North Korea – part 2

All the fun of the fair

“We’re going to the funfair,” declares Passepartout, excitedly. Back in the UK, you’d be surrounded by running screaming kids and giggling people and chaos. Not here though. Without the aid of barriers (but with the occasional police whistle), the funfair visitors wait in perfect queues for a go on the rides. Your boisterous bunch of foreigners are escorted to the head of the queues and let straight on the rides (and so we should, at €3 a pop) and we scream and giggle our way around the park.

The park is also populated with a large number of soldiers on R&R. Soldiers, however, are expected to be manly and to prove that nothing scares them. So you have this truly bizarre image of dozens of uniformed men, stony-faced, being hurled around on fairground rides.

Being silly / truly petrified at the funfair

Now, I’ve always been a bit of a rollercoaster junkie: I’m occasionally seen at Alton Towers yelling myself hoarse on the rides. But I’ve always had that knowledge in the back of my mind that everything I’m doing has been built and tested by SCIENCE, and there’s a one-in-many-trillions chance of anything even going slightly wrong.

In North Korea, however, the knowledge that the Great Leader Himself personally attended to the design, safety, and maintenance of the entire theme park didn’t exactly instill in me the greatest confidence that I would exit the park with the same number of limbs with which I entered.

Which made it so much more fun.

My favourite of all had to be the revolving pendulum swing ride. The chest restraints are designed to go over the body and then clip into place, with a short seatbelt clip as backup. Only as the ride starts do I realise that mine hasn’t locked in place, and the only thing holding my entire weight as I’m fully inverted is a six inch car seatbelt taken from a 1972 Trabant.

To which I’d like to say: Screw you, Alton Towers, I’m never coming back. You hear me? Never. It’s communist theme parks all the way from now on.

Turning on the waterworks

Back to the more educational side of things now. North Korea has, as you can see by the map pictured, one hundred and twenty-three natural springs. In the South, there are twenty. You will also notice that the density of springs changes abruptly at the moment you cross the border. Which is all rather convenient.

123 springs in the DPRK, 20 in the South.

To show off their ability to exploit such abundant natural resources they took us to their famous mineral water bottling plant. We were greeted by… nothing. Upon arrival, our local guide phoned to enquire as to whether our factory guide would in fact be turning up to show us around.

The official answer came that the staff were on their lunch break and would be turning up shortly. A bit of wandering around and a lot of waiting ensued. The factory guide did turn up a little while later, and explained that the plant was closed for maintenance during the day currently and that only the night shifts were bottling. Which would be great if there had been any maintenance going on.

Our tour took us through the immaculate plant, and we were shown the machinery that apparently bottles so much water that it even exports to China.

The not-so-busy water bottling plant. Plus lunging.

We were even given a tour of the spring itself. In a separate building, we were able to take a sip of the water straight from the springs. However, while the rest of the group were doing that, a couple of us took a look around the back to see that there were in fact two boys unashamedly pouring water into the back of the building.

A further highlight of the trip was the USS Pueblo. An American spy ship back in the sixties was caught gathering information, allegedly within North Korean territory. The crew were imprisoned and the US government cajoled into apologising in order to secure their release. The Americans claimed a victory for diplomacy; the North Koreans claimed a win over the Imperialist Violator-Aggressors and kept the ship as a prize.

The USS Pueblo: Still technically on active duty

So, upon boarding the ship, still docked in Pyongyang’s river Taedong (and still technically on active duty), we first sit down to the compulsory video. Which you simply must watch too:

We still couldn’t work out though why there was an ice cream machine on board. Seriously. I mean, did they have a ship’s cow?

Propaganda and the future

Our tour took us to a wonderful sight, for which I should now apologise: we were not allowed to take any cameras inside the National Gift Exhibition. This is an enormous building, devoted to storing and displaying every one of the thousands of gifts that North Koreans (no matter where in the world they live today) have given the Eternal Leaders.

My descriptions can do them no justice. But I shall however try.

  • A block of jade, carved into a life-size tiger, standing atop a four foot globe, its claw deeply embedded into the North American continent: I WANT ONE FOR MY FLAT.
  • Two ten-foot statues of the Eternal Leaders.
  • A Spalding basketball.
  • The world’s largest dining table. Actually, a miniature model of the world’s largest dining table. Which would happen to be the same size as a normal dining table. Which I guess would just be a dining table?
  • A coin counting machine.
  • A miniature of Frank Sinatra.
  • A back-projected Samsung TV.
  • Eight mp3 players from roughly 1999.

