North Korea is a fascinating place to visit.. Definitely one of the more memorable trips I’ve taken in my life.
The North Korean style is to be quite reserved and polite, avoiding any kind of conflict. Add on top of that when you have a language barrier and guides that are told by the state to only show the positive side of the country, and you don’t get much real engagement. When I’d ask more probing questions, they would either say they didn’t understand or get distracted with something else. After a few days of this it was quite obvious what they were doing and I was disappointed by it.
Photos were also a real problem, we were not allowed to photograph military who where everywhere, we couldn’t photograph signs of poverty or certain areas relating to the leadership of the country. Please keep this in mind when you see my photos, I’d estimate about 25% of the photos would be different had I been allowed to take more of them.
We were taken on a fairly standard tour of major sites in the country and the two groups who were always present were North Korean military and school children. At one point, in the military museum where we were seeing captured vehicles from the Korean War, there was a scary moment.. I was surrounded by 300 military I was just alone with my guide — in general military have extremely unfriendly expressions on their faces towards us, but this time it was worse. I didn’t understand why, until I realised later that this was the musuem where learning about all the bad things that happened to them during the Korean war!! And there I was, the representative of all the bad stuff!!!
I wasn’t a fan of the food – it was extremely low fat and little meat. As I’m returning to China I am really looking forward to eating some pizza, hamburgers and a nice steak with baked potatoes!
But, the beer was outstanding in the Yanggakdo hotel bar – they have a microbrew which is from a UK brewery that was acquired by the North Koreans and the entire brewery was moved to Pyongyang. It was a world class microbrew which would be well received in any major city around the world.
The population appears to be strongly aligned with the leadership of the country. We visited the international friendship hall, which is a collection of gifts given by foreign leaders to the North Korean government. The size and scale of it was astonishing, they literally have 100,000+ gifts laid out museum style across several buildings. For information starved North Koreans it clearly gives the impression that the entire world is supporting North Korea and its systems. But the most unexpected part was when we went to a special room containing a beeswax statue of the “dear leader” (as he is always referred to by our guides). We were made to smarten up our clothes (zip up coats, etc), be extremely quiet and one guy who was in a wheelchair had to stand up and walk in to the room. We went in, saw the statue in a room with soft background music, perfect lighting, and even a fake breeze fluttering through the leaves on a tree in the background. We lined up in front of the great leader and all made a bow, before then exiting. I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life.
Visiting the DMZ (demilitarized zone) was the highlight of the trip. I’d seen photos before of the shared area between the UN and North Korea, but it was something of a shock to see US military on the other side. I felt a lump in my throat like I was in a place I really didn’t belong.
All in all, the trip to North Korea was a fascinating experience. I hope they open up more and engage more with the west. Hopefully over time as technology becomes more advanced this will happen.
If you’re interested in a simple way to help improve things with North Korea, I’d encourage you to visit this page: