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North Korea

September 11th, 2011
Can you remember that when you visited your grandparents and upon entering their house it felt like being warped into a different universe? That it was like stepping into a time capsule in which nothing had changed for at least several decades, with furniture, wallpaper and utensils stemming from a an age gone by, originating from a world that eons ago changed into the one that you yourself are living in?

You will get a similar feeling when you visit North Korea, or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK in short, as the people that live there would like to call it. It is probably one of the least visited countries on Earth, and there is generally not much that people living outside of the DPRK know about it beyond the information they get from what the media broadcast. Given that North Korea is mainly in the news because of its long-lasting authoritarian dictatorship, its regular food shortages and its nuclear ambitions, the feeling that most of us have towards this country is rather negative. Let alone that there are many that feel compelled to visit it. All in all it makes for a great travel destination for people with a taste for the peculiar. And that wish to hear the other part of the Korean story.

Eternal President, Kim Il Sung (RIP),
composed of coloured tiles

Don't be fooled by the words Democratic and Republic in its name, though. North Korea is an authoritarian dictatorship of the worst kind. Any deviation from that which is dictated by the state immediately results in correction, either medium or severe. The worst offenders, and that includes family members of those who escaped the country, will be sent to re-education facilities, mostly never to be heard from again. Some of those who survived and escaped those facilities have chilling stories. Behave like is expected and you are fine.

Let's first talk about some of the misconceptions about visiting this country. Sure, you cannot travel independently in North Korea, but if you can cope with the limited freedom of movement, all you need to do is book with a local affiliate in your country and you can go. If you are not a journalist, that is. Both Americans and South Koreans are more than welcome, though. Another general misconception is that there is a tight control over what you can take with you into the country. Mobile phones had to be turned in and were sealed away, but laptops and even my huge 400mm zoom lens did not raise a single eyebrow. Border formalities are done in a whizz. Compared with the tense atmosphere, regular extensive questioning and compulsory fingerprinting, the border office of the United States resembles more that of a police state than the one at Pyongyang capital airport.

Boys and girls at the Arirang Games (Pyongyang)

It is true though that a group gets two guides to accompany you and your group during your visit. And it is equally true that you are only taken to areas that you are allowed to visit. North Korea is compartmentalized and even most North Koreans cannot travel from one part of the country to the other, let alone that they can travel outside the country. That privilege is reserved for those of whom the regime is absolutely sure that they will return. And because the country is compartmentalized, you do not get into areas where there are things that the government does not want you to see.

That said, I have seen an awful lot in nine days and was relatively free to point and shoot my camera anywhere, even from our tour van. The only explicit rule was not to photograph any military personnel, but I do was allowed to photograph all other people. Only with their permission, though, but the guides did their best to help me with that. When taking pictures of Kim statues and murals I had to make sure that He was in the picture completely and tastefully. The implicit rule was not to make North Korea look bad. For me there were only two moments in ten days when the guides stepped in because of that implicit rule. Once was when I wanted to photograph a boy in tatters and the other was when I wanted to shoot a shabby building. Hardly the censorship I had expected.

North Korean playground

The guides make or break a trip to North Korea. Our main guide had studied history and his aide had been in the military for ten years. With an army of about 1.2 million on duty, it is not strange to meet ex-military. The guides did their utmost to use their connections to get us into the places that we wanted to visit, putting a lot of effort in all the extras that were requested. Drinking and card playing sessions in the evening helped to gain their trust that we would not bring them any trouble because if anything goes wrong during a trip, it is not the tourist but the guides who will get punished. Surprisingly enough the guides hardly went on the propaganda-tour, and it was truly interesting to hear them explain some of the general North Korean views on world matters. In their turn they were eager to learn about Dutch customs and 'our' views of things.

North Korea has not been making the same headlines over the past decades. In the Fifties and Sixties, after the Korean War, the country experienced an unprecedented economic boom. But in the Seventies it slipped into a severe recession from which it never recovered. This recession was even worsened by floods in 1995 whose resulting famine, in combination with the deplorable state of the DPRK's economy, caused the death of an estimated three million people. From a population of twenty-three million that is substantial. Famines are still a daily reality for a part of the population.

