I just went to North Korea. Yup, I did. It still sounds weird to say it as North Korea or as they like to call it, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has redefined the term rogue. Their isolationist stance toward most of the world, their controversial nuclear weapons program, missile testing that has struck fear in the hearts of Washington, Seoul and Tokyo has made the DPRK the most mysterious and unpredictable country on Earth. Recent headlines have been about generally bad things including the recent imprisonment of two American journalists along with the aforementioned missile testing, poor relations with their Southern neighbors and most other countries as well, along with being part of the infamous “Axis of Evil”. However, a funny thing happened to me when I was there; it was one of the most fascinating places I have ever been to, good or bad, and I really liked it.
When I told people I was going to go there especially after the events of recent weeks with Bill Clinton going there to bail out the journalists, everyone thought I was nuts. I even thought I was nuts, but that wasn’t the first time so whatever! To my surprise when I got to the Koryo Tours office in Beijing, there were about 120 other people who shared my curiosity and fascinating to learn about this virtually unknown state. There were about 40 other Americans on the tour which is surprising to me because since the end of the Korean War in 1953, only about 1200 Americans period have been in the DPRK. That is pretty cool in and of itself.
Koryo Tours, who I had been keeping in contact with since February about this trip and about current events were absolutely fabulous and organized a tremendous tour and I hate tours! They had been recommended to me by several other Travelers Century Club members and a few website readers and a special thanks to one of my readers Ryan from LA who told me about this particular getaway which fit into my schedule perfectly. Koryo Tours broke the large group of 120 into six groups of about 20 per group. I was in group B and we had a really good group of people and a good mix of nationalities and personalities. The one thing in common was that everyone had to be slightly mad to be there in the first place. Nick, Simon, Hannah and Nancy ran a killer tour and place about half of the 2000 or so western and Chinese tourists per year that visit the DPRK.
The tour included a charter flight on Air Koryo, the DPRK national carrier if you will as they only fly to Beijing, Shenyang and Vladivostok once a week and locals basically cannot or do not leave the country. It also included very regimented English speaking Korean guides who were actually pretty cool and had some sense of humor when they weren’t worried about the group splitting up or running off. It also included accommodation at the massive yet empty Yanggakdo Hotel, which was really pretty good, certainly much better than I expected. It had a bowling alley, casino, six restaurants, two spas and a pitch and putt golf course. Of course other than the casino, none of these things were utilized because of the constraints on our time but the casino, which is alcohol free, was the sight of some really fun times for the group to bond and it didn’t hurt that I won a lot of money either.
After arrival at Pyongyang Airport and lengthy but efficient immigration and customs formalities (you don’t get a passport stamp by the way), we made our way to the world’s largest stadium, May Day Stadium for one of the world’s greatest events, the Arirang Mass Games.
The Mass Games are a phenomenon of gymnastic displays that feature over 100,000 soldiers, children and students holding up and flipping enormous colored cards to form enormous murals in praise of the achievements (or not) of the DPRK. It is really hard to describe how cool this really was to be at and witness. The stadium is massive and holds about 150,000 spectators along with the 100,000 performers. The dancing and gymnastics are breathtaking and the scenes resemble an opening ceremony of the Olympics. However, the high-wire acrobatics are amazing and will cause you to hold your breath on several occasions. Additionally, the simple act of coordinating over 100,000 performers is mind boggling and sitting here now back in Beijing I cannot fathom it still.
The performers were flawless, very disciplined, graceful and enthusiastic. This is even more impressive because they do these shows every night except for Sunday for months at a time in the summer. Being a foreigner in the stadium was really interesting as well and we were treated with such respect and everyone was so polite. This is both out of curiosity and because the government mandates that locals be extra nice to tourists.
A good example from one of our sightseeing stops was we ran into a couple that had just been married and were taking pictures for their wedding. The guide asked us if we wanted pictures of the couple and everyone felt weird and didn’t want to impose on their wedding day. However, the guide insisted and went over to the couple and told them we wanted pictures of them. So they dropped everything they were doing and posed for pictures for our amusement. I felt really awkward about the whole thing but I did take a picture almost out of guilt because they had been so accommodating.
After the Mass Games on Thursday night we went to a killer Korean Barbecue place called Pyongyang Number One Duck Barbecue. It is the best place in town and the food was excellent and the company was great as well as you’d expect in a group to North Korea-you have some pretty interesting folks. Of course the best part of dinner was the power outage that we experienced about half way through and the staff was so quick to respond with lights, it was very impressive. Power outages are very common in the DPRK as they have experienced energy as well as food shortages for decades.
