Why would anyone want to go to the DPRK (North Korea)?

My report is now added below.

The personal answer to that question has had to wait for a few weeks because, out of consideration for the safety of our tour organisers and their future clients visiting North Korea, I agreed to submit anything I wrote to our travel company in Beijing before posting it here.  

In the meantime Elisabeth and I chilled out in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Dandong, a small (by Chinese standards) and lively city on the Chinese side of the border. The neon lights seemed to shine even brighter and there was a welcoming familiarity to the street noises that travelled out across the river into the silent darkness on the other side of the border.

Of course, Westernisation of the Chinese people at play has come at a price and, far from being ashamed at what a fast food diet has done to their midriffs, a number of Chinese men have adopted what we have christened the “Buddha Belly” approach to the sultry Summer weather. They tuck their t-shirts up under their arms and strut around showing off their tummies with great pride. Pointing and giggling by passing girls is apparently encouraged.

This convivial atmosphere was enhanced by the presence of two young Aussie geologists who joined us for this extension to the DPRK trip. Perhaps in deference to our mature years, the lads toned down their language to include no more than two expletives per sentence but listening to them recite their passport numbers at the border crossing was a revelation. I didn’t know that Australia had an extra number between four and five.

They say that what you do in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas but if you do something remiss in North Korea then you stay in North Korea. It really felt good to be back in China.

The following is a summary of my personal observations and opinions and should not reflect upon the tour organisers or any of my travelling companions.  

Now, North Korea is not a country that loomed large in my world view or rated five stars on my “must see” list. In fact, I’m sorry to have to say this, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, but it wasn’t even down there with the footnotes. I had written it off as a posturing, anachronistic dictatorship whose populous were kept in the dark ages while its leader(s) luxuriated in highly fortified palaces decorated in the standard “solid gold bath fittings” variety of megalomaniac chic. And guess what? When I accepted Elisabeth’s invitation to join her in this little excursionette that was more or less what I found.

There are plenty of warnings and horror stories out there to deter the unwary visitor but I have to stress that Koryo tours, a small travel company run by an Englishman operating out of Beijing, has for over twenty years organised safe, officially approved tours to the DPRK. At a price. Well, be that as it may, however much I may have baulked at the cost of joining my friend for a once in a lifetime adventure, when I finally found myself inside the country I would have paid twice as much to get out.

Many visitors to North Korea are looking for the opportunity to visit the Mass Games: an annual orgy of patriotic flag twirling, gymnastic dancing and precision marching all carried out by hundreds of thousands of happy citizens, drilled down to the last millimetre (or millisecond). They say that the opening parade takes five hours to pass into the stadium. “Struth!” as our Aussie companions would have said “when do these poor people get to take a pee?”. Think “modern Olympic opening ceremonies x 20”, add a liberal dose of amphetamine and view through Alice’s looking glass, Or alternatively just check it out on You Tube.

Mercifully, the supreme leader had directed that the stadium be refurbished this year and so the games have been postponed. Some outsiders believing that a looming economic meltdown means that they may never happen again, however, gargantuan monument building continues apace. And what monuments they were: huge Neo-Stalinist friezes of square-jawed workers line up on either side of fifty foot statues of the great leaders while gilded laurel wreaths festoon the marble columns and triumphal aches of the capital’s central thoroughfares. In fact so much does this style owe to Imperial Rome at its apogee that I half expected to see a Lictor’s staff or a banner bearing the initials SPQR around the next corner. What an interesting comparison to find in a country whose official rhetoric spends so much time denouncing the imperialist vices of the West.

Perhaps this analogy was the most important lesson that I could have learned in North Korea; many of the ancient cities whose remains I visit so assiduously around the world and many of the greatest treasures in its museums are probably relics of just such despots and were no doubt constructed for them by just such a deluded and desperate population. The patina of the centuries has probably deluded my perception of what it must have been like to actually live under the rule of Ramses II, Darius the Great or Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

I’ve agreed not to write too much about what we saw on construction sites or in the countryside between official visits but everywhere we went we saw evidence of chronic underdevelopment and lack of investment. One of the most poignant examples of this being the 100km multi-lane roadway linking the Pyongyang to Kaesong in the South which was built in the 1990s by armies of young people using little but hand tools and is now rutted beyond belief. We travelled this super-highway down the country for our official visit to the de-militarised zone (DMZee) and encountered few other motor vehicles of any type, just some bicycle powered farm trucks or the odd bullock cart.

There are two Unesco World heritage sites in North Korea: the Koryo dynasty monuments near Kaesong built during 10th – 14th centuries (which we visited) and the painted tombs of the 1st – 7th century Goguryeo period (which we did not). Even allowing for the fact that the second site may have been too fragile to admit visitors, I felt that a pathetically small amount of time was set aside for these historical regions. But we should not have been disappointed because our local guides were able to reel off every minute statistic of the construction of the Pyeongyang subway, a network of deep underground tunnels decorated with inspiring mosaics of happy workers and slightly chipped Venetian glass chandeliers. Oh, and let’s not forget about the heavy blast doors at the entrances. We were treated to a visit to the museum of its construction which contains the very pair of scissors used by Kim Il Sung to cut the ribbon on the official opening day; how could a few thousand year old wall paintings possibly compare to that?

There was little use in trying to get much further information out of our charming local guide while her senior colleague, Mr Ohm, stayed silent for most of the time and generally kept to the rear of the group to make sure none of us went astray. In between quotations attributed to the beloved father of her country, Miss Lee assured me with wide eyed innocence that there was no such thing as homosexuality in North Korea and that wild, Siberian tigers were plentiful in the nature reserves of the mountainous North East. It is easy to mock but one of the saddest sights that I saw in the DPRK was this pretty young woman scrambling in her lacy purse for a tissue to wipe some spilled coffee from the steps of one of the supreme leader’s innumerable monuments.

My travelling companion, Elisabeth, grew up under the Communist regime of East Germany but I never made it behind the Iron Curtain before 1989 and so this was an extremely important opportunity for me to see just how such an administration works in practice. I need not add my own comments about absolute power corrupting absolutely but I did at least gain some insight into how the sheer insanity of such an ideology could give rise to the visceral cry for intellectual freedom that inspired some of the finest literature of the twentieth century.  Messrs. Kafka, Orwell, Huxley and Solzhenytzyn thank you for waiting, I think that I understand you a little better now.

The small group with which we travelled were very interesting characters in their own right, mostly being seasoned travellers with a taste for the unusual and certainly up for some more serious discussion than was really safe while still in the DPRK. One thing that everyone had an opinion on, however, was how long this regime could be expected to last. Estimates went up to fifty years but personally I can see this little country, 40% of its population making up one of the largest standing armies on the planet while the emergency ration for its farm workers is rumoured to be 400 grams of rice a day, imploding into the usual shabby residue within less than five years.

Here is a small gallery of pictures from our trip. Elisabeth’s are marked with an E, Miss Lee is in number 46 and number 48 is the image from home that was waiting for me when I got back over the border into internet range.

Categories: China, Far East

1 Comment

  • ET says:

    Thanks, Nicola, for this insightful report. You capture our feelings and adventures (or the lack thereof) beautifully. I wonder if and when I will get around to writing about it. I thank you for your permission to link this directly into my blog for now.

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