I tried to be selective in the people I told beforehand that I was going to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or, North Korea. There was no need to make my parents needlessly worry, and no need to draw irritating skepticism or criticism from others. For many I simply told them I was going to China, and was amused when some people reacted as if that was dangerous in itself. For those I did tell, the typical reaction was an incredulous “What! Why?” And the answer was usually “Because it’s there, and because I can.” In truth it wasn’t my idea, but my buddy Tim’s. I’m not sure why he chose the destination, but if I ever wanted to fulfil my dream of visiting every country in the world I was eventually going to have to go through North Korea, so I was in.
It was about 4:30 in the morning when we left a bar in Beijing, and with our North Korea orientation scheduled for 9:30 we thought it best to just stay up and power through it. Our drunken munchies were sated with a late-night dumpling run, and then we headed back to the hostel to pack. As I took my jacket off in the room Tim informed me in a startled manner there was blood on my shirt. And there was. A lot of blood. We racked our beer-soaked brains trying to figure out where it came from, as neither of us were wounded. Tim concluded that I had blacked out.
There were two other people heading out that day – an older Indian-American couple from LA. A British guide gave us the run-down of all the rules, guidelines, and customs we would need to know on our five day trip to the ‘hermit kingdom’;
- Listen to your guides
- Don’t photograph from the bus
- Don’t photograph any soldiers
- Be always respectful to the leaders, dead or alive
- Put flowers at the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il
- Don’t forget to bow
- Don’t wander off
- Don’t leave your hotel by yourself
- No GPS
- No cell phones
After about an hour of this he put us in a cab and sent us to the airport.
The landing in Pyongyang was the hardest I had ever experienced. A combination of a runway that appears to have not been resurfaced since its original construction in the 1950s, and military trained Air China pilots that lack finesse. After what seemed to be a needlessly long taxi, given there is only one operating airstrip, one terminal, and one flight per day, we came to a stop about two hundred metres from the terminal. The first thing you notice is all of the moth-balled aircraft in the Air Koryo fleet that are if not non-functional, at least not needed. I counted seventeen aircraft parked outside including Soviet made Antonov, Ilyushin, and Tupolev turbo-props and jets that are not really renowned for their safety records.
If I’m honest, my heart was racing as I approached the immigration officer. He was wearing the standard olive-green military uniform, complete with an oversized peaked cap adorned with a red star. After an agonising review of my documents that felt like an eternity but was probably only a couple minutes, he finally waved me through. We then went through customs where I was required to surrender my iPhone. I was given a receipt and told I could pick it up when I returned on Friday. All-in-all it didn’t take much time and was not nearly as difficult as I had anticipated. We cleared customs and were promptly met by our guides who would control our movement and rarely leave our side the next five days.
Our female guide was a rather good-looking 26 year-old woman named Han, and our male guide a 31 year-old named Che. Our driver was introduced as Mr. Cheng, the formal address a sign of respect to him as a worker. Guide teams are changed every week, assumedly to prevent a comfort level or bond forming between them and so their actions are always being monitored by an ever-changing counterpart.
As we drove out of the airport the first thing that caught my eye was the female traffic officer. She wore a bright royal blue uniform lined with golden fur, a fur cap, black stripper boots, and a smile. I would later learn that the requirements to be a traffic girl were that you had to be unmarried, attractive, and no older than 26. Che laughed when he told me that they didn’t know why, but as soon as they posted the traffic girls car accidents were reduced dramatically. Joseph Ferris has a great compilation of information about and photos of the traffic girls here.
The highway we travelled was surrounded on both sides by countless rice fields, turned a dull and lifeless golden-brown by the changing season. As we drove toward the city we passed an old truck with a dozen men aboard but lying motionless on the road with great clouds of smoke puffing out from the engine. Instead of the smell of burning oil, the smoke had the rather pleasant aroma of campfire. This was because the truck had been retrofitted with a wood gasifier that heats common firewood into a wood gas that can run an internal combustion engine. The concept was used throughout Germany and the rest of Europe during World War II as a consequence of gasoline rationing, and has been adopted by some resourceful North Koreans to deal with their own limited access to fossil fuels.
The sun was going down as we entered the capital city of Pyongyang, and I was struck by just how dark everything was. There was a limited amount of light to be seen coming from building windows, no illuminated billboards, and the streets themselves were sparsely lit if at all. It was also the end of the workday for most of the city’s workers, but vehicle traffic on the roads was light. That is to say it was non-existent. Instead the sidewalks were bustling with people making their way home in the dark. Our guides told us most walk at least an hour each way from their homes to their place of work.
We finally arrived at the Yanggakdo hotel where we would be staying the next three nights. The forty seven story hotel is strategically located on an island in the Taedong River. There are two bridges off the island, one to the north and the other to the south – both patrolled by soldiers. You are technically allowed to explore the island, but our guides asked us to have them accompany us if we so desired. As there isn’t much to see save the stadium on the southern end, we decided not to stretch our legs. The hotel itself has a pool, bowling alley, karaoke bar, billiards room, and to my surprise a casino. One curious thing about the hotel is there is no access to the fifth floor on the elevator. We had decided to play it by the rules on this trip so we didn’t investigate, but more adventurous people have accessed the fifth floor by the stairs and found the halls are filled with locked steel doors and unsettling propaganda. Most theories are along the lines of it being a communications floor where bugged rooms and tapped phones are monitored.
We had dinner that night in the “rotating” restaurant atop the hotel. As we were the only two dining in the entire restaurant that evening, they didn’t bother turning the rotating mechanism on if it even worked at all. Near exhaustion at this point having not slept in 37 hours, we retired to our rooms immediately following dinner for some much-needed rest.
- Esquire:North Korea: Where Everything’s Amazing and Everyone Is Happy (esquire.com)
- North Korea: Kim Jong-un’s half-brother and rival spotted in Malaysia (telegraph.co.uk)
- N. Korea draws visitors seeking peek at reclusive regime (usatoday.com)
- Inside the hidden world of North Korea (telegraph.co.uk)
- American jailed in North Korea asks for U.S. help to gain release (latimes.com)
- U.S. urges China’s efforts to obtain ‘early steps’ by N. Korea (koreaherald.com)