The following article, which looks at backpacking in North Korea, is an excerpt from my Amazon bestselling book. ‘The Travelling Ape: What Travelling (Nearly) Everywhere Taught Me about Humanity, Geopolitics, and Happiness’.
Country #78. There are few words that can accurately describe the enigma that is ‘The Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea’ (DPRK). Or what it is like to go backpacking in North Korea. So, for the sake of brevity, and for a far more accurate description of this truly remarkable country, I’ll simply refer to it as ‘Silly Korea’ from here on in. I was going to say stupid, but fear this post will be monitored and don’t want to upset Mr Kim.
For starters, any country that feels the need to include the word ‘democratic’ in its title is by definition not. Other countries that do the same include Algeria (117), Congo (162), Laos (157), and the DPRK (167). The numbers included in brackets show where these countries rank in The Democracy List. It ranks 167 countries. So you get the gist of my argument. You don’t see Norway feeling the need to call itself the People’s Democratic and Successful Socialist Republic of Norway (which would actually be quite fitting, given that it sits on the right side of almost all important issues).
But in Silly Korea, the use of the term ‘democratic’ takes the biscuit (what does that phrase even mean by the way?). I scarcely believed what I saw. Or anything people said, what they were doing, or what they were wearing. My week in Silly Korea was the most hard to fathom experience I’m likely to ever have. Like landing on a different planet, going back in time, or comprehending Leicester winning the Premier League in 2016.
Back In The USSR?
Visiting Silly Korea is the closest thing you can do to being transported back to Soviet Russia or communist China at their peak. And it’s also like being transported back into a sillier time. The rigidly enforced hardship of the North Korean people is staggeringly unnecessary. Especially when you compare Silly Korea to its more sensible sister to the south, where people live in relative freedom and prosperity.
The Korean peninsula was a unified country just 70 years ago, at the same level of economic development. One now has an average wage of around £30,000 per year; one of £1,000. One is amongst the most liberal countries in Asia; and one offers its citizens perhaps less personal freedom than any country in the world. One has among the highest living standards in the world; one the lowest.
In Silly Korea, citizens of the country have to do the following (arbitrary) things:
- Wear little red badges with pictures of either the ‘Eternal President’ Kim Il-sung, or his son and ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il. Those are their actual titles by the way.
- Wear similar clothes. Have largely the same haircut.
- Seemingly withhold any emotions they may want to feel. I didn’t see many smiles all week. Tragically, most North Korean citizens appear subdued, which is unsurprising given the far-reaching influence of the regime.
- Live in a society where the great leaders touch every element of daily life. Current and ‘Supreme Leader’ Kim Jong-un is on the front page of the news every day, and on every radio and TV station. Literally, at all times. Advertising is banned, so the only banners in the country are of the Supreme Leader.
- Resolve to accept that even comedians and TV personalities wear military uniform.
It’s clearly not the fault of the 25 million people living in this existence. There is no way they could know any different. If I had been born here, I would bloody love the supreme leader. So would you. The average person is force-fed a diet of propaganda. This propaganda implies that South Korea is desolate and poor. North Korea is one of the most powerful nations in the world. Silly Korea is regularly praised by the world’s media (I saw newspapers with fake quotes from western leaders). And so on.
It sounds horrible, but the only thing I hope is that those stuck inside never know about the reality of the rest of the world. Assuming they will never be free, that is. Luckily (unluckily) checkpoints all over the country make it hard to leave your city or province, let alone the country. From the perspective of the North, here reads the country’s glorious history:
- The Eternal President and founder of the nation Kim Il-sung forms the DPRK in the wake of WW2.
- Korea is split into the North and South, after the North resist the West’s attempt to colonise it.
- The glorious DPRK (I’ve stopped using Silly Korea out of retrospective fear of Mr Kim) fights the US imperialists and the South Korean puppet army from 1950-1953. It wins and defeats the West.
- Since then, DPRK has been progressing rapidly towards becoming the perfect socialist society.
