A journey into the Hermit kingdom of North Korea
Visits to North Korea, which usually include a visit to the demilitarized border zone, are only possible as part of an organised tour. (Keren Su/LPI)
As we hurled balls down the bowling alley lanes and sipped draught beer from the onsite microbrewery, it felt like we could be anywhere in the world. Yet just 20m away in the foyer, North Korean locals gathered around a television set, watching the new supreme leader Kim Jong-un address a mass children’s rally.
The live images of 20,000 school kids crammed into a sports stadium, collectively starstruck in the presence of the great leader, were incredible. It was Beatles-mania, North Korea–style. In the context of where we were, it seemed perfectly normal to watch goose-stepping child soldiers march down the running track. The only weird thing here was us foreigners, 10-pin bowling in the capital of the Hermit kingdom.
For tourists, North Korea -- or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as it is known locally -- is very much a voyeuristic destination. Visiting is not just about discovering what makes the country tick; it is about garnering a sense of what is truth, what is spin and comparing what is reported in the Western media to how life actually appears on the ground. But this is not a country where you can simply stroll in for a casual look. Visits are only possible as part of an organised tour, with fixed itineraries and local guides to escort you everywhere outside your hotel.
While for most the idea of holidaying in the DRPK is one that borders on madness, it offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a rare glimpse into one of the most isolated, enigmatic and feared countries on earth. And while there are not too many feel-good stories coming out of the country, for most of the few thousand visitors who do make it into North Korea each year, it is one of the safest and most interesting, albeit bizarre, travel experiences around.
Our group of 15 travelled on a five-night tour with Koryo Tours, a well-regarded company run by UK filmmaker Nick Bronner, who has made several documentaries on the DPRK. We arrived in style via North Korea’s national airline, Air Koryo, onboard a 1970s model Soviet plane, with wallpaper-like decor and patriotic music playing in the background to set the mood. The selection of reading material included the Pyongyang Times, which unsurprisingly featured Kim Jong-un on the front page alongside articles that were unapologetic in their anti-American and -Japanese stance; in a glossy magazine centrespread highlighted a military parade showcasing nuclear missiles. We had not even taken off, and already the trip was living up to my lofty expectations.
After handing over our passports and mobile phones to our North Korean guides upon arrival, it was apparent that this was not going to be an ordinary holiday. As the tour bus drove to our hotel, we eagerly took in our first glimpses of the “forbidden land”. Pyongyang, the capital of the DPRK, has all the classic symbols of a workers’ paradise. There are rousing propaganda murals of Socialist realism art, shrines to the supreme leaders, grand Stalinist-style war monuments, austere high rises and an abundance of DPRK and communist flags. And while the city is unlikely to receive any nominations as the world’s prettiest, there are some attractive pockets, particularly along the scenic Taedong River.
Driving past the monotonous rows of concrete buildings, it took a while to realise the absence of shops or restaurants. Our guide explained that businesses in North Korea are discretely signed, and a blue symbol above the door indicates what items they stock. Sure enough, I soon spotted a store with a small blue shoe symbol on an otherwise nondescript building. Further along, I noticed a blue chicken and egg illustration. Even the showroom for North Korean’s car manufacturer, Pyeonghwa Motors, was hidden in a building with mirrored windows. The only shop our tour group was allowed to enter was a Western-style department store full of Chinese goods and very few shoppers.
Sightseeing in North Korea is synonymous with busy days spent visiting grandiose Soviet-style monuments and colossal statues. Often spectacular, the subject matter never veers far from commemorating war “victories”, the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea or the supreme leaders, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il.