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Ten Days In North Korea, Part Two

My previous post talked about the practicalities of visiting North Korea. Today I’m going to share my personal experiences and thoughts on this secluded country. 

Originally we were supposed to fly Air Koryo from Beijing to Pyongyang. However, three weeks before our departure YPT (our tour company) told us that chartered flights to/from China & DPRK were cancelled. No reason why was given, and this is a common theme in the DPRK.

Although we had a set itinerary of what we could see and where we could go, it wasn’t until the final moment did we actually know if we would be able to go. This sense of “being left in the dark” is how one way the government keeps things in control. This is also why our tour company always had a plan B (and C) in their back pocket. The show must go on.

So we hopped on a sleeper train from Beijing to Dandong. A 14 hour overnight train ride to the DPRK Border. From there, we’d clear Chinese customs, hop on a bus, cross the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge to Sinuiju and clear DPRK customs. 

It was surreal knowing that you were entering a country few have visited. It was a quiet bus ride as everyone was processing exactly what was happening. 

Surprisingly, getting through customs was extremely easy. Officials didn’t want to see content on our phones or laptops. Devices normally on the banned list made it through, such as GPS watches. I think this weekend was the exception, and not the rule, due to the massive amount of westerners entering for the annual marathon

Getting off at Pyongyang

After taking care of the immigration paperwork, and surrendering our passports for the entire trip, we were on our way to Uiju airport to take a domestic flight to Pyongyang. 

It’s not every day that I get to ride in an old Russian Antonov An-24, so I was excited to hop on board this Air Koryo flight. Unfortunately, it was an overcast day, so we we weren’t able to see much once we were at cruising altitude. 

It was on this flight did I start to understand the national psyche. Everyone is doing the best with the limited resources they have. To North Koreans, flying in a 80 year old airplane is nothing out of the ordinary and it’s just business as usual. This “get-er-done” attitude was found all throughout my trip. Although, I’m unconvinced if this is by choice or force.

Over the course of the next few days, the group starts to relax a bit as we find our place when it comes to how restrained we need to be. My normal attitude of “it’s better to beg for forgivingness than ask for permission” doesn’t really fly here. That said, advice given to us was “just do what you want until you’re told ‘no'”.This really helped with easing any tensions the westerners had about this trip. 

Visiting this country is no different than visiting any other one. You need to respect their culture and beliefs, even if they conflict with yours. Keeping an open mind is essential to an enjoyable experience. 

A farmer pulling a cart with a Bull.

An observation the majority of us made while touring around the country is the lack of mechanical labour. No tractors, no backhoes, no heavy machinery of any kind. All work was done manually. This included repairing large swaths of road by pick-and-shovel. Even cutting trees and wood was done manually using hand saws. My theory behind why is simple: Keep the population busy. Using power tools will mean that jobs will get done sooner, giving workers more free time.  

There was always this sense of business, both in the rural and urban areas of the country. Everyone was doing something or going somewhere. Streets were rarely quiet with pedestrian traffic. 

North Korean wants and needs are no different than anyone else. It is a shame that the people have to suffer for the actions of one man. Everything that is portrayed to the west is a carefully controlled image that the current government controls. 

Spending ten days in a country is not enough to fully appreciate everything it has to offer. Especially when you are on a tightly controlled itinerary. However, I did get glimpses at the many human rights violations that do occur in the DPRK. No right to free speech, having only 1 TV and Radio station that is state run. My discussions with various North Koreas highlighted the lack of sex education, access to abortion, and contraceptives. You are not free to leave the country (natives cannot get a passport without specific and approved reasons). People are treated differently whether you are educated or not, especially with access to food and medical resources. 

My main reason for visiting the DPRK was to see things with my “own eyes”. It certainly is a different view than what you would see from documentaries and news reports. In that respect, my trip was a success.