Offline in North Korea - something we all need
Day 1,984 since October 10th 2013: 176 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
Perception is reality...for all of us
Pyongyang, capital of DPRK.
I realize that I’ve spent the last week in China (country 175) and should be writing about that. However now that I’m out of North Korea (country 176) I’ll keep exploring China and have a few exiting things planed. So this entry will be entirely about my experience in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) and next week I’ll tell you all I’ve learned about in China.
Monday March 11th - DAY ONE
Contrary to what people seem to believe it is neither dangerous nor difficult to visit DPRK. You simply book yourself onto a tour and go. The leading company is Koryo Tours and they’ve got experience with taking tourists into DPRK since 1993. These days roughly 200,000 Chinese tourist visit every year in addition to somewhere around 5,000 non Chinese (meaning westerners).
It turns out that Beijing does have blue skies!
Koryo Tours had everyone who signed on to the ‘North Korea Budget Tour (March)’ apply before February 23rd. There were limited spaces on the tour and it takes time for Koryo to organize, prepare and arrange for visas. On February 23rd I was in Thailand and still did not have my double entry visa for China. And in reality I booked myself on the tour long before that. Fortunately I do know a thing or two about logistics and it all fell into place. The Koryo expedition consisted of two groups: those who would fly to DPRK’s capital Pyongyang and those of us who took the train. The train ride takes about 24 hours from Beijing in China to Pyongyang. The first time I met Simon of Koryo Tours was briefly before the 10:00am Pre-Tour Briefing at their office location in Beijing. Simon is a great and competent guy with 17 years of Koryo experience. The briefing was a thorough breakdown of does and don’ts prior to our four night visit. DPRK is not your standard country. It may be the only of its kind an un-similar to any other. What I knew for a fact before entering DPRK was that it was famous! How many countries in our world is known by as many people as DPRK is? Denmark? Great kingdom but not all that well known in the world...ranks okay though. Some confuse Denmark with the Netherlands. Others think Denmark is the capital of Sweden? DPRK is never confused with other countries. And for years people have been asking me: “how are you going to go to North Korea?” Interestingly only well traveled people ask me how I got into Equatorial Guinea or Eritrea which are truly hard countries to reach. DPRK? Piece of cake.
Breakfast in Beijing before the Koryo breefing.
After the Pre-Tour Briefing a few of us from the group began bonding as we waited for our 4:30pm meetup with our guide Marcus at Beijing Railway Station. Marcus is a calm and collected type who’s been taking guests inand out of DPRK for more than two years. The train left the station as we found our “hard sleeper” beds which aren’t hard at all. And off we went. We were all guys in our “train group”. Great guys!! Lots of good energy, games and a few beers. Who goes to DPRK? I suppose most people would go to great length not to go to DPRK? Why I do not know? It’s such a famous country by name but what does anyone really know about it? I was exited!! I don’t get exited much anymore but DPRK did the trick for me. Scared? Not at all!! Just exited and curious. I remember watching the movie “Everest” and felt that this day had been like the entry scenes where all the climbers were introduced and got to know each other. We were a band of brothers: we were the ones of the few who had decided to go and visit DPRK!
Tuesday March 12th - DAY TWO
I woke up on the train after four hours of sleep. I should have gone to sleep earlier. The train was approaching Dandong in China. It had been a peaceful night. In the bunk next to me there was a little girl...maybe four years old. And in the bunk above her a woman I presumed to be the grandmother. Good company although we couldn’t speak the same language. I had my instant noodle soup, brushed my teeth and it was time to get of the train. The group assembled on the platform and since we had some time before the next train Marcus, our guide, led us down to the Yalu River which separates China from DPRK.
They are busy planting trees in DPRK.
Not long after that we were all back at the train station checking out of China and boarding the DPRK train. The landscape around us was less inspiring and showed clear signs of the winter weather. Dandong on the other hand was very impressive with tall high rises and artwork by the boardwalk. It was exiting getting onboard the train with all the other passengers. Chinese and North Koreans alike. Just knowing that the train would take is across the bridge was surreal in itself. And off we went. It was a short ride across the bridge before the train stopped and immigration and customs came onboard. It was clear that we respected them. We would be taking and joking until the moment an official appeared and then we would be silent like the grave. However the officials were just people. Everything quickly eased up and we ended up having the authorities smile and laugh a bit. It took a few hours before we were cleared to continue and in that time we had been tasting our first DPRK beers.
The train moved across a landscape which was quite barren. It was frankly not an inspiring landscape. It was empty fields as far as the eyes could see. It looked well organized and the sky was blue. But seeing the endless green rice fields was not a privilege for us who joined a winter tour. We hardly saw any cars or mopeds. The people we saw were mostly working in the fields, cycling or waking. There was very little farm equipment and it looked like hard manual work in the fields. On and off you’d see people being people. People in conversation. People laughing. People taking a break. People smoking a cigarette.
Lot's of fields. Few trees.
The fields were endless. They ran all the way to the horizon in both directions. When villages whizzed by they appeared basic. DPRK did not look like a rich country from the windows of the train. It did however look like a well organized farmland where the people had optimized the country to the fullest. My mind was sent back to what I had seen in Poland in the 90s. Or some scenes I’ve seen across former Soviet countries. It was a long slow train ride but well worth it to see the landscape and what was in it. There weren’t much trees to begin with but they did appear as we eventually approached Pyongyang.
Not much traffic in Pyongyang.
Pyongyang looked like a large city. Not like a large city from a middle eastern oil rich country but not as poor as cities I’ve seen elsewhere. We reached Pyongyang train station around sunset and were greeted by our local guides who were perky and professional. The station was impressive to look at. The lights did however not come on until a few minutes after we had left the train and started making our way to the bus. Our first stop with the bus was a restaurant where we had some delicious dinner. The food was really good and plentiful. It’s in the culture to offer guests a lot of food and ensure that they do not run out. Our next stop was our hotel which was likewise impressive. So far the country had been a mix of impressive and less impressive buildings. Aren’t most cities like that? Pyongyang is a city with around three million people in a country with around twenty eight million people. It’s a big city. Rather dark in comparison to most other cities however not as dark as Antananarivo in Madagascar. That remains the darkest capital I’ve ever seen. Pyongyang didn’t look like a movie-set to me. It looked like a city with three million people.
Pyongyang as seen from the Juche tower.
At the hotel I was given room number 11 on the 28th floor. I was sharing it with Alex from Canada who seemed like a really good guy. I had a shower before Alex and I headed down to see if the others from the group might have had the same idea (meet up for a beer). They had. So a good fifteen of us sat down in a circle and bonded a bit. That lasted about an hour before some of us headed to the hotels karaoke area. A place in the hotel where guests were offered private karaoke rooms of high quality. I quit around midnight knowing that the bus would leave at 06:30 the next day. However I could have stayed much longer singing a few more tunes and having a good night with a group of really solid people.
Wednesday March 13th - DAY THREE
We got up early again and went to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). Propaganda. Isn’t that just telling people what you want them to believe? If so then there’s plenty of it to go around. In the USA the republicans have one story and the democrats have another. DPRK has its version of the events which unfolded throughout and after the Korean War. Is propaganda being spread in DPRK? Yes...I’m sure it is. However I have quickly come to believe that there is far more propaganda being spread outside of DPRK about the country than within it. When I enter a country today I do that with the experience of visiting and analyzing 175 other countries. I’ve been observing DPRK and what I have seen are just people being people. You can’t interact with the people. They are clearly not interested or maybe they are afraid to interact with foreigners. There could be consequences I imagine? DPRK is not a country which promotes individual freedom. However those who live in DPRK are still subject to air, water, gravity, fatigue, joy, disappointment, love, heat, cold, humor, sadness, innovation and a lot more which both you and I are too. People are just people. In DPRK too. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. People interacting with other people. I’ve seen general and normal human reactions. Like two people walking beside each other in conversation suddenly laughing. Sure, it could all have been orchestrated and it could all have been a scam to fool me. It could all have been an act. It could all have been staged. However Pyongyang receives tourists everyday and it seems to me that the best way to convince tourists about what life is like in DPRK is simply to make it reality. There are several capitals around the world which appear to be day and night compared to the rest of the land. In Kenya a man living a basic life on the Masai Mara might look dreamingly towards what life is like in Nairobi - or not. In Denmark life in Copenhagen is vastly different from that of a small village. In Pyongyang I believe that those taking the trolley, those heading to the metro, those shopping at the mall and those playing basket by the Taedong River, were doing so as part of their natural lives. Perhaps privileged lives but natural lives nonetheless. And if you would consider it staged then it’s a very large stage.
