North Korea Diary

Saturday 14th April

Where are the cars? Quiet streets greeted us in Pyongyang

Where are the cars? Quiet streets greeted us in Pyongyang

We flew into Pyongyang aboard a Air Koryo flight from Beijing. The customs officials dissected my bag with great enthusiasm but they only seemed to disapprove of my Lonely Planet guide to China. I for was mighty relieved as I hadn’t endured an elbow depth cavity search since that infamous trip to Madrid in 1999, and it wasn’t keen of a repeat here. I still have nightmares when I hear Eurotunnel mentioned.

Once we met our guides we boarded our coach. My first impressions of Pyongyang were that it was incredibly clean and that there were very few cars on the road. It wasn’t long before we stopped at the enormous Arch of Triumph. This stands at 60m tall, larger than it’s Paris counterpart and commemorates “Kim Il Sung’s victory over the Japanese imperialists”.

Having walked a few hundred yards to take a picture of a seemingly innocuous mural on the side of a nearby football stadium, I suddenly noticed around ten women in army uniform running towards towards me blowing whistles and pointing in my direction. At this point I began to mentally soil my brain pants with fear. Could it really be true that I was about to get kicked out of the country after only an hour?

I was more worried about what our Korean guides would say as we were told it was important to “gain their trust” and that they would get into trouble if I did something wrong. Playing the dumb tourist (it wasn’t hard) I tried to ignore it all and I think they soon realised that I hadn’t been happy snapping what they thought I had been and called off the emergency.

Typical Pyongyang tower blocks

Typical Pyongyang tower blocks

It was an exceptionally cold and windy day and it wasn’t long before we were taken to our hotel to recuperate. We were staying at the prestigious Yanggakdo Hotel. This is one of only a couple of hotels where foreigners can stay in Pyongyang and is located on a convenient islet in the middle of a river. This meant we couldn’t walk around the city on our own and mix with the locals.

Sunday 15th April – Kim Il Sung’s Birthday!

View from my room at the Yanggakdo Hotel

View from my room at the Yanggakdo Hotel

Day two was to be on second and most exciting day of the trip. As was to become the pattern, we were getting up early.

In the foyer I was greeted by cheerful German gentleman who insisted his name was Lionel – although I’m not so sure about that as it doesn’t seem like a very German name to me. He was on an individual tour as he “just can’t deal with groups.” He had procured a very posh English accent from somewhere and had a habit of elongating all his vowels when he spoke which seemed to make short sentences last for hours. He asked me if I had a ticket for the “Maaaaas Gaaaaames”. I told him I wasn’t sure but that I did have a ticket for the Mass Games later that evening. He adjusted his side parting and walked off looking disgruntled. Poor lad.

Kumsusan Memorial Palace aka the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum

Kumsusan Memorial Palace aka the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum

The first stop was Kumsusan Memorial Palace the mausoleum of the late Eternal President of North Korea, Kim Il Sung. The building was formally his official residence but was converted to a mausoleum after he died in 1994. Unfortunately we were not able to take cameras inside as a mark of respect. From the inside you certainly get an idea of how revered Kim Il Sung is by the North Korean people. Before you reach the chamber where Kim Il Sung’s body is preserved you have to walk through a number of other rooms bearing tribute to his reign. There is a huge map showing all the foreign visits he took while in office.

After this we visited the Kimilsunglia Flower Show. This is a flower show held every year in Pyongyang. The highlight is the Kimilsinglia flower which is a hybrid named after Kim Il Sung by a former Indonesian President.

The Juche Tower

The Juche Tower

Next stop was the Juche Tower which was built to commemorate Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday. Despite electricity shortages in the country the tower is said to be lit at night to preserve the symbolic strength of the country. Having said that Pyongyang appeared to be in total darkness when I looked out of the hotel window at night – including the tower.

We passed Kim Il Sung Square in the center of town in our coach and could see thousands of North Koreans dancing. We quickly got the driver to stop so we could take a few pictures.

