Last August, I shared a hostel with a Scottish man in Guangzhou. Over some Cantonese cuisine and a couple of beers he shared his travel stories with me. I was shocked to discover that he had recently visited North Korea as I did not believe foreign tourists were permitted to travel in the most secretive country in the world.
Yet, less than a year later, I find myself with a set of memories of my own first hand experience in North Korea. What’s more, by participating the Pyongyang Marathon I had the opportunity to be one of the first foreigners to wonder freely on the streets of Pyongyang. It is the resulting interaction with the beaming local people that will etch greater in my mind than anything else I experienced in this country.
Whenever I told people about my scheduled trip I was greeted with responses of ‘be careful’ or ‘make sure you come back’. These are not normal responses when someone tells you they are going on holiday. Additionally, the spate of cases of arrests in North Korea meant that people were becoming aware of the risks of travelling there, and I was all too frequently reminded of them. In fact, mum asked who she needed to contact to cancel my flight. Fortunately she is all bark and no bite, unlike Kim Jong Un.
I travelled to Shanghai Pudong directly from work on Friday in order to meet my 10pm meet up with the other runners. It was here that we were given our tourist permit cards and a last minute briefing about desirable behaviour in the country. Upon completion of Chinese security checks we made our way to our gate, which was hidden in the dark recesses of Pudong Airport. We then had to board a bus to our plane, which was also hidden away. The aircraft featured the North Korean flag on its tail and a very soviet looking interior greeted me once I made it up the stairs. Naturally, I slept through most of the flight despite Korean music blaring loudly throughout the whole journey.
The customs check on the other side was relatively smooth. Everything on me was inspected rigorously, with a man employed to look through my phone pictures in a similar manner to the airport staff in Israel. They also took a look at my Harry Potter book to make sure it didn’t feature any political or religious preaching.
This meant I had officially entered North Korea at 3am on a Saturday morning. Myself and my allocated room mate, Samuel, immediately purchased a newspaper and thought nothing of placing our folded papers beside us on our short coach journey to the specially equipped foreigner hotel in the centre of Pyongyang. However, our tour guide, ‘Lee’, spotted our papers pretty soon and informed us that we would have serious consequences if we were seen to fold paper featuring a photo of Respected General Kim Jong Un. I had realised that I needed to adjust to the do’s and don’ts in this country quickly, or live to regret it.
We eventually arrived at our hotel at 5am and were given a few hours to nap before our 9am start the next morning. Tourism in North Korea is very restricted, so we were confined to our tour group until the race on Sunday (not that it was a bad thing). Following a swift breakfast we made our way to the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (the two deceased ‘great leaders’ of the country). Kim Il Sung is regarded as the founder of the North Korean nation and the eternal chairman of the country. We were already beginning to see the god-like worship of the people towards the great leaders, and it was fascinating.
Before standing in front of the bronze statues of the Great Leaders we were required to buy a bouquet of flowers and lay them at their feet. We then had to stand in formation, remove sunglasses and bags, take our hands out of our pockets, stop chewing gum, and bow to the Great Leaders. It was a ritual repeated by the locals after us.
We also visited the newly complete Science Museum, where we had to bow before a photo of Kim Jung Un. The museum had no attendees, despite it being Saturday. The guide claimed that it was because it was the morning, but another said it was because it was Saturday. We were getting cynical about what was real. In fact, our cynicism escalated when there appeared to be no hard drives in the state-of-the-art public computer areas. The keyboards were clearly untouched as well. I am not sure anyone would be able to access anything on them if they were ever used.
We were now fully immersed in the North Korean way.
It was then time to head for our first taste of North Korean kimchi, which I preferred to the South Korean taste. More importantly, I was able to have my first taste of the famous North Korean beer which people claimed to be the best in the world. It is not a bad claim.
Immediately after lunch we headed to the birthplace of Kim Il Sung. I was a little sceptical about its authenticity, as it had an uncanny resemblance to the birthplace of Mao Zedong in ShaoShan, Hunan. Perhaps all dictators have humble beginnings beneath thatched roofs.