Paying respect to the Great Leader (Kaesong)

You can probably imagine that as the country has been economically stood still for almost forty years, most developments in the DPRK have also been on hold for this time. This is most obvious when you wander around in the streets of Pyongyang. Although accompanied by the guides, walking around is a great way to see 'normal' city life. Electric buses, models from the Sixties, travel the streets. Traffic cops, usually ladies, guide the traffic in the general absence of traffic lights. Bicycles, most of which have license plates, are far more abundant than cars. If you do not include the dozens of propaganda posters and patriotic murals, advertisements are almost non-existent. The absence of capitalism means that the streets are free of attempts to sell you goods that you do not need anyway.

"Our Dear Leader Kim Jong Il visited us in 1998 to give guidance on how to grow the fruit trees on our collective farm. When he approached this fruit tree he asked how many fruits it bore. Nobody knew exactly but the soldiers accompanying him guessed that it had 500 fruits. Our Dear Leader, however, said that it had 800 fruits. When our Dear Leader had left we plucked all the fruits and counted them. It turned out that there were 804."

Kuryong Falls

The Kim-cult is everywhere and inescapable. And the North Koreans take it very seriously. On a macro level, it manifests in the numerous portraits and statues of the Great Leader and Eternal President Kim Il Sung, and it can be found all over North Korea. On a micro level it shows up in the shape of a Loyalty Badge with his portrait, something that all North Koreans wear. Maybe it is worth stopping reading for a minute and imagine that everyone in your country wears a badge of your countries' leader. To succumb to that is probably most people's worst nightmare. It is daily routine for the North Koreans though.

Great Leader Kim Il Sung has been dead for seventeen years, but technically speaking he is still the president. His successor is his son Kim Jong Il, generally referred to as Dear Leader or even sometimes as The General. He has kept the cult around his father intact, who had been an important guerilla fighting against the Japanese occupation, and draws from it by claiming that he acts in his will. This most probably is the case. Central in the state ideology is the Juche Idea that promotes self-reliance and doing things without the need of others as much as possible. In itself there is nothing wrong with that, but in economics any first-year student can explain that an economy not integrated with others is a certain sure road for disaster.

Dressing up for Liberation Day

Kim Il Sung is on display in his mausoleum, a palace that makes the mausoleums of Mao in Beijing and Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi look like shoeboxes. It is an eerie place that has long corridors with escalators that conveniently carry visitors to the embalmed body. Numerous security checks and ?cleaning places? add to the atmosphere. Visiting the old Kim requires first visiting an immense white statue of him in the hall, and subsequently paying respect with three bows, to be done at his glass encased body. For those who would cringe at the thought of bowing to this man, it might help to imagine that you are bowing for the North Korean people and their hardships. But still, the extensiveness of the Kim-cult is simply unreal, certainly compared with the impact of the system on the everyday life of the North Koreans. Anyone who suffers from a severe megalomania complex should be sent to this mausoleum and will instantly be cured from his or her madness.

Propaganda, which I define as blaring out a one-sided view without regard for other views, is everywhere in North Korea. Sometimes it is handy to listen to it to get a feeling for different opinions. Propaganda is especially apparent in the War Museum where anyone but North Korea is blamed for the Korean War. Most scholars outside North Korea nowadays agree that all sides were elemental in getting the situation on the Korean Peninsula out of hand, and there is general agreement that the North started the war with an attack that almost drove the Americans into the sea. This was after Kim had allegedly asked patron Stalin for permission to do so. It goes without saying that the North Koreans have a different opinion on matters.

