North Korea travel

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

_________________________________________

Visiting the DMZ on the North Korean side is not everyone’s idea of a vacation. The Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea has been called “the most dangerous place on Earth.”  On either side of the border sits the largest concentration of soldiers and weapons on the planet. Vice President Mike Pence recently visited the DMZ to look out over North Korea. Here’s what it’s like actually being on the other side in the heart of North Korea.

We left our Pyongyang hotel early for the 120 kilometer drive on the Reunification Highway to the DMZ.  As we neared the border the bus passed through a series of checkpoints that were a few miles apart. These weren’t that intimidating, just a guard shack by the side of the road with a swinging gate out front.

visiting the DMZ on the North Korean side

Except for a major roadblock at the DMZ, the Reunification Highway leads directly from Pyongyang to Seoul. Typical of North Korea, traffic is generally not a problem.

But as we approached each checkpoint the mood on the bus got a bit tense. It was one thing to be in North Korea, it was quite another to be scrutinized by army personnel, particularly when carrying an American passport.

visiting the DMZ on the North Korean side

Military briefing by North Korean soldier at the DMZ.

After the final checkpoint the bus pulled up to a large concrete wall where we disembarked. We were led into a building that contained a gift shop, at the DMZ of all places, offering a wide range of ginseng products and books by the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung. We soon learned that ginseng was available for purchase wherever we stopped in the DPRK.

Portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are everywhere in North Korea

We were led into a room that contained a ten-foot high overview map of the area. A North Korean soldier, wooden pointer in hand, proceeded to provide a military briefing on the DMZ.  Like all rooms in North Korea, it had pictures of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, and the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, beaming down on the proceedings. After the brief pep talk we proceeded to the actual border which was delineated by a concrete curb that even a child could just step over. A series of small buildings the size of mobile homes straddles the border.

Looking at the DMZ from the North Korean side

We noticed that there was also a tour group lined up on the South Korean side.  So while the North and South Korean soldiers stared off against each other to see who would blink first, we had our own stare down with the tourists, likely from the same countries as us, on the other side.

We were permitted to enter one of the small buildings that straddle the border which is used as a conference room when there are disputes between the two Koreas. Through the small windows of the building we could see the South Korean guards about twenty feet away standing in battle ready positions, their arms hanging tensely at their sides with their fists firmly clenched.

Korea DMZ

North and South Korean soldiers are only yards apart at the border, represented by the small concrete curb next to the two North Korean soldiers. Photo courtesy Russell Ng.

As we ambled around the room we walked in and out of both Koreas so technically we were in South Korea at one point. On the bus ride back that was a matter of some discussion among our group as to whether we get credit for going to South Korea based on our brief foray.

After we arrived back in Pyongyang there was a sense of relief that we had survived our visit to the most dangerous place on Earth. Then reality set in and we realized we were still in Pyongyang, the capital city of the most isolated nation in the world.

With the recent death of Kim Jong Il, travel arrangements to North Korea are uncertain. The isolated country does not allow independent travel and all groups are escorted by two minders. But if you are interested in visiting the DMZ on the North Korean side. We traveled with with Koryo Tours. The British-run company has been leading tours to North Korea since 1993.

Click the link for more stories about our visit to North Korea.

Link to United States government information for visiting North Korea. (Spoiler alert: They highly recommend not going.)

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

_________________________________________

 

Despite the fact that ancient history in North Korea goes back more than 4,000 years, the country’s rich culture is often masked by current events. It seems that we can’t go more than a few weeks without news of saber rattling from the current regime about missiles, nukes or some other threat.

During our visit to North Korea, we were mostly shown sights related to the iconography of the modern era: monuments and museums propping up the cult of personality related to the dynasty started by Kim Il Sung, passed on to his son Kim Jong Il, and now perpetuated by Kim Jong Un. But that leadership has been in place for only 75 years, the blink of an eye in the Korean peninsula’s long history. 

A recent monument to Kim Il Sung--definitely NOT part of the ancient history of North KoreaStone soldiers guarding a 100-year old tomb-part of the ancient history in North KoreaMonuments from two very different dynasties in Korea’s history. 

The day was hot and sticky as we trudged up the steep hill on Tongil Street to gaze upon yet another massive, gilded statue of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung. We were in the industrial city of Kaesong, fresh off a visit to the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, which is only three miles south. The city is laid out in typical DPRK fashion with wide boulevards leading to the city’s high point where we found the gold monument to the nation’s founder. But the Korean peninsula also holds fascinating treasures hearkening back to a different time.

From 918 to 1392, Kaesong was the capital of Korea (which of course was united back then) and the home of the Koryo Dynasty, the source of the name Korea. We left modern-day Kaesong in a bus to visit a rural area that held royal tombs from that era. Along the way we passed verdant rice paddies with farmers harvesting their crops while soldiers on patrol, a common sight near the DMZ, strode nearby.

Hyonjongrung royal tombs from the 14th century. A bit of ancient history in North Korea

After the bus climbed a narrow hillside path, we approached the Hyonjongrung royal tombs, the 14th-century burial site for King Kongmin and Queen Noguk.  The tombs are typical of burial architecture of the era, two large grass-covered mounds set atop the hill with a commanding view over the valley below.

