Entering the Most Secretive and Repressive State on the Planet

Tucked away quietly in the remote north eastern corner of China lies a steep, green-sided peak known as Hushan (Tiger Mountain).  From the top you can see pretty far: a river below, another country beyond.  If you’ve come this far then you’re standing on the most easterly edge of the Great Wall of China and that other country is North Korea.

I hadn’t travelled here just to climb the Great Wall and enjoy the vulgarities of nouveau riche Chinese tourists – urinating on (and off) the wall, honking up globules of phlegm, screaming down their iPhone 6s and flinging Coke bottles off the side.  No.  It was always about that other country below.

Two neighbours worlds apart

Descend down the steep, knee-height steps towards the river and you’ll be presented with a choice; follow the smartphone hoards, or turn left into the quiet undergrowth, along a shady, rocky path that leads down to the river’s edge.  The reward for scuffing your elbows and shins along this beaten trail is North Korea at your fingertips.  You’re so close to the soldiers now, it’s like being a kid at the lion enclosure in a zoo; you could throw a stone across and provoke an attack!  Well, almost.

But you really are that close.  The river is just 10 metres wide, beyond lies a shallow embankment rumored to be land-mined.  Then there’s a simple fence, behind which patrol North Korean soldiers, with elevated guard-posts dotted every kilometre along the entire border.  We were looking at each other.  I saw three of them chatting casually, glancing across while performing some unknown military tasks.  Everyday however, they look back and see guys like me, trigger-happy, camera-wielding tourists staring even more intently in on them.  What must they think?

Beyond them, maize fields separated a lifeless-looking village, which you can actually see quite clearly.  I saw one old man pedaling a bicycle along a bumpy dirt track but no cars, no people; just uniform rows of one-storey houses.  This was my first glimpse into the most secretive, repressive country on Earth.   Ironic that the Great Wall above, built to keep out invading Koreans during the Ming dynasty, seemed redundant now in the face of the modern-day Korean barrier; a new dynasty hell-bent on repressing itself.

Searching for escapees

The nearby Chinese border-city of Dandong bustles along the Yalu River.  I spent a few days here getting ready for the trip.  What a contrast it is to see Dandong’s skyline, in all its shiny, brightly-lit neon glory, totally overwhelming North Korea, basking as it always has in the dark ages.

I took an evening stroll along the waterfront-promenade, where the river is considerably wider.  I bought an ice-cream and stood for a while people-watching.  Speed boats zipped up and down giving tourists the chance to get up close with North Korea, although I heard that locals throw rocks at the boats when they got too close.  Meanwhile onshore I noticed some out-of-place, middle-aged gentlemen in black leather jackets, meandering slowly, prowling through crowds of happy families and tourists. Lost? Hardly.  Dandong is a known hotbed for North Korean spies, seeking out defectors, escapees and human-trafficked sex-workers.  60% of the escapees are women and 80% of them end up as sex slaves for old Chinese men and farmers.  They’re sold for anything from $500 - $2000.

I got chatting to a local Chinese lady in her mid-thirties who spoke unusually good English.  At first I thought she was a prostitute, being so friendly, but I was wrong – she reminded me just how friendly normal Chinese people actually are when they’re not busy being tourists.  I asked her about North Korean escapees.

“No, I haven’t met any, but I see them.  They look and sound very different to us, you know?  Usually they disappear into the forests, not stay in Dandong for long.”

“Why?” I asked.

“They don’t want to get caught by the police.”

“Are there spies here from North Korea looking for them?”

“Oh don’t be so serious!” she said.   I wasn’t trying to be, I just wanted to know.  I pressed another angle: how did they get here?

“Winter!  Always in winter.  That’s when they come.  The river is frozen and they walk across at night when nobody see.  Pay the guards bribe, nobody see.”

I retreated to my 24th floor hotel suite overlooking the Yalu and a sweeping twilight view of the North Korea plains.  I sat alone drinking beer, gazing out my fancy large windows as the moon and stars rose.  The mysterious country plunged into darkness while 24 floors beneath me, an expressway of garish orange lights and buzzing traffic pulsed along. Dandong’s lights flashed and dazed in a carnival of colour.

A coal barge passed slowly along the river.  Its trailing wake rippled outwards upon the dead black water, reflecting silvery moonlit diamonds.   Occasionally, a pair of car headlights beamed out from the great gloom beyond like some bright star, slowly crossing a long road from the mountains to the little Korean river-town on the other side.   Each car tapered along this black emptiness, as if one in a million, crossing through empty space.  I watched late into the night.

Entering the enclosure

The train rumbled slowly across the Yalu River bridge into North Korea before stopping at immigration for a couple of hours.  My tour group and I waited patiently as soldiers came aboard to check our documents and more importantly, our belongings.  Books and literature of any kind are viewed with great suspicion as one German tourist in the group found out – his brand new North Korean guidebook was confiscated.  It was so new, the guards hadn’t seen it before, ergo, confiscated.  My iPhone was checked thoroughly both on entry and exit.  But the soldier checking seemed interested more on a personal level than just looking for contraband images.  He made a ‘wow’ face at my pictures of Tokyo’s skyline and stared even more intently at my photos of Seoul, South Korea, aka, the arch enemy.

For the next four hours we trundled south through the countryside, Pyongyang bound.  Windows and doors were locked, photography forbidden, and mingling with the extra two carriages at the rear (which housed North Korean passengers) was most definitely off-limits.  However, the guards had forgotten to lock one door and a steady stream of Chinese passengers were busy using it as a smoke-hole.  I on the other hand used it to get some nice unobstructed video-footage of the rivers, yellow corn fields and hazy mountains, hanging precariously out the side.  I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened to me if I had fallen out and just landed in the middle of nowhere in the North Korean countryside.  Suffice to say I probably wouldn’t be here writing this story now.

The regimentation of tourism

From here on in, I became a passenger.  Not just on this train, but for the entire North Korean experience.  Independent travel, backpacking, hitch-hiking are all impossible.  Guided tours are the norm here, so no matter how independently you’ve travelled in the past, it’s important to get into the spirit of the group.  Fortunately, the very type of traveller who would even consider coming to this weird, isolated, time-warped country has by proxy already quite a lot in common with you.  Anyway, myself and a fellow beer-swivelling Brit found our very own group spirit in the form of a dozen Heinikens in the buffet-car.  So by the time we bounced off the train in Pyongyang station, the sheer buzz of just being in Pyongyang had been stealthily countered.

This hermit kingdom needs little introduction.  It languishes at the bottom of most global indices; human rights, corruption, press freedom, internet access, GDP.  But, conversely, sits at the top of some others, most notably with the 100% literacy rate and having the fourth largest army in the world.

Soldiers are a sight you get used to quickly here.  I noticed at the border, soldiers were much taller and had better skin than their emaciated, gaunt-looking, midget colleagues in and around Pyongyang.  North Koreans born after the Korean War are on average two inches shorter than their South Korean cousins, which is directly attributed to their poor diet.  According to the CIA & WFP, a third of all children are malnourished and 6 million (out of 25 million) go hungry every day.  So those imposing, tall but slender border-guard soldiers that riffled deftly through my iPhone were, like everything else I was about to see on this tour, just for show.  The real North Korea lay hidden somewhere, like some rare animal enclosure in a zoo, the creature was always unseen.

A mini-bus collected us promptly outside the station and whisked us along empty, darkened roads to our completely vacant hotel.  Its gigantic foyer only amplified the emptiness of this 20-storey façade.  We were all given rooms on the 17th floor (we checked the 16th and 18th floors looking for life but found only dark corridors), evidently the only guests.  We congregated in the dining room for a delicious banquet of beer, bread and egg-salad.  Odd combination, but mixed with an excited tour-group and a few random locals to blabber with, it made for a superb first day in the DPRK.

Later on the Brit and I snuck away from our minders, outside into the chilly, misty night air.  We wanted to escape and see the ‘real’ Pyongyang.  Who doesn’t?  But as we walked away from the dimly lit lobby into total darkness, we realised there was absolutely nothing to see; no street lights, shops, traffic, houses or people - just an empty road and total silence.  We slunk back in through the grandiose lobby.  DPRK 1 – 0 Adventurous Westerners.

I opened the curtains early next morning to a brilliant orange sky as the sun rose over an atmospheric, misty capital.  Just a handful of white-walled sky-rises pierced the stubborn fog, from under which I heard a faint car-horn and the rumble of a tram.  It was eerily quiet.  Back in the empty dining room for breakfast, a middle aged waitress served our two round tables haphazardly with random portions of unidentified meat and peculiar customer service.  Someone dropped a fork on the floor; she replaced it with a knife.

