May 19, 2020

My Trip to the DPRK: A Personal Diary

Photos and text by Bronwyn Cragg, February 2019

Surely among the young left, most are tired of hearing the mocking refrain of, “if you love socialism so much, why don’t you go to North Korea?” -- So, I did.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has, for the entire length of its existence, been defined through a hostile lens. The categorization of the DPRK as an enemy state by the US and its allies over the past 70 years has led to the popular conception of the country as an almost comically evil caricature: “rogue”, “isolated”, “starving”, “brainwashed”, and even “backwards”. Even among the most anti-imperialist of the left there often remains a question of support and defense of the DPRK -- to sift through fact and fiction in media that pushes the image of Kim Jong-un as an “unhinged leader that starves his own people”, just as it portrayed his father and grandfather, is not only an arduous task, but can be outright impossible given the resources present. Even “objective, independent” tourist vlogs push a narrative of oppressively watchful tour guides, awkward meals, and strict interactions.
Meal time on Air Koryo

Having sworn to visit the DPRK in my early high school days, I finally found myself able to book a ticket for February 2019, where I would visit Korea to celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong-il and travel around the DPRK for just over a week. Though I’d like to have considered myself well-informed of life, history, and affairs in the DPRK, I can’t say that the shocked warnings of family, workmates, and friends didn’t get to me. I was excited to celebrate a holiday in a country once proclaimed “the Motherland of Marxism-Leninism in our era” by the Black Panthers’ Eldridge Cleaver, but I have to admit that I even went so far as to hastily delete all of my text messages before landing in Pyongyang, just in case.
Unjong Resting Place, Reunification Highway

However, having been through the effortlessly-smooth visa process, and having survived the snickers, comments, and uncertainty from Canadian airline staff, I arrived in Pyongyang to a friendly group of faces: smiling border security workers who weren’t afraid to crack jokes, a soldier who helped me sort my belongings, Korean passengers returning from international trips, and a hospitable pair of guides - Mr. Li and Ms. Baek - who gave us a quick tour of the city before settling into our hotel. Not once was my luggage opened, my phone tampered with, or any hassle given, which can’t be said about my TSA encounters! When we arrived at the hotel for dinner, Ms. Baek made clear that if we were ever to just want to go for a walk around the city, she would be happy to guide us -- a shock to every tourist who was told that our hotel would serve as a kind of opulent “prison” for the next week. As we enjoyed our first meal, we watched the well-lit city skyline revolve around us.

At the beginning of our trip there were ten tourists, five of whom were skiers waiting for snowfall, and five of whom were in the DPRK on a more conventional tour. Our first day was absorbed by a snowy road trip down to Kaesong, an industrial city known for its ginseng production and its proximity to the border with South Korea, Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). A stop at a highway shop was followed by introductions by the guides and a quick run-down of the Korean War (known as the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War in the DPRK), and after a large lunch we joined a large number of tourists at the DMZ. A local guide explained in detail the origins of the DMZ as we were guided through the room where a pact with the United Nations was signed in 1953, establishing a more tangible split between the two halves of Korea. Though our local guide was teasing, witty, and chatty, and despite the throngs of photo-taking tourists, there remained a sombre tone as we looked out at the “other side”, completely forbidden to us, which Ms. Baek emphasized as being one and the same -- “the same language, the same culture, the same blood.”

Our local guide, Won Chol, overlooking the southern side of the DMZ
Arch of Reunification

Driving back to Pyongyang, we stopped at the Arch of Reunification, which further cemented the urgency of a need for Korean unity and cooperation. Opened in 2001, the two women depicted in the monument - representative of the two halves of Korea - flank the entrance into Pyongyang from the south of the country. “Do you see the differences between the two figures?”, Ms. Baek asked the bus. “No? That’s because there are none.”