This is what the Worker’s Party feeds its subjects. The propaganda in newspapers is hilarious, but also deeply depressing at the same time. The constant focus on the Korean War reflects the fact that the country’s history since then has been largely filled with stagnating living standards and famines (caused by western conspirators no doubt). While tough at times, backpacking in North Korea in some ways was the best experience of my life. Certainly the most eye opening. All I can say is: go if you want to experience the weirdest country on Earth. And go if you want some perspective on any ‘difficult’ situation you might face in your own life.
The Diary Of A Nervous Backpacker In North Korea
Monday: I met up with the Lupine Travel tour group at Dadong Train Station, China. (I use the term ‘backpacking’ in North Korea lightly in this post, given that you have to visit North Korea in a very strictly organised tour, indeed if you want to go at all). Our group leader, a Chinese man in his mid 30s called Brooklyn (presumably in honour of David Beckham’s son), told us the ground rules before our border crossing. No religious materials, no literature of any kind about Korea, and no “offensive” materials allowed on your phones. Why? We spent three hours on the train, having all of our belongings inspected by DPRK border officers.
They searched everyone’s bags inside and out. They checked the photos on our phones. They almost threw someone off the train who dared to bring a ‘Korea’ Lonely Planet with them. It was the strictest search I have ever been involved in. Which is ironic. It’s the equivalent of having a bouncer on the door of an exclusive nightclub, making it very difficult to get in. One in one out. Only when you get inside, you realise the exclusive club you were trying to get into is just a run-down dive bar.
We rolled through the countryside, mainly past endless rice paddy fields, staffed by workers in Soviet attire. The countryside itself was surprisingly lush. Rolling hills gave way to crystal clear streams and thick meadows. It was actually quite beautiful. Notably, there were no cars, only bicycles (making the country accidentally environmentally friendly). Each town, and seemingly every building, had portraits of the mystical great leaders. The landscape was dotted by endless Soviet slogans. At least I assume they were, as all were written in Korean. But I doubt any of them said “enjoy your life and personal freedoms, love who you want, and fulfil your personal desires”. Rusty tractors and skinny cows dotted the paddy fields. We chugged past crumbling Soviet steam engines.
Arriving in Pyongyang was surreal. In fact, there wasn’t a moment of the trip that felt normal. Our hotel: a 42-storey building built on an island in the Taedong river. Our Korean guides made it clear we were not to leave the hotel. I certainly wasn’t in the mood to test the limits. This was the hotel where a 20-year-old American student stole a poster and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour. Poor Otto Warmbier was delivered back to the US months later in a vegetative state, where he died shortly afterwards. While I would say stealing propaganda was an unwise move in a police state, clearly the punishment here does not fit the crime.
The hotel itself was surprisingly fun, save for our rooms apparently being bugged. And the aforementioned poster incident looming over us just a tad. It was clearly designed by someone with limited knowledge of the West, but guessing what everyone likes over here. A labyrinth of bizarre corridors with low ceilings led to the following individual activity rooms: Pool (the game), Pool (a pool), bowling, karaoke, darts, and a hairdressers. An Aussie guy on our group, Alex, asked for a “Kim Jong-un”. The barber sadly declined.
The activities would have to wait for another night, due to tiredness and/or because I was scared of everything. I kicked back with some of DPRK’s finest TV. Some light-hearted comedy. The comedians were dressed in military uniform. And making jokes in front of a big screen with nuclear rockets being launched. The next show had a rock band. Also wearing the same attire and against a similar backdrop. It was all a parody of what I was expecting. Small handed man-child Donald Trump has since claimed to have solved the Korea issue. I’m doubtful that nuclearisation, such an integral part of DPRK’s national identity, will be switched off overnight.
Most of the ‘sightseeing’ in Pyongyang involved being taken to statues, monuments, and memorials of the leaders. We were told endless stories of their achievements. And even allowed to take photos of their statues (from specific angles and in designated places. And no funny faces).
