Words and photographs by: Tristan Kneschke
An eye-opening journey into the heart of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea…
There are sanctioned tours that travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), better known as North Korea. I decided to join a tour centering around the 70th anniversary of the Worker’s Party of Korea. Hundreds of tourists flew to the capital of Pyongyang to experience this strange country at a time highly celebrated by the locals. Unequivocally, North Korea was the most bizarre place I will ever visit in my lifetime. What could beat it, or even come close? The country is an incredible living anachronism to the world’s final Stalinesque dictatorship, and a living farce to the outside world.
A week in North Korea isn’t exactly a lot of fun, so you may be wondering why I felt a desire to go. In truth, I had many reasons. The most superficial reason was that I love dystopian literature, so I was eager to visit an example outside the pages of a book. Actually being inside Orwell’s 1984 may not be your thing, but it’s certainly mine. There’s more to my desire to explore North Korea though. Visiting a country like North Korea, whose ideology is so foreign from my reality, gives me perspective to appreciate what modernist societies take for granted: freedom of expression, cutting-edge technology, access to a variety of cultures and viewpoints, and the ability to develop oneself intellectually. Stripping away every single one of these aspects for a week makes you clamor for their reinstatement. I also wanted questions answered. How could such an extreme place thrive? How do the people in such an environment manage to survive? Do they ever experience joy? Is our modern media’s limited perspective of this secretive country accurate?
The last reason I visited North Korea is a bit more personal. Both of my parents fled the country of their upbringing, Czechoslovakia, when Russian Communist forces invaded in 1968. Solipsistic Americans often forget there were other worlds grappling with social and political issues when we were celebrating the Summer of Love. Both my mother and father witnessed the repression and corruption of the communist state firsthand. I believe this history has had an effect on the way my parents regard politics and government today. I’ve now visited several countries ruled by “alternative” governments, not because I support them, but to better appreciate the democratic United States under which my parents and I have been empowered enough to build prosperous futures for ourselves. It may sound strange, but visiting countries with oppressive governmental regimes helps me connect to my parent’s plight, since I’ve been born with the privilege of being spared from one.
In fact, the trip itself is an embodiment of privilege. The vast majority of travelers using my tour company are caucasian Westerners hailing from Europe, North America, and Australia. Living in New York City, my urban lifestyle risks drifting into complacency. It’s easy to keep doing things the same way, which I equate with stagnation. Every now and again, it’s necessary to shake myself into something I find uncomfortable. It’s through uncomfortable situations that character and grit can arise. In these situations, we grow.
I get a hint of North Korea even before the tour began, on a separate two-day excursion through the mostly-abandoned Chinese cities, Ordos and Kangbashi (pronounced “Erdos” and “Kangbasher”). In addition to authoritarian governments, I am also interested in abandoned cities. Don’t worry, I also do enjoy the occasional beach vacation. I swear.
There happened to be an authentic North Korean restaurant in the hotel where I was staying. The DPRK’s government must have some deliberate reason for this restaurant’s existence, but in a city built for four million and inhabited by four hundred thousand, I can’t imagine what their angle could be. It’s a random site for a restaurant at the very least. That said, I just had to eat there.
After the meal, which wasn’t half bad, my guide and I were treated to a performance featuring two nationalistic anthems, and a lighter number whose chorus was a simple melody that easily found its way into my head – a quadruple repetition of the words “Ban gap seum ni da.” This translates to “nice to meet you.” It’s something a Westerner can sing along to, faking it the whole way if they didn’t know the exact pronunciation. Even those with little to no musical training can discern that the melody is very easy to learn.
After the performance, I attempted to communicate with the North Korean singers by using an app with common Korean phrases I downloaded before heading to Asia. I keyed in What’s Your Name? and a mechanical Korean voice pronounced the phrase for me. However, the singer was puzzled. This was my first disconnect on my trip to North Korea of what would be many. I realized that the app translates South Korean phrases and South Korea’s language and inflections have morphed over the last seventy years from North Korea, and even simple greetings are different enough that they cannot be comprehended.
After the brief China tour, it was time to head to the North Korean tour office for a mandatory debriefing, during which we are told:
“Please don’t bring in The Interview or Team America: World Police. It won’t be funny there. The North Koreans won’t get the joke.”
We were instructed not to photograph military officers or to crop off part of a leader’s body when photographing him. To do so is disrespectful and borderline violent, as you would be amputating part of their body. I imagined the headline, North Korea: Where Closeups Are Not Tolerated.