Not far from the area stood a very modern theme park, which had no people. We asked why it was closed on a Saturday, to which no-one had a genuine answer. We suspected it was never open.
Quite surprisingly, the Pyongyang metro system was one of the major highlights of the day. We visited in what you would regard as rush hour, but nothing like the congestion of Hangzhou or Shanghai. Instead we took an escalator an almighty 70m down and came out on a renaissance style platform featuring an old East German train. We had travelled in time, and it was fantastic. The same music blared out on the subway and there was an odd silence among the group as we tried to take in the sights, sounds and smells of a functional city stuck in the 1950s. We got off at a few stations and stared in awe at the wonderful uniqueness of each.
Our exit station led us to the Arch or Triumph (Pyongyang, not Paris), one of the famous monuments in the city. We saw hundreds of people dancing in unison in the square around the city, which we understood as preparation for the celebration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday next week (celebrations started by the marathon). In fact, the monument stood in the middle of a roundabout, yet we were able to cross the road without fear of cars or even car horns. Pyongyang remains a city of few cars, where most people are on foot or bikes. It is eerie to see a place like that when I live in the city with the worst traffic in China. It would appear that Pyongyang is as China probably was before the death of Chairman Mao.
We then made our way to the May Day stadium, where the marathon would be starting and finishing the following morning. We were informed of the race route here and watched the final preparations taking place inside the stadium. The May Day Stadium is supposedly the largest in the world with a capacity of 150,000 people, and the thought of running in it was getting exciting. As I looked round I noticed the Olympic rings proudly on show and the Fifa logo (as well as the obligatory portraits of the Great Leaders). I had to question whether either of these images were legitimate.
Our last stop before dinner was the massive Pyongyang Tower, the tallest granite structure in the World. We took a lift to the top of the tower to witness a breathtaking view of Pyongyang at dusk. The streets were quiet, the roads empty and the buildings in soviet style blocks. Somehow Pyongyang was now more mysterious that it had been before I arrived.
We then returned to the hotel for a few bowls of carbohydrates before having an early night in our outdated room before raceday.
Naturally it was an early start for the marathon, although many were concerned about starting at 9:30 at the weather reports indicated midday heat (since I was only doing the half marathon I didn’t really need to worry about that). We had a swift breakfast before boarding the bus to the stadium. On route we saw thousands of locals, mostly in their identical suits and all wearing a badge of their Great Leaders on the left side of their chest., walking towards the stadium.
Once we arrived we finally saw other foreign runners who made up the 1000 lucky enough to participate. We immediately joined the queue in the tunnel entrance of the stadium, getting a sneak peak of the full bottom tier of the stadium. We had enough time to visit the toilet and undress before we were required to enter the stadium and bask in the noise of the 60,000 people gathered to get a glimpse of us. We then stood in lines in the middle of the football pitch and listened to the opening speeches of highly important military people sitting below the pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il. Unfortunately, if Kim Jung Un was present at all, he was incognito.
Up until this point there had been very little drama. However, Pyongyang was not fully prepared for the bladders of 1000 anxious and excited western runners. We had to the queue for 3 urinals (I had been drinking lots of water) only for the sound of the gun to go before I had got through the door. I had to abandon the idea of having a wee in order to start my run. However, when I made it back to the track I was nearly run over by the stampede of elite runners who had already completed their start lap. This meant I had to find a gap in the crowd to start mine. On a positive note, it meant that I nearly had the crowd to myself as I ran around the track after everyone else. Having 60,000 people cheer you on is a fantastic feeling.
I still needed to toilet as I ran through the streets of Pyongyang, but I soon forgot about it when I saw most of the roads lined with local people, and many smiling children. Everyone was smiling and waving as we ran past. The children were experiencing ‘high-fives’ for the first time and holding their hands out to every runner. Many of the older people simply smiled at us or gave us a nod of approval as we ran past them. There were also people shouting ‘hello’ as each of us past them and everyone seemed happy to see us. The people of Pyongyang are nice, there is no way to deny it.