We hiked up several flights of steps to the tombs, passing stone statues of men wearing robes and traditional hats. They are the king’s advisors, placed there to provide eternal guidance to the deceased royals. Seven-ton stone slabs mark the entranceway to each tomb. Gray stone statues of tigers and lambs, representing strength and compassion, guard the tombs in perpetuity.

A soldier guards Hyonjongrung royal tombs-a rare bit of ancient history in North KoreaGuarding the Hyonjongrung royal tombs-a rare bit of ancient history in North KoreaOur guide, Mrs. Lee, was proud of her country’s long history, but in a country like North Korea, current events usually cast a long shadow over the past. “These tombs represent a time when Korea was one country. But as you can see, it is now divided. One wonders whose fault that is?” Mrs. Lee intoned, giving the official government line that the United States and its South Korean “lackeys” are preventing the reunification of the two Koreas.

Despite the message, it was refreshing to view a site in North Korea that truly was historic, not something newer built after the rise of Kim Il Sung. Similar tombs on the South Korean side of the DMZ have been recognized by UNSESCO as World Heritage sites.  The North Korean sites are unblemished by mass tourism and can be seen in their pristine ancient setting.

Temple in the museum in Kaesong-a bit of ancient history in North Korea

Unfortunately, the interiors of the tombs were plundered by Japanese troops during their early 20th-century occupation of Korea. However, some relics were saved and are now preserved at the Koryo Museum back in Kaesong. Housed in a former Confucian Academy that trained the children of nobility, it displays relics of the Koryo Dynasty that include several royal tombs and statues. The museum, flanked by a pair of 500-year-old gingko trees, is a revered link to the past set in a green oasis slightly removed from the city.

At a wedding in Kaesong, where the bride's costume reflects ancient history in North KoreaOutside one of the temples we watched a wedding couple as they posed for their official photos, the bride resplendent in a traditional Korean choson ot dress in a scarlet red fabric, while the groom wore a Western gray suit and the slightly dazed expression exhibited by grooms everywhere on their wedding day.

As we saw at Kaesong, the Korean peninsula has been ruled by centuries-long dynasties. We drove out of town and passed once more under the shadow of the statue of Kim Il Sung. One wonders if that icon will still be standing and venerated centuries from now.

Pin it!

Despite all the hype of the current regime, it's still possible to find ancient history in North Korea

We’re global nomads who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011 seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

_________________________________________

Sights in North Korea scream “look at me,” much like a regime that consistently tries to make news in shocking fashion. Although the country is small—the size of Pennsylvania, with an economy comparable to Kalamazoo, MI—they sport some whoppers: the tallest, biggest, deepest and more. Read more

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

_________________________________________

Photos of North Korea

North Korea is a fascinating country that is truly like no other place on Earth.  Traveling to the last vestige of the Cold War is like entering both a time warp and a distorted hall of mirrors. However, while the regime spouts a continuous stream of propaganda at its citizens, the people were friendly and gracious, the same as people everywhere. We were particularly entranced by the children who ranged from curious to shy to just plain goofy, like any group of kids.  Here are some photos of North Korea from our recent trip there.

Photos of North Korea workers monument

The Korea Workers’ Monument. In an unusual move for a Communist country, the creative class is also represented, seen here in the paint brush.

North Korea DMZ

A rare view of the DMZ from the North Korean side. The actual border is the small curb between the blue buildings where two North Korean soldiers are facing each other. Just steps away a South Korean soldiers stands guard.

Pictures of North Korea women choson ot

Women approaching Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum wear the traditional choson ot. For many, it is the pilgrimage of a lifetime.

North Korea Arirang Mass Games

With over 100,000 performers, the Arirang Mass Games are the largest show on earth.

North Korea Choson ot Mass Dance Pyongyang

A traditional Mass Dance in Pyongyang on National Day.

Ryugyong Hotel North Korea

The 105-floor Ryugyong in Pyongyang is the tallest hotel in the world. Just don’t try making reservations. Construction stopped about 20 years ago.

USS Pueblo North Korea

A guide at the USS Pueblo, the only commissioned United States Navy ship still held in foreign hands. It was captured in international waters by North Korean forces in 1968 and its crew held hostage for 11 months.

North Korea Hureung royal tombs

With all the modern Communist iconography it’s easy to forget that North Korea has an ancient history. The Hureung tombs were built in the 15th-century to house the remains of a king and queen of the Joseon dynasty. These are statues guarding the tombs.

North Korea wedding party

A Korean wedding couple at the historic village of Chosin. Like grooms everywhere he wears an expression saying, “What am I getting myself into?”

Click on the link to view our Flickr album with more pictures of North Korea

Changes in Longitude Larissa & Michael Milne at Arctic Circle

We’re Larissa and Michael, your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe to our travel newsletter here.

We’d like to share some images of North Korea from postcards we picked up in Pyongyang. Some of them display the incessant propaganda while others are images of the modern city center.

post card from North Korea people holding torch

Unless you’ve avoided all media, you’ve probably noticed that North Korea has been in the news quite a bit lately. When Kim Jong Un started his mysterious saber-rattling a few months ago, we found it hard to take him seriously. But when we visited North Korea we did notice something ominous, the people really believe the propaganda fed to them by the government that they won the Korean War (without any Chinese help by the way). If they believe they won the last war, perhaps they think they can win another.

