After gaining my first exposure to the DPRK in 1996 from a Lonely Planet book on North East Asia, I was immediately curious about the country. Off-and-on for several years I informally studied the DPRK. In July 2004 I had the opportunity to visit the DPRK for the first time, which I did not think was possible until my plane landed in Pyongyang. I was thrilled to be one of only a handful of Americans allowed into the country that year.
I travelled with the Korean Friendship Association, which might raise some eyebrows among readers. The Korean Friendship Association is a pro-Pyongyang organization sponsored by the DPRK’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (historically it is also known as the “Society for Cultural Relations…”). Most communist naitons had similar offices with similar names. DPRK offices with the word “Committee” in them seem to be the socialist alternative of “civil society” in more pluralistic countries. The CCRFC’s mission seems to be to build these civil-society level contacts and constituencies in other countries to facilitate exchanges between the DPRK and these groups, bypassing the formal state- and ministerial-level channels of exchange. I am only guessing about this, however…A brief introduction to the KFA can be found in a Naerna interview with Pak Kwang-ung, the secretary of the Korea-Spain Friendship Society and the KFA’s sponsor in the DPRK.
The CCRFC engages many overseas groups, such as the KFA and the National Lawyers Guild, in various cultural and informational exchanges. In return, these groups bolster the Committee’s portfolio and budget by participating in DPRK friendship activities and exchanges. The CCRFC and KFA have recently undertaken more explicit efforts at attracting foreign direct investment.
So why go with the KFA and not a regular tour group? Firstly, Americans were not offered tourist visas at the time (except for the rare Mass Games festival). Ironically, the Mass Games have been held annually since 2005 and more Americans than ever before are making the trip. Secondly, I wanted to learn as much as possible about the DPRK from their unique perspective. Joining the KFA delegation seemed to offer a solution to both of these concerns. The experience was composed of activities I never expected nor things I will ever forget.
This web page is designed for me to warehouse as much information as possible about my trip to the DPRK in 2004. Below, I have put all my pictures and comments. Plus I have added the content that others from the trip have put on the web:
2. Peter wrote an article for his college paper and posted this video on line in 2008 (description here). Peter also posted these clips on YouTube: here (at the DMZ) and this one documenting how Andrew was treated.
Photos from 2004 trip to DPRK
We began in Beijing’s Capital Airport. Air Koryo flights are designated with the call letters JS. Air Koryo flights from Beijing are on an Ilyushin Il-62. When I stepped on the plane, I was struck by the 1950s deco ambiance which jolts the traveler half-a-century back in time in just a few seconds. The speakers played typical North Korean music which, at this point, was still charming. The stewardesses made Donna Reid look like a street bum. They served us a large meal and I drank some local beer called Ryongsong, which had a metalic after-taste. It was definitely my least favorite of the DPRK brews as I came to find. When the plane touched down in Pyongyang, the speakers welcomed us to the DPRK and told us about the Great Leader and the progress of the Juche Revolution. Welcome to Pyongyang.
At Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport, we were escorted to a special VIP entrance, bypassing the baggage claim, customs and passport control desks. This was so we could pose for pictures for the DPRK media and senior members of the KFA could give interviews, etc. In the end it turned out to be kind of annoying because the airport people insisted that we go back through customs and passport control to retrieve our bags and come back through again, which was kind of a hassle because by that point we were behind everyone else in line.
The Sosan Hotel, our home.
KFA delegations primarily stay at the Sosan Hotel. (There was one exception in 2005 for a large conference of groups sponsored by the CCRFC). The Sosan is isolated in Pyongyang’s sports district and it was not build to cater to foreigners like the Potongang, Koryo, or Yangdakdo. So when you are there, there is not much to do besides watch state television, drink, and chat with the same members of the group. As I recall, the hotel is over 25 stories with more than 12 rooms on each floor. Aside from our group there was just one other group of North Korean athletes staying there.
March For Peace and Unification
After settling in, Alejandro gave us some quick tips on how to “march,” something not all of us were too comfortable with and were not expecting. I personally had not anticipated such public political activities, but in the end I though it was hysterical and indicative of the kinds of activities that many North Koreans have to participate in regularly. There were several DPRK politicians there, including the head of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. The march took place at the Monument to the three charters of national reunification.
