Despite belligerent moves such as launching nuclear missiles, North Korea nevertheless wants to project the image of a peaceful, dynamic nation. Here’s one seasoned traveller’s first hand account.
THE KIMS ARE EVERYWHERE
Statues of deceased leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are located at every monument and building of significance in Pyongyang. To show respect, cars must slow down when driving past and foreigners must line up and bow in front of the statues before visiting the buildings. Locals pay respect with garlands.
His grey Nike Flyknits pound the eight-lane wide road that has been cordoned off for the day. The sun beats down as he presses on, bolstered by the cheering crowd lining both sides of the concrete. He continues into the stadium to finish, and is greeted by a deafening swell of applause. The crowd’s enthusiasm is infectious, propelling him to run right up to the stands. He clamours up metal grills to high-five the grinning spectators who are all dressed in their Sunday best, looking uncannily alike.
Singaporean businessman Raymond Cheok is about to finish a half-marathon in Kim Il Sung Stadium, North Korea. He does not know a single soul in the stands but he is euphoric – buoyed not just by the vibe of thousands of strangers, but that he is finally visiting the country long on his bucket list of travel destinations.
To be sure, Cheok is a seasoned traveller who, after having been on the popular destinations circuit, has covered more remote spots like Galapagos Islands, Siberia, Easter Island and the Bering Strait. Later this year, he will head to Slovenia, Xinjiang, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Kazakhstan.
Cheok, who owns an IT company, admits that where people splurge on supercars and high-end watches, he prefers spending on travel for the socio-cultural insights it offers. In North Korea, the 50-year-old is curious about its self-imposed isolation and alienation from the capitalist world.
He signed up for a 10-day trip in April and was taken on a strictly guided tour that about 30,000 tourists get to experience each year. In addition to participating in the 28th Pyongyang Marathon – where foreign runners receive a warm welcome from the host in the form of a huge public turnout – he is given the chance to see plenty of monuments, including the mausoleum where the bodies of Kim Il Sung and his son lie in state, watch a military parade on national television (foreigners are not allowed to attend), and meet students at a high school.
Cheok wanted to see if what the world says about North Korea is true – that it is ruled by a brutal dictator who does not care for the welfare of the people – but left with more questions than answers.
He was surprised, for example, by the quality of the stadium’s running track, and wondered about where the country gets its resources and supplies.
To him, North Korea is the only country left still governed by an obsolete system with a people seemingly determined to maintain it. And despite the strictly guided tour and restricted photography, Cheok reflects posttrip that this is a “totally misunderstood and misconceived country and regime” that is “stuck in the ’60s”. This is what he saw.
The city is dotted with emblems of struggle and victory over aggressors. This monument depicts the symbol of the ruling Workers’ Party. As with all national monuments, the landscape here has been designed in such a way that the surrounding blocks of flats and trees are symmetrical, serving as a frame.
A NORTH KOREAN WELCOME
About 70,000 North Koreans in semi-formal outfits filled the Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang to welcome the marathoners, who consist of professional North Korean runners and foreign participants. Cheok chose this to be his first marathon. He says: “It felt amazing, we were a bunch of foreigners, walking in like gladiators, to a friendly crowd that’s cheering in unison. The route was along the streets and people lined the two sides, young and old. It was like entertainment to them.”
Although foreigners are not allowed to watch the military parade in person, just as it was ending, Cheok rushed out from the restaurant next to the parade square to catch this: Crack troops, who sport medals even before they have to fight a war.
A SHOW OF SMARTS
Tourists are taken to a high-schooI class with English-speaking students. Says Cheok: “They raise their hands, stand up, and ask politely,‘Tell us what you do? ‘How do you find our country?’ I think they know what to say. A Hong Kong biology lecturer in our tour group drew complex DNA and cell structures and they answered all of his difficult questions in English. So he left impressed.”
NORTH KOREAN ‘HDB FLATS’
Says Cheok: “This town planning was done in the ’70s. Housing is free, so once you’re given a house, you have it for life and you can pass it down to the next generation. The blocks are also being upgraded – old buildings are torn down to be replaced by new ones. And you inherit the new flat, without having to pay a top-up. It’s like a free upgrade.”
The facade is of a temple, but the centre has additional rooms hewn into the hills behind. It contains over 100,000 gifts from leaders all over the world – mostly developing nations from the ’60s to ’80s, like the former Yugoslavia. Says Cheok: “It was stunning to see salutations to the country. They have Joseph Stalin’s personal plane, gifted by him. I also saw Singapore’s MBS cityscape printed on a plaque.”
The subway is devoid of advertisements; the walls are instead decorated with nationalistic murals. There are also no ticketing machines; transport is free for users. Incidentally, the subway is the deepest in the world, with the escalator descending more than 100m.
Says Cheok: “I was not allowed to take this but I snuck a snapshot from the bus. Workers paint the road dividers by drawing outlines and filling them in – it’s so laborious and inefficient. North Korea is particularly sensitive about its construction sites – because its soldiers also do the construction work.”