Pyongyang Party! Matt's Trip To North Korea
- Created on Tuesday, 04 December 2012 21:10
- Written by Matthew Toomey
I’m back after my travels to North Korea and China! I’ve been busily catching up on movies and have seen a total of 9 in the past 4 days.
Since I’ve had so many people asking, I thought I’d use this week’s blog to talk about my trip to North Korea. It’s a country that so few people get to visit and I found it fascinating.
You can check out more photos on my Facbeook page by clicking here.
You can also listen to a podcast of myself and Jake (who I was traveling with) on ABC Radio where we discussed our holiday with Scott Spark. Just click here.
Here are a few observations from my trip…
They Are As Interested In Us As We Are In Them
I was traveling with a friend of mine (the insightful Jake Araullo) and it was just the two of us on the tour. You can do larger groups but we had arranged a private tour. It’s actually not that expensive – roughly $2,000 for the 4 nights including the flight from Beijing to Pyongyang and all accommodation and meals.
The benefit of the private tour is that we were able to spend a lot of time interacting with our two guides – one male and one female. We had a few long bus rides and we were able to build trust and ask a questions. For example, we found out that they learned their English not from a teacher but from watching Western movies and reading Western books. They have access to this as part of their university education. We spent a solid hour at one point going through our favourite films.
What surprised me was that they were just as interested in us as we were in them. North Koreans aren’t allowed to travel overseas and the guides were quick to ask about Australia. They also wanted to know how the world perceived North Korea and what drove us to visit.
On the last day, we visited the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea. Through the help of a translator, I had a Captain in the North Korean army ask about my life back home and my thoughts on the United States and Barrack Obama. It was a great conversation!
|Interacting with our tour guide and showing out interest in North Korean history. |
|With my two tour guides at Mount Myohyang. |
Standing In An Seemingly Endless Corridor
The International Friendship Exhibition is a ridiculously large museum that is housed in two buildings on Mount Myohyang (about two hours from Pyongyang). The museums house every gift that has been given to North Korea by a world leader, company representative or foreign dignitary. There’s a “leader board” in the main display room which shows that the current number of gifts exceeds 111,000.
I wasn’t able to take any photos inside but the place is huge! On entering the exhibition, I had to place a cover over my shoes and bow in front of a statue of Kim Il-Sung. We then had a welcoming guide show us a sample of the rooms. At one point, I was standing in a corridor that stretched 400m with huge wooden doors all the way along.
Part of me is impressed that they have a way of displaying all the beautiful gifts. I can’t think of another place in the world like it. On the flip side, it does seem somewhat self-promoting. It’s as if they’re engaged in a contest to say “hey look, I have more gifts than you!”
|With our special guide to show us around the International Friendship Exhibition. |
|Jake tries to open the huge front doors at the International Friendship Exhibition. |
No, I Didn’t Visit A Nuclear Site Or Labour Camp
The terms nuclear launch sites and labour camps are often thrown around when talking about North Korea. Both exist but I didn’t visit them and nor would I be allowed to.
People have made comments to me along the lines of “you realise you only visited the really nice parts of North Korea and didn’t see all the poverty and hardship”. That’s true… but isn’t that how overseas travel usually works? If I’m going to Paris, do I ask my tour guide to see the slums and prisons? Or do I ask to see the Eiffel Tower, Louvre and Moulin Rouge?
North Korea does have food and power shortages. When we were travelling at night, we passed 30+ storey apartment buildings with no lights on. Our guides were happy to admit that yes, they do have power shortages in winter and the power is shared around as a result.
|The view from our hotel room (38 stories up) and looking out towards downtown Pyongyang. |
|Hanging out in a Pyongyang bowling alley. |
Kim Il-Sung And Kim Jong-Il Are Gods
The idolisation of former leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il is incredible. The billboards on the streets don’t feature advertising. Rather, they have huge paintings of these two guys which highlight their power and achievements. That’s not to mention the photos that appear in all major buildings and the giant bronze statues that can be found across the country.
The Mansudae Grand Monument is located in central Pyongyang and features a 60m bronze statue of both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. Jake and I were required to buy flowers which we placed at the foot of the statue. We then had to stand in a line with our guides and bow. A security guard noticed that Jake was chewing gum and asked that he remove it from his mouth while paying his respects.
We were told during our trip that Kim Il-Sung wrote over 50,000 books and seemed to be responsible for every major development in North Korea. I knew this wasn’t true and it left me wondering if the North Korean people had similar doubts, even if they didn’t express them. I couldn’t quite get a sense of this from my guides.
That said, even if the North Koreas do treat their leaders as gods, is that such a bad thing? Isn’t that what all major religions are about? Raised as a Catholic, apparently God created the universe and he sent his son down 2,000 years ago who had the capability of turning water into wine. I’m not dissing religion but rather trying to highlight the fact that as humans, we like to use a gods and religion as a way of shaping our lives.
To try a different tact, the Queen Of England appears on every bank note and stamp in the United Kingdom. Her photo can be found hanging in numerous buildings. She’s not democratically elected, she lives in a palace in the middle of London and she’s a person that many people look up to. I realise she’s a lot friendlier than Kim Jong-Un (at least I think) but again, idolising a leader isn’t exactly new in our world. The difference is that North Korea does it on a much bigger scale.
|Paying my respects at the 60m bronze statues at the Mansudae Grand Monument. |
|One of the many murals that can be found on the streets of Pyongyang. |
Gasp! Shock! Horror! Some People Are Happy
When you walk the streets of Pyongyang, you’ll find that people look happy. I spent an hour in a packed bowling alley playing alongside a bunch of youngsters having fun. I drove past the newly opened ice-skating rink and roller-blading park where people were queuing up to get in. I passed through small towns where kids were playing on the street.
The world gets a very negative picture of North Korea but that’s because of their leadership. That doesn’t mean that everyone in the country walks around in dark clothing with their heads down. They’re not all depressed about the wonderful world outside of their borders that they aren’t able to enjoy.
Part of this could be the fact that they don’t realise what they’re missing out on… but still, many people seem ok with their life in North Korea. They have a strong family focus and not all of them want to travel overseas or read the latest Twilight novel. I always find it amusing that only 30% of Americans own a passport – many of them are content to stay within the realm of their home country.
While getting a tour of the Concrete Wall that separates North and South Korea, I met a 59-year-old Colonel in the North Korean army. He told me that the retirement age was 60 and he was looking forward to his upcoming retirement. His plan was to go fishing each day and spend time with his two grandchildren. I also found it interesting that women can get 1-2 years paid maternity leave if they have a baby.
|Kids playing in the street in the town of Kaesong. |
|Talking to a Colonel in the North Korean army about his life. |
I hinted at it above but one of the huge downsides of living in North Korea is their limited access to world news. They have 3 television channels and combined, they show just 30 minutes of “international news” on a weekly basis (which I’m sure is biased). I read an English version of The Pyongyang Times on the plane and it had plenty of stories showing how bad life was in South Korea.
At the hotel, we had access to a 24-hour BBC news station (which was great to watch in the evening) but this was only available in certain rooms – i.e. those rooms with international guests. Our tour guides stayed on a lower floor and only had the regular channels.
They have a mobile phone network but it only operates within the country. Tourists can’t bring in their own phones (or any other device with GPS capabilities) so I had to leave my iPhone with a friend in Beijing. It’s a strange sensation to feel so isolated.
There’s no internet either. There’s an “intranet” but I don’t think you’ll be finding too much information on it about the Western world. When Jake and I mentioned the term “Twitter”, our guides responded with a blank stare of confusion.
|Reading the latest copy of The Pyongyang Times on the plane. |
|Jake trying to use the latest laptop (which apparently was invented by Kim Jong-Il). |
There’s No Traffic!
Most people get around Pyongyang via buses and the picturesque subway system. As a result, there are very few cars on the road and it’s easy to get around. There’s certainly no peak hour rush.
There’s a catch though. The roads are in dreadful condition. It’s as if they were built 20 years ago and not a single ounce of maintenance work has been performed. They’re lumpy, they’re bumpy and there are huge potholes. Sleeping on the mini-bus was impossible as it felt like we were riding a horse!
We had some lengthy drives on our mini-bus and our skilled driver had to keep a close eye on the road the entire time. We often drove on the wrong side of the road (don’t worry, there’s no traffic) just because of the smoother surface. He well and truly earned his salary over the 5 days.
|I've been on safer roads (please note this bridge has no guard rails). |
|A look at one of the lavish subway stations. |
Alice In Wonderland
Late one afternoon, we visited the Mangyongdae School Children’s Palace in central Pyongyang. I said to Jake at the time that it felt like we had gone down the rabbit hole and were part of Alice In Wonderland.
We were escorted around the school by an over-excited 14-year-old girl and as we entered each room, the kids would drop everything and put on a musical show for us. Some of the children couldn’t have been much older than 7 or 8 but they were extremely talented. They spend hours after school each day perfecting their musical instruments. It culminated with a 45 minute show where some of the best students performed on a stage in front of all the tourists.
Rightly or wrongly, this highlights the strong work ethic that exists not only in North Korea but in other Asian countries. These kids have been identified as “gifted” and they spend hours after school each day perfecting their talents. Some might believe that these kids have no life and that they’re missing out on a fun childhood. Others might see an opposite view and be impressed that these children are showing such dedication at a young age.
It’s left me with plenty to think about. Do Australian kids have a strong enough work ethic today? Is there a risk that our country will drop a few rungs in the world order if other countries place a greater emphasis on education?
|Watching kids play the accordian at the Mangyongdae School Children’s Palace. |
|The finale of a 45-minute show at the Mangyongdae School Children’s Palace. |
North Korea Has A Film Industry
I spent an hour or so visiting a film studio just outside of Pyongyang and was surprised to learn that North Korea produces about 30 films a year. That makes it similar to Australia. No Western movies screen in the country but there's enough home-grown product to play in movie theatres (every major town has one) and be shown on television.
As filmmakers can’t travel overseas, the studio had a mix of locations including China, South Korea and Europe. I strolled around the set for a while and enjoyed a cool coffee shop that was hidden away in one of the buildings.
I didn’t get a chance to see any movies while in North Korea (not that it would have helped given they have no English subtitles) but I’d like to be able to track one down and cast my critical eye over it.
|A beautiful theatre in Pyongyang that is home to operas and theatrical productions. |
|Standing on the Chinese set at the Pyongyang Film Studio. |
A few other quick things that I have to throw in…
Mount Myonyang was beautiful and it was fun to trek through the snow covered mountains. It’s only the second time in my life that I’ve experienced snow.
There are food shortages in North Korea but as international guests, we were well fed. I enjoyed trying some of their local dishes and tasting Kimchi.
It was great to visit the site where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953. It has inspired me to read more about the Korean War and the involvement of other nations.
I got to fly on Air Koryo – the world’s only one star airline. Based on the taste of the hamburger on the return flight, I can now see why.
|A snow fight at Mount Myohyang. |
|We were well fed. There's no doubt about that. |
|Jake checking out the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North from South. |
|We're wedding crashers! |
|Our room at the Yanggakdo Hotel. |
|This is why Air Koryo is the world's only one-star airline. |
I’ll finish up by recommending North Korea as a great place to visit. If you’re sick of the same old, same old holiday destinations, I can’t think of a better choice!