North Korea: Into the Hermit Kingdom

When people discuss potential holiday destinations, certain places come into mind.

Resort lovers and beach goers tend to think of places such as Bali, Phuket and Fiji, adventure enthusiasts look towards Africa, South America, India and South East Asia, and those seeking either a short, safe getaway, or a long-term student exchange tend to settle for places such as Canada, the United States, Great Britain and Western Europe. No one would even think or imagine a trip to one of the most secluded places in the world, but for me, the fact that it is essentially cut off from the rest of the world piqued my curiosity. That place is North Korea, officially known as the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK), and this is what I’ve seen inside the Hermit Kingdom.

View of Pyongyang from the Juche Tower
The view of Pyongyang from the “Juche” Tower. At night, electricity supply is intermittent and reserved for the political elite. To the left of the picture is Kim Il Sung Square.

Going to the DPRK isn’t particularly hard, so long as you are not a journalist or a religious preacher. However, it is hard to enter the country without being a part of a guided tour group that has been approved by the DPRK government to advertise tours within the country. So long as you are not a citizen of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), then you are eligible to join one of the many tour groups that are allowed into the country every year.

Mansudae Grand Monument, Pyongyang
Mansudae Grand Monument, Pyongyang

The moment you set foot onto a plane bound for Pyongyang, you are immediately hit by the huge cult following of the Kim family, the current ruling dynasty of the DPRK. The cult of personality that surrounds the first leader (the Eternal President) Kim Il Sung and his son, the second leader (the Eternal General Secretary) Kim Jong Il. Every person in the DPRK, from the air stewardesses on our flight, our state appointed guides, random adults walking the streets of Pyongyang and even the schoolchildren wore pins over their heart which depict either Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il or both. Furthermore, at every block in Pyongyang, there would be either a statue or a portrait of the two endearing leaders of the DPRK smiling down upon the populace.

Portrait of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Usually present in every room
Portrait of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Usually present in every room

Photos of the dynastic leaders must adhere to strict requirements. For example, I was not able to photograph portraits of the dear leaders in a certain angle at Kim Il Sung Square because the tram line runs past the murals, making it seem as though the line cuts the heads of the leaders in half.

The cult following and respect for the former rulers is only matched for their reverence of the state ideology of Juche – the idea of self-reliance and that the individual is the master of their own destiny. Its reach parallels that of a religion where the leaders are to be depicted in an unblemished light in a deity like status. This is especially demonstrated at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the former official residence of President Kim Il Sung that was converted into a mausoleum for the first two Kims. Described as the “most sacred place for Koreans” by my guide, the Palace includes rooms, portraits and statues of the two leaders in megalomaniac proportions followed by the rooms that house the two leaders entombed for the public to pay homage. This is further followed, bizarrely, by a room dedicated to the awards and accolades given to these two leaders, along with rooms dedicated to the travels of the two leaders, including the yachts, cars and trains owned by them. One guide exclaimed that the last leader Kim Jong Il died in his own train carriage, and when enquiring further as to the circumstances of his death, stated that he died due to “stress and hard work” (he is suspected to have died of a heart attack). The entire building serves to reinforce the deification of the Kim dynasty, a party sponsored apparatus to keep the people subservient to the state by elevating their status to that of living gods who cannot be criticized.  

(Story continued below)

Related:

 North and South Korea face off in the DMZ following escalating attacks on one another. Read more in North Korea: A Descent into War

Schoolchildren practicing for the parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party at Kim Il Sung Square
Schoolchildren practising for the parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party at Kim Il Sung Square

Contrary to the general consensus, North Koreans are well aware of the circumstances which they are placed in.

In my time amongst the people, it became quite clear that they know that their state is not as well-developed as many parts of the world with some even quietly conceding that the South Koreans are currently much better off due to the pace of technological advancement within their economy. North Koreans are also quite aware that they are politically and diplomatically isolated from the rest of the world. What’s interesting is that instead of attributing this lack of outside contact to their own regime’s actions they instead blame the United States for the economic and political hardships suffered by the country. The focus of their grievances rests on the economic sanctions that were placed upon them by the United Nations and members of the International community. It is their belief that it is through the influence of the United States in particular, the UN has been used as a tool to further impoverish the DPRK.

IMG_0237[1]
The author (centre) dances with locals during celebrations in Kim Il Sung Square.