Read more

As we traveled around the world with our statue of Rocky Balboa, there were only two groups of people who didn’t recognize him: North Koreans and the San people of the Kalahari in Namibia. Everywhere else he was quite the celebrity and a real icebreaker who helped us meet Read more

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

_________________________________________

We’ve been to more than 25 countries so far on our year-long around-the-world journey, but one has generated more questions than all the others combined: North Korea. People wanted to know how to travel to North Korea? Others asked why would two Americans visit a country that is so isolated? As boomers we grew up with the Cold War, so we were curious to see firsthand its last outpost. If you are interested in going somewhere that truly is like no other place on Earth, North Korea should be on your list.

Visiting the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as it’s officially known) is not easy, but it is allowed by both the US and North Korean governments. Given the nature of the totalitarian state, that surprised us. Group tours through a DPRK-authorized agency are the only way to see the Hermit Kingdom, with entry through China, North Korea’s closest ally. We chose Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based outfit with the most experience touring the DPRK. Run by Nick Bonner, a British filmmaker who has made several documentaries about the country, Koryo has been leading tours to North Korea since 1993.

North Korea DMZ

The DMZ seen from the North Korean side.

Our tour was a 5-day visit that included a trip to Pyongyang and the DMZ. Groups attend a pre-tour briefing the night before departure from Beijing that focuses on what to expect and how to behave in the DPRK. Anything our group did that broke the rules would reflect poorly on our North Korean guides and potentially cause future visitation restrictions.

The North Korean government is notoriously skittish about any information from the outside world, particularly as it relates to South Korea. This is a society where the people don’t have Internet access or a free media. Books, magazines or any information about North or South Korea are prohibited. Cell phones, computers and GPS devices are not allowed. They are confiscated upon entry and returned when leaving. Clothing with political slogans or flags of foreign countries (particularly South Korea and the USA) is taboo.

Larissa Michael Kim Il Sung Square Pyongyang

Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang.

While we were allowed to bring cameras and encouraged to take pictures, the size of zoom lenses was limited. We also could never, and we do mean never, take pictures from the bus. That’s too bad because we saw some pretty interesting buildings and monuments from the bus that we couldn’t capture on film. We were also forbidden from taking pictures of military personnel or installations.

Given all those rules, we had a fair amount of latitude to take pictures when we did leave the bus. These excursions included trips on the subway and to parks where we freely mingled with locals and were allowed to snap away at will.

North Korea Kim Il Sung tomb

Women wearing the traditional choson-ot pose outside the tomb of Kim Il Sung.

Our tour included the usual highlights: the DMZ, Kim Il-Sung’s Tomb, and the USS Pueblo, which was of particular interest since we remember its capture in 1968. Somewhat incongruously, we spent an afternoon at the Pyongyang Gold Lane bowling alley. We timed our visit to coincide with the Arirang Mass Games, which take place in September. Billed as the largest mass participation event in the world (many things in North Korea seem to be the largest in the world) the Mass Games truly are spectacular.

With over 100,000 participants, they’re a multi-sensory performance that evokes Cirque de Soleil, military parades, Super Bowl half-time shows, ear-popping odes to the Dear Leader and frenzied flag-waving. One side of the stadium is filled with over 20,000 youths creating giant card mosaics depicting historical events in North Korea’s history: from military heroics to nature to burgeoning factories that highlight the country’s supposed industrial might.

North Korea Mass Games

The Arirang Mass Games are like no other show on earth. 

North Korea is a fascinating country. A visit there provides insight into the Cold War Communist mindset. But underneath all the propaganda and hubris we met people who, while devoted to their rigid ideology, were friendly and open. Visiting the DPRK has been one of the most memorable experiences of our journey.

For more information on North Korea please check the following:

US State Department travel information for North Korea.

Koryo Tours: www.koryogroup.com 

This post originally appeared on the travel blog My Itchy Travel Feet.

Communist governments feel compelled to preserve the corpses of their founders and keep them on display for public viewing. It’s their way of sustaining the cult of personality that keeps the current regimes in place. In the past few months we hit the trifecta of embalmed communist Asian leaders: Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-tung and Kim Il-Sung.

The Ho Chi Minh Tale

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh, the man whose efforts eventually unified Vietnam, was apparently a simple man. He requested to be cremated and have his ashes spread over north and south Vietnam. However his successors ignored his request, resulting in a foreboding Stalinist pile that goes against his wishes.

Due to its heavy-handed architectural style, the mausoleum actually appears larger in photos than in person where it’s easier to determine its scale. Army honor guards wearing white dress uniforms surround the entrance. They appear to be selected based on height because they were all taller than Michael, a rarity in Vietnam.

The chamber housing Ho is fairly austere; the only decorations are two large reddish floor-to-ceiling marble panels behind him, one decorated by a yellow hammer-and-sickle and the other the gold star of the Vietnam flag. The body is remarkably well-preserved, even down to Ho’s signature wispy beard. As we gaped at his body lying under the exposed glare of spotlights we couldn’t help thinking that this was the exact opposite of what he requested.