Getting our first real glimpse of Pyongyang in daylight, we saw intricately painted murals, colourful pendants flying in the wind, well-attended snack stands, crowds at the ice rink, and even small traffic jams -- surely a surprise to any tourists who have only heard of Pyongyang as devoid of vehicles or people. Soon we would arrive at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Pyongyang’s monument to the merciless war that killed at least a quarter of the Korean population. Here the facts of the Korean War became clear: as our local guide led us through sheds of captured US vehicles, she brought us on board the USS Pueblo, a US ship that, disguised as a research vessel, invaded DPRK waters and initiated a spying campaign later admitted to by the ship’s crew. Hearing audio testimony from the crew and admittances that they were treated fairly by the DPRK, we shuffled through the bullet-ridden ship and were shown crew uniforms, log books, and rooms of intricate technology. Once back outside, it was time to explore the museum proper.

No words could describe the sheer magnitude and splendour of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. Greeted by a waving statue of a young Kim Il-sung, a glistening marble staircase emerged from under our feet, balconies framing the large foyer. After warming up with some coffee at the museum’s cafe, our group was shown a video detailing the US instigation of the war, the shocking death toll, US war crimes, and international complicity. It became clear, through American testimony and United Nations sources, that US-led preemptive attacks ordered by Syngman Rhee sparked the war, directly contradicting the popular narrative of North Korean attacks on the South.

After exploring shockingly-realistic dioramas of Korean military camps, underground tunnels, and victims of the war (all complete with lighting and sound effects), and having been shown impressive displays of artefacts and photos, we were led upstairs to the museum’s showpiece: a 360-degree revolving mural of the Battle of Taejon, a battle between US forces and the Korean People’s Army. 3D dioramas rose seamlessly into the intricately painted walls, sound effects and narration boomed through our ears, and incredible lighting and projection effects animated the painting, allowing planes to fly, guns to spark, and the once-still smoke to billow.

As we left the museum, group members remarked on how utterly devastating the dioramas were, a couple proclaiming that the sheer grisliness and gore was just “too much”, but the damage inflicted on Korea by United States military forces completely eclipses any simulated violence. The war levelled the now-bustling and modern city we stood in, murdered millions of Korean civilians and soldiers alike, and transferred Korea from one colonial power, Japan, to the next. As the sun set over the museum, the scars left by the war -- some still gaping wounds -- were no longer obscured: as the war has technically never ended and the US continues to occupy the southern half of the country, the injustice of a country severed by imperialism made the skeptics rethink their positions, and the allies feel the collective heartache.
The sun sets over the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, with the Ryugyong Hotel in the distance
Schoolchildren visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun

Though throughout the trip our initial taste of the country weighed heavily on us, the week continued with a public holiday: the Day of the Shining Star, or the birthday of General Kim Jong-il. We started the day somewhat solemnly, visiting the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung lie in state. We were once again shown the heavy reverence of the Korean people towards the Great Leaders, gliding via conveyor belt past parades of military officials and civilians alike, through halls of photographs of Chairman Kim Jong-il, awards and degrees presented to him by international officials, and even the vehicles he owned during his lifetime. Through long corridors and organized neatly in three rows, we eventually worked our way towards Kim Jong-il himself.

Buying flowers
Having paid our respects, and only after asking to turn around to sign the guest books, we flowed out into the bustling plaza to admire the mausoleum from the outside. We were joined by throngs of waving schoolchildren, women who braved the cold in their best dresses to take group photos with their friends, older couples, and young families -- though icy and brisk outside, the holiday was in full swing.

Back in the parking lot, Mr. Li and Ms. Baek were actually quite reluctant to take us to our next destination, a group request: the Mansudae Grand Monument. Perhaps the most iconic symbol of the DPRK, the monument features two 20-metre tall statues of President Kim Il-sung and Chairman Kim Jong-il, framed by a large mosaic of Mount Paektu and two scenes depicting the revolutionary struggles of the Korean people against colonialism and national oppression. Though many tourist accounts depict a visit to Mansudae as a forced paying-of-respects, our group had actually spent the past two days practically begging to be taken there until our flustered guides relented.
Boys sweep snow at the Mansudae Grand Monument

