Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Little Trip to the North - the Lowdown

As many of you will have now heard, I had the wonderful opportunity over my (admittedly very short) 2 week summer break to travel to both Beijing, China and North Korea (also known as the DPRK - The Democratic People's Republic of Korea). I was even more fortunate in that I got to visit, not only Pyongyang (평양), but the port city of Wonsan (원산) on the East Coast, the ancient city of Kaesong (개성) in the Southwest, and the abandoned city of Panmunjom (판문점) located in the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) close to the Joint Security Area (the only region in which those party to the Korean War can meet). Sadly, I didn't have time (or money) to make it up to the northern part of the country where conditions are usually much harsher (as you go north, the country becomes even more mountainous, placing arable land in short supply) and where satellite images (easily found on the internet) indicate the country's (long-denied) internment and re-education camps are located (for more on these, you can read Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot's The Aquariums of Pyongyang or Blaine Harden's account of Shin Dong-hyuk's Escape from Camp 14). While those sites are definitely not included on any tourist track, I would have loved to visit the north-eastern industrial city of Chongjin (청진) which suffered the brunt of the famine during the 1990s and from whence came many of the North Korean expatriates interviewed by Barbara Demik for her book on the period Nothing to Envy. I'd also have loved to have seen the workings of the special economic zone in the port city of Rason (라선), located on the Sea of Japan the where it meets the Chinese and Russian borders. Last on my list of wish-haves, would have been the opportunity to hike the stunningly beautiful Mount Paekdu (백두산) on the Chinese border where legend has it Kim Jong-il was born. But, alas, I suppose that will all have to wait for a later time!

The Ins & Outs of Getting to the DPRK
Getting into North Korea as a tourist is nowhere near as hard as one might think. So long as you are not a journalist (and even then it's possible to get special permission) or a citizen of South Korea (or Japan), all that is required is that you enter (and leave) the country with a recognized and affiliated tour operator. Americans are given one further restriction; they must fly both in and out - no trains for them. Reasons behind this are unclear, it has been suggested that this was for their own protection, however, none of the North Koreans we encountered seemed particularly keen to do damage to any American tourists. All others have the option of flying (from Beijing, China (1h40) or Vladivostok, Russia (50mins)) or train-ing (from Beijing via Dandong (China) & Shinuiju (DPRK) total 23hrs including customs and train hopping). I opted to fly in and train out.

At present there are 3 or so non-Chinese companies running tours to North Korea (all companies run both 'independent', where you design your own route and are accompanied by your own guide, and group tours). These are Korea Konsult, Koryo Tours & Young Pioneer Tours. Once in the country, all tours are handed over to the charge of government-run Korea International Travel Company (조선구제려행사). For this reason, combined with the facts that the visa costs were included in their tour and that being based in Xi'an rather than Beijing allows them to charge significantly lower rates, I chose to travel with Young Pioneer Tours - definitely a great decision! Not only are they on great terms with the North Korean guides, the office staff were supremely helpful, responding promptly and efficiently to all inquiries. Troy and Ritchie were also wonderful guides, well informed about the country, often able to supply a balancing perspective on things and very willing to listen to the requests and needs of the group (all of the guides are also stakeholders in the company, making them much more involved and capable with regards to the running of things). If you're contemplating a North Korean voyage, I highly recommend going with Young Pioneer. Age group was mixed and all of the people were great. My only complaint was specific to this time of year (it's the busiest) and regards the fact that this was the largest group tour they've ever done at nearly 40 people for the first half of the trip (though this was split in two and each group had their own western guide alongside 3 from the DPRK). This was actually not really an issue, but the trip became noticeably more intimate (and our DPRK guides noticeably more relaxed) once the majority of people left and there were only 12 of us remaining.  

While foreigners are not allowed to wander out of sight of their North Korean minders (usually provided in a ratio of 1 for every 6 foreigners or less) for the duration of their stay, I found my guides to be, not only informative but, once they came to know us and got comfortable, surprisingly candid in discussions (particularly the older ones) and open to allowing us a fairly high degree of freedom.

