By Zach Williams
This post was written by Zach Williams and is featured from his travel blog ‘Orphaned Nation’. It offers some incredibly Savvi insight into a country that most of us are amazed even exists today. He’s also captured some beautiful photos, shown below.
For me, going to North Korea was something I was considered doing, but it wasn’t until one morning I felt a bit spontaneous and booked a tour. I booked with Young Pioneers, since they seemed to be the cheapest and catered to more independent backpackers. The total cost ended up being around 1,700 USD. This prince includes everything from your airfare to and from Pyongyang from Beijing (train option is available, but US citizens have to fly) to your day to day meals and accommodation. I booked the Chinese National Day Tour, which lasted about a week. Due to recent Chinese sanctions on North Korea, we were forced to fly in a day earlier than expected, which just gave us more time to see Pyongyang.
When arriving in the airport we were handed our North Korea Visas, which were nothing more than a blue booklet, we were told if we wanted to take pictures of them, do it then, for it would be the last time we would see them. They then went over some of the big rules. No photos of military (you can get away with it to be honest), no photos of construction (also kinda lenient), be sure to get the full frame of pictures of the leaders, not just the face or anything, and you have to be accompanied by a guide at all times. Other than that, we got our tickets and boarded the plane.
The scariest times of the whole trip was going through immigration and leaving going through immigration. My nerves were quickly calmed after the immigration officer with a smile quickly waved me along after looking at my passport and visa, the security check was also a breeze, we were told they might take our phones into a back room for inspection, also to hide all GPS apps. But after putting my bag through the scanner, I again was quickly waved through, one man asked if I had any publications, I talk him I had a Chinese exercise book, but after seeing he couldn’t read it he quickly handed it back. Then that was it, I was through.
From the tour bus, pictures of the leaders are a common sight. When we first arrived all of us were pressed to the windows to get pictures of all of scenery and people. The Korean tour guides were not on top of us insuring we were upholding all of the rules concerning photos or anything. By the end of the trip North Korea just became normal for us, where the first day we were eagerly trying to get shots from the bus, the last day we were taking a bus as if it was any other place in the world.
One of our first stops was the newly renovated Pyongyang Zoo. I am not a big fan of zoos, frankly I oppose it. But, it was on the itinerary so off we went, the exhibits were interesting, many with a plaque reading “This animal was set by the supreme leader Kim Jung Il” The tiger pens were quite sad. but the zoo itself was nice, many local tourists walking in straight lines, laughing and enjoying the animals. For us, the most humorous part was there were large parts of the zoo dedicated to dogs and cats, descriptions reading: “British House Cat” and so on.
When you first walk into the Peoples Study Hall, you are welcomed by a Zeus-esque seated statue of Kim-il Sung, another thing I started to notice was that all the buildings seemed very new. The tour guide stated that since Kim-jong Un Took power he, as the tour guide stated, “Tore down all the old things” so, most of these buildings have been built within the last 4 years. The study hall was fascinating, grand halls, with people wandering the halls. We even had the chance to walk into an English lesson in progress. I tried to talk to some of the students, but they were too shy to respond. We went into some audio rooms where they played The Beatles for us on 20 year old boom boxes.
The Best thing of the peoples study hall was the top where you get a beautiful view of the square where all the grand parades take place. Throughout the trip we were dragged to countless gift shops, although we groaned on the way there, many people in the group were taking away many bags of souvenirs.
Just about everywhere we stopped we were greeted by statues of Kim-jong il and Kim-il Sung, we were told by our guides that we should respect their customs and bow in front of the statues. It was awkward at first, especially being an American, we are brought up never to bow for anyone. But we did it so much it became normal by the end of the trip. In the end it is still silly, but when you step back the cult following surrounding the Kims, is no different than any other religion. So, when in Rome do as the Romans do. At some sites you can buy flowers and place them before the leaders.
Words could never accurately describe the surreal experience of going to Kim-jong il and Kim-il Sung’s mausoleum. It is something you will for sure have to experience yourself. The bodies are kept in a preserved mummified state, being truly frozen in time. Formal dress is required and no photos are allowed, even a gum wrapper in your pocket will be confiscated. Halls of grand marble, red carpets, and creepy lighting are just the tip of the iceberg of which awaits you inside.
One of the things I was most looking forward to was taking a ride on the Pyongyang metro. I heard it was a inspired by the Moscow metro, but very much unique in its own way. The trains are old and plain inside, with wooden benches. Each station has a different theme of a different part of Korean history, mostly depicting the Kims on Grand Murals. Out of all the places we went this was the only place we had trouble with taking photos, on our way out of the metro one of the security guards got a phone call and stopped us. They made us go through the photos and delete all those showing the tunnels and the escalators. The Korean tour guides then talked with them for what seemed like half a hour. We had no issues after we deleted the photos, but the whole ordeal was nerve racking.
