BY JON ALEXANDER
“We need more exclusives,” our go-getting Editor was demanding at a Country Squire dinner last summer. “Come on, people, let’s do something brilliant. Let’s publish something that no-one else is putting out. We only get one life. How about North Korea? Who’s up for it?”
I admit that back then our Editor’s request was met with a long and stunned silence. “Have another glass of wine, Dom,” was all he eventually got back as a response. But here we are six months on and, well, we have a CSM Exclusive. From North Korea.
So, who dared venture north of the demilitarised zone?
Well, fair enough, the Editor was having a metal brace drilled into his leg bone (to his credit, he’s forever visiting bullet-dodging hellholes like Caracas) and, oddly, other CSM journalists were rapidly otherwise occupied. I was far too busy with things to head off to the land of the Little Rocket Man. In any case, I had heard the food’s awful and I cannot live without Twitter for more than a few hours, let alone days…
So, our good and fearless friend, the mild-mannered solicitor from Stalybridge, Ian Justin Owen stepped up to the plate and ventured there. After all, he was fed up with the Costa Blanca and Ibiza… Ian had recently been out on holidays to Iraq and Iran… just the man for this crazy adventure.
“I fancy a short break away,” was Ian’s no-nonsense response. What a star!
“I quite fancy North Korea. Standard holidays are just so boring.”
In a country that is ruled under an iron fist, where starvation and inhumane conditions run rife, what made Ian bite the bullet and risk going there of all places? I interviewed Ian for a full North Korea debrief after he had successfully completed his North Korea mission:
Ian Owen (right) with his tour guide Mr Li (left).
Q: Firstly, I suppose the obvious question, why North Korea?
Ian: I’ve been drawn to Countries that have seen significant change or conflict in recent history, appreciating the tangibility of events that have happened in my lifetime and being able to stand in a place or at a site that may have featured in news bulletins as I was growing up.
My penchant for venturing to daring places has taken me, in recent years, across Central America, the Middle East and to different parts of Africa.
North Korea, as it is now, was therefore a no brainer. For anyone with even a passing interest in World news events, it is indisputably interesting as a destination. I think it is so fascinating because we hear so much about it but, at the same time, know very little about the place.
I’ve a feeling that North Korea will change eventually, and I wanted to at least taste what little part of the current culture might be revealed to me as a tourist.
Q: If any reader is seriously considering going, can you tell us what steps they need to take to do this?
Ian: Get in touch with one of the limited number of accredited tour group operators. As tour group numbers are relatively small (there were 22 people in my group last September), you’ll find that tour companies are more than happy to personally answer any queries that you might have and are run by people with a genuine and passionate interest in the DPRK.
This was certainly my experience with Lupine Travel, who specialise in tours to a number of different ‘off-the-wall’ destinations.
They will walk you through the entirety of your preparation, including the bulk visa application process, airline or rail ticket bookings, accommodation, etc. In other words – all arrangements (in my case) from Beijing forward, will be handled by your tour company.
All that was left for me to organise was my multi-entry Chinese visa application.
Q: Did you have any concerns about going? What did you do to overcome those concerns?
Ian: When I decide on a particular destination, I will read about, and around it, assiduously. I simply wouldn’t choose to travel to a place where, my own research suggests that I would be placing myself in real danger.
In the case of North Korea, I took my lead from Lupine Travel, who obviously have contacts on the ground in Pyongyang. I looked for stats on the incidence of foreigners detained in the DPRK – no British person has ever been detained there, as far as is publicly known. I figured that, as long as there was a staffed UK Embassy in Pyongyang, there was no imminent danger to me.
However, as the departure date grew closer, throughout late August and into the opening days of September – with the nuclear missile testing programme entering a new phase and the rhetoric between Trump and Kim Jong Un becoming increasingly hostile in tone, I must admit I had a couple of wobbles, prompting a couple of emails to Lupine along the lines of “are you absolutely sure that this is still going to be OK?”.
In the end, I was suitably assured. However, my elderly parents were evidently more concerned to the point of strongly suggesting that I have a week in Beijing and leave it at that.
It’s been a good few years since I ever followed Mum and Dad’s advice!
Facing towards the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and the unfinished 330 metres high Ryugyong Hotel behind it. Picture taken from the Monument to the Workers Party Founding.
Q: How long did you go for in the end?
Ian: Five days and four nights based in Pyongyang, with another day each side for the sleeper train journeys from Beijing and back.
Q: North Korea is known for its rather strict policies, were you given a list of do’s and don’ts?
Ian: Yes. In the run up to the trip, my tour company emailed me a list of things to be aware of, including advice about what to take with you, expected standards of behaviour and information about what we could expect from the tour.
On arrival in Pyongyang, where we as a group were effectively handed over to the Government-run DPRK Travel Service, our guides were very specific about their expectations of us – suggesting that we may well run into ‘problems’ if, for example, any of us were to decide to take a stroll beyond the grounds of the Yanggakdo (The Yanggakdo International Hotel is the largest operating hotel in North Korea). They were also very keen to point out that we should regulate our alcohol consumption, the night before our morning visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s mausoleum), out of respect. And, they did indeed take steps to smell our breath before we left the hotel.
