The skyscraper apartments looming in front of us seemed like anything you’d find in your typical modern city.
“Are these apartments for those who are really rich?” we asked.
“People live here free of charge”, our pretty North Korean guide explained as we walked to our dinner venue.
Our eyes widened. “What? No way.”
She continued: “The government provides these apartments to people who they feel are important to society. For example scientists, engineers, and so on.”
“Wow, that’s a pretty good deal. I’m an engineer, can I immigrate here and have one of these apartments?” one of our Chinese group members joked.
Everyone laughed. I knew we were all torn between being impressed and disbelief at what the guide was telling us. North Korea didn’t match the image of people dying of starvation and violence often painted by Western media. While the feel of Pyongyang is like time-slipping back 40 years into the past, with the odd futuristic element, people in general seemed quite content.
The streets are clean and spotless. Petty crime is practically non-existent. Many people use the subway, despite it being a relic from the Soviet era. We saw families with their children in the playground and youths playing basketball in the public courts.
But other than the staff in the restaurants and stores we were taken to, people mostly avoided interacting with us. At most, they shot furtive glances. And even as we walked between these so-called elitist apartments, I couldn’t help but notice that almost all of the windows were dark.
Here are some other things I learned during my trip.
The Arirang Mass Games is like nothing you’ve ever seen
Usually held every September to coincide with the DPRK’s National Day, the Arirang Mass Games not only showcase remarkable coordination and discipline, but also the DPRK’s technology. It holds a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest gymnastic display, with the 2018 run marking a return after a 5-year hiatus. The games run every night for a month or so, though they ran for almost two this year due to their immense popularity.
The theme for this year’s games was “The Glorious Country”, which pretty much sums up what it was about. It was broken into a number of acts, with each an intense combination of coordination dance, acrobatics, and song. Perhaps what was the most impressive, and what I was personally hanging out for, was the background. Made up of approximately 10,000 people holding coloured cards, each of these individuals flipped the cards at exactly the same time to create elaborate backgrounds throughout the show. I was fascinated the entire show with the level of coordination.
Also impressive was the opening act, where they spelled out, and rotated, the Korean hangul characters using multiple drones.
One of the surprising parts was when they played a video of Kim Jong Un and the President of South Korea shaking hands outside the blue UN houses in the DMZ. All the North Koreans clapped and cheered. It was definitely an encouraging sign.
The closing act consisted of a fireworks display which lighted up the entire May Day Stadium. The stadium was abuzz with awe and celebratory highs from foreigners and North Koreans alike. By the end of it, even I believed this was a glorious country.
North Korean women are beautiful
“Can we take a photo with you?” we asked our guide.
She smiled and put her arms around us. “Of course.”
“I want to go back and show all my friends how beautiful our guide was,” my travelling partner said.
Our guide laughed, and I asked “Do you like your job?”
She grimaced slightly. “It’s okay. But I like both of you!”
“Nam nam buk nyeo”, as the old Korean adage goes. Literally “Southern man, Northern woman”, it is better translated into English as: “If you want a man, go to the south; if you want a woman, go to the north.” Having now been to both Koreas, I can see the basis for this saying.
It’s not that South Korean women are not beautiful, but that plastic surgery and excessive make up is so common that it’s hard to distinguish what is natural and what is “created”. This is not an issue in North Korea, as commoners almost certainly don’t have access to plastic surgery or any huge luxuries. They do have make up, and they use it well, so those in Pyongyang are not all country bumpkins either. Starting from our guide, all the women we encountered were nothing short of beautiful. However, at the same time, those who served us were surely chosen because of this, so our judgement may be slightly skewed. But there’s no doubt that northern girls possess a natural sweetness from an era long passed, one that southerners may at times feel nostalgic for.
As for the men, it’s not that there are not handsome guys up north, but that the lack of meat and nutrition means that their southern equivalents are usually more well-built, taller, and masculine as a result. (Though looking at some of those K-pop stars some may beg to differ). The militarized nature of North Korea also means that almost all men are calloused by the elements with little time to preen themselves.
Be careful what you wear
On the last day heading back to China, I decided to wear this blue mesh-style t-shirt from BABYDOLL.
I learned the hard way that maybe that wasn’t the best choice. Even though the guides had no issues with it, avoiding bright colors and any remotely questionable emblems, such as crowns, may be wise.
