As I crossed the border and entered the immigration building, I immediately had a gun pointed at my head. Welcome to North Korea...
Only around 30 westerners a year get to make the border crossing from Tumen in China to Hamyong in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as they like to call it there). It was certainly an interesting way to enter the country, crossing the bridge over the Tumen river on foot, leaving the safety of China you are in no man’s land for a while and it’s easy to forget where you are.
Fortunately the gun was a thermometer as they were paranoid about anyone with a virus entering. Whether this was born from simple border protection or a distinct paranoia of human weapons I couldn’t be sure. To my surprise I was immediately told that Britain had the zika virus and forced to chew on a mercury thermometer. Fortunately I wasn’t dying so they reluctantly let me in.
Having been thoroughly briefed the previous day and already deleted any potentially questionable references or conversations from all my electronic devices, I was called forward with a mixture of excitement and trepidation — I wanted the thrill of my belongings being searched, my existence scrutinised. It started well with my wallet thoroughly searched, my electrical items including batteries, SD cards, SIM cards etc were in a separate bag, these were identified and the details and quantities noted. Next I put all my items on a table with three military personnel, I was ready to be scrutinised… sadly they didn’t see me as any sort of threat to their country and just waved me through, I reluctantly took my things back and packed them all away. My initial feeling was one of incompetence, but performed in a strict yet randomly fastidious manner. The more I witnessed of this the more my feelings strangely turned to sympathy.
The area had recently been hit by Typhoon Lionrock and there was significant repair work happening with what looked like entire apartment blocks being rebuilt in many places. The landscape had also clearly undergone some recent changes as well. Most of the places we saw in the North had hundreds of soldiers working furiously to rebuild and repair, all under the watchful eye of dozens of red flags. The bus journey was through beautiful countryside and typical North Korean villages, unfortunately they were very paranoid about these so we weren’t allowed to take photos. They were poor areas but certainly no worse than so many other developing countries, personally I thought they had a certain charm to them, they were very functional and seemingly carbon copies of each other with a very traditional style. Agriculture and subsistence living were very abundant and there was a strong military presence everywhere. This comes from the fact that the military is used to perform most tasks whether that’s building, policing or governing so it’s inherent in all the villages and doesn’t seem out of place. Our frantic waves to anyone we saw were more often than not returned with a big smile, it felt nice, and it felt genuine — this was not an area used to western tourists. Our driver had an obsession with beeping his horn to anyone and everyone as we were speeding through, mainly to pedestrians and cyclists as there were few other vehicles on the roads. Having just come from the chaos of Beijing this shouldn’t have felt unnatural to me but it somehow was worse here, seemingly unnecessary. I can only liken it to how I imagine a police motorcade must feel. The driving was pretty erratic too with our guide being knocked off his feet and nearly thrown out of the door on more than one occasion.
Our guide, the delightful Mr Tre wasted no time in explaining to us the 'facts' about the history of their country and in particular the Korean War. I’ll never forget his opening lines, having identified the one American we had on the bus, Mr Tre asked him “Who started the Korean War? Don’t lie! Don’t lie!” Fortunately our token American had the right attitude of listening rather than engaging in an un-winnable argument. During these rants we got to hear some fantastic phrases said with such passion, for instance “Imperialist Japs” and “South Korean puppet army”. What I was completely oblivious to was the level of hatred the North Koreans hold for the Japanese (or "Japs" as they called them, nearly spitting each time the word was uttered). Korea was actually under Japanese rule from 1905 to 1945 and they committed atrocities which they have never apologised for. Something the North Koreans cannot forgive or forget. We were soon asking all sorts of questions as our confidence grew, my favourite being from an Austrian chap who in response to the explanation of why there should just be the one Korea, simply asked “Why don’t you just invade them then?”
