Posted in travel

Pyongyang War Museum

In my previous posts about North Korea I’ve stayed away from the touristy parts and spoken about Paekdusan, watching a football game, and some of the hidden bits you don’t usually see. Today I’ll talk about one place that almost every visitor gets dragged to: The Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum.

When people talk about tourism in North Korea, one complaint is that you get dragged around to all the places the government wants you to see, which is largely true. You do get to see other stuff, of course, but you have to put up with doing the touristy bits. Thankfully, because it’s North Korea, even the touristy stuff is fascinating and weird.

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One my second day in North Korea I woke up somewhat hungover from the local (rather delicious) beer, and went for a 5am run. If you want a unique view of North Korea, trying running around the city in the wee hours. But then again, Pyongyang’s always pretty unique.

After breakfast my group was taken to participate in the obligatory tour of the museum dedicated to the Korean war. The museum is stunning and the guides unfailingly friendly, although their rhetoric grows tiresome. The whole thing is almost parodic. At no point could our friendly guide (above) say, “Americans.” She would always refer to “the Imperialist dogs” and talk about “the evil Japs.”

Even worse were the pictures of dead US soldiers proudly hanging here and there. Evidently, it wasn’t enough to have a collection of downed US places and the entire seized USS Pueblo pored over by countless visitors – they needed to have the actual bodies of young American men on display.

Throughout the visit, we are told the history of the Korean War from the North Korean side, obviously. It is fascinating and, quite frankly, refreshing to here a different perspective on history. What amazed me was that their narrative differs only slightly from ours. Although this country is famous for its bizarre propaganda, they tell more or less the same story about the Korean War, only with emphasis in slightly different places. They completely omit the fact, for example, that the war with Japan came to an end because of their sworn enemies, the US.

We were made to watch several ludicrous videos and listen to lots of stories. It was all a bit silly, and often it seemed the guides were embarrassed by holes in their own plots. Interestingly, they never told us this was “the truth” or that what we in the West believe is wrong. All they said is, “This is what we believe and we want to present our side.”

The museum seems to be visited by a lot of North Korean citizens. It is hardly surprising, as a healthy dose of indoctrination helps keep the populace in line. It felt a bit awkward, though, walking around amidst all the North Korean people, who were at that moment being told of foreign devils who raped their lands and want to come back and do it again. We did wonder whether our presence sent another message: At every junction, when there were lots of people, all the North Koreans would be held back and the foreign tourists allowed to go first… Perhaps the museum is sending a message about rude foreigners… Or perhaps they’re showing these people that the foreign devil has come to learn of his peoples’ evil and repent. Who knows.

Altogether, as bizarre as it was, North Korea’s museum was enlightening and, like everywhere else in the country, as pleasant adventure.

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Posted in travel

Breakfast with Werner Herzog on a Volcano in North Korea

Last year I visited North Korea to run a half marathon on Mount Paekdu, in the remote north of the country. Most people correctly think of North Korea itself as a “remote” destination, so just imagine how far into the middle of nowhere you are in the north of the country, miles from Pyongyang.

To get to Mount Paekdu required a flight from Pyongyang’s wonderful new airport to the less impressive Samjiyon airport, which was an airstrip with a shed beside it. The tiny, ancient airplane made a very bumpy landing, barely skipping over the tree tops of the endless forest around us.

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Then came a long, bumpy drive through the mountains to Paekdusan. The roads in North Korea, it probably won’t surprise you, are far from smooth. They are in awful disrepair, and driving along we could feel every pothole.

At Mount Paedku we were unfortunately not able to see the spectacular views due to being in the clouds. It was freezing, too. I hadn’t anticipated the cold and wore only shorts and t-shirt, as in Pyongyang it was very hot and humid. The altitude was causing problems, and people – myself included – struggled to breathe.

After a heavy lunch (not well-prepared considering we were about to run 21km), we drove down to 2,000 meters and began the half marathon. I was caught off guard and didn’t realize the race was about to start, and sprinted the first 500 meters to get near the front. After 1km I was in 6th place, and stayed there for the next 20km. I finished well behind the 5th place runner and well ahead of the 7th.

