From the first time I saw Kim Jong Il’s circular face splashed across the media I was intrigued by the socialist, dystopian society he was in command. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea as it is commonly known to the outside world; was established after the Japanese Colonial Empire annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910; and the Soviet Union occupied the area above the 38th parallel.
North Korea remained a distant mystery to me until I watched Vice’s three part documentary series on the autocratic state which opened my mind to the potential of visiting the last remaining truly socialist regime; I was hooked.
Travelling to North Korea was hot on my agenda and became a matter of when instead of if; with the sole entry point of Beijing an expensive 14 hour flight from Melbourne. I received a chance when I enrolled in an exchange program at a university in Shanghai and was determined to take the opportunity. Solo personal travel is forbidden in the DPRK and a guided tour is the only way to see this strange nation; I chose Koryo Tours.
As excited as I was to visit the secluded state I was anxious at the thought of boarding a flight with the only 1 star commercial airline in the world; Koryo Air. My experience did not disappoint; the turbulence ridden flight was christened with military style flight attendants and warm Korean beer; but to my delight we safely arrived on the run way at Pyongyang Airport.
The customs at North Korea’s only commercial airport gave an insight to the suppressive socialist regime that operated in the country. The strict customs not dissimilar to those at Australian airports did not ask about fresh fruit and vegetables but instead about books and technology. I declared my Samsung Galaxy, Kindle and Lenovo Laptop; all of which were searched by the ‘computer expert’ looking for Anti North Korean material. Even though I had three Korean novels on the second page of my kindle; the tech wiz didn’t think to scroll through to the second page.
The day was drawing to a close so we checked into our rooms at the Yanggakdo Internal Hotel; located on an island on the Taedong River. Equivalent to a four star Western Hotel; there was everything to keep foreigners preoccupied, from a bar to a bowling alley and a casino; which was going to have to do as we were not allowed to leave without being accompanied by a tour guide.
The following days were spent touring the magnificent city of Pyongyang that is characterised by incredible monuments that pay respect to the Supreme leaders and incredible buildings that embody the socialist values of the nation. The government spends a disproportionate amount on buildings and monuments resulting in an abundance of magnificent structures but fail to cater for basic economic needs with power shortages a regular occurrence.
I was lucky enough to arrive in North Korea over the National Holiday of Victory Day; which celebrates the end of the Korean War. Hoping to see a military style parade we were left disappointed when we were told foreigners were not allowed to witness such a sight. We were however allowed to witness a mass dance in front of the Arch of Triumph in which around 10,000 young men and women danced together in appreciation for the Great Leader.
The opportunity to visit the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) was the highlight of my North Korean trip; one of the most heavily militarised zones in the world, it provided a truly eerie experience. Witnessing South Korean and United Nations flags in such close proximity served as a reminder to the seriousness of the politics on the Korean Peninsula. By coincidence we arrived at the DMZ at the same time as a South Korean Tour group; exposing the alternate experience those tourists must be having.
My experience in the Democratic Republic of Korea was bizarre, captivating and extremely depressing. The plight of the 20 million citizens within the country is locked in an outdated political system that projects self-sufficiency through control of all media and repression of information. The propaganda that is distributed through state owned media projects the leaders to god like status and relies on American hatred to control the bulk of the nation. Socialism projects equality for all but it is evident the class system in Korea is clear and distinct; favouring those aligned with the all-encompassing Party.
I had a tremendous time in North Korea and absolutely recommend it to anyone interested. Statistically it is the safest place to travel to in the world as the most common threat to travellers of petty theft and violence is eliminated due to its restrictive nature. Although the tours do feel like a sham at times; it becomes part of the experience and is the only way to experience the socialist regime that rules the nation. The tour only lasted 6 days but the experience provided an abundance of content that I just can’t fit into this article. If you would like to learn more about Juche and the socialist regime of North Korea I recommend the following novels I read to fine tune my knowledge:
- North Korea: State Of Paranoia; Paul French
- Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea; Barbara Demick
- Dear Leader; Jang Jin-Sung
Andrew H Morris
Photo Credit: Alexandre Le Beaudour & Andrew H Morris