Postcard from Pyongyang
Text and photos Jill Thomas
The North Korean government is fervently proud of its roads, and rightly so. They’re expansive and spotlessly clean, with not a pothole in sight. In fact, there is not much of anything in sight, least of all traffic. You can saunter across a six-lane highway in the heart of the capital safe in the knowledge that your only hazard is the occasional whizzing bicycle.
We’re in Pyongyang, North Korea, a country best known for its nefarious dabbling in nuclear weaponry and its “axis of evil” moniker. Years of isolation have taken their toll, although at first glance life in the capital seems normal, albeit a little quiet. Enormous marble and stone buildings, many of which would look perfectly at home in Russia, dominate the skyscape. Pedestrians scurry about their daily affairs — looking decidedly dour, but then again it is a Monday morning. Our guides, a petite Miss Lee and a rather more full-figured Mr. Park, take us everywhere like perfect hosts.
There’s a feeling that we’re being watched all the time — because we are. As we tour the sprawling Kim Il Sung Square, gawk at the massive Workers’ Party Monument, and take in the views from the top of the Juche Tower, the camera-toting Mr. Park lopes after us filming our every move. He tells us it’s for a souvenir DVD, but back home a few weeks later none of the copies work. We reckon the footage ended up on the local evening news instead.
Still, we know what we have signed up for, and it only makes us more curious about what there is to see, from the spectacular to the serious. At the Children’s Palace, an after-school facility for kids up to their late teens, little mites as young as three are mastering music, gymnastics, and calligraphy. It’s a fascinating study in what can be achieved without the distractions of TV or bits of electronic gadgetry.
The mood is much less jovial at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, where Miss Lee delivers an impassioned speech on how her country won the Korean War and booted out the evil American aggressors. We swap incredulous looks but decide not to challenge her revisionism — we are, after all, guests. And under surveillance.
Most astonishing, though, is the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Korean peninsula between North and South Korea. We’ve been here, on the south side, and it was all “Don’t point, don’t smile, and don’t walk anywhere unless you’re given permission, or the North Koreans might shoot.” But — perhaps in a deliberate one-fingered salute across the border — the North Koreans give us free rein to wander around, snap holiday shots, and generally act like silly tourists.
Much of what we see seems like a careful facade, from our five-star hotel with its cardboard walls, to the sad collection of items on sale at Department Store No. 1 (of four, apparently). So we’re delighted when we’re deposited for a few hours at a fairground. Never mind that it’s seen better days — in the early ‘80s — and smells horribly rusty. We shovel ourselves into a creaky rollercoaster car and pummel some giggling school kids in the bumper cars, but stop short of the unhealthily cranking Ferris wheel. We do, after all, want to get out of here alive.
Air Koryo, North Korea’s official state-owned carrier, flies Beijing-Pyongyang three times a week and Vladivostok-Pyongyang once a week. Both routes take just under two hours. Pyongyang is six hours ahead of Moscow.
Independent travel in North Korea is not possible — you are required to hire a guide for the duration of your time there. Our trip was organized by Koryo Tours (www.koryogroup.com), an independent and very professional Beijing-based agency. Nationals of all countries require visas, which can be arranged by your tour agency.