Traffic Officers sharing a joke in Pyongyang.
Q: How did you travel?
Ian: From Beijing, there are basically two options, fly or get the train. To prolong and enhance my experience, I chose to go on the overnight sleeper to Dandong, the border down North of the Yalu River, before being handed my visa and clearing customs to catch the next sleeper to Pyongyang.
Conditions were basic, with no air con and no available bottled water, but the journey gave me a chance to get to know other members of my group. They were predominately British, with a Spanish guy, two Norwegian lads on a final extra leg of their Trans-Siberian Railway adventure and a Brazilian couple on a round-the-world travel blogging honeymoon.
Once in Pyongyang, we were collected each morning in a modern, air-conditioned coach for our daily rounds of sightseeing.
Q: Where did you visit?
Ian: We were collected from the Yanggakdo each morning around eight and taken to a variety of sites around Pyongyang and elsewhere, in tightly scheduled daily tours.
We visited many places, including Panmunjom, otherwise known as the ‘truce village’ in the Demilitarized Zone by the heavily guarded border with South Korea. Here we visited the North Korea Peace Museum, the temporarily erected building, in which talks were conducted between American and North Korean forces in July 1953, leading to the armistice agreement that brought about a cessation of the fighting in the Korean War.
No peace treaty was ever entered into, meaning that the two Koreas remain technically at War.
The tour didn’t miss out on any opportunity to emphasise the official Kim version of post Japanese colonial era history, as exemplified by our trip to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang.
Decorated with more marble and gold trimmings than one might expect to find in a glitzy Dubai shopping mall, this enormous building and grounds in the centre of Pyongyang sets out to illustrate to the visitor how the Great Leader had almost single-handedly seen off the occupying Japanese forces during the Second World War, before going forward to vigorously and victoriously defend the DPRK from the attempted invasion by the Americans in 1950-53, via the Imperialists’ ‘puppet’ state South of the border.
The majestic centerpiece of the museum is a huge dome shaped part-sculpture / part-painting, depicting in vivid technicolour detail, a battle in the Korean War, with American soldiers being trounced in great numbers in the victorious battle, with Korean forces emerging largely unscathed.
A revolving platform allows visitors to see the whole spectacular panorama unfold.
A visit to the Grand Monument at Mansu Hill requires from the visitor a higher than normal degree of reverence and the laying of flowers (which may be conveniently purchased at a nearby florist) at the feet of the 22 metre high bronze statues of the Great Leader and Dear Leader, both looking out across the city.
Q: Where really stood out for you?
Ian: A two-hour drive north west of Pyongyang, on an empty highway, took us up into the beautiful mountain region around Myohyangsan, the site of one of the most revered locations in the DPRK.
Here, in mock Buddhist influenced architectural splendour, lies the International Friendship Exhibition, the repository of all of the diplomatic gifts received by the Kim dynasty from their friends, allies and other sympathisers from around the World.
Foremost amongst the publicly funded gifts were luxuriously appointed customised train carriages and a private airline (around which that part of the museum must surely have been built), donated by Stalin back in the Fifties.
From planes, trains and automobiles to tea sets and a tablet computer donated by Associated Press, it is possibly to chart a diminution in the extravagance of the gifts donated since the glory days when the Soviet empire appeared to dominate much of North Asia, East Europe and Africa and its leaders could engage in a profligate group ego massage, at the expense of their respective citizens, to the present day, where the World is more skeptical of the grandson, Kim Jong-un’s ability to equal the stature of the Great Leader (despite the much remarked characteristic similarities to his grandfather).
Other than that, and the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where we were led into the temperature controlled rooms housing the bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, after an hour long ritualistic journey along a slow moving kilometer-long travellator under the huge paintings of both men, I took a simple pleasure in being transported throughout the beautiful Countryside, trying to grab photographs of the distant towns and villages and people riding bicycles or carrying harvested crops over their shoulders.
For me, the ‘otherness’ of this Country presented an excitement of its own, the eerie strangeness of the Capital city, like a futuristic film set of multi-coloured Lego structures and sparsely occupied streets, with its many different buildings without a speck of commercial activity anywhere in sight.
View over Pyongyang from the Grand People’s Study House, Pyongyang.
Q: We hear lots of rumours about how prominent images of the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Un are – statues, pictures, paintings. How much did his image dominate the areas you visited?
Ian: Depictions of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung and the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il are everywhere you look. On every public building, in every room to which the public have access, every restaurant, every bar, every road junction, everywhere.
There are slogans and banners reminding people that the deceased leaders’ ‘may be gone, but they are still with us’.
And, where there aren’t portraits or statues of the avuncular looking Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, there are billboards and posters acclaiming military might and advocating death to the Imperialist Americans.
Q: Were there any moments over there where you suddenly felt that you may get into trouble, or regretted being there?
Ian: About a mile after crossing the Yalu River, I became very aware of the soldiers lined up along the platform at Sinuju Station, where we would become more closely acquainted with them over the course of the next two hours, as they demanded that every person in every compartment on every carriage turn out their luggage – before paying particular attention to every electronic device in our possession.