We were in and out in less than a minute and on to the rest of the complex, which includes his small house built on stilts and the requisite Presidential automobiles.

The Chairman’s Mao-soleum

Mao Tse-Tung Mausoleum, Beijing, China

Mao mausoleum Beijing

 

The line to visit Chairman Mao wraps around Tiananmen Square but moves quickly and is well organized, one of the few places in Beijing where people queue in an orderly fashion. Mao’s tomb is strikingly similar to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, right down to the seated larger-than-life statue of him staring benevolently down on the masses teeming by.

We filed quietly past the raised casket. His body is covered by a large Communist flag leaving only his waxen face visible. We could easily have been viewing a likeness of Chairman Mao made by an artist surreptitiously hired away from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.  We were in the room with Mao for about twenty seconds and then shunted on.

Outside the mausoleum vendors sell trinkets bearing Mao’s image. For a system that renounces religion, they have an amazing capability of suborning such symbols to glorify their own leaders. The baubles for sale included  gilded images, similar to religious icons, that the faithful could hang on their walls. It reminded us of the shrine-like gifts for sale upon leaving the Vatican.

The “Greatest” of them all: Kim Il Sung

Kim Il Sung mausoleum, Pyongyang, North Korea

Kim Il Sung Mausoleum

The mausoleum housing Kim Il Sung, forever known as The Great Leader, is a massive marble building that is all out of proportion to the tiny country. It overlooks a vast windswept square that is large enough to hold military parades or possibly land a small jet. In a country of such wretched poverty the contrast is astonishing.

We waited outside the entrance next to two lines of North Koreans from the countryside. The women were mostly under five feet tall, partly a product of heredity and likely a product of malnourishment. They wore the choson-ot , the traditional dress brought out for special occasions. For them it was the trip of a lifetime, probably the only time they would pay their respects to Kim Il Sung. For us it was just another stop on a tour.

Kim Il Sung mausoleum Pyongyang

North Korean women wearing the traditional “choson ot” prepare for a group photo.

In one room large bronze bas-relief murals depicted people of various races in agony: African farmers in their fields crying, Asian factory workers doubled over in pain. We were given headsets with an English language description of Kim Il-Sung’s death. The hyperbolic announcer, who sounded like a Korean Alistair Cooke hepped up on meth intoned, “All over the world, people beat their breasts in agony over the loss of the Great Leader!!!” 

Before entering the viewing area we walked across a contraption with rollers that cleaned the bottoms of our shoes. Then we entered another vestibule and went through an airlock type device; cold air was blasted at us from high-speed blowers to remove any stray particles of dust. The women in dresses looked like they were replicating Marilyn Monroe’s famous stop over the subway vent in The Seven Year Itch.

Suitably cleansed we finally entered the room where the Great Leader lay in repose. We marched around the body in groups of four, with a curt bow required at the feet and two sides of the casket.

We then entered a museum honoring Kim Il Sung. Along the walls, in a literal rogue’s gallery, hang large framed pictures of him shaking hands with notorious world leaders; some of whom, Hosni Mubarek and Muammar Gadhafi, had only recently been deposed by their own people. It makes one wonder what fate awaits the current leader of the DPRK.

Grave doubts

It struck us that the North Korean leader presided over the smallest of the three countries in Asia with embalmed leaders but had the gaudiest display devoted to him. It makes sense though. China and Vietnam are moving forward on a business-oriented track that engages the world, while North Korea is still mired in an isolated cult of personality to keep its current citizens in their place.

Other than the overblown architecture designed to make the common man feel, well, common, you will notice another similarity in these photos, they’re not very clear. This is the result of the horrible air pollution in Beijing, Hanoi and Pyongyang. Just another thing that totalitarian regimes unconcerned about their citizens can get away with.

Click the link to view more about our visit to North Korea.

Have you visited any of these sights?

To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

_________________________________________

 

For our final night in North Korea we went to the Pyongyang Fun Fair. It was hard to imagine the words “Pyongyang” and “Fun” in the same sentence, let alone back-to-back, so we were curious what it was all about. Our bus rolled up to the fair and from most outward appearances it looked like a typical carnival in the heartland of America. Although it was relatively dark by American county fair standards, for North Korea it appeared like a glittering Las Vegas in the middle of the desert.

We entered through a thirty-foot high rainbow-colored arch, unlike seemingly everything else in North Korea’s showpiece city it wasn’t the largest of its kind in the world—for once it was just an arch—that was surrounded by glittery fake palm trees. For electricity deprived North Koreans the effect is like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the film fades from black-and-white to dazzling Technicolor.

Orderly lines at the Pyongyang Fun Fair

The first thing we noticed was how orderly the crowds were. There were long lines for every ride but there was no pushing and shoving going on, not even any smiling really. There wasn’t a knee or elbow out-of-place from someone trying to gain an advantage in line. We had just left China where many crowd activities take on the physical maw of a rugby scrum. The regimented society did produce one positive result. Too bad it comes with so many negatives.

The other aspect of the fair that was unusual was how quiet it was. If a carnival could take place in a church this is how we imagined it would sound. The hundreds of people produced hardly a peep. Maybe some of it was due to the relative darkness of the fair which tends to lead folks to talk in hushed tones.  More likely these are individuals who are used to modulating their voices because they never know who is listening.

When we walked over to the roller coaster we realized what was missing. North Koreans don’t scream on rides. To scream is to stick out and be noticed and this is a society where one definitely doesn’t want any undue attention. The mantra is: keep your head down, do your job, and don’t ask any questions. That’s how they survive. It’s become such an ingrained way of life that it even passes over to the few leisure activities offered to them.

The British leader of our tour group, Nick, takes a different approach to life. When he was strapped into the roller coaster he immediately started screaming in a loud, high-pitched falsetto that must have been painful for his male vocal chords. The other Westerners in the car with him started screaming too. (Full disclosure here, Larissa went on the ride and was one of the screamers, Michael did his usual avoid the roller coaster routine and stayed behind on firm ground to hold the ladies’ purses. He’s good at that.)

A night at the Pyongyang Fun Fair

The North Koreans were amused by the whole episode. We saw the beginnings of a smile appear from the people waiting in line for the ride. When the ride actually started and Nick’s screams reached ever higher octaves those smiles turned into actual laughs. Some of the North Koreans picked up on it and when it was their turn to be flung around the roller coaster they started screaming too. Soon there were folks all over the ride screaming with abandon.

And that’s when we realized what had been missing all along. A carnival can’t be quiet. It has to be noisy from the delighted squeals of children, and adults acting like children. Nick introduced screaming on rides to the North Koreans and they were enjoying this unbridled display of emotion. On a ride in the dark night they could be anonymous, with no one in authority wondering who the squeaky wheel was.

As our group left the park it was noticeably louder than when we had entered. It sounded like a fun fair where people were actually having fun. I wondered, however, what it would sound like on the next night, and the ones after that.

Click the link for more stories about our visit to North Korea.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39W29JtdIMM[/youtube]

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

_________________________________________

In 2011 we attended the Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea. With more than 100,000 performers it is billed as the biggest show on Earth by no less than Guinness World Records. The Mass Games are a combination of gymnastics, circus high-wire act, mass dancing, drama and all wrapped up in a veneer of self-promoting “long live the Fatherland” type of propaganda.

Over 20,000 of the performers holding books filled with multi-colored pages sit opposite the audience. They flip the pages in the books on cue to reveal stadium-sized murals highlighting everything from nature to people to weaponry. (This is a military-first society after all.) The show takes place in Rungrado May Day Stadium that reputedly holds over 105,000 spectators. When we attended the majority of them were wearing dark green army uniforms. During some portions the show felt very much like a military rally.

It’s really hard to describe the Mass Games so for once I’ll shut up and let the video and pictures do the talking:

During the next part the child performers appeared to be about seven years old. While their performance was uniformly impressive, seeing kids this age being so obviously coached and trained was sort of like watching a Stalinist version of Toddlers & Tiaras:

This next section included the Tae Kwon Do performance, a sport in which North Korea is a world leader:

The stated purpose of the Mass Games is to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s birth. He was born in April, but for some reason the games are held in August and September. When the mural shown below flashed in the stadium I was surprised that the applause wasn’t as unbridled as I expected. I wonder if this means anything for the future of North Korea.

The “Great Leader” done in flash cards.

By the way, this was a difficult post for me to put together because the treble-heavy patriotic music started to drive Larissa a little crazy, but I hope you enjoyed this window into a totally different world.  You can only visit North Korea as part of a pre-approved group tour, the most experienced company is Koryo Tours. It is run by a Nick Bonner, a Brit based in Beijing.

Click the link for more stories about our trip to North Korea.

Subscribe here to receive updates on our journey around the world and valuable travel tips.

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

_________________________________________

Much has been speculated about North Korea—the government, human rights, the standard of living, etc.—but you rarely see anything about some of the more mundane aspects of life.  On our recent trip to Pyongyang I was intrigued by the day-to-day things seen through the fog of the government propaganda machine. In particular, what do women wear in North Korea?  Something as simple as how they dress can indicate their role in society.

A totalitarian regime does not lend itself to chic. The whole government machine is focused on men—the “Great Leader Kim Il Sung,” his son Kim Jong Il (merely known as “The Dear Leader”) and now Kim Jong Un, the third member of the Leader Dynasty.

North Korea Choson ot Mass Dance Pyongyang

North Korean women break out their Sunday best and finest shoes for the Mass Dance.

Women don’t loom large in this whole scenario.  There are few references to women—only Kim Il Sung’s grandmother (who raised him) and wife (who gave birth to the Dear Leader, then died in 1949) warrant any type of mention in the country’s history.  This is not a matriarchal society.

Given this rather lackluster status, it is hardly surprising that women’s attire here is not exactly fashion-forward.  Think a sort of “Asian-Communism-Meets-the-Stepford-Wives” and you get the general flavor.

The Pyongyang Metro on National Day.

