By Erick Tseng
Welcome to the world’s most isolated civilization
In September 2015, I traveled to North Korea to see, first-hand, what life was like inside the Hermit Kingdom. Much of the country was what I had expected: strange, ersatz, thick with propaganda, and every so often, seriously unsettling.
And yet, the journey was also filled with some truly wonderful, completely unexpected surprises. One thing’s for sure: North Korea really is unlike any other place on Earth.
Since my return, I’ve had a lot of people, friends and strangers, ask me about my trip. There has been way more curiosity about North Korea than I would have imagined — so much so, that I thought I’d write down some of my experiences, and share them with you here.
Pictures and stories alone can’t do justice to what it’s really like being on the ground in North Korea. As a visitor, you’re watched 24/7, you have no freedom, and you’re constantly tense and on edge. But hopefully, this post will at least give you a glimpse into what life is like in one of the most restricted, enigmatic destinations in the world.
Immediately upon arrival, and before our shuttle had even left the airport parking lot, our government minders were already beginning to walk us through all the rules we had to obey, including:
- We must always travel in a group. For the entire trip, we almost never got to walk around outside. Instead, we were bused from place to place, even if we were only traveling 4 blocks. You’re definitely not allowed to do things like leave the hotel at night or explore the city on your own
- No photos of military sites or soldiers. This often proved to be difficult, given that nearly 40 percent of North Korea’s population serves in the military
- No photos of construction sites or any people at work. The government wants the world to see their country represented only by pristine pictures of perfection. Photographs of half-finished buildings and sweaty laborers apparently don’t make the cut
- If you take pictures of any of their Dear Leaders, you have to capture their whole figure. You can’t crop out any part of their bodies
- If you have any printed materials depicting the Dear Leaders (e.g., newspapers, magazine), you can’t crease their images. You also can’t throw these materials in the garbage, or use them as wrapping paper
- Whenever you visit a statue of a Dear Leader, your group will need to line up single-file in front of it, and bow. Your hands must be at your side; not in your pockets or behind your back
The first thing you notice as soon as you pull out of the airport is the propaganda. It’s literally everywhere. Every street intersection, every building, every subway station, and even every subway car proudly displays portraits of the nation’s Dear Leaders. Banners and giant murals extol the virtues of North Korea and Kim Il Sung’s Juche ideology around self-reliance.
Every morning, at 6:30 a.m., you awake to the delightful wake-up call of propaganda music blaring into your windows from the streets.
Even the people themselves are part of the propaganda machine. Nearly every North Korean wears a red pin patriotically emblazoned with the faces of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I tried really hard to lay my hands on one of these pins, but tourists aren’t allowed to have them. They have to be earned through loyal servitude.
What was perhaps scariest though, was the propaganda we found inside the nation’s schools. During our trip, we visited two schools: 1) a primary school in Pyongsong, a small, provincial city north of Pyongyang, and 2) the Children’s Palace, a school in the capital city for gifted children.
What we saw on the walls of these institutions was disturbing — gruesome images of war, killing, and death, side-by-side with Disney-like portraits of the Dear Leaders adoring (and being adored by) children.
The Pyongyang Elite
Living in Pyongyang is like living in The Capitol in The Hunger Games. Only the elite are allowed in. Out of the whole country, the propaganda here is the loudest, the love for the Dear Leaders is the most passionate, and life is as good as it gets in North Korea.
If you’re living in Pyongyang, you are the 1 percent.
And with this status comes privilege that you won’t find elsewhere in the country:
1. You’re given free housing in high-rise apartments in return for loyalty and service to the country.
2. You have access to grocery stores that are stocked with Nutella, Oreos, Absolut Vodka, and… jelly shoes. Some of these pictures are a bit blurry, because you’re not allowed to take pictures inside any of the country’s stores. So, I had to get creative with my photography.
Products were arranged in perfect rows, and shelves were fully stocked. Everything was designed to show bountifulness and prosperity.
Notice in the top picture how many security cameras are hanging from the ceiling. There was more surveillance in this small grocery store than in my bank back home in the U.S.
3. You get to ride on Soviet subways.
4. You even get to go to amusement parks and water parks on the weekend.
A Soviet Concrete Jungle
Overall, Pyongyang was much more developed than what I had imagined.
Sure, most of the city was comprised of drab, Soviet-style buildings — hulking Lego blocks of faceless concrete. But the sheer scale of it all was greater than what I had anticipated.
From afar, there were even parts of the city that were quite picturesque. But that beauty quickly faded as you peered just a little bit more closely. Upon closer inspection, you find yourself staring at a cityscape that was all too often rickety and raw.
Perhaps the most famous unfinished construction project is the Ryugyong Hotel, the tallest building in North Korea. Construction began in 1987, and the building remains unfinished and unopened to this day.
Fun fact: the North Korean elites love revolving restaurants. They’re seen as a must-have for any high-end, luxury hotel. The top two hotels in Pyongyang — the Koryo Hotel and the Yanggakdo Hotel – both have one. So, to ensure its supremacy in the world of hospitality, the Ryugyong Hotel was designed to have not one, not two, but FIVE revolving restaurants! You can see them in the cylindrical cone at the top of the tower in the photos below.
For a country that is officially at war with its sister nation just to the south, the threat of conflict is very real in North Korea. And nowhere is this risk of war more palpable than at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
The drive from Pyongyang to Panmunjom, the border city at the DMZ, is 3 hours long — placing Pyongyang twice as far from a potential border battle, compared to Seoul, which is less than a 90 minute drive away.
The drive down to Panmunjom was really interesting. The highway was 6 lanes wide, and yet the road was almost completely devoid of cars for the entire three-hour drive. We mostly just saw people biking and walking along the edge of the asphalt. The only other vehicles we saw were military jeeps and an occasional bus or two.
As we got closer to the DMZ, the military checkpoints got more and more frequent, and the soldiers at these checkpoints looked more and more fierce. Each time we approached one, our minders would emphatically remind us not to take any pictures.
One fascinating thing: every mile or two, the North Korean army had erected giant concrete towers by the side of the road. Some of these were thinly disguised as monuments. But these towers served a much more significant purpose. Should the South Koreans ever break across the border and march north, the North Koreans would blow up the base of these towers, causing them to topple over onto the road and block the advance of South Korean tanks.
When we arrived at the DMZ, the air was electric. The name Demilitarized Zone is really a misnomer. This was one of the most militarized places I’ve ever seen. Security was super tight. We were escorted by soldiers single-file around the compound.
Nine out of 10 people we saw in North Korea steered clear of us. However, making that occasional connection with the remaining 10 percent was so much fun. Sometimes, a smile would be returned, or, if we were really lucky, a wave. Almost all the time, these exchanges would be with kids or students.
I suppose it’s not too surprising that children and teenagers were far friendlier and more curious, compared to the adults. Perhaps they hadn’t been fully-indoctrinated by propaganda yet. Perhaps the hardships of life hadn’t begun weighing down on their shoulders.
Whatever the reason, seeing this next generation of North Koreans gave me hope – hope that someday, change will come for the North Koreans. And when it does, their country, and the entire world, will be better for it.