During this inspection, we were relieved of our passports and visas, which would not be returned to us until the end of our trip.
The methodical robustness of the search and the neatness of the officers’ uniforms left me with the clear impression that these people weren’t messing around. At this point, any sense of theme-parkification of this holiday to North Korea evaporated and I automatically began to feel that sense of requisite compliance.
There were points, in the dead of night, lying in my hotel bedroom, where I would have the most vivid dreams about family and loved ones. On reflection, perhaps irrationally, I entertained paranoiac thoughts that I was essentially alone, in a country many miles away, where had I done something, howsoever inadvertently, to draw the attention of the authorities, that I could be ghosted away.
I certainly didn’t feel free.
One to one conversations with local tour guides in the first couple of days were fraught with the feeling that my responses were perhaps being monitored for signs of subversion, prompting a couple of seconds filtration between what were, in retrospect, perfectly innocent questions.
Q: Were you able to interact with locals who weren’t your guides?
Ian: Only to a very limited extent.
Apart from hotel staff, shop assistants (in the Government-run gift shops that we were regularly and routinely taken to), waiters, waitresses and drivers, we had virtually no interaction with regular local people.
The only exceptions to this were when we were taken to see and participate in one of the ‘Mass Dances’ in a public square in Pyongyang on the 9th of September, a public holiday to mark the ‘Day of the Foundation of the Republic, whereupon Kim Il-sung had been proclaimed as the leader of North Korea on that date in 1948, and when we took a ride on the Pyongyang Metro, where we were exposed to supposedly ordinary members of the public on the platforms in the carriages.
On these occasions, contact was essentially limited to exchanging of smiles, nodding pleasantries and following dance steps, with no actual opportunity for conversation.
Boy soldiers on training ground outside a Middle School in Pyongyang.
Traffic Officer in Pyongyang, with hardly any cars to direct.
Q: I always imagine, perhaps incorrectly, North Korean food as being sparse and full of jelly. What foods were available there? Did you have a particular dish you enjoyed?
Ian: It’s true that a tour to North Korea is not gastronomically exciting. It must be reported that food was basic in content and pitiful in portions.
We were only very rarely treated to meat or fish (usually anchovies) at the restaurants to which we were taken, who were always expecting us, and, in one case, switching the lights on as our coach entered the car park.
This gave cause to reflect on the food situation for ordinary people living in the DPRK. I wondered what their diets might consist of, if given that we (the tourists) were being shown the best of everything and our platters fell somewhat short of our expectations.
Even though we as a group had only spent a relatively short period of time in North Korea, when we finally arrived back in Dandong, each and every one of us literally ran to a nearby KFC, the second we had cleared Passport Control at the railway station.
Deep fried chicken had never been devoured quite so enthusiastically as it was that afternoon.
In accordance with the traditions of Korean hospitality, the number of dishes presented to a guest reflects the importance that is attached to them by their host. We were clearly therefore considered to be extremely important guests, at this Kaesong restaurant where we were taken for lunch, as we were presented with the maximum of 12 individual dishes. That said, the assortment of noodles, tofu, rice, seaweed and beans didn’t make for the most spectacular meal that any of us had ever had.
Q: What have you taken from this experience?
Ian: I had thought that this trip would answer a lot of questions that I had had about North Korea, its people and the Kim regime.
If anything, my visit left me contemplating more questions than I had had before I went.
Fundamentally, I was left with a great many questions about the people that I had seen. I had grown to know something of the character of a couple of my guides and found them as individuals to be genuine, family-orientated and interesting people who, I think, largely as a result of their trusted positions which brought them into contact with people from around the World, had their own anxieties about the prevailing international tensions, which made them warm and appealing, if not too expansive in the course of our discussions.
Apart from the odd farm worker or random cyclist viewed at distance from a train or bus window, who may have been living through a different set of problems in the countryside, I thought of the people I saw in Pyongyang – who are necessarily of a higher societal order (the closer one is permitted to live to Pyongyang, the higher up the line of entitled patronage from the Workers Party, they are considered to be) – unsure, from their expressions and demeanour, as to whether they are happy, depressed, intimidated or scared by the circumstances of their existence.
I even started to think more about Kim Jong-un. Wondering whether, under the iconoclastic weight of legacy of his grandfather and father, he might have sometimes felt vulnerable and as though he wanted to chuck it all in and run away from his responsibilities and exile himself to a tropical beach somewhere, escaping the enormous pressure of maintaining the unwieldy smoke and mirrors propaganda paradigm, of which his grandfather was the lead architect.
Rush hour in Pyongyang. Reunification Avenue.
Q: Given the opportunity, would you go again?
Ian: I am already thinking about my next trip. Having spent most of my time in Pyongyang, I would very much like to go to see other parts of the Country.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Ian: I would urge anybody reading this to at least consider visiting North Korea. I know that there are those who argue that foreign tourism contributes towards a brutal regime, but the reality is that the world is different and is there to be explored whatever the circumstances.
Q: Thank you Ian for the interview. We look forward to hearing about your future journeys here on Country Squire Magazine. Good luck.