We all have our own assumptions or opinions when it comes to North Korea – led by an oddball Supreme Leader, Socialist State, part of the so-called “Axis of Evil”, full of brainwashed citizens, friends of Dennis Rodman, a country lacking in food and basic human rights. I could go on and on.
But, do we REALLY know North Korea? Other than what the media has projected upon us?
Well, my friends Reuben and Fann decided that the best way to celebrate their 1st wedding anniversary would be to visit North Korea. A strange choice deemed by many, but bold and adventurous by my standards. I was so intrigued by their choice that I basically hounded Reuben to write me a post of his experience there.
Here are his words and stunning photos of his time in North Korea.
The current Ebola epidemic has closed all entries into North Korea. Who knows when we will be allowed to visit this country again?
Just a few weeks before this block, I was lucky enough to visit North Korea with my wife, Fann, for 12 days. I first landed in Pyongyang via Beijing, then moved to other parts of the country like Hyangsan, Pyongsong, Wonsan, Samjiyon and more.
To the outside world, North Korea has always been portrayed as an aggressive, violent and suppressive little communist nation. Many people have this perception, whereby the North Koreans are robots or have a constant mindset of war and whatever the tourists see are all actors and movie props. These claims sounded pretty ridiculous to me. So, I was there to see if they were true.
Also, where in the world can you find another country that takes you back in time where everything is stuck in the 70s?
While we were there, we had two tour guides that were from the state-owned KITC (Korean International Travel Company) and a driver. They had to follow us wherever we went. We were not allowed to leave the premises of our hotel when we were back unless we had their permission.
There were shops, restaurants and some entertainment facilities in the hotel, so I guess that’s pretty covered. Yes, this may seem odd and very restrictive but that’s just how their country works.
In terms of photography, there were some simple rules we had to abide to. The DO NOT list includes photography of military personnel, military check points and construction sites. One of the most awkward rule was that no cropping is allowed when taking shots of the statues or pictures of their leaders. Other than that, we were free to shoot whatever we wanted.
Also, when you are asked to bow to the leader’s statues, please do so in respect.
What surprised me most was the people. They were extremely friendly and down to earth. Unlike what the media portrays, where they are aggressive and angry, instead the people we met were courteous and calm. They were just like any other normal person with a good attitude. No, they weren’t androids or actors, just your average North Korean Joe.
The people were curious about other countries, and would ask questions about our culture, our lifestyles, our fashion, etc. They were also curious about what we thought about them. They are completely rational and wouldn’t lock you up if you were honest with them, as claimed by the documentaries.
Our guides spoke perfect English and Spanish. This was surprising to us because they had never traveled out of the country and yet they sounded as if those foreign languages were their first language. It was mind-blowing!
Every morning at 7am in the Capital, we were awakened by a loud siren called the Worker’s Siren (pretty obvious by its name). Then followed by a somewhat eerie North Korean music that plays throughout the city. We could even hear it from our hotel room and it felt like we were in a scene of a documentary.
The sights of North Korea are truly extraordinary. One of the most impressive feats of North Korea is their architecture – gigantic and majestic. Their buildings are mainly built in the Socialist Classicism style with a dash of Korean culture to it.
One of the most beautiful interiors I saw was inside the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s bodies are preserved and on display. The interior was fit for a king and they had highest taste of the best materials I have ever seen.
We visited cooperative farms, the Juche Tower, film studios, secondary schools, the DMZ, lots of Kim statues, and more. The view of their countryside was quite a beauty too. Unlike in documentaries we’ve seen, where they showed dying crops and suffering people, we only saw beautiful green and yellow crops with farmers going about their daily lives.
The roads in the city were wide but their public transports were really old. They had old electric trams and their metro trains looked like it came from an old movie set. I also noticed that they have quite a number of traffic lights but those without them, would have the famous traffic police ladies in skirts. Smart and elegant in their movements and fashion, these lovely police officers are the celebrities of the city and one of my favourites.
Our hotel rooms were like rooms from the 80s, with a control panel in between our beds that had dials and buttons to control the lighting and radio. The sofas in our lounge looked like they came from the Mad Men set. The television played propaganda stuff all day long, except for the ones in Pyongyang where we had access to CNN, BBC and more.
Internet is a luxury in North Korea and I was told that the citizens could only access their local intranet. Foreigners have to pay a hefty price to go online but that wasn’t something I was prepared to do.
We also traveled to the sacred mountain of Mount Paektu – a gigantic active volcano that borders China on the other side. We had to take an old 60s Russian jet in order to get to the province of Samjiyon and then take a wild bus ride to the beautiful mountain. This mountain played a big role as a secret base during the Liberation War (The Korean War, to the rest of us) and also was the birth place of their Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.
North Korea is indeed a bizarre place to travel and I would recommend it to anyone who loves architecture, photography and those who want to experience time travel. It’s best to go there with an open mind and you may learn a thing or two from the North Korean folk.
What I wasn’t expecting to get from this trip was the alternate version of history about the Korean War and their perspective and vision for the reunification of Korea. It was an eye opener for me and you may get a different look at the foreign policies of the United States.
North Korea is one of the cleanest countries I’ve ever been to right after Japan. And the citizens, one of the most united and patriotic bunch of people you can find. If you happen to go to North Korea, be at your best behaviour and you will enjoy one of the best hospitalities a country could offer.
And fear not, Kimchi is readily available at every meal.
Thank you for your time, Reuben! You words and fantastic images are enough to inspire me to add this country to my list of places to visit.
To view more of Reuben’s awesome photography, head on over to these links and make him a happy man.