Great Leader Kim Il Sing and Dear Leader Kim Jong Il keep a vigilant eye over the people from a hilltop, Pyongyang
Very green, clean and unspoiled - this is how I will remember North Korea. Or, rather, Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) - the official name by which they prefer to be called.
Wide open spaces around enormous monuments, barely any cars on the roads (though more than I expected), lack of any bright colors on the streets - be they buildings or people's clothes... Don't get me wrong, it isn't a complaint or a criticism. Quite the opposite: while it was weird not to see any advertisements whatsoever (no banners, billboards, street furniture or flashing screens), it was also very relaxing, especially after coming from China. My eyes and my nerves rested. Traveling through DPRK is like going back in time - a world before market economy and all the glorious things that we can buy at a dollar store.
The fact that North Koreans live (or are forced to live) in the past is impossible to deny. The evidence is all around. Every newspaper or magazine we looked at, every photo exhibition and TV concert we've seen brings up the Korean War as if it happened last month and not 60 years ago, stirring the feelings and keeping the wound from healing. It almost feels like the country doesn't *want* to move on. And of course the fact that their much revered president has actually been dead for 20 years but is still technically Head of State isn't helping either.
Visitors to the monument are prepared to bow. Something even international tourists have to do
During my first couple of days in DPRK I was almost subconsciously looking for examples of all the negative things I've read about the country before the trip. And there were plenty. From faded crumbling apartment buildings to empty stores, from extremely young-looking laborers to complete darkness at night, from some blunt propaganda fed to us by the guides to poorly-dressed exhausted-looking locals all around us.
It almost felt like a game in which the local guides were trying to convince us that life in DPRK is great and I was to collect as much evidence as possible that it isn't.
Pyongyang's skyline from our window. The hotel at the background is still under construction
Exact same view at night shows how little light is there
But in the middle of my game I remembered that DPRK is still a very poor country, so it would be unfair to judge it by my high western standards. Rather, it should be compared to other developing countries like Pakistan or Sri Lanka. And in this light, North Korea could probably pass for a decent place (if we close our eyes on the political camp thing and inability to leave). People live modestly, but they still seem to have the joy of life. They aren't robots brainwashed into hating westerners: they smiled, waved and were curious about us as much as we were curious about them. We went to Pyongyang's amusement park one night and I had a small group following me around, fascinated by every move of mine (and especially by my big camera).
We passed by apartment buildings in Kaesong where every single balcony had potted flowers. And no, it didn't look like it was there just for tourists to see. We also saw a good number of solar panels on balconies and roofs. To me, that's the evidence of positive change. The streets of all three cities we went to were extremely clean. Are the cleaning crews so efficient, or do people just not litter? The good thing about socialism: it preaches group mentality, so people really take pride in protecting public spaces.
Traffic girl at a slow intersection, Pyongyang
Every bus we saw in Pyongyang was overcrowded
I wish we had more opportunities to meet regular people and find out how much they know about the world outside of DPRK. Maybe that would give me more clues about real life in North Korea. But all the people we talked to were in some form or another involved with tourism and seemed to really filter what they said. For example, I spoke with a few people whose Russian was so perfect they would have to be raised speaking it, but they claimed to have learned it at Pyongyang university.
We also had no time to slow down and explore on our own. We were in a group and constantly on the go, visiting all the places on a very busy agenda: Grand People's Study House (basically a large library), a cemetery, Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong Il mausoleum, Juche Tower, the schoolchildren’s palace, the subway, the film studios, a couple of stores and multiple monuments.
Young pioneers remind me of the fact that I've never become a pioneer myself because the Soviet Union collapsed the year I was supposed to be initiated...
Rollerblades made it to North Korea!
DPRK is an odd place to travel to, but it's extremely safe and not as hard to get to as some may think. Here
I covered in more detail all of the logistics of our trip.