A bear’s head from Romania, a railway carriage donated by China’s Mao Zedong and a sword given to the leaders by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi are some of the things tourists a shown in Kim Jong Un’s isolated realm. While North Korea may not be on the radar of the average traveller, there are North Korea tours that you can join. Visiting as part of a tour group is a vacation that will give you some insights into life in North Korea.
Frequent flyer Gabriel Hung popped over to Pyongyang for a quick visit. Here’s is his experience of life in North Korea.
How did you get there?
I went on a short trip to Pyongyang with Koryo Tours, a British tour operator in Beijing that specialises in North Korea touring. We flew from Beijing in retro Soviet-made aircraft from the 1970’s. The seats were uncomfortable and cabin attendants told us photography was prohibited on board, but I took photos anyway.
I was in a group of 15 travellers. We had three local guides and a camera man. We were told the camera guy was there to film a video of our vacation but I’m convinced he was there to conduct surveillance on us.
What was the main attraction?
The Arirang Mass Games is what attracts most tourists. Seeing 200,000 performers in a stadium is an awe-inspiring sight and watching hundreds of kids doing synchronised gymnastics with military precision was really cool.
Tell us about Pyongyang
I stayed in Yanggakdo International Hotel, which was comfortable and basic. The hotel had very slow and unreliable lifts, though.
On the surface, Pyongyang appeared to be a normal city. People seemed happy and healthy. We had contact with the locals on the street, in the metro and at the amusement park. They seemed as interested in us as we were in them. They stared at us a lot, especially when we were screaming our heads off in the amusement park.
Were you allowed to take photographs?
Yes, we were allowed to take photos as long as we didn’t take any of army personnel. Our photos were not examined upon departure.
What sights did you see?
Lots of monuments!
We saw the Tower of the Juche Idea, a 170m tall column in the world. The guide was proud to tell us the column is the second tallest in the world, built in honour of Kim Il Sung’s philosophy Juche. It was unveiled to mark the president’s 70th birthday in 1982. In front of the Tower of the Juche Idea is a 30m statue consisting of three figures: one with a hammer, one with a sickle and one with a writing brush (an idealised worker, a peasant and a working intellectual).
The Monument to the Foundation of the Korean Workers’ Party is a hammer, sickle and writing brush representing the workers, farmers and intellectuals. Each of these is 50 metres high, in recognition of the Party’s 50th anniversary.
There’s the Grand People’s Study House in front of the Taedong River and the Arc of Triumph, which, according to our guide is the world’s tallest and bigger than the one in Paris! It was built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945.
What was the strangest sight you saw?
They seem to have a soft spot for the gifts given to their leaders. There’s a museum with more than 220,000 items, including a bear’s head and a bullet-proof limousine. There was one gift from the New York Group for the Study of Kimilsungism. I’m not sure if this group actually exists!
Was there anything else besides monuments?
We saw some school kids visiting the Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War. Later an army guide who spoke good English showed us through the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.
She made us watch a video denouncing American imperialists and blaming the Americans for starting the war. She lectured us while walking through the museum about aircraft used in the war and told us about a strange tree that saved many people!
We also visited the Metro, which is designed like the system in Moscow, and took a cruise on the Taedong River.