We were heading back to China on a 7-hour train bound for Dandong. After a few hours, we went to the restaurant car to enjoy a meal of local vegetables, fish, and kimchi. My travelling partner, a Chinese, sat next to me, and across from us sat our British and Australian group members. In the booth across from us were more Caucasian group members.
At some point a group of North Korean military officials, three older men, sat in the booth behind us. I was playing a game of Celebrity Heads with my table when I felt a tap on the shoulder. I thought it was an accident and ignored it. The men were talking amongst themselves in Korean, but since I couldn’t understand them, I thought nothing of it. But as we continued playing, I kept feeling nudges on my shoulder. I could see out of the corner of my eye the guy who sat directly behind us resting his arm on booth chair, well into our booth. We started feeling a bit uncomfortable, so got up and paid the bill. Casting a look back, I could see that they were watching us.
When we had returned to our berths, the Aussie group member who has sat across from us said:
“Those men from the army sitting behind you, they kept tapping you on the shoulder. They seemed interested in your shirt.”
Maybe they thought we were Korean and wanted to ask us something. She also said they were laughing and taking photos with their phones of us and the other table of foreigners. This was a little scary, despite our British guide assuring us they were just curious. To be safe, I made sure to pull on a white sweater over my shirt when the guards did their checks at the border. The fact that I’m sitting here typing this means it ended up being nothing, thank God.
Things seems to be loosening up
With the exception of the incident described above, things definitely felt more relaxed in general. Our North Korean guides were so lovely, and even the train guards were nice. One the way back we got a lady who spoke good Chinese and made conversation with us, joking that everyday they get floods of Chinese crossing the border.
No one checked the photos on our phones or cameras.
One of our group members, an Italian, corrected the guard’s pronunciation of his name and what did the guard do? Slug him on the head with the butt of his rifle? No, he said sorry.
And then when the guards had finished checking our group and were checking other berths on the train…
The same feisty Italian guy in our group: Can I go for a smoke?
British tour guide: No, no one is allowed to leave their berths right now.
Italian guy: But I’m just going to be over there.
British guide: Just wait till later.
Italian guy: You know, these guards just like to show off their power; it’s like that in a lot of countries, for example when I was in the Dominican Republic, the guards were just like this.
British guide: Well yes, I’m all for political discussions but maybe not on the North Korean border.
Italian guy: Everyone just assumes they aren’t allowed to do something, but they don’t ask or try to challenge the authority. That’s the problem with people, they just obey. You know, they can kill one but they can’t kill all of us.
British guide: Well, that escalated quickly to killing.
Italian guy: I’m going out to have a smoke.
British guide: Well, you can try, and get shouted at.
Italian guy (flags the attention of a guard as he is walking by): Can I go for a smoke?
Guard waves his consent dismissively and continues walking.
Italian guy: You see?
All of us: ….
I have been fascinated by North Korea for years now: reading books by defectors and other people who have lived there, writing an essay on it during my Master’s, and even watching The Interview with much amusement. (Too bad the North Korean government doesn’t think so too.)
When I discovered that the Arirang Mass Games would be on in 2018, I jumped at the opportunity to go. Unfortunately, thousands of mainland Chinese had the same idea, resulting in restrictions on Chinese tour companies entering the country for about a month around the DPRK’s National Day. This affected us because we had originally booked with a Chinese tour company, as they were the cheapest. Bad choice. Thankfully, we were able to secure a spot with Young Pioneer Tours at the last minute, which allowed the trip to go as planned. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to have been able to travel to the DPRK at this crucial point in history.
North Korea is an amazing country, like time-slipping 40 years into the past, with the odd futuristic element thrown in. However, there is definitely a change in the air. Repeat travellers to North Korea told us that things were much more relaxed now – a few years back you would hardly see anyone on the streets after dark, but this time people were going about as normal. The fact that our photos weren’t checked at all surprised many of us.
Confirmation of our hunch came soon after after we returned: Both Koreas agreed to demilitarise the border truce village of Panmunjom. Guards from each side crossed into each other’s territory peacefully for the first time since the split, marking a milestone in inter-Korea relations.
Western media has a tendency to focus almost exclusively on negative press about North Korea, some of which I feel is exaggerated. At the same time, I know not everything the guides and North Korean government told us can be taken at face value. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. And hopefully one day we can all stand on the same side.
If you want some lighter reading on North Korea, check out my review of some North Korean snacks I bought when I was there.