North Korea, Part 1: First Impressions

29 Apr

It’s possible to travel to North Korea as an American citizen and make it out alive. We’re living proof of it.

We booked a 4 day tour to North Korea through Koryo tours, and it was definitely the trip of a lifetime. We purposely decided to travel to Pyongyang during the April 15th celebration of Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday (he is long deceased). It ended up being the biggest national celebration in decades and included a full-on military parade (complete with tanks and rocket launchers), a failed “satellite” launch, and Kim Jong Un’s first public speech ever.

After an unsettling ride in a Russian-made Air Koryo aircraft, we arrived in Pyongyang not knowing what to expect. The airport “terminal” is basically a large warehouse where you go through the standard passport checks and customs clearance. Interestingly, the airplane also carried goods from China — I saw flat screen tv’s, bicycles, and other random cargo being unloaded as well. Our tour then broke up into three buses and in the late afternoon we were on our way to Pyongyang, about 10 miles to the south. First impression: there are no cars on the road. I’ve seen those pictures on the internet of those really wide, deserted streets, but it’s a little weird to see it in person. Second impression: there are people walking everywhere on the side of the road. They’re all going somewhere obviously, but where? There’s nothing but dirt and trees lining the road all the way into Pyongyang. They don’t seem to be carrying anything either. No backpacks, purses, nothing. Third impression: the military is everywhere. They control vehicular access to main streets, and they just seem to be walking or standing around everywhere. After a while, you get used to it and realize that although North Korea’s military is over a million people strong, they’re not exactly a professional fighting force and more like random people with uniforms. None of the random military people carry guns, radios, or any type of equipment.

As we drove through the streets of Pyongyang to get to our hotel, Jeannie and I felt some of the same feelings which we talked about later in the hotel that night. North Korea is a drab place. The people seem emotionally restrained, the colors outside are bare concrete and dirt, everything is kind of a shoddy construction, and even the trees are bare wooden sticks in the ground. The only hint of color in the city is from the communist ad at every main intersection — and even those are drawn in the basic 16-color palette reminiscent of Commodore 64 computers from the early 1980’s.

The hotel room was on par (or a little worse) than Motel 6. The bed was extremely thin and hard as a rock. There was an old ghetto transistor radio which didn’t work, and a tube tv with 8 channels, all of which showed a single channel of government-produced tv. Looking out into the evening skyline from our hotel room, you see enough lights to barely make out some of the larger buildings. It looks as if a major metropolitan city is in the middle of an evening power blackout, except that in North Korea this happens every night.

Our tour was similar to a Chinese bus tour, with a few more restrictions which make it slighly different than the typical group tour. In North Korea, you are at the hands of whatever your NK tour guide wants to do. He decides where you go, where and what time you eat, and whether or not you do certain activities or see specific sights during your time there. You’re not allowed to leave your hotel at night, and if for some reason he doesn’t like you, he can simply send you home. However, you won’t get sent to prison unless you do something really ill-advised like attempt to spread democracy or Christianity.


Air Koryo: not exactly a world-class airline, but we got there in one piece.


The road to Pyongyang: smooth, clear, and empty. People are walking on the side of the road, but obviously not getting to their destination anytime soon.



Ryaangong hotel and lobby.




That’s our room at the end of the hallway. Inside, a sparse room with shoddy construction and few amenities. The old tv shows nothing but government programming.


Single powerplant in Pyongyang which spews quite a bit of pollution.


Ryugyong Hotel. Originally started in 1987, this incomplete monstrosity dominates the skyline. Word has it that the shoddy construction resulted in crooked elevator shafts, which made the building unusable and essentially relegates it to a shell of a structure. Our tour guide had nothing much to say about the hotel, and we weren’t allowed to visit inside the lobby.


Lunch, duck Korean BBQ.


Communist art everywhere.


Kim Il Sung Square




We visited a “fun park,” which was essentially an old theme park with broken down rides. None of the rides were functioning that day, and didn’t appear to be ready to function anytime in the near future either.


More communist art. For the record, the communist art does not include the guy in the white t- shirt on the right.


