We have just returned from North Korea (or more formally known as Democratic Republic of Korea) after spending the past five days making our way around the capital of Pyongyang to the ancient city of Kaesong and the DMZ border with South Korea. Although we’ve barely scraped the surface of the country, we have taken a peek into this isolated nation and experienced for ourselves life in the hermit kingdom. Here, we’re sharing with you some of our first impressions of North Korea — from the cultural to the daily-life quirks.
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A surprising sense of normality
The biggest surprise for me is just how normal everything feels in DPRK — the streets are extremely clean and safe, roads are wide though empty, and people go about their daily business just like every other city in Asia. It is nothing like how North Korea is projected on international media (with names like Axis of Evil).
Besides the socialist-style attire and grim-looking buildings, there is really little to remind you that this is the country that’s headlining the news worldwide, and often, in a negative light. Although we were not allowed to go anywhere unescorted and thus (as some would say) shown just certain aspects of the country, it was still apparent that Pyongyang is indeed a well laid-out city just like any other (except for the few military and propaganda reminders).
North Koreans are as curious of us as we are of them
Since the end of World War II, DPRK has closed its doors to the outside world. Only local channels are shown on TV, there is no internet anywhere in the country (unless you’re am ambassador or approved journalist) and few foreign tourists visit the country each year (around 2,500 Western tourists not including the Chinese). North Koreans are taught to think that anything foreign is a threat – yet, we were surprised to find how our local guides were as curious about our cultures and countries as we were of theirs. When we smiled and waved at locals, they would often smile back and look upon with curiosity. On the subway, we even interacted with people, showing them our photos and using sign language to talk to them.
Worshippers of their supreme leaders
North Korea was founded by Kim Il Sung, who was named their “eternal president” after his death. Kim Il Sung was the founder of the Juche political ideology. Translated to mean the “spirit of self-reliance”, the Juche idea is based on the belief that man is the master of everything and decides everything. After meeting North Koreans and talking to our guides on a deeper level, I then realize the extent of worship that they have for their supreme leaders. They talk about their supreme leaders with much respect and admiration, almost as if they are of heavenly status.In my opinion, Juche is akin to a mix of religion and political system, with the eternal president Kim Il Sung as their deity. In fact, Juche is one of the largest religions in the world, with over 19 million followers. At Mansu Hill, where the larger-than-life statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il stand, visitors are required to bow in front of the leaders.
The deepest subway system in the world
Pyongyang’s metro system feels literally like a time machine. Started in 1972, the stations and trains haven’t been updated since. Bought over from Berlin after the wall fell, the trains feature green suede seats, old shiny wooden carriages, and shiny steel railings. The two lines run for over 17 stations, although we only rode the metro over 6 stops. Each station has a different theme, with impressive mosaic propaganda art and sparkling ´60s chandeliers to add to the atmosphere. It is also one of the cheapest in the world to ride, at only 5 Korean Won(about $0.03) per ticket.
The squares of Pyongyang are often flanked by massive grey blocks of socialist-style government buildings adorning images of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, as well as the red-and-blue flag of DPRK. Monuments such as the Juche Tower and Workers’ Party Monument are tall, enormous and extremely impressive in scale and grandeur. Carvings depicting workers are results of world-class workmanship. In the heart of Pyongyang stands an Arch de Triumph that’s similar to the French version but even bigger.
Every street corner, subway station and government building is adorned with colorful mosaic art and banners promoting the socialist regime. Many of them are symbolic of the Korean Workers’ Party – with the sickle for farming, the brush for education and hammer for the industry. These posters tend to be graphic, colorful and elaborate. But besides these, there is little else – there are no billboards (only one from the local brand of cars) nor advertising.
Disclaimer: This experience was made possible by Koryo Tours but all opinions are my own.