What amazed me about this race – my first ever half marathon – was that I was totally alone in North Korea. There were no guides, no observers, no police. Just the runners, and even they were too far ahead or behind me. I was free to enjoy the clean air, the beautiful countryside, and the amazingly friendly locals waving from fields. I passed a troop of soldiers who all said “hello” and groups of farmers who cheers and shouted friendly greetings. I even danced with some old ladies. I was glad to be doing the marathon, but I would have loved to stop and spend longer with these people. It is so incredibly rare to spend time with normal North Korean people.

After the race we were taken to Kim Jong-il’s supposed birthplace, Paekdusan Secret Camp, which was beautiful, but no one was in the mood for tourist stuff. We were all nursing blisters and aching muscles. Here, we met kids on school trips, and other random people from around North Korea who’d made the pilgrimage – a real privilege in their eyes – to such an important historic location.

Then we went to the Pegaebang Hotel. We’d been warned in advance to bring flashlights and expect little in the way of water or electricity, and indeed, when we arrived, there was neither. The electricity would come on periodically throughout the evening, but mostly we were in darkness.

Dinner was less than impressive, but who can complain about quality of food in a country where people routinely starve to death? The locals I’d seen from the road and from the bus were painfully thin. We drank North Korean beer (excellent) and soju (not so excellent). The night ended very drunkenly with one of our tour guides. When drunk, they spoke candidly – one moreso than the other – and I won’t repeat facts that I learned here in case they could be traced back and the guides punished.

In the morning, breakfast was as unappetizing as the previous night’s dinner. In fact, it was a potato. As I sat looking over my sad, lonely potato, prodding it and wondering if it was even possible to eat such a depressing-looking thing, I noticed another man at the opposite side of the room. His face was familiar, but that didn’t strike me as unusual. In North Korea, there are few tourists and few tour companies, and we are all taken to several of the most important locations, so you start recognizing people, even if you never speak to them.

Still, though, he looked more than familiar… He, too, was sitting alone, staring at a boiled potato, rolling it around his plate. He seemed melancholy.

I left my potato on the plate and checked out, had a walk around the hotel, and then our tour bus took us to Rimyongsu Waterfalls. They were spectacularly beautiful. Not spectacular like the Victoria Falls, but in subtle, gentle, way. Again, we met more North Korean people travelling around their country on special permission from the government. They were so happy and playful, and seemed amazed that there were foreigners here. When my friend and I took a photo together, a large group ran over to get in the photo with us. Just as in rural China, everyone wanted a photo with the foreigners. One man, sadly, broke my toe as he jumped enthusiastically into the shot.

Passing the through the countryside, we saw the real beauty of this country, but also the deprivation. People looked very emaciated. The homes and businesses were simple, yet looked comfortable. All the trees had calculus written on them so that children could study as they walked to school (or, perhaps, went to work in the fields).

We saw a few more tourist spots and met lots more North Korean tour groups, then flew back to Pyongyang to watch a football game. On the way to the “airport” at Samjiyon, our English tour group leader, who was usually off with other groups, said, “This is been a great day. I got to meet one of my heroes.” We asked who, and he said, “Didn’t you see him in the restaurant this morning? It was Werner Herzog.”

Werner Herzog! Of course! I was furious with myself. I’ve always loved his movies and actually spent two years trying to get an interview with him for Beatdom. I couldn’t believe I’d sat and watched the man muse over his breakfast potato, knowing his face was familiar, and not realized.

The guide showed me an hilarious selfie he’d taken with Herzog. “He was so nice! He told me he’s here shooting a film about the volcano nearby.”

I’d had a great trip to Mount Paekdu and the surrounding regions, but I was heartbroken to realize that I hadn’t gotten a chance to speak with one of my heroes. If I’d been anywhere else in the world I would’ve canceled the flight back and stayed another few days to hopefully run into the man and speak with him about his movies (apparently he’d been incredibly friendly and spoke at length about his movies). Alas, this was North Korea, and you did what you were told.

Posted in essay, travel

Is it Safe or Ethical to Visit North Korea?

Recently you might have seen my posts about a trip to North Korea that I took last summer. If not, then I’m sure you’ve heard about the American kid who was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor there earlier this year. And if you’ve not heard about that, then I’m sure you know a few things about the world’s most secretive – and possibly the most oppressive – state.

There are then two questions you might want to ask before following in my footsteps and visiting the country. Those are:

  • Is it safe?
  • Is it ethical?

My answer to both questions is a resounding YES and I’ll explain why below.

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Is it safe to visit North Korea?

Given the recent news about Otto Warmbier, you’d be forgiven for thinking that travel to North Korea was unsafe right now. Why risk being sentenced to hard labor in a country where no one will ever be able to come visit you, right?

