Looking at the title I just put, maybe I should have called it ” 5 crazy things I saw in North Korea” or ” 10 pictures the North Korea government does not want you to see” and other “North Korean porn” we see on the internet. I would have got some extra hundreds of views :). It has been a week since I am back to the Netherlands, and although I am still recovering from a nasty cold, I feel it is the right time to share some thoughts and facts about the trip and the country. If you want to know straight away the conclusion, here it is: they are normal human beings out there, they joke, they want good cigarettes and good liquor, they want to build a family and they pursue happiness, with their very own beliefs, folklore, illusions, constraints, and (sick) system. And I highly recommend the trip.
- It is relatively easy to go to DPRK. You can contact tour operators such as Koryo Tours – they are excellent. You pick up the package, send a deposit and they take care of the rest (visa, flight to Pyongyang etc.). The most challenging part I found is to reassure friends and family that it is going to be fine during the few days you are out of touch (and also some of the local jokes)
- The transition is gradual. You get briefed many times by emails about the rules of the country, then you get another comprehensive one in person when you arrive to Beijin. You are informed about interesting things to be careful about, such as not folding a paper with the picture of King Il Sung on it (and any other “leaders” for that matter), never cropping a picture of the statues while there, not bringing religious books etc. You have to keep it nice and neutral. Oh and bow to some of the statues when requested. And give your passport to the guides. The real first contact starts when entering the Korean plane. The crew is very polite and professional with a shining pin of one of the leaders. The screens shows propaganda songs. The tone is set! When arriving to Pyongyang, you see already some of the contrasts you will keep noticing across the trip: a big clean airport with only one plane. Giant monuments surrounded by empty neighborhoods. The customs are polite but they take note of how many books you brought, and allow themselves to open your laptop and check the movie folder. Of course, you could have put your anti-DPRK videos in other folders,indeed this check is actually useless, but hey it is the process, show them your Walking Dead Season 3 folder and move one. Keep it nice and neutral. Do not judge. Do not ask controversial questions. Don’t try to outsmart them even if they do not look very sophisticated.
- You are allowed to take pictures and videos. The “only” red lines are the army and construction spots. You can take pictures of the monuments, people walking, stores, schools, metro. You can in theory go wherever you want, but a guide has to go with you. It is neither because they don’t want you to talk to the locals – most of them do not understand English and are not rushing to have a conversation with foreigners anyways – nor about taking pictures of “embarrassing things” – we keep driving through poor neighborhoods and countryside. My guess is that they want to protect you from “temptations” such as laughing at an officer or stealing a propaganda poster. They are protecting you from breaking their rules.
- They try to show you their best . You feel they are grateful you made the effort and they do try to show you their side of the story. They try to share with you how life looks like there. It is common that, when driving from one spot to another, the guide starts lecturing about the health system , the education system or the sacrifices of one of the leaders. You quickly learn that their current and previous “leaders” are more than historical figures. They are godlike. Their actions, their philosophy, their decisions- fictitious or factual – are their religion.
Along the trip, you keep seeing poverty, lack of resources, lack of food but isn’t it the case of most of Asia, including China? My point is that poverty there is more shocking because it deeply contrasts with the massive monuments, the official narrative and the southern neighbor. Beside that, when you look at it objectively, it is just the result of yet another heavily mismanaged economy. And no, we could not visit any labor camp – probably because no one dared to ask…
- “They are like us” as one of the fellow travelers said. That’s obvious and surprising in the same time. There is no information about DPRK. The only thing you read is that people are starving under a crazy nuclear dictatorship. When I first arrived there, I kept thinking ” am I really shaking hands with a North Korean?”, ” am I really waving to North Korean kids?” “am I really having a North Korean beer?” “are they really smiling at me?” “do they really take the metro?” Some chose the answer” of course, stupid” and some kept believing it is all staged
Good trips challenge your assumptions, raise your awareness, show you that the reality is way more complicated that CNN, and leave many questions unanswered. It also reminds you to signup to that “introduction to photography” class you have been postponing.