Cheerful chap cycles by the river in Pyongyang

Cheerful chap cycles by the river in Pyongyang

Our next stop was Mansu Hill or Mansudae where there is a huge statue of Kim Il Sung on top of a hill over looking the whole city. As today would have been his birthday, there are a lot of people there to pay their respects.

After this we went for a walk around a local park and we were lucky enough to talk to quite a number of local people some of whom invited us to eat with them.

Later that evening we went to the enormous Mayday Stadium to watch the Mass Games – an huge gymnastics event where gymnasts perform in large carefully syncronised groups to emphasize group dynamics rather than individual prowess. This was one of the highlights of the whole trip as North Korea is the only country in the world regularly putting on performances like this.

Monday 16th April

Another window shot

Another 'window' shot

We had an even earlier start on Monday as we were heading out of town to the Korean Demilitarised Zone on the border with South Korea and the nearby town of Kaesong. It is supposedly the most heavily militerised border in the world and I noticed some people looking a bit twitchy.

After lunch in Kaesong we went back to Pyongyang. On the main dual carriageway which seems to connect the south of the country to Pyongyang we noticed virtually no other vehicles other than the odd bike and a few people walking. We stopped at a service station for a cup of tea. It was strangely quiet as it apparently had no electricity, heat or hot water.

The Monument to Three Charters for National Reunification

The Monument to Three Charters for National Reunification

On our way back into town we stopped to take pictures at a huge arch outside the city called The Monument to Three Charters for National Reunification. The two women represent the two parts of the divided Korean nation and the yearning of all Koreans to reunite the country

Once back in Pyongyang we went to a book shop which sold books in English and other foreign languages. The subjects of the books were very diverse including may written by Kim Jong Il himself. There were other books on all parts of Korean culture, music, food, history. I bought a book about the Mass Games and another about a famous North Korean wrestler who had traveled to both Japan and the USA, giving the imperialists a good hiding in the process.

Close up of the Monument to Three Charters for National Reunification

Close up of the Monument to Three Charters for National Reunification

After this we went to a stamp shop. This may sound a bit dull but a lot of the designs were very interesting. Many had pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il but there were also many socialist realist stamps which were very interesting. I bough several postcards which were copies of the socialist realism artwork which was displayed everywhere we went during our trip. A lot of people on our tour had commented that they would like to buy some of the socialist realism posters we had seen. Sadly, they are not for sale as the government don’t see them as art but as “public information sources” and not suitable for foreign tourists. While outside the stamp shop we were able to take some pictures of the remarkable traffic ladies.

Tuesday 17th April

Morning mist over the Taedong River. The Juche tower can be seen on the right of the picture

Morning mist over the Taedong River. The Juche tower can be seen on the right of the picture

On Tuesday morning we visited the Korean War Museum. This museum is dedicated to the conflict of the Korean War 1950-1953 or the Fatherland Liberation War as the North Koreans call it.

After this we walked across the road to a huge Korean War memorial where I was also able to get a few pictures of the enormous Ryugyong Hotel which dominates the city skyline.

Korean War Victory monument

Korean War Victory monument

We next visited the USS Pueblo. This is an American boat which the DPRK Navy captured in 1968 as it claimed it had strayed into its territorial waters on a spy mission. The Americans maintain it was in international waters at the time of capture. The boat is now a tourist attraction and we were shown a very interesting propaganda video while on board which highlighted the DPRK position during the subsequent diplomatic crisis which followed the boats capture. The US Navy officers were held by the DPRK for a nearly a year before they were repatriated.

There is another exhibit next to the Pueblo. This is supposedly an American spy missile captured in the mid nineties. The main evidence for the missiles American origins seems to be several internal parts which have “Made in USA” written on them.