But remember that what Warmbier did was incredibly risky and foolish. Don’t get me wrong – I feel for the kid and his family – however, that doesn’t take away from the fact that he took an astonishing risk in a place where the punishments are well-known. Before you go to North Korea, you are warned to be respectful. Every environment has its risk factors. If you climb a mountain and jump around next to a ledge with no safety gear, you might die. If you screw around underwater on a scuba trip, you might die. Go on safari and mess with a lion? You’re going to die.

Warmbier made a mistake and was punished. It happens every day when people walk out in front of cars and it’s very sad, but we shouldn’t let that convince us that the experience of going to North Korea is somehow unsafe.

In fact, if you are polite and respectful, it is actually phenomenally safe there. There are no criminals targeting foreigners. People go to Thailand, Mexico, and Italy every day and don’t think of them as especially dangerous places, yet crime against tourists is pretty common – from petty theft to more serious stuff. In North Korea the only danger is yourself.

Having said that, if you are injured, North Korea doesn’t exactly have an abundance of quality hospitals. In order to get into the country you need pretty comprehensive medical insurance, and if something were to go wrong, you’d be glad of it. For anything major, you’d need to be medivacked to Beijing. My guides told me that in their many, many years of operation, nobody had been arrested or put in any danger, but one man had gotten sick and needed an emergency flight to a hospital in China.

People worry about war, too. Although the situation between North Korea and South Korea (or, indeed, most of the rest of the world) seems more tense than usual, it is still not an imminent threat to security. In the South, people don’t worry – Seoul is only a few miles from the DMZ, and North Korea’s artillery could do untold damage in the event of war, yet no one blinks an eye. No one is afraid of travelling to Seoul.

Last summer I was in Pyongyang when the two countries reached a huge escalation of tensions and began shelling one another as the world thought the Korean War was back on… Yet in the streets of Pyongyang, as in Seoul, life went on as normal. I sat and watched a football game between teams from North Korea and South Korea and the players even shook hands.

Humans are notoriously bad at risk assessment, and we perceive the oddest things to be dangerous. Travel to North Korea is statistically very safe, so don’t let that put you off.

 

Is it Ethical to Visit North Korea?

This is perhaps the greater question, and the one with a less clear answer. The primary argument against travel to North Korea goes like this: “The North Korean government is an evil, repressive organization that is a threat to world peace and its own citizens, and all travel money goes towards funding that organization.” There is also the claim that foreigners are playing into the hands of the North Korean propaganda machine by visiting the country, and that our presence there gives de facto support to the government.

The first point seems quite convincing, and indeed is a stated reason for many people who refuse to go, or chastise those of us who do. Yet I find it wholly unconvincing. For a start, the world is full of “evil, repressive” governments. I work in China, where the government has done myriad awful things to its people over its short history. It is arguably worse than North Korea, and yet the governments and companies of the world are eager to partner up with the Chinese government in order to make money of their own. We trade with China and visit China on holiday, and a chunk of this money goes to fund their repression of Tibet and Xinjiang, their censorship of the internet, their violation of human rights, and their absurd territorial claims in the South China Sea.

I pay taxes on books sold in the United States, and have given the US government money when living there or visiting as a tourist, and that money is party used to fund vicious wars and coups around the world, or turn their police force into a minority-murdered military unit. My point is that we cannot entirely rule out travel to North Korea on the premise that it funds their government unless we restrict travel to countries with particularly open, peaceful governments – and those countries are few and far between.

Moreover, while some money does directly go to the government, much money spent by tourists in North Korea is in foreign currencies and completely off the record. We pay our tour guides, for example, in tips that are never recorded. We buy food at stalls by the roadside that are unplanned stops, and no receipts are given. This money trickles down, not up. It goes to improve the lives of the people in North Korea, and not to fill the coffers of the government.

On that same line, I’d like to point out that the policy of isolation that the world (led by the United States) has taken against North Korea nearly since the end of the Korean War is largely what has caused its horrendous modern position. It was never allowed to function freely and to succeed, whereas South Korea was propped up and supported at all stages. We are partly responsible for the plight of the North Korean people and yet we continue to use them as a political tool – keeping them locked out of the rest of the world, hoping that they will starve sufficiently that they rise up and overthrow their government, whereupon we can replace the Kim dynasty with something pro-Western.

