly.
We then split into two groups and headed straight off to the city in our tour bus. We were escorted by one YPT guide, Troy (who is a co-owner of the company) and three guides from KITC (DPRK Tour Agency) Pak Sul Yung, Tzu Huk Yung (excuse the spelling) and Mr Lim alongside our driver, Mr Pak and we also had a camera man, who we initially, but falsely assumed was recording us on behalf of the DPRK Government. There were around 20 people in each of our two groups, ages ranging between 18 and (at a guess…) 50/60 comprising of Australians, Kiwis, Americans, Canadians, Italians, French, German, Dutch and us Brits.
Also with us were two rappers from the USA; Pacman & Peso. The account of their trip told to The Guardian is here: We made it out… We beat the odds! It’s not one I recognise. The article adheres to the usual sensationalist reporting; unjustified speculative commentary on what people are thinking or doing, sinister music in the background, and so on. It’s an incredibly interesting and complex country, it doesn’t need sensationalising! Now that I have been in some of these places I see in documentaries, in the exact same situations, I feel I have a better grasp of how truthful their portrayals are. For clarity, I don’t mean the country overall, or their take on the political situation, just specific events and locations. I certainly don’t feel Pacman and Peso ‘beat the odds’ by making it out alive. There was not one point where I felt unsafe, or less than incredibly well looked after.
We were reminded of the do’s and don’ts, most of which were fairly obvious, being respectful and not taking photos of military personal, military buildings or or any close ups of people without asking permission first. Not to wander off alone. A few additional ones such as not folding any papers or magazines that had photos of the Kim’s on; these were to be kept flat or rolled up. We were also told that when taking any photo of the Kim’s (such as a statue or mural) to ensure we had the whole body or mural in the frame.
And here endeth part one.