Tuesday, The DMZ: Today’s big trip was to the demilitarised zone (DMZ). It was conspicuous for being the most militarised place I’ve ever been. It’s a strip of land a few miles wide separating North and South Korea. You can see big flags of both countries looming on each side. Memories of prancing around Gangnam drinking soju last week seemed distant indeed (even though my initial memories of these events were already fairly hazy).
A Korean military man said lots of angry things to our tour group (through a softly spoken interpreter, which was a nice juxtaposition). He got animated. He explained to us that the DPRK will one day “crush” the United States . He did a fist into open palm motion, to really drive home his argument. Whatever your thoughts about the US (particularly in the current climate), and even though some of the military general’s points were valid, I felt I needed to speak up.
I gently explained to the guide that “not many people in the world care much about a war 70 years ago, which was essentially pointless and resulted in lots of needless deaths. Most Americans probably don’t know what the war even was. If they did, they wouldn’t be too scared about the DPRK either. The US has a population 12 times the size of the DPRK and spends more on its military than the next 20 or so countries globally combined. In any case, any conflict between the pair would result in the obliteration of large swathes of South East Asia”.
I obviously didn’t say any of these things, or anything at all. But Christ, imagine. I’d most likely be settling into life in the gulag as we speak. But let’s pray a war doesn’t happen. These guys are all willing to die for their country. And for all the talk of rapprochement, the fate of this region effectively depends on the mental states of two young children.
A trip to ‘The National Library’ followed. It is huge and grand. It’s also filled with lots of people pretending to do stuff. In the media room, I picked up a laptop. It weighed nothing and was made of cheap plastic. I opened it. It had no keys. We got shown a number of classrooms where bewildered extras pretended to read books and learn things.
Karaoke back at the hotel later was actually great fun. Every few songs the Korean bar staff would choose a song, sing, and show us how to follow the dance moves. The music: a mash up of 80s synth rock mixed with soulful Soviet undertones. Lovely stuff. I also got to taste the beer:
Local beer: Unknown name, label not in English.
Plus points: It was a beer, and tasted very similar to the main Chinese beer, Tsingtao.
Negatives: On closer inspection, the bottles actually said Tsingtao underneath the hastily glued on North Korean labels covering this up.
Overall score: 4/10.
Wednesday: A trip on the Pyongyang Metro was notable a) because we were only allowed to go on for two stops and b) because one of our tour group got left behind. Our guide did not look happy. Their biggest fear is anyone getting a true glimpse of daily life here, without a guide, and the strict limitations on what you can do or see. Later back in the hotel, the tourist looked quite sheepish indeed.
The day’s biggest highlight was the Pyongyang Circus. The acts and acrobatics were genuinely the best I have ever seen. There is probably good reason for this: I feel for any of the acts that made a mistake. The most surreal bit, apart from a sad interlude where they made a monkey ride a goat, were the clown sketches. Like everything here, even the circus was used as propaganda. In this case, the clowns were dressed as South Korean soldiers. Who were not too surprisingly portrayed as bumbling buffoons, to great laughter. Having just visited DPRK’s space-age neighbour myself, it was clear that most North Koreans don’t have any real knowledge of what life is like across the border.
Thursday, ‘Victory Day Mass Dance’: Today’s highlights were the Victory Day ‘Mass Dance’ and a visit to the ‘Fatherland Liberation Victory War Museum’ (actual names). There were huge celebrations in honour of DPRK’s alleged victory over the West. At the mass dance, tens of thousands took to the streets. The women wore bright dresses. The men wore their normal clothes: Suit trousers, a tie, a short-sleeved shirt, and a short back and sides haircut. Together, they all danced in almost perfect precision to the blaring music (same style as earlier, soulful Soviet mashup).
We were allowed to join in. I didn’t. The prerequisite amount of poison I need to consume before dancing was unfortunately not available. Some of the Aussie guys danced with the locals. The locals looked nonplussed by their presence. Apparently this is one of the only events where it’s vaguely possible for Koreans to meet a partner, so the Aussies were likely wasting their precious time.