The border betwwen North and South Korea runs through the small houses.
We reached the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) which is the borderland between North and South Korea. It didn’t really interest me. I’ve seen plenty of borders. Even my fair share of borders which are closed. The DMZ is a serious and sensitive place but again people are just people and the borders have been drawn for a long time. We also visited the hall where the 1953 armistice was signed but I guess you would have to be specifically interested in Korean history to find that interesting.
Once the Songgyung Academy, a Confucian school, and now a museum on the Koryo Dynasty exhibiting historical objects, statues, pagodas, and porcelain from that era.
Afterwards we stopped by Kaesong UNESCO World Heritage Site which has some beautiful buildings from what used to the capital during the Taebong kingdom and later on Goryeo dynasty a thousand years ago. The lands of DPRK are packed with history which are overshadowed by the current political situation. DPRK is undergoing heavy sanctions imposed by the United Nations and many countries. These sanctions are mostly in place due to concerns regarding their nuclear weapons program and as far as I have researched not in relation to how they treat their population. Our guide Marcus had an international SIM card and could access the internet. He said it was expensive but it was possible. The rest of us had no access to internet or the outside world while we were there. Our passports were collected on arrival and we didn’t see them again until the day we left. Koryo Tours works with Korea International Travel Company (KITC) which is a state-owned company. They took our passports to arrange for our exit permits. The entire tour was top professional and everything ran really smooth for us guests. However I have no problem imagining that DPRK is a heavily bureaucratically country in the old school style. If you are blank in regards to Koreas history then you should at least know that Korea was once one of the great powers of East Asia and ruled over vast lands. The lands were home to plenty of kingdoms and dynasties until the Japanese arrived and occupied them between 1910-1945. Back then the Koreans had to worship the Japanese emperor. After WWII ended Korea was divided in 1945 with the north being occupied by the Soviet Union and the south by the United States. Between 1950-1953 the Korean War played out and involved the two Koreas, the Soviet Union, a United Nations force led by the USA and Chinese forces. DPRK has had three leaders: President Kim Il Sung, General Kim Jong Il and Marshall Kim Jong Un who all have enjoyed cult status in DPRK. In many ways President Kim Il Sung and General Kim Jong Il are both regarded as still being alive and with the people although they have passed away. Elections do take place but only have one name on the ballot. People are not idiots in the DPRK but it would be highly unwise to stand up against the system. Much like it would be very unwise to violate any of the rules as a visitor. Generally you may find that the punishment for any violations are very much out of proportion.
Joss Stone singing a Korean song with one of her guides.
That evening our guides took us to the cinema where Joss Stone was playing her DPRK concert within her Total World Tour. Yes! She aims to give a concert in every country in the world and just happened to be in DPRK as I was there. I like her. I think Joss is very talented, charming and connects well with the audience. She was unsure which country DPRK was on her list but thought it might have been 177 while it was 176 for me. I know exactly which number DPRK was for me because I earned it!! ;) Joss is an international star and has fans all over the world that know her songs. You can bet on that she doesn’t apply for her own visas or book her tickets. I heard of her the first time when I was in Jordan and Henrik from the Danish Travellers Club (DBK) notified me that she was playing in Amman and that I HAD TO GO!! I went and it was great. I tried to reach out to her back then but with short notice and didn’t manage to get a photo with her. This time we were very few people at her concert (and it was free). They had purchased some of their equipment in DPRK instead of bringing their own with them – pretty fun if you ask me. It made me think that if Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Bono, Madonna or any other major celebrity wanted to go to every country then they most likely could. In general the “I have been to every country in the world club” of only 150-200 people will probably grow rapidly in the future to a thousand. Without flying it will grow a lot slower.
