Travel diary North-Korea (DPRK: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea)
30th March to 12th April 2004
(We would like to thank “Comrade” Paul Kearins for going through the translation and making corrections where necessary)
This is the account of our journey to North-Korea. It is intended for family, friends and anyone interested in or planning a visit to North-Korea. At the same time it will remind us of an interesting, beautiful and unforgettable trip, both physically and mentally tiring, but one during which we have learnt a lot. We would like to thank our guides Pak Jang Sik and Pak Kwang Ung, our driver Mr. Kang and Alejandro of the Korean Friendship Association. We will try to write objectively about the things we have seen and learned and will do our best to avoid casting judgements. However, sometimes it may be inevitable to just express our feelings.
Our interest in this country originates in the obscurity and secrecy that surrounds the DPRK. Especially the (mostly negative) reports in western media and scarce images on television made us curious and anxious to see the most isolated country in the world with our own eyes. Not for the thrill, but hoping to hear the other side of the story and to get a more balanced picture of North-Korea.
After 1989, when communism was disappearing almost everywhere, the country became politically, economically and militarily isolated, because it had lost all of its former allies. In all the years following the fall of communism it managed to stand its ground in a hostile world, resulting in various internal and external problems. The last remaining “socialist paradise” is being defended with all means necessary.
At the same time the population worships its leaders like gods, sometimes resulting in strange and bizarre situations. At least in our eyes.
It all started with Kim Il Sung (the Eternal Leader) who, after his death in 1994, was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il (the Dear Leader). The country, but above all the regime, goes out of its way to survive by isolating itself almost completely from the outside world. This is what makes the country so interesting that we wanted to take a closer look and experience it ourselves.
A number of photos can be seen on this site. On Jos’ online photo album there are more: http://members.chello.nl/jemmer/index.html
At first we thought it would be difficult to gain access to North-Korea, because it would be too expensive or impossible to obtain visas. But a colleague of Jos (Boris: www.traveladventures.org) said he had been there a couple of years ago, so we knew we could try.
We preferred to go on an individual basis, not as part of a group. Surfing the internet we came across the “official site of the DPRK” (www.korea-dpr.com) which is made by the Korean Friendship Association (KFA), based in Spain. This organisation has direct contacts with the Committee For Cultural Relations With Foreign Countries in Pyongyang and acted among other things as an agent for visa applications and a programme organiser. Through them it was possible to arrange individual trips at a reasonable price.
Unfortunately we learned that they no longer offer these services. The KFA informed us however, that it is still possible to arrange individual trips through:
Korea International Travel Co. (KITC)
Ms. Li Un Hui
DPRK Embassy in Beijing, China
Ritan Nort Road, Chaoyang District
Tel and Fax: +86-10-85750212
This is the official travel agency of the DPRK. We don’t know their booking procedure and the cost when arranging visa and trip through them. (Please let us know!)
In Beijing we have met Mrs. Li Un Hui (refer to Day 2, 31 March 2004) and she seemed to be very reliable and helpful.
‘Individual’ doesn’t mean you are allowed to travel by yourself, because at all times you are accompanied by two state-employed guides.
The only doubt we had was regarding the reliability of the KFA, but through a forum (Thorn Tree) on Lonely Planet’s website (www.lonelyplanet.com) we got in touch with two other travellers who had booked through them and were very satisfied.
Communication with the KFA was indeed friendly, swift and efficient. The visa application form can be found on their site. Together with a copy of your passport it must be sent back to them which can be done via e-mail. On the form you can also indicate if there are any things you would like to see that are not included in the standard program. If possible, they will be added. If the visa application is approved it will be ready a couple of days before departure to the DPRK at their embassy in Beijing.
Within three weeks after the application the KFA informed us it had been approved. The visa costs about €30, the ticket Beijing-Pyongyang vv. about €350 (both payable in Euros in Beijing). At the time of our stay we paid between €130 and €150 per day in North-Korea, depending on hotel class. This amount includes accomodation, three meals a day, transport and guides. Of this amount €20 per day are payable in advance to the KFA, the remaining amount in cash to the guides.
Things that need to be arranged by yourself are the flight to Beijing and back, a double-entry visa for China and your stay in China. We recommend www.sinohotel.com for hotels in China.
Before our trip we read a great deal of books, articles and travelogues on the Internet. Like sponges we absorbed as much information as we could from all possible sources. Most interesting are diaries of other travellers to North-Korea. There are more of them than you think. One of the best and most impartial one is Arne Eilers’ site (www.geocities.com/dprk02/index.htm).
In 2003 a travel guide to North-Korea was published. As far as we know the only one that deals with North-Korea only: Bradt Travel Guide, North-Korea, by Robert Willoughby (ISBN 1 84162 074 2). Although we didn’t know if we were allowed to take this guide into the country, it turned out to be no problem. Our guides didn’t give it a second glance.
It is also useful to learn about Korea’s history and the origin of today’s political situation, because that’s what it’s all about. Thorough preparation is absolutely essential when visiting a country such as North-Korea. In this way you will know what to expect and you will be able to better understand the do’s and don’ts. Bear in mind that both North and South-Korea use propaganda and misleading information. After all, officially both countries are still at war. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
During our stay we were constantly aware of the fact that our guides tell the official, state-approved story. We can only guess whether or not they sincerely believe in it. In order not to embarrass or endanger them we never asked them. We did however at times have interesting conversations about politics and economics during which we could exchange opinions.
Furthermore, it is important to read between the lines and to look to the right when your guides tell you to look left.
Tuesday 30th March 2004 Amsterdam-Beijing
Departure to Beijing on flight KL897. Sija (Peter’s wife) and Chris (Jos’ friend) take us to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. For a moment it looks like we have to postpone our departure when the bus from the car park to the terminal has to make an emergency stop and Chris receives a wound to his head that needs treatment by the Airport Medical Service. Luckily it turns out not to be that bad and Peter and I can leave according to plan. Although we travel on a staff ticket and may have to travel on a jumpseat when the flight is overbooked, we instantly receive boarding passes with regular seatnumbers! Let the journey begin……
Wednesday 31st March 2004 Beijing
Arrival at Beijing at about nine o’ clock in the morning. Within a few minutes we pass through immigration and customs. We take a taxi to the Da Wan Hotel. Along the way we see people practising tai-chi in parks and public gardens. The hotel is located in a street off a busy road near the Wangfujiang Shopping Area. It’s a good hotel for the price we pay. Since we have slept well on the plane we decide to go to the North Korean Embassy immediately after having taken a shower and collect our visa and tickets that are supposed to be waiting for us there.
The embassy compound is very large and is made up of several buildings. It is completely surrounded by a wall. Like all the other embassies it is guarded by Chinese soldiers. Close to the main entrance is a kind of photo gallery of North Korea and, of course, its leaders: father and son Kim. We need enter the consular department by a side entrance. For the first time we step onto North Korean territory. One of the first things we see when we enter the building is a mural of Kim Il Sung at the holy Mount Paektu. We inform the staff behind the counter that we are here to pick up our visa, but they are unable to find our details. They ask us to come back at 14.30, because then someone will be there who may know more about it. In the meantime we have a coffee at Starbucks and lunch in a small local Chinese restaurant. Very nice food for only 26 yuan for the two of us (€2,50!). After lunch we take a taxi to Xiushui Market (Silk Alley) to look around. We don’t buy anything yet.
Construction is going on everywhere around Beijing. Not just as a result of the booming economy. The city also wants to make a good impression during the 2008 Olympic Games. Unfortunately at the cost of its oriental identity. Whichever direction you look you see huge buildings being constructed: enormous offices, hotels and apartment blocks. Construction goes on around the clock. Building sites and cranes can be seen everywhere. Construction workers often live on the site in tents. The hutongs (traditional Chinese neighbourhoods) are being demolished to create space for construction. Mc Donalds, Starbucks and KFC are unfortunately a common sight in almost every street. It is sad to see, although we must admit that we spent quite a few mornings at Starbucks’ for breakfast and coffee.
It’s time to report to the North Korean Embassy again. The gate is still closed even though we arrive at the agreed time. Outside a lady who turns out to be a representative of KITS (Korean International Travel Service) is also waiting. She can’t find our details among her papers either and she has never heard of the KFA or Alejandro (its president). Very strange. When the door finally opens at 15.00 we are asked to wait for someone to come out of a meeting. This person never shows up, but Mrs. Li Un Hui (the KITS rep) makes a phone call to Pyongyang to find out more. However, without success. We show her the e-mail correspondence between Alejandro and us, but it doesn’t mean anything to her. She remains friendly and appears to be sincerely concerned about us. In a final attempt we can even use her mobile phone to call Alejandro in Barcelona, but he doesn’t answer. We decide to go back to the hotel and try to call him again later from the hotel. Although it’s a slightly worrying situation, communication with the KFA has always been good and reliable and therefore we have no doubt that everything will turn out all right.