After a short while of listening to the 'facts' being imparted to me by our friendly tour guide, I started to realise that these might not actually be facts and that I might be receiving a somewhat twisted history of events. It was a very strange sensation as although we are used to critical thinking we tend not to question people in positions of authority — especially when they are confidently imparting facts through a microphone. Perhaps I’m just weak and susceptible but it made me realise just how easy it would be to misinform an entire nation, especially if they have no access to other sources. In particular I at first assumed what I was told about the mother and Kim Il-sun was generally true, clearly hyperbole but at least based on some basic facts. It wasn’t until I heard someone quietly mention that this happened to coincide with Hiroshima and Nagasaki that I realised what I was being told was probably not true at all and I couldn’t trust anything I was being told by my guides. It’s very easy to sit there and say you wouldn’t believe anything a government appointed North Korean member of the Worker’s Party tells you but our instincts are to trust people in perceived positions of power — even more so once you develop a relationship with that person and assume you have a basic understanding of trust with them. I guess the flip side of this is how can we be sure everything we are told in the West is fact, in fact much of the information I’d heard from the media about North Korea was misinformation, Western propaganda, so it’s not too far fetched to imagine that historical facts could be twisted to fit our version of history too. Once they're documented and passed on we don’t question them, we consider them fact.
It’s safe to say we saw our fair share of statues, monuments and museums during our tour, of particular note was the museum of the mother who (apparently) was a war hero and later mother of Kim Jong-il. She was also an exceptional marksman with paintings of her hip-firing dual-wielding pistols in a scenic forest and saving the life of Kim Il-sung. Among her other notable achievements was carrying a pot of boiling water on her head up a mountain — the result scalding her head of course, but what did she do at the top? She smiled. That’s hardcore. She really did have quite the résumé.
The North Koreans have a god like reverence for their deceased heroes, in particular the mother, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, what I found strange is that they seemed indifferent to their current leader Kim Jong-un, it’s possible this is simply a cultural thing and it’s easier to romanticise the dead but they seemed to know startlingly little about their current leader. When we asked the guide about the leader’s personal life he said Kim Jong-un was probably married and didn’t know if he had children. Considering it’s his child that would be the next dear leader I found this very strange. Of all the stories I’d heard in the West the few that I’d received unofficial confirmation of were actually the more disturbing ones and I wondered if there was a sense of awareness and subsequent fear of the current leader. The result being it’s better simply not to ask as the next step would be an opinion.
The first night was a bit of a shock, dinner was served in the hotel restaurant with the feeling of a budget wedding reception. After serving us the waitresses changed into more traditional Korean attire and performed for us, starting with fairly sedate traditional folk songs and ending with pretty much everyone doing the conga, singing and dancing (fuelled by beer and soju). It became clear to me throughout that the North Koreans know how to perform, they can sing, they can dance and they can probably play some instruments that you’ve never even heard of. They can do all of these things very well and from a young age. Anyway, back to the first night, and I guess in summary all the other nights I spent in the country as well, to put it simply I had a lot of fun. It wasn’t what I was expecting from a country with such a formidable reputation. One of the karaoke songs that I noted in particular was about CNC machines, I could tell this not just from the lyrics but also from the TV where they were showing pictures of CNC machines (for those that aren’t familiar it’s basically a big metal lathe). I asked our guide if this really was a karaoke classic about CNC machines and was told exactly that. Apparently the North Koreans invented the CNC machine (citation unavailable anywhere outside of the country) and were so proud of it they made a catchy song. You haven’t lived until you’ve sung karaoke about industrial engineering machinery.