The women tend to dress in one of three ways:  The Choson-ot (the traditional Korean long dress, known in South Korea as the Hanbok), a military uniform, or “regular work clothes”—which kind of looks like typical office wear in the west in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.  Remember the two-piece dresses with a jacket/blouse and a flared mid-calf skirt?  Bam!  You’re in North Korea circa 2012.

Teenagers seem to have a bit more latitude, wearing jeans and Hello Kitty-type t-shirts, but I never saw a woman over about 18 dressed that way.  When I asked our guide about it, she just shrugged and said “that’s kids, when we grow up we dress properly.”   Which is probably not a bad model to follow for grown women everywhere.

Most of what I’ve described above just sort of sounds like a somewhat militaristic society where Vogue, Glamour, Elle (or even Good Housekeeping for that matter) are not distributed or even known about.  It’s the wearing of the Choson-ot where the whole “Stepford Wives” aspect comes into play.

Don’t get me wrong, these are beautiful garments, and remembering one’s heritage is important.  But in North Korea (or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea-DPRK), the Choson-ot seems to be mandatory dress whenever declarations of national pride are required (and that is often in the DPRK).

Bowling in Pyongyang wearing traditional garb

 

Guides at the national monuments all wear this outfit. Even young university women have a sort of abbreviated version:  navy and white with a mid-calf skirt.  It is the featured costume for women in the Arirang Performance (or “Mass Games”) every year.  It is de rigueur for mass impromptu national dancing done on National Day.

When our group visited the mausoleum of “The Great Leader” Kim Il Sung I noticed that the Korean woman all wore their “Sunday Best.” Imagine all of us dressing like Betsy Ross to visit Mount Vernon or the Jefferson Memorial and you get the picture.  In all fairness there is something to be said for dressing your best for an event that is important to you.

North Korea women traditional dress choson ot

Striding off to pay homage at the tomb of Kim Il Sung. 

Here’s the kicker though; for the men, formal dress is considered a shirt and tie.  This is how “The Great Leader” is depicted in official portraits that are plastered on billboards everywhere, and there is nary a dopo (the men’s equivalent to the Choson-ot) to be seen.  It seems some genders are [allowed to be] more progressive than others.

If one were using fashion as an indicator of status—and let’s face it, that’s what fashion is all about—then the fashions in North Korea speak volumes.  Women can be well-attired, but power-dressing is just not in the vernacular.  Except. . . wait for it. . . shoes!  These gals might be wearing Betsy Ross-era clothing, but underneath it all, they are wearing pretty heels (trust me, I checked!) It seems “The Great Leader” either neglected or underestimated “the shoe gene” that is attached to our second X-chromosome.

One of the guides taking us around a historic site was dressed in that ’80s garb I mentioned earlier—but she was wearing the most beautiful pair of bright turquoise suede pumps.  She was formal and subdued throughout the whole tour. At the end, however, when she asked if there were any further questions or comments I asked our interpreter to compliment the guide on her beautiful shoes.

Her transformation was complete and instantaneous.  She became chatty and friendly, and we started comparing shoes.  (Unfortunately I was wearing my rather functional Keen sandals—see more on traveling shoes for women– but it was a great ice breaker).

Now this is the way to break down political barriers.


See more about our trip to North Korea.

To follow our journey around the world in search of the tasty and quirky and receive valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

_________________________________________

CNN just posted an article about an amateur golf tournament that was held in North Korea. One of their readers commented that due to the poor conditions imposed on its citizens by the current regime people should be boycotting the country, not going there. That reader raised an interesting question. Is it morally right to visit North Korea?

choson ot north korea women

This is something we grappled with before our recent trip to the Hermit Kingdom. We had done our research and knew that conditions for many of its citizens, particularly those in the in the countryside, are appalling. There is a lack of basic human rights, a very small part of which is even extended to visitors who must give up their cell phones, computers, GPS devices, certain books and newspapers, and any method of accessing the outside world upon entry. Again we emphasize that this is an extremely small taste of what the North Koreans experience on a daily basis.

We knew all this beforehand yet we still wanted to go. When dealing with other countries we strongly believe in engagement, not estrangement. For our entire lifetime the US has engaged in a boycott of Cuba to protest the Castro regime. It has been ineffective and has not yielded any positive results. Here we are, citizens of the freedom-loving United States, yet we are not free to visit Cuba without incurring severe fines and potential jail time. Due to the Cuba boycott we were surprised to learn that we were allowed to visit North Korea.

As a child I was fascinated with the country due to the Pueblo Incident, the 1968 taking of a U.S. naval vessel illegally by the DPRK government when they also held the crew hostage for almost a year. When I was a teenager I exchanged letters with Commander Lloyd Bucher, the captain of the Pueblo. Since the ship is still held in Pyongyang, I wanted to see it as a memorial to both him and his crew.

choson ot north korea

We knew that North Koreans are taught from an early age to hate Americans. We saw this on full display at the War Museum where North Korean school children are taught that America started the Korean War and then were forced to surrender to the victorious Kim Il Sung. In propaganda posters Americans are portrayed as bayonet wielding, hook-nosed spindly characters that are intent on wiping out the Korean race.