When we finally reach him on the phone from our hotel he reacts surprised to our story. He promises to immediately take action by calling the embassy in Rome and his contact in Pyongyang. Awaiting the outcome we use the time to rest in our rooms. After one hour he rings us back: He hasn’t been able to reach his contact in Pyongyang due to the time difference, but has left a message for him. He emphasises not to worry and that everything will be OK. He advises us to return to the embassy the next morning. If there’s still no information about our visa application by then, they must call Mr. Pak Kwang Ung of the “Committee For Cultural Relations With Foreign Countries.” In case of problems we can always call him. We ‘ll see….
Somewhat reassured we take a taxi to Sanlitun, a small entertainment district in Beijing where we have a beer and have dinner at “1001 Nights,” an Arab/Lebanese restaurant with belly-dancers in Beijing: When will the insanity end! After dinner we take a taxi back to the hotel. Half an hour after arriving we are both called in our rooms if we want a massage (“You want massage?”). This would happen daily, as it turned out later. Very annoying when you’ve just dozed off…..
Thursday 1st April 2004 Beijing
We both slept well. At 9.30 we meet in the lobby, buy a sandwich in the street near the hotel and take a taxi to the embassy area. Coffee at Starbucks near Silk Alley.
We have absolutely no idea what the rest of the day will look like regarding our visa for North Korea. Anyhow, we are prepared for a long day of arranging things, making phone calls and waiting. That’s why we haven’t made any other plans for the rest of the day.
However…when we enter the embassy a grinning employee welcomes us and tells us that they received a phone call from Pyongyang the previous night! All we have to do now is fill out a form and minutes later we hear the sound of stamps, which is music to our ears! We now have visa in our passports. Cost: €29,00 per person.
Later our guides in Pyongyang will tell us that due to the large amount of visa applications for the yearly April Spring Festival, which takes place one week after our arrival, something may have gone wrong causing the delay.
All that remains to be done now is to go to the Air Koryo office in the Hongkong Macau Centre to collect our tickets. Normally the tickets should be ready at the embassy, but because of the misunderstanding we have to pick them up ourselves. The lady of the KITS happens to be at the embassy too and says she’s happy that all is well now.
What a relief! She even comes running after us to give instructions to the taxi driver!
The Air Koryo office is staffed by a somewhat grumpy female manager and two employees all wearing Kim Il Sung pins. Although there turns out to be no reservation we are able to book the flight: OK for the inbound flight, on the waiting list for the return flight. Who cares! Why worry about the return flight! We’ll arrange that in Pyongyang. At least we are able to get there! The fare is USD 310,00. In euros…the same. Now that’s a nice profit on the exchange rate for Air Koryo! Unfortunately we don’t have dollars, otherwise it would have been a lot cheaper. Nevertheless the ticket is cheaper than stated on the KFA-site. Plus we don’t really care, since we’re euphoric.
We now have the rest of the day off. Everything’s been arranged. We take the underground to Tiananmen Square: The largest square in the world and the spot where the student protests took place in 1989. The People’s Congress, Mao’s Mausoleum and the Forbidden City are all on or around this square. We walk around a little, have coffee and eat lunch in a Japanese fast-food restaurant. There’s a long queue in front of the mausoleum, so we decide to skip it. (After all there’s another mausoleum on the programme next week!)
Instead we go to the Forbidden City. The pavilions and enormous inner courts are impressive. One can easily picture what life in the imperial court must have been like.
Roger Moore’s voice on tape guides you through the entire complex. We take a taxi back to the hotel and send some emails home from an internetcafé nearby. Then we take two hours rest.
At 20.00 we meet again and take a stroll looking for a restaurant. We don’t find anything we like and take a taxi to a restaurant we found in the Lonely Planet Guide. The taxi driver can’t find it. On previous taxi rides the drivers often didn’t know the way. We suspect that many of them are from the countryside and therefore don’t know their way around Beijing. We are dropped off at the Wangfujiang Shopping District, a wide pedestrian shopping street. Behind it there’s a market. Accidentally we walk into the restaurant that we had been looking for: Qianjude Duck Restaurant. Together we devour a whole Beijing duck. It’s delicious!
We walk back to the hotel. Minutes after getting to our rooms the phone rings again:
“You want massage?”
“NO!, and please don’t call again!”
“So you want massage?”
Friday 2nd April 2004 Beijing
To Starbucks at Silk Alley by taxi for coffee and breakfast. Another taxi ride to a market we want to go to south of the city centre, but again the driver can’t find it despite the fact that we show him the name in Chinese and the location on the map. After a pointless drive he drops us off in the city centre at the Russian market in the embassy area, close to where we started. We wander around a little, but it’s not what we are looking for. We give it another try with a different taxi and this one brings us to Beijing Curio City, apparently close to the market we are looking for, but somehow unknown to the drivers. This is not what we are looking for either, but it’s no use getting angry. It’s a shopping mall full of the kind of rubbish Chinese restaurants all over the world are decorated with.
I remember reading somewhere that Beijing taxi drivers had to attend classes in English in view of the Olympic Games in 2008. We didn’t meet them, although they are all equally friendly. Communication however can be a hassle. Even translations in Chinese from the Lonely Planet Guide can not always get you near your destination. It’s all part of the fun!
We have lunch in a hotel next to the shopping mall. After lunch we go to to Hongqiao Market (Pearl Market) close to the Temple of Heaven. This time we get there at the first attempt! Finally this is the type of market we are looking for: electronics, watches, clothing etc. There’s a lot of bargaining to do, sometimes down to 10% of the price asked. The atmosphere is pleasant and everyone is friendly even if you’re not buying or you can’t agree on the price.
We go back to the hotel, send a few more mails from the internetcafé and have a siesta.
It is still hard to imagine that at this time tomorrow we’ll be in Pyongyang! After so many years of interest in this country and after so many months of preparations it’s a strange and unreal feeling. Alejandro has mailed us that we will be met in Pyongyang by Mr. Pak Kwang Ung, the same person he contacted. He only speaks Spanish, but the other guide speaks English.
In the evening we dine in an Italian restaurant close to our hotel. We pack our suitcases for the next morning and again we have a good night’s sleep. Luckily, this time we don’t receive any phone calls for a massage, because we asked the reception not to disturb us.
Saturday 3rd April 2004 Beijing-Pyongyang
Today is the big day: our long-expected visit to North Korea is going to begin. A little tense we leave the hotel and take a taxi to Beijing Airport. After paying airport-tax we check in at the Air Koryo desk where we see some familiar faces: the three ladies from the Air Koryo town office are helping out with check-in activities. Things go smoothly and we have some time left to have something to eat and a coffee. In the tax-free shop Peter notices a shelf of Ursus Wodka (the company he works for): a Kodak moment!
At the gate Jos tries to film the aircraft, but is stopped by an airport official. No idea if it has anything to do with the aircraft being from North Korea or if it is prohibited anywhere at the airport. The aircraft is an Ilyushin with a 60’s interior: shappy carpet and synthetic curtains with floral design of the best flammable quality. Open overhead luggage bins and no oxygen masks. The stewardesses speak a little English. Despite the military uniforms they are wearing on the photos on their ID’s they are certainly not unfriendly. We suppose that they are employed by the air force.
When we turn onto the runway the stewardesses are still walking around the aisle. Right after they disappear behind the curtain we’re beginning to roll for take-off. We doubt they could possibly have been in their jumpseats in time. This assumption will prove to be correct on the return flight.
Next to us is a talkative woman of North Korean descent with a German passport and homes in North Korea, Seoul(?), New York(?) and Germany. She says she accompanies North Korean orchestras and other cultural escapades abroad. Her father was a famous composer and friends with Kim Il Sung. The latter presented him with a villa. Her story, her looks (Gucci sunglasses in her hair) and behaviour make us define her as “dubious.” She’s astonished we want to visit North Korea. Cynically she tells us that a German friend of hers once described North Korea as an enormous open-air museum.
Our fellow passengers are mainly North Koreans, easily recognisable by their pins, Chinese and a handful of westerners living and working in Pyongyang for embassies, aid organisations and universities. At the airport in Beijing we spoke to a university professor. He didn’t say much about what to expect: “See for yourself!”
In the meantime we are flying over North Korea. The landscape looks dull and grey, but well-structured. We are able to see part of the city, the biggest point of orientation being the unfinished pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel.
The airport in Pyongyang is simple: a solemn rectangular building made of concrete and glass and a portrait of a young Kim Il Sung on the roof.
