My five days in the DPRK (a.k.a. North Korea)

I visited North Korea during the last Reading Week.

The giant statues of the late Kims at the Mansudae Grand Monument.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), often referred to as North Korea, is one of the products of the foreign occupation in the Korean Peninsula after the World War II. I am not going to focus on historical facts or political issues here—many people out there are much more proficient, knowledgable and qualified to write such stuff, and you can look them up on the internet. Here I will focus more on my personal experience and thoughts during my few days of stay there. Also, I will use the term DPRK instead of North Korea, because it is the official name of the country after all, and locals prefer their country to be called this way.

The Grand People’s Study House, situated opposite to the Kim Il-sung Square.

Visiting the DPRK is not as difficult as what people normally think. Obviously you cannot just stroll across its border with South Korea given the fact that the two countries are technically still at war. Instead, most travellers arrive in the country from its northern neighbour China. Individual tourism is nonexistent in the DPRK. All foreign visitors must join a guided tour organised by one of its few state-owned travel companies and be accompanied by the local guides at all time.

There are two options to get into the DPRK, by plane or by train. I joined a train tour because one can always experience more travelling via land than air. The train to Pyongyang, the capital of the DPRK, departs from the border city of Dandong, China everyday at 10am. Arriving at the train station, we had our first experience in meeting people from the DPRK. Distinguishable by the badges of the Kim worn on their chests, they queued for the immigration with loads of Chinese goods, mostly home appliances such as LCD TVs and cookers. Perhaps they were members of the many foreign workers who were sent overseas to earn foreign currency for their country.

The train operated by the Korean State Railway running between Dandong and Pyongyang.

The train crossed the bridge over the Yalu River, the river separating China and the DPRK, soon after leaving Dandong station and stopped at Sinuiju for immigration and customs. The late Kims hanged on the platform stared at us through the train windows, reminding us that we have stepped into their kingdom. Our only link to the outside world was the weak cellular signal from China, and was soon cut off as the train continued its journey to Pyongyang.

The stares of the late Kims.

The train passed through the North and South Pyong’an Provinces of the DPRK and made a few stops along the way, but we could only gave a glimpse of the rural area out of bounds to foreign visitors through the windows because we were not allow to leave the train carriages at all time. There wasn’t much human activity going on in the farmlands and even the train stations, probably because it was not growing season yet in early March. Occasionally, though, you could spot locals with their bicycles standing in the middle of the fields curiously staring at foreigners who were staring at them. That was perhaps the closest they could get to the outside world. Oftentimes railway line brings prosperity to the regions on the way, but the effect was not visible here in the DPRK.

The empty station of Dongrim on our way to Pyongyang.

After four hours of endless scene of villages and open field, urban constructions were now visible, a sign that we were finally approaching Pyongyang. The platform was crowded with people who were waiting for their families and friends arriving home as well as tour guides who were awaiting to greet excited tourists.

The platform of Pyongyang station.

In the following five days, we spent most of our time in Pyongyang, Kaesong, the city bordering South Korea, and Pyongsong, an industrial city. Our major mean of transport inside the country was a coach, which was imported from China recently and clearly stood out of the local vehicles that were mainly manufactured in the last century. We were brought to places where the authority wanted us to see, and our only way to “rebel” was to carefully catch sight of everything through the windows. The glass panel separated us from fully understanding the country, even though we could physically see what was happening outside. This was the closest we could get to the DPRK, similar to the distance the local rural residents could get to the outside world by staring at our train.

Our coach in the unexpected snowfall in Kaesong.

Indeed, we had plenty of chances to “blend” with the locals, for example taking the metro, shopping in a supermarket and walking in the streets, but even though we were in the same physical space, there was no interaction within the two groups. Our presence absolutely drew attention from the locals as almost everyone would look at us, but they would soon carry on with what they were doing. Yet, it doesn’t essentially mean that they were not curious about the outside world at all. Children are always a reliable indicator because they are relatively “uncontaminated” and thus tend to behave more unrestrictedly. The younger ones in the DPRK often appeared to be more excited when they saw us, and there were even two kids who approached us while we were on our way to the restaurant. Apparently, they were educated not to have unnecessary contact with foreigners, but the rules can never restrict their mentality.

Curious pedestrians.
The kids who approached us.

People often talk about how the tours in the DPRK are staged performance for the tourists. I intend not to vindicate the amount of control placed on tourists.The tour was designed in a way such that we were only shown a very little part of the country while assuring the interaction between locals and us were kept minimum so that the people can remain ignorant and the stability of the regime can be maintained. Having said that, does it mean that everything we saw in the DPRK was fake? I recalled a scene that a woman was squatting on the platform when we just alighted from the metro. A man nearby then reminded her of our presence and she stood up immediately. It reminded me of Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which he suggested that we are all performing in the society. As human beings, we always want to show the best of ourselves  and leave a good impression to the others. What the woman did was, without doubt, an act to leave a better impression to us. You could say that it was a performance, but, in fact, we are performing as well. The degree of performance in the DPRK is undoubtedly higher than many other countries, given that they are more backward than us, but I would not conclude that what we were presented were totally made up. Instead, they were tiny and better pieces of a bigger reality.

The lady who was squatting on the platform unnoticed of our presence.

Having visited one of the the most isolated countries in the world, I am surprised to find that one of the unintended experience was the amount of attention given to reality throughout the trip. Here reality is in contrast to the pseudo-reality of the internet. Because we did not have any access to internet during our stay in the country, we paid nearly full attention in observing our surroundings instead of Snapchatting and scrolling Facebook. We were also more eager to speak with strangers, such as other tour participants, tour guides and even tourists from other tour groups. We were forced to engage with one another more as well as to discover the country more than usual. Certainly, the idea behind the tightly controlled tourism is to avoid foreigners from knowing the full picture of the country, but together with the absence of the internet we seemed to be more critical of what we saw because we spent more time to observe and to discuss with others, which was not foreseen by the regime at the first place.

We were presented alternative facts about the Korean War by this guide at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

Whether or not to visit the DPRK is surely a moral debate. Many defectors have pointed out that the wealth brought by tourism does not benefit the locals at all. But does it mean that we can induce changes by leaving the country alone? During our stay, we visited the Kim Jon-suk Middle School No. 1 in Kaesong where we talked to elite students of the country. It is worth noting that the student who defected to South Korea during his stay in Hong Kong for the International Mathematical Olympiad in 2016 is actually from this school. I don’t intend to infer that our conversation with the students could provoke them to defect, but we could not deny the possibility. I believe that interaction is always better than isolation, because the latter could lead to a worse consequence.

The classroom of the Kim Jon-suk Middle School No. 1.

Another question that often bores the mind of people who want to visit, or have visited the DPRK is whether or not we are able to see the truth of the country. The straightforward answer is no, but it really depends on your mind and attitude when visiting the country. There is a saying that a tourist is different from a traveller. A tourist merely sees while a traveller immerses, discovers, understands and explores. The regime wants visitors to be tourists though forcing us into joining guided tours, but to be one or not is actually up to us. One can have less understanding of the local situation visiting a free country than another visiting the DPRK. You can be physically restrained but not necessarily mentally. Most importantly, first-hand experience is always better than just perceiving through secondary materials. Therefore, I am not against the idea of visiting the DPRK, given that one bares a proper mindset.

Kim Yon-a, one of our kind tour guides who treated us very nicely.

I can never forget the kind hospitality I received in the country. I simply hope that the tense situation recently would not further escalate, and huge changes would eventually arrive in the DPRK.

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