We fly via Air Koryo, the world’s only one-star airline. It’s not too bad actually, but I experienced the first of many awful meals to come, in this case a grey burger served at room temperature. When we landed at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, each passenger had to go through a lengthy screening process where all electronics and literature were analyzed before boarding the buses waiting for us. It was harvesting season, and on the drive from the airport dozens of workers, some even in military uniform, were hunched over in the fields, Communist sickles reaping the grains. That’s when it truly hit me: I’m in North Korea.
But that was nothing. The local guides then proceeded to collect all of our passports and visas to easily get us through various military checkpoints throughout the tour. I would not be holding those vital documents in my possession until the day I departed. Terrifying.
Everyone outside was staring at us. A bus filled with Western shutterbugs is apparently not a normal occurrence. The bus zoomed past a cabal of children in traditional celebratory clothing: bright, wide, colorful dresses, sort of like whirling dervishes but in neon. No doubt they were practicing for the 70th anniversary. A marching band played on the street, but the bus zipped by too fast for us to photograph their ranks. No matter. Throughout the week there will be umpteen possibilities to capture the hordes of people moving in lockstep.
Many civilians adhered to an “earth tone bland” dress code, a mix that’s traditional and respectable, but at the same time hints at militaristic. The martial presence was absolutely everywhere. Soldiers were often placed at random points with nothing to do but stand at attention, sentinels convinced they were aiding the Motherland. It’s not like a revolt could ever happen, and crime is nonexistent due to the harsh penalties that would follow. But such is the Communist government at work, where everyone is given a job, no matter how trivial.
I could have easily turned this trip into a bizzari (a “bizarre safari”) where I purposely sought out the weird, but I wanted to approach this trip in as unbiased a way as possible, to see past the domineering ideologies and connect with the people, to somehow humanize this dystopia. There must be remnants of humanity behind all the propaganda….I hoped.
The first thing we did was visit the Arch of Triumph, which is like Paris’, but intentionally bigger, and the Mansudae Grand Monument, which features two hulking bronze statues of the exalted leaders (pictured below). With the 70th Anniversary celebration imminent, citizens had turned out by the hundreds to pay their respects. A procession of fifteen year-old soldiers moved in behind us. They lined up in three neat rows, waiting for their turn to approach. A light drizzle started to trickle in the grey sky. Fitting. Our group laid flowers at the statue’s feet and bowed in unison as per custom. Already, bowing to these military despots was irking me, and it was only the first day.
One of the locations on the tour featured a scenic outlook that overlooked a cluster of ancient houses built close together so people could walk underneath when it was raining and not get soaked. It wasn’t an altogether interesting stop on the tour, except there happened to be two kids painting the scene while we’re there.
If this was any other country, I wouldn’t think twice about the painters. In North Korea, however, everything takes on a different tone. As I mentioned before, the tour group is regularly met with curious glances by the locals. A large group of caucasian tourists is not an everyday occurrence, especially to children. Why was it, then, that two children painting the simple countryside continued unperturbed while a group of twenty Westerners photographed them? Why was it that, when we loaded ourselves back onto the bus, our North Korean guide and the two artists were the last to leave the scene? Did he pay them off, I wondered. It was odd how the artists took our exit as the exact opportunity to take a break in their painting?
This kind of incident was not isolated. On Party Foundation Day, no one seemed to have any idea when the military parade was starting, so we went to kill time at Pyongyang’s waterpark. It was nice enough, and some locals were enjoying the indoor pools and several of the winding waterslides.
When it’s relayed that we would be at the waterpark for another hour, I went exploring. I found several unused tennis courts on the roof deck and a view of the entire waterpark, which I then realized also extended outside. Outside though, the waterpark was completely uninhabited, even though there was a crowd inside. Gallons of water was being pumped around the empty rides, another unsettling image (they’re starting to pile up). I got the feeling I was behind the scenes, that I shouldn’t be at this section of the park. It was a sunny day so why wouldn’t the locals be enjoying the amusement park outside? Why cluster everyone together in one small area? It was another strong case for the scene being set up before we got there of the daily “lives” of North Koreans.
One final example of scene-setting occurred when we visited a department store in Pyongyang. The store itself was unremarkable except that it was the only place tourists can exchange currency for local money and spend it at the store. I strolled around to see what the bustling store was offering. I observed that some people were making odd purchases. For example, one family bought about six bags of diapers, and nothing else. When was the last time you went to a store and bought just one item, and bought that item in bulk? Maybe I was overanalyzing, but again, in North Korea, I was always questioning the location’s verisimilitude.
