Images by Phil... and June
North Korea
by June's Views on July 29th, 2013

When I had the opportunity to visit North Korea I was delighted.  I was young during the Korean “conflict” and the images I had of the country were completely provided by the media and some of my elementary school teachers.  I was excited to see the country for myself.  The tour company we traveled with took care of the necessary visa: there’s no stamp in my passport to indicate I've been to Korea – officials took half of the visa as I entered the country and took the other half when I left.  In Beijing, the night before we left for Pyongyang, 22 of us met for a pre-trip meeting.  We were going together but would be two separate groups of 11, each group with its own western guide, Korean guide, and a guide in training.  I suspected the “guide in training” was on the government payroll to keep tabs on us but that’s just my suspicion.  We were told to be extra cautious about taking pictures – no pictures of individual Koreans (although a few group shots should be OK), pictures taken of statutes and memorials to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (and any other leader) were to be taken from the front, not behind, and to include the entire body of the leader –no cropped shots.  We were told we were expected to show respect to the leaders at a couple of monuments by bowing, and if we could not show respect in this way we should not go on the trip.  We would not be allowed to wander out on our own, anywhere, any time.  We would stay with the group or our tour guides would pay the consequences.  Just what those consequences would be we were not told, but they were not joking.  The Koreans do not want their country referred to as “North” Korea – simply, “Korea”, or “DPRK” (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).  

Pyongyang has many monolithic monuments, mostly to honor Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, war heroes, and victorious battles against the Japanese and Americans, and the Communist idea. 

Note the size of these statues (compare with adult people at the bottom of the photo).
Pyongyang is a lovely city, quickly rebuilt with Soviet help after the war.   There are wide streets (but very few cars), and impressive buildings.  It’s a very green city:  the streets, sidewalks, and flowerbeds are kept immaculate by an army of civilians picking up any trash or on their hands and knees plucking errant weeds.  Many of these gardeners were dressed in professional office attire, including high-heeled shoes…I witnessed one lady going after weeds with what looked like tweezers.   The Koreans are very proud of their city.  I understand the Communist Party stars are given the privilege to live in this city of 3 million.  

Built in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Workers' Party:  The hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush.  

The Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery has beautiful individual bronze busts of the soldiers who gave their lives in Korea’s battle with Japan. 

We visited the Pyongyang School children’s Palace, where 5,000 gifted children are taught various arts.  We saw them in their classrooms having lessons, and then were taken to a large auditorium where we were treated to an extraordinary performance by the youngsters.  I could hardly stay in my seat – I wanted to give repeated standing ovations.  Such accomplishment can only be the product of many hours of practice and they are so young.   I can only hope the children are living a balanced life. 
We traveled by bus to Kaesong and  arrived after dark.  We spent the night at the Minsok Folk Hotel, where we and our bus were locked inside a gated compound.  My friend Carolyn and I had a small 2-bedroom suite and I slept, Korean style, on a pad on the floor.  My room had a reed curtain for a door, and there were lovely reed carpets on the floors. 
The wood Li dynasty-era furniture was beautifully decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl. 
       We had a western-style bathroom but no hot water, and around midnight the electricity went off.  Luckily there was time to charge my camera battery.  
During our 5 day adventure we ate entirely too well!  The only sparse meal we had was our breakfast at Kaesong.  No one went hungry but the meal consisted of one egg and a lot of good bread.  I gladly paid $1.00 for an additional cup of coffee.   After breakfast we were allowed, through the now opened gate, to view the Koreans going about their daily lives on the street outside. 

We walked together to the Kaesong Namdae Gate, from the early 1300’s, and on to a beautiful old Confucian University (now a museum with some great relics). 
We boarded our bus for a short 20 minute drive to Panmunjom and the demilitarized zone (DMZ).  We passed several check points and picked up a couple of military personnel.   We got off the bus and listened to a DRPK soldier explain the Korean War and the resulting DMZ to us.  We went into the building where peace talks were held, and into another building where the peace agreement was signed by both sides. 
        Finally, we went to the DMZ.   I expected to see barbed wire and machine guns, but instead there were modern buildings with telescopes aimed across the DMZ. 

A concrete “curb” marks the line between the north and the south, and there are blue UN buildings built across the line – so anyone in the buildings can go a few feet from one side to the other.  I was disappointed that due to the recent dust-up between the north and south we would not be allowed to enter the UN buildings. 
     DPRK soldiers were agreeable to having their picture taken with us, and we snapped away.  They were just shy young men.   I gave one of them some chocolate candy bars…he immediately gave them to someone I assumed was his superior:  I gave him more which he kept.   He smiled and offered his hand to shake mine.    

We stopped on the highway to take pictures of the Arch of Reunification. 

On our way back to Pyongyang we stopped at the twin-domed tombs of King Kongmin and his wife.  The setting is spectacular. 
Back in the city we toured the Pyongyang Feature Film Studios... the Hollywood of DPRK.   At the Juche Tower we rode the elevator to the top and enjoyed striking views of the city.  

Our last activity was to attend the Funfair, a popular night spot in Pyongyang.  There were a number of adult rides imported from Italy, but no rides for children. 

We were encouraged by our hosts to return home and tell people what we saw – "how nice everything is and how well everyone is doing in the DPRK."   However, I know we saw only what the government of Korea wanted us to see and no more.   As much as our movements were restricted, one has to ask the question “What's being hidden?”    

The experience was fascinating, and I'm certainly glad I went.   I can certainly recommend the trip to anyone wanting to go off the beaten path. 

More of my pictures from North Korea can be viewed on this website, the "Our Travels" link.

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