One last early wake up call, pack my bag, head to the lift, receive electric shock, enter the lift, go to breakfast, drink coffee and contemplate the wiseness of having a hangover when I’ll be exiting North Korea’s notorious customs. Halfway through breakfast we are informed that the train to the border, which should have arrived the proceeding day, still hasn’t arrived (implying that people have been stuck on that train for at least 18 hours compared to our 14). This means there is no train for us to take and that instead we will have to drive from Pyongyang to Sinuiju. Initially worry came over us as we were all scheduled on various trains leaving Dandong that evening but we were informed that the drive should only take around 2-3 hours compared to the trains scheduled 4.
I stocked up on a few things from the hotel shop before we loaded into the the van for the long drive to the border. A member of the group who was flicking through the North Korean section of the Korea Lonely Planet pointed out that there is no highway to the border (see below, highways are marked red, the border crossing is in the top left corner of the country). At this point we weren’t exactly sure what this meant.
I noticed there were a couple of extra “guides” with us on the bus, at the time I guessed it was a precaution to prevent us taking pictures as we would be travelling through parts of the country not open to western tourists. We hit the checkpoint onto the motorway, showed our documentation and headed out onto the empty road. After about 30 minutes we pulled off the intersection onto an extremely poorly maintained road, the juxtaposition of the two road surfaces exaggerating each others quality. This is what the road was like for the next 2 hours to the border, we went through several smaller cities/villages and it was the only time we saw the real poverty in North Korea, they had done quite a successful job of concealing this in the tour.
At the borders of each town and village we hit another small checkpoint where documents had to be showed to pass. What I’ve gathered from reading up on the country is that as various towns and cities are in different states of modernisation, relocation is used as an incentive for the loyal and hard working. There is very little freedom of movement despite public transportation being free, some accounts of this can read from defectors testimony in the book Nothing to Envy. Whilst we were getting to see a side of North Korea not seen by many I must ultimately say that the level of poverty is no worse than what it is in various parts of Asia, low quality mud and wood buildings and people pulling heavily laden carts by hand. We stopped for lunch and a toilet break after about an hour on the rough roads. Once we stepped out of the bus a group of Koreans working in a nearby field stopped what they were doing and just turned and stared at us, maybe it was true were some of the first none Chinese tourists to be in this area.
We eventually got back to Sinuiju and we were taken straight to the checkpoint building to go through customs. Once we stepped inside suddenly our Korean guide, who’d be more than friendly the whole tour suddenly became very stern and demanded all of our SD cards and cameras and stated that there would be very serious ramifications if any of us were concealing anything. I gave them my camera and extra SD card, I also had a disposable camera as a backup which I was concerned they would just confiscate as they couldn’t determine what was on it. I put my bags through an x-ray machine and they then told me to open it up as they’d seen something. He picked up an envelope I had that contained a stamp with a gold leaf portrait of Kim Il-sung and gestured to him to be careful as if he damaged the portrait I wasn’t sure if he’d be pissed off with me or himself (There are stories of foreign diplomats being deported after crumpling up a newspaper containing a portrait of one of the Kims). After that they said I was clear and gave me my cameras back, including the disposable one, and I packed my bag again. Not too bad, but they did some annoying things with various items of the groups belongings including emptying several packets of cigarettes and feeling along the length of each one to see if they concealed anything. Each person took maybe 5-10 minutes to get cleared but they put a huge focus on one member of the group, the one who we’d noticed being escorted through the lobby late the previous night.
They ran metal detectors over him for ages investigating everything that set it off, usually just zippers and buckles. They also went through every shot on both his cameras, I’m not sure if they deleted anything. After what must’ve be 20 minutes or so he was cleared. We all packed up keen to get on the minibus that had come over from China to pick us up, we tried to say thanks to our guides but they seemed to have become quite stand offish. Our bus started up and we trundled back over the bridge into China. It’s worth mentioning that when going back through Chinese customs the passport inspector, whom are normally quite thorough, took not much more than cursory glance at my passport before stamping me back into the country. We’d made it back in time to catch our train out of Dandong.
It was around this time the story was relayed to me about what had happend to the member of our group the previous night and what had caused our particularly thorough customs check. In the lifts of the Yanggakdo hotel there is no button for the 5th floor, this has led to some people believing that there is something unusual, and potentially sinister about it. Numerous people have gone onto this floor via the fire escape from the floors above and below, and from what I can see in photos and videos on the internet it merely appears to be the staff portion of the building and is laden with a double dose of propaganda for the benefit of those who get exposed to foreigners and their ideas. Now this member of our group had decided to go exploring on this floor at around 1 am and was caught due to his camera flash and shutter sounds attracting a lot of attention. He was taken to a room and made to sign a statement saying that, in case he is a journalist, anything he ever published about North Korea is fictitious. They said that they woud release the statement if they saw that he had published anything.
Another interesting anecdote which I did not work into any of the preceding posts, since I can’t remember at one point in the tour I head it was, is some questions that we were asked by one of our guides. We asked them what they knew about Kim Jong-un, the newly anointed leader of their country. All they knew was that he is the son of the previous leader, they then asked us what we knew about him. Someone mentioned that he was 28 years old, the guide was shocked, Korean culture places a lot of weight on age and having someone so young in power was very peculiar. We also explained that he had been educated in Switzerland and that he is fan of various American sports. At that point I think they didn’t believe us.
I thought I’d wrap up this series of posts with the books that got me seriously interested in visiting North Korea. The first is;
This is fantastic book that details the personal accounts of several North Korean defectors. It details their upbringings under the regime, when they decided to escape, how they got out and then how they adjusted to life once gaining asylum in South Korea.
This is an account of the only person to be released from a North Korean concentration camp and subsequently escape the country. It details the “bad blood” policy where when someone commits a crime their whole family is imprisoned as it is believed their family are cast of the same mould as the offender.
This is a very comprehensive book written by a western journalist detailing the history of the ruling Kim Dynasty throughout the years. It covers their rise to power, carving out their personality cults and the various opulences they indulged in whilst the rest of the country surrounding them was in economic turmoil.
Below is a bumper set of photos that I didn’t include in some of the previous posts as they wern’t immediately relevant, also some of them are of low quality but still contain interesting moments.
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