Westerners are still a rare enough breed in Pyongyang that we stood out where ever we went. But aside from their curiosity, the people we encountered were gracious and welcoming. When our tour bus was stuck in a crowd of National Day revelers we were greeted with cries of “Welcome” from groups passing by and many waves from children. This was true in all our interactions. The local people were not at all like the stoic automatons we had expected.

north korean children

We also hoped to counter the image of us that had been drilled into them from an early age. By being exposed to Americans the North Koreans we met could witness for themselves that we are not the evil characters that we have been portrayed. We feel that more positive than negative comes from seeing each other firsthand, that the alternative of hiding behind walls and government policies only breeds ignorance and distrust. We believe in breaking down barriers and encourage other like-minded travelers to visit North Korea. It was truly an unforgettable experience.

Click the link for more about visiting North Korea.

Link to United States government information for visiting North Korea.

To receive updates on our global journey and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

When I was a child my father spent one Saturday morning on the phone trying to find a store that sold a “Remember the Pueblo” bumper sticker.  He finally found a store that had the sticker so we all piled into the car to go get it. On the way my parents explained all the fuss about the Pueblo Incident.

The prior month, on January 23, 1968, the US Navy ship Pueblo had been captured by the North Korean navy for allegedly intruding into their territorial waters. During the capture an American sailor was killed. The remaining 82 sailors were being held hostage by the totalitarian regime of Kim Il Sung. My dad was a Coast Guard veteran and wanted to show his support for the sailors who were in captivity.

Just as the agreement to end the Korean War dragged on, the US sailors were not released until December 23rd of that year. This occurred only after the sailors and their commanding officer, Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, were subjected to enough torture to make false confessions and the United States issued an apology for trespassing on North Korea. Upon their release the State Department was able to confirm with Commander Bucher that the ship had not violated North Korea’s waters and immediately rescinded the apology.

Pueblo Incident ship in Pyongyang

The USS Pueblo today 

The ship was never returned and today it floats on the Taedong river in the center of Pyongyang; the only commissioned U.S. Navy ship in foreign hands. The North Koreans are very proud of the trophy that they wrested from the “Imperialist Americans” and it is required viewing on a tour of the capital city.

I had personal reasons for wanting to visit the ship. As a child I had been fascinated by the whole affair. It was the first time I had become aware of and intrigued by an event concerning international relations and diplomacy. Did I mention that I was seven at the time? Several years later, when I was a teenager, I wrote to Commander Bucher about the incident. He responded with a long handwritten letter about life in captivity and made comparisons to another major item then in the news, the Iranian hostage crisis.

As we approached the ship the first thing that struck me was how small it is. I couldn’t imagine bouncing around the frigid waters of the Sea of Japan in it. The ship was a World War II-era freighter that had been hastily converted for its current mission.

Pueblo ship captains wheel

The Captain’s wheel on the bridge

It was lightly armed with two .50 caliber machine guns. During the incident they were wrapped in canvas which had frozen solid, rendering them unusable. It wouldn’t have mattered since the North Koreans threatened the Pueblo with two gunboats, three torpedo boats and a pair of MiG fighter planes circling overhead. At the point that the North Koreans starting strafing the ship, killing one sailor, Commander Bucher finally gave in and surrendered.

By all credible accounts that’s what happened that day on the high seas. The story we heard was a bit different. Our group was herded into the crew’s mess where we watched a 15-minute propaganda video of the North Korean interpretation of the events. This consisted mostly of harangues against America and really grainy footage of Lyndon Johnson looking demonic. What the video lacked in facts it made up for in rage and indignation.

Next we toured the room where the intelligence gathering equipment was held. Since the attack was so sudden most of it remained intact as the crew had little time to destroy the cryptographic machines and classified documents.

Pueblo incident crypto equipment

The still intact crypto equipment 

We went up on deck where the guide led us through the North Korean interpretation of events. Apparently the mighty Pueblo was captured by a mere eight North Korean soldiers who found the captain quivering under a table. No mention was made of the overwhelming amount of arms that the North Koreans brought to bear on the Pueblo. We almost got the impression that the eight soldiers had swum out to the ship in the freezing waters, hoisted themselves overboard under withering gunfire and then captured it as the Americans all cowered in fear.

We had been warned before the trip that we were not to point out to the hosts that their interpretation of historical events was different from ours. If we did the tour would come to an abrupt end and, besides, we weren’t going to convince them anyway. The “facts” as they knew them had been drilled into them for years; since birth really.

One member of our group, Jeff, had a finely honed knack for asking questions in such a subtle way that showed he wasn’t buying it. He asked innocently, “How did only eight soldiers capture eighty-three Americans?” The guide responded in all sincerity, “They were very brave.” This was a theme we were to hear often during the week.

One of the sad things that the tour of the Pueblo revealed was how much the North Koreans are still clinging to the past. The incident looms large in the country’s history and is put forth as yet another example of the superiority of their political system.

There was a time when “Remember the Pueblo” became a rallying cry in the United States. Today I would wager that less than 95% of Americans who were born after the Pueblo incident even know about it; but the citizens of North Korea have this minor skirmish that occurred over forty years ago drilled into them constantly. Until they focus more on the future, things will never change in North Korea.  It certainly makes for fascinating–albeit exasperating–touring.

For more go to the official web site of USS Pueblo veterans.

