Ron Perrier travelled in North Korea in October 2014, entering the country by train from Beijing, China.
Most people don’t know that it is possible to travel in North Korea, but with compromises, it is relatively easy. You will be accompanied by two minders at all times and only hear a one-sided account of history. Cost is considerable as visitors pay for their guides, food and accommodation in advance.
The one thing you should never do is visit with the intent of stirring up trouble or making any kind of protest – your guides and any North Koreans having contact with your group will suffer very serious consequences and you’ll achieve nothing more than a speedy deportation.
Our tour company, Young Pioneers, held a pre-trip meeting at a hostel near the train station in Beijing, China to give us the low-down: no camera lenses >250mm; Lonely Planet is the only travel book allowed; don’t call the country North Korea, but instead Korea or DPRK; don’t leave the hotel or tour group at any time; pictures of the Kims must include the entire statue and any picture cutting off legs etc will be deleted from your camera; any picture of the Kims bought as a souvenir must be rolled, not folded; if referring to the leader, it is necessary to refer to him as President, General or Marshall; mobile phones are fine but must not have GPS; people pictures are fine and there is no need to ask unless very close; we can publish travel stories on Facebook or blogs but not in any magazine.
There were 15 in our group. The nationalities were German – 5, English – 5, Irish – 2, Singaporean – 1, Canadian – 1 and our tour guide, an Irish fellow who has lived in China for 5 months. We boarded the train at Beijing Train Station at 5:30pm for the 23-hour trip to Pyongyang.
After passing through Sinuju on the North Korean side, the scene changed remarkably. Every square inch of land is planted, with vegetables filling all cultivable space that was not rice. There were no cars, the occasional motorcycle, a few heavy trucks, bullock carts and everybody walking or on bicycles. I picked up Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road” in my Beijing hostel, a particularly bleak read for a particularly bleak landscape.
For our Korean guides (a young woman named Pak who does all the guiding and an older guy named Kim, who is clearly the minder), we were to bring a gift (one carton of American cigarettes, alcohol or candy) and plan on a tip of 7€/day or 28€ total as we are only in the country with them for four days. Out retinue was filled out by a tourism student (Bak, she was very shy and quiet), a videographer who was preparing a DVD of our trip (40 euros), and the driver. Our guides were employed by the KITC, the Korean International Travel Company, which deals with outside tour companies. Young Pioneers is the second biggest company dealing with them.
Built almost entirely from scratch since its destruction in the Korean War, it is a big, superficially attractive city with grass and tree-lined boulevards and tall, modern looking apartment buildings. Up close the buildings were shabby with old paint. One of the remarkable things about North Korea is the darkness – no streetlights and a few dim lights in the apartments from the low-wattage bulbs.
After a good sleep unaffected by any traffic noise, we went sightseeing in Pyongyang, which included the Revolutionary Martyr Cemetery (a monument to the anti-Japanese fighters), the supposed birthplace of Kim Il-sung (our young guide asked me if I visited the native home of my leader very often; when I explained our political system, our large number of leaders and that I didn’t know where any of them were born, she seemed surprised), the Pyongyang Children’s School Palace (where we attended a 40-minute concert with singing, dancing, instrumentals, and orchestra – all world-class), and Kumansan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum with the embalmed corpses of Kim Il-sung (leader from 1945-1994, referred to below as #1) and Kim Il-sung (leader from 1945-1994, referred to below as #2).
Kumansan Palace of the Sun
We had been instructed to wear ‘formal dress’ for our visit to Kumansan Palace of the Sun to show respect to the great leaders, who we were repeatedly told had dedicated their entire lives to the people of Korea. After a wait in a large room, we queued four abreast, our names checked off a list (visits must be booked at least two weeks in advance), turned left, walked down a long roofed walkway, turned right, passed a cloakroom to deposit all but our money, went through security with thorough searches, went up an escalator and through automatic shoe cleaners, and stood on a slow, 250m long moving sidewalk, down an escalator, turned right, and another slow, 100m moving walkway flanked by 20 large, gold-framed pictures of leader #1 on the left and leader #2 on the right. Turning left, and up another escalator, we entered a long hallway with more pictures but this time of the two of them together. Turned right and entered an imposing 80m long room with nothing in it but two large white, marble statues at the one end. We bowed in front of the statues, turned right through more halls with pictures, down a big staircase and through an airlock with high-speed blowers and into the mausoleum of leader #1.
Lining up four abreast we bowed in front and on each of the sides, but not when standing behind the Great Leader’s head (I was next to Kim who bowed very deeply and long). Some of the Korean women were crying. Then into the ‘museum’ with all his Korean medals (35) and awards from all over the world (keys to cities, orders, honorary degrees, and certificates). Here we were very rushed and all you could read was the name of the country but not the details. Few were from Western countries and most were from the ‘rogue’ states of the world.We then entered another big room with his Mercedes and special train car that he toured North Korea with. On the wall was a large map of Korea and the routes he had traveled were lit up. There was also a world map showing his rail journeys and flights. (His country count was much lower than mine.)
It was then more halls, another airlock and the mausoleum of leader #2 with all the enforced bowing, another museum of honors (an amazing number from Ecuador), his identical Mercedes, railcar, and routes of his train journeys in Korea and his travels around the world (less than leader #1 as he was afraid of flying). But he also had a large boat that was retired when he died. We then exited the same way along the slow escalators and moving walkways and pictures, collected our stuff and walked around the gardens.
The place was packed with North Koreans, all dressed in their best – floor length colorful gowns, suits and ties or buttoned Communist jackets. Kim said that they came with their work groups from all over the country and that they were not Pyongyang people as they were tanned and their clothes often did not fit well.
The mausoleum is open only till noon and not every day of the week, I believe, to keep the crowds large with a steady stream of kowtowing. I felt somewhat embarrassed to have to bow so much to these tyrants, but there was no doubt that it was mandatory. Besides all the guards, there were guys in suits examining our behavior.
Kaesong and the DMZ
We took the bus south on the Reunification Highway, 170kms and 3 hours to Kaesong. Kaesong is just 10kms north of the DMZ, a strip of land that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea and the prime reason to visit here. The city escaped bombing in the Korean War as the UN forces thought that it would be captured and stay in the south. The lights of Seoul, just 70km away, cast a reddish glow to the southwest skyline.
We drove down the empty four-lane highway to the DMZ and waited in queue for an hour for our visit. A captain and two soldiers accompanied us in the bus along a walled road flanked by barbed wire fences and guard towers. We then entered the two-story building looking down on a low building where all negotiations now take place between the south and the north. We stopped at the Armistice Talks Hall where negotiations were held between the two sides from 1951 until the final armistice. There are two copies of the agreement and the original North Korean and UN flags. A plaque in red script sums up the North Korean version of the ceasefire: It was here on July 27, 1953 that the American imperialists got down on their knees before the heroic Chosun people to sign the ceasefire for the war they had provoked June 25, 1950.
We started the drive back to Pyongyang during the daytime. It was startling. At night we rarely saw a light but in the daytime, we were constantly passing small rural villages and the occasional big city. This is supposedly the darkest nation on earth.
Four of us took the train back to Beijing and the rest flew. It probably would have been worth the 40€ extra cost to fly rather than repeat the somewhat boring 23 hour train ride with its 2 hour wait on each side of the border. On the North Korea side of the border our luggage was thoroughly checked. The photos on phones and cameras were all checked, more for curiosity than anything else.
Ron Perrier, a Canadian, is travelling the world and writes a blog about it at http://www.ronperrier.net. This condensed excerpt is published here with his permission.