That evening at the hotel ended up with beer again which is highly unusual for me as I hardly drink within this project. Alcohol doesn’t fair well with the workload, discipline, stress and dedication. However DPRK was very different to visiting any other country. No internet brings my workload down considerably! And I was in absolute amazing company!! In my group there was Christopher from New Zealand, Lundy from Singapore, Cloe (our only female) also from New Zealand, Alistair, Alan, Jack, Thomas, William, James and Andrew from the United Kingdom, Max and Ian from South Africa, Gudmundur and Artem from Iceland, Alexander from Australia and my roommate Alexander from Canada. It felt like the ideal group! I got along well with everyone and thoroughly enjoyed the company. However this was the third day which ended with alcohol and I’m too old for that…
Thursday March 14th - DAY FOUR
Pretty much every day started early and ended late. Koryo did to be fair warn us on their website as they wrote: “Be warned, there will be little time to for rest on this action-packed itinerary - not that you’ll want to, though!” It was all good though. This visit was my first ever in DPRK and I would love to return again someday during a warmer time of the year to see the country green. This visit was still early spring which meant that temperatures were between -3 and +19 Celsius (26.6 – 66.2 F). DPRK has four seasons and Pyongyang can have temperatures between -13 Celsius (8.6 F) in the winter and +29 degrees Celsius (84 F) in the summer. Our first stop this day was at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun which is the resting place of President Kim Il Sung and his son General Kim Jong Il. They lie in separate halls inside glass montre’s and look as if they were created by Madame Tussaud’s wax cabinet. The embalmed bodies are lying down as if they are sleeping and serve the complex serves as the mausoleum for the two eternal leaders of North Korea. The place is treated with outmost respect and smart clothing is required. I borrowed a shirt from Alan and a tie from our bus driver. Photos are not allowed inside and souvenirs are not available. It is a place where people can come to honour their leaders and as visitors we had to bow deep on three out of four sides by each body (you do not bow at the head). Visiting the bodies was in both cases followed by a room displaying all the foreign distinguishes which had been offered the leaders over the years. We also passed though rooms showing their personal vehicles, train carriages and for General Kim Jong Il also his luxury boat. There was furthermore information on how far and which destinations they had travelled to within their lifetimes. I read that the palace was built in 1976 and was the personal residence of President Kim Il Sung until his son converted it to a mausoleum at the cost of at least $100 million USD (some sources say $900 million). It is a very impressive and awe inspiring place and definitely worth visiting.
The Mansudae Grand Monument are two enormous bronze statues of the DPRK leadership overlooking downtown Pyongyang. A presentation of flowers and bow by the group is customary here.
Later that day we visited the two largest statues I have ever seen in my life. I have seen some large Buddha statues however this was well beyond that. The statues were again of President Kim Il Sung and his son General Kim Jong Il. More bowing took place and we had to offer flowers as well before we could begin taking photos. The group continued to lunch and then out to have a ride on the world’s deepest metro. I was meanwhile collected by the DPRK Red Cross and brought to their headquarters making it the 171st National Society I have visited as a Goodwill Ambassador of the Danish Red Cross. The DPRK RC was founded in 1946 and is active throughout the country where they have 1.700 first aid posts in remote areas. They are all run by volunteers. I was warmly greeted by Ms Solhyang of the International Cooperation Department, Mr Kim Song Il, director of the WASH (water sanitation and hygiene) department and by Mr X (regrettably I do not have his name) of Disaster Management. Together they hold fifty two years of Red Cross experience.
In front of the DPRK RC next to my guide (in black) Ms Chang.
We briefly went through their activities which include dissemination of the Red Cross, Health, Disaster Management, WASH, Youth and Compatriot. The latter relates to re-establishing connections and supporting the large diaspora which came to exists since the Japanese colonization and conflicts thereafter. In terms of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) the DPRK RC is planting trees and creating dams throughout the country. Flooding is a reoccurring event. The reason why I did not notice any trees as the train rolled through the landscape and towards Pyongyang was because DPRK went through hard times in the 90s after the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991. Trees were in large numbers cut to provide firewood for heat and cooking. Something the DPRK prides itself with is its free education, free healthcare and free housing. Yet the DPRK RC runs several clinics which are powered by solar power and have hot water from pipeline systems under the sun. The numbers for engagement given to me are very impressive compared to other countries as Mr Kim Song Il explained that they have 1 million members, 110,000 volunteers and 300,000 youth members. The PowerPoint presentation came to an end it became time to leave again. But rest assured that the Red Cross, which is found in 191 countries, is also found in DPRK.
