In September 2012, I spent ten days in North Korea. Until this trip, I had always waited for a country to allow independent unrestricted travel before going. This strategy worked for China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Albania and the countries of the former Soviet Union, among others. Yet thirty years after I briefly visited South Korea en route to recently opened China, North Korea still keeps the phalanx up. So, for the first time in my life, I decided to enter a country with a tour group.
I wanted a comprehensive experience, so I selected an itinerary with Koryo Tours that maximized time outside Pyongyang and skipped the most visited sites of Nampho, Kaesong and the DMZ. It was described as “Remote and Unique Korea”. We only spent a small amount of time in Pyongyang. Most of our experience was in the mountains of Kumgang, Paekdu and Chilbo, with some additional urban experiences in Wonsan, Hamhung and Chongjin, cities along Koreas’s east coast, along with a handful of other venues. We traveled several hundred kilometres by bus throughout the country, along with chartering a plane to go to Mt. Paekdu, and then to Orang military airport, the access point for Chongjin.
The entire experience for me, albeit fairly controlled, was fascinating and positive.
My biggest initial surprise was Pyongyang. From its setting and physical location, it is one of my favourite cities in Asia. Admittedly, I was seeing the city and the country during September when the weather and vegetation was at its most gentle and bucolic. As 2012 was the 100th birthday of the birth of the first President Kim Il Sung, the city has seen significant recent infrastructural improvements. New skyscrapers dot Pyongyang’s skyline. The relative lack of traffic and extensive parklands, the handful of decent restaurants and the Taedong River bisecting the city, all made for a positive impression.
Another surprise of North Korea was that even in the countryside, and as mentioned we traveled long distances inside the country, it was notably and visibly less impoverished than I expected. Even the grimmer industrial cities of Hamhung and Chongjin reminded me of the “socialist drab” architecture of Poland and East Germany in the 1970’s, with a slight oriental twist.
North Korea, visually, seems to have achieved the ideal Marxist worker – peasant communist society as it might have been envisaged by the famous philosopher at that time. Yet this rural Marxist version of communism looks as if it was set in the late 1800s and then stopped. There is almost no visible interim technology between the MiG jets flying overhead on the east coast, and the ubiquitous one speed bicycles that most Koreans used to get to work. Virtually all agricultural work was still being done by hand, peasants harvesting rice with small scythes.
Although a North Korean visit is controlled, the unrolling of our visit was rather normal for a standard tour. Our guides from the North Korean-based Korea International Travel Company who met us on arrival at Pyongyang airport were the very pleasant Ms. Yu, perhaps in her early thirties, the charming but quite shy Ms. Lee, in her early twenties, and the cheerful Mr. Pyong who was 27. The representative of KORYO tours, who accompanied us from Beijing and throughout North Korea until we left by train was Tori, a young American leading her fifth visit into North Korea. Another aspect of the tour, obviously understandable in the context, is that the official program was busy from morning to evening.
The countryside is mountainous and very picturesque. About half of our tour was dedicated to visiting and hiking around Mt. Kumgang, Mt. Paekdu and Mt. Chilbo. The other half consisted of visits to various sites (farms, factories, schools etc.) designed to portray the DPRK in a positive light due to the enlightened leadership and infallible wisdom of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il,and now Kim Jong Un. The official “spin” was usually delivered by Ms. Yu on the bus shortly before arriving at a site. But this was done in a low-key and non-polemical manner. Once we arrived at a site, we would be met by a local guide. In every case, the description was initially given to us in Korean, which was then translated. Usually Ms. Yu did the interpretation, but occasionally the visited site had their own interpreter.
After an initial tour of Pyongyang, we left the following morning to drive across the peninsula to Wonsan, a major port town on the east coast. Wonsan was the most prosperous city we saw along the east coast. Wonsan pier was one of the rare places in the country where we could be away from our guides. As the pier had only a few fishermen and lead only to a small island with two houses, we walked ahead on our own for about an hour before walking back and seeing the ever charming Ms. Yu. There was a gentle admonishment that she had been looking for us, but left it at that.
The resort at Mt. Kumgang was initially built by Hyundai corporation as an isolated mountain spot just north of the DMZ where South Koreans would be able to go under the “sunshine policy” of a previous South Korean President, Kim Dae Jung. However, the program was stopped a couple of years ago and that access point to the DPRK is now inaccessible for South Koreans. The hikes up to a series of waterfalls in the area are beautiful. Similarly up in the far north at Mt Paekdu, there is a shrine to the birthplace of Kim Jong Il and a beautiful blue lake that can be viewed from the summit of North Korea’s highest mountain. Around Mount Chilbo as well, we visited a Buddhist shrine and did a short hike in the mountains.
One of the more innovative features of travel in North Korea is the availability of a home-stay program along the east cost of Korea at Chilbo, in a coastal village below the mountain of the same name. This was something of a set-up in that the homes, though inhabited by North Korean families, were built specifically for this purpose. The homes we stayed in were notably more upscale than what was typical of what we had seen while driving across the peninsula or along the various spots on the east coast. While Americans were welcome on the tour, they were not permitted to stay overnight in the home-stay, and instead had to stay at a hotel about 20 kilometers away. Alas, of our group, only Tori, the American KORYO tour group representative, and one of the other Americans spoke any Korean, so as they left we had no opportunity to talk with our local North Korean hosts.
Chilbo was another place where we could walk fairly freely along the beach and around the village in the evening and at night.
Our experience in North Korea was at its most controlled in Hamhung and Chongjin, two industrial cities along the east coast only opened to foreign visitors since 2010. There we were told that we could not walk anywhere outside of the hotel. Our experience in Chongjin probably came closest to the hyper-controlled caricature of travel in North Korea that is portrayed in the West. A Canadian guide with another group (three groups traveled together in the chartered plane), Chris Graper, provided the context as we landed at Orang airport, the access point for Chongjin, in saying “Welcome to retro DPRK. You are now going to experience what traveling in the entire country used to be like until only a few years ago.”
We were fortunate in visiting the DPRK during the period when the Arirang Mass Games were being held in a stadium in Pyongyang. It is among the most impressive performances I have ever seen. There are approximately 100,000 participants in the performance, including several thousand school children on the opposite side of the stadium displaying flash cards…the North Korean flag, a portrait of a smiling Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the little house on Mt. Paekdu were Kim Jong Il was born, Kim Il Sung’s first handgun, s
olidarity between China and the DPRK… It was an exceptional and visually stunning performance and well worth the supplementary 85 Euros that we had to pay for admission.
As a Canadian, I was permitted to depart Pyongyang by train to Beijing. The journey took a little under 24 hours. It took about six hours to get to the North Korean border town if Siniujin. The border crossing was straightforward but very slow, about two hours on the Korean side. The Korean customs agent, a woman in her thirties, asked to look through the photographs in my camera. She deleted a handful of the several hundred I had taken. The crossing of the bridge over the Yalu river to Dandong marked a huge contrast as we entered into China, a now much more modern society with all the trappings and bright lights of a more developed country.
Form the late 1940s until the end of the 1980s, a significant percentage of the worlds’ population lived in ostensibly communist societies that controlled the entry and exit of visitors and did not allow free movement of their own nationals outside their country. The DPRK may be the only place left on earth where the underlying ideology which sustains it, mixed with the unique aspects of “juche” (self-reliance), continues to this extent. It is certainly worth a visit and rewards the visitor with a unique experience and perspective.