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.