Robert LendonNorth Korea

The happiest place on earth (part two)

Robert LendonNorth Korea
The happiest place on earth (part two)

Suspended upside down 30 foot from the ground, creaking metal under strain — you start to question whether having a go on everything in a North Korean amusement park was the best idea.

The rides were pretty basic and more like a permanent funfair really but they were fun. I’d normally skip dodgems but in a bid to have a go on everything made an exception. They turned out to be great fun, locals and tourists smashing into each other with equal fervour.

Pyongyang was a completely different experience to the North Hamyong province. I’m not sure I’d of had as enjoyable an experience if I’d just gone to Pyongyang but as it was it provided an interesting contrast to the North. We’d been told we were allowed to take photos from the coach of whatever we wanted so went crazy after the restrictions of the North. We arrived at the Yanggakdo hotel in the evening, the hotel is located on its own island and is one of the few tourist hotels in the city — it’s also massive with 1,001 rooms, a microbrewery, bowling alley, karaoke bar and several restaurants. The infamous 5th floor is for staff only and where Otto Warmbier made his tragic mistake. It used to be that a handful of tourists fuelled by alcohol and peer pressure would journey to the 5th floor but the result was usually the same, they would be caught on CCTV and not be allowed to leave the hotel for the remainder of their stay. I don’t think any of us considered visiting the 5th floor for even a second. In the wake of Otto we were aware of how severe a seemingly minor indiscretion could be. As our western guide had told us, “If you break a rule, I can help you, if you break the law, you're on your own”. The hotel was probably my favourite thing in the whole of Pyongyang. The interior was stunning (in a dystopian 70s vibe), there was a certain quality to the lights that I loved and everywhere you went there were chandeliers, massive fish tanks, acres of marble and Danish style velour chairs. It was a thing of beauty to my eyes. Perhaps an eyesore to many others. Externally it was just as impressive — dominating the skyline with its solidity. At night the stark contrast between the mass of concrete and the golden crowned rotating restaurant (never saw this actually rotating mind you) was stunning.

 The imposing behemoth that is the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang.

The imposing behemoth that is the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang.

Whilst being driven around Pyongyang we noticed groups of women performing choreographed dances with red flags, much like cheerleaders. Apparently these were happening everyday in a bid to increase productivity for 200 days, many red flags were around building sites as well to act as a constant reminder. On the one hand it seems like a good idea, increasing productivity for a controlled period of time, on the other somewhat ironic to dedicate people to the flag waving all day. We were also lucky enough to witness the return of the victorious female U-17 football team. They had just beaten their nemesis Japan and won the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup! They certainly turned out in the streets to celebrate.

For some reason there seems to be a direct association with dictators and mausoleums, perhaps on some level a quest for immortality. The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun was one of the more surreal experiences of the tour and not something that I think my words can really do justice to. It was peaceful yet intimidating, monumental and strangely captivating, I would have loved to have stayed in the room with the bodies for longer, not out of any sense of morbidity but purely to soak in the atmosphere created. Much like a magnificent cathedral, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the place. On the one hand it feels like the resting place of two highly revered men - sombre and elegant, on the other hand it felt like a theme park attraction (although not necessarily one you’d want to attend) with their trains, boats and cars. I couldn’t help but be highly sceptical of all the international awards received by the leaders, they each had a large room devoted to the display. Each started with a collection of awards they had essentially given themselves, not a promising start, and the remainder were mainly from less reputable nations with one or two exceptions but smacking of desperation, like myself including my Bronze Swimming Certificate on my CV. 

Having a member of the North Korean secret police confront one of the group about them filming from the bus was uncomfortable. Fortunately it was resolved sensibly and quietly. I was stopped a couple of times and had photos deleted which were deemed inappropriate. One was of a gardener working at the war museum and another was of a female train guard. The latter was apparently as the tunnels are considered military installations being used as bomb shelters but I was only told the gardener was “very unhappy with me” for taking her photo. She clearly didn't even know as it was from behind and she was still some distance away. It was obvious during these incidents that we were being spied on, sometimes openly, sometimes covertly.