The March Continued in Sinchon, home to the Museum of American War Atrocities. Although the Korean War is know as the “Forgotten War” in the United States, the citizens of the DPRK are reminded of it on a daily basis. This museum plays a big part in that mission. Next to the museum is a burial mound containing the victims of war atrocities. (This is much like the American War Atrocities Museum that used to be open in Hanoi)
Sariwon-North Hawnghae Province
We then traveled to Sariwon to “work with the people”… By the time we arrived, I had been drinking and sitting around for so long that I was itching for some exercise. So when it came to the heavy lifting, I was ready to go. I pretty much smoked everyone else. They were unable to compete with my pent up energy. Chollima Speed, American style.
After KCNA completed their photos of the silly white-folks “working with the people,” we were treated to a great song and dance show. This was truly incredible. Not to brag about myself, but the Dutch filmmakers who recorded this even told me I was a much better dancer than most of the other members of the group. I have no idea of the name of the girl I was dancing with, but her look seems kind of haunting (in the pink dress below)…
After spending the night in Sariwon (near Sinchon), we were off to Kaesong for the next leg of the “March.” Kaesong used to be in South Korea before the Korean War, and people there can pick up South Korean radio if they are clever enough. The cheering crowd was composed of all the old women, non-working mothers, and children. I did however (superficially) interacted with more Koreans than I thought would be possible, and got to walk down the main street in Kaesong. The march felt weird, but hey I was in the DPRK, and this is the kind of stuff they have to do all the time. Imagine.
After walking down the street for another round of DPRK-style agitation, it was on to the last leg of the March in Panmunjom (the DMZ). This was one of the highlights for me. I have never visited South Korea, so my experience visiting the DMZ is exactly the opposite of most Americans. I was thinking about holding a sign up that said “Hello from Arlington, VA” for my fellow countrymen on the other side. Unfortunately no American soldiers were close enough to the border to talk to. We had to listen to yet another round of political speeches here as well. I was baking in the sun and could pretty much recite the speeches on my own. You simply take the same 50 words and move them around. It all gets repetitive pretty quickly. Afterwards, the Koreans who were listening to it all took lost of pictures, and wanted several with me. In the end this was an incredible experience and one I will never forget. One thing the march did for me was bring home to me how sad it is that the Korean people are divided like this.
The Koryo Museum was kind of interesting and very pretty. This museum is on the north-east side of Kaesong.
Tomb of Wanggon, founder of the Koryo Dynasty.
While in Kaesong, we stayed at the Folk Hotel. Many people stay here, and as a result, most of the pictures of Kaesong that visitors post on the web look the same. We visited a children’s palace there and saw a great show. The children there were absolutely adorable and put on a very talented performance.
One of the most famous in the country. It is truly beautiful and my pictures do not do it justice. I was too busy having fun playing in the waterfall and throwing the Frisbee in the water to even explore the surroundings.
Back to Pyongyang
“Monument to Victory in Fatherland Liberation War”
The Fatherland Liberation War is the official name of the Korean war in the DPRK. This site, next to the war museum, is a huge plaza with statues laid out symmetrically along the sides which depict specific stories that took place during the war–highlighting various acts of heroism by the Korean People’s Army. The scale of the plaza or the size of the statue behind me is not accurately portrayed by the pictures.
Most visitors to the Pyongyang metro visit the same two stops: from Ponghwa to Yonggwang (near the Koryo Hotel).
* If the Americans attack us, let us destroy them off the earth forever
Kumsusan Memorial Palace
This is the mausoleum where Kim Il-sung is preserved in state like Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh. I have seen all of these except “Uncle Ho” because he was in Russia getting touched up when I visited Hanoi. Anyway, none of their facilities are nearly as complex and ornate as Kamsusan. This building used to be Kim il Sung’s office, like the White (or blue) House. Although plans were initially to bury Kim il Sung in Kim Il Sung Square, they decided to keep him in is office, since that “is where he spent all his time.” Visitors to Kumsusan begin by checking any materials that they should not have, then they travel about a quarter of a mile by air conditioned moving sidewalk. Along the way, you have the opportunity to clean your shoes and will also go through a metal detector. At the end, you enter the first chamber playing the Song of Kim Il Sung. Here you march in 4 person formation up to a large statue of the president in front of the room, upon which you are supposed to look at quietly for a few seconds. Afterwards, you exit the room and go through a tunnel that blows air on you to remove any lint you might have, and then you are in the room with Kim il Sung himself. You are supposed to bow respectfully on each side of his coffin. The large tumor on the back of his neck has been removed. After you exit the room, you observe the medals and awards Kim received from various nations and dictators. You will also see his Mercedes, propped up on blocks, and his train cart. After that you enter a room where a tour guide explains all of the great exploits of the leader. Finally, you enter the last room where you can write something nice in the guest book. It is illegal for south Koreans to visit here by South Korean law.
Taesongsan Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery
This is the graveyard for Kim Il Sung’s guerrilla fighters that served with him in World War II, including his most famous wife, Jim Jong Suk, mother of Kim Jong Il. It is also illegal for South Koreans to visit here by South Korean law.
Mangyongdae is where Kim Il Sung’s parents lived and he spent a lot of his childhood. There is not much to it. While we were there, the North Korean media were all over us. I was never asked that much. Afterwards we went to a nearby amusement park. At first it was creepy as it was nearly deserted. It seemed like we had discovered something that no one had seen in decades. Eventually more people showed up in buses and livened the place up a bit. There was a roller coaster there, but I gave it a pass. It was fun to interact with all the children that showed up. They got a kick out of playing “keep away” and posing for pictures with members of our group.
On a completely economic note, the fair seemed to operate a textbook two-part tariff pricing system. This is when you pay an entrance fee to get in the park, but also a price per-ride. This is a clever way for the provider to capture all of the “consumer surplus” of the visitor.
Trip to Wonsan
We never had the opportunity to see much of Wonsan city itself.
Wonsan Childrens Camp
Empty but pretty fancy. You can see this from Google Earth and you will also see that it is surrounded by some very nice houses.
Sijung Lake and beach
This was a nice beach/lake experience. Just chillin’.
…then back to Pyongyang, and BOWLING!
Initially we asked to go bowling when we were bored in our hotel one night and we were told it was reserved for Koreans. Then when an armistice day celebration was cancelled they decided to take us there. Golden Lanes bowling alley, it turns out, has a “foreigners only” bathroom.
Korean visitors to Mansu Hill approach the statue in formation, bow and leave flowers. They also stand looking at the statue while a giant speaker reads out exploits of the great leader. I don’t know how long it lasted, but it was longer than I could pay attention. This statue was initially coated in gold, but was removed after the Chinese threatened to reduce direct assistance.
Peoples’ Study House and Kim Il Sung Square
This is the large traditional style building that dominates Kim Il Sung square. It offers language classes and meetings with specialists in various fields. In a sense it offers some university-type services.
Kimjongilia Flower Exhibition
How many politicians do you know that have flowers named after them? Well the DPRK has two! And both kinds are on display in a dedicated facility.
Arch of Triumph
The arch is supposed to be built on the site Kim Il Sung delivered his first speech after World War II. Its big. Its an arch.
Moranbong Middle School
Moranbong was great. We visited lots of classrooms, and while in in many classes the children did not look up from their notes, in others they were quite friendly and open. I remember watching a girl take notes. She wanted to look at the foreigner standing in front of her (me) by making repeating glances. After realizing that I was just flat out looking at her without being coy enough to hide it in glances, she smiled and pulled half of her hand above the desk to wave at me without anyone else being able to see. Priceless.
After touring the school and its numerous facilities, we were given another great performance by the school kids. The incredible thing was that in the middle of the show, there was a power outage. But they did not skip a beat. They transitioned to an acoustic performance and opened up all the windows. I felt bad for them, but they were professionals and took it all in stride.
Tower of Juche Idea
This is one of the most famous landmarks in Pyongyang. The view is incredible. Our visit was at the same time as some Chongryun dancers from Japan.
Kochang Cooperative Farm
I did a lot of yard work here so I was sweating like a pig. Although I had come to the DPRK expecting lots of propaganda, I was officially tired of it on this day.
Nampo is on the west coast of Korea and home to the famous “Sea Barge” which prevents salt water from the sea from flowing up the fresh water Taedong River. We spent a very stress-filled afternoon sitting on the beach wondering what was going to happen to Andrew.
Mangyongdae Children’s Palace
I was able to briefly recapture the Pueblo, but unsucessful at getting it out of Pyongyang.
Random Pyongyang Photos
Back in Beijing!