North Korea - The author’s take

Author’s takeA cyclist in front of the Juche Tower, Pyongyang, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue,

The first time I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang, in the late 1990s, I became aware of going somewhere else, somewhere different, before even getting on the plane. It was a compact Air Koryo Ilyushin-62 with an unusually well-glazed cockpit, parked at the farthest, darkest end of a Beijing terminal wing. It didn’t look like a Boeing or Airbus or anything built to fly this last decade; it had engines at the back and a particular swoop to its design. The Koreans waiting to board wore quality suits of sombre-coloured cloth of an oddly uniform, timelessly stylish cut. They talked to each other, not on mobiles, and not to me. I spoke with the other foreigners, all strangers to one another but bound by the common interest and thrill of having any business in North Korea.

(Photo: A cyclist in front of the Juche Tower in Pyongyang © Eric Lafforgue,

Pyongyang airport looked like any other, except for Kim Il Sung’s portrait hanging over it. I and the other passengers went through passport control, with the passport officer notably high up in his cubicle. The other side, everyone was met by a driver and car. No throng of taxi men hassling and haggling, no buses. No advertising! I and some other strangers who quickly befriended one another on our joint adventure (of being in North Korea) were whisked away in a large car, with driver and guide, around empty hills, through road checkpoints dotted along empty roads. Everything seemed straight out of the opening scenes in Tintin’s Destination Moon.

It’s easy for the imagination to run riot about North Korea (or as they prefer to call it in Pyongyang, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). I first became interested in the place while working in China, itself a country abounding in frontiers for foreigners convinced they’re the first to set foot anywhere. It was at Beijing’s airport that I noticed flights to Pyongyang on the departures board. So there was a way into the land on the edge of the world, that small pocket of mountains that the Western press was forever wailing to be a worry and a menace, this secretive, hermetic state referred to as Stalinist on the good days, that final bastion of high ideals and base deeds.

Many cities unravel, their layouts like random bits of string flung in a box, but Pyongyang’s vistas and boulevards of sharp-sided buildings pan out so neatly, as definable sections on a vast plan of the city.

I got my chance to go as part of a larger delegation, and while I remember every single moment, the trip as a whole confirmed some rumours and debunked other myths. A lot of things I had read about the place before going didn’t seem true while there, or was I being brilliantly hoodwinked? I realised I didn’t really know anything at all worth knowing. So when the grapevine sent a memo that Bradt wanted someone to write a guidebook about the DPRK, I jumped at the chance, to find out as much for myself as to try and flash a bit of torchlight into this dark corner of the world.

A pioneer girl laying flowers, Mansudae Art Studio, Pyongyang, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.comA young pioneer pays her respects to the Great and Dear Leaders at the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang © Eric Lafforgue,

There are many more cars in Pyongyang now, there are even traffic jams, but many of the trams and trolley buses are at death’s door. You see many more people out and about, many with mobile phones, but their phone networks are entirely shut off from those used by foreigners. People in Pyongyang seem relaxed and buoyant in a way that they were not in 2002, when still staggering out of the famine, and they smile and wave. But they keep their distance. There are more new buildings and lights that stay on at night, but they still lack any hoardings or adverts for goods or any reference to the outside world whatsoever, and the astonishingly monothematic presence of all things Kim still dominates every facet of life, education, the media, history, tourism, imagery, etc. And the military are everywhere. For all the changes around the edges, it remains fundamentally the same.

There are more sights to see and the list is growing all the time, but it’s as true that the bulk of the country remains off-limits.

There are more sights to see and the list is growing all the time, but it’s as true that the bulk of the country remains off-limits.  I’ve tried to write the Bradt guide as much for those people who go in with a guide (mainly tourists) as for those who live there or are visitors for other reasons. There are omissions of basic information and broad issues. There are also quite a few subject areas that cannot be readily discussed in a guidebook that is only of use if it’s allowed into the country. On the first point, for tourists, questions about times, prices and numbers are largely irrelevant because they’re with guides at all times and their itineraries are planned so that museums and whatnot can be opened especially for one tour group. Non-tourists are still barred from visiting grand public buildings or museums without guides to take them round, which must be arranged, but parks, the right restaurants and shops can all be visited relatively freely, as can a few outlying temples and museums in outer places – but don’t rely on just turning up.

Keep your eyes and mind open, smiles wide and hands waving high – when not shaking the hands of Koreans.

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