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  • Writer's pictureGunnar Garfors

North Korea 8 Years Apart

In front of Taedong River and Juche Tower in Pyongyang in 2017, my first visit in eight years.

I first visited North Korea in 2009. North Korea, or DPRK, as they prefer to be called. As in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. First of all, it isn’t democratic. Very far from it. Secondly, it certainly doesn’t belong to the people, most of whom have no say in anything even resembling free elections, and many of whom have their human rights violated regularly. And thirdly, it isn’t a republic either. It is governed by the “supreme leader” and a huge and powerful military. North Korea is the world’s only Stalinist regime, one that masters the art of PR to keep itself relevant and interesting, as well as feared by the rest of the world. Visitors are fed propaganda on an unprecedented scale from before they arrive to they leave. You know that you will be lied to, in your face. You know that you will only get to see the nice parts and what the government wants you to see. Hence the ever present two guides (stroke guards) that make sure that you see what you are supposed to and do as you are told. Which also means that North Korea is probably the safest country in the world to visit, given that you stick to the rules and regulations. And there are many of them. The country is atheist, so stay away from any missionary-like activity, don’t bring religious texts with you. And do not nick anything. We all heard about the American who allegedly stole some propaganda posters. He might have been let off with a much more lenient penalty had he not been a US citizen. A Danish friend of a friend had to pay 5 dollars for a towel gone missing from his hotel room. He could prove that it wasn’t in his luggage, but was still held accountable. His fate could have been worse had he indeed been from the United States of America, North Korea’s enemy number one.

One of the propaganda posters on the side of a Pyong street in 2009. I didn’t see any similar ones on the street in 2017, but there were plenty in the book shop.

Americans are openly targeted in the book shop (there is only one open to foreigners) in Pyongyang. From 2017. There were similar cards and posters available in 2009.

Not exactly born in the USA.

So, why did I go back, in the first place?

As usual, I wanted to see for myself. The world has come a long way in almost a decade, and I was keen on finding out whether that also applied to North Korea. And yes, there were some changes. My mobile phone wasn’t taken away from me in the border, as it was in 2009. Which was totally meaningless, given that there was obviously no roaming. My phone would in other words have been useless. It seems like the government has come to the same conclusion. I could now keep my phone, although the make and model was written down by the custom officers on the borders. They also went through my luggage by hand. Back in 2009, they had merely X-rayed it. And as last time, they went through my magazines and books. I had to editions of The Economist with me, but I had gone through them myself in advance to make sure that they were Kim Jong-un free. I had left the edition with him on the front page in Dandong, the Chinese border city my train departed from. And yes, this time I took a train in, as opposed to going by plane.

The guides were young and relatively well-informed about North Korea’s place in the world, probably primarily thanks to having lived abroad themselves for several years. Their parents had been running businesses abroad, they told me. Which meant that they were used to the internet.

“The internet is is available in Universities here in DPRK too,” they claimed. Although they went on to explain that it was a modified version of the internet, translated to Korean (and properly censored by the translators, surely). Which also means that it is a dead, non-dynamic version of some very specific parts of the internet.

“Our intranet is pretty good, though,” they assured me. And told me about a dating service, sports sections and news.

Hanging with locals in Pyongyang in 2009. They were coincidentally passing by, of course.

Hanging with a local guide in Pyongyang in 2017. She feels totally comfortable, as you can see. I guess I have this effect on women. She works for The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, the main museum of North Korea. I have never before seen such glorification of war. She were kind enough to ask me whether I had heard conflicting stories about The Korean War. “Be aware that what they are telling you is propaganda,” she said. No one commented on my Nelson Mandela T-shirt. Then again, virtually no one has heard about him in DPRK.

“Hey, I just read online that Norway will be the first country to ban non-electric cars,” one of them told me over lunch. This surprised me for several reasons. I remembered reading something along those lines before venturing into internet free North Korea, so they actually got some real news from abroad. I assumed that the story had travelled as slow as a train riding Norwegian. But when I later checked the English versions of the news story, I realised that North Korean media had actually been very fast to report on the news – doing so the same day as it appeared in English. This also puzzled me as this particular news shouldn’t make much sense in North Korea. There are almost no cars in North Korea, they shouldn’t really care whether cars went all-electric or not. Perhaps they didn’t. And perhaps this wasn’t really in the news in North Korea. Perhaps this particular news piece had been past on to me, being Norwegian, as a gesture or to make me trust them more, and to be more likely to buy into the propaganda I was regularly fed.

Given that USA is North Korea’s favourite enemy number one, it is no wonder that westerners that can pass for Americans, are met with hostility when walking around town. I have blonde hair and blue eyes, and I was shocked by the hatred on many people’s faces when they looked at me. Not that I blame them, they have for their enitre lives been told that the US is the evil empire and that its citizens are braindead lackeys that hate and resent the DPRK and its role model citizens. I particularly noticed this when jogging in central Pyongyang. With a guide, of course. He was rather unfit, and uncapable of running far or fast, so we ended up running around a few blocks nearby the train station. He repeatedly told me that we had been running far enough, while gasping for air. I still demanded to run some more to get some proper exercise, the compromise was that I ran up and down a street on my own, while he recovered next to a tree at the end of the street. I passed hundreds of people. Workers were heading to the office, mothers were walking their kids to school and government eployees were minding their own business while street vendors (which I certainly did not see in 2009) were selling food from small mobile shacks.

One of my guieds was good sports and went jogging for the first time in several years.

The solar panels hanging from many, or in some cases most, balconies of every residential building was explained with pride. “DPRK is such a modern society that we are in need of a lot of electricity,” one guide said when I asked. There had been few or none solar panels when I first visited. Now they were everywhere, especially outside Pyongyang. I had seed some from the train, but I really noticed it when we drove to Nampo, the most important seaport on the west coast of the country.

“So the solar panels don’t mean that the government cannot cope with the demand for electricity?” I asked. Before adding “only joking” after seconds of uncomfortable silence.

Traffic wardens changing shifts in Pyongyang in 2017. There’s only one solar panel on the building in the back, outside Pyongyang they are everywhere.

There were also many more cars than in 2009. In Pyongyang, that is. There were even moments were something slightly resembling a traffic jam could be seen. Not for long, but still. The moment we left Pyongyang, five to ten minutes could pass between everytime we saw another car. Despite the 8 or 10 lane roads between certain cities. That is in sharp contrast to the narrow gravel roads elsewhere. Where motorized transport is very rare. Bikes are not. Bikes are everywhere, especially outside Pyongyang. But there are still many who cannot afford a bike. Which means you see a lot of people walking. No wonder many North Koreans age fast. The age expectancy in North Korea is 70 years. That is 12 years lower than in South Korea, 2 years lower than Libya and just above that of India.

One evening, I met with a couple of foreigners in a bar. They had been in Pyongyang for months, for work.

“I am so sick and tired of this country. All they do is lie. All the fucking time! They lie about small things, big thing, useless things. It is like a national sport, and I soon learnt to trust no one in order not to lose total confidence in the human race,” one of them said. And explained how he had to go back to the west now and then just to keep relatively sane.

I cannot verify whether this is accurate, but given the presumed knowledge we have about about the isolated country, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched. If you have been lied to about pretty much everything since you were a kid, you might have picked up the “skill” yourself and is ready to use it. A lot. A lot of the propaganda, inaccuracies and lies just do not add up, something kids may also pick up from quite an early age.

This time around I saw more people, more “real” North Koreans. Of course, those that live in Pyongyang are among the fortunate few in a country known for taking care of its own elite, and not so much caring at all about the rest. There is even a three generations of punishments rule in the country, which means that you will suffer for what you grandparents may have done in the past, and not have a chance to climb the ladder of society if they did something the leadership considered bad. Ultimately that may mean that three generations will live their entire lives in prison camps. During one of many food crisises in the early 90s the government introduced the jolly slogan “Let’s eat only two meals a day.” They forgot about the small print. “Only applies to hillbilies and other rural people.” The country has a lot of farmland, but money is rather spent on military than on farming equipment and fertilizers.

I was able to photograph relatively freely during both my trips to North Korea, but some guides will forbid you from photographing unless you get their explicit permission. There doesn’t seem to be a general rule, so fingers crossed you get a “nice” guide.

You should visit North Korea. It will help redefine your own definition of what a country is and what it can be. An increased presence of foreign tourists can also help increase a mutual understanding of cultures and challenges as well as perhaps over time normalize the hostile and toxic relationship between the “Hermit Kingdom” and the rest of the world.

But won’t going there just help fund Kim Jong-un’s nuclear developments? I rather hope that more tourists and more tourist dollars to what is essentially a very green and very beautiful country can help undermine the metal grip the government has on its people, possibly removing the need for

And to be fair, North Korea the way it is now, as the odd one out, will never be a mainstream holiday destination. The only way to attract enough tourists to make a real impact on the economy is to open up and arm down.

I’d recommend Kim Jong-un to make sure that he will be remembered in history as that jolly good guy who opened up his country, provided equal opportunities for his people and made North Korea amazing. Or the dude that transformed a country from a prehistoric mammoth with bad human right habits of medieval proportions to a modern fun-fair of a country with advanced liberties capable of showcasing the other UN members how much can be achieved in a short time when you start at rock-bottom.

And it doesn’t have to be all that difficult, Mr. Kim. Pick up the phone and call the leader of the free world. Angela Merkel is stern, but fair and capable of listening to others. She is also likely to invite you to Germany – or neutral Switzerland where you studied – for a much nicer meal than a demeaning and cheap burger with French fries.

Tell her that you are happy to meet her to discuss what it takes to stop your nuclear games. Done right, you can then become a real hero, not only in DPRK (where you control all media and information anyway), but also in South Korea, the US of A and elsewhere in the world. It would boost your economy manifold, decrease tensions in the world and could make North Korea a model society, much like you want your people to think that it is. But you would admittedly have to step down or reduce your own powers. Not much of a sacrifice to get The Nobel Peace Prize, hey?

This is unlikely to happen, too much prestige has been invested from all sides. In the meantime you can visit a one of a kind country. It isn’t difficult or dangerous. But you will have to go through a travel company that works with the North Korean tourism agency. I have used Uri Tours and Korea Konsult, both of which I can recommend. There are still many others. Space Tours, for instance, which caters for Chinese tourists, surely has the best and most accurate name. You will have to pay for everything up front, your trip will then include your visa, airport pickup, transport, guides, accommodation and all meals. But bring US dollars for any extras such as drinks or souvenirs. The travel company you go for will make sure you can get your visa in less than a week, although it is recommended to book your trip several weeks in advance. Note that you won’t even have to send your passport away, a digital copy of it is sufficient. You will then get a document via email in return. Show it on the border, and you are in.

Below you will find photos from my two visits to North Korea. I do apologize for the less than perfect photographic qualities.

The view from The Friendship “Bridge” in Dandong, China. You can easily assume the friendship was never strong enough for the bridge to be completed, but the view is actually of Yalu River Broken Bridge. The otehr half was taken down by the Koreans. Nearly all tourists visiting North Korea are Chinese, many do so on daytrips to Sinuiju on the other side of the river.

The comparison is striking. Hyper-modern skyscrapers in China to the right, nothing semi-modern in North Korea to the left.

Propaganda posters hit you in the face minutes after leaving China at the railroad station in the border town of Sinuiju. The train will stop here for about an hour for customs and clearance. And yes, your bags, books and magazines will be looked through.

Expect to see Kim Il-sung (left) and his son Kim Jong-il everywhere. As in EVERYWHERE. Kim Jong-il is the father of the current supreme leader, Kim Jong-Un.

Rather lavish lunches were served in the restaurant car. And beer, of course. The Korean beer ran out fast and the guests had to settle for a Japanese version.

Don’t expect to see too many people from the train between Dandong and Pyongyang.

Yeah, everywhere.

Soldiers walking to or from work.

Trains are rare, which means the tracks are perfect playing places.

The railroad tracks are well protected. Military posts, where they grow their own food, can be found every few kilometers.

Most of the control posts were manned by young female soldiers.

A modern-looking city at a distance.

Going home for dinner.

Don’t expect too many different colours in each village.

Well, the exceptions that prove the rule, perhaps?

One of the very few tractors I spotted. Then again, who can afford tractors when tanks are so much cooler?

There were many home-made-looking machines here and there. With minimal imports options are limited. Which means that the country has experts in almost every field.

Bikes are everywhere.

Kids were swimming and having fun in most rivers that the train passed.

North Korea really is a green and beautiful country.

How about stopping those war-games with Trump? More people should be able to come see this.

And then I was suddenly in Pyongyang, for the first time in eight years.

Parts of town looks pretty modern. From a distance.

New kids on the block?

The view from the main library, or Grand People’s Study House, as it is officially named.

Dutch tourists everywhere.

The library is huge. It has reading rooms for various subjects. My best guess is that most of these books are written by local authors.

There are allegedly 30 million books in the library. If you want to borrow one, it will miraculously appear on the belt next to the sole librarian. I would imagine her to be rather busy, but there was no one in line. She found time to demonstrate with 3 English books to the group tour I was on.

At least there were some busy students in the library. War seems to be very important in North Korean pieces of art.

There were classes too in Grand People’s Study House. These students are learning about Windows. You know, that American computer operating system.

They are being taught German too. One of the Dutch tourists were fluent in the language and voluntered to take over for the teacher. I don’t think the students understood his accent.

English was taught in another lecture hall. None of us were asked to contribute.

Nice library, hey?

Not much has changed in eight years. The last photo was from 2009. This one is from 2017.

Pyongyang is never busy. This morning rush to work was pretty much as busy as it got.

And rush hour is finished.

The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is a must for any visitor to Pyongyang.

NEarby you can see what may once be the world’s highest hotel. Work on The Ryugyong Hotel was started in 1987. 30 years later it looks finished from the outside, but most people doubt it will ever be completed. It is supposedly 330 meters high and consists of 105 floors. So, instead of being the world’s talles hotel, it is the world’s talles unfinished building. Still a claim to fame, hey?

There are a lot of military parades in town, or at least inspired by the military. That calls for a lot of practice.

Did anyone say glorification of war?

Your bookshelf is not complete without these great works of literature. You can find them in the book shop in town.

To go jogging is one of few ways to actually be able to get about town on foot. Your guide will most likely insist on coming along. But back in 2009 I was allowed to run on my own. Let’s just say that the guide was slightly hungover.

Reflection of The Juche Tower.

And the architectural award of 2017 goes to…

I am sure there is a similar arch somewhere else in the world. Guess which was built first.

I took this colourful photograph back in 2009.

On the western coast of North Korea, just outside Nampo, 2017.

Pyongyang International Airport is modern and not at all crowded. No wonder with only one flight today.

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