North Korea – respecting the Great Leader(s) in Pyongyang

When I told people I was going to North Korea, everyone said I was nuts, but it is one of the safest places to visit in the world and profoundly fascinating to see an entirely different culture unblemished by western values.  While it was tricky to keep a straight face when hearing about the evil imperialist US and the divine acts of Kim Il Song, it was interesting how committed the North Koreans are to their country and the Juche ideology.   And the food was pretty good too!  Definitely worth a visit!   

Liberation museum statue

Before we were allowed on the plane we had to sign on the dotted line that we were not journalists and promise that we didn’t have any bibles and were not going to on a mission to convert any North Koreans to Christianity. That done, we then got a detailed briefing on what we weren’t allowed to do in the country, though in fairness it was largely a request to not take the piss out of the great leader (including only taking full and flattering photos of pictures or monuments of him) and being sensible (don’t take photos of the military or make dumb comments about the government)

Captured US enemy tank

Arriving in Pyongyang was an efficiency dream putting European and American airports to shame. There were more staff than passengers and while we were asked a bunch of questions and Lenas books were inspected we were through in five minutes. Our lovely guides took our passports and visas for the duration of the tour and then drove us in to town. 

The enemy ship USS pueblo

Our first stop was the Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum. We had an extremely earnest young female military guide who spent two hours explaining in great detail how the imperialist and dishonourable US army had started the Korean War with their ‘puppets’ (South Korea) and without a note of cynicism went on to celebrate how ‘the supreme great leader’ Kim Sung Il had ‘liberated’ the whole of Korea before eventually being victorious in ‘liberating’ the DPRK (North Korea) when the Americans ‘surrendered’ (signed the armistice). 

Postage stamp

It was an endurance test for Lena and I not to burst out laughing at the exhibits and the fervent explanations which were delivered without a single note of cynicism. Highlights were the USS pueblo ship captured from the enemy who were committing evil espionage against the great people of the DPRK, the b grade propaganda films showing the US apologising for their cowardly acts and the extraordinarily 15 minute sound and light show in the revolving tower showing the beginning of the war. I have no doubt their were several elements of truth in the ‘facts presented’, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the US had dropped 410000 bombs on Pyongyang which at that time had a population of 400000 but it would be fair to say it was a one sided view.

Mosaic for the party

By the time we finished it was dark and freezing so we went for dinner and a warmup ‘lecture’ from our guides on why North Korea should be allowed missiles and nuclear weapons. The bibimbap and kimchi were outstanding. And to be honest, while I would prefer no country had missiles I can’t see any sound logic for allowing Trump to have missile control and not Kim Jong Un. They also assured us that given the racial homogeneity of Korea it was much safer than Europe where they know we have ‘problems with refugees and immigrants’. It is frighteningly aryan how often the concept of racial homogeneity came up and it is apparently a core principle behind the design of the flag.

View of the Juche tower across the Pyongyang river

We then checked into the Yanggakdo hotel which was a 50 story monstrosity which only appeared to have two floors in use. Fortunately we were on the tourist floor and the hallway lights worked, the Chinese tourists had to stumble around the tenth floor in the dark to get to their rooms. The hot water and power worked and their was toilet paper, so no complaints.

With our guide before the great leaders

After breakfast we headed out for the day. The highlights included Kim Il Song Square where the great esteemed leader watches the troop marches, the Mansudae Grand Monument where we had to buy flowers to leave underneath and were required to bow appropriately out of respect. Wandering around the town to get there was amusing as it is truly bizarre to see no brands or advertising….. only the ever present communist propaganda posters and pictures of the great leaders.

We were then treated to a ride on the Pyongyang metro which was fabulous. The stations were aptly named Prosperity, Glory, Torch, Victory and Reunification. The investments in mosaics and paintings are impressive, though it is a shame all of that creative talent is limited to depicting the great leaders and the communist struggles. 

Pyongyang metro
Pyongyang metro

Then a visit to the Arc de triumph, which like many monuments in Pyongyang was built for the 70th birthday of the leader.  

Then it was off to Okryugan for the Pyongyang specialty of Goksue – cold vermicelli noodles. While it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great, but it was fun watching the slurping techniques of the locals.

Goksue – cold vermicelli noodles

Highlights of the afternoon were the Kwangbok department store which was heaving as it was a public holiday for international women’s day (kudos to North Korea for that!). We were amused by the fights that were breaking out in the cafeteria queue which was not really equipped for the demand. Then we were off to see the Presidents House where we saw where Kim il Song’s grandparents lived in humble poverty.  

Arc de triomphe
Downtown Pyongyang

Next the Tower of Juche. Juche is the Kim Il Song’s philosophy of ‘self determination’ which essentially says that man creates the world he lives in, and this is why religion is irrelevant. Worth a google for those of you with an interest in communism and philosophy. And finally the Party Foundation Monument.
Juche tower
View from Juche tower

By this time Lena and I had both lost feeling in our fingers (it was below zero) so after a quick beer we headed off for Jongol (the Korean version of shabu shabu) which was accompanied by another fervent and friendly lecture on why the DPRK should be allowed nuclear power and why there should be more foreign investment given the stability of the economy.  

View from Juche tower of our hotel and sun going down

Our guides were lovely and we had lots of fun with them. They were surprisingly flexible when they could be and let us flex different elements of the tour. However they did ask us more questions than we asked them and surprisingly knew more about is than they should have given what we put on our visa forms. Lena and I both noticed that they would ask us the same questions about each other to cross check our answers. We also got the standard questions of ‘why don’t you have husbands with you?’ and for me ‘why no kids’ and for Lena ‘why are you not married?’ And ‘how long did you breastfeed for’. We were apparently unusual in turning up as friends and we are pretty sure they thought we were having a lesbian fling. Nonetheless they were pretty amusing and we even got them singing in the bus one day. They were also constantly amused by how much food we could eat and how fast we could do it – I was nicknamed ‘pally pally’, Korean for fast, given how quickly I inhaled my meals.

Party foundation Monument

Honestly it was a fun couple of days and I would recommend it for a novel holiday. I probably wouldn’t stay too long as it is a bit suffocating having to be accompanied everywhere, and it is weird having no phone or Internet. It was a quirky destination, people were largely friendly, the food was great and the sights were pretty unique.  Lena summed it up beautifully as ‘fascinating, disturbing and hilarious’! 

Freezing on top of the Juche tower
Notes on the tour 

– You cannot travel independently to North Korea – you must book with a tour company, although you do not have to join a group tour if you are prepared to pay for your own tour. We went with Koryo, who came recommended by good friends and were excellent

– Your itinerary is restricted to open sites. We were happy with what we saw but if we had had one more day we would have gone to the DMZ at the border with South Korea which is apparently fascinating 

– none of the toilet doors had locks on them, mostly you had to hold them closed while precariously squatting. No one could explain to us why locks were not allowed. Learn to be zen with strangers watching you pee or hold on all day 

– Be respectful to your guides, don’t try and ditch them, as they are normal people with jobs not state security police and they get in a lot of trouble if you do anything bad. You will probably also be detained

Pyongyang March 9, 2017