North Korea

I'm back from spending three incredible days in the most isolated country in the world - North Korea (locally referred to as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea or DPRK). 

We stayed in the capital city of Pyongyang. The highlight was on day two when 50,000+ North Koreans gathered in the May Day Stadium to watch ~1,500 pro/amateur runners participate in the international Pyongyang Marathon. I ran my first half-marathon and finished in just over 2 hours. 

What was Pyongyang like? It was like stepping into a real life time capsule from the 1980s that had been modeled after The Truman Show. The place felt hollow, eerily empty, yet strangely well put together. 

Here were my initial reactions of Pyongyang when we first arrived:

  • There's not a single piece of litter on the ground
  • None of the locals are talking; nobody smiles
  • Where are the advertisements?
  • Seriously, why isn't anyone talking
  • There are a lot of North Korean flags
  • Most of the people are old
  • Nearly everyone is wearing a pin of Kim Jung Il and Kim Il Sung
  • The entire city is devoid of animals

Pyongyang gave travelers what any top international city would provide: architecture, culture, rich history, and food. Honestly, the food sucked. But I guess that's what happens when food in general isn't all that common. North Korea has only recently become self-sufficient in food, so it makes sense that options and quality are limited.

Other highlights:

  • Arch of Triumph - similar to the one in Paris, but bigger.
  • Mansudae Grand Monuments – the giant bronze statues of North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. We had to place flowers and bow before taking any pictures. 
  • Grand People’s Study House - their version of the Library of Congress. Supposedly stocked with over 3 million books. I snuck off to use the bathroom at one point only to discover that it had no running water. Not so grand afterall.
  • The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum - this is where they tell you how evil the "US imperialists" are, and show off the few pieces of US military equipment that they seized during the Korean War.
  • Munsu Water Park - we went down waterslides with the locals. Like every public building, you were greeted with an effigy of Kim Jung Il at the entrance, this time it was him at the beach (I got a pic of it before we were told photos weren't allowed, and then I got scolded for smiling at it). 
  • Juche Tower - the highest stone tower in the world. Provided amazing 360 degree views of the city. 

A few of my favorite pictures are below - and here was the detailed itinerary

And then I'll leave you with a few open-ended questions/thoughts I had after reflecting on the trip:

  • The power of media - what if our understanding of this country has been grossly misunderstood or misshaped by the media? The recent cover of Newsweek suggests this, and so does the beginning pages of this book. In no way does that downplay the humanitarian issues - but scholars who study the country suggest it's very different than what's portrayed on TV. 
  • Actual risk vs perceived risk - my safety was a big topic among friends/family after I signed up for the trip. After going on the tour, I'd say actual risk in North Korea is < perceived risk. If that arrow ever flipped though you wouldn't want to travel to North Korea. 
  • Have we lost the spirit to explore? - in 18th century America, you had people going on massive treks and expeditions to uncharted lands. It was a core part of the American spirt. Did this adventurous travel spirit die when we stopped discovering new lands? I don't see enough people doing truly uncomfortable things when they travel. You learn the most about yourself when you do things that are scary. 
  • Utopia is relative - I can't imagine a life without internet. North Koreans can't imagine life with internet. Those of us in the digital age are glued to our phones 24/7 - which is something some people say is destroying human relationships. This isn't a problem in North Korea. 
  • Capitalism and the free-market - stores would gladly accept US Dollars...currency featuring pictures of the "US imperialists" that the North Korean regime has spent years denouncing. In a country where imagery and propaganda is so important, there's a strange paradox in the willingness to take American tourists and their money. 
  • A trash free city - was this part of the propaganda? part of what happens in communist societies when everyone is employed by the state? or maybe this is what happens when you have a society not raised on consumerism? 

All in all, it was a great adventure. If you're interested in doing it next year, more info here

7 responses
Thanks for a good education!
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Great post, Ben. Now I want to go to North Korea, as I have always been a fan of surrealism. I love the names they give to their landmark buildings.
Nicely documented Ben! For a moment I could visualize myself in NK. :)
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