We visited a few schools in the North and they were certainly reflective of a broad range of skills and abilities. They also highlighted for me the fact that everything is not staged for tourists here, people will tell you this having visited the country and whilst it’s true that they are obviously briefed that you’re coming, that’s not the same as being staged. Nor is it really staging to ask a couple of people to sit in a computer room or visit the library (as we think may have been the case). Anyway, back to the school visits, the reason I am confident these weren’t staged visits showing their best was that the first English class we visited was simply atrocious. The teacher spoke little English and as such the children spoke even less. They were young to be fair, probably around 9-10 years old but still, it didn’t provide much confidence in their educational establishment or their ability to crush the imperialist West. The second English class we visited (at a different school) was much better, the children were around 12-14 but the standard of English was exponentially higher. After watching the class for a while we were encouraged to sit down and talk to the children, I chose a boy and girl at the front of the class and was immediately impressed by their English and their general demeanour, I was offered the girl’s chair which I took with gratitude (I’m not above taking a child’s seat for my own comfort), it was offered with such pageantry as well that I couldn’t help but be charmed. They both pounced on me immediately asking where I was from, what I thought of their country, how old I was, what I did for a living and each question seemed to be asked with such sincerity that I believed I was genuinely making a connection with them. That we were communicating as equals (probably shouldn't consider 12-14 year olds as my equals mind you). I started to question them on their lives and their aspirations and all was well if a little too perfect, for instance the girl’s father just happened to be a translator who has been to many countries. Unfortunately after a little while I think holes started to appear in their flow and these become filled with pro-DPRK rhetoric, such as “Korea is the greatest country in the world” and “the Dear Leader is the most famous man in all the world”. I felt deflated as either I’d been briefly taken for a ride or was seeing the evidence of their repetitive teaching (I refrain from using the word brainwashing here). I like to think it was the latter as at least some of the conversation would have been genuine. Some of the highlights I heard from others in my group were when one person mentioned a friend they had in South Korea, the child firmly stated, “No, you are mistaken, there is just one Korea!”. And perhaps best of all, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, one child stood up in front of the whole class and firmly stated, “I want to be in the military so I can stop the UK from invading us!”.
The most impressive school visit and in the mind of the group the most controversial was to a primary school. The school had a very colourful and playful feel to the decoration although as usual there were undertones of unity and aggression if you looked close enough (colourful mobiles of stars and pencils and cranes and hearts and… tanks). Somehow myself and one other member of the tour seemed to have been left unescorted and were wandering the hallways alone, exploring, it felt very taboo but we were following some music playing in the distance. Eventually we found the source about four floors up in a hall, there were chairs laid out and clearly this is where the performance was going to begin. I don’t know how to describe what I witnessed there, factually speaking it was a group of 5-7 year olds performing a variety of acts for us, some theatrical and some musical. But the standard was just so high, I was blown away by their performances, mesmerised even. I couldn’t help but be impressed. I left there assuming these children had been bred in some sort of entertainment camp, their parents specifically chosen for their performing abilities and right from birth they started their non-stop 24 hour a day practice. This was the only way I could imagine the children becoming this good so young, and even then only the top 5% would have been good enough. Of course this is not the case but it is clear how they spend their days in school.
One night of note we were staying in a hotel that was previously a dormitory for Soviet scientists during the Cold War, it had a strange feel to it, the rooms had a large square empty room on entering which led off to the bathroom and a lounge area. Through the lounge area was the bedroom. Being a light sleeper I wore earplugs most nights so didn’t hear the person sneak into my room in the middle of the night… I did however wake to the extra light in the room from outside. My roommate also awoke, I think we both said, “there’s someone in our room” at this point the door closed and I got out of bed and went outside but couldn’t see anyone. It could of course simply have been an accident or it could have been a bad attempt at spying on us. I guess I’ll never know and I actually forgot to mention it to find out if it happened to anyone else or if it was one of the group perhaps. It didn’t particularly bother me, for some reason I have an overly confident feeling for my safety in most situations, I don’t know if this is a quiet confidence in my abilities or simple naivety. Hopefully I’ll never actually find out.
