Visiting the Hermit Kingdom
The Los Angeles World Affairs Council hosted a tour this month for members to visit one of the most rarely visited countries in the world, North Korea. With an average of only 6,000 Westerners visiting annually, based on travel agency estimates, this is still a country rarely visited by Americans, and our group was excited to see for themselves this mysterious country that seems so impenetrable and hard to understand for outsiders.
When booking the tour, we decided that having as much interaction with locals as possible would be key to gaining some insight into the country and its people. So we deliberately chose to be there for the May 1st International Workers Holiday, a day when all North Koreans (except our hardworking guides) could enjoy the day off, picnic in the park and take part in local fun fairs. We visited Kwangbok, the largest department store/supermarket in Pyongyang, where people piled their grocery carts high the way we would for a 4th of July BBQ. We headed to Manyongdae Park for the music and dance performances, took part in a tug-of-war competition and some of our braver travelers rode the Italian imported roller coaster (I "accidentally" wore a skirt that day and was not allowed on.) For lunch, we ate outdoors at the Ryonggaksan (Dragon's Mouth) Park, where we grilled squid and beef. That night, we were lucky to be the first foreigners allowed to join and dance with 10,000 North Koreans in the Mass Dance in Kim Il Sung Square. Each of the dresses worn by the women were completely unique, with vibrant colors and intricate embroidery. The young men and women guided us through the steps and both the North Koreans and our group of Americans enjoyed sharing this special celebration together.
Locals at the Mass Dance in Kim Il Sung Square, Dancers performing in Manyongdae Park and snapping candids with students at the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery
This was a striking and powerful introduction to North Korea for our group, as we found the North Koreans we met to be warm and just as curious about us as we were of them. As our trip progressed, our guides opened up more and shared stories about their families and their understanding of the outside world which was limited by their own media's negative portrayal of the West. They also talked about their upbringing and education, and even the places they'd like to visit someday, with Italy being a top pick. When we asked if they would like to travel to the US, they said they would, but only if there was a North Korean Embassy there. One guide in particular rattled off perfect American colloquialisms like "TMI" (Too Much Information), "down the hatch" and "hit the road." She could sing and play American songs on the piano, and tell great jokes which came in handy on the longer bus rides. In six days we covered about 650 miles, traveling from the capital Pyonyang to the cities of Kaesong, Wonson, Mt Kumgang and to the DMZ. We visited teahouses, museums, old train stations, beaches, lagoons, ancient tombs and saw many statues of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, and his son, Kim Jong Il. And while the roads in Pyongyang were smooth and well maintained by laborers who swept them clean daily, outside the capital the highways had very little traffic and were riddled with deep potholes and fallen rocks that had some in our group comparing it to the Wilshire corridor! Our meals consisted of a variety of Korean dishes including savory soups, barbecued beef and chicken, pickled vegetables, fluffy white bread, sticky rice, fried potatoes and an abundance of kimchi, (fermented cabbage with chili powder.) There was very little fresh fruit, and when two of our members offered a gift of a pineapple from China, our guides were delighted, saying it was their favorite fruit and their first pineapple of the year. We also tried their local beers which were quite good, including a delicious black beer that was offered in the Koryo Hotel. For those who wanted something stronger there was plenty of Soju (Korean vodka) and one daring traveler even tried the Snake Wine, which had a reptile coiled in the bottom of the bottle.
As is customary with a trip to North Korea, we had several stops on our tour which commemorated the Kim Dynasty. We visited the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery honoring those that died fighting the Japanese, and placed flowers at the feet of Comrade Kim Jong Suk, wife of Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong Il. We visited the Mongyongdae Native house where Kim Il Sung was born. And with more flowers in hand, we went to see the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Mansudae Art Studio, where bronzes and art commemorating the leaders are created for display throughout the country. Later, we climbed Janam Hill in Kaesong to see yet another statue of Kim Il Sung. While we were there, the power went out for the entire town (a frequent occurence), except for the light which illuminated the statue. We also saw locals manually "mowing" the lawn, plucking each individual grass stalk by hand. What the country lacks in commercial billboards, they more than make up for in artistic depictions of the deceased leaders which are displayed everywhere. They are always shown smiling, perhaps almost laughing, cheered on by their people, adored by children.