The eerie, futuristic-looking Ryugyong Hotel (Pyongyang)

There is an obviously large amount of negative things that can be said about this country, giving its deplorable state. But after a few days travelling in North Korea something rather peculiar happens, because you go beyond the obvious. You start to see through the monuments dedicated to a system that is alien to the one that you live in. You start to see through the one-sided narrative. You start to see, however difficult, through the all-ubiquitous Kim-cult. You start to see that things are far more complex than that which is obvious. You start to see the North Korean people.

You then see people relaxing at the beach, engaging in conversation, studying foreign languages, playing games or drinking a beer; laughing, smiling, having fun with their kids and doing the everyday things that they do. They are people like you and me. The difference with 'us' is that they are caught in a fossil totalitarian system whose expiration date is long over but from which they are unable to escape. A system that came to birth during the Cold War, due to powers that were much larger than the Koreans themselves. Powers that have split the country in two. In a way, North Korea is still in the middle of that Cold War.

Metro Station 'Prosperity' (Pyongyang)

Thus, to define the Koreans living in the North in terms of the system that they live in is a gross mistake and does not do them justice. Maybe surprisingly, but they are not the brainless zombies that one would expect from people living in a country whose system resembles George Orwell's 1984 more than any other country in the world. And it is a relief to see that even in such conditions humanness managed to carve out a piece of existence.

Reunification is a central theme in the North Korean psyche and no opportunity is left to promote it. But there is also a fear of being gobbled up by the economically powerful South in case of a reunification, with little room for a North Korean voice. That became apparent when one of my guides looked horrified when I told him that I hoped that the reunification of Korea would be just as peaceful as in Germany. To them, East Germany was completely annexed by West Germany. It took me some time to understand this. The North Koreans have, how weird this may sound, a society in which they feel there is order and predictability and where the negative aspects of capitalism are absent. They fear a society where it is all about the money and where the cohesiveness and focus on family values is lost. It might lack substantial ground but the fear is real, albeit due to sixty years of propaganda. Talk to anyone from former Eastern Germany about what they miss most from before Die Wende, multiply it by three, and you will understand what I mean.


The North Korean national character, if such a thing as national character exists in reality, is most visible during the Arirang Mass Games. These games are a yearly artistic and acrobatic performance that includes 100 000 performers, including 12 000 students that turn coloured tiles to create backgrounds for the show. The Guinness Book of Records lists it as the largest performance on Earth. In the two hours show various aspects of the (North) Korean culture are on display, with intricate attention to detail and synchronicity. Items include the wish for reunification, the countries friendship with China, the brutal forty years occupation by the Japanese and the glorification of the Kims. The latter element became famous in a Dutch TV commercial that allegedly infuriated the North Korean government. The Arirang Mass Games are a moving show that is worth visiting twice!

The Arirang Games are the embodiment of the North Korean cohesiveness and the discipline it so much favours. Sure, there is a Neurenberg/Riefenstahl-like effect resulting from it. If I were a North Korean sitting in that stadium, I definitely would like to be part of that which cultivates such a show. However strong the hardships of the North Koreans, Kim Jong Il is still theirs.

Studying under the watchful eyes of the Kims
(People's Study House, Pyongyang)

At Beijing airport I saw a Westerner with a Loyalty Badge. Our group had spotted him before, when we visited the Children's Palace in Pyongyang. Out of curiosity I approached him and asked him where he earned his Badge, as I know it is not possible to buy it. He appreciated my way of asking and told me that he has had a fascination for the country since he was young, and that he now works for the North Korean government, taking care that e-mail and Internet is available in the country and open to use. "It took me a lot of time to gain the trust of the North Koreans but now I am happy to serve our Dear Leader," he said, "And I am from Norway, by the way." Recently Norway has had its fair share of eccentrics, but I had never guessed that I would actually meet a real Kim-o-phile in the flesh. These Kim-fans have been immortalized by the movie Friends of Kim released in 2006, and truly think that the DPRK is heaven on Earth. Unfortunately the Chinese border guard was impatiently waiting for me to end the conversation.

