North Korea - View from the Inside

" is undeniably unique in this day and age. For many it will by choice understandably remain a mystery but for the curious traveller it offers many aspects that we look for when we decide where next to travel."

December 2013 • David Pattison, Former Head of Product and Marketing

North Korea - View from the Inside

Call DPRK what you will - an anachronism, a modern-day incongruity, a pariah state – but it is undeniably unique in this day and age. For many it will by choice understandably remain a mystery but for the curious traveller it offers many aspects that we look for when we decide where next to travel. However, such is the general media opprobrium towards DPRK, it is likely that you are not aware of those aspects so, following my own visit there (with my family!), I hope to dispel some of the disparaging, outdated and overblown myths that surround the country.

Before I begin I must emphasise that I am writing from a purely tourist point of the view. I am aware of the publicity, reports and stories of what happens out of sight of visitors’ eyes so, before you even consider travelling to DPRK, you will need to come to terms with their reported humanitarian record. However, it is fair to say that no country has an absolutely clean slate.

For anyone who visited China way back in the early 80s, that would be a good starting point by which to recognise present-day DPRK - a pure Communism model, an iconic all-powerful unquestioned leader, a distrust of the West, recent suffering at the hands of the Japanese and then a civil war, a siege mentality, much of the country off limits, massive roads but few cars and Russian-style architecture dominating wide open spaces. Now I can see that those characteristics alone would not immediately entice you to visit but infused in that list is a genuine welcome, some magnificent scenery, a defining modern history, many vestiges of the old Koryo civilisation, a well-ordered and entirely safe environment, no crowds, no traffic, some of the biggest and most dramatic monuments you will ever see and an atmosphere not even remotely menacing as some commentators would have you believe.

The capital, Pyongyang, is a relaxed, spacious city of wide, empty boulevards the size of runways, scrupulously clean with gardens and verges hand-manicured and an air of calm belying the recent March tensions. The predominantly white apartment blocks are punctuated by grand squares with massive heroic statues, most exalting one or all of the Kim dynasty or glorifying the ‘victory’ in the Korean War. Even in this landscape of colossi, Kim il-Sung Square dominates. It takes little imagination to stand there and visualise the military precision march-pasts and mass rallies, especially with all the numbered station points still painted on the ground. There being no concept of advertising in DPRK, street corners and façades are thus decorated with colourful military and political posters exhorting the populace to greater pride, loyalty and production and, of course, reminding everyone of the munificence of the ‘Dear Leader’.

Strangely our presence in DPRK caused less fuss and attention than in Beijing where many domestic Chinese tourists have still never seen Western faces before. We strolled the streets amongst the passers-by and nor were we corralled in special restaurants. Admittedly the hotel was purely for foreign visitors and, if time had allowed additional exploration, one of the guides would have chaperoned us. However, we never felt that any threats or propaganda had morphed us into foreign devils whom the locals should avoid at all costs.

The excursion to Kaesong to see the border with South Korea was a revelation, not particularly for the high-stakes military staring match between the two Koreas but for the journey itself through the DPRK countryside and a couple of chance sightings. Sometimes it’s the small things that leave an impression - we passed a community swimming pool, packed out and from which gales of laughter emanated and at King Kongmin’s tomb we ambled past a large group of adults and children having a picnic and singing. We ended up in a improbable impromptu dance together. Both instances contradicted the sweeping claim that lives in DPRK are grey and joyless.

I am not naïve: I know our tour as a whole was highly organised (cynics would say orchestrated) but not to the extent that we felt confined, overtly manipulated or that it was especially for our benefit. It’s a busy, tiring schedule but that’s as much because there are so many things to see rather than a subversive plot to prevent you from exploring on your own. Travel with an open mind. If you concentrate on those things you see rather than those you don’t, then DPRK has as much, perhaps even more to offer if you add the intrigue and exclusivity value than many other destinations. And one thing you are absolutely guaranteed – lively and stimulating conversations when you return home.

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