Korean Victory War Monument

Korean Victory War Monument

After this we visited the Pyongyang Metro. We visited two stops – which seems to have been the same two stations that every foreigner who has visited Pyongyang has been to. It has been suggested that they are the only two stations that operate and that all the people we saw in the stations were actors. I find this a little hard to believe as there weren’t that many of us and I can’t believe even the North Koreans would go that far to impress the likes of me.

Korean workers practice marching outside the Korean War Museum

Korean workers practice marching outside the Korean War Museum

Later that day we went to Mangyongdae which is the birth place of Kim Il Sung, the Eternal President of the DPRK.

The evening was spent in the hotel drinking. Karaoke may have been involved.

Wednesday 18th April

Early in the morning we caught the train which would take us out of the country and back to China. This would allow us to see some of the country and the contrast between North Korea and China. The train journey was scheduled to take 24 hrs with us arriving in Beijing at 8am the following morning.

After leaving early in the morning the train crept across North Korea towards the border. The crossing of the border at the town of Sin?iju lasted several hours where the contents of our cases were heavily scrutinised and our passports were taken away for dissection.

Once this process was completed we crossed the Yalu river into the Chinese border town of Dandong. At this point we made the critical error of getting off the train and not returning to Beijing.

Thus the trip was over…

I would recommend anyone wanting to travel to North Korea to go with Koryo Tours. They are a British company based in Beijing who specialise in travel to the country.

Quiet street in Central Pyongyang. The poster 4.15 marks the birthday celebration of Kim Il Sung as his birthday is on the 15th April

Quiet street in Central Pyongyang. The poster 4.15 marks the birthday celebration of Kim Il Sung as his birthday is on the 15th April


North Korea: Pyongyang Metro

The Pyongyang Metro is the deepest in the world at 120 metres and doubles as an bomb shelters in times of war.

The design is said to be based on the Moscow metro system. I was immediately struck by the lack of advertising in comparison to similar western metro systems.

Puhung station from the top of the stairs leading on to the platform.

A mural to Kim Il Sung at one end of the platform.

Green trains

Yonggwang (Glory) Station. The pillars are meant to look like victory torches bursting into flame.


North Korea: The Ryugyong Hotel

The Ryugyong Hotel is the tallest structure in North Korea. Construction started in 1987 but ended in 1992. Had it been completed it would have been the world’s tallest hotel.

It has 105 floors but as it is at present completely empty and half finished. There are apparently no fixtures or fittings (or windows) inside.

This building dominates the city skyline. It seems a little sad that it has been sitting there in this state since 1992. If you look closely you can see where the seven revolving restaurants at the top would be.

There is still a crane on the roof suggesting that construction could continue at any moment although this seems unlikely due to the current electrical and financial shortages in the country.

The Ryugyong Hotel: Wikipedia / Google Sightseeing


North Korea: Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum (Korean War Museum)

This museum focused on the Korean War. There were many captured American planes, jeeps and tanks inside as well as North Korean military vehicles.

Huge Kim Il Sung mural at the entrance to the museum.

Original army propaganda poster from the war.

The end of the tour was a 360 degree panorama of the Korean War. We were on a revolving platform in the middle. The backdrop was a huge canvas with three dimensional objects and real jeeps in the foreground to add depth. There was a similar panorama in the Korean war museum in Dandong, China but it wasn’t as good.


North Korea: Socialist Realism Artwork

I picked up some of these postcards in a stamp shop I visited in Pyongyang.

All art in North Korea must adhere to socialist realism principles. The many posters and banners we saw in North Korea are designed to educate the population and are not seen as “art” as such. This meant we were unable to buy any of the images we saw to take home with us.

Socialist realism: Wikipedia


North Korea: Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)

The gate to the North Korean side of the Korean Demilitarised Zone. The large concrete block above the entrance is an anti tank measure which can be dropped on to the road should the imperialists ever think they want to pop across the border and turn Pyongyang back to the dark side.  We stopped in a small room to be shown a map of the area and receive a talk from a North Korean Colonel who told us “not to be afraid.”