By the time North Koreans reach adulthood, the indoctrination that starts young is complete. Adults believe in their leadership. This is their reality. We visited a school where the brainwashing began when North Koreans were but a few years old. Witnessing this can be enough to break you. Looking no further than the patriotic ditties with the leader’s names in the lyrics, or the playground complete with wooden tank and armed animal soldiers, consider having this fed to you every single day, starting from when you first became conscious. I guarantee you’d believe it too. This is when the trip got real for me.
We watched as some older kids performed with various instruments, including a gayageum, a traditional Korean instrument that has this twangy, bent sound. Some performances featured a looming music teacher clapping a fast tempo as the kids rushed to keep up. What struck me was that the kids were pretty good, good enough to go toe to toe with the skill of their choice anywhere in the world and be among the best. It’s a shame they never would. All of this fostered talent will go completely wasted, relegated to performing kitschy propaganda tunes. To anyone reading this that has always wanted to learn a foreign language, pick up a musical instrument, or write that novel that’s in their head, but feels like they just can’t, consider that there is an entire country’s worth of talent that is getting marginalized. And here you are, whining about how difficult it is to get started. If only you had more time, right?
Visiting the library in Pyongyang was as bizarre as one would think. There are kiosks with restricted internet capabilities and shelves lined with books with limited scope. There is also a “music appreciation” room lined with eighties-era boomboxes (pictured above), organized in military formation. Naturally.
To show that the things actually work, our local guide played a CD of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” a song whose largely stringed arrangement is probably the least offensive to the regime, compared to the rest of the band’s rock and pop-leaning output. Maybe even the song’s “lonely people” refer to the Koreans themselves, though I fear I am waxing poetic. Either way, the translation must be lost on them.
Surely the regime must appreciate the Beatles, the unquestioned deity of the West. The band’s musical world domination is the sonic equivalent of what the DPRK must be striving for. The Fab Four are the sacred cow that’s too big to fail, and has sat uncontested for decades, even if they only composed pop hits about meter maids, walruses, and submarines. North Korea’s music, on the other hand, is incessantly needling. The vast majority sounded as if it were composed before the 20th century and repeated the same tropes: the rallying chorus of voices, the swirling, exultant strings. It’s the belligerent music of the battleground, sort of like Wagner but not as good. Bands utilizing modern instruments exist in North Korea, but they only serve to create more of the same. This is a culture that has never heard blues music, much less rock and roll, rap, country, jazz, or any variant of electronic music. Think about that for a second.
It’s not uncommon to see a soldier exiting the mausoleum of the departed leaders with tears in his eyes. However, don’t assume that the place where the exalted leaders lie in rest is a somber crypt. It is actually a palace, complete with high ceilings, chandeliers, and opulent Soviet-style art. Photographs of North Korea’s leaders posing with various political leaders adorn every wall. The procession inside the building was quite long, a loop around the entire building on airport-style moving walkways presumably to get us in the right frame of mind. Here, photography was forbidden. We were made to scrub our shoes and pass through a sort of wind tunnel to be cleansed of impurities before seeing the corpses of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, somberly bathed in Communist-red light. The room itself was huge, and soldiers stood at attention in the near darkness. Nationalistic music played softly from a speaker somewhere, and we were told to bow three times: once at each of the deceased leaders sides and once at their feet. Bowing over their heads would be disrespectful. After exiting, we were whisked to a room which hosted these men’s accolades in medal and certificate form. The leaders even have some honorary degrees ascribed to them.
The Yanggakdo hotel was the main place any tourist visiting North Korea would stay. Yanggakdo is deliberately situated on an island to make sure no tourists can escape. There is a television in each tourist’s room (though not, I suspect, in a local’s room) that receives several stations including the BBC and Al Jazeera, though they both contain a fair amount of static. Both news agencies were in attendance to cover Party Foundation Day, the name of the North Korean 70th anniversary celebrations. The crystal-clear state-run station is an around-the-clock feed of North Korea’s leaders, whether alive or dead, just in case you hadn’t gotten your fill.
There was a fifties-era radio in the room that emitted only scratchy static. Though the best rooms are reserved for foreigners, in my room the paint peeled and the wallpaper curled and the plumbing system moaned like a banshee at all hours of the night, rousing me from sleep more than once. The bathroom light took a five full seconds to turn on (I counted!) and I rolled the dice every morning to see if I would have hot water in the shower.
