“One day we will liberate South Korea!” beamed the museum guide in her snug green uniform. With welcoming bandwagons in the South ready to rid themselves once and for all of the K-Pop scourge, banners were hastily folded away once they realized their 5G network, bullet trains and abundance of food were also set to be liberated. You may have read titbits about North Korea, pieces quoting ‘democratic’ voting turn-outs of 99.9%, government sanctioned haircuts, and the occasional nuclear underground bomb test. Setting sanity aside, we booked ourselves on a tour that coincided perfectly with the dancing, fireworks and merriment put on for the President’s 103rd Birthday. What, a person can’t be President just because they died in 1994? Open your mind! Like every good story, you have to begin at the beginning.
The only way to get into the country is by guided tour or through kidnapping, which is how some Japanese film darlings came to town when Kim Jong Il was in charge – a green jumpsuit wearing despot and star-struck movie buff, apparently. Before casting aspersions (bit late?), a brief history to learn your King Kim’s from your King Kongs. Once Japan lost the Second World War, a prelude to Vietnam followed as the American backed South fought the Communist North - armed by Russia and China. The North’s eventual leader was President Kim Il Sung. After a flying economic start famine struck, reportedly killing tens of millions. Kim Il Sung beget Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il beget Kim Jong Un, which is where the nation sits now. Whilst Il Sung seemed a passable respected leader, his son…well…you know that friend that you don’t invite to parties because they’re liable to arrive naked save for a carefully positioned haddock? And he spawned. Sung and Il are interred in extravagant, temperature controlled marbled mausoleums, and the masses flock to pay homage. Whether they do on their own volition is by the by. The train-carriage that Kim Jong Il died in remains (apparently) how he left it, with some fancy sunglasses and a Mac Book Pro lying dormant – why he needed that with no internet access to the outside world prompted our guides to perform Lord of the Dance style uncomfortable foot shuffling.
A modern tourist bus marched us around the spotless capital, a Communist city like any other with tarmac roads, concrete blocks of flats and the occasional hammer and sickle adorning buildings. Oh, and with the additional towering statues of The Great Leaders (Sung and Il), all gleaming teeth and pudginess that comes from an incomprehensible affluence. In the same vein, our huge multi-starred hotel had BBC World Service, fully stocked bar and telephone exchange. Much to our surprise, for our entire trip we eat fantastically, knocking back kim-chi, friend chicken and the Korean favourite dog-soup when available (tasted like fatty lamb but with the texture of pulled pork). However, the nagging feeling kicking you in the side of your head is inescapable: 90% of the time we were the only ones in the restaurants; there are no privately owned cars; there are no signs of supermarkets, clothes stores or visible shops of any kind, not even a sanctioned hairdressers; no traffic lights or streetlamps seemed to work; and there were no advertisements whatsoever bar a single billboard on a bridge for a car that no one could hope to buy.
Our tourist guides spewed forth facts of their country during our jaunt, taking umbrage as to why we’d even question the use of child soldiers during Civil War or indeed believe there is any benefit of multiple media sources. Contrary to expectations, we roamed freely from the tour group a little in the squares and could take photos of everything and everyone apart from soldiers, policeman and bizarrely the quite ornate underground stations – thank you West Germany for selling your metro! For me, the whole vibe to North Korea was played out in a single scene at the Demilitarized Zone. It took us a few hours to get there from the capital Pyongyang, through countryside where every scintilla of land was tilled by hand or on a rare occasion by tractor, but the DMZ did not disappoint. The military performed with stone-faced pomp on both sides, but upon a regulation stand-down the US continued their formidable stances, whilst the North all huddled behind a cabin and bummed a cigarette like they were down the park. Break over, nothing to see here! Ready, Set....Pomp!
Although we could technically ask the guides anything, we were told to be careful less we get them into trouble – they were rumoured to be watched constantly and their families shipped off to gulags if anything out of the ordinary was relayed. The guides though did openly blame American Imperialists for all North Korea’s ills (tick!) instead of their own regime (tick!), and we left after a week not knowing if they genuinely believed it or whether they were just part of a production (tick!). Towards the last day of our trip our guide asked for medicines or creams, the only time we possibly saw a chink in the armour of our proud guide. They liked to keep us on our toes though, and to quote their greeting on the third day which will stay with me forever “Good morning and welcome to another day in paradise in Pyongyang!” (tick!)
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