Whenever I tell someone I just came back from North Korea, the responses are invariably:
- “Are people starving?”
- “How’s the food?”
- “Is what you see staged?”
- “Were you followed everywhere by minders?”
- “Did you see Kim Jong Un?”
- “You mean you can actually go to North Korea?”
- “Is it safe?”
It is interesting to hear these questions as it reveals how little the outside world knows of this country. Having just came back from there as a tourist, I’m still hardly wiser. These are just some of my limited observations. For an untainted perception, don’t read on and just visit for yourself.
1. Are people starving?
Not that I can see, although being on a guided tour means you see what is designated on the itinerary. We didn’t travel to the north east (maybe those who have could share their observations), which is said to be very rugged and not suitable for agriculture. On our itinerary, we travelled by train from Beijing-Dandong (China Border)-Siniujiu (N. Korean border)-Pyongyang, and then by bus from Pyongyang to Kaesong: the journey took us through endless fields of plantations. Mostly rice and maize/corn, from my very non-agricultural eye. Being sanctioned probably means North Korea can’t rely much on overseas food supply and people are trying to grow as much as they can during summer. Yet at the same time, one reads reports like this and wonder.
2. How’s the food?
None of us were expecting indulgent spreads given that this is a country rumoured to have food shortage and famine. But as tourists, we were well fed. Being on a guided tour meant you ate at designated places so there wasn’t much chance to experience local eating culture even if there was one. The only time we actually ate with locals was while on the train from Siniujiu to Pyongyang: the attendants came by our cabin earlier to take orders – it’s a standard lunch menu, and the attendants were only taking down the number of people to cater to. The non-air conditioned cafeteria car provided a very traditional spread, with plates of food, bowls of soup and rice mixed with barley served on crockery, and the meal consumed on tables with proper tablecloths laid with stainless steel utensils. The dishes – there were at least six or seven of them – were painstakingly delivered out one by one by the attendants who were melting under their smart uniforms in the height of summer. It was then that I truly appreciated cold kimchi as an appetizer for a sweltering hot summer lunch. I would say that’s one of the most interesting food experiences.
3. Is what you see staged?
Strangely this was a very commonly-asked question. Is it in the guidebooks or widely reported in the media? I honestly don’t know why people have that perception. True, we did watch some elaborate staged performances, e.g. the Arirang Mass Games and at the Children’s Cultural Palace, and the sets at the film studio. Sure, Pyongyang, is very well-manicured and immaculately clean, but aren’t capital cities of the world generally prime examples of their countries? People are generally polite if a bit reserved and shy, perhaps due to language barrier. There is a strong sense of collective order and uniformity in style, particularly fashion wise. Shops in Pyongyang look generic. Even if you can’t read Korean, you can tell what the shop sells just by looking at the blue picture next to the words. Stuck in time in part due to sanctions and in part due to ideology perhaps. But does that necessarily mean that life there is staged?
Nowhere was spontaneity more evident at the amusement park, which is ironically the best part of our trip: it was a great chance to soak in the Friday evening atmosphere as people enjoyed the company of their family, teenagers loitered around with their friends and children shrieked in delight on the rides.
4. Were you followed everywhere by minders?
If by minders one means tour guides, yes. In fact for our group of about 20 people, there were 3 North Korean guides, 1 bus driver and 1 cameraman (who records our trip and sells the DVD as a souvenir at the end of the trip). We were told normally there are only 2 guides for this group size, but perhaps one more was added because there were Americans on our tour. The guides had to account for the number of people every where we went. At only one point were we completely “minder”-free, and ironically that was when we were about to depart the Panmujom/DMZ (the demilitarised zone): once we were all packed on to the bus, all the North Koreans (including driver and cameraman) had to leave the bus, perhaps to report or sign off with the authorities. It was just for a short while, and the bus engine was left running for the air-condition. When they came back, the guides immediately did a headcount to make sure everyone was still there.
At Kaesong I stepped out of the hotel for a short walk in the morning by myself for about half an hour without any fuss. Nobody noticed until I came back and someone repeatedly but politely tried to ask me in halting English whether I was from America (No, I’m not). It was very benign but I guess people’s heads are on the lines and they had to make sure there aren’t any spies disguised as tourists infiltrating the country. And I wouldn’t encourage anyone to wander off and make trouble for your guides.
Generally I didn’t feel our movement was restricted apart from the fact that we had to join a tour group. Like any tours, you are supposed to follow the guide and not stray.
5. Did you see Kim Jong Un?
Alas, not in person. But he’s featured on portraits. And almost everyday in the Pyongyang Times.
6. You mean you can actually go to North Korea?
Yes. But only on a guided tour. We had a fun trip though.
From what we could see, the rest of the foreigners in Pyongyang are there either on diplomatic missions or with the UN.
7. Is it safe?
This is likely the last place on earth where you will get mugged or pick-pocketed.
Besides, it’s nuclear-empowered and heavily militarised. Even if war breaks out while you are there, chances of surviving shouldn’t be too low.