After dinner it was finally time to head to the hotel and hit the tea room aka the bar and get to know the people in the group. The local brew tasted like crap (actually clam juice) so everyone switched to imported Heineken for the steep price of $2 and closed the bar before the casino which closed at 3am. This was fun until everyone had to wake up at 6am for the unbelievably packed tour for day 2.
In all my travels I may have never been on such a packed tour either in a group or on my own. We toured around Pyongyang for about 12 straight hours with only a short break for lunch. The guides took us everywhere and told us more information, true or not, about every imaginable monument in town.
The monuments in Pyongyang are grandiose to say the least. The most famous one is the Mansudae Grand Monument which features a gigantic bronze statue of the father of Korea Kim Il Sung. This would become a growing theme because he is the father of current leader Kim Jung Il and is still considered the head of state even though he died in 1994. He is still referred to as the Great leader (Kim Jong Il is known as the Dear leader) and is revered like no person I have ever seen.
Our group was fortunate to be in Pyongyang on a national holiday where groups of dozens of people at a time would approach the statue, stand in straight lines across, bow and then place flowers. It was done so orderly, almost as if it was a cult. It was pretty freaky and reminded me of some type of Jim Jones, David Koresh, Nazi zombie walk.
Other sights we saw throughout the day included the Tower of Juche Idea, Chollima Statue, Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Triumphal Arch (bigger than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris), Kim Il Sung Square (where the famous military parades are held) and the Pyongyang Metro which is typically Soviet style and very beautiful. What’s the most interesting thing about the metro, aside from being the second deepest in the world is it doubles as a nuclear bomb shelter in case of an attack by the “American Imperialists” as the propaganda machine calls us.
A few other ridiculous propaganda filled sights we saw was the Korean War Museum which details how the American Imperialists and South Korean puppet army attacked the DPRK and were always at fault and the Great Kim Il Sung single handedly defeated the Americans and claims his great victory second only to their liberation from the rule of Japan in 1945 after World War 2. On the other hand it had some interesting artillery and weapons displays-notice the tattered American flag in this picture.
Secondly, we went aboard the USS Pueblo which was captured in 1968 after the DPRK alleged they invaded their waters in an espionage act. The ship is still held as a trophy and the American crew was held for nearly a year until they had to formally write an apology and admit their guilt and deep sorrow for their acts. Allegedly there was a formal apology from the US Government but the North Koreans made it seem like Lyndon Johnson was lying to the world on television. To be honest, I don’t know what the real story with that is as I was unaware of the incident until the other day. The point of the whole story is they made us watch this awful propaganda video painting the Americans again as complete tyrants and Imperialists and making it look like a great victory for North Korea.
After a full day we headed to a hot pot restaurant which was again very good and then mercifully back to the hotel for another night at the hotel tea room. You are not allowed to leave the island the hotel is on-plus there is nothing to do anyway so you wouldn’t want to. The second and last night was also very fun but very subdued because of everyone being exhausted from such a packed day and a 6am wake up call to get the 8:30am charter back to Beijing where I am now.
Reflecting back on this trip, although very short, it was so packed and there was so much information to process that I cannot possibly get it all into words in this post. However, one thing I do know is that I will never forget this trip and it may be the single most unique thing I’ve ever seen and experienced. The DPRK is a different world, the people are very nice but zombie-like and the city is eerily clean with no traffic, yet they have a dedicated traffic lady who may be the most famous women in North Korea and certainly entertaining and the extent is impossible to convey through pictures but trust me it was hilarious-even the guides made jokes about the traffic ladies.
Finally, this was a learning experience. It was an experience in all ways and I still not sure how to summarize it exactly but it is something I highly recommend. However, time is running short as Americans are only allowed to go during the Mass Games, so you may have to wait a few years. As crazy as it sounds, I really enjoyed my time in the DPRK and feel like I have a strange understanding or at least awareness of how it must’ve been in the early years of Soviet or Chinese Socialism where the word of Government was law without question, there were no western influences and the education and information level of normal citizens was non-existent. Email, Internet and mobile phones do not exist in the DPRK and may not-ever. Who knows what will become of this part of the Korean Peninsula but I am sure glad to have been there and I want to again thank the awesome people at Koryo Tours for doing an amazing job and putting everything together.