Scratching the Surface: North Korea

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

click of a mouse is all it takes to marvel at the coral of the
Great Barrier Reef, watch Mardi Gras in New
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

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

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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