We also visited the Songdowon International Schoolchildren's Camp where elementary and middle school-aged children go for two weeks to enjoy summer camp, peppered with marches and songs about Kim Jong Un. The camp housed brightly-colored dormitories with representations of Disney characters painted on the walls, an aviary, an aquarium, a large sports complex and a water park.
Kim Il Sung Poster displayed in Pyongyang, Children marching at International Schoolchildren's Camp, meeting Lt. Col. Nam Dong Ho at the DMZ
At the De-Militarized Zone, (DMZ,) which separates North and South Korea, we were introduced to Lieutenant Colonel Nam Dong Ho (who was interviewed by CNN's Will Ripley a day after our visit. Watch the segment here:Threats, tension and a history lesson: Rare look inside North Korea's DMZ) ) He was courteous but the tension was palpable as guards guided us through the history of armistice agreements and attempts at reunification. One guard asked how I would feel if I was separated from my family, and if I would defend myself if someone came after me with a hammer, then asked that I return to America and ask them to withdraw their threats. The sense that the country is still on a war footing is constantly reinforced by propagandistic music that plays each morning over loudspeakers in their cities. One song was from an opera about a boy separated from his family by the events of the Korean War. North Koreans wake up with reminders of war and threats of attacks. The tour continued right up to the border, which was heavily guarded on both sides by North and South Koreans - the guards from both sides face the North Korean side. If you ask the North Koreans, it's indicative of the aggression of the South Koreans, but if you ask the South Koreans, it shows that North Korea is disrespecting the South by turning their backs on them. Misinterpretation of actions and events can have heavy consequences in a place like this...
While much of what we commonly know of North Korea only goes back a century, they have a beautiful and dynamic history, which was shared with us while visiting the Koryo Museum and the Tomb of King Kongmin, both UNESCO Heritage Sites not far from Kaesong. The museum featured ancient Koryo Dynasty inventions and artifacts, tombs of kings, and stories of the ingenuity and creativity of the Koreans. One of my favorite innovations came about when women were forbidden to be seen in the city, so they used see-saws in their courtyards to jump up and look over the walls. The museum was housed in an old Confucian academy and was surrounded by ancient Gingko trees. We also enjoyed a lunch based on the Royal Cuisine of the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910, which featured 12 cheop or side dishes served in bronze bowls.
Koryo Museum, A Royal Lunch (photo credit Kian Gohar) and military statues near King Kongmin's Tomb
A short drive took us to the 14th Century Tomb of King Kongmin and his beloved Queen Noguk.
The latter part of our trip included a trip southeast to Mt Kumgang, and a hike to the Kuryong Falls. Mt Kumgang was intended to be a place where North and South Koreans could unite, and was heavily invested in by the South, although opportunities for reunification were interrupted as the DPRK government withdrew residents from the area and instead placed military installations throughout. The mountain paths were pristine, with jade-colored pools, sharp peaks and intricately-carved 16th Century Chinese calligraphy on many of the mountain faces. The clear, sparkling water, however, was absent of fish, and the air and trees had very few insects and birds, a reminder of the environmental devastation and famines that have befallen the country in the past few decades.
Atop Kuryoung Rock overlooking the Sangphal Pools at Mt Kumgang
Our group thoroughly enjoyed meeting the people, learning about the customs and culture, taking part in the dances and celebratory activities and getting a glimpse into the Hermit Kingdom. However, we were not oblivious to the fact that this entire country was completely closed off to the rest of the world and that our guides had little access to the events and history beyond their approved textbooks and borders. As we drove past barren farmland where workers toiled with oxen-drawn plows and rudimentary tools, we wondered about the future, health and safety of the people we were leaving behind. As we departed, we couldn't help thinking that we could leave so easily, but the many wonderful people we had met could not.