#36 Pyongang and around North Korea

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May 3rd 2011
Published: May 4th 2011
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I have always been curious about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or commonly known as DPRK or “North” Korea. All DPRK maps show only “Korea” as if a border and a southern country didn’t exist and it was just one big happy country. A lot of what we hear and read about the DPRK is negative. In general when there are differing opinions, side A says one thing and side B says another thing. Often the truth lies somewhere in between. It is with an open mind I approached my 5 day trip to the DPRK.

The first day we flew into an almost empty airport and were obliged to surrender our phones almost immediately. They were wrapped in cellophane and stored at the airport for us to collect on our way out. As far as communication goes, it is almost nil. We foreigners could make international calls if we liked; apx 2 dollars per minute to China and 10 per minute to the USA. We could drop off post cards. We could receive mail and email after it went through the censor and we could send emails to our friends and loved ones, again through the censor, but we could not get on the internet or use our own email.

Our meals were all 6-10 courses, always starting with something kimchee-ed and ending oddly with soup then rice. We were never hungry! Also all meals came with soju (rice wine) and beer. One thing about the DPRK is they produce nearly everything they need themselves; from food, to beer, to cars, to clothes, to weapons. The DPRK beer was plentiful and micro-brewed. One night we even went to a microbrewery.

One of my favorite parts was the climb up the Juche tower. It is coincidentally (or not) exactly 1 meter taller than the Washington Monument in Washington, DC. It is well lit all the time. The idea behind Juche is it is self-reliance and combines three attributes: independence, consciousness, and creativity. Although it is the North Korean way of life, it really only functions on a macro-level, as all jobs, food, apartments, etc are provided by the state. North Koreans as a society are pretty creative to be able to survive with all of the sanctions. I guess it depends on how you look at it.

I was surprised to see the beautiful Buddhist temples in pristine shape and the monks living there. Our guide proudly informed us that there are 10,000 Buddhists in the country. 10,000 out of 22,000,000 is not very many though.

On reunification I would say a large part of the North Korean society wants reunification and laments their divided nature. Their president, (although he is dead he is the eternal president), put forth a 3 point charter stressing Juche ideas of reunification independently, peacefully, and national unity. A precondition to the reunification is the creation of a Federal Koryo Republic. The Koryo dynasty covered the entire peninsula for hundreds of years before the Japanese invaded. This republic would have a Juche based rule in the North and a democracy based rule in the South. This seems unfeasible as we saw what happened in East Berlin. Still it is part of the charter. I am not entirely sure how much the government wants to reunite, despite its lip service, although the average person seems to really want to be reunited. For those familiar with the 1976 “Ax Incident” at the border, we saw the ax in a museum in the DMZ. We also walked in the building that straddles the demarcation line. I was in that same building as part of a South Korean tour 6 years ago. It is the only place on the Korean Peninsula where the North and South can both walk freely.

We also went to the International Friendship Palace to see 2 separate palaces of gifts; one palace for the Eternal President and one for Dear Leader (his son). It was interesting to see all the gifts donated throughout the years, including a basketball signed by Michael Jordan presented my Madaline Albright in the late 1990s, but strange to see several gifts donated by “The American Socialist Party,” “The Worker’s Party of America,” and other such groups of whom I have not heard. I guess it is feasible that there is such a group in America and they mailed a present to the Eternal President..

Our trip also included a trip to a local firing range. We used shotguns and pistols to fire at cans, targets, and even live chickens. Sadly, I did not hit a chicken, as our driver was hoping for some extra dinner!

The entire trip felt a little bit like summer camp. Our day was planned for us, all meals were provided, and we had to ask permission to go anywhere. Our hotel was located on an island that we were not allowed to leave. Each evening we were sequestered from about 7pm until 7am. Still, it had a bowling alley, pool, casino, billiard hall, and even a TV with BBC, something I do not even have in China. I also enjoyed a bath. On the 50th floor is a revolving restaurant which presented wonderful views of Pyongyang, the 3 million person city, and its various monuments. I love beautiful vistas.

We also were able to enjoy a magic show inside May Day Stadium, by far the largest stadium in the world, seating more than 150,000. We also went to numerous museums, including a Smithsonian like set of museums at 3 revolutions place (the 3 revolutions are ideological, cultural, and technological.) We also boarded the US spy ship the Pueblo which was intercepted by North Korean forces in 1968. The crew was repatriated to America only after the American government apologized.

May Day was a lot of fun! It started with a visit to the mausoleum to see the Eternal President and continued as we went to an amusement park and a regular park. At both places we mingled with locals, drank lots of beer, ate lots of food, sung songs, danced, and played everything from tug-of-war to soccer. The locals seemed pretty surprised but intrigued to see us. I was Canadian for a day.

The last thing I might mention is the Pyongyang traffic girls. They are really interesting. They stand either in a circle painted on the pavement and direct traffic or off to the side if the traffic flow allows. They are very serious about their job never once waiving to us. There are regular traffic lights starting to creep up as well though. It is probably hard to find jobs for everyone since the DPRK has a 100% employment rule. You cannot choose to “not work.” Even every subway car in the immaculately decorated subway station has a subway car girl to open the door for you.

All in all it was one of the most interesting trips I have ever taken. It is hard to determine what the actual people or government wants to be honest. It was interesting however to hear the other person’s point of view though.

*Note* At this current time, I am unable to attach pictures, but will work to do so as soon as I can


4th May 2011

What a fascinating travel story!
This is fascinating. It must have been scary to have your phones confiscated, but it sounds as though the trip was otherwise pleasant and interesting. Few people consider visiting North Korea. Bravo for you and Laura!

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