The Korean Peninsula, north of the 38th Parallel
North Korea or the DPRK was an incredible experience. Seeing what the rest of the world only hears about from the media and how the people on the inside see both the outside world and their own country is not something I will soon forget. I’m extremely glad I made the difficult decision to visit North Korea.
Our first NK day consisted of meeting with the tour group and flying to Pyongyang on Air Koryo, the so called “Worst airline in the world”. Honestly I thought that the China Eastern plane we took from Osaka to Beijing was in worse repair and the staff on Air Koryo seemed much more professional. Our check in was aided by the fact that the CEO of the company who had organized the trip was accompanying us for the first few days as she had some business to attend to in the DPRK. After landing we had to clear Immigration, quarantine, and then finally customs. Customs did a thurough check of laptops, tablets, and other books to ensure you weren’t bringing anything not allowed in. After landing the 5 of us on the tour – all guys in our mid 20s – met our local guides and were taken to a couple stops before our hotel check in. We paid our respects to the late Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il by laying flowers at a monument in their honour as well as stopped to take photos at the Arch of Triumph. The weather in Pyongyang was grey and rainy and we had no qualms with the short itinerary of the day.
The following day we visited the Palace of the Sun which houses a mausoleum with the fallen leaders. Both of the Fallen leaders are on display alongside their cars, personal trains, and even a 30 meter boat. We had to be dressed in formal wear for the occasion. This was the perfect day for it as a dress shirt and a t shirt under was all the clothing we needed. After we stopped in at Kim Il Sung square which is in the center of Pyongyang. School children were parading around in their uniforms, flying flags, chanting, and lining up in formation. It was pretty awe inspiring seeing it happen under the portraits of the leaders. Later in the day we visited the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, not much there except a house rebuilt to look like it did 100 years ago and some photos of his family. After this we stopped in at the shooting range and took some shots with the competition rifles shooting at 50 meters. After seeing our skills it was offered up that we could shoot a live chicken for $5, they even showed it to us and sure enough there’s a chicken in a cage on the outdoor range. Oh, and there’s a restaurant on the grounds which will prepare the bird for you. Next was on to the Juiche (the country’s philosophy) Tower which is 170 meters tall and provides a great view of the city. Our only issue was a 5 minute power outage that delayed our elevator up the tower. Then it was onward to the party emblems monument. It, like all other monuments was built in some 10, 20, 30, etc years after the start of the the DPRK (1953 – when the Korean War ended. But not in their eyes) or in a round number honouring Kim Il Sung’s birthday. This stop also included a local art gallery where the local guide told us the details of every… single… painting. And then was annoyed when we stopped showing interest. The evening finished with a Karaoke sesh at the hotel.
The 3rd day started off quite chilly and only warmed up to a few degrees above freezing. This is an important note as other than our hotel and the brand new Science Center none of the buildings we visited were heated – this is onviousky due to a lack of funding and infrastructure for a power grid or natural gas distribution. This includes the Grand People’s Study House we visited next. It’s a library that allegedly houses 30 million books and offers classes on everything from English to Economics. Although we couldn’t see many books and were “guided” to only go into certain classes. We did sit at the “famous” DPRK desk which every tour to the study hall is shown. It was invented by Kim Il Sung to have an easily adjustable height and slope like a drafting table. Pretty ingenious actually. Our next stop was to the brand new science center commissioned by Kim Jung Un. It like all major projects was built in record time and it shows. It’s a massive 4 story building with complex curves and shapes and was built in only 10 months. The lack of engineering and quality workmanship is far too obvious. Cracks in drywall, misaligned fascia and electrical wires coming in and out of random places. I’m sure given 20 years it’ll look as crumbly as all the other buildings in the city. The military museum was interesting to see the perspective of the Korean War from the DPRK side of things. A couple brief power outages and we managed to make our way through it and on to visit a middle school. There the principal was very proud to show us her English students and have us converse with them. Then we were shown a performance of dancing, singing, and music by other students. This was surprisingly entertaining and none of us even minded when we were pulled on stage to dance with the students. The last stop of the day took us to the Pyongyang subway. It’s the deepest in the world and will double as a bomb shelter if Pyongyang is ever attacked again. They don’t tell you this, but it makes sense and the blast doors are pretty easy to spot. One thing to note is that it took our bus driver less time to get to our destination than us, which is inconvenient if you have a car but the locals have no other choice. Dinner was at a local Italian restaurant which included some rather tasty 70 cent draft beer.