North Korea feels frozen in time. It lies somewhere between a 1930s Soviet Union and a futuristic vision of society, as imagined back in the 1970s.
When asked about my experience it’s hard to find a relevant reference point, as the Hermit Kingdom, which the country has come to be known as, is unlike any place I have ever been, seen or experienced. Visiting the northern section of the Korean peninsula has been more than a trip — it’s been a plunge into a whole other reality, which outsiders were never really meant to see. I was one of the select few.
Despite being allowed to film, most of my footage was taken through dirty, rainy bus windows, from the top of a deserted 50-storey hotel or with my camera concealed. In the same way every observation, every conclusion was based on blurry glances, on often incoherent stories from the tour guides and on the little glimmers in people’s eyes, because their mouths never opened to tell their stories. I’m good at reading eyes, but in a country where the national mythology is indistinguishable from reality, it is up to every person to read between the lines and to draw their own conclusions.
In the week prior to my trip, I kept receiving mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night. At one point, I heard breathing; another time, the other side just hung up. I rejected them as someone probably wanting to buy my number and not expecting a foreigner to answer. Soon enough, I found out it was in fact Korean officials, calling to confirm my travel plans.
The overall process of arranging travel to Korea was surprisingly easy. The decision whether I should go, wasn’t. The only feasible way to enter the DPRK is on a guided tour with a group and little more than sending over a passport copy is actually required. But, I was concerned — would my visit be a selfish act? Would it add to hardship?
Looking to make my trip more meaningful, I worked out a deal: I was given the unusual permission to film my experience in exchange for producing a travel promo for the tour company. There are few places in the world previously unexplored by filmmakers. Getting the chance to capture Korea on video is what helped me make my final decision. That, and the realization that money spent on my travel is a mere fraction in comparison to the tax money funding conflicts and suffering elsewhere in the world.
Legends and Etiquette
My visit to North Korea was a spiritual pilgrimage. It’s not just a country, it’s a self-confident creed in late stages of formation that you’re suddenly thrust into and you feel paranoid about accidentally offending its believers.
During the revolutionary struggle, young soldiers apparently sketched victorious slogans into trees. When a forest fire broke out, those same soldiers didn’t take refuge in the nearby stream, but instead gave their lives protecting the slogans praising their country’s founder. A few years ago, a Korean teenager achieved the status of a national hero. During heavy floods, she gave her life and drowned attempting to save the portraits of the beloved Dear Leaders.
Kim Il Sung, the country’s founding father passed away nearly 20 years ago. But to Koreans, he is still the one running his country, and always will be. There’s no point asking anyone for an explanation of how that’s possible or in any way logical — it’s simply the way it is. Kim Jong Il’s birth has also been surrounded by mystery. That night, the skies opened up, a double rainbow appeared, winter suddenly ended and spring came. There was also a talking bird involved.
Nowadays, hundreds of Koreans still visit his birthplace, dressed in dark uniforms as a sign of respect. Koreans love and value their leaders so much that they wouldn’t dare call them by name. A front page article in the Pyongyang Times (translated into English for Air Koryo, the infamous North Korean national airline) went on for a whole paragraph listing the official titles of Kim Jong Un. Every following article did the same. Reading the paper, I barely avoided committing a grave crime — I tried to fold it in half. In North Korea, newspapers shouldn’t ever be creased or thrown out, as the disrespect to a potential image of the Dear Leaders in such paper would be unforgivable. A confused tourist apparently once had to pay for his mistake of wrapping a tour guide’s gift in newspaper by writing an apology letter to the Dear Leader. Filming and photographing images or statues of the leaders is also restricted by proper etiquette. All pictures and video must be shot from a low angle point of view, without cutting off any of their parts. Absolutely no close-ups.
An Inward Journey
A visit to North Korea is not only a matter of taking a train or a flight. For me it was very much a trip to some dark, yet strangely familiar memories; comforting yet painful feelings and thoughts that I didn’t want to face.