Arriving, those who wished to bought bouquets to place at the base of the monument. Approaching from the side of the monument, we were able to see the intricate detailing of the dozens of bronze figures that raised the red stone flags: armed women led a crowd of older men and women, children, and Korean youth, all variously armed with books, bayonets, machine guns, and the ubiquitous torch, representative of the DPRK’s Juche ideology -- that of self reliance. Soon the figures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il rose before our eyes, beacons in the winter sun. The hill again was busy with people of all ages, and as we posed for photos we were allowed to wander. As I chatted with Ms. Baek, I was surprised to see the whole city laid out beneath us, and pointed out various monuments: the Juche Tower, the Chollima statue, the Grand People’s Study House, all of which I had felt intimately familiar with through books and videos, but was overwhelmed to see all neatly organized in front of me. We bonded over art and history, and talked about progressive movements and struggles back in Canada -- earlier in the day, Mr. Li had asked my opinions on the American presidency, to which I replied that “as a communist” it did nothing but revolt me, and so thenceforth both Mr. Li and Ms. Baek took great pleasure in quizzing me on facts and figures of Korean history and asking me about the legality of being involved in a communist movement in Canada.

The Mansudae Grand Monument

The next 48 hours were spent in full celebration mode. As we traversed Pyongyang by bus we stopped by a park where, braving the icy ground, we shamelessly danced with groups of locals, watched children run around, scream, and roll down hills, and even witnessed miniature horses grazing, presumably on break from holiday pony rides. Stopping momentarily to visit the monument to the Workers’ Party of Korea, we drove over to a mass dance where some of us clumsily joined in. Surely to the ire of some dancers, we shuffled our way into the tight circles, only by the last verse learning the fancy footwork and twists and turns of the choreography. Despite this, it was exhilarating and joyful, Mr. Li getting his smartphone out to film close-ups of my dance partner and I as she laughed and I made a fool of myself.

Dancers crowd the square

Our final holiday destination was the sunset-lit Juche Tower, sat firmly along the frozen Taedong River and soaring over the surrounding pastel apartment buildings. The pagoda-like tower was rife with symbolism: each of the bricks represented one day of President Kim Il-sung’s life, and 70 granite dividers represented the 70 years he had lived up until that point. Plaques from various international study groups lined the base of the tower, and the ever-lit torch that capped it symbolized the Juche ideology. Developed by Kim Il-sung and inspired by Marxism-Leninism, Juche preaches self-reliance, self-defence, political independence, and self-sustenance, and serves as the guiding revolutionary ideology of the Korean people and their revolution. Though wildly oversimplified as “socialism with Korean characteristics,'' Juche was developed as an internationally-applicable ideology meant to serve the masses and raise nations out of colonialism and political oppression.
The Juche Tower bathed in sun
As the setting sun and cool winter mist lit up Pyongyang, we boarded the elevator to the top of the Juche Tower to take in the sights. From the deck, the candy-coloured apartment blocks and diorama-sized monuments took on a golden glow. To our right, modern high rises, a fun fair, and the May Day stadium that had in 1989 hosted a quarter of a million delegates from 177 countries. In front, an urban landscape of the Grand People’s Study House and the massive Ryugyong Hotel. Below, the icy Taedong River, with its floating restaurants and numerous bridges. Where was the rumoured bleak and grey mid-century city, sparse and stoic in its “pseudo-Stalinist” style? Certainly not here. Even in winter, our luminous surroundings appeared cheerful, fog reducing the distant skyscrapers to layers not unlike delicate paper cutouts. Making our way back to the hotel, our small group enjoyed dinner and a joyful night out of karaoke with the guides, who jumped and danced along to off-key renditions of “Sweet Caroline”.