It is a despicable policy and I’m proud to have contributed to tourism in North Korea in a small way, as it helps the people there – something in which the rest of the world seems entirely disinterested.

As to the second point, regarding the appearance of foreigners in the country, I disagree that we are merely playing into the hands of government propaganda. Foreigners are widely demonized in North Korean history books, and our appearance in the country gives us a chance to show our human side. We can interact minimally with people and show ourselves as decent. When I was there, people responded shyly but positively to a foreign presence. It was much like being in rural China. Indeed, if tourists to North Korea act in a reasonable manner, we can effectively counteract government propaganda. Think of it as the diplomacy that otherwise doesn’t occur in North Korea.

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Conclusion

I see no good reason to avoid travelling to North Korea, if it is a place that interests you. I hesitated for a long time before going last year, but after thinking it all through I took a chance and went. It was one of the great experiences of my life, and I have no regrets. Obviously, it is not for everyone. Whilst there you do have to show respect to their leaders and listen to their perverse versions of history. If you’re not comfortable bowing at a statue of Kim Jong-il, I don’t blame you, but don’t go. However, I think it is important to be exposed to things which are outside our comfort zone. Sure, you can go to Thailand and get drunk on the beach… but some places in the world really open your eyes, and for me, North Korea was one of them.

Posted in Photography, travel

Northern North Korea

This is part three of a short series of blog posts about North Korea. Part one is here and Part two is here. In part one I complained about people selling their photos of North Korea as “illegal”… In the photos you’ll see below, there are lots of soldiers. Many of these photos would be considered illegal. But there isn’t nothing sensational about it… Beware what you read and how it is presented. You’ll also see pictures of normal people doing normal things. How often do you see that in mainstream news? Never, because it’s not as interesting as a single picture of a man in uniform. Yet I find North Korea’s true face – its human face – far more interesting.

Although I’d always been curious about North Korea, it was the opportunity to run a half-marathon there that finally drew me in. At the beginning of 2015 I’d made running my New Year’s resolution, and after a few months I was within sight of being able to run a half-marathon. I can’t even remember how I found out about it, but when I thought about running a half-marathon in North Korea it all just made sense.

On day two of the trip we got to run around Pyongyang a little bit for a warm up, and on day three we took a short flight up to Mount Paekdu, at the border with China. Mount Paekdu is a sacred place for Koreans. It is supposedly the birthplace of the Korean nation, and their mythical founder, King Tangun. To North Koreans it is particularly important, as Kim Il-sung based himself here during the fight against the Japanese, and it is also said – perhaps falsely – that Kim Jong-il was born here.

The flight was quite fun, although the plane came in too early on the runway and was bouncing over the tops of trees. When we came to a stop on the  tiny runway there was no airport – it was just a forest with a runway in the middle. It was also freezing, which I hadn’t expected.

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We were driven up the mountain, along winding little roads, but the top was completely shrouded in fog. Apparently the views over Lake Chon – the highest crater lake in the world, at the top of Mount Paekdu – are stunning, but we could barely see the lake. At the top it was unbearably cold and the air was hard to breathe, too. We kept losing people from the tour in the mist, and it felt genuinely dangerous.

Yet it was more or less from here that we started our half-marathon. We were running downhill, which helped. After fifteen minutes the runners were all spaced out along the road and we were all just running alone through North Korea – no guides, no police, no way of stopping us seeing the country freely. There weren’t many people around but every now and then we’d see farmers and old women come out from fields and forests to say hello, or pass a marching troop of soldiers. People stopped and waved or spoke to us, or offered us water, and one group of old women sang and danced as we run past. It felt good to interact with people without any supervision.

I finished the marathon in 1 hour 44 minutes, coming in 5th place.

After this we took a bus to Paekdusan Secret Camp, where the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army was based during their fight against the Japanese. The scenery here was absolutely stunning, and the history quite interesting, and there were students on school trips and old people visiting, but we were all too sore and tired to appreciate it.

We spent the night at Pegaebang Hotel, where there was infrequent electricity and cold water. The food, too, was awful. However, there was… Werner Herzog! The world renowned director was filming a movie at Mount Paekdu and was staying at the hotel, also musing over the single baked potato on offer at mealtime. How… Herzogian.

The next morning we visited the stunningly beautiful Rimyongsu Waterfalls, where we had some wonderful encounters with old people who’d come to visit. My friend and I tried to take a photo together in front of the falls, and some old North Korean tourists seized the opportunity to dart over and join us, and then their friends came… and then more and more… It was like being in China with all the people wanting photos taken with the foreigners. Except for some reason you don’t expect that in North Korea. In fact, you don’t really imagine people in North Korea ever having fun, but that was one of the eye-opening parts of the trip.

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Later we saw more giant statues of Kim Il-sung in more beautiful country, and more groups of children and adults and elderly people visiting to learn about the country’s history. Many of them had walked or bused over days or weeks to get here, and this was considered a reward for some sort of good behavior. A few of the students spoke English and seemed shy but still somewhat keen to interact.

Finally, we flew back to Pyongyang for the football game. The process of getting on the plane was bizarre – everyone had to dump their bags on a tractor, and then stand on the tarmac as a man with an AK-47 stood in front of us. “Who gets the first class seats?” someone asked. “Whoever runs fastest!” someone else confirmed. And then the rains broke… the skies exploded and we were drenched and everyone ran, leaving the man with the AK-47 helpless. Indeed, those who ran first got business- and first class. I guess that’s how communism works.

Posted in Photography, travel

Watching Football in North Korea

This is part two in a short series of blog posts about a visit I made to North Korea last summer. Part one is here.

Before getting into this post proper, I’ll address something in the news. A few days ago, when I posted my first story about North Korea, I addressed the spate of ridiculous news articles and photoblogs that we’re seeing online from people who have done tours like mine. They go into North Korea, take some photos, and then misrepresent them to the outside world, furthering the ignorance that surrounds the country.

Today, the news broke that Otto Warmbier, an American student who was arrested in North Korea, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. This is an awful punishment, and I feel for the guy and his family. He’s only 21 years old, and while it’s easy to say, “What an idiot!” I can’t help but feel that a 21 year old version of me would’ve been much smarter. 

People often say you shouldn’t travel to North Korea. Indeed, this sort of thing is a risk. Yet, as sad as it is to see something like this happen, the guy committed a stupid crime in North Korea and was punished in a fairly predictable way. If you choose to go there, please act respectfully, accept that you’re in North Korea, and you will be fine. Don’t be an idiot, and don’t give them reason to arrest you. It’s not that hard. 

I assume that North Korea took the action they did in order to secure some sort of trade with the West, who otherwise keep them cut off in the hopes of starving the country into a regime change. However it works out, I hope Mr Warmbier is returned home unscathed and hopefully a little less foolish.

*

Now, back to summer 2015.

On July 21st, I’d returned to Pyongyang after running a half-marathon at Mount Paekdu and was surprised to have a new addition to the itinerary. North Korea and South Korea were playing each other in a football (soccer) game at the world’s largest seated stadium – right in the middle of Pyongyang!

I love football so this was an exciting opportunity for me, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing live games. To watch a game in North Korea was beyond my expectations… especially when it was between North and South Korea – probably one of the most intense rivalries on earth, albeit not usually in a sporting sense.

On the bus from the airport to the stadium our guide informed us of some rather surprising news – the two countries were now at war. That’s right, North and South Korea had begun shelling each other and the news was reporting it as an actual outbreak of war! Later, back at the hotel we’d get to see news reports on the TVs in our rooms.

I lived in South Korea for three years so I was quite accustomed to skirmishes between the two countries. I simply looked the guide in the eyes, and then looked out the window at the streets and determined that this incident was no worse than any other. The US and South Korea weren’t about to bomb Pyongyang any time soon. This was business as usual.

When we got to the Rungrado (릉라도) stadium I found that the game was actually between a North Korean side, Daedonggang (대동강), and a South Korean side, Gyeonggido (경기도). Still, I didn’t know the two countries would ever allow their teams to compete like this.

The stadium itself was incredible to behold. Its 150,000 capacity, however, was not exactly tested, as perhaps less than a quarter of the stadium was filled. It was impeccably clean (like all of Pyongyang) and the people watching the game were very well-dressed. The stewardesses, as you will have seen above, were dressed beautifully in hanbok.

As shells fell over the DMZ and the world media speculated that the Korean War was back on (even in South Korea people were now worried), I sat in a stadium in North Korea, watching representatives from either country shake hands and play a good-natured game of football. There was no booing, no heckling, no hacking, no cheating… It was just good honest sport.

