Welcome to the world's most isolated civilization
In September 2015, I traveled to North Korea to see, first-hand, what life was like inside the Hermit Kingdom. Much of the country was what I had expected: strange, ersatz, thick with propaganda, and every so often, seriously unsettling.
And yet, the journey was also filled with some truly wonderful, completely unexpected surprises. One thing's for sure: North Korea really is unlike any other place on Earth.
Since my return, I've had a lot of people, friends and strangers, ask me about my trip. There has been way more curiosity about North Korea than I would have imagined -- so much so, that I thought I'd write down some of my experiences, and share them with you here.
Pictures and stories alone can't do justice to what it's really like being on the ground in North Korea. As a visitor, you're watched 24/7, you have no freedom, and you're constantly tense and on edge. But hopefully, this post will at least give you a glimpse into what life is like in one of the most restricted, enigmatic destinations in the world.
Immediately upon arrival, and before our shuttle had even left the airport parking lot, our government minders were already beginning to walk us through all the rules we had to obey, including:
- We must always travel in a group. For the entire trip, we almost never got to walk around outside. Instead, we were bused from place to place, even if we were only traveling 4 blocks. You're definitely not allowed to do things like leave the hotel at night or explore the city on your own
The first thing you notice as soon as you pull out of the airport is the propaganda. It's literally everywhere. Every street intersection, every building, every subway station, and even every subway car proudly displays portraits of the nation's Dear Leaders. Banners and giant murals extol the virtues of North Korea and Kim Il Sung's Juche ideology around self-reliance.
The country has propaganda vans trolling the streets with giant megaphones perched on their rooftops.
Every morning, at 6:30 a.m., you awake to the delightful wake-up call of propaganda music blaring into your windows from the streets.
Even the people themselves are part of the propaganda machine. Nearly every North Korean wears a red pin patriotically emblazoned with the faces of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I tried really hard to lay my hands on one of these pins, but tourists aren't allowed to have them. They have to be earned through loyal servitude.
At work, there's still no escaping the propaganda. Factories, like this textile plant we visited, had propaganda posters plastered all over the inside and outside of the factory walls.
What was perhaps scariest though, was the propaganda we found inside the nation's schools. During our trip, we visited two schools: 1) a primary school in Pyongsong, a small, provincial city north of Pyongyang, and 2) the Children's Palace, a school in the capital city for gifted children.
What we saw on the walls of these institutions was disturbing -- gruesome images of war, killing, and death, side-by-side with Disney-like portraits of the Dear Leaders adoring (and being adored by) children.
On one of the war murals, the school administration had even covered up specific photos in advance of our arrival. Given how graphic the visible parts of the mural already were, I can only imagine what was hidden underneath. I asked our minder about these pieces of paper, and she sidestepped the question, saying that they were probably just touching up parts of the mural.
The Pyongyang Elite
Living in Pyongyang is like living in The Capitol in The Hunger Games. Only the elite are allowed in. Out of the whole country, the propaganda here is the loudest, the love for the Dear Leaders is the most passionate, and life is as good as it gets in North Korea.
If you're living in Pyongyang, you are the 1 percent.
And with this status comes privilege that you won't find elsewhere in the country:
1. You're given free housing in high-rise apartments in return for loyalty and service to the country.
2. You have access to grocery stores that are stocked with Nutella, Oreos, Absolut Vodka, and... jelly shoes. Some of these pictures are a bit blurry, because you're not allowed to take pictures inside any of the country's stores. So, I had to get creative with my photography.
Products were arranged in perfect rows, and shelves were fully stocked. Everything was designed to show bountifulness and prosperity.
Notice in the top picture how many security cameras are hanging from the ceiling. There was more surveillance in this small grocery store than in my bank back home in the U.S.
3. You get to ride on Soviet subways.
4. You get to use a smartphone.
5. You even get to go to amusement parks and water parks on the weekend.
Clearly, what we saw in Pyongyang was definitely not representative of what life is like for most North Koreans. But even still, this was better living than what I had initially expected to see in the city.