A wheat-coloured dawn seeped through the architecture as we strolled through the quiet streets, the morning even more beautiful than the evening prior. Though some in our group were surprised (even disappointed) that Kim Il-sung Square was not seized in a perpetual spiral of military parades, we enjoyed wandering, watching the wiring of electric trams whip and jangle on contact, and visiting the well-stocked Foreign Languages Book Shop. Having spent very little money for a suitcase-bursting number of souvenirs, we made our way to the Kimjongilia Flower Festival, where bright red face-sized flowers defied the winter chill. Having been volunteered by my guides as a kind of unwitting game show contestant, our young, neon green-clad guide quizzed me on the meanings of the styrofoam dioramas that punctuated the flower displays -- representations of the cabin Kim Jong-il was born in, Pyongyang monuments, and symbols of the country’s leadership. Nearly elbowing our way through the packed crowd, we watched news broadcasters interview festival-goers, presumably all just as impressed as us by the miniature goldfish-inhabited fountains, the endless rows of international donation plaques, the banners and backlit photos, and the rainbow swaths of red, green, and pastels. After being encouraged to grow our own Kimjongilias (but only after confirming that we were “sound of heart” to our amused guide!), our group split up, some staying behind to buy seeds and some attending an impressive circus performance.

Displays at the Kimjongilia Flower Festival

The balcony of the International Friendship Exhibition
The rest of the day was spent running around Pyongyang: after a quick duck into the metro, with its impressive socialist realist mosaics and famously long escalators, we visited the world’s largest triumphal arch where two of us chose to go inside and take in more high-altitude views. Then, to Mangyongdae, the birthplace of President Kim Il-sung, where melancholy music guided us to a cluster of small thatched huts where his family once lived. A golden hour drive took us back to the hotel where we packed our bags, eager to wake up in Myohyangsan, a picturesque forested mountain escape just two hours north of Pyongyang. After a late-night drive past rivers and villages, half of our group split off to attend their now-snow-covered ski resort, and the other five of us stayed the night at the Hyangsan Hotel, nestled in the hushed mountains, where we were encouraged to enjoy a beer, eat some dinner, shop around, and use the internet.

A well-deserved coffee break at Myohyangsan
A foggy mountain morning was spent exploring the nearby International Friendship Exhibition, which houses gifts to the country’s leaders from international groups and individuals. At breakfast, I jokingly detailed the more eccentric gifts in the collection that I had heard about: a stuffed crocodile styled as a waiter, a basketball signed by Michael Jordan, and numerous laptops and animal tusks. Our guide graciously lead us through the neatly-organized halls towards any country we were interested in seeing: Honduras, Mexico, Australia, Ireland, and Canada. I was pleased to see a somewhat bizarre assortment of gifts from various Canadians: a Group of Seven art book from the Communist Party of Canada, a hand-painted banner celebrating Alberta labour history, and an entire skinned polar bear from an anonymous individual. After perusing the gift shop, we enjoyed coffee and tea on the warm and cozy balcony, taking photos and writing feedback on slips of paper presented by the local guides.

The Pohyon Temple pagoda
It is a great fault of Western tourists to the DPRK that most are so deeply submerged in fascination surrounding the government and prescribed orientalist “foreignness” of the country that they fail to take in the skillfully preserved historical sites of the country. The DPRK is home to a number of historic tombs, monuments, artworks, and temples, some of which have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. At Myohyangsan there exists the Pohyon Temple, an 11th century Buddhist temple decorated in serpentine tangles of green, red, yellow, and blue, and complete with statues, a pagoda, an active shrine, manicured and sculpted hedges, and an archive that houses 13th century Buddhist scriptures. Though the temple suffered severe damage under US bombings, it and many other designated “National Treasures” of Korea had been painstakingly restored and maintained by the government of the DPRK. The deep respect for Korean history by the government and people of the DPRK was clear to us throughout the trip, the occasional piece of historic architecture popping up throughout the parks and streets of the country. The existence of Buddhism as an active religion in the DPRK surprised some in my group, and though religion seems to occupy a more niche audience in the country, Pyongyang itself is even home to a few Christian churches.