What was even more surprising was the freedom we were given to roam the streets. There was little or no military presence along the roads. I never once felt like I was threatened or in danger. This made for the most enlightening and inthralling run I will ever experience. However, this did mean that my time became of less importance, although I did try hard to keep up a good pace. Although, now and again North Korean children would appear far too advanced through the race order, which made me suspect that they were dropping them in at different points in the race.
The half marathon was 2 circuits of the course and the second circuit made me realise that I had not trained enough through the polluted winter months of China, but I had the crowd the spur me on. I was relieved to cross the finish line but slightly reluctant to accept that the race was over.
I was then able to drink a bottle of North Korea ginseng liquid before sitting down in the foreigner section of the crowd to enjoy the football match in the middle and wait for the elite runners to finish the marathon. Naturally, the red team won the football.
There was no shortage of drama in the elite marathon finale. An african runner was the first to enter the stadium on this last 200m towards the finish line. However, he followed the car displaying the time as it turned left on the track, but the course required him to turn right. The crowd roared to let him know but by the time he turned to go the right was a runner had come through and over taken him. The african runner was not able to catch up in his final sprint and the runner who should have finished second won the race. The winning runner was North Korean (read in to that as you will). Of course they also won the women’s elite race too.
I was then able to soak up the rest of the atmosphere whilst we waited for the marathon runners to finish in their 4 hour time limit. Several of the runners just made it through the gates before they closed the entrance to the stadium in a gladiatorial style once 4 hours were up. It was great drama.
Once we were all finished and rested we made our way back to the bus, via more interaction with the locals, and made our way for a Korean BBQ lunch and a well earned beer.
It’s fair to say that everyone was in high spirits at this point and fully ready for a rest. However, we now had an afternoon agenda. The North Koreans wanted to take us to their war museum, dedicated to celebrating victories over the ‘American imperialists’. In fact, every time the US was mentioned during the trip they were referred to as this or ‘the enemy’.
During the museum visit we explored a ship captured from the Americans who invaded North Korean waters and saw many of the bombs dropped by the Americans during the Korean war. Our guide claimed that there were more bombs on Pyongyang than inhabitants of the city at the time. She also claimed that US planes dropped artillery containing the cholera virus and mosquitos. It’s hard to know what to believe anymore anyway.
The building was as deluxe and as empty of people as the science museum. Together we sat and watched a video demonising the American Imperialists. I think some of our North American contingent were a little demoralised afterwards: ‘We learnt it from the Brits’ being the most light hearted response.
Quite strangely, we were then taken to a shooting range, where we fired weapons at a target. I believe this was nothing more than an exercise to help us claim that we had shot a weapon in North Korea.
We then visited a very posh dinner where we had a speech and celebratory drinks, including North Korean spirits to celebrate the successes of the day. Several of the younger foreigners got a little carried away with the drinking, which made for cringeworthy dances and a few risque moves.
When we got back to our hotel where we found out their was a brewery within. We had a few more beers before I retired to my room. There were rumours in the morning of a few misdemeanors during the night, which meant a couple of the foreigners were in a little bit of trouble. But no-one had stolen any propaganda posters.
Despite having very little sleep since we arrived no-one seemed capable of sleeping on the bus to the DMZ the next day (the place where North and South Korea meet). This is because, for the first time, we were able to witness life beyond Pyongyang. In fact, the country became rural very quickly and we started to see a side to the country that is very rarely talked about. There are beautiful lakes and an abundance of mountains in the countryside, neither of which anyone would normally associate with North Korea. We also noticed that man of the population are living in small rural villages where wells are used as a source of water. It is clearly far from the abundant country that Kim Jung Un has been painting in the local media (where he visits fully stocked supermarkets).