Living Conditions
Since coming back, nearly every question I have been asked has been to do with the living conditions - are people starving? do they look grey gaunt and harrowed? or, from another angle, was everything too scripted? did it seem like everything I saw was staged?

I'm happy to report that the answer to all of these is actually (surprisingly, I realize) no. The people I saw were not starving. Did I see undernourished and malnutritioned  people? Yes - more so in the countryside - but not the African-famine-child starving we are so used to seeing on TV. We actually met a UNICEF aid worker on the flight over who works in nutrition in the northern provinces and he confirmed that there is a chronic undernutrition/malnutrition problem but that things are nowhere near as bad as they were during the famines of the 90s (though with this year's drought, subsequent flooding and, now, Typhoon Bolaven, it might not be quite so happy). In conversation with both people knowledgeable on the subject and with North Koreans themselves, it's apparent that the main reason for this improvement (beyond just plain better crop yields) is the reduced crackdown on black markets and the acceptance of selling of produce from home gardens - enabling people to garner food beyond their government allotment.

It should also be pointed out that, until the dissolution of the USSR, North Korea was actually doing a fair bit better than was the South. Few non-Korean people seem to remember that it wasn't until the late 80s that the South managed to see anything resembling democratic rule.

The acceptance of black market trade is also evident in the fact that nearly every Pyongyang resident can be seen walking sporting clothing (some of it very nice) and accessories other than those supplied by the government (rations of food and clothing can be granted on a monthly,weekly or daily basis depending on location and job, it's pretty much universally agreed that these need to be supplemented either by growing your own food (which is allowed) or by finding extra work on the side).

Given that we did not visit any private homes, what I know about housing comes only from discussion and outward appearance. Outwardly, there is a mix of both brand new and older dilapidated housing - but nothing worse than you see in many of the South American countries - or even in some areas of North America. Housing is obviously better in Pyongyang as, not only is it the capital, only those who show supreme party loyalty or who have families which have long done the same are offered residence there (although that seems to be loosening up somewhat?). Housing is determined by occupation, with many of those working for the same government company or department living in the same housing blocks. Lavatories are often shared by floor and showers taken in public bath houses (the latter of which is a pan-Korean thing). Never-the-less, I heard my guide say that she'd rather live at home with no en suite than at the hotel with one - home is home.

With regards to technology, almost everyone I saw in Pyongyang had a cell phone (not a smartphone - there is not internet access in North Korea -  but then, I don't have a smartphone either). 3G cell phone service is provided by Koryolink and the Egyptian Company Orascom (which, as part of their contract, has agreed to complete the pyramid-shaped problem-plagued Ryugyong Hotel which has been under construction since 1987). All in all, I'd have to say their service is far better than ours, with free calls to the service provider, weatherman (no seriously, you can call in for the weather, for free) and news reels. Thus, while they might not have internet access, they still have rapid and free cell phone access to aid and information. In addition, the lack of internet doesn't mean they're that far behind on the technology front. North Koreans have access to email and (admittedly select) information via their national intranet as well as to things such as free Photoshop and windows 2007/XP courses at their local libraries (called study houses). Not too bad.

Art & Social Welfare
If there is one area in which the DPRK excels beyond any country that I have ever visited, it's in its unfailing promotion of the arts, sports and higher learning. Not only are students encouraged to focus on a passion after school, there are entire 'children's palaces' dedicated to these activities.While the training regimen is strict (particularly for those who show promise), I can't say it's any worse that forcing your children to be in school nearly 24/7 as is the case in South Korea. The best of the best are obviously in Pyongyang, but the sheer talent displayed by so many children  (I'm thinking Arirang Mass Games) in that country is just astounding. Similarly, we visited and arts studio and saw some of the best artwork I've seen in a long time.

In addition to free extra curricular tuition during elementary, middle and high school, university is also free. All that is required is a sufficient score on your entrance examinations and that you be under 30 when you begin (and your pedigree depending on which school you'd like to attend - institutions in Pyongyang for instance, are reserved largely for party loyalists - mainly because living in the city also is) and each city boasts a plethora of college and university programs.

