Scratching the Surface: North Korea

For SUITCASE Volume 19: The Wild Issue, we embarked on a ten-day train journey through North Korea, one of the most secretive countries in the world.

This article appears in SUITCASE Volume 19: The Wild Issue.

A click of a mouse is all it takes to marvel at the coral of the Great Barrier Reef, watch Mardi Gras in New Orleans or pore over pictures of Singapore's street food. Every day technology draws the edges of the world closer together, making armchair travellers of us all. But what does that water feel like on your skin? How does that drumming sound? Just how good is the scent of that hot chicken rice? Nothing is certain until it's touched, heard or breathed in. It was for this reason that I travelled to North Korea to gain first-hand experience of the only country in the world to remain almost watertight in allowing information - and people - in and out.

Both the North Koreans and the western media peddle stories that fit their own agendas, leaving testimonies from defectors as the only way to gather reliable knowledge about what goes on in the secretive state. But even defectors are known to embellish their stories, which makes it impossible to definitively sift fact from fiction. I was under no illusion that ten days in North Korea would unearth anything more than a stage- managed performance, but I wanted a front-row seat at the show.

Until last year I had been unaware that tourists have been allowed to visit North Korea since 1953, when an armistice ended the Korean War. Independent travel is impossible, but more than 5,000 western tourists - and almost 100,000 Chinese tourists - visit North Korea every year through privately run tour companies offering everything from hiking trips up Mount Kumgang and cycling in the countryside to running the Pyongyang Marathon or taking a ten-day train trip around the country. It was this final itinerary that had fired my interest.

Beginning in the capital city of Pyongyang, the chartered train would travel to the cities of Wonsan, Hamhung and the port of Chongjin - the latter of which had only recently been opened to foreigners. Deciding to visit was easy. Despite being aware of UN reports of human rights abuses and Kim Jong-un's penchant for testing missiles, I wasn't sure that the US and the UK were any less culpable when it came to owning warheads or supplying ammunition. North Korea is a piece of history unravelling, and the human urge to bear witness was too great to overcome. The country's narrative is so wild and unstructured, gaping with holes plugged with speculation, that from the moment we touched down in Pyongyang I felt my body and its senses engage in a way that I had never known.

Pyongyang's roads were tank-wide and newly surfaced, with few other cars in sight. One tractor bobbed along the edge of the road, and a couple of cyclists rode on the pavement wearing khaki clothes, but there were no pedestrians. A white, listless sky deepened the absence of colour and energy, the two things I most associate with Asian cities, but as we neared the centre there were flashes of reds, yellows and blues on revolutionary billboards bellowing messages of pride and glory. Strong-faced young men in dungarees held scythes in one hand, raising the national flag in their fists as missiles loomed in the background. Another depicted Kim Il-sung and Jong-il in a field of flowers and tiny children. Apartment blocks were no more than four-storeys high and painted an anaemic peach colour, with pots of red flowers perched on the edges of each balcony. A Mercedes 190E pulled up at the traffic lights alongside us, a model that my parents had driven in 1991, and this only capped off the feeling of having entered a time warp.

On the first evening I stood at my hotel window and looked out across the Taedong river, which shifted like a spill of black ink. Years of gazing at new cities by night had wired an expectation in my head, but this image stirred discomfort. The flame of the Juche Tower was glowing, but the rest of Pyongyang lurked under shadows. Freckles of light revealed the odd high-rise, but in the absence of street lights, traffic and hoardings, it seemed as though the city had been switched off. It was rumoured that hot water, heating and electricity functioned while tourists were in residence, but that once they had checked out they all ceased to work. Wondering if this were true, but trying to stay in the moment, I took a deep breath and promised to keep an open mind. I was really here, in North Korea.

Unable to travel with local citizens, our group of 15 was given a chartered train made up of old Swiss carriages with pull-down windows, perfect for catching the breeze. We were also assigned four North Korean tour guides and minders for the ten days, who answered our questions and laughed off myths that men must have their hair cut like Kim Jong-un, that photos aren't allowed or that American goods are banned (the train guards were smoking Marlboro Reds). However, their responses were clipped and limited, and it would have been rude to attempt to engage them in political discussions or to challenge their belief in the Kim regime. And so the propaganda played out, the Kims were praised and we dutifully listened and nodded.

Once the train left the city and snaked into the countryside we were flanked by fields of maize, gathered and bound like spun gold. A breath of cloud hovered in the blue and my arms began to warm as I absorbed the calm. It had been a frenetic couple of days and my mind was brimming. The North Korea of missiles, tanks and the Kims already seemed a world away - oxen ploughed the fields, clusters of cottages displayed roofs of red chillies drying in the sun and children squatted in the yard sifting piles of corn. Their parents paused in their work and watched stony-faced as we rolled by. Buffalos bowed and snorted, drawing wooden carts piled with people, and cyclists stopped to watch the train as we slowed into a small station where a number of soldiers sat waiting with their bags. Despite the widespread belief that North Korea's military is made up of mindless warriors waiting for orders to launch the next warhead, soldiers are often employed in no greater capacity than as free labourers for construction projects, and are commonly referred to as "soldier-builders" by state media.

Much as I tried to digest the scenes around me, I was frustrated that we were not allowed to engage with local people. In every new country people are the prism through which understanding can form; conversations confirm or dispel suspicions and anecdotes build a picture, but this void was too great, and I felt as though it rendered me deaf and blind to my surroundings. It was like watching a film with the sound turned off. However, that night in Wonsan we gathered at the edges of the main square to watch more than 1,000 students take part in a dance. The women were dressed in colourful jogori blouses and the men were wearing white shirts and red ties.

We were invited to join in, and as we held hands and twirled we became nothing but an unbroken chain of young people having fun. This was what I had longed for. There was nothing between me and the warm hands of the person next to me but music and energy. A surge of heat flushed my skin, and I could feel tears prick my eyes. I didn't feel sad, I didn't feel sympathy or pity. It was a sense of nostalgia, of when we were children unburdened by prejudice, when we played with everyone without caring who they were or where they were from.

Over the ten days of the trip, the more I learnt about the Kim dynasty and its relationship with the people, the more it made sense. North Koreans were told a story from birth and grew up believing it to be true, because they received so little information to the contrary. However, things are changing. Defectors to South Korea have begun to describe how fewer and fewer people buy into the state media propaganda machine, and are growing more aware and more trusting of foreign media that has started to find its way into the country on USB sticks and DVDs. Cities on the borders of China and South Korea are often able to pick up foreign TV and radio signals, allowing North Koreans to tune into a new reality. This is not to suggest that everyone wants to defect across the border, like anyone they just want to enjoy some light entertainment and a few luxuries, and those caught indulging are far more likely to be fined than imprisoned.

On the final night in Pyongyang I was lying in bed when an explosion rocked the hotel. Over the previous few days rumours had flown around that Kim Jong-un was planning to test a ballistic missile, and I was convinced that it had happened. Leaping to the window I pulled back the curtains and found smoke drifting above the river and the sky blazing with fireworks. Fountains of green and gold burst over the city, then scattered like showers of electric rain. Ten days in this defiant and obstinate country had turned my sense of perspective on its head. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to stand and bear witness, but I was ready to leave. I watched in silence as the fireworks lit up the dark before I called it a night and bid farewell to the Pyongyang skyline.

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