A Soviet Concrete Jungle
Overall, Pyongyang was much more developed than what I had imagined.
Sure, most of the city was comprised of drab, Soviet-style buildings -- hulking Lego blocks of faceless concrete. But the sheer scale of it all was greater than what I had anticipated.
From afar, there were even parts of the city that were quite picturesque. But that beauty quickly faded as you peered just a little bit more closely. Upon closer inspection, you find yourself staring at a cityscape that was all too often rickety and raw.
Abandoned construction sites littered the city, leaving Pyongyang pockmarked with ghostly scaffolds, and half-constructed buildings.
Perhaps the most famous unfinished construction project is the Ryugyong Hotel, the tallest building in North Korea. Construction began in 1987, and the building remains unfinished and unopened to this day.
Fun fact: the North Korean elites love revolving restaurants. They're seen as a must-have for any high-end, luxury hotel. The top two hotels in Pyongyang -- the Koryo Hotel and the Yanggakdo Hotel -- both have one. So, to ensure its supremacy in the world of hospitality, the Ryugyong Hotel was designed to have not one, not two, but FIVE revolving restaurants! You can see them in the cylindrical cone at the top of the tower in the photos below.
For a country that is officially at war with its sister nation just to the south, the threat of conflict is very real in North Korea. And nowhere is this risk of war more palpable than at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
The drive from Pyongyang to Panmunjom, the border city at the DMZ, is 3 hours long -- placing Pyongyang twice as far from a potential border battle, compared to Seoul, which is less than a 90 minute drive away.
The drive down to Panmunjom was really interesting. The highway was 6 lanes wide, and yet the road was almost completely devoid of cars for the entire three-hour drive. We mostly just saw people biking and walking along the edge of the asphalt. The only other vehicles we saw were military jeeps and an occasional bus or two.
As we got closer to the DMZ, the military checkpoints got more and more frequent, and the soldiers at these checkpoints looked more and more fierce. Each time we approached one, our minders would emphatically remind us not to take any pictures.
One fascinating thing: every mile or two, the North Korean army had erected giant concrete towers by the side of the road. Some of these were thinly disguised as monuments. But these towers served a much more significant purpose. Should the South Koreans ever break across the border and march north, the North Koreans would blow up the base of these towers, causing them to topple over onto the road and block the advance of South Korean tanks.
When we arrived at the DMZ, the air was electric. The name Demilitarized Zone is really a misnomer. This was one of the most militarized places I've ever seen. Security was super tight. We were escorted by soldiers single-file around the compound.
Out of my entire week in North Korea, three moments in particular stood out as highlights. In all three cases, I found myself interacting with real locals in a way I never thought I would, and it was this human connection that made these experiences so special.
Singing in the Park
The first highlight took place one afternoon, as we were hiking in Moran Hill Park in Pyongyang. The park is located in the middle of the city, and is actually quite large in size -- perhaps a quarter the size of New York's Central Park? Much of the park is forested, and pretty hilly. Scattered throughout the park are grassy clearings where locals would gather and picnic.
We visited on a Sunday, which was a day off for many North Koreans. As a result, there were lots of locals spread out throughout the park. At first, I was feeling a bit disappointed that we were wasting an afternoon trudging around a public park.
We tried smiling or saying hi to locals as we walked past, and most just ignored us. Some of the younger kids would giggle amongst themselves and then run off.
Fifteen minutes into the hike, I saw group of North Koreans gathered in a clearing about 100 feet away. They weren't very close to the path we were on, but their singing caught my attention. The men (who seemed just a bit drunk) had stripped off their soldier uniforms, and were dancing in their tank tops.
Amused, I danced back at them from the path. The saw me, and instead of ignoring me, they laughed and danced right back at me.
Ladies and gentlemen: we have a North Korean dance off!
After a couple minutes of this, they waved at me to come join them. This was awesome! I looked over at our minder, and she gave a nod. Woohoo!
