Before our trip to North Korea, we didn’t know what to expect; after all, so little of North Korea is known to the outside world. All we knew about the country was based on what we saw on television or read in the newspapers – but we weren’t there to seek out the truth in the political debacle; we were there to learn about the country from a humanized point of view and do so, we wanted to meet and interact with its people.
Despite having been shut out of the outside world for centuries, the North Koreans we met were surprisingly curious and friendly towards us. Out on the streets, we smiled and waved at people – many of them coyly giggled, while others waved back enthusiastically. Riding on the subway, we were aware that locals were slightly intimidated by us, but we smiled and talked to them – and they quickly warmed up to us. At a park, we even played finger guessing games with a big group of school children who had crowded around us and poked curiously at our cameras.
While this trip to North Korea left us with more questions than answers, it definitely gave us a chance to get to know its people – who, in my opinion, show us what the country is really all about. Here’s a photographic tribute to the North Koreans, who kindly showed us a rare and heartwarming glimpse of their country.
At Mount Ryonggak, we were having a barbecue lunch and enjoying the musical performance our waitresses put up for us – when a big group of school children crowded around to watch the spectacle (us!). We started talking to them, and I even played a few rounds of rock, paper, scissors with them – it ended with tons of laughter and possibly the best memories from the trip.
As we climbed up to a temple on Mt. Ryonggak, we stumbled upon a group of soccer boys who had just finished a match. We were surprised to find that they knew plenty of famous soccer players – like Ronaldo, David Villa, Zidane etc. Apparently these children learn about international footballers when studying sports.
At the foot of the mountain, we found a bride and groom taking wedding photos – our guide had taught us how to say congratulations in Korean (North Korean version is more formal), and upon hearing our greetings, “Chuka Hamnida!” the couple looked thankful.
Children at the Pyongyang Children Palace practice long and hard – as we went around for a tour of the complex, we met talented and bright kids playing on their sitar and working on handicraft.
We met this beautiful, young waitress at our hotel in Kaesong. She has such gentle and kind eyes. At this town, we got a better glimpse into other parts of North Korea – where there were no tall buildings, just small Korean-style houses, dusty roads and people paddling on bicycles.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was our walk along Taedong River in downtown Pyongyang. We were used to following our guides and not loitering around on our own, but suddenly, we were given the freedom to stroll along the riverfront and interact with fishermen and kids by the water – it was a liberating feeling. We saw this couple rowing on boats, enjoying their leisure time, and we couldn’t help but snap a photo.
At the Korean War Museum, we met this military guide who maintained a stern and serious look despite her gentle demeanor. During a conversation with one of our American group mates, she said, “Our country is divided into two because of the Americans. Without them, we would still be one country.” The moment was intense but it was clear that while both had starkly different opinions, they both respected their differences.
On board the U.S.S Pueblo, we took a tour of the American espionage ship with this lady military guide. In the cabin, she pointed out the exact spot where one of the American spies was killed – it was right beneath my feet – I shuddered and left with shivers in my spine.
This was our military guide at the DMZ, with our well-spoken guide Miss Pak by his side. Having worked at the demilitarized zone for more than a decade, this guide has all his life experiences written on his face.
To end this photo essay, I leave you with a photo of two military guides at the DMZ – on the North Korean side. Separated by a small concrete line, they stand just steps away from the boundary that divides their country permanently into two.
Disclaimer: Our experience was made possible by Koryo Tours but all opinions expressed above are my own.