Despite the political and economic consequences of being classed as a pariah state, the North’s people are quite upbeat and welcoming of foreigners in their country (even Americans, though they would have to endure continuous slander of the United States government). During my time in the DPRK, I had interacted with a huge number of schoolchildren in Kim Il Sung Square who were practising for an upcoming parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party. I joined in a drinking game with a couple of locals during the Liberation Day long weekend, and took part in numerous dance celebrations during the festivities, from dances in the local park, to the big mass festival held at Kim Il Sung Square. Through interacting with the locals, I can see that (barring the political circumstances of the country) they are normal folks attempting to make the best of the circumstances which they are given. The girls still laughed at my awkward dance moves and we cheered with the locals whilst we downed shots of some unknown alcohol. With the tour group I got to experience a North Korea with a human face. The leading tour guide, despite previously being a military officer in the Korean Peoples’ Army, demonstrated a sense of humour not normally associated with the pariah state – playing a prank on a fellow tourist by pretending that there was an issue with his visa and he was not allowed to leave the DPRK. So, it seems that the indoctrination of the people by the state can only go so far and in the end, you can’t control human nature. Outside of the political spectrum where there is only one acceptable ideology, the people of the DPRK are able to express themselves a little more freely, giving you a more genuine experience of hospitality that isn’t so different from their southern neighbours.

Schoolchildren practicing for the parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party
Schoolchildren practicing for the parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party

Travellers be warned – one of the true North Korean experiences that you will have during a trip to the Hermit Kingdom is the experience of having next to no privacy outside of your hotel room. For those of you who believe that our hotel rooms were bugged, my response is simple, and that is that the regime has no interest in the views of tourists and thus has no reason to listen in on the conversations of tourists. This is not to say our interactions with the general public wasn’t carefully curated. Our hotel, the Yanggakdo International Hotel (colloquially dubbed “the Alcatraz of Fun” by our Western tour guides), is situated on an island in the middle of Pyongyang which isolates foreign tourists from the locals. To leave the hotel you require supervision from a guide and throughout the tour, tourists are prohibited from straying away from the gaze of these guides or other government appointed minders. In the event that foreigners do successfully stray there are people on the streets that act as intermediary minders.

Mass Dance celebrating the 70th anniversary of Liberation Day from the Japanese
Mass Dance celebrating the 70th anniversary of Liberation Day from the Japanese

One example of the invisible surveillance surrounding us was when I and a couple of other tourists decided to socialize with some of the locals and participate in their drinking game. We had strayed away from the rest of the group and out of sight from our minders for a good 10 minutes when suddenly a seemingly innocent looking bystander came up to our group and said in perfect English “you guys should leave, your guide is coming to pick you up.” On cue our guide appeared over the hill signalling us to go. There have also been other instances where we have felt as though we were being watched and scrutinised, especially in places where we had the ability to interact with members of the public such as on the Pyongyang Metro, and during our visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. This Orwellian style experience gives a glimpse of the life of average North Korean citizens and the ordeals which they face. For our tour group, it was a sobering reminder of how an aura of mistrust and manipulation can be utilized in the name of “national security” to keep people in line in order to maintain the absolute power of the state.

Schoolchildren practicing for the parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party (view from Juche Tower)
Schoolchildren practicing for the parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party (view from Juche Tower)

Despite the political connotations, a visit to one of the most secluded and isolated places on the planet is an experience which can foster greater understanding of a society shrouded in secrecy. Due to the nature of the political system and leadership of the DPRK, some may argue that tour groups to the Hermit Kingdom do nothing but assist the regime by providing a vital source of foreign currency, and I can certainly understand that point of view. It is my belief, however,  that foreign visits benefit both foreigners and locals alike. For us, especially Westerners, it provides the chance and the opportunity to see a society whose entire existence is damned by our media and look beyond the hyperbole. This is a country that has been closed off to most foreigners for over 60 years and by providing this crucial outreach, North Korean citizens get to interact with people outside of the iron fence that has been placed around their country and possibly get a glimpse of the world outside of their own.

Juche Tower, as seen from Kim Il Sung Square
Juche Tower, as seen from Kim Il Sung Square

How North Korea changes over the coming years will be interesting to see. If it maintains the political path the Kims have enshrined, the question remains if the North Korean society can maintain its nature – frozen in time. For my part, in spite of the surveillance and invisible hand, I will almost definitely return. Change is always occurring, even in the Hermit Kingdom, and I would like to see the path which the DPRK takes in the distant future.

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