No, we haven’t added any hotels north of the DMZ. But if the point of travel is memorable experiences, a trip to North Korea certainly qualifies. Maximilian Edwards is an avid traveler and a British friend of Tablet who visited the DPRK as a private citizen, one of just a few thousand Westerners who are admitted every year. With North Korea in the news again for all the old familiar reasons, we thought it was time for a first-person perspective on what life is like in this most singular of countries, and a reminder that behind the headlines is a whole nation of people who are simply making the best of a situation they never asked to be part of.
What I found was more interesting than that, beginning with the flight to Pyongyang. I expected an abundance of gray jumpsuits, but the Air Koryo flight attendants dressed in beautiful retro uniforms that evoked memories of the Pan Am attire worn during the golden age of flying. And on the ground, officials — soldiers, traffic cops — wore ankle-length Siberian-style coats.
In contrast, the ordinary citizens almost universally sported the drab, dark garments I had expected to see, and there was no end of them. In fact I found it extraordinary just how many people seemed to be out and about during the day — huge numbers of people out walking, with no origin or destination readily apparent. This was true at any time of day, not just during ordinary commuting hours. One accessory was universal, though: every citizen was required to wear a pin depicting the two deceased leaders.
There was, however, ample opportunity to pay respects to the late leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Every city featured giant statues of them, and every classroom (and subway carriage) was decorated with a pair of portraits. As religion is rare, and outright proselytizing is illegal, Kim worship seems to fill a certain void. Where it crossed the line from bizarre to depressing was our visit to the mausoleum — grand, ornate, massively over-the-top, and a stark contrast to the myriad nondescript, low-budget buildings around Pyongyang.
Getting around was incredibly easy, because despite the masses of pedestrians on the walking paths, the roads were largely deserted. Private automobiles are extremely rare — a privilege reserved only for the country’s elite. The main street in Kaesong, a city of about 300,000 people, was almost completely empty. Even Pyongyang at night feels eerily dark — in between the occasional power cut.
Much of the deprivation that’s on display is a result of the continued belief that the two Koreas will ultimately be reunified, as soon as the United States, and its “puppet regime” in the south, is finally repelled. They view the division of their country, and the loss of their extended families in the South, as a daily tragedy, and they cling to the belief that they were the victorious side in the Korean War. In fact they’ve built a brand new, palatial museum dedicated to the war, and like the mausoleum, it’s utterly out of place in a country as impoverished in the DPRK.
While the rank-and-file laborers have probably seen little to disabuse them of these notions, it seemed that some of the more educated middle-class citizens had traveled outside the country. Our main guide, Mrs. Han, had lived in Poland during her younger years. And Mr. Kim had studied in Germany and visited China and Russia. They’re aware that some people in the world have it quite a lot better. At one point Mr. Kim confessed that he feels some embarrassment whenever he gives tours to Scandinavians, as they seem particularly disappointed in the DPRK’s infrastructure.
We’d love to hear from any readers with a unique travel experience, even one that’s far outside the boutique-hotel world.