My name’s Dominic Perry and I’m a student at Belfast Metropolitan College. I’ve spent my whole life in Northern Ireland and only rarely been able to truly travel abroad to see the far off reaches of the world. As a lot of people probably know, this country is a particular pain in the ass to get anywhere interesting from, generally needing connecting flights to just to get out of Europe at all, so I needed to plan my trips carefully to deal with the cost. But if I’m only going to get one trip abroad per year, I might as well make it somewhere interesting, right?
I’m sure everyone at this point is at least somewhat aware of the peculiar status of North Korea. Whether it’s just knowing that they’re developing nukes and that the western world would quite prefer that they didn’t, or knowing the long and fascinating history of one of the last bastions of the vanquished side of the Cold War, the country holds a certain fascination for many around the world. How many countries are left where the most basic, trivial questions like “Do they have pizza there?” and “How big is their railway system?” are answered with such uncertainty? Nobody seems to actually know! Nobody knows the average, every-day life of a North Korean citizen or just what it’s like to actually be there.
Many people aren’t even aware that it’s possible to visit the country and see for yourself. Others may know of it, but write the idea off as being either dangerous or too strictly guided to be worth anything. What’s the point if you’re only going to see a fake highlight reel full of actors in buildings that aren’t actually being used, right? Well, I thought it was worthwhile to check it out anyway. Truly, how much can you fake an entire way of life? Even if things were heavily planned from the outset, nothing can ever be perfect. Seeing through the cracks would be sure to give me a few interesting stories to tell anyways.
This is the mindset I went in with and this is where I, along with many others on my tour, were proven quite wrong. You see, I was right about one thing. You can’t completely fake an experience for busloads of tourists. What I didn’t get is the fact that they mostly don’t seem to bother trying! When you’re driving through the streets of Pyongyang in your tour bus, you can look out and see everyday life going by in all its banality. Thousands of people walking the streets, riding the buses and trams, riding bikes, sitting around and gossiping, exercising in public spaces, etc. It would be both impossible and largely impractical to set up all this in advance for every tour that comes in near weekly, often with multiple groups traveling at the same time.
But of course, this is all just seen from a bus. Why would a view from a bus be worth chartering a flight over and wasting hard-earned money? People take videos from the buses, you can see all this on Youtube if you’re so inclined! Well, it’s when you get off the bus that things start to get interesting. Your guide is with you, but you have a truly surprising amount of freedom in traveling around the general area. You spread out in a big group, take your photos, just generally don’t go out of sight. Even if you do, as happened on my first trip (don’t worry, we’ll get to the second soon), but the result was just a few minutes of searching for the missing tourist and on we continued. Those little moments of distance from the tour group itself were especially unique, getting to see the everyday Korean people up close, smile and have them smile back. Sadly I’m not a Korean speaker, but one person on our tour actually was! The extra special interactions must have been a real treat.
Where things got especially free was at the various different enclosed locations we visited, where we generally had free reign to travel as we wished. At a bowling alley, at a theme park, at a waterpark, at the supermarket, at the beach, etc. They can’t keep an eye on everyone in such a large space! At the waterpark especially, it really struck me just how close I was getting to the life of everyday Pyongyang citizens. There was a moment in one of those wave-making machines where I found myself surrounded on all sides by curious Korean citizens of all ages. Children, teenagers, parents with babies and grandparents too, all curiously looking at the pasty Irish guy. They were smiling. Not in an uncanny-valley sense of identical rictus grins, but curious, friendly smiles that showed they’d have happily talked to me if we shared a common tongue. The kids were especially happy to show that off, using their limited English to call out “Hello! Nice to meet you!” just as a way of showing off to their friends.
Perhaps even that isn’t convincing enough, or maybe it’s still just too choreographed to get any interest out of. Well, that’s where another expectation was shattered. The itinerary we were shown for the tour beforehand? Most things occurred largely out of sequence. There were several times where we were given the choice on what to do first, then most exciting of all, there was the question “What would you like to do?”. Having seen some of the other itineraries, there were a few things I really wanted to try out. I suggested going to the shooting range and so, to the shooting range we went! (Turns out I’m a half-decent marksman if I do say so myself.) Another time, I said I wanted to walk along Mirae Scientists Street at night, so we did that too! To the point that I was allowed to run off by myself to a far-off bridge so I could get the perfect shots from the balcony out onto the road below, entirely unaccompanied!