We did bring up the topic of the re-education facilities with our guides, which I think is a much better name than a prison, it might sound a bit big-brother but re-education is better than punishment. Unfortunately I expect I’m merely arguing semantics as this is a particular area of human rights abuse that North Korea have been widely criticised for and although I question some of the motives of those who have been able to speak of these facilities first-hand, I do not doubt that very bad things have and continue to happen here.

We were offered the opportunity to take a flight around Pyongyang in an old Soviet Hind military helicopter to which a few of us jumped at the chance. The whole airport was opened up for our VIP lunch — it felt like we were being treated quite differently, as VIPs we were no longer westerners with nefarious motives — we were guests. It was fascinating to see Pyongyang from the air, the eclectic mixture of modern statement buildings, concrete apartment blocks and poorer housing. On the whole the city looked well developed, dare I say impressive. It’s not yet suffering from the overcrowding or blight of high rises that most other capitals are.

 Faceless commuters leave the Pyongyang metro.

Faceless commuters leave the Pyongyang metro.

The look of terror on the locals faces when they get on the metro and saw me standing their was very funny. It was part terror and part confusion — they didn’t know whether to quickly get off or try to act normal — it seemed like they were trying to process what the correct response was. I’d been told by my western guide that it was illegal for locals to fraternise with foreigners but this is contrary to what I’d read elsewhere so don’t know the real situation there, I suspect it may be in relation to their position and job. Either way I found it entertaining and managed to move away from my guides which was great until it was time to get off and I nearly missed my stop. That would not have gone down well.

The DMZ was a bit of an anti-climax, perhaps in part due to the high tensions between the two countries they had temporarily agreed to leave the area un-manned and only one side would come out when there were tourists, the soldiers promptly leaving the area afterwards. It was interesting to see the change in landscape as you get near the zone. There is a long road leading to the DMZ and every kilometre or so were very large stone columns, each planted with explosives ready to block the road for any invading puppet army. I’m not sure it would be too difficult to drive around them in a tank but I guess it would slow you down. There are several blue huts straddling the border at the DMZ. As I was the first to walk into the hut and see the two North Korean soldiers standing at the end, I immediately put my viewfinder to my eye only to see one of the soldiers chastising me with his hand gestures, and in a moment of cowardice that turned into regret I didn’t press the shutter button and lowered my camera. As others came in I noticed the same thing was happening but the soldiers clearly couldn’t move or do anything other than make some discouraging hand gestures which simply were not putting people off taking the photos. We were told many facts about the history of the huts and on leaving I decided to shoot from the hip with the screen on the back of my camera rather than the viewfinder so although the composition isn’t great I at least managed to get the photo in the end, it’ll just get added to the list of moments of regret I’ve been collecting through my life.

On the way back to the hotel we were allowed to walk down Scientists Street, a new street built in 2015 to accommodate all the latest science and technology in the country. It was architecturally fascinating as some of the buildings looked like they had been designed by excited children just after they’d learnt what atoms were. It was like science fiction from the 1970s. In fact much of the country seemed to be stuck in the 70s, certainly the fashion and general aesthetic were which for a visitor made it wonderful as it was like having a time machine.

 A rather cool looking coach.

A rather cool looking coach.

The last night, like every preceding night was filled with beer, soju and karaoke. In particular this little ditty by the Moranbong Band which I’ve not been able to get out of my head ever since hearing the first time. Most of the time we were having so much fun that it was easy to overlook the reality of life in North Korea, especially as on the surface things seemed relatively normal. The thing that hit me hardest was seeing one of the North Korean guides crying as we left. She was getting married and will never be able to speak to our Western guides again (they are friends having worked together for 4 years), it was small things like this that hit me about the reality of life here. It is illegal for North Koreans to fraternise with Westerners, when it was her job it was acceptable but once she gets married she won’t work and it would be illegal to even meet up for a coffee. Sadder still, she had been looking for a husband for a while but hadn’t found anyone she liked so due to her age (30) her relatives arranged a marriage for her. Although she technically did have a choice, in reality she didn’t as she would be considered an outcast by not fitting in with societal norms. This happens in many places in the world still and I can’t help but feel saddened for all the people who are making do whether through their own choice or force.

