Sitting in our flat in Seoul, we were bored. We’d hiked the mountains, waddled along the beaches and drunk ourselves stupid on too many occasions. “We could go to North Korea?”, someone suggested. I paused, mulling over whether to give my money to such a government. Still, I felt I needed to see it.
Koryo Travel, run from Beijing by two English guys, has been running tailored tours for twenty years. If you have ever seen a film about the Mass Games, the North Korean football team in 1966 or the four US soldiers who went AWOL, they made them too. I wasn’t comfortable taking a tour, but turn up, as a solo backpacker, expecting to tramp around and you’ll get ten years inside.
A mixed-nationality group of seventeen flew from Beijing to Pyongyang. The plane was so old it barely got off the runway. Next to me was a North Korean school girl vomiting into her sick bag. I gave her mine as well. She took it, acknowledged it with a thankful nod but never looked at me. She also filled it.
Once in Pyongyang, the true surreal experience began. At first, we wondered if we were meant to take the locals’ stories seriously. Soon we simply gave smiling nods to all the wondrous news we were told. The hotel was unfortunately not the magnificent and still uncompleted Ryugyong Hotel but one built by the French on an island in the river – a hotel the North Korean government subsequently refused to pay for and then threw the French out.
If you ever wondered where North Korea gets its money from, then the list is notorious. They’re the biggest producers of amphetamines and fake US dollars in Asia, they helped train Zimbabwe’s Special Forces and they regularly threaten to build more nuclear bombs unless they get help. It’s a simple game of brinkmanship, but with the tacit backing of China and reluctance of South Korea and the US, it has consistently worked. So far.
We visited a farm with a radio you can turn down but not off. It looked a very orderly farm, if rather deserted of people and crops. The State Circus was fun, but the Children’s Theatre was two hours of traditional Korean music (think Team America), and the library, supermarket and DMZ border were more difficult to cover up. They were shell-like buildings; cold and vacant.
A trip to a school was the most surreal experience of all. In the computer room, the kids were busy doing various different tasks. I watched one child from a distance. He was inputting ten or so numbers into an Excel spreadsheet and once finished, he simply deleted the numbers and started again. This school was a sham, prepared on Wednesday afternoon for the tourists.
We bowed at various monuments and murals dedicated to Kim Il Sun (The Great Leader) and his playboy son Kim Jong Il (The Dear Leader). Our guides pointed out that one huge statue of The Great Leader used to be all gold. When the North Koreans tried to play-off the Soviet and Chinese government for aid, the Soviets took a different tact. Pointing at the glimmering statute, they merely suggested North Korea melt it down. It’s now copper!
Once you get out of Pyongyang, the true picture emerges. The country is desolate, brown and worn. The soldiers are not the impressive 6-footers you see at the DMZ border with South Korea. Rather they are boys with country tans and sleeves that cover their hands. You could lie down and sleep in the middle of the highway – there’s s no traffic as far as the eye can see.
The most sinister thing we experienced (apart from eating dog one night!) occurred in the East coast town of Wonsan. The park we visited was full of locals enjoying soju, the local Korean firewater and dancing in a circle. We joined them, only for the party to be quickly broken up by state agents. Later, we witnessed a small car accident and the state security came to our hotel to check our digital cameras. In North Korea, bad news isn’t to get out.
On the last evening before the train ride back to Beijing, there was a large dance in honour of Kim Il Sung’s birthday. We observed for a while before being dragged in to join the party. Later, we sang karaoke and drank whiskey with the guides. I asked the male guide if he really believed the stories he told us. “Yes”, he replied. “So Kim Jong Il is so good at golf he once scored 36?” “Of course”, he smiled, but with a smile that said all I really needed to know.