The Pyongyang Victory Arch, as we were told many times, is the largest victory arch in the world, 10 meters larger than the one in Paris. Was interesting and nice to walk around, but more importantly near by is the Pyongyang Fun Fair. We came back that evening to have a go at the bumper cars and roller coasters. We were assured all of the rides were Italian made. Apparently in the last several years Kim-jung Un has made an effort to bring more fun things to North Korea such as these amusement parks and they have even started making their own N. Korean brand clothing.
On the way to the DMZ we passed by the Reunification Arch, representing the dream that the Korean peninsula will one day once again be unified. As we continued the three hour drive from Pyongyang we passed many small villages and fields of grain. Being autumn, many people were out in the fields harvesting, we were told no matter your occupation, this time of year every citizen must spend at least two weeks in the fields.
The DMZ was surprisingly relaxed, we were put together with several other tour groups and escorted by one of the soldiers to see where the armistice was signed and a small museum. Afterwards we were taken to the actual DMZ, the North Korean and South Korean Soldiers switch guard duties at the DMZ everyday, of course, we were taken when the DPRK soldiers were standing at attention. We got our photos and (to many of the DPRK soldiers annoyance) got pictures with the soldier guides as well.
Its not all fun and games in the DPRK, there are many places where they will take you which is boring as all hell, mostly because they want to show you how great and wonderful their country is (So they show you factories and farms and such) I was in one of these such places, the grand hall of all of Kim’s gifts (I paraphrased a little bit) fortunately I was talked into by some of the other tourists to do the helicopter tour since they needed at least 7 of the 20 people to join. I reluctantly agreed since it cost about 160 USD. But I am glad I did, half way through the tour of Kim’s many gifts, we were whisked away to the airport to take a ride in an old 1980s Soviet helicopter, the windows were not great for photos, but the interior was quite nice in an old 80s Soviet kinda way. But the view of Pyongyang and the countryside is unforgettable.
One of my favorite places of the trip had to be the War Museum. We were taken around by this strict military clad woman, who showed us all of the captured American military equipment, including the US Ship Pueblo. We were also informed of all the American war crimes and how the US instigated the war against the poor North Koreans, we were not allowed to take photos inside the museum, but it was decked in fantastic marble and had tons of exhibits to be lost in for days. While the museum was very informative, there were many rooms with had exhibits showcasing dead American soldiers and the best one being a bleak scene with crows picking at dead American corpses, it was all wrapped up with a panoramic mural of the North Koreans fending off the Americans. So then comes the question, do the North Koreans hate Americans? Yes and No. They will say they hate the government and not the people, but no matter where you look, you will see tons of propaganda showing Korean boots on American GI faces and the capitol building on fire. When you tell someone you are an American they may gasp for a second, but quickly you will go on with your conversation like nothing has been said. All in all, it is perfectly safe being an American in the DPRK, as long as you can tolerate some of the Korean Propaganda and being told how bad your country is, also not to mention teasing from the other tourists in your tour group.
We took a long road out to the seaside town of Nampo to stay at a salt bath resort, there some of our guides cooked us oysters, cooking with straight petrol of course. Later at dinner the very kind guides presented me with a birthday cake.
The next day was a bit of a bore, we were taken to see the sea barges, which as nice as the sea was, I could have done without a 30 minute introduction video. But the fun dosent stop there, we were then taken to a sparkling water factory.
The Pyongyang Science and Technology Center is a new building dedicated to encouraging education in science to young people, especially if that is nuclear science. The building itself is in the shape of a nuclear atom and in the center is a “weather satellite”. There are small 4D theaters and many computes and libraries scattered around the complex. We found our way to the children’s play area where I found a young boy shooting down aircraft in an arcade game. I, of course, had to give it a shot (no pun intended).
The Children’s palace is a place for extra curricular activities in Pyongyang, we were taken around to many of the classrooms to see classes in action (although it was pretty obvious it was a big show for the tourists, tourists are invited once a week) we saw everything from drawing, to basketball, to singing and dance, to guitar and piano. Afterwards we were taken to a big auditorium where we saw a hour performance of song and dance put on by the children. The fake smiles and strenuous routines made me feel sick. I was fortunate enough to have a man who grew up in the Soviet Union to explain it to me, he said when he was a child he did the exact same thing and loved it, this put my heart at ease a bit, but still, I cant help but wonder what goes through the children’s heads.
If you have the opportunity to go to North Korea, do it. As an American it may make you think twice, but in the end the only problems that occur are the problems you create for yourself. Had a wonderful experience with Young Pioneers and the North Korean Tour Agency. As the manager of the tour company said on our last day, “Thank you all for your courage and trust in coming to North Korea, and especially for not listening to that filthy American propaganda” As long as you can roll with the punches and take it all tongue in cheek you will have a great time.