Traveling North Korea was nothing like what I imagined. Here are the 10 things that surprised me.
North Korea has earned itself quite a few names: Axis of Evil, Hermit Kingdom, and the Iron Walls. Better known as the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), it is one of the most isolated nations in the world, having closed its doors to the outside world since its split from South Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s. Since then, DPRK has always been covered in a negative light on international media – but is it all true? I decided to visit to find out.
A trip to North Korea in 2012 gave us a rare glimpse into a world that few people know about. Although we barely scraped the surface of the country – having spent just five days visiting the capital of Pyongyang, the ancient city of Kaesong and the DMZ (demilitarized) border – it still allowed us a peek that none of the news or TV documentaries could.
North Korea surprised us in so many ways, here are some of them. As a word of advice, don’t make judgment based on what you see and read on the news; go see North Korea and find out for yourself.
Table of Contents
- 10 Surprises from Traveling North Korea
- 1. Sharp contrast in the two Koreas
- 2. Cult-like Juche regime
- 3. Propaganda, propaganda and propaganda on the streets
- 4. Impressive soviet-style architecture
- 5. North Koreans are just as curious about the world
- 6. They are not as ignorant as you think they are
- 7. Tasty cuisine and home-brewed beer
- 8. The deepest subway system in the world
- 9. A surprising sense of normality
- 10. It’s not all choreographed
10 Surprises from Traveling North Korea
1. Sharp contrast in the two Koreas
Having visited both South and North Korea, I was overwhelmed by the stark differences despite being mentally prepared for it. Visiting North Korea truly offered the experience of time travel – I felt like I had gone back in time to the Korea in the 1960s, from our first step off the Air Koryo flight at Pyongyang Airport to the museums and soviet-style buildings and scenes of people dressed in comrade caps and buttoned suits.
2. Cult-like Juche regime
When Kim Jong-Il passed away, scenes of North Koreans wailing on the streets were all over the news. Many were skeptical about the authenticity of it. There’s no doubt that North Koreans worship their supreme leaders but only after seeing for myself did I realize the extent of it. The locals spoke of their supreme leaders with utmost respect – almost as if they were of heavenly status. At Mansu Hill, where the larger-than-life statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il stand, we were required to bow in front of the leaders as if it were a religious site.
3. Propaganda, propaganda and propaganda on the streets
Walking on the streets of Pyongyang and Kaesong, there was an obvious absence of posters and billboards (only one can be found in Pyongyang from the local brand of cars). I had somewhat expected that, but it was also strangely bizarre to not see any movie poster or circus ads. In their place were colorful mosaic art and hand-painted banners from the Korean Workers’ Party, used to promote the socialist regime. Many of them used representations such as the sickle for farming, the brush for education and hammer for the industry.
4. Impressive soviet-style architecture
I’ve seen soviet-style architecture in Russia and China, but honestly none are as impressive as those in Pyongyang. Massive grey blocks of imposing government buildings dominate the public squares of the North Korean capital, all of them adorning images of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, as well as the national flag. In the heart of Pyongyang stands the Arch de Triumph, that’s even bigger than its French counterpart. Other impressive works of architecture include the Juche Tower and Workers’ Party Monument, both of which are enormous and impressive in scale and grandeur.
5. North Koreans are just as curious about the world
North Korea is completely closed to the outside world — there are only local channels on TV, they don’t watch any foreign shows and only intranet exists in the country (internet is available to ambassadors or approved journalists). Prior to going there, I had the impression that they would be very wary and suspicious of foreigners. But I was pleasantly surprised to find locals smiling at us, even waving and talking to us. On the subway, we even interacted with them, showing them photos on our cameras and laughing with them. We played guessing games with children in the park and danced with groups of ladies who were having a picnic and drinks.
6. They are not as ignorant as you think they are
Since foreign information is so inaccessible to the North Koreans, I didn’t expect them to know much about the outside world, but there were a few exceptions that surprised us. We met a group of 10-year-old boys who were on their way to soccer practice and we stopped to chat with them. We asked them if they knew footballers from Europe and much to our surprise, they could name plenty of them. They could even understand some English.
7. Tasty cuisine and home-brewed beer
I had no expectations when it came to food in North Korea. I have had my share of bad, lousy food when backpacking in developing countries and somehow expected that to be the case in North Korea. I was clearly wrong. While food here wasn’t Michelin standard, they were decent home-cooked Korean food. Besides kimchi and rice, we also had traditional Korean barbecue and even beer in microbreweries. No doubt we were brought to the tourist-only restaurants in town and these foods are a rarity for locals, we were surprised that they even existed in DPRK.
8. The deepest subway system in the world
It’s a surprise to many that there is public transport in Pyongyang, not to mention that its subway system is the deepest in the world, at 110 meters (360 feet) underground. Having started its operation in 1972, the subway system was designed based on the Moscow metro system. Most of these trains were bought over from Berlin after the wall fell and haven’t been updated since. Their green velvet seats, old wooden carriages and shiny steel railings reminded me of the 1970s. Each station has a different theme, with impressive mosaic propaganda art and sparkling ´60s chandeliers to add to the atmosphere.
9. A surprising sense of normality
Despite all the negative portrayal of DPRK, the biggest surprise for me was just how normal everything felt in DPRK — people went about their daily business, the public subway system was busy, streets were wide but empty, and children hung out in the park just like we do. From books and documentaries, I know that people who lived in Pyongyang were the elites of the elites, and that usual North Koreans were banished to the countryside. While Pyongyang may not show what the ‘real’ North Korea is, I was still surprised by how normal everything seemed to look. Besides the soviet-style attire and grim-looking buildings, there was really little to remind you that this was a country considered by many as evil.
10. It’s not all choreographed
Before visiting North Korea, I knew that we would be chaperoned around our guides and we were not allowed to leave the group or our hotels at any point. I had many friends who had serious doubts if we were being shown the ‘real’ North Korea. While it was true that we only visited places that the government approved and our movements were clearly restricted, I didn’t feel controlled in any sense of the word. We were free to interact with locals, we drove by farming lands, we saw shabby alleyways and we were obviously allowed to have our own opinions (our guides respected that as long as we didn’t impose our ideas on them).
Disclaimer: This experience was made possible by Koryo Tours but all opinions are my own.