North Korea through a traveller's eyes
You realise this is just a normal country with normal people like you or me. Normal as it is, it is also a unique anthropological and sociological experience with some of the most beautiful sceneries you will ever see
Ever feel nostalgic about pre-liberalisation India? Those beautiful empty streets of Lutyens’ Delhi, when traffic jams were unknown and the air was fresh, clean and crisp? When almost every school play we did was about Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, or Indira Gandhi and every school trip had to go to their cremation zone? Where everything was names after the Nehru-Gandhis? When we had import substitution for everything — Campa Cola and Thumbs Up and Nirulas to satisfy our “foreign food” cravings? Where every news bulletin had the obligatory first 20 minutes dedicated to what Rajiv Gandhi had done? When TV “entertainment” comprised what crops farmers should show and some national choir sang patriotic songs between shows? Where everybody knew everybody else, because all our parents worked for the Government? Well, the good news is you don’t need to fret — you can relive the whole experience and go on vacation to North Korea — except the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is pre-liberalisation India on steroids minus some freedoms.
Remember when white people were something of a novelty in Delhi and frequently your white friends would have smartphone cameras stuck in their faces and photographs taken without permission by anonymous creeps? Well guess what — when you cross the Yalu from the Chinese city of Dandong over into North Korea, you start behaving like a pre-liberalisation creep, armed with a smartphone. So entranced by the fact that we are allowed to take pictures of whatever we like — and the uniqueness that is North Korea — you simply start taking pictures of everyone and everything that passes you by.
Yup they’re all inanimate objects in a museum — just stick you cameras in their faces and click away — to the considerable amusement and irritation of our North Korean hosts. Yells a soldier to me: “Sir please ask permission before you click; you have to respect their privacy.” But about two days into your trip, you realise this is just a normal country with normal people like you or me. Normal as it is, it is also a unique anthropological and sociological experience and some of the most beautiful sceneries you will see.
To get the most of the countryside and flights on the DPRK’s national airline — the lowest rated airline in the world (Skytrax one star rating) — we chose a train into Pyongyang from Beijing and fly back to Beijing. The train leaves in late afternoon from Beijing station landing up early next morning at the affluent border town of Dandong, made rich mostly from smuggling sanctioned goods into North Korea. Sipping our last Starbucks for the next seven days, you look over the river to the absolutely agricultural other bank of the Yalu contrasted with the gleaming skyscrapers on your side. In the shadow of those skyscrapers is an army or trucks, loads carefully hidden under tarpaulin, ready to cross the border at night ferrying goods into the DPRK, presumably sanctions busting.
Crossing the Yalu is quite the experience — getting past chaotic border controls and a horrid train crowd management system in China, to the serene efficiency of the border control process in the DPRK, all within the space of the 10 minutes it requires to cross over. The DPRK customs officer is exceptionally affable — they all are. You’re required to put all electronics on the train table; he just glances at them, doesn’t bother to check and moves on to random inspections of bags. One co-traveller has brought several South Korean propaganda posters and political literature. The customs officer laughs, shows it to a colleague who also laughs, and confiscates it. Apparently previous travellers have been caught with homemade porn (illegal in the DPRK) — and their punishment was the humiliation of customs office calling all his male and female colleagues over to have a look, laugh loudly and show the screen around the train compartment — humiliation undoubtedly — but from their point of view a jovial ice-breaker.
And then you get to North Korea. Contrary to what the NYT, Washington Post, CNN, and Economist tell you, this is no monotone country. The people vary from place to place as does the diet. Is this a “police state”? Yes, but remember here everyone has served in the Army and have relatives still in the Army, so as I discovered later in the trip, these guys are fully integrated into society and you should feel free to approach them for help if you need. There are no visible food shortages, you’ll see enough grocery stores across the length and breadth of the country — selling the exact same things, though what is available is quite repetitive and monotonous. While food is an essential part of any travel, you will be disappointed here. Think of this mostly as bad South Korean food; there is no beef (cows being used in farms for tilling and milk are considered far too useful to eat). Pork, on the other hand, is commonly available and frankly tastes quite foul. The local Coke and Fanta substitutes are quite bad, though they do have a strawberry soda and pear cider that are quite excellent, as are the various brands of soju.
North Koreans clearly don’t believe in lying because at breakfast you don’t get apple juice or orange juice, you get the brutally honest carbonated water with sugar and flavour. However, the best thing to eat here are the cheap cabbage stuffed steamed baos available in all roadside shops and it’s a good idea to stock up on these. Surprisingly vegetarians won’t have a problem here unlike in South Korea, and one standout — the cold noodle soup — beats any in the South.
Driving around Pyongyang you realise that the deserted road pictures you see are misleading — invariably of suburbs, the centre of town being quite bustling, with office workers and school children and kids everywhere. Electricity shortages — not unlike Calcutta and our most of 70s and 80s spent with massive load-shedding — make people put up solar collectors with every house having some sticking out of their balconies. What is amazing about Pyongyang’s skyscrapers — some up to 70 storeys tall — is that are all residential, occupied by common folk. These are given out for perceived utility to the system — the scientist’s street being the poshest — the laws of economics clearly absent.
Not surprisingly, the first myth you’ll see busted is that of a dystopian society. People find fun and joy wherever they can. Paper readership and TV viewership didn’t seem very high, given that North Korean TV runs a loop of insipid propaganda programming and the top news of the day is “World astonished at revolutionary increase in mushroom yield due to scientific farming techniques”. So what do people do? Well, karaoke with local versions of popular songs by Abba are quite popular in addition to local songs. Given my utter disdain for karaoke, I avoided it completely.
In the evenings across the country, you’ll see that entertainment consists of going out and playing — as in not playing on the Xbox but playing sports and mostly swimming in the public pools and sports facilities. You’ll quite possibly go to children’s palaces — where all the DPRK kids have to go to pick up some musical instrument, sports, and hobbies. In cities, the infrastructure for this is quite superior; in the villages, they make do with what they have. I quite enjoyed the performance of these kids — a multi-talent show involving singing dancing and acrobatics; my travel companion, who grew up in the USSR, did not as it reminded her of her forced violin classes which she absolutely detested. The pièce de résistance was kids doing a martial dance, celebrating what appeared to be nuclear tipped missiles hitting Washington DC. The North Korean audience sat through stone-faced, us tourists found it hilarious and clapped and laughed out loud.
The Pyongyang symphony orchestra, on the other hand, is absolutely superb and can compete with some of the best in Europe. Unlike the corny pop song melodies, the North Korean new-classical music repertoire is excellent. Art galleries here are hit or miss. The normal paintings and sculptures are quite bad, though the Celadon manufacture is exceptionally fine and the propaganda art superb — similar to but very different from the Soviet originators.
The best place to buy them is the DMZ at Panmunjom village, where you get treated to the other side of the story. This is one where the DPRK was responding to an accretion of events — a crescendo or provocations, shelling and attacks from the US forces in the South. If you find these incredulous, I’d suggest you keep your incredulity to yourself — you’re not here on a mission of truth; you’re here to observe and enjoy yourself. The officer who took us around and all the military folks we spoke to were both knowledgeable and affable and quite happy to be photographed.
In fact, everyone in North Korea we encountered, including strangers on the street, was quite happy to talk to us. The only place we experienced fear was in Sariwon where the local vendors would shut their windows and hide under their desks when they saw us approach — yet in the same village, the locals were only too keen to show us their beautiful lotus pond, and have us dress in ancient costumes for taking pictures and to sell us the local wine.
In the north near the Chinese border, people are most boisterous — soldiers and normal folk alike heckling you for pictures. That’s the other thing — smartphones seem quite common across the country with people on the Pyongyang metro (whose stations are works of art similar to the Moscow metro) staring into their phones playing games, reading, or listening to music. Two episodes particularly stand out. A fellow traveller got a South Korean mobile signal at the DMZ and called her kids. Obviously emotional after being away from them for days, she was sobbing. Immediately soldiers wanted to know why she was sobbing and if something was wrong; when she told them, they empathised and hugged her. While undoubtedly this is a fierce Army that will carry out unsavoury orders, understand that these are also human beings with human emotions, not automatons.
The second episode involved me not being able to get up to Mount Paektu, abandoning the climb due to my not inconsiderable weight, halfway through both the funicular up and the cable car down to the crater lake were out of commission. Remembering the advice given, to seek help from officers when required, I walked back down to the base, straight into the Army camp, and through sign language managed to convey both what had happened and requested them to take me up. Around 20 minutes later, I was in a DPRK Army truck with some Army folks being driven to the summit of Mount Paektu.
There is nothing quite like Mount Paektu. Imagine driving through heartachingly beautiful Siberian Taiga, starting a slow ascent into Siberian Tundra, and finally in the middle of this incredible desolate, volcanic crater, this exquisite multihued blue lake that would put any Maldivian coral island to shame. You simply haven’t been to Korea — North or South — unless you’ve been to Mount Paektu, a borderline spiritual experience. As an aviation enthusiast, for me the second great highlight of this trip was the opportunity to fly old Soviet and new Ukrainian planes.
Pyongyang airport is quite delightful — no queues, the whole process is painless and honestly far superior to “award winning” nightmare airports like the JFK or Frankfurt or Mumbai. The Antonov An-24 to Mount Paektu was quieter than the Airbus A330 that had brought me to Beijing, with huge windows that put the Boeing 787 dreamliner to shame. The seats were superb with more legroom than any Western regional business class and super smooth in flight. The An-148 that flew us back to Beijing had better service than any Lufthansa or Emirates flights of similar duration, and infinitely better seats than ‘five star’ airlines like Qatar.
All up, the DPRK is a must visit for anyone interested in offbeat destinations and bored with the obligatory city holidays and summering in Italy. Make sure you go during the national holidays and participate in the festivities — especially the mass dancing, which the locals enthusiastically encourage. I make no pretence that we were shown only what they wanted us to see, but still it was eye opening and immensely enriching. Remember, however, that not everything is tightly controlled. We did see slums, we did see people who lived in skyscrapers tending lawns with kitchen scissors, and washing their clothes in rivulets. In one trip to the Palace of the Sun — where Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are embalmed — we saw what we thought was a midget delegation, which turned out to be a massive rural delegation, with stunted growth, presumably as a result of the famines. There was no attempt to hide any of this, or prevent us from taking pictures of this. The mind, however, did race back to Bihari and Oriya labourers in Delhi, who have a similar stature and bring home the horrible reality of our own malnutrition problem in India.
There are several tours that you can choose to go to North Korea with, though I specifically chose Young Pioneer Tours because they were the most affordable, had the most flexible itineraries and there is absolutely no difference in accommodation or travel class/mode to justify the extra costs. Remember, it’s not for everyone, but if you’re after an adventure, on a budget and after some relative luxury and something totally different — literally like no other — there’s nothing quite like the DPRK. Go and enjoy the kookiness that is the Juche Idea.
The writer is the Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
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