North Korea

After World War II, Japanese occupation of Korea ended with Soviet troops occupying the north, and US troops taking the south. A three years war ensued between the two Korean sides, until an armistice in 1953 officially created a South and North Korea. For decades on, North Korea has been one of the world's most secretive societies. A most extreme communist dictatorship characterised by an excessive cult of personality, an ongoing confrontation with the USA and just the fact that it is so shut off from the rest of the world – a visit to the most isolated nation on Earth is an experience like no other.

It may indeed come as a surprise to many that not only it is possible to travel to North Korea as a tourist, in fact it's one of the easiest countries to visit. Though not in the "normal" way and there are severe restrictions. Independent travel is not allowed at all, you have to go on an organized tour with guides. There are many Western run agencies who organise tours, however I went with a Chinese one as not only it's cheaper, but you also get more freedom with a Chinese group. In fact, vast majority of tourists who visit North Korea are the Chinese. For them it's like a trip back into time, to a China in the 1970s. The agency organises the visa, accommodation, itinerary and meals. They brief you about dos and don'ts. What you get to see in the country is pretty much predetermined by what the Koreans want you to see.

Just a few more general points that have to be understood about travelling to North Korea, or the DPRK, as the country is officially called. During your stay, your passport will remain with the guides until the end. You will be asked to respect the Korean people living habits, and ideological concepts. Criticism or arguing about North Korea politically with your guides is pointless, and actually counterproductive. Just go along with everything. "If any problem arise from disobeying the rules, you will have to deal with the problem yourself" was the last reassuring statement from the Chinese travel agency.


Flight to Pyongyang

Air Koryo is the state-owned national flag carrier airline of North Korea. I flew with Air Koryo from Shenyang to Pyongyang and I was pleasantly surprised. The staff were extremely polite. The amount of legroom was greater than many modern airlines. The seats were comfy. There were reading materials offered such as military parades photo albums, or even the English version of the "Pyongyang Times" newspaper. There was video entertainment too, with shared TV screens showing North Korean TV shows, that looked like were made some forty years ago.



Kaesong is the only city with an old town centre in the whole of the DPRK. The reason why it was spared from the total bombing of the North by the USA is simply the fact that Kaesong used to be part of South Korea during the war. The demarcation line at the end of the war was not drawn exactly identical to the one in place at the start of the conflict, and so Kaesong ended up to the north of it. Kaesong is used as a lunch break stop on the tour. Unfortunately, the old parts of Kaesong are not treated as a tourist sight by the North Koreans, don't expect to see much of the old town. Luckily, I did manage to sneak a peek at the old Korean-style houses and roofs. Kaesong is also famous for its ginseng, reputed for many medicinal properties.

An eerie site en route is the stop at a "rest house" over the empty motorway about halfway to/from Pyongyang. It must be the most pointless motorway cafe in the world. Since there is practically no traffic on the motorway. It is deserted unless a tour group turns up. So clearly its only purpose in life is to sell drinks and souvenirs to the few foreign tourists en route to the Kaesong/DMZ. But the best bit is the view over the deserted motorway. A couple out of our group even had a little waltz in the middle of the motorway, without having to worry about any incoming cars. The empty roads were probably the reason behind our driver proud exclamation that he's been driving for 60 years and never had an accident.



Panmunjom-DMZ is the buffer zone between North and South Korea. It was in Panmunjom that the opposing sides in the Korean War signed an armistice in 1953. To this day, the huts standing directly on the demarcation line are the venue for negotiations between the two sides. DMZ stands for "De-Militarized Zone" but in actual fact this is the most militarized zone in the world. It is guarded by over a million soldiers, a great majority of these on the North side – the DPRK has the world's fourth largest standing army. It is also said that the military installations would have enough ammunition for 48 hours of constant firing. To avoid direct clashes, the DMZ serves as a buffer zone between the two Koreas. It also has to be remembered that there has never been a peace treaty, only an armistice. So technically speaking this is still a war zone. And Panmunjom is a designated "Joint Security Area", the only point, where North and South actually stand face-to-face and where you can see the actual demarcation line.

The centrepiece of the DMZ is the row of small blue huts that sit directly on the demarcation line. Beyond the blue huts on the Southern side stands a more recent hi-tech building – this is where you may spot the South Korean soldiers with their mirrored sunglasses and shiny helmets looking like something straight out of an american action movie. Do not greet, or wave to South Korean soldiers!
The highlight is going inside the actual blue hut in which the negotiations between the two opposing sides still take place – obviously not when tourists are visiting. It was there that a military officer pulled me to the side. He asked me who would win in a war between North Korea and the USA. I simply replied that "it would be a clash of titans". He seemed satisfied with that answer.


Mount Myohyang (Hyangsan)

Myohyang-san is where you get a glimpse of the lovely mountainside. It's named after the mystic shapes found in the area. It's sacred as, according to legend, it was the home of the forefather of the Korean people. Unfortunately the trip starts with a wasteful 3 hours visiting the "international friendship hall" where gifts presented from all over the world to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are displayed. "North Korean leaders received over 30,000 gifts. No other leaders in the world received that many" proudly exclaimed the tour guide. Nearby is Pohyon, a beautiful 11th century Buddhist temple.



Pyongyang was basically bombed flat by the USA in the Korean War. So everything is new, built in the post-war period. This gives the city a pretty unique look. The cityscape is dominated by rows of large residential blocks and appealing newer ones of a pretty impressive scale, lining wide boulevards – with very little traffic on them. Pyongyang is extremely clean, cleaner than most western cities in fact. You will see loads of socialist realist murals and propaganda posters everywhere in the city. What you won't see is commercial advertising – which makes the city look very much like Eastern Bloc cities during the Cold War.
At night, a general power shortage means that traffic lights, street lights and most other public light is absent, and thus the city's night skyline is eerily pitch-black, only punctuated by occasional dim light bulbs in private homes. In stark contrast to this, the grand monuments of the capital are always brightly floodlit, guaranteed by a separate power supply, so they remain shining brightly even when the rest of the city is shrouded in darkness.

Pyongyang is where I got to interact the most with locals. First during a trip to a high school where I got to converse and play football with the students, even though we had no common language to communicate with. At my hotel, I spent the evenings with local businessmen. We went karaoke with the waitresses from the hotel bar. I usually hate singing but when the cute waitresses gave me puppy eyes and asked me to croon, I felt like michael jackson. They taught me that when a guy want to ask a Korean woman to marry him, he would ask her "when he can eat her cold noodles".


Pyongyang metro

The Pyongyang Metro is an impressive engineering feat. It's the deepest metro system in the world, and the ride down the escalators takes several minutes. The stations are adorned with grand socialist mosaics and splendid chandeliers. No commercial advertisements anywhere. Locals were reading newspapers on display while waiting for trains, nobody had a cellphone. We only took a short metro ride, re-emerging at the next station. There are apparently 16 stations in total. It's also interesting to note the massive blast doors at the entrances, as the metro tunnel system doubles up as nuclear bunker.


Train Pyongyang Dandong (China)

During my train ride from Pyongyang to Dandong {China}, I was able to see the day to day lifestyle of the common North Korean countryside folks. Beyond the glamour of Pyongyang, there are endless string of villages with people just going about their daily life. Most people were working on their fields, students playing sports, locals fishing in canals and soldiers standing guard. Bicycle was the main transport, and there were even people idly standing with pumps in case a cyclist needs it. For what it looked, people seemed content with very little expectations. They seem to lead a very simple life.