North Korea

18 August 2014

Monument to the Korean Workers Party
Nine days in North Korea.
Hard to convey such an experience.

Nervously landed at the Pyongyang airport expecting to be interrogated and every item scrutinized. Instead I effortlessly strolled through immigration and customs.

As long as I follow orders ― don't venture away from the guides, don't take unflattering photos, don't leave Bibles ― then it looks like I'm probably safe for the duration.


Despite its three million people, Pyongyang is the ultimate in clean, uncluttered minimalism ― wide boulevards with few cars or bikes, wide sidewalks with few pedestrians, and streamlined buildings with few signs. No initially visible stores anywhere.

The sparse cityscape is, however, filled with enormous monuments and murals of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il as well as billboards and mosaics in the socialist realist style exhorting the people forward for the fatherland.

Juche Tower viewed from Kim Il-Sung Square
Since North Korea's per capita income is estimated at less than one-fifteen that of South Korea ($1,800 vs. $32,400), I'm shocked by the modern feel of Pyongyang, even though I know it's the showcase city and home of the DPRK elite.

The one and only time I happened to find an actual store for residents (not tourists) to shop I was told we were not allowed inside. We were however taken to several tourist places to buy books, posters, trinkets, and other souvenirs.

Our tolerable Yanggakdo Hotel is the tall building
on an island where tourists can be easily sequestered.

The infamous, still uncompleted Ryugyong Hotel was begun in 1987, but has suffered repeated delays. At 105 floors, it is easily the tallest building in Pyongyang. While its interior is apparently a nightmare, externally, the pyramid is extraordinary.

Streets in Kaesŏng (near the DMZ) were also wide, clean, and largely empty.

A tour in the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" (DPRK) requires seeing many big monuments to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

What you do not see is Marx or Lenin. "Communism" has even been removed from the constitution. The hammer and sickle (plus pen) are all that remain. Yet, the DPRK is even more totally state-run than the USSR ever was.

Curiously, the newest heir ― Kim Jong-un ― had not yet been added to the pantheons.

An Arch of Triumph ten meters higher than the one in Paris.

Local visitors pass a big statue by the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

Western, post-modern, ironic tastes see the unrestrained socialism realism of North Korean posters as gloriously cool kitsch.

My "fellow travelers" snatched them up as amusing, "over the top" souvenirs. I resisted purchases but found them fascinating nonetheless.

Morning commuters in the small city of Kaesŏng

Our group on the rainy day we were told to dress up
to see the embalmed bodies of Kim Jong Il
and Kim Il Sung at the Geumsusan Memorial Palace.

We tourists seemed invisible to people on the street, outside of a few covertly curious kids. Except for two obviously staged encounters, most people studiously ignored us the whole trip.

The only slovenly dressed people we saw were tourists. North Koreans on the street were, without exception, dressed in crisp slacks or skirts, or dresses and suits, never very casually such as jeans or shorts.

The language barrier (and our two watchful minders) prevented any real conversation with ordinary people. A Korean-speaking tourist told me his one chance for a simple chat was abruptly stopped by one of his group's "guides."

Some hotel staff and guides at monuments wore traditional Korean dresses not seen elsewhere.

Neat school children at a museum.
(The one and only time we saw a few children dressed in
less than pristine clothes we were told to delete the photos.)

Not sure about these uniforms but I took advantage of their group photo lineup.

Afternoon in the park

Women on the metro never gazing anywhere near us.

Afternoon volleyball game between two work groups.

We were told (eventually) that thousands of school kids walking to a large stadium (when school was not in session) were going to watch a soccer match. Maybe so but we were skeptical.

L: At the DMZ with a friendly North Korean soldier/guide who wanted to spar over US policy
C: At emperor Kongmin's tomb near Kaesŏng with our sweet guide between statutes of civil servants
R: With a smart, easygoing bloke from Newcastle, another one of the cool Brits in the small group.


Other Sights
Shorter tours were available but I wanted to venture outside the capital. We went south to Kaesŏng and the DMZ at Panmunjeom, to the key port of Nampho, and north to Mt. Myohyang.

Our standard tourists stops also included the acrobatics show, performances at the Children's Palace, a film production set, an art gallery, two restored Buddhist temples for tourists, a major dam, a steel plant, the main city park, the short city metro, a carnival, and other museums.

One of the better stops on the short metro line.

Conclusion of a show of remarkably talented young performers at the Mangyongdae Children's Palace.

Lined up to see the American humiliation and DPRK's triumph:
the US spy ship captured in 1968 (USS Pueblo) with the
captain and crew released months later after they confessed.

Reunification Arch on the road to the DMZ symbolizing the uniting of North and South.

When asked, our guide said seriously that the reason that the
largely empty "Reunification Highway" from Pyongyang to the DMZ
border was so huge was for symmetry with another highway.

Tourists visiting dictatorships are often so astonished to see people living seemingly normal lives in better than expected conditions ― and the absence of conspicuous coercion and visible brutality on street corners ― that they draw naive conclusions.

In this case, the regime's desperation to prove its legitimacy, its incessant and heavy-handed propaganda, its lavish spending on self-glorification, and its fear of dissent was so evident that ― even with careful monitoring by nervous guides and confinement to the most presentable parts of the DPRK ― it was hard to be too gullible.

At the same time, attempting a little nuance here, one must still marvel at the capacity of such a regime to impose so much absolute "order" on 26 million people. Despite one required deletion (of ordinary kids playing in unstarched clothes!), my photos here present what we were shown in these tourist-approved areas ― spotless cities; striking monuments; superb child musicians; and deferential, healthy looking (trim but not gaunt), well dressed citizens bowing deeply (if not freely) to the rulers.

Famous satellite photo of the
Korean peninsular at night.
Those who want more than passing travel photos regarding mysteries of the DPRK may want to consult, not just the Google Earth photos, but the outstanding North Korea Watch web site (including interesting tourism news) and some of the following books: