October 11th was a day of mourning. On any such day, it’s appropriate to dress respectfully, so that’s what I did. Clean, light-brown trousers, a white Oxford shirt, a black tie hastily purchased days before in at Beijing market, and the cherry on the cake: my shiny new North Korean Flag badge.
“Pickled Leaders Tour”
Kim Il-sung, founder of the WPK and former president of the DPRK, died in 1994. His body was promptly preserved by Soviet embalming experts, the same people who embalmed Stalin and Lenin.
Kim was put into the Kumgungsan Palace of the Sun, in a room maintaining the exact temperature needed to keep his body in perfect condition.
Seventeen years later, Kim Jong-il, his son, also died. He, too, was embalmed. The palace was redesigned slightly, and a room equal in size to Kim the Elder’s was made for Kim the Younger.
Happily, we were all to be treated to a view of both of these men in their lying state. This, we soon learned, would take a very, very long time.
When we arrived we were put into a huge queue. Black limousines with black windows drove by with Russian flags, then more with Indonesian flags. We decided that the Russian and Indonesian delegations had just had their communion with The Kims.
Now it was our turn. Into the cloakroom first - nothing can be taken in. Nothing. No phones, no wallets, no coins. They’d set off the metal detector. I wish I had photos of this part of the tour but sadly, I don’t. Cameras weren’t allowed. I did find some photos that others have taken online, but I don’t know how they managed it.
Next, along a moving walkway to view the “lake” (more moat) which flows around the palace.
Continue: up some stairs, to another moving walkway. This one is thankfully lined not by a moat but by hundreds of photographs of the two leaders. Interesting photographs too. Despite instructions to remain quiet and contemplative, most can’t help but make the odd comment.
This walkway was like being part of a real-world Kim Jong-il Looking At Things. Exclusively, it also included a Kim Il-sung Looking At Things, which I don’t believe exists on the web. It’s much better than KJILAT.
Kim the Elder, in these photos at least, has an air of charisma, authority and relaxedness around him. His son, however, exudes a feeling of boredom, reuctance and spite.
Soon, we’re done with the walkway. After a little more queueing, we’re finally taken through a small hallway which puffs air at you. The idea is to blow dust off. Then we go into what felt like some kind of an airlock, and finally, into a large, high-ceilinged, darkened room with pillars, very little decoration, and a rectangular-shaped centrepiece surrounded by red velvet ropes.
That centrepiece, as you probably guessed, was Kim Il-sung’s body. There he lay, barely touched for 21 years, looking alive-yet-dead. Puffed up cheeks, immaculately-styled hair, covered partially by a blanket. I can’t even remember what colour it was - and I can’t tell you because naturally we weren’t allowed to take photos.
Before we were taken in they explained to us the procedure in this hall: bow once to his right, then again to his left, and then finally, before leaving, to his front. And when I say bow, I mean bow. Like, 90° if possible.
What I do remember is how much he looked (and I’ve said this before) like his grandson. In person, that is. I haven’t seen a lot of footage of Kim Il-sung movign around, really just photographs. But to be able to compare his face in 3D to that of his grandson’s in moving picture furthers my theory that Kim Jong-un is in fact simply a clone of the original leader. [sic]
Next, we were to move onto the next room. This involved walking through a vast hall with many large and mysterious doors. We skipped past them, and headed through yet another dust-blower-cum-airlock, into yet another darkened room.
Let me rewind a little: When we were looking at Kim Il-sung, I felt very little in the way of “you were a terrible person”. For sure, the first leader was a terrible person and did terrible things, but the crossover between his life and mine wasn’t enough for me to take any notice in him. I never heard of him on the news, and rarely do refugees from North Korea talk about his rule. It feels like a long time ago, and it has been over 20 years.
Kim Jong-il’s carriage sported a very fetching Macbook Pro.
Seeing Kim Jong-il in the flesh, however, was eerie. I experienced a strange feeling of contempt which I suppose comes from years of negative portrayal in the media, books that I’ve read and accounts from defectors. Here lay a man whose decisions had led to the suffering of millions, in as recent times as the 21st century. How could the body of such a tyrant be treated with so much reverence? It’s a tragedy that the people here either don’t know the extent of his cruelty, or can’t express it out loud. Nevertheless, it was an interesting sight. I’m glad we got to do this.
After we’d bowed to both bodies, we were taken to see their respective vehicles. They both had different versions of the same Mercedes-Benz, and each had a personal train carriage. Kim Jong-il’s carriage sported a very fetching Macbook Pro (you heard it here first, folks: Kim Jong-il was an Apple fan!), but his father’s train was much more modest, while still managing to feature nice wooden armchairs with flush leather seats and a large wooden desk.
Allegedly, Kim Jong-il’s death occurred while riding in his carriage. Perhaps even while typing out an email on his Macbook. I suppose we may never know for sure.
After our tedious 3-hour Pickled Leaders Tour we were finally released, and driven back into town.
We were finally able to visit Kim Il-sung square, and it was an interesting sight in the aftermath of yesterday’s celebrations. Lines all over the streets and road for coordinating movements. It felt a bit like what a festival feels like when it’s finished, but there was no litter, somehow.
While here, we visited a shop, and walked by a couple of small food stores with a few customers buying ingredients and snacks - they didn’t have much, but they did have a few customers.
We also visited the foreign-language bookstore, which featured many of the same books available in the previous day’s bookstore and gallery, but also some prints and hand-painted art, badges, folk art, and general tourist souvenir fare.
Next, it was time for a history lesson! We were taken to the war museum, recently extended in size (by about 100%!) full of modern facilities and sitting next to the famous USS Pueblo.
The Pueblo is a small US “Spy” Ship captured by the North Korean Navy in the 1990s, a fact with they’re very keen to make clear to us during the tour of the ship. Bullet holes are outlined and key areas are turned into displays of captured weapons and gear.
Photographs of US Naval Officers writing confessions about their alleged spying activities, as well as the original confession papers themselves, are on display for all to see.
But the propaganda doesn't end there. Next, we're taken into the building of the war museum. Again, no photos here - sorry.
I can describe to you, however, the explicit, full-size models built to depict scenes from the Korean War. US soldiers, either dead or severely wounded, lying in our staggering through a bleak, war-torn landscape. These were fairly real-looking but exaggerated models, whose glass eyes glinted with despair and little plastic guts spewed from their stomachs. We knew it was fake but it was still pretty sickening. This, as far as North Korea is concerned, is a typical scene from the war: defeated, ravaged Americans.
The film came next. It was, as expected, full of many truth-stretching claims about what happened during the Korean war. The USA was the instigator, of course, and the South Korean government was puppetted (and still is) by the USA. In fact the video avoided the phrase “South Korean” or “South Korea” quite heavily, and focused on using “puppet”.
That’s all fairly debateable though. To an extent, the South Korean government at the time was at least heavily influenced by the USA. However, the video didn’t properly describe the events which occurred. It depicts a war which was easily won by Kim Il-sung’s army, without any help from outsiders. In reality, an intervention from Mao Tse-tung’s Chinese “People’s Volunteer Army” turned the conflict around for Kim Il-sung when his forces were all but defeated.
Still, we all knew this would happen, so we moved on. We were shown a few relics from the war including uniforms, captured weaponry and enemy soldiers’ documents and books. Standard war museum stuff. Sadly we didn’t get to see any huge collections of DPRK military hardware, but it was an interesting visit.
Also, the museum coffee was the best I had in North Korea.
Pyongyang has three forms of public transportation: an underground railroad (the Metro!), a trolleybus system and a tram system. We were told we’d get to use two of them–the metro and the tram–and the tram came first.
In what seemed like an exercise in futility, we drove from the center of the city to the outskirts, at a depot where one of the trams was waiting to take us back into the center of the city. They’d taken it out of service for the day just for us (sorry Pyongyang!!) - apparently it’s not so common for tourists to use the tram, and the metro is far more popular. It was nice though. It felt pretty much like any tram system I’ve ever used that wasn’t constructed after the 1990s - kinda clunky, largely made of metal and wood, but quick and smooth enough.
As we made our way through town, it was a rare opportunity to watch the city go by from a relatively low vantage point and much smoother than on the coach. Along the way, we saw our first drunk-and-slightly-disorderly North Korean man walking along the streets. It’s a sight which one expects to find in almost any city in the world at least a couple of times, and it was in a strange way quite refreshing to see in Pyongyang. Clearly someone had had a little too much soju to celebrate Party Foundation Day.
Our destination on the tram was a supermarket.
You never give me your money
Strictly speaking, foreigners aren't allowed to get their hands on the local currency, North Korean Won. The supermarket is one of the few places--the only place on our tour, in fact--where it's possible to exchange US Dollars, Euros, or Chinese Yuan Remnimbi for North Korean Won.
I’d already obtained some, which I found lying around (seriously) near the tram depot, but it wasn’t a lot. I was keen to get my hands on some real money, and to take it out of the country which again, strictly speaking, is not allowed. Why? Two reasons: first, it’s a good souvenir. Secondly, I’m bullish on North Korean Won. It’s the currency of the future, so I’m making investments now while it’s cheap. [sic].
This supermarket was more like a department store than a supermarket, though, kind of like a Tesco Extra back in the UK. Downstairs were the groceries and a few electronic goods, and upstairs were the clothes. I’m sorry to say that here, too, we were asked not to take photos. Some other tourists broke this rule and weren’t even told off, so I suspect this was more of a courtesy request. Imagine if someone who didn’t even speak your language came into your supermarket and started taking photos of you doing your weekly shop - most were happy not to take photos.
I traded some Euros for some Won, went in and started shopping. I found a mixture of mainly Chinese-produced goods and Korean-produced goods, and even a few of things from Indonesia and Thailand. My objective was to buy some Gochujang (I succeeded!), some Kimchi (I failed) and some kind of North Korean Snack (I bought popcorn). I did also get some North Korean Cola, but sadly it didn’t fit my tastebuds quite as well as Coke does.
It was seriously busy at the supermarket today. This was an instance where I suspected that this isn’t a usual occurrence, and that perhaps for Foundation Day they’d brought in loads of extra stuff for sale and people were clamouring to stock up on good food. It was really, really busy. But I’m happy to report that North Korean queueing culture is very organised, which pleased me greatly.
Curiously, while I waited in the queue, two young women stood nearby, looking at me. One of them stared non-stop for the ten minutes we were waiting in line, with an odd grin on her face which she couldn’t seem to shake, while her friend embarassingly looked away. In this crowd, we tourists were hugely outnumbered by locals, and we stood out like a sore thumb. Most of them obviously were not expecting us, and the novelty was either hilarious or confusing to many of them.
Nevertheless, I found people in the supermarket to be generally helpful and patient. I managed to find the toilet with the help of an old man (the nicest old man I’d come across so far - most of them looked at me scornfully) and the cashier, although looking a little bit tired and fed up, allowed me to fumble with the money for a bit longer than I would’ve liked.
We were on a tight schedule though, for we were late for a very important date: a mass dance was going on and we weren’t taking part!
A mass dance takes place on special occasions on North Korea. Not everybody takes part but the name should be a giveaway: it’s very popular. From what I could tell, lots of people were having a great time, but others looked like they were bored and doing it because their parent/boss/local goody-goody was expecting them to do it.
Women dressed in choson-ot and men in shirts & tie. It was quite a spectacle, but the real fun was in taking part in the dance. Vicky, of Koryo Tours, asked if I wanted to join in. I wasn’t sure, but she said it was totally fine, so we asked a couple if we could split them up. To be honest, they seemed a little surprised, but I’m glad I got to take part. I tried to be friendly to my new dance partner and I think I did all the moves okay, but I don’t think she was very interested in dancing with me.
Nevertheless, it was really fun and very easy. Essentially, you’re taking part in a circular line dance. There’s about 4 repetitive movements which you can pick up in one or two rounds, and the music is extremely repetitive and goes on for about 3 or 4 minutes per song, so you only need about 30 seconds to understand the dance. There’s a lot of clapping, stepping, and bowing, and some of the music was very lively indeed.
With the dance out of the way, it was finally time for what some seemed to consider the main event: the famous Pyongyang Metro.
Contrary to popular belief, Pyongyang metro has more than two stops. Also contrary to popular belief, Pyongyang metro is actually used by the people of Pyongyang even when tourists aren’t around. Finally, while a couple of the stations are extremely grand and ornate, the other stations aren’t just simple holes in the ground. They’re about as interesting on the surface as your average London Underground station, which is to say, “nothing special, but kind of nice I suppose”.
For this part of the trip we had been put into slightly different groups for some reason. I ended up on a bus with a different tour guide: an older lady, around 40 years old, who had a sarcastic attitude and approached her tours with far more cynicism than Ms. Li.
“And now you can see the famour ‘actors’ of Pyongyang metro” she said as we approached our first station. Laughter from the coach.
This was Puheong station. She took us down, explaining how deep the metro goes, and it seemed like an escalator which would go on forever. The stations act as bomb shelters too, of course, in case of an invasion by the Americans or their “puppets” in South Korea.
You could tell immediately that it was rush hour. Dozens and dozens of commuters came up the escalator as we went down, and we were met by a few more dozen commuters standing on the platforms, some police officers and a few other tourists.
At the back of the enormous mural depicting Kim Il-sung standing with workers, intellectuals, housewives, farmers… all the necessary parts to the functioning of the North Koreans machine. A dramatic scene to inspire the sleepy worker on their way to the office, or affirm their hard work at the end of a long day.
Some sleepy workers read the party newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, which was available for all to read in the center of the platform. Others just stood with their friends and chatted, and a few fiddled with their smartpones. A couple of police officers stood guard by the platforms to make sure nobody did anything too silly. The mood was relaxed for the most part, but a few people were in a real rush. It was mostly just that there were lots and lots of people.
Our train turned up. It was old-looking but still quite nice. A relic from a bygone era, this train was from West Berlin, and was used there between 1957 and 1965. You could tell, it just didn’t look modern. But it was lovely. On the windows, graffiti was scratched on in German.
We travelled on the Mangyeongdae line, and got off at Ponghwa station where we were due to change to a different line. I’m happy to report that this station was one of the “not that exciting” ones. A simple mural at the back, and marble pillars, but much lower ceilings. It was smaller, but did feature a modern-looking metro map which lit up to show where the train was.
We were changing onto the Chollima line - named after the famous mythical winged horse which can travel at great speeds. Our train arrived - another West Berlin stock train - and we got going.
I stood next to Koryo Tour guide Simon on the train, and next to us were two very young boys. We made a few stops, and I asked Simon if I could talk to the kids (after being told off last time). He said it was fine. I asked them, “Where are we?” He stared nervously off into middle distance for a moment before telling me, “Seongni”. This wasn’t our stop, but a few people did get on and it started to get quite cramped.
Finally we reached our destination: Kaeseon station.
At the back of the enormous platform hall stood a huge gold statue of Kim Il-sung, gesturing to his hard-working commuter comrades as they wait for their trains.
I now had the opportunity to chat with our newer, cynical guide from KITC. She asked me about where I’m from and what I do so I told her. She also asked where I learned to speak Korean.
Until then I’d been telling people, “in England”. But I decided to tell her the truth here, that I learned in Seoul, and that I had visited last month. “Why did you want to go there?” she asked me. “I was curious,” I told her.
I moved the conversation on, and asked her how long she’d been a guide. Five years, she told me. Did she enjoy it? Not really, she said. It can be quite boring. At least you get to meet lots of people from other countries, I said. She acknowledged this benefit but it didn’t seem to matter that much to her. I asked her what she’d rather do. “I don’t know…” she said. I wanted to find out more, but we reached the end of the escalator. “You have ten minutes until we go!” she told us.
Back at street level, the area I now knew was known as Kaeseon was buzzing. Loads of people hanging around, just loitering after work with their friends. Bizarrely, there was a shooting range where kids and adults shot plastic pellets. By attention was stolen quickly, though, by something I’d been eager to try but didn’t see any opportunities for until now. A food stall.
Food stalls in South Korea are known as Pojang Macha - just a little stall selling kimbap, mandu, odaeng, tteokbeokki and other Korean Street food classics. I knew they had them here as I’d seen them from the bus, but they were a little different from the ones in Seoul. Cleaner, and selling more packaged food such as crisps and chocolates. They still had some fresh stuff though: they had kimbap for sale!
Two young women were running this pojang macha, so I gathered my courage and approached them. I had some spare won in my pocket from the supermarket, and I was gonna spend it whether the government wanted me to or not - and I’d do it entirely in Korean. Here’s how it went:
Vendor: Hello! [laughing]
Dan: [points at wrapped-up Kimbap] How much is this?
Vendor: Three euros
Dan: No. How much in Choson Won?
Vendor: Err. [looks at colleague] 2000 Won.
Dan: [pulls out money] It’s okay?
Vendor: Yes, it’s okay. [takes money]
Not the most exciting exchange by any measure, but I was so, so proud of myself at this moment. I’d performed an everyday activity in North Korea in the way that a local might (if they were being extremely polite and awkward). Mission accomplished.
Another tourist who speaks a little better Korean than me came over and ordered some too, and a drink. We helped some others order food and soon these women were seeing a sudden surge in demand which must’ve been very overwhelming.
And my verdict on the Kimbap? Pretty darn good.
Most fans of North Korean pop music are familiar with the Moranbong Band. They play videos of their performances quite frequently in restaurants in North Korea, and in the airport, in the hotel lobby, and the plane ride on the way in. They’re pretty talented, but their music is quite repetitive and tends to have a very revolutionary feel. On the screen behind them is always some inspirational videos, and occasionally one of the leaders shows up and everybody in the audience starts applauding.
So when earlier in the day we’d been offered to see the debut performance of a new band who’d never before done a public performance in Korea, some were skeptical. “Do we really want to watch this group of young women, basically forced to be singers, sing propaganda music to the backdrop of revolutionary scenes and Kim Jong-il looking at things?”
Nobody wanted that for more than a few minutes, so most declined. Some of us saw the potential, however. Apparently this band had been “developed in part by Kim Jong-un”. This is what people say about the Moranbong band, so everybody sort of just assumed it’d be the same. Nevertheless, some of us signed up. I was one of those people.
The Chongbong band (청봉악단/Cheongbong Akdan) is a group of five singers, all women, backed by a mainly brass band. We were allowed to see them in the newly-built People’s Theatre, thanks to some other tour guides in KITC suddenly having a few extra tickets. This was a very big deal indeed, we were told.
Before you get excited: no, Kim Jong-un was not there.
It’s about 7PM, and it’s dark. Street lights aren’t on, but the People’s Theatre is lit up like bonfire night. Our coach stops at the edge of the vast car park, which is about a quarter-filled with cars and minibuses. Before we get out our guide tells us that “phones and cameras are not allowed” but “maybe you can just put your phone in your pocket. Maybe you don’t know the rules. I didn’t tell you that.” We laugh, nervously, and decide to try this. A few cheeky snaps inside the theatre would be pretty cool!
So, we step off the bus and make our way towards the impressive building. It’s round, and reminds me of a sort of modern-day Royal Albert Hall. Lots of glass, with five or six stories, and six simple arches covering the entrance.
As we approach the theatre, our guide tells us, “Okay, you need to give me your phones. Forget it.” Well, that plan lasted long. We hand our phones to her, and as we enter the theatre we’re patted down, and hand our tickets over. To the right of the entrance, next to a small podium, hundreds of mobile phones are stacked up against the window of the theatre. Nearby, a theatre staff member holds a plastic bag full of phones. Jackets and bags are hanging from racks. This is a much stricter event than we had anticipated.
After getting over the shock of being stripped of my personal effects, I take a minute to look around. The atrium of the theatre is vast. Looking up I can see a high ceiling which goes up as high as perhaps the fourth floor, and there are chandeliers every few metres. Perhaps it’s just that I’m used to North Korean interiors by this point but it didn’t seem over-the-top like many other places. It seemed rather modest.
It wasn’t too busy here, but based on the stack of phones I assumed most people were already inside and sitting at their places. So after finding out where our seats were, we all made our way to a great glass lift to the fourth floor.
I stopped in the loo before taking my seat, and it was easily the nicest I’d used in four days. After washing my hands I rushed into the theatre and found my seat was nowhere near my fellow tourists! Instead, I was next to a very well-dressed KITC guide and her client, a man from Switzerland who was here on a private tour. We were surrounded by Koreans, also quite well dressed but not all wearing Choson-ot, and in front of us was a long row of westerners, whom I could neither identify nor place.
The interior of the theatre was much grander than the atrium. Large curtains and more chandeliers, some North Korean flags here and there but not overly patriotic-looking. No portraits of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il to be found.
We waited, patiently, and I got to know my new friends a little. The Swiss man had been visiting lots of other places in Korea, outside of Pyongyang, but his trip was almost over. The KITC guide told me that I had her seat because one of her friends was going to come but decided not to at the last minute. I thanked her, of course.
Soon, the lights dimmed and a brass band came on. They played a lively, upbeat tune to introduce the singers to the stage, who energetically showed up dressed in white dresses each with their own wireless microphone.
What followed was a mixture of songs about sacrifice and hard work, but also about family - it was a little bit revolutionary. Words showed on a large LED display above the stage, so it was easier to work out what was going on. For the first couple of songs there was no mention of the leaders.
When any leader’s name came up in a song, though, the text on the display became bright pink with a yellow border, and the words were sung with a little more passion than other words.
The screen behind them showed innucuous scenes of countryside, mountains, flowers, occasionally farmers and children. Even when their names came up there were no images of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un.
Towards the end of the first half, though, we got our first leadership moment - Kim Il-sung graced the screen for a few moments in a song about fathers, and the entire theatre erupted with applause, almost drowning out the sound of the music. But as quickly as it had started, it was over, and everybody returned to listening.
After the second half was over, we were treated to two more leadership applause moments. One for Kim Jong-il, and another much, much shorter one for Kim Jong-un. The strangest moments came when the band all but left the stage and one performer remained, singing a sad, slow song about the Korean War. The images on the screen became disturbing: a mixture of battle scenes and post-battle scenes, where people sat on the sides of roads missing limbs or eyes, mourning their parents, and more than enough images of crying children.
Hopefully now you’ll understand my surprise and relief when the whole band returned to the stage with a spring in their step, and they began to sing Yankee Doodle Dandy. Most of the words were in Korean, but the hook most certainly was not. These state-approved performers were singing a jolly, happy-sounding song which includes the word “Yankee” in a key line. It didn’t end there though - an old Russian folk song about a propellor plane also graced our ears and a couple of other upbeat folk songs played, all with similarly upbeat background videos.
That pretty much sums up the performance. It was very good, they’re extremely talented musicians - but the mixture of revolutionary songs and foreign folk music is utterly bizarre.
Money will only get you so far
Another notable experience was when I met a woman from Washington D.C. who lives in Beijing. Remember the line of Westerners sitting a couple of rows in front of me? They were wealthy American businessmen (“Like, 1% wealthy!” according to the Washingtonian) who are members of an “exclusive” club that goes on three holidays a year: one luxury holiday (think private beach resort or catered villa in wine country), one adventure holiday (e.g. hiking, rock climbing, sailing) and one “crazy” holiday. They were on the “crazy” holiday, and they’d spent huge amounts of money to be allowed to attend the parade, and apparently, it cost them a little more to come to this concert. All of it was arranged by the woman I’d met. She could tell more nothing more about them.
However, she did tell me that they were unmoved by the performance by the Chongbong Band, and asked if they could leave. Unsurprisingly, they were not allowed to leave. To have left such a huge gap in the audience of the theatre after the first half would’ve been insulting, even in a country less strict than North Korea. They offered to pay to leave, but even then the theatre management refused.
Most of us in the regular ol’ tourist group enjoyed the concert though, to varying degrees, and were happy to have been able to see something so rare and unusual. We got on our buses, tired and ready for bed, and wondering what had been happening in the world since we cut ourselves off a few days earlier. This was our final night in the Yanggakdo hotel, and many of us would be leaving by plane and arriving in relatively well-connected Beijing the following afternoon.
Back in the PRC
October 12th, our final day in North Korea, was a very early start. Rushing to shiny new Pyongyang Airport, we exchanged farewells with new friends and fellow tourists.
The check-in process was surprisingly easy. Although Ms. Li had to do some logistical acrobatics to get me in front of a group of Russian tourists (not sure why this was so important!) the customs officer was friendly and I faced no issues. Nobody checked my camera, nor my phone, nor did they search my hand luggage. I’m sure they had a thorough look in my suitcase using x-ray, but they certainly didn’t notice the ~10,000 won I was taking out of the country, apparently “illegally”.
In the departure lounge I had a chat with my mum on an international payphone, mostly for the novelty value of it. Foolishly assuming I could pay using the local currency, I failed to pay them and had to borrow money from some friends.
I found the departure lounge really interesting because it was one of the first places I’d seen the word “Keo-pi”, which is Konglish/Korean for, you guessed it, “Coffee”. It was written above, unsurprisingly, a coffee shop. This felt like a super-modern airport. I looked around, too, but failed to find any portraits of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il.
The airport bookshop also contained loads of the same books we’d found before, as well as some guides to North Korean business, for foreign investors. There are 6 editions so far, each one featuring various industries to which the North Korean government is apparently trying to attract foreign investment. Naturally, one of these is the CNC Machine Industry, one of Korea’s most prized and respected industries. So important is this area of business, there’s even a song about it.
Right on time, our gate opened and we got on the plane. The slightly rattly flight back to Beijing began, and the North Korean Adventure ended.
When our plane taxied up to the gate in Beijing Airport, our ageing Koryo Air passenger jet ended up sitting right next to one of the sky-blue modern Airbus jets of Korean Air. From the outside it would’ve been a weirdly contrasting sight: two countries, sharing a name and a history, separated more than any other countries in the world. I wondered whether the Air Koryo and Korean Air crew ever talk to each other in the “Crew Immigration” queue. If so, what do they talk about? How do they greet one another? Have they built up a rapport over the years?
I fear this is a mystery I’ll probably never clear up - one of many DPRK-related mysteries.
My fascination with Korea began about 5 years ago when I visited the South for the first time, and after spending more and more time there, and now in the North, my fascination has only grown. I’m confident I’ll live to see the day that North Korea becomes a “normal” country, by one way or another, and I’d really like to see the transition as closely as possible.
Before you go…
If you want to see some footage of the DPRK which I recorded, I’ve been posting videos on my YouTube Channel. Check it out.
This post is part of a series. You can see part one here, part two here, and part three here.
Also, Koryo Tours have plenty more DPRK information and photos if you want further glimpses into North Korean life, largely on social media: Instagram of Vicky, my tour guide, Koryo on Facebook, Koryo on Twitter, Koryo on Tumblr. They also have a website where you can find out about their tours and humanitarian projects, koryogroup.com.
Finally, if you’re interested in the divisive issue of the ethics of touring in North Korea, the Guardian recently wrote an interesting piece. Give it a read.
Heckle me on Twitter @basicallydan.