There are no other planes apart from a few aircraft of Air Koryo. Before we are allowed off, a uniformed official collects and checks our health declarations. After the majority of passengers have been transported to the terminal building by bus, a couple of Mercedes arrive at the aircraft to pick up some high-ranking passengers. (OK, we were already in the bus….)
The immigration process goes smoothly and is friendly. Suitcases have to be passed through a scanner and occasionally one has to be inspected. Only Peter’s suitcase is checked, though superficially. In the meantime the guides have presented themselves to us and accompany us to the minibus that will transport us the entire week. The ride to our hotel lasts about half an hour. We can hardly believe we are in North Korea!
In the bus we get acquainted with our guides, but it is hard to keep our eyes off the landscape and streets. The hotel we will be staying at is the Sosan Hotel, a tourist-class hotel in the south-western part of town in an area that was built at the end of the 80’s at the occasion of an international youth sports tournament for socialist countries. The street is lined with several sports’ pavilions each dedicated to a type of sport.
When we enter the hotel lobby it is cold and dark inside. We already knew that North Korea suffers from energy shortages, so it doesn’t really surprise us. It seems to irritate the guides more than us. Later this week we would find ourselves in icy-cold public spaces more than once; black-outs however didn’t occur that often. The problem now is that our rooms are on the 15th floor and the elevators are not operating either. Since we are forced to wait we decide to discuss this week’s programme in the hotel bar and get to know our guides better. A third person has joined the guides: someone from the ministry to approve of the programme and any changes.
The senior guide is Mr. Pak Kwang Ung (soon nicknamed Pak 1), Alejandro’s contact. He’s married and father of three grown-up children. In the 70’s he studied Spanish in Havana. The other guide is younger (34) and his name is Pak Jang Sik. He speaks English which he studied in Pyongyang. His father has been ambassador to Albania where he lived a couple of years. His nickname is going to be….yeah, good guess….Pak2. He is not married and lives with his mother in Pyongyang. This first introduction is pleasant and the two Paks seem to be very sympathetic fellows. The guides will stay with us the entire week and will also stay at the hotel. They don’t take any chances.
The hotel seems desolate, as far as location and number of guests are concerned. We doubt that the few men in the lobby, reading newspapers or simply doing nothing, are guests. We get to see this week’s programme. It looks jam-packed. A number of things on the list cannot take place, among others the visit to Mansudae Assembly Hall (the People’s Congress) and the brewery, accidentally being two things not in the standard programme that we requested ourselves.
Somehow they have understood wrongly that we are teachers and therefore they have planned a visit to a secondary school. We promptly make it clear that we aren’t (Peter owns a company with his wife and also works as a customs and excise expert with a distillery, Jos is a purser with an airline), but nevertheless we don’t mind visiting a school at all.
Already we are being told stories about the Kims, the Korean War, the “US-imperialists and the puppet army of South Korea.” Just like we expected.
After about two hours and a few beers the power failure is over and we can go to our rooms. A little jet stove heats up the room. The rooms are fine, but the bed is as hard as a rock. The mattress looks like a real mattress, but is no more than a wooden box covered with fabric. The extra duvet in the wardrobe comes in handy.
A little later we are expected downstairs in restaurant No. 1 where the two of us will have dinner. Pak 2 assists with our order. The restaurant is very large, but only two tables have been laid. A typical Korean movie (about patriotism, a soldier leaving his loved ones etc.) is playing on a huge wide-screen television. Hundreds of similar movies have been produced over the years and are shown endlessly on tv. The food is very good and consists of several small dishes. When we’re finished we walk outside onto the hotel’s driveway. Looking up we see that our hotel is pitch-dark. Not a single room is lit, just the lobby and the restaurant. Outside it is deadly quiet. The only thing that disturbs the silence is the barking of a dog far away.
Sunday 4th April 2004 Pyongyang
Notwithstanding the harshness of the bed we both slept well. Breakfast with toast, jam, cheese and a fried egg while enjoying the same movie as last night. We leave at 8.30 for a visit to Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Kim Il Sung’s Mausoleum. The previous evening we have been asked to dress formally for this occasion, preferably a suit, but fortunately a jacket and/or tie will do.
Mr. Kang, the driver, is waiting in front of the hotel with the minibus. We drive to the Arch of Triumph which resembles the one in Paris (this one’s bigger….) and was built to commemorate the victory over the Japanese. We gather here with the other foreign visitors and in procession we drive on towards the mausoleum.
Close to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace little trams packed with visiting soldiers come and go. Most of the soldiers, both boys and girls, are very young. Before Kumsusan became Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum it used to be his palace. It has been converted specifically for this purpose. Two long corridors on both sides lead to the main building. Moving walkways, hundreds of meters long, bring you from one end to the other. You’re not allowed to walk on them. There’s an eerie quietness. The faces of the soldiers and other visitors (people from all over the country, most women wearing traditional dresses) are without expression. Or should we say solemn?
Approaching the main building we must pass through a security scan and walk over rotating brushes that clean our shoes. Cameras are not allowed beyond this point. We arrive in a massive hall with a white marble statue of Kim Il Sung. The background is illuminated pink and blue and soft mournful music is transmitted through loudspeakers. Next we reach a kind of passage with glass sliding doors. It turns out to be a wind tunnel in which enormous blowers remove dust and dandruff from the visitors and ruin their hairdos. In our case not much harm can be done anymore. Directly behind this hurdle is the inner sanctum: the embalmed corpse of “the Eternal Leader” of North Korea in a glass coffin.
In rows of four we first stand at his feet where we are expected to bow. The same ritual is repeated at his head. For us this sign of showing respect is without a single emotion. Or as someone else put it, it’s rather a sign of not showing disrespect. We ask ourselves what most North Korean visitors feel. Is it sincere or fake?
We then enter a hall in which a number of women/actresses tell the story of the day that Kim Il Sung died. They do this in a weeping tone, tears almost in their eyes. Groups of North Koreans listen stoically. We, the foreigners, receive a headset and hear the same story in English, in the same tone. It sounded exactly like the news reader who announced his death in 1994.
In the next room there are some desks with guest books. We are requested to write a few lines which will be translated into Korean by Pak 2. We write something like “an impressive experience on the first day of our visit.” Which it certainly is. Whatever you may think of it, this is where the adoration of Kim Il Sung and the circus around it culminates.
Our next stop is Daesongsan Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery on Jujak Peak with a wide view of Pyongyang. We are lucky to have come by bus, otherwise we would have had to climb 300 steps to reach the entrance. The cemetery is laid out against a hill. At its foot there’s a big golden medal, at the top a huge red granite flag. In between are the graves of 200 leading figures from Korea’s resistance during Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War. A bronze bust of the person in question adorns each grave, varying from soldiers to simple farmers. Beneath the granite flag at the top is the bust of Kim Il Sung’s wife, Kim Jong Il’s mother: Kim Jong Suk. We are expected to bow here too.
Once back in town we drive to the Koryo Hotel, Pyongyang’s best hotel. As opposed to our own hotel, the lobby is heated and the lights are on. We take the elevator to the top floor, which is a revolving restaurant and have a beer here. The waiter warns Pak 2 that we are not allowed to film and make photos on one side where the houses of high-ranking Party-members are.
Jos buys a videotape of the celebration of the DPRK’s 55th birthday in the hotel bookshop.
In the same street, Changgwang Street, there are a few restaurants. We have lunch, Korean barbecue, in one of them with Pak 1, Pak 2 and Mr. Kang. To get there we are obliged to use the pedestrian underpass, although there’s hardly a car in sight. Apparently everyone obeys. The lunch begins with beef. Later duck and even ostrich (!) are being served. Peter had already told our guides that he was willing to eat everything except dog, upon which he showed them a picture of his dog Misty (R.I.P.). There is a restaurant in Pyongyang that specialises in dog and all its components, but even Jos wouldn’t fancy going there. This lunch however was excellent.
During yesterday’s discussion of the programme we had already mentioned that we would just like to walk in the streets every now and then to experience daily life more closely. Preferably unaccompanied, but that’s out of the question. We knew that beforehand. After lunch we indeed take a stroll with Pak 2. At he end of the street an entire housing area is cordoned of. This is where the party-members live and we are not allowed to take photos. On a corner there’s an underground station, but no one enters or exits. According to Pak Jang Sik, the metro does not run on the first Sunday of the month. That happens to be today….
From a distance the apartment buildings look alright, but when standing closer most of them appear to be rather run-down. The people are well-dressed and look healthy. Once you make eye-contact they glance away.
After the walk we go to Mangyongdae Revolutionary Site, Kim Il Sung’s birthplace. A large park has been laid out around the house where he was born. A female guide shows us around. Our visit must have been arranged, because when we arrived she was waiting for us. The house looks as new and consists of two thatched huts. Inside the huts are some agricultural tools that his parents and grandparents supposedly used and some photographs. The guide keeps emphasising the family’s simple background and poverty. Because they had little money grandmother was forced to buy a cheaper pot that had a dent in it. That pot is now being displayed with much pride.
In the souvenir shop (prices in euros) we have a drink. We drive up the hill to a pavilion with a view over the Taedong River. Next we go to Mangyongdae Fun Fair. According to our guide book we have to “fight our way through the throng of the fair’s reported 100.000 daily visitors.” However, when we are there it is almost deserted. On a Sunday….
It’s a dreary site. The rollercoaster looks quite spectacular. It is even operating, but we don’t see a single person in its carts. There are some chilly pavilions with computer games that remind us of the 70’s. It’s cold, it’s barren, it’s desolate. 100.000 visitors could make it a cheerful place. Peter asks himself justly why they have taken us here. Well, at least Pak 1 and Mr. Kang have some fun shooting clay pigeons.
We are tired when we return to the hotel. We have an hour and a half to rest before dinner. It is the official welcome dinner offered by Pak 1 and Pak 2 in a private room next to the restaurant. We are expected to perform a speech and……sing. For the time being we are able to postpone the singing a little. We both feel rather uneasy. Dish after dish is being served. It’s too much. We talk about the country, politics, economy, the people. When we can no longer keep it off we sing the “Wilhelmus” (National Anthem of the Netherlands). It’s easier with a few beers. At 20.30 it’s all over and exhausted from this first day we retire to our rooms.
Monday 5th April 2004 Panmunjom
After breakfast we leave at 8.30 for the demilitarised zone and the border with South Korea at Panmunjom. We leave the city via the Gate of Reunification. This is where the city ends abruptly and the countryside begins. We’re on the Reunification Highway, the highway to the border which is almost as straight as an arrow. At a checkpoint we are swiftly waved through, whereas all other traffic has to stop. North Korean citizens are required to have permits to travel from one area to another. On this highway there’s hardly any traffic, because it’s meant for private cars, tourists and army traffic only. Lorries and local traffic must use minor roads.
At Sohung Teahouse, a restaurant that is built over the road, we drink coffee. We’re the only guests. From the restaurant we look out across an empty highway in both directions. A car passes only every ten minutes or so. It feels surreal.
This is agricultural territory. Every single usable piece of land is being cultivated. Around red flags little groups of people are working in the fields and we frequently see party slogans displayed on boards. We hardly see any tractors, virtually all work is done by hand. Although we are not experts, everything looks well cared for and cultivated. It’s too early in spring however to discover much green.
After the coffee break the first bottles of beer appear. Pak 1 in particular knows what to do with them. It’s only 10 o’ clock in the morning. It’s our turn to sing. Luckily we knew from other travel diaries that Koreans love to sing. So we also knew that they expected us to sing too. For that purpose we brought a tape with us with Dutch songs. Not particularly high-quality favourites, but at least easy to sing along with, enhancing the atmosphere and the relationship with the guides.
At regular intervals we pass tank-traps: concrete structures alongside and over the road that can be blown up with explosives in order to delay a possible invasion. We’re passing Kaesong City, Korea’s oldest city and former capital. From here it’s not far to the border. At the entrance to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) is the General Lecture Room where we are welcomed by a sympathetic North Korean officer wearing a cap the size of an old-fashioned LP, similar to the ones from the Soviet-army. He will accompany us from here.
In one of the rooms there is an enormous model of the DMZ and the officer gives us an explanation of its origin, location and lay-out. Then we hop on the bus again with two more soldiers. Although we are a little nervous to enter an area with this much history and tension, the atmosphere is remarkably relaxed.
The DMZ is a strip of land 4 kilometres wide. The border lies in the middle along the 38th parallel, the demarcation line. The 2 kilometres of land up to the border is strewn with mines, tank-traps and other obstacles. We find it remarkable that we are allowed to take pictures here without having to ask permission all the time. This is where we can see the famous North Korean flag, said to be the biggest flag in the world on the tallest flagpole. Just a little bigger and taller than the South Korean flag on the other side. There’s even a village inside the DMZ, Kijong-dong, called propaganda-village by South Korea. Rumour has it it’s nothing more than a façade with loudspeakers blaring propaganda towards the south, but we do see real houses and farmers working in the fields.
For that matter, on the other side of the border in the DMZ of South Korea, there is a similar village, Taesong-dong. The inhabitants are exempt from paying tax, but there is a nightly curfew from 23.00.
We arrive at the Armistice Talks Hall where talks were held between 1950 and 1953 during the Korean War. In the adjoining building the actual armistice was signed on 27th July 1953.
We continue to the Joint Security Area (JSA), the famous row of blue and grey barracks where, since the signing of the armistice, occasionally talks are held between North and South or, to be precise, between the Korean People’s Army and United Nations Command. This is the only spot along the border where soldiers of both sides are facing each other at close range. The demarcation line goes right through these buildings. On both sides a pavilion overlook the area. As soon as we approach the barracks we are being watched through binoculars by South Korean soldiers wearing big reflecting sunglasses. Today the Military Armistice Commission Conference Hall, the barrack we will visit, is open for visitors from North Korea only. On other days for visitors from the other side. Strangely enough, visitors from South Korea must comply with certain dress requirements (no t-shirts, shorts, jeans or sport shoes). North Korea doesn’t have such requirements.
There’s a wooden conference table in this barrack. The microphones on the table are the actual border. By walking around the table you cross into South Korea for a moment.
A South Korean soldier is peeping in through a window. It feels threatening, but North Korean soldiers undoubtedly do the same to visitors from the other side. It’s in this building where we are also being confronted with the Dutch participation in the Korean War by means of a picture of the Dutch flag.
We leave the building and enter the pavilion, Panmungak Hall. From its balcony we have a good view of the JSA. In the meantime the South Korean soldiers have all disappeared. The officer accompanying us asks for our views regarding North- and South Korea. We try to remain as neutral as possible and we are requested to write something in the guest book, to be translated in Korean by Pak Jang Sik.
We then drive back to the entrance of the DMZ and say goodbye to the officer. We have hardly had a chance to fully realise what we have seen and felt at this legendary and historical place.
In Kaesong City we have lunch at the Kaesong Folk Hotel, a hotel consisting of small traditional houses. Apparently we have arrived too early, because we have to wait outside. We ask if we may take a little walk in the street, but regrettably this request is denied. The weather is nice and we have lunch outside in a small courtyard, seated on mats on the ground at a low table. The food is again delicious and the mood relaxed. The relationship with Pak 1 and Pak 2 is good, although mainly formal. They are poles apart. Pak 1 is in charge and clearly enjoys the advantages of his job. He is less accessible than Pak 2. This will in part have something to do with the language barrier (Spanish). Pak 2 is a tremendously friendly man, who does his utmost to please us within the authorised possibilities. Mr. Kang, the driver, is a cheerful guy and helpful. Communication with him is primarily non-verbal or through Pak 2.
In Kaesong there’s another grand statue of Kim Il Sung. Upon our request we may get off the bus to take a picture. Then we drive to another hotel for a break. It seems that we are too early for our visit to the Concrete Wall. Pak 1 will not be joining us.
In about 45 minutes we literally speed over a country road to the viewing point from where we are able to see the wall. Along the way houses and people here look much shabbier than we have seen so far. And they are clearly not used to motorised traffic, because they tend not to react in time to the sound of approaching traffic. Twice we see peasants tumble off their bicycles in the ditch next to the road.
The last part of the drive is a small winding road up to the viewing point. We are welcomed by a soldier who gives us an explanation of the concrete wall. It was built by the Americans and South Koreans in the 1970’s. According to North Korea the wall stretches out along the entire length of the border. The South and the Americans deny the existence of the wall. The DPRK claims that the wall cannot be seen from the south because it has been camouflaged. Through telescopes we are indeed able to see something that resembles a wall and a concrete factory. We hear propaganda and music from loudspeakers originating from South Korea.
At the same speed we hurry back to Kaesong, where we pick up Pak 1. He has had a haircut while we were away.
On the way back we sing along with our tape again and our guides are by now able to jabber along. Halfway we stop at the same roadside restaurant and we drink a bottle of beer and eat monkey nuts (childhood sentiment!). It’s already dark when we reach Pyongyang. We notice that some of the apartment buildings seem to have no electricity. Just the flicker of oil lamps in front of the windows. Other flats do have electric lights. Not entire neighbourhoods, but randomly.
We stop at the Koryo Hotel, because we want to make a phone call home. It’s not possible from our own hotel. We also buy some postcards and stamps and hit upon the idea to ask for a switch of hotel, since it’s much livelier here. Pak 1 and Pak 2 are clearly keen on this idea, because it means they will be better off themselves too. At a supplement of €60 per night this can be arranged. It would have been cheaper if we had selected this hotel at the time of booking, because in that case the supplement would only have been €20. We decide to stay one more night at the old hotel, one night in Hyangsan and the final three nights at the Koryo Hotel.
When we arrive in our hotel there seems to be a misunderstanding about dinner. We get into the bus again and drive to the Pyongyang Hotel. The five of us have dinner here and we’re having serious conversations about politics, America etc. Very demanding after a tiring day. Pak 1 enquires what we can do for North Korea. He appears to be directing the conversation very cleverly towards seed potatoes (!). It’s astonishing that he asks us, simple tourists, who have nothing to do with agriculture. And strange too, because today Pak 2 showed us a booklet of a Dutch trade mission in 2000. One of the members was a representative of Agrico, the largest researcher and exporter of seed potatoes. In addition to his job as a guide Pak 2 works at the “Dutch Desk” of the Ministry, so he should be able to establish contacts. The problem possibly is that North Korea does not have foreign currency to import goods.
We feel rather awkward. Pak 2 releases the tension by joking that North Korea has rockets on offer as barter.
It’s late by now and we’re glad that we can turn in for the night.
Tuesday 6th April 2004 Pyongyang
So far we have always slept well in spite of the hard beds at the Sosan Hotal. Still, we are pleased we will be moving to the Koryo Hotel in “downtown” Pyongyang today after lunch. It’s more sparkling there, relatively speaking.
This morning we are going to see some sights of Pyongyang. We start at the Tower of the Juche Idea. Juche or Kimilsungism is the name of the DPRK’s own socio-political philosophy, which is the basis of all actions. In short it means that man is the master of everything and the people are central in building socialism in North Korea. It is an independent political orientation, even in yesterday’s international communist world. Part of Juche-philosophy is striving for self-sufficiency. The country relied on itself as much as possible and continues to do so (nowadays more or less forcibly).
The tower is located on the east bank of the Taedong river. Its a square tower 150 metres high and topped by a big red flame of another 20 metres which is illuminated at night. A female guide shows us around. Everything about the tower is symbolic: height, width, the number of stones and so on. It is all related to.…here he is again….the Eternal Leader Kim Il Sung.
Walking around the tower we see two other tourists. They turn out to be Dutch too, from the south of the Netherlands. The woman has dyed her hair fluorescent-orange and has a tongue-piercing. Long live freedom, but this is not really appropriate in a country like this, unless you don’t have a clue what kind of country you’re visiting. That may have been the case. We don’t speak very long, because Pak 2 and the tower guide are shivering from the cold.
At the base of the tower there is a niche with plaques from Juche study groups all over the world. We take the elevator to the top for a beautiful view of the city. On the other side of the river, directly across from the tower, is Kim Il Sung Square, the parade grounds.
Our next stop is the Monument of the Foundation of the Workers’ Party. As we get off the bus a large group of women is rehearsing a dance with coloured cloths. We ask the Paks if we may take pictures. They say it’s better to do that when we return. Walking towards the monument Peter notices that Pak 1 is talking to the leader of the group and almost instantaneously they move off along the side of the square. We don’t see them again.
The concrete Soviet-style monument with hammer, sickle and brush is not very interesting. Right behind it is the Cultural Exhibition Hall where some photos and Korean paintings are on display. Just when we are about to leave we discover some beautiful hand-painted posters of socio-realist art for sale. The kind that’s meant to inspire workers to work harder, to enhance the feeling of solidarity and that propagates the strength of the army and so on. Style and colour are very attractive. We each buy two of them.
Back at the Sosan Hotel we have lunch and after that we move to the Koryo Hotel. The rooms are big and the hotel was probably designed by a Japanese architect, because the bathroom is a typical Japanese polyester cabin. There’s even satellite tv with BBC World! All of a sudden we feel less cut off from the outside world. To be honest we feel slightly disillusioned, because that feeling was part of the experience.
A few minutes later we gather in the lobby, because at 14.00 we are expected to show up at the Victory of the Fatherland Liberation War Museum. A female guide in army outfit complete with cap shows us around. She’s small and has a sweet voice, a big contrast to the topics she’s talking about: the war, the atrocities of the enemy and the heroic deeds of their own army. Subjects that keep coming back.
However horrifying the war may have been, we cannot help thinking that the government takes every opportunity to keep history alive and goes out of its way to avoid looking ahead. The museum’s collection varies from photos of tortured North Koreans, supposed evidence of biological and chemical warfare, written confessions of American POW’s, to bomber planes, captured tanks and other vehicles. The highlight is a panorama of a battle. The platform on which we stand rotates. Unfortunately we are spirited away after only a minute or so when a school class enters. These things happen more often in situations like this. When we accidentally come across a group of “ordinary” North Koreans, a slight panic or confusion invariably arises.
Our next stop is the Grand People’s Study House, the National Library, on Kim Il Sung Square, the square where the parades usually take place. It’s a massive building in Korean style and constructed on the occasion of Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday in 1982. Again there is some confusion about our arrival here. Are we too early or are we too late? We are accompanied by an English-speaking female guide and she and Pak 2 appear to have been fellow-students. In the entrance hall there’s another statue of the Great Leader. The first room we enter is the Kim Il Sung reading room where people can study his biography and Juche-philosophy. Nearly all desks are occupied by people reading conscientiously, except for one desk at which Kim Il Sung himself allegedly once sat. We are allowed to sit down at his desk and to take a picture.
Full of pride they show us the book transport system: at the desk you tell the clerk which books you want and after a while they are delivered at great speed on a conveyor belt. By coincidence three books in English on science and computers are delivered when we are there…
In a language laboratory Russian is being taught. A student has to recite something by heart. In the computer room the students are chatting away shamelessly (…Dragon 21 to Lotusflower…). Internet is non-existent, but there is some kind of intranet. Obviously they are not studying, but the children here do what millions of other children all over the world do. Good to see that!
In the music room there are a large number of tables with ghetto blasters on them. You can listen to music from different parts of the world. Two of them have been prepared for us with North Korean music of the Ponchonbo Electronic Ensemble (much like the “Birdiesong” sound) who are extremely popular in North Korea. They don’t have music from Holland, but that would change soon, because we still have the “sing-along” CD. Not particularly music to be proud of, but at least we had something to sing along with on the bus. (Title of CD: “Biertje? Alle 13….Dronken!”) Should other Dutch visitors encounter this CD here, then this is how it got here!
There’s a little shop on the upper floor and a balcony looking out on Kim Il Sung Square. The female guide and Pak 2 get along well and we make a romantic photo of them both together on the balcony to stoke the fire a little.
In front of the Grand People’s Study House is a little park with fountains. We stroll through it and, as pre-programmed, the bus is waiting for us on the other side. We then drive to Mansu Hill a little bit further down to the famous 23 metres high bronze statue of Kim Il Sung against a background of Mount Paektu in mosaic tiles. Contrary to what we have read in other travel diaries we don’t have to buy flowers to be placed at his feet. We do however have to bow again. The two immense sculptures symmetrically flanking the statue are even more impressive: two big shining flags of red stone surrounded by more than 200 bronze figures symbolising the revolution and the struggle against imperialism.
Back in the hotel we have dinner alone. We discuss our impressions and are both deeply impressed by the entire journey so far. Not just by the sights, but by the overall experience: the people, the atmosphere, the contrasts, the secrecy, the questions that are not answered. Actually, everything is exactly as we expected. In between we are luckily still able to roar with laughter about all sorts of things.
Here in the Koryo Hotel there are more guests than in the Sosan Hotel. Some Chinese and Africans, only a few westerners. After dinner we have another beer on the 44th floor with a view of a dark city….
Wednesday 7th April 2004 Pyongyang-Hyangsan (Mount Myohyang)
Today we are travelling to Hyangsan where we will stay overnight. We only take a few things with us and leave the rest of our luggage in Pak 2’s room. Suppose the hotel may need our rooms….
We leave right after breakfast. First stop, still in Pyongyang, is at the Chollima statue. Chollima is a legendary winged horse that could cover large distances in little time. Nowadays it smartly symbolises the invincible and heroic people. The four big
propaganda billboards next to it are much more interesting to us. The one that’s most striking is the one depicting American soldiers being crushed by their own cruise missile.