In the end, the North Korean side won 3-0, for which we were all thankful. Everyone was happy and peaceful leaving the stadium. I didn’t sense any ill-will but I didn’t want to find out what it looked like when a South Korean side won a game in Pyongyang.

After the game we went out for samgyeopsal and soju. North Korean soju is vile compared to its South Korean counterpart, and would give me one hell of a headache the next morning, as we prepared to head back to China.

Posted in essay, Photography, travel

Photos From Inside North Korea Pt.1

This is the first in a series of posts in which I show photos and tell stories about North Korea. The material comes from a trip I took last summer with Koryo Tours. I haven’t posted anything about the trip publicly until now because I didn’t feel right profiting from it. In North Korea, I saw and met a lot of wonderful people who are suffering because of the actions of both their government and others – particularly the United States. However, I keep seeing salacious stories on Facebook and elsewhere taken by people on similar tours which sell themselves as “illegal” and were “smuggled out” of the country. Some of them are good photos but generally I find them to be misrepresentations and exaggerations for the purpose of journalism. The way they are presented, whilst not outright lies, is intended to make the author/photographer appear more daring, and the country to appear darker and more terrifying. What I saw was the human face of the people – a side of the country we genuinely never see. It may not be as appealing as photos of soldiers or the lies behind “Floor 5 at the Yanggakdo Hotel,” but sometimes the truth lacks that cutting edge. I will be posting these photos over the coming days and weeks, and I hope that they act as a counterweight to the more sensationalist ones you’ll find in more mainstream publications. 

North Korea is famously a hermit state – an absolute pariah of the modern world. It barely trades with or communicates with the outside world, and its citizens can only leave under the strictest conditions, or by escaping illegally across one of its borders.

As such, we know very little about North Korea except what can be learned through satellite monitoring. Their propaganda is laughable, and any semblance of truth is hidden behind an impressive veil of secrecy.

Yet reporting on North Korea is big business. News agencies around the world regularly tell us what is happening in Pyongyang and elsewhere. They tell us who’s vying for power and who’s been recently executed. The only problem is, this is mere conjecture posing as fact. It is in some cases our best guess, and in many cases complete fabrication. Right-wing and left-wing publications are equally guilty. It seems that when it comes to North Korea, press standards go out the window – and that almost seems reasonable, given that North Korea itself has an entire lack of press freedom, and a comical propaganda machine.

Some information, though, does slip out. What’s more, one can actually get into the country and see for oneself what North Korea is like. Of course, journalists are banned… but the average person can, for a fee, visit North Korea and see what is hidden to most of the rest of the world.

Whether or not that’s ethical is up for debate. I danced with this issue for years before deciding for definite to go. On the one hand we’re funding the country’s repressive government, but on the other hand we’re giving money to an impoverished people. On the one hand we’re tools in their propaganda, but on the other hand we’re showing that foreigners are human beings just the same as them. Moreover, we’re seeing a side of North Korea that normally remains hidden to the world, dehumanizing its people and allowing our governments to use North Koreans as pawns in their war with the Kim Dynasty.

Last summer I went to North Korea for the half marathon on Mount Paekdu with Koryo Tours. I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang and toured the city for a few days. We flew up to Mount Paekdu and saw some of the sights there, ran the half marathon, and then returned to Pyongyang before taking a train back up through the country and into China.

Cynics say that in North Korea you’ll never see the *real* country. Those cynics haven’t actually been to North Korea, of course… so they don’t know. The truth is that of course you’re going to see what the government wants you to see, and you’re never going to get a tour of a North Korean prison labour camp. That idea is absurd. The guides on any tour to North Korea will show you what the government wants you to see – impressive statues and artwork, museums and restaurants, etc. But you do get to see more than that. You’re driving around the country, seeing life as it is. You see regular people doing regular things – old men playing chess, children picking their noses and playing games with each other, men and women going to work. It’s easy to forget… North Koreans are humans, too. Their government may be evil and life may be tough, but they are just like we are.

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Most people there are very shy around foreigners, and it’s easy to see why. They are told awful things about us that make them fearful. Yet some of them are curious. I speak a bit of Korean, having lived in South Korea for several years. Sometimes the guides would disappear and leave us in the middle of Pyongyang, surrounded by thousands of people going about their lives, and I would talk to people. They wouldn’t say much, of course, but it was fascinating. It’s an experience I never thought I would have, and that may cynics deny is even possible.