Our group scrambled down a small hill, dodged through some trees, and joined the North Koreans in the clearing. For the next 15 minutes, we sang and danced with our new friends. Some of the locals seemed a bit uncomfortable with our presence, and stepped back. However, the men were really into it. We sang some Korean songs, including a famous folk song called Arirang. Well, the Koreans sang, and we did our best to fake it.
Then, the Koreans motioned for us to sing something. I quickly wracked my brain and started singing the first inoffensive song that came to my head: "Be Our Guest" from Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Yup, what better way to bridge two warring nations, than a little Disney.
Without understanding a single word that I was saying, the Koreans happily danced to the music:
This was such a fun, beautiful, human moment. Sure, there's always a chance that this entire experience was staged. In North Korea, you can never be sure. But I find it highly unlikely, given that there were thousands of people in the park that day, and how improbable it was that out of all those people, I would have picked this particular group of folks to do a dance-off.
Definitely one of the top highlights of my trip.
The Mass Dance
My second trip highlight took place on the country's National Day holiday (September 9, 2015). To celebrate, Mass Dances were held all over the country. A Mass Dance is basically when hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of Koreans dress up in their finest clothes, and gather in a public space for synchronized dancing.
That afternoon, we went to watch the largest Mass Dance in Pyongyang. There were well over 1,000 locals gathered here. The tableau was really stunning. A seemingly endless expanse of multi-colored hanbok dresses transformed the public square into a floral rainbow of colors and movement.
Like many things in North Korea, the event was very rehearsed. Between songs, the Koreans would line up like soldiers in a perfectly regimented grid. They would stand there silently, staring forward, waiting for the next song to begin. It was honestly a bit unnerving.
Also, I barely saw anyone smiling, even during the dancing. I got the sense that some of the folks may have been there more out of obligation than choice.
However, the Mass Dance was still such a unique experience to behold. And then things got even more fun when we were told that we could join in if we wanted to. Most of the tourists held back, but our group happily jumped in.
I asked one of the friendlier-looking dancers if I could cut in, and she shyly agreed. The dance moves were relatively straight-forward, and I did my best to blend in without stepping on my partner's toes.
Before I knew it, I was engulfed in a swirling whirlwind of people and fabric.
It was thrilling to be so easily accepted into this massive, colorful event, and even more thrilling (and unexpected) to find myself dancing with a North Korean stranger. None of this was even remotely close to what I had expected when I first signed up to come here.
The final trip highlight took place earlier that same day, on September 9. As I mentioned before, we were almost never allowed to walk around outside on the streets. I can only assume that this was to minimize any chances of us having illegal contact with the locals.
However, after a couple days of building trust and good will with our minders, they gave us permission to do a short walk outside in Pyongyang. We would still have to stick together as a group, and we would only be walking for about 10 blocks. But let me tell you something: for those 10 blocks, the air never smelled sweeter, and the sun never shone brighter.
For two days, we had been essentially cooped up and held prisoner in our hotel and shuttle bus. And now, for the next 15 minutes, we could roam the streets like normal people (almost). On this day, I learned:
You can't fully appreciate freedom until you've lost it
During our walk, I got to peer into windows, peek into storefronts, and mingle amongst everyday life in the DPRK.
Nine out of 10 people we saw in North Korea steered clear of us. However, making that occasional connection with the remaining 10 percent was so much fun. Sometimes, a smile would be returned, or, if we were really lucky, a wave. Almost all the time, these exchanges would be with kids or students.
I suppose it's not too surprising that children and teenagers were far friendlier and more curious, compared to the adults. Perhaps they hadn't been fully-indoctrinated by propaganda yet. Perhaps the hardships of life hadn't begun weighing down on their shoulders.
Whatever the reason, seeing this next generation of North Koreans gave me hope -- hope that someday, change will come for the North Koreans. And when it does, their country, and the entire world, will be better for it.
This post is an excerpt from my original essay on Medium. If you're interested in reading more, please check out that post.