For more about our visit to North Korea click here.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea by Barbara Demick is a valuable peek behind the curtain of North Korea, a gray land whose monochrome pallor is broken up only by the bright colors in propaganda posters lauding their Great and Dear Leaders.

It is notoriously difficult to report on North Korea. Access by outsiders is severely limited. When foreigners are permitted to enter the country their movement is constantly monitored by two minders (one of the minders is there to watch the other one). It’s as if the North Korean government used George Orwell’s 1984 as a blueprint for how to run a country. I experienced this treatment myself on a recent trip to Pyongyang and the DMZ.

While Demick has visited North Korea, the heavy-handed monitoring on these tours prevents any open interaction with ordinary North Koreans. Thus she provides most of the narrative from interviews with defectors who have safely made it to South Korea. Ordinarily I would be put off by reliance on such subjective sources whose commentary can not be independently verified. But Demick manages to verify what she can and weave together a story that sounds altogether plausible about what is taking place north of the DMZ.

In a word it is horrible. According to Demick almost an entire population has been reduced to scrambling for any sustenance they can find among the roots, bark and even dirt of already picked over forests. Children are starving by the thousands causing drastic reductions of the school age population. School itself is just another tool for furthering the regime’s propaganda. The book’s title comes from a song that school children recite which includes the line, “We have nothing to envy in the world.”

The big question with North Korea is: do the people truly believe this propaganda or can they see through it? This has vast foreign policy implications for America should there ever be the need for a military action against North Korea or a revolution from within. When the Berlin Wall came down it became obvious that Eastern Europeans knew their way of life was worse than in the West. They were already receiving glimpses of it through TV signals where they could watch Western programming.

North Koreans have no such view of the outside world. They don’t have the Internet or phones. Their TVs and radios are mechanically set to the approved government station. In fact, these days they rarely even have electricity. Would people who live such a primitive life even be able to adapt to the modern world?

Demick addresses these questions in her book. While many North Korean defectors do have problems relating to South Korean ways, most do manage to adapt. Interestingly, some of those who defected had been able to overcome the mechanical locks on their radios to change the station and receive South Korean broadcasts. In this way they were able to decide for themselves that they were being fed a pack of lies by their own government.    

Nothing To Envy is recommended reading about a country that truly is like no other place on Earth. Those who believe America is on a Marxist/Socialist/Leninist or Whateverist path should read this book to see what such a place is really like.

Bucher: My Story by Commander Lloyd M. Bucher USN, Captain USS Pueblo with Mark Rascovich

On January 23, 1968 the United States Navy ship Pueblo was attacked and captured by the North Korean navy for allegedly intruding into their territorial waters. During the capture an American sailor was killed. The remaining 82 sailors were held hostage by the totalitarian regime of Kim Il Sung. The “Pueblo Incident,” as it became known, was played out against a backdrop of rising Cold War tensions and the Tet Offensive which broke out a week later in Vietnam.

This book is the story of Lloyd Bucher, the commander of the Pueblo. It recounts his impressive rise from a resident of Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska to the captaincy of an American naval vessel. He covers the period when the Pueblo was being outfitted as a surveillance ship in great depth. During its retrofit he already had concerns about how the lightly armed vessel could respond to a possible enemy takeover. Unfortunately his concerns were to be founded as the ship was surrounded by five hostile North Korean gunboats as it cruised in international waters.

Much of the publicity surrounding the incident refers to the Pueblo as a spy ship, which it was not. It was an intelligence gathering ship operating in international waters. The key difference is that spying would be an illegal activity that would justify another country’s interference, while gathering electronic data in international waters was a permitted use of the high seas. It seems like a fine point to split but the difference is huge, basically the difference between being legitimately held by a foreign power, in this case North Korea, or being illegally held hostage.

Eventually Bucher issued a forced confession that the ship had intruded upon North Korea and had been operating illegally. This confession only came after brutal torture and threats made upon his men.

The crew of the Pueblo did their best to resist their captors. They were shown in North Korean propaganda photos giving the middle finger to the photographer. When asked what the gesture meant the sailors explained that it was a Hawaiian good-luck sign. The North Koreans did not realize what the salute meant until it was revealed in an American news magazine. After that point torture of the sailors increased.

During the course of the crew’s 11-month ordeal as the United States government was not 100% certain that the Pueblo had been operating in international waters at the time of its capture. In fact when the crew was finally released just before Christmas, Bucher was taken aside by a State Department employee to ask if the ship had been operating in international waters. Bucher verified that it had been. The United States then rescinded the apology that it had issued to gain the crew’s release.

One surprising aspect of the book is Bucher’s attitude toward Edward Murphy, his Executive Officer or XO. It is clear that he did not approve of Murphy’s performance throughout the mission even before the ship came under attack. Bucher is rather blunt in his assessment of his XO. I would have thought that the 11 months of shared brutal captivity would have softened some of his feelings regarding the XO’s pre-capture performance.

A year after the publication of this book, Murphy wrote his own version of the events, one in which he was critical of Bucher’s performance. It seems a jarring subtext in an otherwise fine story of men under pressure and their efforts to survive a brutal regime.

For more go to the official web site of USS Pueblo veterans.