Since it is forbidden to leave the hotel without the tour group, several of us decided to explore the hotel’s halls. Tourists stayed on the upper floors, so we tried to access one of the lower floors. The elevator opened up to a floor much like ours. Our luck was particularly bad though, as our guide happened to be sitting on one of the couches in the hall on this exact floor. He rose immediately, clearly perturbed that we were not where we were supposed to be. We make some lame excuse that we were trying to find the bowling alley (one does exist) as he escorted us back onto the elevator.
The exploration continued however, this time to the entertainment pavilions on the basement floor, where we were permitted. To our surprise we found a casino which was largely uninhabited. This sure as hell wasn’t Vegas. All of the gaming machines seemed brand new, unplayed, and were collecting dust. There were no sound effect exclamations or flickering lights. Deeper into the casino was a bright bar space, but no one was sitting there, and there wasn’t even a bartender present. A handful of the hotel staff clustered in the back playing a card game, like they were on break.
In addition to the bowling alley, ping pong tables, several restaurants, and a karaoke bar were available. Karaoke sounded like fun. We watched a group of locals enjoy their national hymns while we sucked on a few beers. I wish I could have somehow understood the jingles. Eventually a German in our group got drunk enough to ask for an English songbook. He said he would pay if we did the singing. The songbook contained a surprising amount of options, though no bands are listed, leaving us to guess who performs some of the vague song titles like “Heaven.” Some titles that were obviously the same song were listed with as many as four times. “Living on a Prayer,” “Black or White,” and “Stairway to Heaven” were considered government-approved for our enjoyment. We volleyed songs back and forth with the Koreans, clapping and cheering after their songs. After we sung a particularly rousing duet of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” the Koreans were up.
“Nice to Meet You” came on, the song that’s been bouncing in my head for days by now. I exclaimed, “Wait, this is that song!” My inebriated friends had no idea what I was talking about. I grabbed a microphone and timed my entrance. When the chorus hit, I hopped over to the North Koreans and sung the chorus with them, faking the pronunciation just enough to bewilder them, but it passed. We high fived and cheered when the song was over. For twenty-seconds, I’ had bridged a cultural gap.
The grand finale of the week, the “River Performance,” came with a 100 euro price tag, which at first I thought was a ripoff until I learn that the event was a three and a half hour extravaganza filled with musical numbers, marching troops, Korean war video clips, singing kids, ballet, operatic ballads, and even movie overdubbing (because why the hell not?).
This was all accompanied by a huge orchestra and a chorus of over 1,500 singers, by my conservative ballparking. That’s also if you don’t count the audience who sung along to many of the numbers, and always clapped when an image of the leader was shown onscreen. We recieved insanely good seats to the brainwashing, and endured the spectacle, impressed that any entity can pull off such an elaborate undertaking.
North Korea is like a kid in school you take pity on when you see them eating lunch by themselves, but when you try and talk to them, they pick their nose and flick it at you. North Korea doesn’t have many allies, but it still desperately wants to be taken seriously.
Despite its nuclear weapons testing, the DPRK does not garner much respect on the world stage, and respect is a prerequisite to having friends. Even China, long considered an ally, is fed up with the dictatorship, referring to it as a “spoiled child.”
Our entire tour was a concerted effort to make our stay as pleasant as possible while not exposing the obvious cracks in the backwards nation. The ways in which appearances were deceptively maintained was laughable. Combining this with the state’s rabid political views lead it to be perceived – and confirmed by any Westerner who enters its borders – as an elaborate play at best, a joke at worst.
Hating the imperialists for conflicts that happened seventy years ago between generations that are no longer alive comes across as petty in the 21st century. It also must be extremely draining to live with that much constant animosity. It’s time for North Korea to get over it, and yet they can’t, for the regime’s whole house of cards is built on the premise of maintaining enemies. This hostility is part of their national identity.
I’ll offer a reality check: everyone knows that war is hell. Every country has some history the citizens are not proud of in retrospect. Decisions are made, and sometimes those decisions are Machiavellian or self-serving. That doesn’t mean it’s right, but such is the constant drama that is world politics.
North Korea can’t help but inflame one’s political propensities (can you tell?). After a week in the country, I’m looking forward to my next vacation, one in which I’m reclining on a beach chair under a palm tree, listening to the lapping waves, with nowhere to be and nothing to do, and not a single soldier in sight.