A Show Called North Korea
Whether hiking through nature or immersing yourself in another culture, travellers often want to feel like they are doing something “real”. Finding an authentic experience is a common reason to embark on a journey and to continue it.
Before going to North Korea, I had been travelling through India, where freedom for tourists is almost unlimited. While I didn’t exactly join an ashram and “find myself”, I felt I’d gotten a glimpse into another very real world.
I left India on a flight to Beijing, then took a 24-hour train ride to Pyongyang. With this began the immediate transition from unrestricted travel to carefully choreographed political theatre. The first contrast for me was that I was only able to go as part of a tour – a word that is poison to many backpackers. Second was that the tour, and all others like it, was carefully constructed to only show places and people that represent a “perfect revolutionary society”. What makes travelling in North Korea so fascinating and bizarre is the way tour guides try to convince visitors that the country is a utopia. The script is so strange that it becomes questionable how the people in charge ever thought outsiders would believe them.
At the centre of this show is Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. Acting as a showcase, the city is populated with the country’s most fortunate and successful citizens. With a skyline of grey highrises and tall monuments, Pyongyang looks its part as a totalitarian state capital. The construction of one of the world’s largest hotels is being undertaken in amongst the homes of average people, revealing that North Korea isn’t exactly living up to its socialist title. The government seems to be doing all it can to project to the world and its own people that its ideology has brought wealth to the country, but it is hard to pretend to be something you are not. The hotel is still under construction after more than 25 years, and at night all the lights go out and the city turns black.
During the day, there are few cars on the wide roads and huge public areas lay bare. As I walked through these streets with proud tour guides, I didn’t get the warm hopeful feeling they were looking for. Instead, I felt only half awake, my brain not processing it the way it would something real.
Since you can only leave your hotel as part of the tour, accommodation becomes a focal point of tourism. The Yanggakdo Hotel is where foreign tourists are put up, and its atmosphere is somewhere between a four-star hotel and a James-Bond-villain’s lair. It has every hotel facility that a person could ask for, from a bowling alley to a “massage” parlour. The Yanggkado is infamous for its creepiness. There is no elevator button for the fourth floor and the stairwell is blocked off. People speculate that it is where they spy on all the rooms or where they detain prisoners, but I never found out.
A few of us managed to find a service elevator that did go to the fourth floor and, tipsy from micro-brewed wheat beer, attempted to go there despite specifically being told not to. Half of us decided at the last second that this wasn’t a good idea and wimped out, but not before being caught by some hotel workers and getting screamed at in Korean. I spent that night half thinking I was going to get deported, aware that I was in a country where you don’t exactly need to do a lot to be thrown in jail. But I felt somehow safe, as though they wouldn’t want to break the whole illusion by imprisoning me. We found out later that an American war veteran who fought in Korea was being held prisoner in the hotel while we were there, so maybe my feeling of invincibility was slightly misguided. Like the city it resides in, this hotel seemed to be no more than cardboard cut-out, built to skew what was really there.
From the second I set foot in North Korea, I was immersed in a guided tour that was intense in both its schedule and propaganda. The way it works is that tour companies from outside North Korea work with the government tourism agency, usually with very little leeway on what they are allowed to do. Because of this I was accompanied by a western tour guide and two North Korean tour guides at all times and wasn’t allowed to leave the hotel without them.
Excursions were short but intense; we went to large gold statues of past leaders and watched performances of creepy children playing instruments. In the museums, the “sneaky American imperialists” didn’t exactly come out favourably in the retellings of history. Incredibly proud of the supposed prosperity of North Korean agriculture and industry, the tour guides also took us to a cooperative farm and various factories. All the stops were meant to change our preconceptions about the wealth of the country, but only served to reinforce these views. They could talk about economic output all they wanted, but it was all very hard to believe while we stared at barren fields and a halted production line. Everything we were shown was a calculated representation of how the North Korean government wants its country to be viewed, but the reality was plainly obvious.
In the Grand People’s Study Hall, Pyongyang’s gigantic library, the propaganda reached a whole new level of bizarre. We entered the massive building to find a lot of empty space, with few people to fill it. Conveniently, as we reached the counter, some English-language books that had “just been returned” fell down the chute. All of them were incredibly obscure, but I specifically remember one being called Commercially Important Sea Cucumbers of the World. Apparently, somehow, this was supposed to be impressive. We then entered a room full of computers and it was difficult to tell whether people were actually doing anything, or if they were just typing and then deleting words in the search bar of North Korea’s answer to Google. Keen to convince us that North Korea had the best learning facilities and most intelligent people on the planet, the tour guide coolly told us that the library held 30 million books.
I became confused about the purpose of having all of this propaganda forced on us. Our Korean tour guides might believe what they were saying, but the people in high government run background checks on tourists and must know about the outside world. Therefore, they must know that we were not going to believe any of the ridiculous claims they made. Even now, I can’t comprehend why they would go through all of the trouble of telling us about Kim Jong Il’s golfing abilities, but it certainly makes visiting a perfect level of surreal.
The one convincing thing about the North Korean tour, the only thing that seemed even slightly authentic, was the people. For the most part, we weren’t able to communicate with everyday people, as we didn’t speak Korean. However, those who we did meet seemed friendly and genuine. Sure, they are mostly workers that are hired to be kind to tourists, but unless they are incredibly talented actors, they seemed to enjoy spending time with us. When socialising with the Korean people who worked at the bars and restaurants, cultural differences didn’t seem to create much of a barrier, let alone the dominating regime that these people live in.
I felt particular rapport with one of our guides by the end of the trip. Ms. Ewe seemed fascinated by my life back home, and I felt we were on the same wavelength. It was refreshing to see that in the case of the specific citizens I met, totalitarianism didn’t destroy individual personality, and personal encounters like these can be a powerful thing. While talking to these people, I was convinced on some emotional level that North Korea must not be as bad a place to live as I had thought. Beyond all logic, I temporarily forgot about the widespread famine and human rights abuses that have crippled the country.
It was just after leaving on Pyongyang on another 24-hour train journey that I realised the search for seemingly genuine experiences doesn’t have to be the goal of travelling. The scene of a village almost untouched by external influences can be the ideal for some travellers, and I understand the appeal. However, the way a country adapts to accommodate tourists and how governments attempt to present their countries can be equally fascinating. The result is often a bizarre distortion of how these places functioned prior to tourism, but it could be argued that they are no less “real”.
In the case of North Korea, the façade and the gaping cracks in it, that tour was one of the most interesting things I have ever done. There are always ethical questions going through my head of, “What effect is tourism having on this country?” and “What is my role as an outsider?” and these are questions that, more often than not, never get answered. For now though, I don’t mind, as for me it’s the endless contradictions and uncertainties that make travelling such a unique experience.