On the way to Mount Chilbo (or Chilbosan as it’s know locally) we stopped by the sea and walked down some steps cut into the cliffs to see some spectacular views of the coastline. At the bottom there was a path leading off through the rocks, an odd little building and an even more unusual tunnel. I’m not entirely sure how it happened but the next thing I knew there were just two of us stood next to this intriguing tunnel. The guides and group had followed the scenic path down the coast. No one had strictly told us not to enter the tunnel (although some things simply didn’t need to be said here) so it didn’t take much encouragement for us to convince each other it was worth it. Simply walking through that taboo tunnel was an experience in itself, it’s not often you get to disobey an oppressive regime, but the view the other side was even better. The tunnel opened out onto a road just above a fishing village in a beautiful cove. It was a picturesque scene but was full of red flags and a mixture of military and civilians (probably simply off duty soldiers). We started taking pictures as fast as we could press the shutter button. It looked more like the mediterranean than anything I thought North Korea would be like. As we were seen people started to hide and all of a sudden there was no-one there, a few people came out from behind a building pointed at us and hurried away, I think they were heading our way to find out who we were and what we were doing so we took this as our cue to leave. I was a little paranoid that there would be someone coming to report us and we’d have our photos deleted but no one came. On the way back up the rest of our group noticed the tunnel and were considering venturing down it but were promptly warned off by the guides. I wanted to tell everyone I’d been down there but thought better of it.
Down by the sea there was a local woman painting a view of the sea and rocks, it was a beautiful painting and moments like this made me think that people do live 'normal' lives here with hopes, dreams and passions. Moments later we're hiking up a mountain with views of the sea, the sun in the sky — not really things I expected to experience in North Korea but there we were, the beautiful autumnal colours so similar to home yet such a different place. It felt surreal but logically it seemed absurd to assume that the country would lack any beauty or scenery, at the top of Mt Chilbo we were provided with stunning views of the local area and of the beach and village where we were staying that night. The homestay with locals in Chilbo was one of the highlights of the trip. The reality was this village and its inhabitants were sanitised and approved by the government so certainly not as real an experience as you would get elsewhere but fascinating anyway. The village was located on a beach which made it a great location and the views were spectacular. My host family were very friendly and although they spoke no English we managed to communicate a little, the family consisted of a husband, wife and their two teenage boys. Many of my fellow group reported bad and closed experiences with their hosts but I have to question the effort they made to interact. The homestay is used mainly by Chinese tourists and I think there is a very different cultural experience there. The families keep dogs which struck me as odd as there was only ever a female and her puppies and they were not treated well by adults or children. I eventually realised they were being farmed and apparently this is for the Chinese tourists who like to come along and pick a puppy for dinner.
In the evening we had a party on the beach, roasting marshmallows and potatoes on the fire — the usual beer and soju consumption moving things along. As the flames of the fire died down there were just a couple of us left and our Korean guide, we were getting very personal in our questions asking about his happiness and whether he aspired to anything beyond his lot in life. We also brought up our dissatisfaction on the photographic restrictions, in particular about the villages and housing in the countryside. He said it’s no problem we just need to ask! Being rather shocked at this I asked if we could take photos of the next village as we leave to which he said no, it is not possible! So, after laughing somewhat I asked him to stop the coach at the next village where we could take photos of the houses. He agreed and in an intense moment, he made a pinky swear with me. The next day we were quick to remind him of this and the look of regret on his face was entertaining, but he did stick to his word with regular prompting every time we went past a village. There were strict terms imposed however, as we were not allowed off the coach! The result was about 12 people hanging out of the open door taking rapid photos of a very average looking house. Certainly not my finest photographs but hard earned.
We were saying goodbye to the North Hamyong province with a flight from Chongjing to the capital Pyongyang. Orang airport was an experience, being a military airport we weren’t allowed to do anything and had to be on our best behaviour, the waiting room was my favourite thing there, cozy armchairs in rows all occupied by heavily smoking Koreans presumably all of some level of importance being allowed to and having the means to fly to the capital. I boarded the aircraft with a mixture of excitement and terror, the plane was a Ilyushin IL-18 from the 60s and whilst the wooden veneers, ashtrays and plush carpet felt like a reminder of happier times, I couldn’t quite forget that mechanically this was over 50 years old… As we took off I got to see a long line of MiG-15s — very distinctive stubby looking fighter jets from the 50s still in use in the DPRK. It was a very cool sight. One of the group had their camera confiscated on the plane and photos deleted but I managed to get a few discrete shots.
If you’re still reading this then maybe you should have a break and get yourself a cup of tea. You can read more in part two as Pyongyang was a very different experience.