The drive to Hyangsan takes about an hour and a half over a highway that is busier than the one to Panmunjom. Relatively speaking. Along the road we occasionally see people hitchhiking, workers having their break and we also spot groups of schoolchildren carrying spades and other tools who are going to help out in the fields or carry out other tasks.
Hyangsan is a little town located in the mountains near Mount Myohyang. This area is on almost every visitor’s itinerary, because this is where the International Friendship Exhibition is located: A museum of gifts presented to the leaders by foreign heads of state, dignitaries, companies etc. It consists of two buildings of numerous rooms hewn into the mountains. The entrances are in traditional Korean style and are guarded by two soldiers with machine-guns on either side of the 4000-kilo bronze-coloured doors.
One pavilion is dedicated to Kim Il Sung, the other to Kim Jong Il. As you would expect we start the tour in Dad’s branch. Cameras are not allowed and we have to cover our shoes with paper slippers. In the main hall there’s a statue of Kim Il Sung in a chair. A world map indicates the origin of the presents. In this room there’s a selection of gifts from different countries. It’s not quite clear to us on what criteria the selection is based.
Among other things there’s a gift from Billy Graham with an explanatory card saying ”From Billy Graham, The Religious Leader of the United States.” We don’t remember what it was, so it can’t have been very exciting. Neither is Billy Graham.
The local guide rattles off facts and dates as usual. The other rooms have been arranged by continent and country. Naturally the former communist countries are well-represented, in addition to countries like China, Pakistan and Syria, Zimbabwe and a large number of other African countries. Pictures of visiting heads of state are on the walls: Jaruzelski, Ceaucescu, Mugabe. The lights come on when we enter a room and go out once we leave. Sometimes the lights go out before leaving a room.
Highlights of the collection are, among other things, the armoured cars presented to Kim Il Sung by Stalin. There are also luxurious railway cars from China and the Soviet Union.
The majority of the presents are rather kitsch and often made of ivory, wood or china, books and so on.
Holland is represented by a Delft-blue plate and a booklet of the former CPN (Communist Party of the Netherlands). Initially we thought it was a party-programme, but a few weeks after our visit Jos accidentally met a former CPN Organisation-Secretary, who told him that they had visited China and North Korea in the 80’s and even met with Kim Il Sung. They had already handed out most of the presents in China and one of the few things that remained was a small book about the Party’s position regarding the Korean War. This may in fact have been the booklet on display. (Who’s going to North Korea shortly and can give us the answer?).
From a terrace with a little shop we have a beautiful view of the mountains. A few hundred metres away is Kim Jong Il’s pavilion of gifts. Many of the presents here are of the same category, but noticeably more gifts are from South Korea: flatscreen tv’s, copiers, scanners, computers and furniture. What a waste to exhibit these kinds of goods and not use them. But the great leaders have decided that everything is for the people. It’s a shame they can’t use it when it’s in display cases….
The weather is nice and we go to our hotel (Chongchon Hotel?) in Hyangsan. It’s a small Korean-style hotel surrounded by a garden. Lobby and corridors are dark. You can feel the hotel had once been quite something, but is now well past its heyday. Exactly that feeling of better days makes it attractive.
Our rooms are at the back and look out across a reservoir. We decide to have a quick lunch so that we have time to lie in the grass in the garden before we continue on our excursion. The itinerary is intensive to such an extent that we grasp every opportunity to relax.
The Pohyon Buddhist Temple is our next stop. Pak 1 stays behind in the hotel. Here too we are accompanied by a female guide. The temple is 1000 years old, but was ruined in the war by the “US-imperialists” and the “puppet-army of the South.” By order of Kim Il Sung it was rebuilt. Monks are said to live here. We have seen only one. The guide is fierce on politics, but short-sighted. Questions are interpreted differently or ignored.
We have a drink at the souvenir shop and Peter buys some water-colour paintings. At the parking lot our next guide is already waiting for us. It’s the mountain guide. A nice, cheerful girl in a white track suit and a relief after the temple-guide. First we drive to the starting point of the hike. The surrounding area is beautiful. There are some small waterfalls and it’s already relatively green here. The trail that we are walking is said to be discovered by..…..a certain Kim Il Sung. Some “inspiring” inscriptions have been carved into a rock-face. This is where we have an odd experience with Pak 2. When Jos asks him what kind of animals live here, he believes he hears him answer “eekhoorns” (Dutch for squirrels). Does this mean he speaks Dutch or did Jos get it wrong?
At the turning-point of our mountain hike the guide sings a song for us with much devotion and we are both deeply touched. Finally we have to drink some water from the waterfall, because it is said to be healthy. We have a beer once we’re back at the starting point, eat some peanuts and take a few photos. We drive back to the hotel and drop the guide off halfway. Peter gives her a big tip as inconspicuously as possible. Pak 2 is in good spirits, because he passionately sings along with the music on the radio.
A Swiss couple and the parents of one of them are also staying at the hotel. They are employed by a German aid organisation and have been in North Korea for a year and a half. Even they are not allowed to travel on their own and are constantly accompanied by a guide and driver. The parents are visiting and the four of them are travelling around. Before dinner Peter and I take a stroll in and around the hotel (within the walls). Moments after we leave the lobby, Pak 2 appears from nowhere. He happens to be making an evening stroll too.
Tonight we offer Pak 1, Pak 2 and Mr. Kang dinner. Pak 1 has ordered the food and made a good choice. Again it’s delicious. Interesting conversations about politics and society. We resign to our rooms at 22.30. Exhausted.
Thursday 8th April 2004 Hyangsan-Pyongyang
We’ve had a good night’s sleep. Jos encountered Peter on the gallery of the hotel mumbling away happily to himself while enjoying the view of the water. Jos had already been cautioned about this habit by Peter’s wife. After a simple breakfast in the dining-room of the hotel we go to Ryongmun Grand Caves, a cave-system near Hyangsan. We get off the bus in the parking area where more buses are parked carrying North Korean visitors. Again there’s some confusion about our arrival. We get the impression that the other visitors have to remain in their buses until we are out of sight. We must get back on the bus and drive a little further down to the entrance. Another female guide is waiting for us there. She tells us that Kim Jong Il, like at all other places he visits, has given “on-the-spot guidance.” At the end of a long corridor we get to the actual caves. At this stage of our trip we find it harder and harder to absorb information, so at regular intervals we just nod and act as if we are listening carefully.
The caves are beautiful and the formations of stalagmites and stalactites are illuminated by spotlights. The lights are turned off behind us and turned on in front of us. Two women with broomsticks are ahead of us in the dark and try to stay out of sight as discreetly as possible. But now and then we notice two heads peek out from behind a rock or from a side-gallery.
Many rock formations represent something imaginary: an octopus, a horse, even a vagina and penises. This of course causes a lot of laughter, especially among Mr. Kang, Pak 1, Pak 2 and the guide. On our way back we are surprised by a black-out. It is pitch-dark. With the help of the guide’s torch we carefully walk a few metres back to a bench where we wait for half an hour for the lights to come on again. The guide entertains us by singing and we too contribute to the singing.
Once outside we have something to drink at a little shop. We have coffee; our guides and driver beer. We drive back to Pyongyang. Everywhere around town signs have been put up with a date, 9th April, on it: The day Kim Jong Il was elected Chairman of the Defence Committee. This day is celebrated each year.
Back in the Koryo Hotel we collect our suitcases from Pak 2’s room. We are assigned the same rooms as before our trip to Hyangsan. After about 15 minutes we are expected downstairs for lunch, but we appear to be too late for that. Moreover, we don’t even have time, because we are to show up at Middle School No. 1 at 14.30.
Again misunderstandings when we arrive here. We wait in the office of the headmaster, a frightening woman best to be avoided if you were a pupil. There’s a large conference table headed by her desk with three telephones on it. Since we missed lunch some rolls and cake are being arranged. Pak 1 opens a bottle of wine he has just received from a Chinese member of the Korean Friendship Association he met in the hotel. While waiting the headmaster tells, rather indifferently, about the school and the school system.
Middle School No. 1 was the first middle (secondary) school after the war and was inaugurated by…Kim Il Sung. Pupils are between 11 and 17 years old.
Our designated guide arrives, dressed in a long traditional Korean dress. She shows us around the school. They are expecting us in every classroom we visit and pupils are ready to start doing what they have been instructed to do. Everything has been directed beforehand. There’s nothing spontaneous about it, but nevertheless interesting to see. Sometimes they applaud when we come in. The first classroom we visit is the English class. We answer a few simple questions posed by the pupils. When we ask questions in return it remains frightfully silent and the teacher gives the answers.