Back in Beijing I started to realize what a surreal experience visiting North Korea had been for me. In the streets a multitude of cars were claxoning, the light of neon signs blinded my eyes and small kids were yelling and screaming while playing. The contrast with North Korea could not have been greater. Though close allies in the past, China has taken a giant leap towards loosing the shackles of its former system.

Hoping for a unified Korea

Visiting North Korea probably creates a moral dilemma to most people, because spending your tourist Euro?s, the foreigner's currency generally used, also means filling the pockets of the regime. So to speak, with every beer that you drink, Kim is closer to an additional nuke (which makes a great toast by the way). I think differently though. Rising tourist numbers means that more North Koreans get in contact with the outside world. And more importantly, they learn that this outside world is generally friendly and is also hopeful of a reunified Korea. By visiting you can help them make the transition while simultaneously experiencing something which will probably not be there anymore in the near future. Sure, the regime has survived for sixty years, including a massive famine. But with almost all its former Communist friends gone, and with even China uneasy about North Korean developments, something has to go. Visit it while it lasts, including the Arirang Mass Games, as it is unlikely that humanity will ever again be able to put such an immense performance together.

I am sitting in the dining room of the North Korean hotel near the sea. It is a spa hotel and I just had the privilege of bathing in Radium-enriched water. Though radioactive, it is supposed to be good for one's health. I cannot help wonder if this is the place where Kim gets the isotopes for his nukes from. The refrigerators are filled with many different kinds of drinks, and unlike in other places, even Coca-Cola is on sale here. It is even cheaper than at home. Apparently it is a hotel that is also frequented by the Working Party Cadre. Then I hear Frank Sinatra singing 'My Way' in the background. It could have been about the Kims, who also did it their way, with the end now nearer than ever. Hopefully the curtain wil close in a way that will benefit the Korean people.

Warm regards,

Next time: China's Highlights

Last time: The Naadam Festival

Mural with Great Leader Kim Il Sung
and Dear Leader Kim Jong Il
(Children's Palace, Pyongyang)
The May Day Stadium fits 150 000 spectators
and hosts the Arirang Mass Games (Pyongyang)
12 000 students sit at the opposite side
(Arirang, Pyongyang)

With coloured tiles they create a multitude
of backgrounds (Arirang, Pyongyang)
Practice run in drumming
(Arirang, Pyongyang)
The Arirang Mass Games is the world's
largest performance, with 100 000 performers

Acrobatics are an integral part of it
(Arirang, Pyongyang)
Many aspects of (North) Korean culture are shown,
with amazing discipline and synchronicity
(Arirang, Pyongyang)
It is one of the most impressive man-made
things that one can see on this planet
(Arirang, Pyongyang)

Woman with an umbrella.
And the Loyalty Badge that every North Korean wears.
The Arc of Triumph celebrates the end
of the brutal Japanese occupation of Korea
Martyrs (Pyongyang)

The mausoleum of Kim Il Sung
The Juche Tower,
dedicated to the state ideology
At the beach

Mosaic in which the Great Leader gives guidance
to his son and the people
Rowing boats (Pyongyang) Fa?ade of a cinema

North Korean flags The De-Militarized Zone (DMZ),
seen from the North Korean side
Officer at the DMZ

One of the last remaining buddhist
monks in North Korea
Temple roof Woman with a fan

The ten-lane freeway between Nampho and Pyongyang
has apparently been build for future traffic volumes
Most North Korean TV programs
have a strong patriotic undertone

Calligraphy at the Children's Palace
Performance at the Children's Palace

Construction work (Pyongyang) Metro ladies (Pyongyang) Metro station 'Glory' (Pyongyang)

Reading the latest news
The Reunification Monument

The North Koreans have a strong opinion
on who started the Korean War
(War Museum, Pyongyang)
Inside the USS Pueblo,
a US spy ship that was caught in North Korean waters
No, this is not a nuclear explosion.
It's the sun going down,
like in any other country

A photo of Kim Jong Il at the West Sea Barrage (Pyongyang) Studying Kim Jong Il's teachings,
to the delight of our guides