When I embarked on my very first journey to the DPRK exactly 53 weeks ago, I did not envision making the “hermit kingdom” a frequent travel destination. I wanted to leave my comfort zone, experience one of the most unique places in the world, and see what it was like for myself beyond the media hype, perhaps before it was too late.
Months before my first trip, General Kim Jong Il passed away, leaving the world wondering what would be next. As it turns out, the rhetoric didn’t change much and tensions between the DPRK and the west escalated as the Great Successor Comrade Kim Jong Un prepared to launch a rocket in time for the country’s 100th anniversary.
Does any of this sound familiar? A year later, it seems like the same record is being played again. The media frenzy is greater, hyped up by threats of nuclear war, but the basic rhetoric and turn of events are basically the same—escalations and threats eventually leading to a whole bunch of nothing.
But that was enough to get me hooked. Hooked to the thrill of history in motion and fascinated by a place that is so poorly understood by the West’s own admittance. I started devouring literature on the history and dynamic of the region and following the news of the Korean peninsula virtually daily.
When a couple months later, rumor had it that the Mass Games were coming to an end, I booked a last minute trip to return to Pyongyang to experience history in the making again, or perhaps the end of an era. As it turns out, the games may not be over just yet. Perhaps the show will be slightly different this coming year, or perhaps the announcement was another wave of hot air.
Either way, returning to Pyongyang five months later was fascinating in that I could feel understated, yet tangible changes to the city and the lives of its residents, prompted by changing policies, and also maybe a slightly increasing level of openness or perhaps somewhat bigger cracks in the system. Fast forward another couple months later, and the first tourists were allowed to bring in cell phones and even, under certain circumstances, acquire a local SIM card and access the Internet, albeit for a hefty fee.
A series of articles in the press contributed to making tourism in the DPRK feel more mainstream. The DPRK entertained the myth by sustaining construction on a series of “luxury hotels,” although reality set in when the ever-so-delayed-then-resurrected plans for the Ryugyong hotel (the pyramid downtown Pyongyang sometimes dubbed “hotel of doom”) were shelved again. Either way, it was enough for a couple of major news organizations to report on how tourism in the DPRK was “booming”. Whatever hype the DPRK manages to create, the western media responds to. For the sake of reference, there are twice as many shoppers at the average Wal-Mart superstore in a day as western visitors to the DPRK in an entire year… notwithstanding the fact that most visitors to the DPRK stay within the confines of Pyongyang or the Kaesong/DMZ area. Perhaps the growth of tourism is still notable, but when you start from virtually nothing, any growth is substantial, percentage wise.
The next logical step in my exploration process was to go further and deeper into the country away from the supposedly now oh-so-mainstream Pyongyang. I came across a unique opportunity to enter the DPRK through a route never open to foreigners before, and see remote, rural places that were completely inaccessible a just a year ago and which are still virtually unseen by foreigners.
Family and friends questioned the wisdom of the trip given the current circumstances and escalating threats. They have a point—it is fair to say that tensions have never been so high over the last couple years. However, a day-to-day analysis of events and parallels with recent history suggest that there is nothing much happening besides a brutal war of words fueled by the yearly joined ROK/US military exercises in the region. Despite all the media gloom and doom and depictions of hell scenarios there appears to be little evidence of actual tangible tensions on the ground.
And so there I am, sitting in a hard sleeper carriage of a Chinese train with a group of like-minded folks, 18 hours into a 26 hour ride out of Beijing, on my way to new adventures. Cigarette smoke is filling the carriage, lights came back on at 6am accompanied with loud music, and breakfast beer is already flowing. Tomorrow I will be crossing a border that no one from my home country has ever crossed before. I am living life.