North Korea hasn’t really received many creditable reviews as a tourist destination. With George Bush’s infamous ’Axis of Evil’ words and the fatal shooting of a 53 year old South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier, this isn’t the kind of publicity tourist boards want to receive. Such stories often fail to tell the whole story, and after researching our chosen destination thoroughly, as long as you abide by the country’s laws and customs, it’s probably one of the safest destinations in the world to visit. With your own personal guide and guard, the inability to delve from the set itinerary, coupled with the fear for potential criminals of being sent to one of the notorious gulags, the chances of a hassle-free trip looked high.
Unfortunately, the view of Americans in North Korea is still one of suspicion and hate. As my wife is from ‘The Land of the Free’, it meant we were unable to take the train across the border for fear of spying. Instead we were left to enjoy a flight on the national airline of North Korea, Koryo Air, officially one of the world’s worst airlines. All but two of their ageing seventies built Russian planes are banned from flying in Europe or America due to safety fears. We would be catching one of these for the short forty minute flights to the capital Pyongyang.
Normally I am one of the first people in the queue for boarding a flight. My tickets and passport in sweaty palms, ready to be thrust in to the waiting attendants face. This time was different. As the gate opened, my wife noticed that the passport number on her visa wasn’t correct. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have worried. But this was North Korea, a country that has sent many an American to their prisons for border infringements. With America running out of ex-presidents to save their ill-informed residents from long stints in labour camps, we were forced to make some urgent calls to the North Korean visa department.
After conversing the issue, I was a little worried that the first words I heard over the phone were, "Oh my God!" With two minutes left before the gate closed to our flight, I was told, "don’t worry, get on the flight and we will sort everything out for when you arrive." Trying to not worry that your wife could be whisked away on arrival as you fly on one of the world’s worst airlines wasn’t an easy thing to do. Luckily being the only Westerners on the flight kept our minds entertained. As other passengers stared at us like we were wearing strait-jackets and had just escaped from a mental asylum, a pretty air attendant bumped another passenger up to first class so she could sit and practice her English with us. Offering us a variety of must-see attractions worth seeing whilst in North Korea, she didn’t seem to grasp the notion we would never be able to use her advice, due to our fixed itinerary and inability to visit many of the places locals frequent.
After leaving us to carry out her job specifications, I was left to read a copy of North Korea’s only English language newspaper, The Pyongyang Times. Replacing the normal newspaper stories of rape and murder were propaganda-fuelled stories of their ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong Il watching a woman’s brass band and negative articles about their South Korean ‘puppet’ counterparts. Within no time we were descending in to Pyongyang. Rice paddies glistened below, like flooded plains. Surprisingly we walked through immigration hassle-free.
Meeting our guide and guard, who would watch our every move like hungry hawks during our time in the Hermit Kingdom, we made the short journey in to Pyongyang and to our hotel. After having our cell phones confiscated on arrival I was surprised to see so many inhabitants nattering away on their own handsets, technology I was under the impression was banned under the current regime.
It doesn’t take long to realise this secluded country is like no other. Roads are virtually empty. The few other vehicles you see are either military or public buses that look like they were taken straight from 1970’s hippy America. Inhabitants hurry along the empty roads on bicycles and foot to their destinations. With uniforms reminiscent of World War II, soldiers are evident everywhere. Not surprising when you consider five-percent of the entire population work for the military. It’s like stepping in to a time machine and transporting back to a bygone age. As night fell, streets remained under a blanket of darkness thanks to the lack of street lighting. The only buildings draped in light by the sporadic electricity supply were either impressive monuments or artistic Communist architecture.
The day before we arrived into Pyongyang, the leading Workers Party held their biggest party meeting in thirty years. Here they started the motions for choosing the country’s next leader, Kim Jong Il’s third son, Kim Jong Un, who would now be affectionately known as ‘The Brilliant Comrade’. With hundreds of party officials in the city, it meant our hotel, Yanggakdo Hotel, built on an island in the middle of the Taedong River, was full of high-ranking government officials. With plain suits draped over white vests, their attire seemed more suited for the likes of Rab C. Nesbitt rather than the country’s governing elite.
Like all North Koreans over the age of thirteen, these officials wore pin-badges of their ‘Great Leader’, Kim Il Sung, the country’s first leader who died in 1994. The God-like fanatical worship Kim Il Sung receives is at times unnerving.
When venturing to North Korea, you don’t really have any choice in the hotel you are given. You are always given the best and most secluded hotel to help curb curiosity levels and to promote an image of wealth and exuberance. Our hotel came complete with bowling, a nine-hole golf course, revolving restaurant, and a Chinese staffed massage parlour that offered the type of massages that would make a grown man blush.
It’s amazing how a place can differ from the images you previously had. I expected my hotel to be full of wire-taps and international arms-dealers, but as I rode the elevator to my thirty-third floor room, sharing it with government workers and a military official decorated in a multitude of stripes and medals, covering both sides of his shirt, I realised this wasn’t the case.
If being surrounded by such powerful members of the country’s political hierarchy wasn’t surreal enough, to be then led away for dinner into an empty restaurant designated only for foreigners, brought the reality of where I was flooding back. For a country experiencing possible food shortages and high levels of chronic malnutrition, I felt slightly guilty as I ate my seven course dinner, which I’m sure was a show of, "food problems, what food problems?" With the night still relatively young, my wife and I retired to the hotel’s bar, comically referred to as a tea shop, where we drank German-style North Korean beer, quite easily the best beer I have drank since coming to Asia a year ago. Retiring to my hotel room, my slight tipsiness added a new dimension of eeriness as I looked across the unlit, silent Pyongyang skyline.