Through all of this I’ve probably given the impression that the best part of visiting North Korea is getting away from the guides. Not-so! The guides are their own attraction altogether, giving a fascinating window into the lives and mindsets of Korean people. A fair bit of healthy skepticism is always understandable of course. They aren’t going to start randomly talking smack about their own country and asking you to help them claim asylum, but you’ll certainly find they’re a lot more like regular people than some talking heads on the news would like you to believe. There was one guide who explained to me how she wasted her university years playing Counter Strike and spent a few surreal minutes trying to get me to explain the concept of Donald Trump’s Twitter account to her, another who swept me off my ass in Korean wrestling and got utterly smashed on whiskey with me, along with yet another who ended up watching The Simpsons for the very first time with me on my laptop. They’re curious about us in the same way we’re curious about them and if we give them the respect we ought to give to anybody, you can have some of the best experiences of your life getting to know one-another.
On that first trip to North Korea, I went to the capital city of Pyongyang, the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, the ‘old capital’ of Kaesong and another small city called Sariwon between the new and old capitals. Truly amazing as this experience was… I felt it wasn’t enough. This was still just a clip-show of the best parts, surely. It wasn’t like, say, the extreme northern region of North Hamgyong province which was hit hardest by the famine of the 1990s. ...So that’s why I went there on my second trip.
Contrary to popular belief, a tourist trip to North Korea is not just its capital and a few dolled up subsections of the country. North Hamgyong is what some might call the ‘real’ North Korea. With one major exception being that contrary to popular perception of the ‘real’ North Korea as being full of grim-faced, starving peasants in rags, it was full of the same kind of friendly, inquisitive people as in the capital. Even more-so! The people in the northern provinces don’t see tourists even as much as those in Pyongyang! I recall going to a public mineral spa (not as luxurious as the word ‘spa’ implied, but still very pleasant) and coming back out to stand on the steps, seeing kids cycling past on bicycles with looks of astonishment on their face. And then the same kids cycled past again… And again. Trying to seem inconspicuous as they spied our every move like the government agents they (maybe) were.
We could see the little villages full of simple, every-day Korean life. Traditional architecture and gardens full of vegetables so that every citizen can have their own little private plot to cope with the sanctions. The poorly maintained roads were a bumpy ride to be sure, but the boost of authenticity just gave me exactly what I needed to feel like I was really peeking behind the curtain at what everyone is keen to share their expertise on, but truly doesn’t know jack about. If anything, it made me think a little less of Pyongyang! The people of the countryside I think are proud that they’re so far off the beaten track for foreigners. They’re far more keen to talk directly, get hammered with you and talk about whatever random garbage is on your mind. Same as the difference between country and city folk anywhere I suppose. I get the same feeling any time I talk to someone from Armagh.
In total, I’ve been to eleven places in North Korea that I can name. I’ve been to Pyongyang, Kaesong, Sariwon, the DMZ and Mt Myohyang on my first trip. I’ve been to Hoeryong, Chongjin, Gyongsong and Mt Chilbo on my second trip. Then I was smart enough to pay a little extra for an extension and visited Dongrim and Sinuiju all by my lonesome at the end of the second trip. There were a few little villages or towns we stopped off at that I don’t know the names of and if you look into the available tours offered, there’s far more! I’ve never been to the beach resort of Wonsan, the city of Haeju, the special economic zone of Rason, the seaside town of Nampo, the beautiful hills of Mt Kumgang or the incredible splendor that is Mt Paektu. Even now, there are still more places opening for intrepid pioneers to visit before everyone else gets there!
I do hope you look past the claims that it’s dangerous, too tightly controlled or that there’s nothing there worth seeing and commit yourself to taking the plunge and experiencing one of the most fascinating and alien societies to our own that still exists.