Venturing further into the pen

So off we went in our little white sightseeing tour-bus, visiting pristine fountains and well polished statues.  We walked through a deserted city square and an attractive city park.  There were zero advertisements or brand names to be seen anywhere.  No shopping malls or markets and very few shops or cars, at least that we were allowed to see.  There was no graffiti, instead walls were sometimes painted with murals of triumphant, stoic soldiers in battle, or the Dear Leaders observing, presiding over everything.  The streets and the air of Pyongyang are both impeccably clean and dust-free.  It puts Singapore to shame.  In a nutshell, everything here is just perfect.

For a city of almost 3 million, there aren’t many people to see.  Where are they all?  The ones we did see all walked briskly and with purpose (they are under strict rules not to make eye-contact with westerners, or attempt any conversation).  Nobody loiters or lingers around the street corners of Pyongyang and everybody dresses pretty much in union with the dull, drab colours of old communist China.  The bouffont hairstyle of the late Kim Jong-il is out.  Nowadays, the choice (there is a ‘style menu’ at barber shops) of conservative hair styles are limited by decree from the new Dear Leader no less, although curiously, his own unique coiffure isn’t allowed by anyone else.  Absolutely nobody is fat, chubby or even slightly overweight, except of course the Dear Leader and his family.

Nevertheless, seeing these locals going about their business you constantly ask yourself, where are they going?  What do they do?  What are they thinking?  It was frustrating.  Had I travelled thousands of miles just to observe the kind of people I ignore at home?  Or was there some straight-up human story they were burning to tell but couldn’t?  As I photographed them, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in some kind of bizarre human-zoo, where the caged animals were the locals and I played the role of trigger-happy tourist.  It felt unnatural, surreal, wrong even.

Scrutinising the inscrutable

So without the opportunity to chat with locals, my guides were the next best thing.  Although a mouthpiece for the regime, they were also people with otherwise normal lives.  Mr Cho, a very short 28 year old, spoke some English, wore the same smart shirt for 3 days and almost passed-out drunk after we forced him to drink beer.  Quite a character.  I asked about his parents.

“They work for the embassy in Russia.  They are diplomats.”

“That’s a great job!  Don’t you want to follow them?”

“I want to visit them in Russia, but not now.  I have to work here and take care of my younger brother.”

Being a diplomat for the DPRK signals the ruling elite have the highest faith in you and your family, enough to trust you to leave and faithfully represent the ideologies of the state.  It also indicated Mr Cho was well-connected and inherently part of the miniscule upper class.

“So, why don’t you have the internet in North Korea?”

“The what?” He looked up at me, frowning.

“In-ter-net.  You know, computers, websites.”

“Oh that.  We don’t need that here.  We have books and libraries and schools.  We have everything we need already,” he answered with his poker-face.

I suspect we both knew what the real answer was but rather than get him into trouble, I dropped it.

It was October 10, a special day of celebration in North Korea, known as Party Foundation Day.  In theory it’s a chance for people to come out and pay respects to the Dear Leader and his party for all the worthwhile, life-enhancing socialist policies they have engineered.  It’s safe to assume they have no idea just how under-developed their country is in the world.  So the people of Pyongyang came out in their thousands to dance, mass dance even, in a spectacular show of colour and precise coordination.

Under the omnipresent gaze of Dear Leaders past and present, a seemingly spontaneous spectacle unfolded while the sun set on another day in paradise.  Triumphant, socialist music mixed with a hint of DPRK pop blared out while thousands of students danced together in perfect sync.  The dreary monotone fashions of Pyongyang suddenly starburst into a radiant orgy of colour; aqua, pink, red, yellow, green and blue dresses for the women and men in black trousers, white shirts and a tie.  This extravagant, well rehearsed show lasted an hour and just as randomly as it happened, the joyous masses were quickly frog-marched off to a queue of waiting busses to disappear back into the gloom.

Discovering sparkles of humanity

In the end, it wasn’t the hopeless propaganda or the towers or the fancy monuments that did it for me.  I don’t think it ever is for a traveller.  It was the brief, unexpected encounters with ordinary people that made the distance worthwhile.  A stolen glance and nervous giggle from the female soldier I winked at.  The child who separated from his anxious mother to come shake my hand and say hello with a beaming smile.  The curious half smiles elicited from young boys who knew better than to make eye contact with a westerner, but did it anyway.  The very essence of human nature, under no matter how heavy a weight of repression, is always to communicate.

And as for our little group of wide-eyed westerners, this was as far as we could ever poke our fingers through the cage of the fascinating, heart-breaking human enclosure that is North Korea.


More on North Korea

If you'd like to find out more about this fascinating country, read our interivew with a North Korean defector who is now a human rights campaigner.