North Korea

Comrade Kim's Glorious Socialist Paradise

[Editor's note: The name of the Kim may have changed since this article was written, but we believe the "paradise" remains the same!]

In April, 2008, I was able to travel by bus across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to the North Korean city of Kaesong. It is an industrial city of about 250,000 that lies just north of the border. To go there, you have to apply to the North Korean government for a visa, usually through a tourist company. Also, I should note that tours to North Korea can be unpredictable in that whenever there is a dispute between the South and North, the tours are usually cancelled for a few months. ~ Travis Kendall

Etched in Stone: Poems glorify the KimsWhen people ask why I would ever consider going to a country like North Korea I usually say because so little is actually known about it and because almost no outsiders ever go there. I think that it is partly the danger factor that made me want to go. I am not just being dramatic when I say that this is a place where stepping off the main path can literally get you killed; just after I was there in 2008, a South Korean tourist was shot and killed at the Mount Kumgang resort. Still, to be able to see even a tiny bit of a country that is so shrouded in mystery and rumour was an absolutely irresistible opportunity. Going to North Korea was a very eye opening experience, one that I would definitely recommend.

The biggest rule for being in North Korea is to only take pictures in designated places; my group violated that rule as soon as we left the customs building. For some reason we wanted to take a picture of an empty, grey field. As the tour guide said no problem, we all took out our cameras. All of the sudden a burly North Korean border guard, complete with AK-47, charged across the road swearing at us at the top of his lungs; I know most Korean curses, and this guy was really mad! After all the guides were roughly assembled and yelled at we were told, with a smile and thumbs up, “Cameras, maybe later, ok?”

When you travel in North Korea, you are almost never alone. There is always a communist party “guide” assigned to you to tell you where you are going, to give obscure facts about North Korea and to gently bring you back if you wander off. Most of the ones that I saw were young men, very well coiffed and dressed in black three piece suits complete with Kim Jong-Il buttons on their lapels. Our guide, introduced as Mr. Park, was an extremely polite and friendly man I chatted with for a while, who seemed quite amazed that a capitalist wei-guk (foreigner) would know any Korean history or could speak any Korean at all.

The day my group crossed the DMZ was quite grey and overcast. One of the first things that strikes you about North Korea is that the land looks dead. Regardless of the time of year, the ground in North Korea looks worn out and grey, like it's been overworked and nothing could possibly grow there.

Along the road leading to Kaesong was a series of small, rolling hills on both sides of the road. On top of nearly every one of them was a lone soldier with a rifle looking towards the road. In Kaesong City, I saw soldiers standing at attention in the driveways in front of dilapidated apartment buildings and at every major intersection, blue uniformed traffic policemen with white gloves blew whistles and made elaborate hand gestures despite the fact there were no vehicles anywhere. In fact, I hardly saw any motor vehicles - or bicycles, for that matter - during my time here.

All of the places that we were taken to were either isolated areas in the forest or walled tourist compounds, once again complete with communist party guides and stoic military guards. The only time that we saw the 'real' North Korea is when we were on the bus. The first place that we were taken to was a forest complete with a mountain and waterfall. On the way up the mountain, there were inscriptions on the rocks. Later, I had one of my students translate them. They were all poems praising Kim-Il-Sung and Kim-Jong-Il: "Kim-Jong-Il is the light of all knowledge in the world" and the like. There was an even stranger sight at the top of the mountain. As I made my way up the crowded, rocky trail, I swore that I could hear chanting. At the top there was a small Buddhist temple with monks in saffron robes chanting hymns. This was certainly not a sight I expected to see in the DPRK. I was told by a guide that the monks are allowed to pray and practice their faith as long as they promise to stay out of politics. Whether or not these were real monks or just a sight for the benefit of the tourists, I’ll never know.

The buildings that I saw in Kaesong City had a retro, 1950’s communist look about them, very austere and functional. Despite the fresh paint on the front of many buildings, most looked close to collapse. There were also huge murals on the walls, most showing Kim-Jong-Il walking through green fields with smiling children. There are many statues of the Kim's in North Korea, though we were never allowed near them. None of the regular people I saw in Kaesong looked particularly happy; for the most part those we saw walked silently with their heads down.

No doubt one of the reasons people looked so miserable is that the country has suffered several major droughts in the past few years and starvation in many places is rampant. That’s why I felt slightly guilty when we were taken to a walled compound and treated to a very elaborate lunch complete with large portions of fresh kalbi (beef), rice and kimchi. We were also supplied with North Korean gasoline-flavoured soju; the alcohol didn't seem to be in short supply in the DPRK was alcohol.Buddhist temple near Kaesong, DPRK

No journey to North Korea is complete without a visit to the government store, though do remember to bring US dollars as it is the only accepted currency and it is forbidden to bring South Korean won across the border. I remember being greeted by a group of incredibly attractive young women in traditional Korean clothing speaking almost flawless English. Other than the copious amounts of strange alcoholic beverages (I bought a bottle of orange mushroom liquor that I still have and have so far been reluctant to try), most things in the store were dedicated to the cult of the Kim’s. I picked up a “Heroes of Korea” stamp set which I managed to get back through customs. The book section is a must see for any traveler. Almost all of the books are either about Kim-Jong-Il or written by Kim-Jong-Il; he is apparently an extremely prolific writer in addition to being a fighter pilot, expert golfer, composer of operas, military strategist and award winning film director). Some of the books - which we were not supposed to take back across to South Korea - contained nuggets of wisdom like, “One day, the Dear Leader Kim-Jong-Il walked through a field. He then looked to the sky and realized that there are no rabbits on the moon.” and “As the Dear Leader watched the children play he saw that two pieces of clay put together make one.” Another book that I wish I had bought was a definitive North Korean account of the Korean War. I remember the first sentence of the book read, “As the American hordes moved towards Seoul they all screamed in unison, ‘Kill the women and children first’”. It is always interesting to see a different perspective on historical events!

Getting out of North Korea is in some ways harder than getting in. The North Korean border guards don’t really care if you’re carrying liquor or any other souvenirs back across; it’s your pictures that they care about. The North Koreans are incredibly paranoid about cameras. You are only allowed to bring one digital camera and you are told before you arrive not to take any pictures of people or buildings and that taking any pictures from the bus is strictly prohibited. An agitated customs official searched every picture on my digital camera before he grudgingly let me pass . A friend of mine tried to accelerate the customs process by flirting (unsuccessfully) with an austere looking female official in a khaki Mao-suit who looked like she could easily snap a neck if provoked. It was almost a relief when I cleared customs and returned to the South; like a rush of feeling of having been in a very unpredictable place and having made it out in one piece.

Even for an experienced traveler, North Korea is probably unlike any place that you have ever been to before and that is what makes the experience of going there so unique. It’s drab and tightly controlled, but it’s really interesting and certainly worth seeing if you have the chance.


Travis Kendall is a teacher and ESL instructor. He is an avid world traveler and has been through Europe, Australia, and Asia. He also lived in South Korea for several years. He currently lives in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.

Related Articles:

Add comment

Security code


enter site  Full name: Democratic People's Republic of  Korea

 Population: 24.59 million (CIA, 2012)

source site  Capital: Pyongyang

 Largest city: Pyongyang

 Area: 120,538 (46,540 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Korean

go site  Major religions: Traditionally Buddhist and  Confucianist (*see CIA World Factbook note)

 Monetary unit: North Korean Won

 GDP per capita: US $1,800

 Internet domain: .kp

 International dialling code: +850

 Source: CIA World Factbook