Post-graduation, it is also possible to continue your studies in any field of interest by attending lectures and courses (provided you can convince work that it is sufficiently beneficial to them and society as a whole for you to learn this) at the Grand Peoples' Study House, a library come open university. Interestingly, a number of the North Koreans I met (particularly younger people and those studying at the Study House) had a greater grasp of and better facility with English than do many South Koreans I know.

Health care, as in any self-respecting socialist country, is also free. It is widely acknowledged however, both inside and out of the country, that the system has been slowly deteriorating since the dissolution of the USSR as potential places at which doctors can train have slowly been drying up. That having been said, I encountered more than one woman who'd had cosmetic double eyelid done in Pyongyang (plastic surgery, another pan-Korean phenomenon)!

Travel & Leisure
While I met a great deal of older North Koreans who had travelled quite a bit (mostly around Asia & Soviet Block countries) in their youth, many of the younger people had never left the country or had merely been to China (one had worked in India!) as the decline in communist states has further restricted destinations.

Leisure wise, not only does the state provide free gym facilities in the major cities, the state has a thriving film industry and puts on well performed, heavily subsidized shows such as operas, concerts and circuses (and, at the extreme end, Arirang). Tickets for foreigners to these run at roughly 20Euros (80-300 for the Mass Games) but are offered at much more affordable prices to locals.

Similarly, while I first reacted with disgust to articles regarding Kim Jong-un's opening of a new amusement park (my initial thoughts were along the lines of "Who's going to get to use those? The elite? That's horrible, why is he not spending that money on food???"), having been there and seen how cheap entry is for citizens and how much enjoyment all of the average people were deriving from those parks which already exist, I have a much greater appreciation for his actions.

The Korean People's Army 
While you might expect the constant presence of army officials and uniformed soldiers to feel overbearing and somewhat oppressive - after all the DPRK is relatively small in size, possesses the 4th largest standing army in the world, and is the most militarized nation on Earth - it really doesn't. Quite the contrary actually. As nearly every male, at some point, will have joined the army, and every male is someone's son, brother, father or cousin, army personnel are just family (I never got a straight answer regarding conscription, it seems like the requirements might depend somewhat on educational and familial status - also on weather or not your girlfriend is willing to marry a 'wimp' who skipped out on military obligations). This is especially the case when soldiers are not taken out of the society but, instead, left embedded in it. In the DPRK, it is also the army which is responsible for manning construction and implementation projects, meaning that they are constantly interacting with civilians. I constantly saw tour buses of military units doing their sightseeing tours (schools, work units and army corps are all brought to the city to see the sights at least once) with wives and children in tow, soldiers walking down the street in everyday conversation with civilians, and kids racing after and reaching up to grab their uniformed relatives hand. Perhaps an even better indication of their humanity, the joyful faces of the soldiers while riding roller coasters at the amusement parks and their sprints to line up for the next ones. That's not to say that these soldiers aren't capable of defending their homeland with strength and dedication (you should see their demeanour change if you ask hypotheticals) or of committing atrocities in difficult situations, it's just that they aren't horrific but, rather, friendly, in the everyday.

Apparently it's legal. We even got to visit a Buddhist temple and I chatted with the monk. Our guide had also previously been to a Christian church. Who knew. Regulations seem to be that you are allowed to keep your familial religion but not to convert anyone (that would be a capital offence) and that members of religion are exempt from wearing their party pins (everyone else sports pins bearing the images of one or both of the Dear/Great Leaders). They are also, however, exempted from the party, making it impossible for them to climb the ranks.