I was not allowed to film the landscapes, the people, the street. Instead, in Chongjin, I was taken to a supposedly typical show, which pushed tears into my eyes. There, a group of kindergarteners sang, danced and performed acrobatic acts in synchronisation more perfectly than I’ve seen from professionals. They perfectly strummed guitar chords stretching over four frets and they played four-hand piano compositions without missing a note. My hands were shaking and my mind was running wild — yet here, I was encouraged to film.
Being led through the strangely quiet school, down a very specific path, passing the two nicely decorated and well-equipped rooms, with other areas blocked off, I wondered if it was all a facade. And I was boiling in anger inside because I felt helpless and didn’t know what to believe. I couldn’t help thinking: what if I had been born there? What would my life be like? What are my Korean peers like, nowadays? In a country under a Stalinist system, unchanged for now an eighth decade, with almost no knowledge of the outside world; unfamiliar with computers, Coca Cola or the Gangnam Style dance; convinced that Pyongyang, the DPRK capitol, is as good as it gets and that it is the cultural, technological, architectural, and every other -al centre of the world. How must they feel? Do they wonder about us, or do they accept and feel satisfied with the only reality they know?
Back to the Future
A visit to North Korea was a trip in time. Somewhat to the past and somewhat to the future. In a way it was a hallucinatory journey to a parallel reality in which I constantly had to remind myself that I am in fact in what people call the modern world, in the year 2012. I had to keep telling myself that while I was in my room, in a deserted hotel reminiscent of Kubrick’s The Shining, with national mythology blasting from an old, Soviet-era, black and white TV, that at the very same time, life was going on as usual worldwide. New science was being discovered, people were having moral discussions and my family and friends were somewhere out there, perhaps wondering about me. People were updating their Facebook profiles, sending tweets. And I was there, in a reality I still struggle to comprehend.
Then came Arirang, the massive, Guinness World Record-winning dance and acrobatic extravaganza with a 100,000 performers. Impressive and at times emotional, it was like an Olympic opening ceremony, sometime in the Soviet era, in a huge stadium with no sponsor banners, with zero commercialism. Well, except for the apparently handmade posters, VND550,000 or more for some, sold in the lobby along with other overpriced and usually rather unattractive souvenirs.
People and Places
North Korea is picturesque and contrary to popular belief, most of the country is open to tourism — as long as you plan ahead and your guide stays by you.
Mount Paektu’s Heaven Lake is hidden among truly beautiful, desolate and rocky landscapes, and is so blue I wondered if it, too, was propaganda. There, even the guides seemed more relaxed and I felt an elevated sense of human connection being able to take pictures with a few locals.
There are the mysterious, distant villages surrounded by farmland, seemingly unchanged for nearly a century. There are waterfalls such as Rimjongsu or Ulim, where after long drives, visitors stop for an outdoor lunch. And the one image that stuck with me from the scenic drive to Chongjin were the old, mysterious factories, scattered all around the otherwise pristine land. Somewhere along all that is a forgotten hotel, where during my visit I showed a shy, local waitress video games on a fellow tourist’s tablet. Her excitement was probably comparable to the moment I got my first Nintendo years ago.
Wonson could easily become the key tourist highlight and a popular beach resort in Korea, if only the country opened up. There, after a stroll down a rickety pier, surrounded by fishermen and giggling children, visitors and locals alike can rest and enjoy all kinds of seafood, straight from the sea and grilled by local vendors. There’s an old, Japanese ship — a key landmark — its purpose, however, unclear, and there’s a beach where with some luck the locals will join for a game of morning volleyball.
And then there’s Pyongyang — secretive, Orwellian and home to the elite, but an impressive city nonetheless. It is home to a major sports centre and an ice rink, an Olympic-sized stadium and swimming pool, a surprisingly popular, western-style bowling alley and the apparently not as popular only fast food restaurant in Korea.
In my eyes, more important than places are the Korean people. They stand as a symbol of human perseverance and even under the harshest circumstances are no different to any other people in the world. They still laugh and they still love. The difference is that they live in a drastically different reality. To me, it might be a dark, menacing place, but I realise that to learn I must respect. I did learn and I hope I taught something, too. If nothing else, I made a friend, one of the tourist guides. I can only hope that one day, the barriers will disappear and we will be able to reconnect.