The war museum was absurd, both in scale and content. Aside from the (predictably) huge number of false statistics and fictitious stories about the impeding collapse of the United States, some parts were just flat out gruesome. One section had Madame Tussauds-esque waxworks… of dead American soldiers, gore and all. One had a magpie picking at a dead US soldier’s brain. The strict no photo policy made sense.
Friday: By the final day, I was kind of desperate to get out. Backpacking in North Korea was challenging. Four days of endless propaganda were taking their toll. God knows what it must be like for those who have endured it for years. I really can’t express the sympathy I feel for those unlucky enough to be stuck here. I’m sure this sounds condescending, and by definition probably is. But I’ve been to plenty of economically underdeveloped countries, which were full of laughter and joy, and in many senses richer than their western counterparts. Not the DPRK.
We had a visit to the Mausoleum of the Eternal President (Kim Il-sung) and his son (of Team America fame) Kim Jong-il. Unquestionably, this was the most surreal experience of my life. For starters, we all had to wear suits and remain silent. The palace where the leaders’ bodies lie is one of the grandest and largest you could imagine. Like most communist countries, the rules of equality and wealth redistribution don’t appear to extend to everyone in practice.
On one of the travelators through the marble palace, necessary as the place was so vast, we passed multiple framed photos of the leaders. These mainly consisted of the leaders pointing and smiling at something, with several men standing with clipboards behind, in a military base/science lab/factory. For those who want to get a good idea of this, check out ‘Kim Jong-un Looking At Things’.
The tombs were like a scene from James Bond. There were faceless henchmen everywhere you looked. Without sounding dramatic, I did actually start to feel a bit like James Bond (the Pierce Brosnan bond, the most underrated and objectively best). Dare I say it more than usual. We all had to move our backs towards the ground in a bodily movement widely accepted to signify respect and deference (a bow). In fact, we had to bow several times, at the imbibed bodies (or waxworks?) of the two dead humans. We were shown rooms full of all of the incredible gifts and honours bestowed upon the great leaders. Mainly by the Workers Party or the DPRK military. And also some from Russia and Venezuela.
On the way out, local Koreans walked into the mausoleum. Hearing and seeing groups of women wailing, sobbing uncontrollably, and even collapsing at the sight of the deceased leaders was hard to believe. The emotion looked real to me, but like everything we saw, I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a set-up. It was the most surreal moment, of what was already an incredibly surreal trip backpacking in North Korea.
Back To China, Land Of The Free?
I watched the endless grey slabs of Soviet-style housing blocks glide into the distance as we took the train back from Pyongyang to Dadong. The inspection on the way out was even more thorough than on the way in. Our photos were checked. Ones that were deemed not acceptable were deleted, mainly those showing glimpses of real North Korean daily life. After the three-hour check was complete, a guard chillingly called my name.
He asked for the “book”. On the way in to DPRK, a guard found a leaflet on Buddhism in my bag. It was given to me by a monk who taught me meditation in Myanmar (I realise that sentence is one of the most pretentious travelling things I’ve ever said by the way). Religion is banned. After consulting guards, he gave it back to me. I was going to chuck it away at the first opportunity, but a group member said I couldn’t lose it. And he was right. On the way out of DPRK, the guards wanted to check I hadn’t distributed it to any Koreans, lest it corrupt them. Needless to say, I thanked God that I got out of this sticky situation. Or would have if I wasn’t an atheist.
We all felt genuinely relieved to cross the border. Arriving back in China, it felt like we were back in the land of the free. Which in itself, was a touch ironic. Would I recommend backpacking in North Korea? Well, any trip there will be one of the most interesting and memorable of your lives, if you can put up with the fear and lack of freedom. A ‘normal’ backpacking trip might be more appealing for most.
For more anecdotes and views on the world, informed by travelling to over 80% of the world’s countries, check out my bestselling book. ‘The Travelling Ape: What Travelling (Nearly) Everywhere Taught Me about Humanity, Geopolitics, and Happiness’ is out now in eBook, paperback, and hardback. Search for ‘The Travelling Ape’ on Amazon to purchase the paperback or hardback in your home country.