When I told friends and family I was going to North Korea their initial reactions were “don’t you mean South?” “Why?” “Can you go there?” “Is it safe?” It certainly created a stir and much intrigue. Who would’ve thought there were tour companies offering visits to North Korea or should I say the DPRK – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as it is now known.
Before leaving home we had already been given an eighteen page document entitled ‘Notes for travellers’ and the first instruction was ‘PLEASE DO NOT TAKE THESE NOTES WITH YOU INTO NORTH KOREA’! The second page stated “Punishment for what are seen as crimes is disproportionate and exceedingly harsh. This is not something that should be whitewashed or downplayed at all. However, if you obey all of the country’s laws and rules, then you will face no punishment or problems at all”.
Radios must not be brought into North Korea, however, surprisingly you can take mobile phones, tablets, laptops, tape recorders, notebooks, pens and even jeans!
After a ninety minute briefing at the offices of Koryo Tours in Beijing my friend Matt and I left feeling very anxious and extremely nervous. Strict instructions were given regarding the removal of any inappropriate images on phones, books and cameras. Newspapers should be folded so that any pictures of the leaders Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un are not creased. Bibles or any books about DPKR such as the Lonely Planet/Brandt guide must not be brought into North Korea. Nor American or South Korean flags or clothes prominently showing these.
Matt had immediately started deleting ‘inappropriate’ images from his iPhone that night praying that he hadn’t missed any that could be construed as disrespectful by the immigration officers and his phone confiscated on entry into DPRK.
The flight from Beijing to Pyongyang took just one hour and before we knew it we were facing immigration officers and being instructed to open our suitcases. As I approached the security officer he took my mobile phone, passport and visa.
After going through the X-ray another security officer gestured for me to open my suitcase. “Books” he demanded. Easy. I took out my novel and Beijing Lonely Planet. But he wasn’t happy. “Book!!!” he continued to demand. I was baffled. I didn’t have any more books. Then I remembered my puzzle book. I quickly rummaged in my suitcase to find the third book. This pacified him.
The whole process was quite easy. As soon as they had seen all books and confiscated any they thought not appropriate then you were in. I was in Pyongyang. North Korea. It was very exciting and a tad scary.
The next day our jam packed itinerary commenced with The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. This is the Mausoleum where President Kim Il Sung and a General Kim Jong Il lie in state. Their embalmed bodies on view for their subjects to see. The dress code was shirt, tie and trousers (not jeans) for the men and trousers or skirts covering the knees for women with a top that covers the shoulders. Presentable closed shoes also required for both.
After depositing sunglasses and cameras in the cloakroom we were lead through security. We were then subjected to a thorough wanding and pat down by security before stepping onto a red escalator in pairs. Hands were NOT to touch the hand rail. At the top we then stepped onto a red travelator. Music played as we stood solemnly, the travelator moving us forwards. Through the windows on the left we could see a waterway with swans bobbing on the surface. To our right were manicured gardens. Huge pictures of the President and and General were on display along the long corridor.
Our guide, Miss Kim, pointed to a picture of some birds and said “even the birds were crying when Kim Il Sung died”. Koreans thought Kim Il Sung would live for an eternity. When he died in 1994 the nation was in shock. He was never going to die. How could this be? General Kim Jong Il then became leader until his death in December 2011. His son Kim Jong Un, the present Supreme Leader, then took his place.
I was told by another guide that Chinese tourists are no longer allowed to visit the Mausoleum as the are too noisy and disrespectful! I’m actually surprised that any tourists are allowed. It felt like we were intruding on the Koreans’ grief.
After walking through a short tunnel with lots of blowers to ensure any loose bits were removed from our bodies we entered the first room. Eerie red lighting gave me goosebumps as we lined up in rows of four. Hands by the side we marched into the room towards the right side of the President’s embalmed body. Led by Miss Kim the first row of four bowed. My technique was to look at Miss Kim’s shadow on the floor as I bent . I’d count in my head one, two, three, four and then the shadow would rise. This was my cue to also rise. Then a walk around the body to the feet and repeat. Left side repeat. Then out of the room. It gave me even more goosebumps.
The whole process was repeated for Kim Jong Il. I very nearly lost our group when looking up at the huge pictures of the President and General on the walls. A sharp right had been taken down some stairs whilst I was straining my neck looking up at the walls. “Sharon! Over here!” My fellow travellers shouted me back. I quickly rejoined the group. Phew! I did’t relish the idea of being arrested wandering down the corridors of the Mausoleum.
The Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) is a strip of land that separates North Korea from South Korea. It was established after the signing of the Armistice Agreement at the end of the Korean War in 1953 acting as a buffer between the two sides.
As we drove up Miss Kim gave us strict instructions not to take photos until we were through the pathway that led to the actual border line that divides the two countries. A gate was opened and we drove down a narrow walled road with huge boulders along the top of the walls. Wooden wedges could be seen under each boulder which was also cemented to the top of the wall with wires leading to what I was told were explosives. A quick way to stop any unwanted visitors! Apparently there are also mines fields should the stones not crush you.
We eventually came face to face with the border line that ran through a row of the blue and white meeting huts; blue for the US/South Koreans and white for the North Koreans. Soldiers are dotted everywhere watching us and high masts holding many cameras were also trained on us. It was very militarised for a demilitarised zone!
The atmosphere was softened when French traveller Vincent took a Polaroid picture of our group with the soldier who was appointed to escort us. He was astonished by the instant photo that spat out of the camera. He started showing all his fellow soldiers. They were all looking at the instant snap in wonderment. Poor Vincent was then asked to take many more Polaroid pictures of each of the soldiers for them to take home to show their loved ones. Everyone was laughing including the soldiers. It made for a nice end to our visit to the DMZ.
This was the most spectacular show I have ever seen. ‘Mass’ is an apt word to describe this. Due to an ‘important guest’ attending the show we endured a four hour security check before being allowed into the May Day Stadium. The Stadium erupted when special guest Kim Jong Un entered. I had goosebumps yet again all night.
I have recorded this special day on a separate blog post: 70th Anniversary Military Parade and Mass Games
• No men in North Korea have a beard – they don’t like them and they also scared some children we met!
• All Koreans wear a pin badge of either Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il or the Korean flag
• They believe they won the football World Cup and have propaganda posters depicting then holding the golden ball trophy!
• All meals are come with the various meat and vegetable dishes first and when they are nearly finished a plate of boiled rice and a bowl of broth is served. This is the procedure at every meal.
• There is no road maintenance whatsoever. It made for a bumpy ride everywhere. But saying that the road edges were constantly being maintained with flowers lining the sides and the ground constantly swept.
• There are no prisons in North Korea just labour camps with three levels of severity.
• North Korea makes Singapore look dirty! It is immaculate. Everywhere.
Even with the major restriction of not being able to walk freely (without a guide) and to be confined to your hotel compound at night I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the DPRK and would recommend this experience to any other traveller. It was unusual, the itinerary exhausting, the food not my favourite but what an unforgettable experience. I loved every minute of it.