[Editor’s Note: This essay is drawn from the personal travel notes and recollections of Stratfor’s Xiaoming Ma following her recent visit to North Korea.]
As someone who has observed North Korea many times through a telescope, or from a sailboat on the Yalu River, I have always wanted to visit the mysterious country. Even for a person who grew up in Liaoning province, which shares a border with North Korea, the country is a closed box. In April, I was offered the chance to travel south of the border with a small group of friends. I was warned in advance that I couldn’t use my phone and computer there, and it was even suggested that I bring food and water because “there is nothing to eat in North Korea,” but that didn’t deter me.
My friends and I took the train from the Chinese border city of Dandong to Pyongyang, making our first stop at the North Korean city of Sinuiju, which faces Dandong across the Yalu. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is slowly opening up Sinuiju to foreign tourists, and will soon approve a self-driving route from Dandong to Sinuiju. For now, the train is the only route.
There is only one train to North Korea each day, and as we departed Dandong at 10 a.m. sharp I could barely contain my excitement. Crossing the slow-moving river, we arrived in Sinuiju just eight minutes later. Soon after the train stopped, several North Korean military officials came on board and started taking our passports and checking our baggage.
Our compartment was mostly filled with Chinese and North Koreans. One of my friends, Jin, is Korean Chinese and speaks fluent Korean. Unfortunately, she soon became a main target of the inspection. North Korea is careful about letting people into the country who speak the Korean language but aren’t actually citizens. The border inspectors carefully went through every piece of luggage that Jin had brought with her. The inspector was friendly and professional throughout, and Jin even gave her a small bag of socks as a gift, which really made the inspector happy.
While we were waiting to depart Sinuiju, I saw some residential buildings along the railway line. None are higher then 10 floors and most appear old and in need of cleaning and repair. Slogans saying “Great Leader Kim Il Sung, Live Long!” or oaths to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il can be seen on many buildings around the city. One that struck me is that the people I saw are all skinny. In fact, I didn’t see one overweight North Korean during my entire trip. A local North Korean guide told me this was because North Koreans exercised a lot.
After a three-hour wait our train finally departed for Pyongyang. A friend who often travels to North Korea told me the long wait is very common. He surmised it was because the North Korean officials are very inefficient. I suspect it is because they are checking everyone’s background.
There are no stops between Sinuiju and Pyongyang, so I only saw farmland and small, shabby huts that I assumed were farmer’s homes. There were plenty of roads but they were mostly empty. The land seemed largely plowed judging from the fields and I could see farmers working the land. Although there were a few old tractors, most of the work appeared to be done by hand.
The countryside of North Korea is austere but clean. Clear rivers and lakes reflect the hills. There are no factories, signs of pollution or even trash on the ground. Honestly, it looked prettier than many villages in northeast China. The lack of healthy trees was noticeable though. My friend said that most of them have been cut down for firewood.
It took about five hours to get to Pyongyang. As soon as the train pulled into Pyongyang station, I heard loud, rhythmic music playing across the platform. Later on, a friend told me that the music is about revolution and victory. Even without understanding the lyrics, it was hard not to be motivated by the passion and enthusiasm of the melody. Another, older friend said the music reminded him of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
As soon as we walked off the train we were met by two North Koreans who would accompany us for the entire trip. Both the male and female “guides” were dressed formally and spoke good Chinese. They led us out of the station and onto a shuttle bus with no time to hover around the train station itself. We were taken directly to a pre-arranged hotel, one of the four best in the country.
We arrived at the Yanggakdo International Hotel as the sun began to set. It is located on Yanggakdo Island on the Taedong River, west of Seongyo District and east of the central Pyongchon and Jung Districts. My room was on the 42nd floor with a window facing Taedong River and the most beautiful and modern part of Pyongyang, and possibly the country.
Our first official meal in the country was fried fish and tofu, scrambled eggs, stir fried pork, cucumbers and, of course, the well-known Korean dish of kimchi (spicy cabbage). The hotel even put a bottle of North Korean Baijiu (white liquor) and several bottles of beer on each table. Enjoying the dinner and the tasty local beer, some tourists began to express doubt over the warnings of starvation from the locals in Dandong city.
We decided to spend our first two days in the capital, in order to fully explore it. After a quick breakfast with similar dishes to the previous night, we left the hotel before dawn. It was cold and quiet as we headed out for our tour, intending to visit the many tourist attractions around the city, such as Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, Pyongyang Grand Theater, Korea-China Friendship Tower and the Monument to the People’s Heroes — a memorial for those who died in the Korean wars. It was a full day, and as the tour came to a close, the sun set on the Workers’ Party Founding Monument, reddening the entire sky. One guide told us stories, about the Korean War, the Workers’ Party and many others. When I asked the female guide if people hated South Korea, she said only the government, not the people. To her, it was the fault of the United States for all of the past and current troubles.