Mural to Korean unification at the gate to the DMZ.

There is a small farming town called Kij?ng-dong (described by the American Army as “Propoganda Village” as the inhabitants are apparently bused in every day to pretend to people in South Korea that they enjoy a wonderful life there) on the North Korean side of the DMZ and our guides said the land is extremely fertile.

North Korean soldiers guard the border at the Joint Security Area. The concrete line next to the two soldiers facing each other is the Military Demarcation Line (DML) which marks the border between North and South Korea.

There are seven huts along the DML. The large building on the far side is where the South Korean and American troops are based. They were not around on the day we visited as the two sides take turns to show tourists around. I took this shot from North Korean Army building which the Americans apparently claim is a facade and only two metres deep. I can confirm it is real!

We went into this hut which is where all negotiations since 1953 have been held. The DML goes right through the hut so we were able to walk to the other side of the hut and be in South Korea. A North Korean soldiers guarded the door at the far end to make sure we didn’t get any ideas about walking out on the South Korean side.

Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ): Wikipedia

Joint Security Area: Wikipedia / Google Maps


North Korea: Mass Games

This is probably one of the most amazing performances (of anything) that I have ever seen. I’m afraid my pictures just can’t do it justice.

The logistics of the whole event don’t bear thinking about. Firstly the May Day Stadium itself is the largest sports stadium in the world with 150, 000 seats.

The performance has two key elements. The first is the gymnastic performers. In the 90 minute performance there are anywhere between 80,000 and 100, 000 performers depending on which piece of literature you read. They come out in waves of thousands and perform extremely complicated gymnastic routines in perfect syncronisation. The idea of mass gymnastics is to emphasise group achievements rather than that of the individual.

The second key element is the backdrop. This takes up one whole side of the stadium and is made up of school children holding large books with different coloured pages which make up a huge mosaic. The children turn the pages to make up huge pictures. There are around 12,000 card turners aged between 13 and 15.

This page shows some particularly fine examples of the performances.

The backdrops were amazingly detailed and even moved. Watching the card turners warm up when we walked into the stadium was intimidating. The mosaic was divided up into the different districts the children represented. At the given signal each district changed the pages in there card book while shouting.

One of my tour group commented that he found the Mass Games more exciting than the birth of his first born son.

Unfortunately I didn’t see Lionel anywhere at the performance which was a terrible shame. His ticket must have got lost somehow.

Rungnado May Day Stadium Wikipedia / Google Maps / World Stadiums


North Korea: Mansu Hill (Mansudae)

This is a huge monument to Kim Il Sung at the top of a hill overlooking Pyongyang which can be seen from all over the city.

Either side of the Kim Il Sung statue are two further statues. The first is of the workers…

…and the second depicts soldiers ready to sacrifice themselves for the General

We laid flowers at the bottom of the statue before bowing together as a mark of respect. Many people were visiting the statue that day as it was the Presidents birthday.


North Korea: Kim Il Sung Square

On the birthday of Kim Il Sung it seemed the whole of Pyongyang had turned up in the square. Our guides told us that this dancing started early in the morning and continued all day.

These photos don’t show it very well but there were thousands of people there that day. The atmosphere was unbelievable.

The headquarters of the party with a huge picurte of Kim Il Sung outside.

Some of my fellow tourists got involved in the dancing. One chap ended up on BBC World Service in the background as there were quite a few foreign journalists in Pyongyang to cover this huge celebration.

Maypole dancing seems to have made its way to North Korea.


North Korea: Pyongyang Traffic Ladies

Due to the shortages of electricity in Pyongyang the North Koreans use “traffic ladies” to direct traffic at busy crossroads and prevent huge pile ups.

We were told that only the prettiest North Korean women are chosen to become traffic ladies. The job requires high levels of concentration so the ladies rotate their shifts every hour.

Below is a video showing a Pyongyang traffic lady in action