Back in the DPRK… for the third time in 12 months!

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. Continue reading

Faces of Pyongyang, part 2: Behind the scenes

In my previous post I presented a somewhat idyllic version of Pyongyang, which doesn’t match the common perception of a concrete monster where no one smiles. Indeed, the DPRK’s capital has surprisingly attractive sides, and has been steadily renovated over the last couple years, in preparation for the 100th anniversary celebrations.

Yet, the showcase city has its dark sides, many of which may not be immediately visible to the visitor’s untrained eye as they are shuttled from one location to the other. During my April 2012 trip, the situation was a bit hectic in Pyongyang due the record number of visitors and preparations for gatherings and parades. Our plans were disrupted several times. Once, as major arterials were closed, our guide had the driver park the bus while he made frantic phone calls to assess how to reach our next destination. Curious, and perhaps naïve, I asked if maybe we couldn’t just take a detour—it sounded difficult to believe that there was no way to bypass the city center or use side streets. Somehow, it wasn’t an option.

Apartment building

The situation became clearer when, on another day, our driver got somewhat lost and went in circles for a while before turning into narrower streets. Our guide looked tense. When, at the end of the trip, we pooled cash for a tip, our guide declared that the driver didn’t deserve much, because he had made “errors”—a somewhat cryptic statement, taken at face value, as our driver got us everywhere safely and without incidents.

As it turns out, Pyongyang literally has a façade and a back side. Continue reading

Faces of Pyongyang, part 1: Pyongyang the beautiful

This post in the first in a series in which I will attempt to lift the curtain on some antagonistic facets of Pyongyang, and debunk some common myths. Rather than sharing details on a specific experience, I will draw from my overall impressions over my last two trips to the capital.

In the words of John Everard, former UK ambassador to the DPRK, in his memoir Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea: “Pyongyang is not an unattractive city.”

Pyongyang by day

I couldn’t put it better myself. Perhaps because of widespread misconceptions, or perhaps because it’s simply difficult to associate communist townships with elegant architecture and lively neighborhoods, I came expecting a somewhat drab and gloomy city. As it turns out, Pyongyang is neither. It can be elegant, green, dynamic, relaxing, and even festive.

Continue reading

Juche, propaganda and religion in the DPRK

Happy holidays! The Christmas celebrations in the western world prompted me to take a short break from recounting experiences on the ground, and instead compile some thoughts on the parallels between Juche, the DPRK’s philosophy (which involves a cult of personality supported by propaganda) and religion.

Kim Il Sung, Father of all

Traditional religions have never fared well in Communist countries, typically because they prescribe or support a value system that is not endorsed by the regime, encourage individuals to work towards spiritual goals that may conflict with (or detract individuals from) the system’s ideology of an all-powerful leader, and in some cases may also encourage critical thinking.

The DPRK is no exception to this rule. It effectively shuns all religions, on the one hand simply by claiming that a majority of the population has no religion—something that our guide on my last trip summarized in a swift phrase: “we’re not a very religious people”—and on the other hand by prosecuting to a certain extent those who practice, especially Christians. Numerous defectors have reported that the DPRK fears Christian groups along the Chinese border, and that punishments are typically more severe for repatriated defectors who admit to having been in contact with such groups. Mike Kim’s book, Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country provides a glimpse into Christian activity next to the border and how the DPRK deals with it.

Officially, however, the Constitution of the DPRK grants freedom of faith to its citizens. The government stresses this fact by running a number of churches and temples in Pyongyang of the Catholic, Protestant, Russian Orthodox and Buddhist denominations. These showcase facilities are open to tourists. I have not had a chance to visit them so far, but some visitors have suggested that the well-oiled tours appear to be rather staged and that the official Korean representatives of various religions seem to know at times surprisingly little about their own faith.

Since I do not have any first hand experiences to report, I will reserve judgment. However, I can comment, based on my own observations, on how Juche, the DPRK’s philosophy of self-reliance, loyalty, determination, and devotion to state, which drives the official history and policies of the DPRK, often borrows from Christianity, drawing many elements, stories and rituals from the Christian faith.

