Through the Looking Glass

On the Ground in North Korea

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.

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.

Think of North Korea and, depending on your temperament, you probably think of it either as a terrifying “rogue state” threatening the world with nuclear attack, or as an over-the-top parody of a benighted, isolated dictatorship. I traveled to the DPRK — the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a name that’s half or possibly three-quarters ironic — with some combination of the two in mind.

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.

North Korea
Mansudae Grand Monument

We arrived during the “200-Day Battle,” in which the DPRK’s citizens set aside their six-day work weeks and work for two hundred days in a row. For many of them, this meant working in the fields, but for every active worker there seemed to be four or five standing or squatting idly by. This struck me as hugely unproductive, but then again there was no obvious sign that there was any place for them to unwind outside of work should they even have the time.

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.

North Korea
Crossing guard, local woman, local man

Since the two Koreas never signed a peace treaty, the North and South are to this day in a technical state of war. This is a fact that visitors to the DPRK are continually reminded of. Prior to my arrival I had imagined a fearsome military presence, but my impression was that the North Korean army is in a sorry state. I was told that many of the soldiers train with wooden guns, and presumably live ammunition would be an extravagance. We were also asked not to take photographs near Pyongyang Airfield, because there are some rather rudimentary anti-aircraft rockets stationed there. And just to the north of the demilitarized zone we saw some rocks lined up so as to act as crude anti-tank defenses. All in all, my feeling was that the defenses were less about function and more a matter of keeping up appearances, of motivating the people to believe in the righteousness of the cause that demands so much sacrifice.

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.

North Korea
Metro station

There’s no question the ordinary citizens’ standard of living could and should be better than it is. The longer they remain cut off, the farther they fall behind the rest of the world. The DPRK is the source of much humor to people in the West, and indeed there are elements of dark comedy. But having visited, my overarching feelings are ones of sorrow and sadness. We should view North Korea as a humanitarian problem as much as a geopolitical one. My time in the DPRK served as a stark reminder that behind fanciful tabloid headlines chronicling the latest Kim exploits are the untold tales of individual suffering.

— Maximilian Edwards


We’d love to hear from any readers with a unique travel experience, even one that’s far outside the boutique-hotel world.

  1. Thanks so much for the personal essay about North Korea. It is really rare to get information about what is happening. Also, thank you for reminding us about the humanitarian crisis that is going on there.

  2. Thanks for your reportage, it’s great to see Tablet doing more than glossy hotels. Indeed NK is a much misrepresented part of the world…

  3. Mr Edwards review crystalises my conflicting feelings about visiting DPRK. I am of course curious to see the place for myself. But on the one hand I don’t want to go because I feel it is endorsing and giving credibility to the regime. On the other, I feel for the general population and would like to show some support for them.

  4. What a fascinating and powerful eye witness account. Thanks Mr. Edwards and Tablet for bringing this place to life. I’d love to read more like this one.

  5. Our student Otto is jailed there. Everyday I wonder how he is being treated. What political tactic it would take for his release?

  6. Thank you for reminding us of the complexity of the social, humanitarian, economic impacts of what life “looks like” in a country so far remained from the east of the world — yet so currently intertwined in how we think about global safety and our political processes.

  7. Well said (and already well known) that DPRK is a humanitarian problem. Indeed lots of individual suffering. I will be visiting in April for the first time to witness this brainwashed society, and running a half marathon through it. Thanks for the post.

  8. Sorrow and sadness for sure. Nice job with the photos and essay– I’ve seen other photo essays where the photographer seemed to not fully grasp that what they were allowed to view was strictly controlled and manicured by the government and that as Westerners, we will never be allowed to see the reality of it.

    Here is another perspective from a composite NASA satellite image: https://
    Find the Korean peninsula and compare North Korea and South Korea.

  9. Really interesting and thought-provoking read. Would have been interested in the rudimentary details of travel there, where did he stay? What did he eat etc. Would definitely read more articles like this. Good one Tablet team!

  10. I would highly recommend Vitaly Mansky’s documentary, “Under the Sun,” that follows a North Korean family for a year.

    Upon his arrival, the North Korean regime handed Mansky a script to be used and the crew and cast were always under the watchful ey of minders who ordered reshoots of scenes at will to depict the country in the best possible light.

    Mansky was struck by the cruelty of life and absence of culture in the Hermit Kingdom and compared it unfavorably to the Soviet Union.

    Cleverly, the filmmaker overrode the regime’s attemp to use the film as propaganda and kept the cameras rolling between shots with a different memory card. This way he was able to capture footage of the minders staging and instructing the actors on behavior and dialogue.

    The soundtrack was hauntingly beautiful and, according to Karlis Auzens, the composer, inspired by John Williams’ Schindler’s List.

  11. It is my understanding that foreign visitors to N Korea are strictly confined to designated hotels and areas for sightseeing/mobility and the “people” they come across (including the pedestrians and school children) during their visit are actors and actresses working for the government to stage a scenery the government prefers the visitors to see.

  12. Hi BA,

    Thanks for your question. Max traveled to North Korea as part of a group tour organized by veteran tour operator Koryo Tours. There are a limited number of hotels catering to foreign tourists, but Max’s highlights include the Seosan Hotel in Pyongyang and the Jangsusan in Pyongsong. Food was included – plentiful in quantity (and okay in quality) with Dog Meat Soup being the most outlandish dish he tried.

  13. My gosh have u heard from the people there??? Read or seen videos from those who have escaped?? This article disgusts me! Where we are right now with this mad man? Anyone anyone encouraging travel there should be sent there to live for awhile! On the heals of poor Oliver! Perhaps the person writing this likes to eat dogs? That may explain this.

  14. A great book to read is “Nothing to Envy.” It’s a fascinating first person account of life in North Korea.

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