DPRK RC activities.
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.
USA spy plane...or what's left of it.
Afterwards I was returned to the group and we all headed to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum which by far is one of the most impressive museums I have ever come across. Certainly in terms of display. The content is perhaps debatable but I did not get to see enough and also do not know the exact details of the war. Some of the “facts” were in any case off. Photos were not allowed inside. Our guide at the museum was very cute and bragged that it would take three days to visit the entire museum. We spent less than 90 minutes there and by the sheer size of what I saw three days does not sound unreasonable. The museum contained both a US spy plane which had been shot down as well as the famous USS Pueblo which was captured in 1968. In general the “imperialists” (USA) were blamed for much. To be fair the USA and in particular the CIA does have quite a rap sheet especially from that period. The DPRK claims the USS Pueblo entered territorial waters several times and the USA claims it was in international waters plus that all evidence of the ship entering national waters several times is fabricated. Now go and make up your own mind. What is guaranteed is that most nations if not all spy. The “Pueblo incident” took place during the Vietnam War and she sits as a trophy at the museum till this date. 82 crewmembers were returned to the USA which has the USS Pueblo as its only ship of the US Navy on the commissioned roster currently being held captive.
The USS Pueblo...a trophy of DPRK.
The Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace.
Afterwards we were taking to what was explained as after school activities for children. These were however children of special talent and most of them could have won an international competition in their separate performances! We are talking singing, dancing, instruments and performing. These were quite young children and to be that talented a lot of time spent practicing must have consumed most of their lives. I don’t know that for a fact but I would say that it is a safe bet. Also two rows just happened to be empty in the audience and the show began almost as soon as we sat down. However I was told by Marcus (our guide) that we were expected and slightly late so that would explain the empty rows and timing. Nonetheless it was very impressive and personally I figure that the remaining audience could easily be family, friends or simply people who wanted to see the show.
The Palace is one Pyongyang’s centres of extracurricular excellence with study rooms for fine arts, dance, sports, and music.
That night ended with more beer…
Friday March 15th - DAY FIVE
Basically a day of sightseeing but we began by visiting Pyongsong which is the provincial seat of South Pyong'an province and centre of specialist education. We visited a school which had received the highest honours for its results within education: three red flags. While the school looked relatively basic compared to its status it was exceptionally clean just like the rest of the country. And the class we visited was a group of very talented students. I spoke to Kim which is among the most common family names in DPRK. He was sixteen years old, spoke three languages and was very welcoming. It clearly wasn’t his first “rodeo”. The moment we were released into the classroom and I made my first steps forward he introduced himself and asked me to sit down. Then he began his routine which was somewhat interrupted when I told him that I haven’t been home for five years and five months, that I have been to 176 countries and that I’m married to a Korean woman (technically I’m engaged and she’s Danish but married and Korean worked better). That stumped him for a bit. They cannot access any social media from DPRK or even open my website…but I gave him a Saga Card anyway while he tried to gain control over the situation. Basically I like playing mind games and before walking into the class room I was thinking that it would be hard to say anything to these students which they had not heard before. Kim and I also briefly spoke about the “imperialists” which are the enemy and I diplomatically mentioned that people are just people who fall in love, like good food, seek out entertainment, spend time with family and get stuck in traffic (although traffic is hard to imagine in DPRK). I reasoned that the people of a country are hardly the enemy but that we can disagree with various governments. I wonder if any of that computed in his head. Marcus (guide) told me that saying I have a Korean wife would be enough to blow his mind.
Kim, an excellent student at the Kim Jong Suk Higher Middle School which is one of DPRK’s top middle schools for gifted students.
Overlooking downtown Pyongyang. Those buildings look less fancy up close.
The Monument to the Party Foundation is an iconic structure featuring the hammer, sickle, writing brush which represent the workers, farmers, and intellectuals that make up the Worker’s Party of Korea.