People in Pyongyang seemed pretty busy while I was there. The vibe was mostly calm and positive, and people generally complied with the social order of the city. More than 100 people will patiently line up at a bus station during rush hour. Not one person jumped the queue or rushed to disturb the orderly process, even at train or subway stations. No one even crosses the road without a zebra crossing. Most people ride bikes in cities and villages. There weren’t many cars outside of Pyongyang. Interestingly, I didn’t feel any sense of stress or nerves, even as the country’s media continues to heighten tension with talk of external threats, including the recent large-scale Us-South Korea military drills.
The yuan, US dollars and euros were all accepted in the hotel. In fact, it appeared the only currency not taken was the won, North Korea’s currency. However, change was only given in won. It is very likely the North Korean government uses this method of exchange to increase foreign currency holdings. People who stayed at the hotel before told me the hotel entrance used to be much more heavily guarded than it is now, and it was much more difficult to make contact with local people.
Given the tight media and information controls that North Korea is known for, I was surprised to receive many foreign channels in my room, including the BBC, CNN, CCTV News and some other Chinese and Russian television channels. My friend said that local people can only watch three TV channels and cannot surf the Internet at all.
After eating three similar meals in Pyongyang, I decided to take everyone to a better restaurant, known for its Korean barbecue. Local people recommended the Koryo Hotel, also among the best four hotels in the country. We ordered lamb, beef and dozens of bottles of drinks to celebrate our wonderful start of the journey. We were glad to eat some fresh meat as well: most of the previous meat we had encountered was frozen.
Feeling a little tipsy after the dinner, although it was almost midnight, no one wanted to go back to their room and go to sleep. Instead, we went to a KTV club to experience what wealthy North Koreans do for entertainment after work. Karaoke, already a major hit in the Chinese and Korean cultures, not only brings people closer, but it’s also a good way to release nervousness and stress. Nobody sang louder than our guides.
Our second night in Pyongyang, we went to a local restaurant. The waitress brought over menus and we found ourselves desperately looking for vegetables. None of the restaurants we visited had many greens. Cucumber, cabbage and little green peppers were all we had for the entire trip. We ordered some dishes, including a raw fish/sashimi plate with frozen fish slices. Most dishes were way too sweet. I have a hunch that this is because North Koreans cherish sugar — it’s not very common and they wanted to impress us.
After dinner, we went shopping for fruits in local stores. In the stores we visited, some staff recognized us as foreigners and wouldn’t sell us anything. Some did take yuan for oranges and apples. The fruits we bought were pretty expensive, but it was worth the money for something we couldn’t find at the hotel. We also bought some cigarettes, Korean spices, and so on. Each store calculated the yuan-to-won exchange rate differently, but in general it was around 1:1,000, which was much different from the 1:15 rate at our hotel.
My friends who had traveled to the country previously said that North Korean agents and inspectors randomly check photos, deleting those that show the country in a negative light, but this did not happen to us. No one checked our cameras during the entire trip. The only thing our guides told us not to take pictures of were soldiers, because it is disrespectful to take pictures without their permission. I found that I was able to take pictures with soldiers after asking politely.
Most men in the capital and at other sites we visited were dressed in old style Chinese or Kim Jong Il style suits. Many wore leather shoes and carried small briefcases. However, I did not see one man with a Kim Jong Un haircut as reported in Western media. Women wore more diverse outfits than I expected, although many of them had similar hairstyles.
Interestingly, almost every adult wears a badge with Kim Il Sung and/or Kim Jong Il’s portrait over their heart. The badge seems very important to North Koreans and conveys a great respect to their leaders. I didn’t see any store offering such badges for sale. Although I repeatedly asked our North Korean friends for one, I was told that it was not possible.
For the rest of the trip, we went to the normal tourist spots such as Kaesong and the border between North and South Korea. Every place we went seemed to feature another monument to the ruling party’s achievements. On our last day we left the hotel at 7 a.m. and went shopping for some souvenirs in a mall that was empty except for us. After that, we were driven to the train station and our guides walked us to our carriage. The station was packed with people traveling to China, full of cigarette smoke and noise. As the train left the station, we all felt that we had enjoyed the trip, but we were ready to go home. Once again the train stopped at Sinuiju for about three hours, while the North Korean military officials and border inspectors went through their security checks. We arrived in Dandong at nearly 6 p.m. Beijing time, our journey to North Korea at an end.
On the trip, I realized that North Korea actually relies on tourism as an important aspect of its economy. Not only does it generate income, but it’s also a good way to increase foreign currency reserves. As North Korea opens up its tourism sector and more people visit the country, Pyongyang will have to deal with more outside influences. What tourists see and do in North Korea is still very controlled, but I was able to move around more freely than I was expecting, seeing more things and meeting more people than I thought I would. Currently, North Korea is doing a good job at maintaining the separation between foreign visitors and locals, but the regime will have to face the challenge of opening its doors to the outside world and the inevitable influx of external ideas and information that will come through.
Republishing by The Manila Times of this article is with the express permission of STRATFOR.