Politics and People
With the recent power transition, I was understandably curious regarding the reception of Kim Jong-un within the DPRK. All I can say? Very favourable. All of the North Koreans I spoke with seem to really like him, comparing him to his much more personable grandfather rather than his more introverted father (my adjectives, not theirs). Interestingly, with regards to the ruling family, those of us living outside the country know much more than those living in it. Many of them know nothing of Kim Jong-un's siblings, nor anything of Kim Jong-il's wives (not at the same time) or of how Kim Il-sung's wife died. That they know nothing about these things is readily admitted. When I asked why, the response was that those things were to do with private, not public life and therefore did not need to be known. I got similar responses when I asked if anyone knew where they lived. I definitely think the west can take somewhat of a lesson from this!

The Pyongyang Subway
Started in 1965 and opened in 1972, much has been said about the Pyongyang subway. Mostly that it's likely all a stage and that there are only really two stations. I assure you, there aren't. The subway is indeed a real system comprised of two lines and extending 35km. I rode it 6 stops. The real reason that tourists were only previously shown 2 of the stops? They were the two nicest - and by nicest, I don't mean that the others are in any way ugly. Nope, I mean that those two have chandeliers in addition to the beautiful and unique mosaics lining the walls at all of the stations. - and the government couldn't for the life of them figure out while all of these foreigners were so eager to see more. After all, wouldn't you find it odd if someone wanted to see all of the stops in your city? That having been said, given the beauty of the murals, all of the stops may well be worth seeing! The ones I saw certainly were. The system itself supports a ridership of 300 000 to 700 000 people per day, many of whom transfer to buses once on the surface. Oh, and did I mention that Pyongyang has a smart fare card system? They do. Toronto, please up your game.

Transport Between Cities
There isn't much of it. The odd bus or truck, but these aren't scheduled and are rare, leaving people waiting for them to come. Given that private cars are also rare, with most transport owned by the government companies, transport is often a communal thing.

The Culture & Language
As I came from and have returned to living in South Korea, I was naturally particularly intrigued by the differences and similarities of the cultures of the two Koreas. In many ways, a lot of things are the same. Clothing is conservative, people are warm and welcoming, they like to drink, age is important when addressing one another, Korea is considered to be the source of all things great, and foreigners, while welcomed, are still considered to be inferior (not in a rude way, more in a, they just can't help that they're not Korean kind of way - it's the product of centuries of isolation). Collectivism is also highly valued and seems to be nearly instinctive on both sides of the border - it's really heartwarming to watch, particularly over there.

In other ways the cultures are very different. On some level, I felt a bit like North Korea had been Chineese-ified (they do get regular busloads of Chinese tourists) as pushing on the subway was a bit more Chinese-style that South Korea-style. Mostly though, the main differences were to do with language. Rather than pronouncing 's' as 'sh' when followed by and i, North Koreans maintain the sibilant sound. They are also more likely to use the formal 'nida/sipsyo' endings on all occasions and to preserve the tradition of pronouncing an initial 'n' as an 'l'. Finally, they refer to their country (and, in deed, all of Korea) as 'Chosun' (조선, land of the rising sun) after the Chosun (also romanized as Joseon) Dynasty and their language as Chosun mal (조선말), rather than to the country as Hanguk (한국) and the language as Hanguk-o (한국어) or Hanguk mal (한국말) as is done in the South. Overall actually, I have to say I rather prefer the Northern accent!

Overall Impressions
Wow, this has turned in to quite the essay! Hopefully this has answered most (if not all) of the questions everyone's been asking about my trip!

Overall, I absolutely loved my time in the DPRK. The people were super welcoming and friendly - whether they were mandated to be spending time with me or encountered me on the side of the road at a road block. They were also incredibly generous and eager to share (particularly old women fishing on piers or sharing my train carriage). The landscape too was just as lovely as I'd imagined and I have many more sights to see that I missed (including the mausoleum (closed for Kim Jong-il's embalming) and International Friendship Museum (flooding) - plus whatever show is developed to replace Arirang!).

For anyone who is interested, I definitely recommend that you go visit for yourself (and use Young Pioneer Tours!). I know I definitely hope to go back one day!

Now, back to the posting of the photos!


Anonymous said...

This is an awesome essay, Ally. It completely changed my opinion - it's nice to have a tourist ethnography :D.

Ally S said...

:D. now, to edit it...