This new statue on the right is of the late Kim Jong Il and was unveiled 2 days before we got there. As tourists, we were able to walk right up to the statue. However, the local people had to wait in an all-day-queue in order to pay their respects to the new statue. Certain protocol exists when approaching the statues of “Dear Leader” and “The General.” As you approach, one person in your group is supposed to lay some flowers and then the whole group stands in a line to bow before the statues (see background of picture). Being the Americans we are, there’s no way Jeannie and I would ever bow to enemy communist leaders, so we simply stood there while everyone else in our group bowed. I also noticed a NK camera crew doing some taping of our group, so they’ll have some editing to do if they want to show groups of tourists submitting and paying respects to their leaders.


Thousands of people patiently waiting to see the statue.


The military is everywhere.

Coming up in Part 2: A (slightly) more colorful side of North Korea.


9 Responses to “North Korea, Part 1: First Impressions”

  1. Betty April 30, 2012 at 7:11 AM #

    Your blog entry on North Korea is fascinating! This article was in the Toronto Star today!

    The three North Korean women will not have their faces photographed. They will not disclose their names.

    Aaron Harris/Toronto Star
    Mary Ormsby and Leslie Scrivener
    Feature Writers

    Click for more great reads from Toronto Star writers
    The three North Korean women will not have their faces photographed. They will not disclose their names.

    But certain things they will reveal. How they ground tree bark and cooked it into a thin gruel for food. How they were sold to brokers to work as maids or “unofficial wives” in China. How starving neighbours — children as well as adults — were executed for stealing even a morsel of meat.

    “Our lives meant nothing,” one of them says. “We were like flies.”

    The fear that propelled the women to flee the brutality of their homeland clings to them as refugees in Toronto, terrified their freedom in Canada will mean death to family and friends in North Korea, which calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

    That may explain why some, like 13-year-old Sol Han, reported missing from a local shelter this week, melt away into the broader GTA population. Maybe never to be heard from again.

    Even in the safety of a parliamentary hearing room in Ottawa, a former political prisoner worried her testimony would further imperil her family in North Korea.

    “I have siblings who are imprisoned there,” said Hye Sook Kim in a witness statement that cast an Orwellian pall on a foreign affairs subcommittee last year. “Because of that, I cannot reveal my full identity to the public.”

    The woman, who’d been imprisoned for 28 years in No. 18 Labour Camp, wore a baseball cap and sunglasses, and insisted the room be cleared of cameras.

    Coming to Canada means an uncertain freedom for the mistrustful and secretive North Korean community, which depends on immigration authorities believing their stories.

    Hyeok Sin Park, who allowed his name to be used but declined to be photographed, hoped to make his home in Toronto after a brazen, 28-hour escape in a rowboat from North Korea to South Korea in 2008.

    It is not to be. After 18 months trying to prove his refugee claim in Canada, the 46-year-old defector is scheduled to be deported on Sunday to South Korea. He, his North Korean wife and their Canadian-born infant daughter were refused asylum because the couple had been given safe haven — and passports — in South Korea. In Canada, that South Korean acceptance negates a refugee claim.

    “I’m bitter,” Park, a former soldier, says through a translator. He decided to leave Seoul, where he says he actively demonstrated against the north, because he “basically got tired of hiding” to protect his safety after every anti-North Korean rally.

    “I wanted to stay here and live as a Canadian and resume protesting against the North Korean government, the inhuman treatment.”

    As multicultural as Toronto is, very little is known about the North Koreans who started arriving here around 2006.

    It’s unclear how many are in Toronto. Estimates from human rights organizations and church volunteers who work closely with North Koreans vary from 400 to as many as 900. The GTA’s South Korean community, upwards of 55,000, is attractive to fleeing North Koreans who seek a degree of comfort abroad in a shared language and some cultural similarities.

    Canada had 385 refugee claims from North Koreans last year, up from just 26 in 2006, according to Immigration and Refugee Board figures.

    In 2011, 117 claims from North Korean defectors were accepted, 12 were rejected and 41 were either abandoned or withdrawn. Some of these cases had been carried over from previous years.

    There has been controversy recently about the veracity of refugee claimants’ stories of abuse and even their birthplace. The suspicion is some are actually South Koreans posing as persecuted North Koreans.

    Park’s account of rowing his way to freedom — as other North Koreans did that same year, some of their escapes reported internationally — could not be independently verified by theStar.