In the chemistry classroom the pupils begin mixing some fluids in a test-tube simultaneously as if on command. Not a word is spoken. The same goes for the needlework class and the computer class. This is how the Dutch royal family must feel when visiting small towns on Queen’s Day: a nod of the head here and there, some simple questions and participate in a game of table-tennis. It’s interesting and embarrassing at the same time. In the computer-room pupils are staring at black screens, because there has been a power-failure. They don’t look up from their screens and not a word is spoken. We feel how painful it must be for them, although we fully understand the situation. It’s a shame however, that they tend to deal with such things in such a constrained manner.
Portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are present in each classroom and the corridors are decorated with propagandistic paintings (particularly anti-American).
We are taken to the school’s theatre to attend a song and dance performance by the children of the school. The moment we come in the music and singing begins, but has to be aborted due to another power-failure. While we wait part of the group introduce themselves to us. Apart from one boy they are all girls between 8 and 12 years old. At least they look that age. In any case too young for a “Middle School.” Unless they look much smaller and younger than they really are. We don’t get a proper answer. And we are too tired to ask any further.
Like all girls that age they keep on giggling. Really cute to see. They are all polished up with make-up and wear colourful clothes for the performance. When the spotlights are back on the show begins. The orchestra is deafening: organ, electric guitar, drums and accordion. Why the girl playing the accordion sits behind the scenes while the rest of the musicians are on the stage is not quite clear to us. We can only see her little feet.
The dancers and singers however are the top-attraction. Every single note and movement has been studied in detail and it looks very professional. It’s cheerful and colourful too. You can tell they have spent a lot of time preparing for this performance. Everything exclusively for us. We feel honoured, but at the same time uneasy and weighed down by it. Most of all we’re emotionally touched, because it is bizarre to see such sweet and happy schoolchildren sing and dance, while in the same building hate is being taught.
At the end of the show we must join them on stage for a dance. Finally, while still singing, we are accompanied outside down the stairs of the building. We thank them from the bottom of our hearts for the wonderful performance, hand out the M&M’s (American…) we brought and say goodbye. They keep waving to us until we are out of sight. We are deeply impressed and agree that this is one of the highlights of this trip. It’s our luck that there was no performance in the Children’s Palace today (the institute where privileged and talented children learn to dance, sing and play instruments and where foreign guests normally go to see an excessively orchestrated performance) due to the preparations for the commemoration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday.
After a bath in the hotel the two of us dine downstairs in the hotel restaurant (where else?)
Friday 9th April 2004 Pyongyang
Breakfast in the hotel. Kim Bok Nam is our favourite waiter. From the first we day we came here, he practises the few Dutch words we taught him.
Outside there’s more traffic than usual. A lot of Mercedes and Volvos of Party members who are in town for this holiday. The women in uniform directing the traffic with much flair on “busy” intersections, even when there’s no car in sight, are of some use today. The weather is nice and we notice that we’ve seen the city getting greener in only a couple of days. A little further down the street a brass-band is playing along the curb to cheer up the people on their way to work.
We are going to the Korean Film Studios in the north-west of the city. At the gate we have to wait a few minutes until everything has been prepared. A bunch of smiling female guards in army-outfit walk by. Peter is blown off his feet! When we are allowed to enter the premises a male guide joins us. We’re on a central square with a bronze statue of Kim Il Sung in a set of “The Flowergirl,” one of the most successful North Korean films. It has won a prize at a film festival in Czechoslovakia in 1972. Naturally we had to bow again. The square is surrounded by a number of film studios and a museum, all decorated with enormous mosaics depicting film shots (again of “The Flowergirl”) and film sets. Due to renovations the museum is closed.
By bus we continue to the mock-up film locations: permanent film sets of villages, towns and streets. We begin in a reconstructed village of Japanese colonial times. The crops between the farms are for real. This way nothing is wasted and it looks good on film. A little bit further there’s a copy of the secret camp at Mount Paektu, from which Kim Il Sung supposedly carried out the fight against the enemy. There are also some streets and buildings portraying Seoul, China and even Germany. The mock-up station is in reality connected to the rail system. The souvenir shop, located in a German villa, sells the usual things like ginseng and paintings, but no videotapes of movies as you would expect in a place like this. A wasted opportunity to earn some foreign currency.
We return to the central square of the studio compound and watch an insignificant (at least to us) compilation of a film. Outside at the statue an interview takes place attended by an elderly lady in traditional Korean dress. Accidentally (?) she happens to be the star of…..”The Flowergirl,” a certain Mrs. Hong. We certainly would like to have our picture taken with her. Although reluctantly, we get her permission, but she hardly smiles. She may indeed be very famous…
We drive back to town for a visit to the underground. Apparently we are too early again, because we pause on the parking lot of the Changgwang Health Complex. It’s a mystery why we can’t go to the underground straight away, because one would expect the trains to be running every few minutes and we won’t be accompanied by a designated guide there. In order not to embarrass our guides we don’t even ask. We just walk around the parking lot a little with Pak 2. When we turn around our bus seems to have gone, only to return in a couple of minutes. A man we don’t know descends. According to Pak 2 it’s an acquaintance of Pak 1. No idea where they have been in the meantime. We never get explanations for these kinds of occurrences. The rest of the time we wait in the bus while drinking a beer.
Like all other guests we are allowed to make a journey on the metro between the stations Puhung (Rehabilitation) and Yonggwang (Glory), the only two stations that are open to foreigners. At Puhung Station we descend some 200 metres by escalator, while relaxing classical music is being transmitted. Travellers on opposite escalators hardly look at us or don’t look at all. The station itself resembles Moscow’s underground complete with chandeliers and arches. The walls are adorned with mosaics and murals. As usual the theme is the power of the people, industry, workers, farmers and so on. The most striking mosaic is the one at the top of the stairs leading to the platform: a smiling Kim Il Sung wearing a fluttering overcoat amidst equally happy workers and scientists. Aren’t they happy people!
We let one train pass, so we can have a good look and take photos. A great number of people pour in and out of the trains. Some of the carriages are used cars from East Berlin. Each carriage has the familiar two portraits of the leaders. We regret that the train ride is over so soon. We would have liked to see more stations, but this is what we are allowed to see and nothing more. Yonggwang Station looks quite different: marble pillars shaped like huge torches and the chandeliers represent a “bumper harvest” of grapes.
We had heard and read rumours that, because of the energy shortages, the Pyongyang underground only runs when foreigners visit. The passengers on the trains would be actors and it could be the explanation why you are not allowed to travel beyond the two stations: The train would simply not go any further. It could indeed explain why we had to be there at 11.30 sharp and had to wait at a distant parking place. It sounds unlikely to us and we don’t have the impression that anything has been set-up for that purpose, although we cannot completely rule it out. Strange things happen all the time and we wonder what would have happened if for example one of us had fainted on the platform causing us to miss a train. The entire stage would have failed. Perhaps an idea on another trip or for another visitor……
At the exit our bus is waiting. Although this station is within walking-distance of the Koryo Hotel and we would have liked to go on foot, we must cover this little stretch by bus. At the hotel Peter goes to the hairdresser and gets a head massage thrown in. In the meantime Jos wraps up the farewell presents for the guides. Then we have lunch with Pak 1, which is a good opportunity for Jos to brush up his Spanish.
Something strange happens: Pak 2 comes to the restaurant telling us that he will not be with us any longer, because he has to go to the airport and pick up an English female singer for the April Spring Festival. We already thought it awkward he hadn’t joined us for lunch. Another English-speaking guide will replace him until our departure tomorrow. We are very disappointed, because we liked him very much. Why didn’t they send the new guide to the airport? We guess Pak 1 already knew. Pak 2 promises that we will see him tonight to say goodbye.
The new guide’s name is Mr. Cho or something similar. He too is a very kind man with a friendly appearance and he is doing his best. Apart from English he speaks German. He’s married and has a little son. We are now going to a clothing factory in East Pyongyang. It is one of those things that they are eager to show us, although we are not particularly interested in it. It’s a three-storey building and a female guide shows us around. On the top-floor the fabric is being cut to size and on the other floors the clothes are being assembled. Presently they are working on a big order from South Korea for factory- clothing. Proof of the fact that South Korea is investing heavily in its northern brother.
The factory’s showroom is on the other side of the courtyard. On one side western clothes (e.g. for Germany and South Korea) are on display; on the other clothing for the local market. For the past few days we have been looking out for clothes made of Vinalon, a synthetic fabric from the DPRK made out of limestone (!). However expensive the production process may be, it is exemplary for the Juche-ideology, self-reliance and national pride. Unfortunately we don’t see a single Vinalon-product here either. We may have more luck later today when we visit Daesong Exhibition Hall of Export Goods.
