Our trip, along with most other trips to North Korea, actually began in Beijing, China – where we arrived about a week early to see the sites. The day before departure, we had a group meeting with the other people in our tour and tour guides to discuss logistics and ‘rules’ for our trip.
We flew on Air Koryo, North Korea’s official airline. Air Koryo actually operates a handful of flights, including between Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Bangkok, Thailand; Vladivostok, Russia; Kuwait; and Beijing/Shanghai/Shenyeng China. The flight felt mostly like any other – minus the two hours of propaganda concerts that were playing on the screen featuring girls in short skirts and North Korean missiles.
First steps onto DPRK soil
Our first full day in North Korea consisted of the Pyongyang International Marathon (though we just ran the 10k!). 2017 will be the 4th year that foreigners are allowed to run the race and, when we were there (2016), there were upwards of 1,000 foreigners participating.
The start and finish of the marathon was in the “May Day Stadium,” the world’s largest stadium in the world.
As is typical in most public venues we went to, pictures of the late leaders Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il (the grandfather and father of the current leader, Kim Jong-un) were prominently displayed.
Interior of the “May Day Stadium”
Somehow, I actually managed to get 3rd in the 10k (that’s me in the purple shirt at the end of the line!) I was then presented my prize (a lovely painted vase, a certificate, and a bouquet of fake glittery flowers) in the middle of the enormous stadium.
Advertisement for the race posted outside the stadium
Though Pyongyang may have more cars than the rest of the country, the vast majority of citizens bike from place to place
A familiar-looking Korean pagoda with the mysterious Ryugyong Hotel in the background
DPRK flags on a street corner – according to our guide, the red represents blood of the revolutionaries, the blue represents hope, the white represents the clear mind of ‘our’ people, and the star represents history
Side note about that box – we carried that box containing the very fragile vase for 2 MONTHS while backpacking in China and Mongolia. It was just too expensive to send home…by some miracle, it made it back to the United States unscathed and is currently on display on my mom’s kitchen table :-)
One of our post-race activities was a visit to a local waterpark where we swam, slid, hot tubbed, and got naked (courtesy of the locker room) alongside some local North Koreans.
Our dinners were usually treated to singing performances by the wait staff. Every. Single. Night.
Our next stop for the day was this Sci-Tech building in Pyongyang as seen from above
The “Grand People’s Study House” in Pyongyang – though a beautiful building outside, it was pretty old-school inside
North Korean schoolgirls in Pyongyang
As we were there around the time of Kim il-Sung’s birthday (since he’s considered to be the founder of the country, this was a really big deal), we found many women donning traditional Korean attire. They were unloaded off a bus shortly after we were to line up, bow, and offer flowers.
These two statues are likely some of the most famous landmarks in Pyongyang. Standing at 22 meters tall, they depict the late leaders Kim il-Sung (on the left) and his son, Kim Jong-il (on the right). As we approached the statues, we were asked to line up parallel to the statues and bow simultaneously.
As you can see, we were allowed to take pictures. However, we were asked that the pictures we took show the statues in their entirety and that we didn’t make any strange poses or signs – otherwise, it would be seen as very disrespectful to the leaders and the North Koreans. We also had the option of purchasing flowers to lay down at the feet of the statues after bowing. We politely declined.
To both sides of the bronze statues are monuments depicting the Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Struggle and the Socialist Revolution
A single taxi driving down a mostly-empty street in Pyongyang
Kim il-Sung square in central Pyongyang. The square is the heart of the city and home to most events – from celebrations to military parades.
In thise picture, take note of the dots by my feet painted to keep people in the right spots during parades.
Just across the river from the square is the Juche Tower, named for the ‘Juche’ idealogy introduced by Kim il-Sung. Juche is the official state ideology of North Korea and is usually translated as “self-reliance.”
They are really serious about their Juche. North Korea actually follows something that they call the “Juche Calendar.” In this calendar, ‘year 1’ is in 1912, the year when Kim il-Sung was born. This means that the current year in North Korea is “Juche 106,” not 2017.