A miniature model of the world's largest pen.

Far be it from me to suggest that many of these items appeared to be confiscated contraband later presented as gifts, but the evidence was certainly pointing that way.

The pièce de résistance, however, had to be a two-sided oval painting. The obverse, Kim Jong-il in traditional Korean plate armour, sword in hand, riding a tiger. On the reverse: Kim Jong-il, post-ride, doing up the final button of his military uniform, cigarette in hand. The tiger, lying behind him, with an expression that I can only describe as “was it good for you?”.

View of Pyongyang from the Yanggakdo Hotel

The country and cities are not only dotted with pictures of the Eternal Leaders, but there are also the encouraging slogans wherever you look, ensuring that the people never forget what their purpose is.

Our very sweet tour guide for the Children's Palace

Some of our tour group (rightfully) questioned whether North Koreans truly believe everything they’re told. I saw one of the group wearing a crucifix on a chain and I understood that yes, they probably do believe most of it.

In the way that some Catholic people truly believe that the wafer and wine literally turn into actual flesh and blood and bits and pieces, North Korean people do believe that they are under a great leadership. They believe that they are all destined to each play an important part in the struggle towards finally reuniting with their family across the border.

They are born into a society where there is this one version of the truth. They are taught it at school. They have almost no access to the outside world, so why would they question?

This does not lead me to believe that they are in any way stupid, or that they do not question the minor cracks that appear in what they’re told, or that they do not sometimes think that one person may have an unfair advantage over another. But I tell you what: enough people are singing roughly the same tune at the same time.

"Courage towards the future: let's move forward!"

Should the country decide that its fate lies in opening up to the rest of the world, I think there would be a culture shock beyond all culture shocks if the whole thing weren’t handled carefully and slowly. But that’s another essay for another time.

Interestingly though, at the very end of our tour, our senior guide asked for understanding that she couldn’t always answer every question that we had. A knowing nod, at least, to our differences in backgrounds and idealisms about the world around us.

The Epilogue

Exit stamps: Unfortunately we weren't allowed to keep our visas

I originally approached this (incredibly lengthy!) blog post with the intention of trying to prepare you for the possibility of visiting North Korea. As you’ve seen, I think that was rather an impossible feat.

Although, if I could give some tidbits of advice it would be the following:

  1. Focus on the details. If you ever try to think about the picture and ask the big questions, you’ll never get anywhere. Just imagine the final third of the movie The Truman Show and you’ll see what I mean about details. There are chinks in the armour: and they’re what make the whole trip that much more interesting.
  2. The people are extremely well behaved for a reason. The government tells them one single truth. They are strongly discouraged from dissent or misbehaviour by many means, some of which are less nefarious than others. This does, however, mean that it’s absolutely the safest country I have ever been to as a tourist.
  3. Wave and say hello. Especially to children. The people are incredibly friendly and inquisitive and they are happy for a smile and a Korean greeting from visitors (even if like me, you’re hopeless at memorising the eleventy-bajillion-syllabled honorifics that suffix themselves to each and every noun). One of my favourite things to do was to wave at people from the bus and train windows. Obviously, there is only limited contact with local people and you’re not going to just have a lengthy conversation with someone, especially those who don’t work in the tourist industry.
  4. Bring European cigarettes. As with prisons, a pack of snout will get you a long way: especially if it’s European, and not the Chinese crap that usually gets itself into the country.

I’m not entirely sure how to conclude all of this: I think it was one of the biggest learning experiences of my life. It turned out that the people in the tour group were all of a similar mindset in many ways (someone described it as “people who don’t like tour groups”!) and that helped to cement it as one of the most fulfilling and fun things I’ve ever done.

I think that people’s greatest fears arise almost exclusively from things that they simply don’t know. People are worried about what the North Korean government might do next, because they know nothing about what they do right now. In the same way, they’re afraid of the North Korean population as a whole. But once you do go there and get to even get a tiny glimpse of what happens in people’s daily lives, you realise that they’re just as human as me or you.

Wow. That was deep.

To end on a lighter note, here’s some of the group doing Gangnam Style in Pyongyang:

Gangnam Pyongyang in front of the Arch of Triumph