Prints at the Mansudae Art Studio
The temple’s snack stand provided some sustenance for the long drive back to Pyongyang. A surprise to me, all of my travel companions would fly home in the morning, leaving me by myself for the next three days. After a break at our Pyongyang hotel, the five of us made a quick journey to the Mansudae Art Studio, where we browsed prints, ceramics, and paintings, were told the process of creating bronze monumental sculptures, and even chatted with one oil painter about his work and favourite artists. Then, by special request, myself and a tourist named Tony dragged the group and Ms. Baek along to a shooting range where we took turns striking targets and, mildly concerned, watching our attendant run across the shooting range to retrieve one. Once back at the hotel, I tucked in early for the night, watching snow blanket the roofs below my window and hoping that my skiing companions were enjoying the same weather.

I slept in the next morning, leisurely taking my breakfast as my guides saw the rest of the group off at the airport. Admittedly, I was quite shy about the prospect of being alone for the next few days, but Ms. Baek and Mr. Li had assured me by asking me what exactly I wanted to see. A day trip to seaside Nampho was on the itinerary, as well as a trip to the smaller city of Pyongsong, but having witnessed numerous itinerary changes (usually initiated by voting amongst our group) and now being the sole tourist, the next couple of days seemed open-ended. I agreed that I wanted to see Nampho and Pyongsong, and suggested quick trips to the Pyongyang Zoo and the Grand People’s Study House -- Pyongyang’s massive library -- when we returned. Thus, my first snowy morning alone was spent climbing into an orange hatchback with my two guides and new driver and cruising down the highway to Nampho, taking in sights of snowy fields and forests and watching a Moranbong Band DVD that our driver had put on.

Halfway to Nampho we stopped at Chongsan-ri Cooperative Farm, where our guide led us through greenhouses of mushrooms, lettuce, tomatoes, and other greens. Puzzlingly (but quite humorously), Mr. Li was extremely eager to show me the farm’s well, and I sheepishly apologized for practically forcing an older farmer out of the way so we could peer down. As we walked around the farm, our local guide apologized that she couldn’t show us the on-site school and culture hall, as it was a holiday and no classes were in session, but we saw a number of children running around and playing nonetheless.

Ice fishers in Nampho

Boarding into the car again, we drove past numerous shovellers and cyclists towards Nampho, where we would see the “world-famous” West Sea Barrage -- a dam that separates the Taedong River from the Yellow Sea, ensuring the country has a clean supply of fresh water. Arriving, we passed by sculptural logos from the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students, still in place at the bridge to the barrage (which was newly-built at the time). Along the neverending bridge, I was pleased by the sight of numerous ice fishers, which I told the guides reminded me of growing up in semi-rural Ontario. Arriving at the West Sea Barrage, we watched a documentary showing the huge numbers of young workers who built the barrage, raising flags, pounding drums, and tearfully accepting floral wreaths as dump trucks filled the sea with gravel. Upstairs on the deck, our eyes sifted through layers of fog to view the barrage below, shrouded in purple and blue hues.

After a quick wander-around in Nampho’s city centre, we drove to Pyongsong, where we would be staying at the Jangsusan Hotel. Mr. Li had already apologized that this hotel would not be “high quality” like the hotels in Myohyangsan or Pyongyang, but when we arrived I found it very pleasant. Not only was Pyongsong hopping for a smaller city, but the hotel had a cute bookshop on the first floor, a restaurant with a bartender I recognized from Instagram (he had won numerous bartending competitions in the DPRK!), and a cozy room with slippers, a television, tea, and two wooden beds. I settled in early, watching some Korean movies on TV, and woke up to the sound of a familiar Korean song. Not deciding to investigate, I instead used the desk to draw for an hour, looking out the window only when the music had stopped to see a number of gymnasts in matching tracksuits dispersing! Having told Ms. Li that I was sad to have missed the spectacle of morning exercise, she seemed quite appalled when I confirmed that this was not common practice in Canada.