Leaving North Korea by train was an interesting experience, the journey from Pyongyang to the border at Sinuiju was relatively normal with everyone taking photos from the train of anything and everything they could. But the experience was at the border itself where the train was boarded by guards and the station platform had soldiers stationed every 20 meters or so dressed in their winter uniforms with big fur collars, it would have made the most beautiful photograph. I did brave the outside for a while but it felt very intimidating, I was alone on the platform except for the military presence and wasn’t sure how far I was allowed to go so kept to a couple of metres from the doorway to be safe.

Having been informed that none of the border guards spoke any English, in a final moment of rebellion I put that I was a black cowboy from the moon on my immigration card and proceeded to shit myself every time the train was boarded by officials. I mean, a cowboy I could claim to be, but black, I’m far too pasty and white, the address was just a typo, incomplete… fortunately no-one asked or cared about my immigration card. Clearly they had finally realised I was no threat to them. Perhaps they even new they had started to turn me with their catchy karaoke songs, and dreams of picking white apricots in Chongjin with my North Korean wife… Sadly however they did seem to care about my photographs, the officer was muttering to herself seemingly in disapproval as she deleted photo after photo that I took during the train journey. It seemed she was objecting to any shots taken of people working in the fields, no doubt in case they ended up online with some ridiculous caption.

 Inside the Grand People's Study House. Whilst it was indeed a grand house, it had an unusual feel inside and I'm not entirely sure what was studied here...

Inside the Grand People's Study House. Whilst it was indeed a grand house, it had an unusual feel inside and I'm not entirely sure what was studied here...

I’d been informed I’d be searched as well and that any North Korean won I had would be taken so I intentionally left one note in my wallet (the rest being well hidden in a bundle of Thai Baht in my bag). The first person had his wallet searched, all seemed promising, it was my turn next, sadly I think they use the first search and check of photos as a barometer for the rest of the group, perhaps assuming we’d all been told to hide our won (as we had) so he chose to skip my wallet. Again, as with entering the country there was a strange attitude the officers adopted — strict yet arbitrary and performed with little commitment. We were asked whose bag the officer was pointing to on the luggage rack, one of the group identified themselves as the owner and walked over to it. The officer asked them to take it down to which they replied it was too heavy, can they help? The officer decided this was too much hassle and called off the search. It just made the whole border crossing a show and a farce, if I’d wanted to get my photos out of the country for nefarious purposes I’d have left the camera in my bag, or swapped the SD card, or copied the images to my laptop. One of the group who had grown aware of the lack of process and also who had taken many hundreds of photos from the train simply moved himself and his camera to the compartment the officer had just finished, she didn’t notice or care, it was very much a voluntary system.

As the train crossed the Yalu river into Dandong the sun was setting across China and passing the bombed Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge it started to sink in that we had left North Korea, visually it was quite a contrast with the lights and high rises of China but in my heart I felt sad to be leaving.

Put simply, I loved North Korea, I had so much fun there, of course a large part of that was the people I was lucky enough to travel with but it was more than that. I’m not sure I’d have had the same experience if I hadn’t visited the rural parts of the country. Pyongyang viewed on its own can take on a very dystopian vibe, much more like you perhaps are expecting from a visit to North Korea. I think as a group we’d have been more reserved if we’d started in Pyongyang and probably wouldn’t have opened up as much to each other, to our guides and most importantly, to ourselves. It’s a country of great contradiction on every level, it’s not the same country the media portrays in the West, it manages to be simultaneously better and somehow much worse, theres a duality of existence here. If you’re thinking about going I highly recommend it, just use your common sense when you’re there. If you do it’s probably the safest country you can visit, as I said already, I loved it and for me it was the happiest place on earth but then perhaps I’ve been a little brainwashed…

 

I travelled to North Korea in October 2016 with Young Pioneer Tours and highly recommend them if you intend on visiting this intriguing country.

All photos were taken with the amazing Olympus OM-D E-M1 and versatile 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens.