A rare glimpse inside the world’s most mysterious country, shown by an amateur American photojournalist with unprecedented access as a tourist.
NEW: If you have not yet seen the North Korea Uncloaked movie, you gotta see it here.
NEW: Guest post at major travel site, MyDestination.com!
Could a silent revolution ever occur in the DPRK?
A pretty big gallery of photos from the country.
An example of how North Korean kids are fed propaganda.
A guide for anyone who wants to go to North Korea
An exclusive video of Americans interacting with North Koreans at the Pyongyang subway.
A rant about preconceived notions of North Korea that I’ve dealt with since returning.
Check out getting drunk and shooting at stuff in North Korea.
Be sure to see North Korea Uncloaked to read my written editorial about visiting North Korea as an American.
Check out the creepy Orwellian loudspeakers in Pyongyang.
Check out this gallery of North Korean school-children.
A visit to the Pyongyang Friendship Fair
Check out my guest post, 7 North Korea Myths, at the North Korea Blog!
In addition to the North Korea blog, you can see my friend’s phenomenal photo blog, An American in North Korea.
Like my writing? For the last couple of months I’ve worked as a travel journalist in Thailand, with only one minor drawback of massively breaking my leg. Despite my injury, I’ve written articles about exploring mysterious monasteries to dealing with Thai traffic, check out my list of entertaining tidbits about the kingdom of Siam.
Known as the hermit kingdom, or the Kim dynasty, North Korea has been the center of media attention among Americans ever since President Bush, in 2002, declared the country part of an “Axis of Evil” alongside Iran, and Iraq. Images of Soviet-era goose-stepping soldiers, rumors of concentration camps slaughtering thousands, and a zero-tolerance policy against foreigners entering—or citizens escaping—has made the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea into the world’s most common enemy.
North Korea sparks everything from condemnation, fear, to satire—but rarely celebration, with the exception of a select few dwindling allies. From Moammar Gadhaffi to Saddam Hussein, fellow dictators relished Kim Jong-il’s fascist governance with lavish gifts and mutual scorn of common enemies in the West. However recent years have been unkind to the dictatorial club. The Arab Spring saw the demise of Gaddhafi, the American war ended the reign of Hussein, and Kim Jong-il succumbed to natural causes, leaving his ill-prepared son as heir to the dynasty. North Korea’s allies dwindle.
The thought occurred to me ever since Bush’s infamous speech that perhaps the so-called axis powers are more misunderstood than truly evil. While I have no sympathy for crimes against humanity, all three countries were the results of idealistic revolutions. Saddam sought to control his country through secular strong-arming, the Iranians came to power as a forceful theology in opposition to the perceived cultural decadence of their former rulers, and North Korea was a country rebuilt after almost total obliteration by Americans and allied forces in the 1950s. Is it any surprise they hold a grudge? And who’s to say the motivations behind any of these countries were ever actually evil? What corrupted them?
My curiosity about the country never faded, and for years I wondered if it would be possible to someday answer these questions by visiting the forbidden land myself. The DPRK considers South Koreans, the Japanese, and Americans as their chief enemies, and so I figured my chances of entering the country were slim. Documentaries like The Vice Guide to North Korea (produced by independent media giants Vice.com) painted a picture that the country is extremely unkind to Westerners entering, but may allow select Europeans or Asians to experience limited, government-controlled tours.
My impression by these types of documentaries was that once you do achieve access to the DPRK, you are greeted by a dead shell of a kingdom. The city of Pyongyang would be outfitted with jaw-dropping monuments, while the citizens suffer and starve beneath the granite pillars. A city devoid of traffic, with blue-uniformed cops forced to direct non-existent cars in a land that never achieved it’s potential.
Meanwhile, the forbidden and undiscovered countryside must be a realm of forced slave-labor, as the abused working class desperately try to appease the ruling-class’s desire to strengthen their war machine and their insatiable hunger for luxury made goods, expensive cars, and the creation of propaganda films in the Pyongyang film studio.
And, to make matters worse, it was my impression that the DPRK had full mind-control over the entire population. A North Korean caught looking a European tourist in the eye would be killed, with three generations of their family also sent to the gulag. As a result, the citizens know nothing about the world beyond Korea. Stockholm’s syndrome is in full effect, and they would die to defend their abusive rulers.
For years, my imagination fueled by Western media created this specific image of the forbidden nation; of brown-coated soldiers oppressing people on the streets, and reverence toward the Kim family blocking all reason and desire for resistance. I believed it was a country devoid of happiness or culture, and in its place a gray wasteland of death, misery, and military oppression.
In April 2012, I stood at an aisle in a small grocery store, perusing a selection of beer. To my left, a woman was buying a huge frozen chicken, sticking it in her shopping cart. I found a particular bottle of melon-flavored liquor, and brought it to the cash register. As I exited the sliding glass door and returned to the streets, I wondered about the nation in my imagination. It seemed like a very unpleasant place, and I certainly wouldn’t want to end up there. It was much safer in the city where I was currently, the city of Pyongyang.
Fear, Death, Destruction, No Foreigners, No Communicating With Locals, Complete Government Control, Government Handlers Watching You, Scripted Situations, A Stalinist Nightmare of the Old World
…These are the thoughts that summarize many of my prior ideas about the DPRK, as determined by documentaries and news reports. In April 2012, I had the opportunity to venture into the so-called hermit kingdom to investigate the infamy, and my own preconceived notions. I entered with a select group of mostly Americans and New Zealanders, including famed North Korean photographer Joe Ferris. This opportunity is possible not only because my group had special relations with the tour company but also because the DPRK has recently allowed a greater number of tourists across their restricted border, including Americans and Japanese.
Even after my briefings, and listening to stories from former travelers into the DPRK, I still believed the country was pretty dangerous. These fears culminated as I landed at the Pyongyang airport terminal, which was more like a military warehouse than an airport. The cold stares of the North Korean guards greeted me at the customs center, and I wondered what I was doing there, and if I had truly lost my mind.
Hustled into a tour bus, we took a long and very bumpy road into the outskirts of the capitol city. The road was filled with potholes that jarred me with every knock. The sun crested as a foreboding red orb across a hazy horizon, and the night became uncomfortably dark and cold. As I stared out the window, I could see the shapes of people walking across the road without a shred of light to guide them. The only traffic on the road was the occasional military vehicle, including pickup trucks packed with North Korean soldiers jammed like sardines.
So far, pretty terrifying.
Without a clue where we were going, the bus continued for another two hours into the blackest night. Finally, a North Korean guard opened a gate into a remote town alongside what I presumed was a large mountain. I was hustled out of the bus with my fellow travelers. My anticipation was growing as we neared a large, circular building that loomed ahead of us.
The double-doors were pulled open as we were taken into a large reception hall with a giant painting of Kim il-Sung propaganda looming over our heads. We were taken through another set of doors into the North Korean banquet hall—and I was truly terrified by what I saw next.
Old retired white tourists.
There were two whole tables of them. Apparently, the portal sucked me from the world of terror—North Korea—and into one of the many retirement homes around my community back in Tucson, Arizona. They were all joking about what I assumed to be golf, reruns of Matlock, and the effectiveness of antacid tablets.
This was when I realized North Korea was a very weird place, and for entirely different reasons than I imagined.
Pyongyang’s Both Fact and Fiction, A Total Contradiction
9 AM in Kim il-Sung square: loudspeakers boom across the city, directing citizens to behave and serve their leaders. In the distance, we hear marching. Hundreds—thousands—of soldiers are stepping in uniform precision under the aggressive watch of giant stone monuments. The symphony of boot-steps is so loud I can hear them from a kilometer away. Even Orwell couldn’t imagine what I was experiencing.
Meanwhile, our government minders watch happily as we play Frisbee with about four-dozen bored North Korean teenagers on the street. Later that night, we are taken to the Pyongyang microbrewery, and the Pyongyang pizzeria, where altogether I enjoy some of the best beer and pizza I’ve had in years.
North Korea’s virtues are often forgotten amidst the contrast of the undeniable dystopian presence, and I realize this is what writers, romantics, and the news media is most attracted to—the sheer audacity that such a place could exist in the modern age. The media is dominated by 24-hour news cycles that demand storylines of good versus evil, while even independent media sources demand web traffic by promoting concepts that draw viral attention—and nothing builds excitement greater than the idea that the Star Wars evil Sith empire actually exists; and it’s on a peninsula near Southeast China.
But I wonder if any of these people—CNN reporters, exclusive photo-grabbers on the Korean border with 400mm lenses—and independent media sites like Vice, have actually tried to understand the country from an objective angle. It’s like all they see are the faux frightening displays of Pyongyang military showmanship, and this paints their entire picture of the country.
North Korea is essentially a 600lb gorilla that is actually a 40lb monkey operating a 600lb defective gorilla suit. They are masters of showmanship and theatrics, and they are masters of provoking the West by appearing bigger and scarier than I believe they really are. Despite a 7-figure military and a massive amount of Soviet-era weapons, a country with no allies, poorly fed soldiers and outdated equipment is probably not a true threat to a sophisticated nation.
In reality, Pyongyang is a fairly normal city, and when you look past the veneer of Orwellian evil, you’ll find there’s nothing to be afraid of. Although cars may be scarce beyond the gates of the city, inside Pyongyang there is plenty of traffic with commuters going to work via government-operated cars, as well as a brand-new array of restaurants, pubs, hotels, and plenty of dingy apartments that North Koreans call home.
There is also an abundance of arts, activities, schools, and truly impressive architecture—not to mention traditional and ancient Korean landmarks, as well as theaters, the Pyongyang International Film Festival, and even a Christian church in the middle of town—that’s right, the DPRK has religious freedom (probably no religious rights, mind you—but you’re free to think what you want as long as you remain politically reliable).
Nothing on the Surface to Hide
All of the reports of North Korea that I read indicated that the country is extremely secretive to outsiders. Everything is prearranged, and smoke and mirrors are liberally used to hide atrocities happening in the room next to you.
Maybe it was just that our access was exceptional, but it was my impression that the country was ready to present itself warts and all. Staged scenarios or fake happiness didn’t really occur. Now, certainly events were planned in advance. For instance, our tour of a Pyongyang primary school happened conveniently during piano and singing rehearsals, calligraphy training and a sports match. However, at no point did it seem such activities only occur with tourists present.
After the tour left one area of the school, I snuck back down a previous hall that we had already seen to investigate whether the tour was real, or just an elaborate show. The school kids hadn’t stopped practice simply because we left, and it would seem this was a legitimate curriculum, and that’s where I snapped one of my favorite pictures of a professor mentoring a young girl practicing her calligraphic skills.
The real proof, however, that the country no longer seems that concerned with hiding it’s flaws is the fact that our sleek tour bus was given unprecedented access across the North Korean countryside, a region I previously thought was inaccessible and forbidden.
Indeed, even CNN propagates this myth, as recently they released a sensationalized report that their guides accidently got them lost in the back-country of the DPRK, where they shot “exclusive, never before seen” images of the state. Our humble tour had several times greater access than CNN did during their accidental romp. I saw some of the worst parts of the country. And the reason we were allowed such access is specifically because we were not technically media journalists—I can’t say I blame the ‘hermit’ kingdom for keeping sensationalist CNN and Fox reporters away from the real Korea.
The only thing the guides ask is to be mindful of photo taking. No pictures of government facilities lest U.S. spies are in the group (which actually does happen), and no photos of abject poverty so that we don’t go back and highlight only the worst parts of North Korea, and this is primarily so that more people visit the country and boost the DPRK with tourist dollars.
On the long roads beyond Pyongyang, poverty was rampant, and there were no rules against photographing the scenery that may also happen to include images of the real Korea, including a few of the more grim scenes. Everybody appeared to be in a continual state of migration, traveling miles between villages, picking coal or scraps to sell from the dirt, or bits of rice to eat. Far from outright suppressing the people, the North Korean soldiers were forced to also join the scavenging, no better off than the rest of the impoverished masses as they rely on one another to find food, and survive their harsh conditions.
Beyond the most poverty stricken areas, the deep countryside of North Korea often contains surprisingly self-sufficient villages. Traditional Korean houses appear straight out of the 1800s, with ox-cart farmers cultivating their crops day and night. Highly simplistic lives are not necessarily poor lives, and even the most remote villages still contain schools, so that North Korea maintains staggeringly high literacy rates.
Even in the most remote areas, images of the regime’s strength are still apparent, as most towns contain Towers of Immortality, large stone structures that represent the immortality of Kim il-Sung and the Juche philosophy. How badly the military oppresses the villagers—I have no idea. But, in my observation I saw what appeared to be a level of peaceful stability. In a country where breaking rules is a death sentence, it’s far easier to play the game—worship Kim il-Sung, and mind your own business farming crops and taking care of your family.
The North Korean People
At no point during our trip did it seem that we were forbidden to interact with locals, or vice versa. Although most of us spoke little or no Korean, we still made it a point to interact with as many locals as we could. The guys who put together these exclusive access trips into the DPRK branded themselves as the “Ambassadors of Fun”, with the primary motivation to spread happiness by playing games and having a good time with the often bored locals. Aside from good karma, this effort also helps implant the idea that Westerners—Americans in particular—are not horned devils. This mission was extremely successful, and everyone—including our government guides—believed our interaction with North Koreans was the most meaningful part of the trip. They went out of their way to help facilitate it.
I assume the reason North Koreans are off-access to some people is because groups likely enter the DPRK with a mission to evangelize about capitalism and how terrible the Kim dynasty is. When this happens, the guides will clamp down on your freedoms in the country. When you, or too many people in your group are jerks, you’ll find the country is suddenly off limits. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish by not being a dick.
I imagine that dickish behavior was the pox on the crew at Vice.com. One could argue their Vice Guide to North Korea was only sensational because it was released years ago, when perhaps the country was much weirder and less tourist friendly than it is today. However, very recently the same group released a very entertaining investigation into the Siberian countryside, where they attempted to interact with North Koreans at a Russian labor camp in order to experience the ‘rare opportunity’ to directly interview North Koreans. I now consider this sensational report to be utterly foolish.
For our group, interacting with locals was as easy as deciding to interact with them. When we played Frisbee with locals at a dockside in the eastern city of Wonsan, at any point (if I spoke Korean) I could have isolated somebody and started asking probing questions about the DPRK. If I had done so, their answers would be fairly straightforward: they work, they follow rules, take care of their families, and they want to see their children aspire to better jobs in Pyongyang or Hamhung by making good grades. I wouldn’t have to travel into Siberia to get this information.
Furthermore, it’s true that most North Koreans have little—if any—knowledge of the world beyond their borders, but it’s unlikely a foreigner is going to corrupt their entire civilization through tales of iPhones and Starbucks. For North Koreans, they have no conception of Western life so it’s like describing red to a colorblind person.
The isolation of the Koreans also lends to their personality characteristics. North Korea beyond Pyongyang is essentially stepping into the world as it was during the inception of the country in 1945, while some of their technology and lifestyles appear to date even further back, to at least the 1800s. Westerners thus inspire a level of awe, with our charismatic smiles and high-tech gadgetry. As a result, North Koreans were extremely curious and friendly.
North Korean women are likely trained from an early age to be charming, as even the North Korean female soldiers—armed to the teeth and who can probably kill you in three moves—are extremely pleasant to be around. In Wonsan, a North Korean female soldier ran through the crowd to grab my arm and pose for a picture. This type of behavior is not uncommon, and it even seems to be encouraged.
Although North Korean women love to flirt—make no mistake you’re not getting lucky if you travel to the DPRK. This is still the ‘hermit kingdom’ and interacting with locals outside of Frisbee and street partying is forbidden—and any kind of sexual interest would be an affront to their homogenized realm. Nonetheless, most men would probably love their friendly, innocently flirtatious nature. Far from the stone cold perception most Westerners have of the country.
Some of the most fun you can have in the DPRK is with the North Korean children. They are typically awe-struck by the sight of tall non-Korean people, and they will swarm around you. In a small farming town, a group of kindergarten age kids stared at us with wide-eyes from their recess. Bravely, they gathered around their fence, and then broke the rules by unlatching it and pouring into the street. This is where we played with them and had a huge amount of fun before their teacher rounded them back up. The kids were never in trouble for running out of their school to play with Americans, and their teacher quickly resumed their lesson, which she continued out in the schoolyard in order to give us the opportunity to watch and take photos.
The Tourist Infrastructure
Often the restaurants and hotels we stayed at beyond Pyongyang were rather lonely places, desperate for business, but fully suited for a larger amount of tourists—aside from occasional reliability problems related to electricity and running water. Nonetheless most locations, including a rather nice beach resort that we were taken to on the west coast, are very well put together and are dying for more visitors.
North Korean beaches are quite nice.
Most of North Korea’s GDP is focused on lavish parades (Arirang), the ridiculous military, and pointless monuments. What little money the country scrapes together to actually feed its people is mostly dependent on exports to China, free goods created in their gulag prison / death camps, and an underground economy ripe with selling illicit substances to other countries.
So, it’s no surprise North Korea really wants to expand their tourist abilities. Sometimes I wondered if the sheer amount of Kim il-Sung-mania that we were exposed to during every tour (this is a chair Kim il-Sung sat on… this was Kim il-Sung’s ashtray, etc) was not a conscious effort to appeal to the fascination tourists that are equal parts intrigued and grossed out by the state run Kim-family religion. I certainly had no interest in the Kim-nonsense, but I imagine many travelers to the DPRK are specifically interested in experiencing the North Korean cult for themselves. Without the Kim-nonsense, the incentive behind many adventure tourists would simply vanish.
While it’s possible our hotel rooms were bugged, as the visitors at the Vice Guide suspected, I lean toward “no”. I don’t think North Korea has the budget to bug, and listen on, every single hotel room. If it did occur, it was likely at the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang, a lavish and comfortable resort complete with a casino and massive golf course, as well as a means of access to the Pyongyang International Film Festival. The hotel may have the budget for clandestine operations, but again—I seriously doubt it—and if they did, the surveillance crew is probably half-asleep and could care less about every silly thing the guests say or do.
Overall, the tourist industry seems ready to expand, and I predict an increase of interest and travel to the DPRK in coming years, as the adventure tourism appeal of the state sparks an interest among people who are tired of generic experiences in the usual, boring destinations like Hawaii or the Bahamas. The DPRK appeals to our desire to explore the dark-side, while still remaining comfortable enough to accommodate old Swiss retirees, as we encountered on our first night in the state.
The Two North Koreas
It became evident as we continued to explore the countryside, before eventually returning to Pyongyang, that there is a stark difference between the North Koreans of the greater expanse, versus the Koreans of Pyongyang—and perhaps Hamhung as well. These cities are distinctively better off and almost even ‘cosmopolitan’ compared to life across the rest of the state.
Access to a big city, especially Pyongyang, is strictly controlled by the People’s Committee. They decide what North Koreans are loyal enough and with the correct political ties to be allowed access to a city like Pyongyang. The city contains 3 million people out of a country of 22 million, and so residence is not impossible—it’s just limited to a significant minority of the population.
Although I noticed many residents living in dilapidated Soviet-era condominiums that are probably made from 50% asbestos, living in Pyongyang still seems to ensure some standard of living. Employment is gainful, and as the mecca of the country, it’s not impossible to end up with a lofty position working for the government, in a hospital, or one of the city’s ‘prestigious’ schools. The residents of Pyongyang seem to enjoy various luxuries we take for granted, including the cinema, street vendors, museums and even cell phones—a new implementation by an Egyptian telecommunications company that recently outfitted the country with mobile access.
For this reason, I felt Pyongyang was much more relatable to outsiders than the regions beyond. The DPRK’s primary motivation is political reliability among the people, and the citizens of Pyongyang are smart enough to play by the rules. In return for their party loyalty, big city residents seem to have increasing access to technology. Our group participated with a wedding after-ceremony in Hamhung, where we encountered wedding videographers and photographers with decent-looking modern camera equipment. I also noticed Pyongyang youth utilizing their new cell-phone technology without hesitation; snapping photos, and sending text messages. Most of this stuff seemed absent in the countryside, or smaller cities like Wonsan.
The contrast between the premier cities and the countryside seems to defy the whole concept behind communism, and purported citizen equality. It would seem North Korea is more of a classist structure, with more in common with Italian or German fascism. The state controls everything unilaterally, and rewards the most loyal with privileges that are purposefully obstructed from the rest of the citizens.
The North Korean Dark Side
Despite the Orwellian loudspeakers, the haunting sound of boot-steps and the obsessive and creepy Kim-religion—most would walk away from the DPRK with a generally positive feeling about the place. Simple lives in the countryside, tons of arts and entertainment in the capitol, and very friendly locals. While the food is sometimes trying, certain places like the duck barbecue restaurant, and the Pyongyang pizzeria, are top notch. This may leave the impression that North Korea is a misunderstood and charming culture, complete with everything to make a tourist happy.
The truth appears to be that the rumors of evil in the country, and the secrets that are hidden from us, apply to North Koreans as much as it applies to foreigners. I never saw crime, or citizens misbehaving in any way. The military seemed more interested in helping people plow farms and direct street traffic. So where is all the evil?
The evil is hidden, and it exists in the form of rumors. It occurs when an entire neighborhood family disappears because one of the people in the family spoke ill of the government in public. It occurs in the background, creating an element of fear that is unnoticeable by the naked eye, and never spoken of.
According to Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/world-report-2012/world-report-2012-north-korea), the death penalty is extended to even minor crimes, and the forced labor camps contain hundreds of thousands of prisoners. The details of the conditions inside these camps were exposed by survivors like Shin Dong-hyuk, whose experience was detailed in the book Escape from Camp 14, where it’s detailed how babies born inside of the prison are punished for their ill-fate, and forced to grow up as slaves in a camp that prioritizes the death of it’s prisoners above the labor they produce.
This creates one of the world’s greatest human rights disasters. The biggest tragedy is that North Korea has no logical reason to stay in the dark-side. They could reform their prison system, spread freedom, and lessen their control by fear, and it would not harm the country. In fact, it would strengthen it.
During Kim Jung-Un’s April 15th 2012 address to his country, he vowed to finally end poverty and improve the conditions of his country. Yet, one week later, North Korea resumed their brash hyperbole against South Korea, vowing to reduce Seoul to ashes. As much as we would like to see North Korea become a progressive, democratized country, it would seem the system of control established by countless secret faces—military generals and politicians—is too rigid for even a fresh-faced new leader to change.
The North Korean people are good-natured and friendly, and even the actual military that carries out the purported crimes in the gulag system are oddly pleasant to be around, even as an American. Pyongyang, and the rest of the country, is vastly different from Western sensationalism, with government control over tourists far less abrasive than once believed. Although tourism is strict, with the requirement to have government minders present at all times, it does not take away from the experience of the country—and the government tour guides themselves are charming people that you quickly grow personal friendships with.
It seems the more educated North Koreans are also aware of what’s going on in their country. It’s unspoken, but it manifests in their extreme curiosity about the West, and occasional comments by Pyongyang guides that long for free access to the outside world. It would be nice to believe that the country is going to experience reform, but the avenue to reform is wrought with uncertainty. How does a country like this change itself short of wide-scale, violent rebellion? Perhaps the only solution is a gradual implementation of newer freedoms, and a slow introduction to greater amounts of capitalism, much like China accomplished through the leadership of Deng Xiaoping after the succession of Chairman Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four.
The key to understanding North Korea is to look beyond their media propaganda, much as we should also filter our own propaganda that shapes our opinion about the state squarely into the negative. Beyond politics, and mutual news-sensationalism, the DPRK is a country rich in history and full of friendly faces. North Korea is not a bad place to visit, and for adventure-minded people who desire a cultural perspective like none other, it’s an ideal destination.
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