Apparently we’re not expected at the Exhibition Hall, because without explanation we leave the parking lot almost immediately once we get there. We no longer bother to ask why. To fill the gap that has now arisen before our visit to the circus, we go to the Ragwon Department Store. Earlier this week we hinted several times that, time permitting, we would like to see the famous Department Store No. 1, but it has been kept from us the entire week. And now we are being put off with another department store that is meant for the elite who are able to pay in foreign currency. Why, why, why?
The food-department with lots of western products is on the ground floor. A pot of Nescafé costs €19,00. Non-foods are on the first floor: clothing, shoes, hifi-sets, VCR’s and so on. The most absurd product we noticed was a set of kettledrums! Also available: deer navel and bear gall for medicinal use. Personally we’d rather have paracetamol! A group of men are constantly following us to watch what we are watching and what we are buying (a videotape of a Korean movie).
We also have time to visit the Gate of Reunification through which we passed earlier this week on our way to Panmunjom. It’s a large monument of two women from both Koreas reaching out to each other over the highway.
Then we drive to the Pyongyang Circus. It seems that we are exactly on time, because we are ushered hastily into the theatre through a side-entrance. Everyone is already seated when we enter and the moment we arrive the lights are fading. For a moment we can’t see a thing and we are forced to stay where we are until the first artists appear. A live orchestra is playing from somewhere high up in the theatre. There are many children and they’re having a lot of fun watching the clowns who fill the gaps between the different acrobatic acts. During the rope-walking act, the acrobatics, an act with whips and the magician’s act they breathlessly watch the performers. For a change we are not being confronted with figures, slogans and propaganda.
We think it’s a very good performance, although this is not the main troupe, as Mr. Cho keeps apologising. The main troupe is on tour in Switzerland.
During the finale, even before the lights come on, we are again being “evacuated” unexpectedly through the side-entrance. Without a doubt the intention is good, because we will not get lost in the crowds and loose our guides, but at the same time it is embarrassing. Suppose we mingle with the population!
In front of the main entrance a large group of men and women are dancing. The women wear traditional dresses. It’s all very colourful in this neighbourhood of concrete apartment buildings. We are allowed to take a closer look and take photographs. We’re only just able to avoid to joining in the dance.
After a short stop at the hotel we go out for dinner. It’s our farewell-dinner and the opportunity to offer the guides our gifts. However, Pak 2 is not here, although we had hoped he would join us. Hopefully he will come later, since we haven’t said goodbye to him yet. His replacement, Mr. Cho is present, but we have only known him since this afternoon. We don’t have any presents for him, because we didn’t count on him. So we drag the bag with presents along with us to the restaurant, hoping that Pak 2 will show up later. After all, he promised us he would come to say goodbye.
The restaurant is not far from the hotel. The food, as always, is good and abundant. From travel diaries of other visitors to the DPRK we understood that almost everyone of them had been ill from the food for at least a day. Although we counted on that ourselves, we didn’t experience any difficulties at all. When we tell this to Pak 1, again he interprets it differently: according to him it’s “misinformation” to make North Korea look bad. OH PLEASE, stop it! 90% of tourists who go to the Far East will more or less experience abdominal trouble. Whether it’s in Thailand, China or North Korea doesn’t make a difference! It’s nothing to be ashamed of. In the course of time we find it more demanding to give diplomatic replies and take a neutral stand. It’s beginning to irritate now, because you can never get really angry. After all we’re guests in an extraordinary country. On the other hand it is exceptionally interesting to experience this completely different world. It’s all part of it. The same goes for the lack of freedom of movement.
Today a couple of extra flights from Beijing have arrived carrying guests for the April Spring Festival which is held every year. Artists from all over the world come to Pyongyang to perform at the invitation of the DPRK who pays for everything. The artists stay at the Yanggakdo Hotel, the most modern hotel of the city, located on an islet in the river. We go there to find out if Pak 2 is there with his English guest and because Pak 1 wants to meet someone from Spain. The city is now decorated with banners, billboards and festive lights and looks very different from the first days we were here. The lobby is buzzing with foreigners who just arrived, but Pak 2 isn’t here either. Luckily though, when we return to our own hotel, Pak 2 is waiting for us! He’s wearing a special uniform and a badge saying “Interpreter.” We take the elevator to the 44th floor to have a beer with the Paks and to give them our presents. Mr. Cho apologises diplomatically. Mr. Kang doesn’t join us either, but we can still give him his presents tomorrow morning. We talk a little and conclude the evening quickly, since we are worn out again. Besides we have to get up at 6 in the morning and still have to pack our things.
Saturday 10th April Pyongyang-Beijing
After a short night the alarm clock wakes us at 6.00. We check out of the hotel and Pak 1, Mr. Cho and Mr. Kang accompany us to the airport. Even at this hour Pak 1 talks about politics and economy, as if it’s his last chance. We’re not really listening anymore, because after a week we can no longer take it in. We find out that it still hasn’t dawned on him that we are not teachers, the misunderstanding we thought we cleared up on day 1. We don’t even attempt to put it right anymore.
In front of the airport we say goodbye to Mr. Kang. He’s been a wonderful driver and we’ve had some good laughs with him, although he didn’t speak English.
The check-in goes rapidly and we drink coffee with our guides (that is to say: we have coffee, they have beer). Then it’s time to say goodbye to them too. We promise to come back and tell others what we have seen, which we will. With mixed feelings we proceed through passport control. On one hand it’s a pity that this tremendously impressive trip is over and that we now have to say goodbye to our guides who have done everything within their power to please us. On the other hand we look forward to the relaxation we will soon have in Beijing and freedom to go where and whenever we want. But above all we are satisfied. And worn out at the same time!
Flight JS151 is almost booked full. The composition of passengers is about the same as on the way in. Only metres above the landing runway in Beijing the stewardesses are still walking down the aisle. When during touchdown the curtains of the galleys give way a little, we can see them still standing and holding on to the galley’s worktop. We suspected this already on our outbound flight, but now we know for sure. This is really dangerous!
Once through immigration we take a taxi to the Da Wan Hotel again. It takes a little time to get used to the chaos and the advertising. And it takes a lot of imagination to realise that approximately 20 years ago Beijing must have looked about the same as Pyongyang. Things can really go fast…..
We take a couple of hours rest in our rooms. In the afternoon we send some emails from the internetcafé around the corner. Then we take a taxi to Silk Alley where Peter buys some shirts. The salesgirls are very friendly and jovial. They know exactly how to tempt Peter, while Jos is the so-called bogey-man, because he encourages Peter to bargain more. In the end everyone is satisfied.
We have dinner in a small restaurant in Wangfujiang where all other guests are Chinese. It is noisy and chaotic, but this makes for a great local atmosphere. It’s wonderful to be around cheerful, shouting and relaxed people again. People who dare to look at you, who talk to you and who make jokes. After dinner we walk around the market and take a taxi back to the hotel.
Sunday 11th April Beijing
For breakfast we go to Starbucks at Silk Alley. Coffee with cheesecake! The weather is beautiful, spring has really begun and we take a taxi to the Summer Palace. Although it’s a Sunday the roads are packed with cars and we’re stuck in a traffic-jam for a long time.
We walk around the palace grounds for a while and enjoy the lovely weather. Just outside we end up in a very local restaurant where we plan to have lunch, but we get doubts about the hygiene of the place when a little boy squats on the floor to pee in the middle of the restaurant and no one seems to care, neither his parents nor the staff. People wade through it unsuspectingly. We stick to a beer and have the best seats to observe a quarrel between some middle-aged women of a gymnastics club. It’s a heated fight, but we don’t have a clue what it’s about.
We decide to go to Pearl Market (Hongqiao Market) to buy some more presents for friends and family. In the end we have lunch at a pizzeria close to our hotel.
Tonight we will meet Max, a friend and colleague of Jos, who requested to work on a flight to Beijing in order to fly us home. But first we have a rest.
On our way to the Hilton Hotel to meet Max, we stop at Silk Alley where Peter buys another shirt at his friends’ stall. It’s good to see Max and to share our experiences with him.
We have a drink at Schiller’s and buy some illegal DVD’s from the (grumpy) house-dealer. Around the corner we have dinner at a Chinese restaurant. We walk Max back to his hotel and take a taxi back to our own.
Monday 12th April 2004 Beijing-Amsterdam
The last day of our holiday. In the morning we leave for the airport, check-in and have a coffee. On board Max welcomes us and the comfortable flight home begins. It’s been a very demanding, but unforgettable and interesting trip in every respect. We knew largely what to expect by reading a lot about North Korea and starting off well-prepared: the beautiful and interesting things that we have seen, it’s history, politics, but also the annoyances and frustrations are all part of the experience. Highly impressive and bizarre at the same time.