A wedding party at the Pyongyang Zoo
Packing up our luggage, we made a quick trip to Paeksong Revolutionary Site. In a snowy forest clearing, we peeked into dining halls and slid down icy steps where Kim Il-sung University was relocated during the war, our local guide showing us a number of murals depicting students’ daily activities and meetings with Kim Il-sung. After shamefully admitting that I wasn’t sure how to say goodbye to our guide in Korean, we loaded the car to drive back to Pyongyang to see our final days worth of tourist attractions. During the drive, I edited Ms. Baek’s Korean-to-English essay translations and we had frank conversations about Western perceptions of the DPRK. Though disappointed in the country’s negative international reputation, she was well-informed about international affairs and honest about her love of the DPRK, and I heard nothing to indicate the existence of a so-called “isolated, oppressive hermit kingdom”.

Our first stop back in Pyongyang was the zoo, where Mr. Li and I wandered around for an hour or two. Thoroughly enjoying his exaggerated gasps and screams at every snake he saw, I pointed out the animals that were native to North America. The zoo wasn’t particularly busy as it was a weekday, but despite this we walked the grounds with a number of school groups and two wedding parties complete with cameramen. After talking with some zookeepers, we made our way through a 180-degree fish tank tunnel and towards the exit, which featured an impressive glass floor which led visitors through fountains and ponds and towards the giant open-mouthed tiger that served as the zoo’s lobby.

A beginner-level English language class at the Grand People's Study House. The white screens flashed keywords and illustrations.
Our final stop, and for me the most exciting, was the Grand People’s Study House, the largest library in the DPRK. Although my entire group had stood outside of the library earlier in the trip, now alone, I was the only one to be going inside. As our guide was running slightly late, I wandered around the lobby and compared library cards with my guides. When our local guide arrived I was grouped with a couple visiting from Europe, and upon discovering that all three of us spoke French, the guide was quite relieved -- she had learned French as a second language and had a better grasp on it than English. Again the architecture was quite impressive, featuring glossy marble pillars with gold trim and massive chandeliers. The library was quite populated, and groups of students sat underneath large screens and educational posters as they completed homework. We were led through the library’s stacks and to one of the service desks, where a librarian showcased a number of English-language books to me: forestry textbooks, Shakespeare, Jane Eyre, and - yes - even Harry Potter. The librarian explained the library’s international donation program as we were surprised to see a San Francisco Public Library sticker adorning one of them, and I was able to confirm that I had taken out a good number of books donated by the DPRK at one of my university libraries. Sending the books back via conveyor belt, we continued on to a number of lecture halls and classrooms where students were learning different levels of English. We stopped in on an English class who were glad to talk to us and ask about our families and lives at home -- it was quite a satisfying experience being able to converse with each other and find similarities. Bidding goodbye to the English class, we took the elevator to our final stop: a well-stocked gift shop and beautiful balcony that looked out onto the Taedong River. This would be the last opportunity to take in the sights of Pyongyang, and I savoured the view and the brisk winter air. We celebrated our last dinner together with Korean barbecue at a local restaurant.
The ultra-sleek Pyongyang Sunan International Airport

My final day in the DPRK was uneventful, but it did feature the world’s fastest airport security line! Speaking honestly, though I had high hopes for my trip, I had still been plagued with worries by the time I arrived in the country: would the tour be strict, heavily monitored, and sterile? Would I feel completely trapped and restricted? Would the DPRK live up to 6 years of dreaming and planning? I can safely say that by the final day, all of my fears had been proven unfounded. My experience in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was nothing short of fantastic: my guides were great and even offered to keep in touch (I have since sent postcards and e-mailed photos of friends enjoying Pyongyang-style cold noodles in Toronto), never once did I feel like I was walking on eggshells, I always appreciated the honest and frank conversations had between myself and locals, and the country felt warm, welcoming, and joyous. To be honest, I even got a bit teary-eyed on the flight back to China. Nearly everything I had experienced in Korea in just eight days went against the years of negative press I had grown up hearing, and as soon as I phoned my family from my Beijing hotel, I declared that I would return to the DPRK as soon as possible.

We're migrating to a new website! Check it out at!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular stories