Golden Lane Bowling Centre.
DPRK has poured a lot of money into certain infrastructure projects. And they all look amazing! What is found between those projects at times looks like buildings from the 70s which need more maintenance. Sometimes you look out of the window of the bus and think that it might have been what life was like 150 years ago. Kim from the school pulled out a smartphone to take a photo with me before I left. Not all from DPRK have smartphones but they were also not uncommon in the landscape. I also saw a lot of smartphones in Cuba back in 2014 in spite of the lack of internet for most. Kim would likely have been the son of elite parents: engineers, doctors, lawyers, ministers or similar. Was it staged? Was it fake? I do believe that Kim attends that school and that it is one of the country’s finest schools. I also believe that for that to be true the vast majority must attend lesser schools. We all have a tendency to show ourselves from our best side. If you are going out on a date then you will shower and dress nice. If you have guests come over then you would likely clean your place up a bit. Cities remove graffiti and tidy up before large international events. DPRK has a strong culture of hospitality and the desire to show its visitors the best. We covered quite long distances in our blue KITC tour bus with our KITC guides Ms Kim and Ms Chang. There was a lot to observe through the windows and across the landscape. And yet you cannot see much further than 6 km (3.73 mi) across ground level due to the curvature of earth. We went on walking tours in both Pyongyang and Pyongsong but of course only saw the neighbourhoods and streets we were guided through. We were always shown the best and offered the best. However that is generally always what I am offered in any given country where I am someone’s guest.
Farmers taking a rest.
A roadside glimpse from the bus.
A frozen stream just to indicate how cold it was in early spring.
Saturday March 16th - DAY SIX
This was the day we returned back to China. We said farewell to those who flew and got our passports back before getting on board the train. While the food had been very good I had fallen ill the night before and spent most of the night on the toilet. I managed some sleep but generally I was very weak and not in the mood for anything. Once on board the train I went straight to sleep. It turned out I wasn’t alone. There was a group of Norwegians on a private tour which had several sick members, there were several from Marcus’ group (my group) which were ill and Koryo had a second group, Gregs group, which also had sick members. Food? Beer? Something else? Who knew? We crossed the bridge back to Dandong in China before sunset and we were much more relaxed around the officials on the DPRK side than what we had been on our way in. I thought did cross my mind though: “what if some Danish cartoonist had made a joke about DPRK’s three leaders?” Would I then have been denied to exit DPRK? Koryo Tours are top professional and have many years of experience. They made sure that everything ran smoothly for us and that we had a good experience. I have throughout my life been told of the extremities of DPRK and I am coloured by that. However I have come to learn that the craziest stories I know of DPRK never made it inside DPRK. They were completely fabricated by people outside of DPRK and quickly spread…because after all…we do love a good story.
A meal fit for a king!
Pyongyang Railway Station.
We made it to Dandong and said farewell to Greg who had been our guide on the train heading back. Greg is from Hungary and I didn’t get to know him very well but from what I know he is very kind and professional. We had said farewell to Marcus in Pyongyang. In Dandong we made the change to the Chinese train and I was feeling very weak! I had a hard time standing on my feet and mostly just wanted to lie down. As soon as I got on board the train I went back to sleep.
Sunday March 17th - DAY SEVEN
Around eight am the train approached Beijing again and I felt pretty good although I had hardly had any food for 36 hours. More had fallen sick while others were feeling better. We said farewell to each other at Beijing Train Station and made our separate ways. I’m certain that DPRK will someday be overrun by tourists. It will come gradually. First tourists will be allowed to travel to DPRK unguided within certain areas. Later on to every corner of the country. If you doubt this then take a look at the history of Albania and Oman. DPRK is hoping for unification with the south and that too may happen. One way or the other it is a beautiful mountainous country with long sand beaches and plenty of sights to see. And as we left Beijing Station we knew that we were among the few who have actually seen it versus the many which speak of it. And perhaps someday we will be speaking of how it used to be before it opened up.
Beijing Railway Station.
Perception is reality. The perception of anyone in DPRK becomes their reality. Your perception is your reality. Are you sure of your perception?
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - showing you what you haven't seen.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga