Below is an essay written by a young Australian tourist who came on one of our tours to North Korea in 2016. He wrote this as an assignment for a university journalism course that he took while completing his masters degree in international relations. We thought it was so eloquently written that we just had to share it here.
Ever thought about travelling to North Korea?
‘I have made a terrible mistake.’ My acrophobic companion’s face was ashen, his hands clutching the safety bars of the strange, upside down roller coaster in Kaeson Youth Park, Pyongyang. Hanging alongside him, I couldn’t help but agree. Why was I here again?
Eight days and nights in a country doesn’t seem like enough to change how you view it, but when you visit a place like North Korea (or, as our guides insisted we call it, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) your assumptions are immediately challenged. Almost all of what we hear in Australia comes from news media wanting to grab our attention with a whacky story about Chairman Kim Jong Un feeding his uncle to the dogs or executing a traffic warden for sneezing in front of him (both false), or focussed on nuclear weapons and human rights violations (of which, to be fair, there are many). I wanted to see how things were for myself, not just through hyperbolic news reports and sterile academic journals. And so, in July 2016, I got on a plane to Beijing, first stop on a trip I never thought I’d take.
It’s easier to travel to North Korea than you might think, and a lot of it is handled the same as any other guided tour: pick a tour group, apply for a Visa, get on a plane, and gawk at the locals. I went with organiser of educational North Korea tours Tongil Tours, a company based out of Canberra run by Korean-speaking ANU Asian Studies student Alek Sigley, a DPRK travel veteran on his tenth trip. The tour organisers handle your visa application, and as long as you’re not expressing any desire to proselytise to the locals or bring down the government, you’re likely to be approved. After that, I flew in from Beijing on North Korea’s Air Koryo; the world’s only one star rated airline.
Landing at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport, something struck me. ‘Hang on’, I thought, ‘this is a huge airport. Why is there only one plane? Where are the people?’ I got used to this feeling very quickly: North Korea is an expert in construction projects seemingly designed for foreigner consumption and public image. A week later, we visited the Sci-Tech Complex, a science and technology learning centre, similar to Canberra’s Questacon. Whereas Questacon is open to the public, the Sci-Tech Complex is only open to a tiny number of Pyongyang elite; our steps echoed as we paced empty corridors under lights on low power mode. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the computer labs the guides seemed so proud of were devoid of anyone browsing North Korea’s intranet; access to the internet itself is almost entirely forbidden. For a millennial permanently glued to Facebook, Gmail, and the wonderful world of YouTube, this was an incredibly isolating experience. The language and culture barrier meant I couldn’t speak to anyone, and I couldn’t check in with friends and family back home and let them know I was alright.
Two state-sanctioned guides met us at the airport, Miss Kim and Mr Ryu. They, along with our driver, would be our vigilant wardens, ready to take us to task for the slightest violation of their arbitrary commands – if you believe the stories on the internet. They wasted no time in getting down some ground rules. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’, Miss Kim said. No photographs of construction projects or anything military, any photos of representations of the leaders had to be respectful, and… nothing else. Stories litter the internet about strictly enforced rules and guides pestering tourists to make sure no one took a photo of anything undesirable, but that wasn’t the case in our trip. ‘Rules have been relaxed significantly in the last few years.’ Sigley told us. ‘It used to be Customs would confiscate your camera, phone, and electronics and you’d collect them when you leave, but now you can take your phone in and even get a local sim card.’ Photography, or even filming, was barely supervised by our guides – they even felt safe enough to nap in the bus as we filmed the countryside.
Napping was something us Australians couldn’t do. The freeways in North Korea, blissfully bare of traffic, are built by laying slabs of concrete like some dystopian grey version of the Yellow Brick Road. A fast method of building a road, sure, but perhaps not the best one: cracks and potholes are ubiquitous, six inches deep and sometimes several feet wide. Combined with the rickety suspension on the bus, which must have been state-of-the-art in the 1960s, we were more likely to receive whiplash than a quiet kip. North Korea had invented the art of simulating aeroplane turbulence on the country’s largest freeway.
It was along one of those spine-jarring thoroughfares we got our only unsanctioned view of the country. Along either side of many of the roads lie berms of earth shielding view of what lies behind; unless, of course, you were to climb one. We hatched a plan and asked the driver to pull over for an impromptu bathroom break. To spare the sensibilities of anyone driving by, we started to climb, and our guides closed their eyes once more. I expected to see something that would break the illusion of North Korea being just another poor agricultural country; maybe an abandoned village, blighted crops, or even a prison. What we saw was peaceful but mundane: a village, some fields, and some children hunting for frogs in the river. Sneaking away from our guided tour, we expected to see some hidden conspiracy, but all we saw was… life.
The countryside nurturing this life bears special mention. Across five continents, I have never seen a landscape so verdant and pristine. We visited in July, approaching harvest time, so fields which may have been cold and barren in winter were almost bursting with life and food, the untouched wilderness on the almost sculpted-looking mountain ranges stunning us to silence more than once. We Australian city dwellers, used to red bush and grey concrete, were confronted with a country whose foliage would put the Emerald Isle to shame.
None of this seeks to underplay the horrific human rights abuses North Korea inflicts on its populace. The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights found 120,000 political prisoners still suffering in internment camps, while the state has executed up to half a million more since 1955, and uses starvation as a tactic to punish towns and regions insufficiently ‘loyal’. But to reduce an entire country to some platonic ideal of a death camp isn’t just unfair to the people living there, it’s absurd. ‘North Korea isn’t the only country where human rights issues take place, and there’s so much more to the country and people than that. This sort of isolationist attitude isn’t going to do anything to improve or alleviate that situation’, said Sigley.
You don’t get much control over where you visit, but “It’s the same as any state sponsored tour,’ says Dr Craig Smith from ANU, a fellow North Korean traveller. ‘In Japan, a government paid trip took us around to see pleasant traditional places, once to a recycling centre, and to the Mazda factory to see the robotics. The fertiliser factory we visited in Hamhung is just like the recycling centre, it’s a bit dirty, but they’re showing you how well everything functions. That’s how state-sponsored trips go.’ However, Smith was cautious about endorsing the idea of free-for-all tourism. ‘A tiny bit of your money [that you pay to go to North Korea] is giving legitimacy to the state. I think it’s a negligible amount, but if tourism in North Korea booms, and the leaders want it to boom, then we’ll have something to discuss.’
I never felt unsafe in North Korea. Crime against tourists is rare, and Department of Foreign Affairs warnings about ‘arbitrary arrest and detention’ seem exaggerated. While punishments can seem excessive by Australian standards, arrests are for activities illegal in the DPRK. In January, Canadian missionary Lim Hyeon-Soo was sentenced to life in prison for attempting to convert North Koreans to Christianity, a big no-no in the strictly secular state. Harsh, but seeing as Thailand imprisons those critical of the royal family, it seems a double standard to judge North Korea harshly while encouraging Australian tourists to sip cocktails in Bangkok. Sigley agrees: ‘Don’t break the rules and you’ll be fine.’ He says.
Back at the theme park, I grinned a little as my companion, so afraid of heights, swore softly to himself. The world seemed to tell us ‘be afraid of North Korea’, but this was the scariest part of the trip. To have that fear come not from isolation from our family, horror stories we’d heard back in Australia, or any sense of hostility from the guides, but rather something as mundane as a theme park was refreshing. It seemed a reminder that we understood something that serious men in serious suits didn’t: to reduce twenty-four million people to the acts of their leaders and deprive ourselves of knowing them and experiencing what they have to share is a cruelty both undeserved and foolish.
If, as Mark Twain says, travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, nowhere I’ve visited has slain it more swiftly and thoroughly than North Korea.
Quick tips for Travelling to North Korea
Travel can only be arranged through approved tour companies, which handle visa applications, destinations, housing and food. Tongil Tours arranged my trip and gets my personal recommendation.
You might not get much of a say in what you see, but if you can, check out these:
Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum – See the Korean War from the other side in this fantastically appointed modern museum
Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – Where Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il still lie in state
Korean Demilitarised Zone – Technically, you can visit South Korea here too!
Pyongyang Circus – Like Cirque de Soleil, but Korean
A final few dos and don’ts:
DON’T drink the tap water! It’s extremely unsafe. Bottled water is available for around 30 US cents.
DON’T bring in anything that might be considered ‘anti-state’ by customs, like pornography or South Korean media.
DO bring more camera memory and batteries than you’ll think you need. If you run out, there’s no way to get more.
DO bring more small denominations of US dollars, Euros, and Chinese Yuan. There aren’t banks or credit card facilities in North Korea, and very few places will have much change.