A lot of people, too, suggest that everything you see is staged. That may well be true in certain, limited cases, but for the most part you are viewing real life as it goes on regardless of the proximity of foreigners. For example, my room way up high in the Yanggakdo Hotel overlooked Pyongyang, and through my camera’s long lens I could see parts of the city that clearly were never intended for foreigners to view. Life goes on there as it does elsewhere. On the subway, even, you see people going about their daily life, and they’re shocked and fascinated by foreigners much the same as people in rural China. In the north of the country, where we did the half marathon, we saw people working in fields and walking along country roads. They looked thin, over-worked, and deeply impoverished. None of this was hidden. Sometimes we’d see something the guides deemed “embarrassing” to the country, and we’d be told not to take photos – like soldiers being moved around in carts pulled by donkeys.

At the end of the trip, upon leaving the country, guards come onto the train and check every passenger’s luggage by hand, and investigate cameras for illicit photos – ie pictures of soldiers, construction sites, etc. When the guard came to my cabin he was, like almost all North Koreans I encountered, military or otherwise, very friendly. He asked what I had in my bag and I said, “Just clothes.” He accepted that. When going through our phones and cameras he laughed and looked at pictures from back home instead, asking about our wives and families and pets. He didn’t care about the pictures we had that broke the rules. (The featured photo at the top of this page is an example of a “banned photo.” It features the statues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung without including the entirety of their bodies. This is the sort of photo other photographers sell as “illegal” and suggest is dangerous to take.)

North Korea is different from what you think. I’m not defending their government or its actions in any way. But this is a country of human beings – of bright and friendly and warm human beings – and we group them together as “North Korea.” We talk about going to war with them and being able to destroy them easily. In that scenario, who suffers? I’ll tell you: the same people who’ve been suffering for the past sixty-plus years.

 

Posted in update

The North Korea You Don’t See – Coming Soon

Once I’m done going through all these African photos I’ve been posting lately, I’m going to start working backwards and uploading older photos and travel stories. Next up is North Korea.

Last summer, I visited North Korea to run the Mt. Paekdu half-marathon. It was one of the most amazing and eye-opening trips of my life, and changed my attitudes towards politics and the world.

On that trip I got to see inside a country that few others ever have the chance of visiting, and saw into the lives of the people who lived there. You often see stories in the Guardian and elsewhere that sensationalize it, but these are filled with bullshit. People write stories and post misleading photos in order to make sell their article. I’m not trying to say my experience was more “authentic” or anything like that, but that these other photographers and journalists aren’t interested in the true face of humanity.

In North Korea I met real humans… That shouldn’t be remotely surprising, but it is for most people. When I posted my photos and stories on Facebook, the response from people – intelligent people – was one of total shock at how life goes on in North Korea. Of course, a tour will never take you into the gulags and ghettos, but you do see far, far more than you’d ever expect, and you do meet people from all walks of life in that forgotten country.

Every time I see North Korea come up in the news I feel sadness at how we treat them. There are so many countries in this world with terrible governments – so many who are worse than the Kim dynasty – and yet we single out North Korea for our own political reasons and we sanction them and isolate them. In the end, we want to use their people as a tool. We want enough people to starve and suffer that the population rises up and overthrows the government…

Then what?

Then we’ll have shown that they were always going to fail. That their way isn’t as good as our way. It’s artificial. It’s a contrived situation. I’m not a Kim apologist. I hope that one day he is overthrown and punished and that the people know some measure of happiness. But we are making them suffer through our actions and we call ourselves goddamn humanitarians for doing so.

Posted in essay

North Koreans are not their Government

It pisses me off when I hear the hate espoused for North Korea. People seem to forget that the people are not their government. It should be obvious but when I see Facebook threads about yesterday’s H-bomb test, it invariably comes to comments like, “Let’s bomb them!” from even semi-rational people. 

Even the most reasonable argue for sanctions because they forget that North Koreans are humans who suffer from these sanctions, and that it is because of sanctions and blockades that the government has developed its militaristic hardline in the first place. 

I visited North Korea last year and let me tell you that the people are people just like anywhere else. The children are the same as children in any other country, yet we conveniently blot them from our minds when picturing the hermit kingdom.  

 Travel to North Korea may be controversial but for me it was eye opening, like travel anywhere. If you don’t want to go there then fine, but don’t forget that these are people just like anywhere else and that our approach to “dealing with” the DPRK causes their suffering.