August 23rd, 2015


Travels in North Korea, Part 2

In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.

All together there were 17 people in my tour group, plus Sarah, the British tour manager from Koryo Tours; Mok Ran, Song Ii, and Chong Song, our three local guides; Mr. Chae, the bus driver; and Mr. Pak, the KITC cameraman who would record our every move (for the sole purpose of producing a souvenir DVD, we were assured). Our group came from all around the world: there were six Singaporean friends, a family of four Brisbanites, a married couple from Innsbruck, and five solo travelers from Europe, Asia, and North America.

The terminal at Pyongyang Airport had been completely rebuilt just a few weeks before our tour started, so contrary to my expectations of finding a country frozen in time, everything looked fresh and modern. It wasn't long, however, before we all got a glipse of more typical North Korean infrastructure: the bus trip from the airport into town took us down an impressively wide motorway almost entirely devoid of motorized traffic. Also absent were billboards or commercial advertising of any kind. There were, however, plenty of pedestrians and cyclists travelling in the lanes parallel to the main road.

As our big blue tour bus wound its way through the idyllic corn fields, our head tour guide, Mok Ran, activated the PA system and gave us all a warm welcome to the DPRK. Besides providing some general information and statistics on the country, she also set out some ground rules concerning the behaviour expected of us. These basically amounted to a long list of things we were not permitted to photograph:

  • no photos of military sites or personnel,
  • no close-ups of locals without first asking their permission,
  • no photos of construction sites,
  • no photos of anyone sleeping or resting,
  • no photos of anyone engaged in manual labour, and
  • no photos of excessively long queues at bus stops.

Above all, when visiting the country's many gigantic monuments to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, we were exhorted to always photograph the entire statue, never framing the picture so as to cut off any part of the revered leaders. We were also told that any live person appearing in such a photo should be respectfully posed—imitating the statue's position or gesture is a big no-no.

Our first tour stop was the Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery, a memorial to the veterans of the 1950–1953 Korean War. Though only two years old, it's built in the same imposing style as Berlin's Treptower Park and other Soviet memorials of the 1940s and '50s. We would come to see this style over and over again in our travels. In the USSR and Eastern Europe, this so-called "socialist realism" fell out of favour in the late 1960s; not so in the DPRK, where it apparently remains the only officially sanctioned style of monumental art.

Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery

Our visit to the Cemetery had a form which would come to be familiar over the next few days: after getting off the bus, we were met by a custodian guide who would give a Korean-language introduction to the site, with one of our own three guides serving as a consecutive interpreter. One piece of information which was always included in such visits was some historical connection to Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or Kim Jong Un. Even for ancient or medieval sites that had no relationship whatsoever to the Kims, the custodians were very careful to validate their importance to us by listing the exact dates on which the Great Leader, Dear Leader, or Great Successor personally visited there to pay respects or provide on-the-spot guidance. In the case of the Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery, for example, we were told that the entire memorial was the brainchild of Marshall Kim Jong Un, who oversaw its design, personally inspected it on 1 July 2013, and officially opened it on 25 July 2013.

After the custodian's introduction, we were taken to the monument itself, where we were obliged to lay a bouquet of flowers and bow in respect for the fallen martyrs. We had been warned in advance of our trip that it would involve a lot of "respectful" bowing, particularly to images of the revered leaders. There is really no way of avoiding it short of not signing up for the tour in the first place—it was repeatedly stressed to us by Koryo Tours that whatever our personal feelings towards the Kims and their country, engaging in public displays of respect for them was a non-negotiable condition of the tour. So everyone swallowed their pride for a few seconds and bowed (some a bit more stiffly and shallowly than others), knowing that we could joke, grumble, and commiserate about it together afterwards.

Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery Fatherland Liberation War Martyr's Cemetery

After the bowing, we had some time for a leisurely stroll around the cemetery grounds. This one has somewhere between 500 and 600 graves, each individually marked with a headstone showing the name, photograph, and personal details of its occupant—or intended occupant, since many of the gravesites have been reserved for still-living veterans. As is usual with North Korean monuments, there is a gigantic stone wall inscribed with a gilded quotation from Kim Il Sung. The one at the cemetery reads,

Heroic feats and undying exploits performed by the service personnel of the People's Army in the Fatherland Liberation War will always remain in the revolutionary history of our people in golden letters and they will be conveyed down through generations.
—Kim Il Sung

aptly illustrating why Kim, Sr. would never have cut it at Hallmark.

(Continued in Part 3.)