We eventually arrived at the DMZ and I was surprised at how the security measures in North Korea were far less stringent than those I experienced in the South. They were more concerned with the photos we were taking than the items we were bringing in. We were joined in our group by an experienced soldier. One of our american companions was keen to strike up a friendship with him and offered him a fist pump. The soldier was keen to partake but I think he was a bit heavy handed with his fist pump. He was happy to engage in conversation via a translator and said that he thought ‘american people want peace, but Obama just wants war’. We wondered if that was something his peers would echo.
As we did in the South, we visited the room where the Armistice was signed by the Americans. However, the North Koreans claimed this to be a different room to the South. Yet, much like the South, they also had a flag that the ‘American Imperialists’ had left behind in their shame and haste to leave. It seemed strange to have the same story told but claims that it took place in different rooms in different countries.
We then went to the point of the 38th Parallel where I entered the same cabin that I ventured into in October, only this time I went in from a different country. It was still odd to think that a table stands in the centre, technically in both countries.
We then returned to the bus and stopped for a delicious traditional lunch before heading back to Pyongyang. We have realised that we ate far better than the general population over the course of the weekend.
We went via a place of National Importance where a tomb was made out of plastic (so I won’t say any more about that), before moving onwards towards Pyongyang.
As we approached Pyongyang we passed an impressive stone entrance to the city before stopping at the square where the military so famously gather when we see the huge parades on TV. It turns out that there are obvious white dots on the floor to indicate exactly where people should stand during these parades. It was strange to be in a place, relatively void of people, that you so frequently see represented differently.
Naturally there continued to be portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il on important buildings. I remain cynical about the true opinions of the people as they cannot freely say what they really think. However, being here made me a little less quickly to judge. The images of people wailing in the street at Kim Jung Il’s death in 2011 are perfectly feasible as the many of these people are third generation North Koreans, meaning life before the peoples republic is no longer a memory. Consequently, people no nothing other than what they are told of their great leaders, there is no reason for them to doubt them. They may well have a genuine affection for them all.
Additionally, I now find it hard for the West to judge this as odd. Why can’t North Koreans have fanatical views of their Great Leaders, making them their deities? The majority of the rest of the world worship a God that they only believe to be true. At least with the North Koreans they are worshipping someone that actually officially existed. If they knew anything of Christianity, Islam, Judaism or other religions they would probably look upon them with the same cynicism that we look upon the North Koreans. Still, I can’t help but think it’s all a bit much. Enough of my thoughts.
We then headed to a local book store where the shelves were packed with ‘historical’ books about the lives of the Great Leaders and the war atrocities of the Americans and the Japanese.
We then had a final dinner before making our way to the airport for our late night charter flight back to Shanghai. We decided to discuss one final thing before we got off the bus: the electricity in Pyongyang. It appeared that every effort had been made to leave lights on in empty apartments and no sign of curtains. We wondered if that was for our benefit (since more foreigners were knocking about than usual). In South Korea a lot was said about the lack of electricity in North Korea. I guess I will never know.
The airport was a surprisingly efficient experience. Since there were no other flights leaving the airport we were through customs in record time. Surprisingly, I think North Korea immigration is the quickest I have ever experiences. On the other side we were relaxed enough to enjoy our final cheap beer before our flight home. One of the girls in the group said ‘soon we will be able to speak freely again’….en route to China.
So I may have used over 3000 words to describe what happened in North Korea, but I don’t think I will ever be able to truly relive the experience. It is a unique place where just about everything is different. However, the most humbling thing about the DPRK are its friendly and welcoming people. When I read stories about North Korea I will always sympathise with its people and remember that we cannot judge them on the terrible behaviour of their ‘Great Leader’ just as they don’t judge us on the behaviour our terrible ones.
Very interesting Todd but the words that spring to mind – smoke screen. I’m sure that some of the people are happy with their lot, perhaps they enjoy living in a controlled environment, or am I being too cynical?
I think you are absolutely right. The country we were allowed to see is the country they wanted us to see. I’m pretty sure life is not as simple beyond the mask.