In the words of Barbara Demick, in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea:

Kim Il-sung understood the power of religion. His maternal uncle was a Protestant minister back in the pre-Communist days when Pyongyang had such a vibrant Christian community that it was called the “Jerusalem of the East.” Once in power, Kim Il-sung closed the churches, banned the Bible, deported believers to the hinterlands, and appropriated Christian imagery and dogma for the purpose of self-promotion.

While many documents and articles on the web note the similarities between North Korean propaganda and Christianity or religion in general, none that I could find provide a complete list of parallels. Here is therefore my attempt at such a list. Continue reading

A review of the “six-star” Ryanggang Hotel in Pyongyang

One of the unexpected benefits of touring the DPRK during the 100th anniversary of the President turned out to be the constant unpredictability which led to rather interesting experiences. Many tours of the DPRK are somewhat “cookie cutter”—tourists are bussed from an approved site to the next, according to a carefully crafted schedule. Some tours are orchestrated to the point that visitors come back half convinced that every Korean they saw on the streets was an actor of some sorts. Such tight coordination partially crumbled in April 2012, due to the increased number of foreign visitors and dignitaries staying in Pyongyang.

While foreign tourists are typically treated to one of Pyongyang’s two premier hotels—the Yanggakdo and the Koryo hotels—we stayed at the older Ryanggang, a property rarely seen by foreigners since the Yanggakdo opened in 1992 (it does not even have a Wikipedia entry!)

Ryanggang hotel lobby, Pyongyang

Opinions on the facility vary widely.

Our guide promised a “six star” property which we would thoroughly enjoy. Continue reading

Off the train: first impressions of Pyongyang, and a long ride to the hotel

Perhaps the first hour in Pyongyang best summarizes the entire trip: a constant rush interrupted by lengthy lulls; a genuine concern about appearances tampered by gushing reality that shatters it all; carefully crafted plans that break apart; and this awkward feeling of not being free anymore.

Arrival in PyongyangOur small group quickly gathers amongst the crowds on the station platform, where our guides have been awaiting us. There is light, energy and motion all around—despite tales of a dead, sleepy city, the place seems very much alive, in the noise and chaos of people, bags and boxes that keep spewing off the train.

Our main guide is accompanied by our tour manager—a higher ranking fellow at KITC (Korea International Travel Company, the government’s arm that manages tourism) who makes it clear that he’s graduated from the lower ranks into management—as well as a junior guide. That’s three guides plus a driver to accompany all twenty on us on a planned ten minute ride to the hotel. We’re certainly well taken care of; it’s unlikely we’ll get lost. Continue reading

Beijing to Pyongyang by train part 4: Sinuju to Pyongyang, a visual journey

It took me a while to write this post—in addition to shifting through over 20 gigabytes worth of pictures and videos taken in under 10 hours I had to figure out how to best organize my thoughts. Should I make this post linear, and recount my experience hour by hour? Should I emphasize my interactions with North Korean passengers or the striking scenery that we rode through? How could I select just a few representative pictures that would do the experience justice? I’m not sure I’ve found the perfect solution, but I’ve resolved to write a single semi-linear post covering the whole ride from Sinuju, the DPRK’s border town with China to Pyongyang, the capital—a single post narrating some of the shortest 10 hours of my life. It will be long yet cursory and there are topics that I will cover in greater details down the road. I’ve illustrated the text with videos to preserve the dynamic nature of the experience, and I have included at the bottom a series of pictures which tells more than words.

Traditions

Traveling from Beijing to Pyongyang by train is a privilege. The sinuous line goes through the “real” DPRK and remote parts of the country, places that tourists would never be allowed to visit, far from the showcase capital of Pyongyang. Embarking on this long journey is only possible for non-US citizens, and is a unique opportunity to mingle with North Koreans without a government minder.

While the location of the tracks is well-known (the tracks even appear on Bing Maps, although, strangely, not Google) I left my GPS running to build a continuous trail. While some points are slightly off, due to reception issues and to the need to hide this illegal device, I have been able to map the entire route and geo-tag my pictures, hopefully adding to the pool of knowledge about the DPRK.

Dandong to Pyongyang train route

Continue reading