Pyongyang Metro

Korean Conviviality

22nd April 2016

With an insular and prickly reputation, North Korea may not spring to mind as the most hospitable of countries, but Neil Matthews finds that this improbable tourist destination offers a welcoming travel experience as memorable as any in Asia...

When the holiday checklist includes a towel, you might be forgiven for thinking you’re about to hitch a ride on the Heart of Gold, the spaceship with the improbability drive from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. North Korea could be an unlikely choice for a Far Eastern trip, but it will reward your curiosity if you’re after something a different for your next holiday.

The most obvious difference from a lot of modern tourism is that your trip will be entirely escorted. Independent travel does not exist. Whether you come to North Korea alone or in a group, guides – usually two, with a driver – will accompany you each day, with a pre-agreed itinerary. This doesn’t mean arrangements aren’t flexible, as the itinerary may change, especially if you’re there on a national holiday when plenty is going on.

The first stop, and probably the main one for most of your visit, is Pyongyang, the capital. By Western Europe’s frenetic standards, the streets are not crowded. There are few sets of traffic lights or zebra crossings, a fair number of cars and plenty of bicycles. The most curious aspect to Western eyes may be the absence of display advertising and branding. You can find some familiar brands in the supermarkets (Pringles, Kit-Kat), but not on billboards, taxis or anywhere else outside.

The buildings themselves are a cheerful mixture of colours, ranging from pistachio green through turquoise to Neapolitan pink. Many were built in the years following the Korean War (1950-53), and some of the most recent examples, comprising accommodation for teachers and scientists, took a year or less to complete. Even more impressive is the Pyongyang Metro, a network of 17 stations across two lines. Elaborate chandeliers light the way and murals depicting scenes such as the east and west of the city surround the stations, in a manner reminiscent of Moscow’s underground.

You can take a trip to Pyongyang’s circus, whose acts mostly focus on trapeze and balance skills. Comedy stooges are ‘randomly’ selected from the audience to join the fun. Pay attention to the music, too; it may include imports such as Greensleeves. Or you could be the special guests at an enthusiastic song and dance performance in a junior middle school, in which girls aged between 11 and 14 thump the drums and sing surprisingly loudly into their microphones, before grasping your hand to drag you onto the dancefloor.

If it’s a national holiday, there will be more dancing going on outside, in the city squares and parks. Children run round what look suspiciously like maypoles (even if it is New Year’s Day), or skip, or fly colourful small kites, or set spinning tops on the ground and use small whips to get them spinning. Meanwhile, in Moranbong Park, adults also dance beneath an old pavilion. The evening passes in a swirl of noise and laughter with ten pin bowling, billiards and video games at Pyongyang’s Gold Lane.

As you travel round the country, North Koreans are proud to demonstrate their achievements, such as the Western Barrage near Nampo City, a huge 1981-1986 project to keep salt water out of the river estuary and control river levels. The Barrage area is now a major supplier of water to the country’s industries. At co-operative farms such as Sariwon Migok, large polytunnels house mushrooms, cabbages and much else. The farmers present you with one or two samples, as does the manager of a nearby mineral water factory which produces 10,000 bottles an hour and exports to Indonesia, Australia and Russia. Generosity is another Korean characteristic. You receive smiling encouragement if you try the Pyongyang speciality of cold noodles in cold soup or the national obsession of kimchi, pickled and highly spiced radish or cabbage. If chopsticks are a struggle, your hosts are there to demonstrate how it’s done – or ready with knife and fork if you prefer. You certainly won’t go hungry.

Away from the capital, there are opportunities to gain glimpses of Korea’s distant past. Close to Mount Myohyang sits the Pohyon Temple, which dates from the 14th century, although parts were destroyed by bombing in the Korean War and subsequently restored. Don’t be surprised if one of the monks invites you to pray with him. In Kaesong, the Folkcustoms Hotel gives you a taste of life in a traditional Korean home, complete with paper screens for walls, mattresses on the floor and underfloor heating. A short walk up nearby Mount Janam brings you to the Koryo Museum, the site of a former university, originally founded in 992 to train government officials and later used for education in Confucianism. The displays include a reconstruction of neighbouring tombs for a king and queen, with a hole in the wall to enable their souls to travel back and forth.

Ultimately, though, it’s impossible to visit North Korea without seeing reminders of the two 20th century conflicts, which shaped the country more than anything else. Before World War II, Korea suffered occupation by the Japanese. High above Pyongyang lies the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery on Mount Taesong, where the graves of over 200 leading resistance fighters from the Japanese occupation are located. Each grave has a bust of the deceased; the most recent died a handful of years ago. Of even more fundamental importance to Korea today was the war that broke out just five years after the end of World War II, ending in 1953 with the country divided at the 38th parallel between North and South. On the approach to the Fatherland Liberation War Museum, North Korean tanks, planes and anti-aircraft missiles sit on silent display on one side; damaged, burned-out American weapons on the other, denoting the US’s role in aiding what became South Korea. You can walk aboard the USS Pueblo which the North Koreans captured while it was on a spying mission in 1968. Inside the Museum, the highlight of the second floor display on the Korean War is a spectacular panorama depicting the liberation of Taejon, in a circular chamber 15m high and 42m in diameter. The central viewing platform rotates and the artwork and models depict 20,000 soldiers.

The highlight of many visitors’ time in North Korea is to see the embodiment of the North-South division, in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) at Panmunjom. From the balconies of buildings on either side of the divide, soldiers watch, and wait. You can visit the rooms where over 800 negotiating sessions took place during the conflict, and see the tables at which the 1953 armistice was finally signed. Seven huts straddle the border – four blue huts belonging to the North, three white ones owned by the South. By entering one of the blue huts and walking across the room, you can cross into South Korea, if only for a moment. The eeriness of the setting is slightly, if bizarrely, relieved by the presence of a gift shop.

This is not the place to discuss the politics of the Korean War or North Korea’s place in the wider modern world. Understandably, sensitivities remain high, so it is best simply to look and to listen.
If travel is meant to broaden the mind, then seeing and hearing other viewpoints from other cultures has to play a part. However, a trip to North Korea is much more. Your hosts – perhaps unused to the concept of tourism – see you more as an invited guest, and their kindness and attentiveness will give you a most memorable holiday experience.

Neil Matthews travelled with Regent Holidays – www.regent-holidays.co.uk

Find Your Local