I have an ethos when it comes to travelling. Do something different. Go somewhere strange. See things that other people don’t get, or want, to see. This approach has brought me to some pretty unique and unusual places around the world but none of them can hold a candle to the DPRK.
I travel everywhere with an open mind and my trip to North Korea was no different. It’s difficult to find enough adjectives to describe what the country is like, because it is everything. It is both beautiful and ugly. Welcoming and intimidating. Compelling and confusing. Impressive and bizarre.
One thing is certain, I didn’t experience a single dull moment. We had our Global Village Tours guide Rowan to thank for that. In a place as unfamiliar as North Korea, it pays to be looked after by someone that doesn’t get phased by anything, and Rowan was cool as a breeze.
In addition to that, our local guides could not have been any more accommodating or worked any harder to ensure that we had a terrific time. Far from being cagey about the obvious questions that people have about living in DPRK, they welcomed any and all questions we had for them and spoke openly and honestly with us about what life is like for the North Korean people. This gave us a tremendous insight into a world that is totally alien to anyone that grows up in Ireland, or any other Western country for that matter.
The North Koreans we had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with were all very friendly, polite and curious about our lives, in much the same way that we were curious about theirs. One of the highlights of our time there was a visit to a secondary school on the outskirts of Pyongyang which boasted three finalist in the world maths olympics in previous four years. Chatting with the children as part of their English lesson was interesting and really hammered home how dehumanising the portrayal of North Koreans we get in the media is.
The sights are spectacular. If architecture is your thing, which it is in my case, you will be seriously impressed by what you see. Everything is enormous. From the giant bronze statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il to the Juche tower, which stand at 22 metres and 170 metres tall respectively. Taking the trip to the top of the Juche tower gives you some spectacular views over the city of Pyongyang, which is awash with colour to a far greater extent than you might think.
At the bronze statues, there is no messing around. The North Koreans love their leaders dearly, and anyone who thinks otherwise would be foolish to do so. There is no laughing, joking or messing of any description allowed. One of our group was actually scolded for standing with his hands in his pockets for a photograph. When visiting, you are required to line up alongside one another and bow as a mark of respect for the deceased leaders of the DPRK. Is it a bit weird? Of course. But these little things remind you of just how unusual and unique a place you are in.
My personal highlight was the visit to the Korean War Museum, or the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum as it is officially known. Here, you are presented with the North Korean perspective on the Korean War and guided by a member of the army. The people of the DPRK are very proud of the success they enjoyed in the Korean war, and the museum reflects this victorious attitude. The building itself is enormous and spectacularly ornate. I would go as far as saying it is the nicest building I have been in, anywhere in the world.
The dislike of the United States is more evident here than anywhere else. I will never forget one particular exhibit for as long as I live. It celebrated the defeat of an entire American platoon, with the exception of their commander, who was forced to surrender. Imitation corpses lay on the floor, with crows sitting on their faces, picking at their eyeballs. As if the image wasn’t shocking enough on its own, the noise of crows squawking played in the background!
Ultimately, the view I took away from the DPRK is that the North Koreans are normal people with, as far as they are concerned, normal lives. They work hard, go home to their families and like every other group of people in the world, just want to get on with their lives and be happy. That is a side of North Korea that we are never shown in Ireland, or anywhere else. It is only by visiting the place and experiencing a little of what life is like there that you can come to that conclusion.
As Mr Kim, my favourite guide told me one evening over a pint, “people are people. We are all the same.”
by Duncan Casey