An ‘interesting’ listing of new books in an English bookshop in Pyongyang
North Korean ‘guidebooks’ found in Pyongyang’s English bookstore
Spotted inside a North Korean magazine – “The United States and the south Korean regime, panic-stricken by the invincible might of the DPRK….” (we regularly heard these sort of phrases throughout our stay)
Taekwon-Do remains a common hobby in North Korea (as it does in the south)
The “Pyongyang Times” translated into English – featuring the H-bomb test that had the rest of the world in panic
A painting of the DPRK’s iconic “traffic ladies”
DPRK flag pins and other souvenirs
One of the DPRK’s iconic “traffic ladies” in the flesh
An unexpected capitalist venture in Pyongyang
As part of our tour, we were taken to the apparent ‘birthplace’ of Kim il-Sung where his ‘modest upbringings’ were strongly emphasized
Trying out some North Korean ice cream
These type of propaganda murals were a common sight all over the country
Yet another dinner performance
The Children’s Palace,” an enormous building we paraded around to peek in on children in a variety of classes – including dance, calligraphy, art, and music
Taking the escalator to the bottom of the Pyongyang Metro – one of the deepest metro systems in the world – with local North Koreans
Rodrigo making friends inside the metro
Mural within the metro station
Pyongyang’s arch from another view
The guides did their best to make sure we only saw the nicer’ parts of the city, but occasionally we ran into some parts that they probably preferred we didn’t document (such as this bathroom just outside the entrance to the metro)
Pyongyang apartments, a propaganda mural, and the infamous Ryugyong Hotel
The exterior of a metro station and locals going about their day, Pyongyang
Schoolchildren studying traditional Korean calligraphy inside the Children’s Palace, Pyongyang
This is confusing.
Throughout the trip, our guide regularly threw out phrases like “American imperialists” and “supreme leader Kim Jong-un.” According to one of our guides, these postcards said things like “If the Americans provoke a Korean War, they can’t avoid being smashed by our country.”
Despite regularly hearing things like this, I never at any point felt singled-out as an American or as though our guides (or the local people) felt any ill-will towards me. I think this is one of those cases where the distinction between the people and their government is extra important.
As you must visit North Korea with an organized tour, all your accommodation will be arranged for you. Here’s a quick glimpse into just one of the hotels that we stayed in.
While in Pyongyang, we stayed in the Yanggakdo Hotel, which is located on an island on Pyongyang’s main river.
Since you aren’t allowed to leave the hotel after returning from your day out (justified in the words of our guides: “it’s better if you don’t leave the hotel because the locals can’t speak English and you might be inconvenienced”), the hotel is full of other activities to occupy your time. One of those is bowling (and a sign that looks like it hasn’t been updated for a few decades)
Inside the bowling alley in the Yanggakdo Hotel
A group of DPRK soldiers coming to pay their respects at the mausoleum
One of the strangest days of all was our visit to the “Kumsusan Palace of the Sun”, or the mausoleum of the late leaders Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il. While we had some basic ‘rules’ to follow on our day-to-day basis (don’t wander too far from the group, pay your respects, etc.) you could tell that the guides were more tense than usual on this day.
First, it was requested that we dress up. When we entered the mausoleum, we went through security (I was instructed to take my scarf off because it was too “casual,” apparently) and had to leave anything we were carrying behind – including cameras.
From there, we took a MASSIVE sequence of slow-moving walkways and escalators to actually get to the heart of the building. While on the walkways, we were asked to whisper, not lean on the handrails, and stand still (as opposed to walking…like a normal person would do).
For this reason, it felt like we were on the moving walkways FOREVER given little to do but whisper to our other tour group members or admire the numerous Kim-family portraits and photos lining the never-ending hallway.
Eventually, we approached the low-lit hall that housed the bodies. First, we passed through a windy “sanitizer” and then we were ushered into the room where we were expected to bow, in groups of 4, at the feet, the left side, and the right side…skipping the head.
As you can probably imagine, photos were not allowed inside, meaning that we only captured moments from the outside.
Upper-class Korean ladies enjoying a karaoke performance by some of our Dutch tour group members
In honor of Kim il-Sung’s birthday, we were taken to an elaborate flower exhibition made just for him
Roses, communist slogans, and North Korean rockets – what a combination
A horrendously-photoshopped image of a Indonesian representative presenting a flower ‘specially created’ for Kim il-Sung – called the Kimilsungia
The entire Kim il-Sung’s birthday flower extravaganza
**Spotted: the Brazilian ambassador to the DPRK’s car
An American tank destroyed by the North Koreans and captured during the Korean War
Part of the tour consisted of a ‘Captured Weapons Exhibition’
USA and North Korea in a single shot
This is the USS Pueblo – an American spy ship captured by the North Koreans in 1968….and proudly on display today
Posing with our tour guide at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum (yes, that’s the full name) in Pyongyang – during our visit, we watched a video that gave some ‘alternative facts’ to the history behind the Korean War that most of us probably learned.
This included claims that pre-Korean War the United States was occupying South Korea under military rule (and thus North Korea had to intervene) and that the number of American troops that died or surrendered during the war were right around 405,000 (official estimates: around 35,000).
Korean schoolchildren milling about the outside of the science building
The sci-tech center’s webpage on DPRK’s intranet. Since the internet as we know it is completely inaccessible in North Korea, they have created their own in-country intranet, full of only material that has been approved by the government.
Computers within the sci-tech center
A replica DPRK rocket in the center of the science center
Unfortunately this is blurry…. but this guy is one of the most famous actors in North Korea!
Local North Koreans preparing for a performance in honor of late leader Kim il-Sung’s Birthday
‘Scientist City’ (home of Pyongyang’s best scientists, or so we were told) from a distance
Plaques from apparent “Juche” communities around the world
View of Kim il-Sung Square from the top of the Juche Tower
Performance at the base of the Juche Tower in honor of Kim il-Sung’s Birthday
Seeing the Monument to the Worker’s Party up-close
Locals dancing in traditional Korean attire on their day off in honor of Kim il-Sung’s birthday
A couple of our tour group members joined in on the fun
A local Korean artist embracing the celebration and the sunshine
Some friendly ladies welcomed us warmly…
North Korean families relaxing at the park for the birthday celebration
Workers marching under the portraits of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il
A more ‘formal’ dance in honor of the birthday celebration – while the locals at the park seemed to genuinely be having a good time, those participating in this performance did not.
Attempting to blend in while Kim il-Sung watches over in the background
The futuristic Ryugyong Hotel has remained incomplete and abandoned since 1992. It was meant to be the world’s largest hotel, but is now the world’s largest abandoned building. **A bit of a pain for the guides – usually at loss for when toursist asks
Alongside the claims to the world’s largest stadium and largest abandoned building, Pyongyang North Korea is also home to the world’s tallest Arch of Triumph (yes, it’s even taller than it’s more famous counterpart in Paris!)
The May Day Stadium from a distance
Monument to the Worker’s Party in Pyongyang. It represents the worker (with the hammer), the peasant (with the scythe), and the intellectual (with the paintbrush). The slogan on the buildings to the left and the right of the monument is “100 battles, 100 victories.”
Some more stylish inspiration….this time for the ladies
Rodrigo decided to brave a DPRK haircut. And no, contrary to popular belief, North Koreans do NOT have to choose from a list of state-sanctioned haircuts. The poster here just serves for some (super stylish) inspiration.
Here’s a close-up of that ‘precious’ vase
The finale of Kim il-Sung’s birthday celebration: fireworks above the Juche Tower
***Many metro stops were extravagantly (albeit old-fashionedly) decorated
Though the stadium was by no means full, we were surprised by the number of North Koreans that were sitting in the stadium….whether they were there by choice, or not.
***A strange (though common) sight in Pyongyang
North Korean commuters riding the Pyongyang metro
Locals lined the street throughout the course
…and against my better judgment, pulled me in to (awkwardly) join them!