    Park says he’d taken a job as a crab fisherman for two months to study currents and conditions to plan his escape.

    He left his first wife and two children behind in North Korea, not telling them he was fleeing in case they were executed for not turning him in. He says he tried to retrieve his family through brokers but it was too difficult.

    So he eventually decided to start a “new life” in the south, he says, where he met his second wife.

    Chris Kim, director of the Korean Canadian Cultural Association, has befriended Park and his family. Kim says that, like most North Koreans, Park’s distinct accent and phraseology is a dead giveaway to his birthplace. So is Park’s detailed knowledge of daily life within a cruel regime where he served in the military for 10 years.

    “You could only pretend for so long that you were North Korean,” contends Kim, a South Korean native who immigrated to Canadian in 1975. The 52-year-old Kim, who owns the Dae Bak restaurant in Thornhill, acts as Park’s translator.

    Kim has personal experience with some of the refugees arriving here. He speaks of a 15-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl who flew separately to Toronto recently. Kim picked them up at the airport. He worries that he cannot reach either by phone. He sighs. He’s learned to be patient with the newcomers, who often find life in Canada overwhelming.

    “They need basic education, and that means a broad range, like social skills,” he explains, noting many are illiterate and cannot perform simple tasks such as using a bank or searching for housing. It’s not just the young, but older arrivals are confounded, too.

    North Koreans are used to the state taking care of almost all of their needs, a way of life for nearly 60 years after the Korean War.

    The Korean Peninsula was split into a pair of nations in 1953, when the warring factions signed a ceasefire and the countries divided along a demilitarized zone at the 38th parallel. They’ve been opposites ever since: totalitarian oppression in the north, democracy in the south.

    Political tensions are white hot these days, with leaders in each country ramping up rhetoric fueled by the north’s military threats and the south’s defiant response.

    The late writer Christopher Hitchens described North Korean prison camps — where some 200,000 endure lives of misery and hard labour — as “the most ghastly system of inhumanity currently operating on the planet.”

    “Every single day I felt that I really wanted to just die,” Hye Sook Kim, told the foreign affairs committee. She was in prison for 20 years before she understood why she was there — her grandfather had disappeared during the Korean War and authorities believed he had gone to South Korea. Generations were punished for this presumed act of disloyalty.

    Even letting dust accumulate on a portrait of the late Korean president Kim Il Sung was an act of disloyalty that could taint a whole family, says Randall Baran-Chong, executive director of the Toronto-based human rights organizations HanVoice.

    Donald Rickerd has visited North Korea three times in the past 12 years and hosted six North Korean businessmen at a conference in Toronto.

    “They have been inculcated with a hatred of and a fear of foreigners,” says Rickerd, an Asian Institute lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. “(After) years of this night-and-day indoctrination, it’s very difficult to cast off.

    “North Korea, partly because of its geography but also because of its extraordinarily rigid orthodoxy, is almost completely closed.”

    Chris Kim says North Koreans he’s gotten to know in the GTA often don’t trust fellow defectors. They fear that anti-North Korean sentiments will be circulated back to the homeland where, again, families left behind will be punished.

    “There’s always tension there, even among them,” Kim says.

    “Just because you’re from North Korea, (you don’t) open up. And for them to open up to us? It’s a long stretch.”

    Canada established diplomatic relations with North Korea in 2001; David Chatterson, the Seoul-based ambassador to South Korea, is also “accredited” to North Korea. He makes only periodic trips to the north capital of Pyongyang, as Canada has imposed increasing restrictions on the relationship over the north’s testing of nuclear weapons.

    Despite these tensions, Canadians can visit North Korea. Visas are required, and an approved company, such as Koryo Tours, which has a Toronto office, takes Canadian visitors on guided tours.

    The three women who speak to the Star in the darkened sanctuary of the Korean Peace Presbyterian Church on Islington Ave. are diminutive. Stunting, the result of decades of malnutrition, is common among North Koreans, who are one to three inches shorter on average than South Koreans. The three, all refugee claimants, say fear of starvation drove them to flee to China, where they’d heard at least there was enough rice to feed everybody.

    “I lived in a village near a coal mine,” says a 46-year old mother of two teenage boys, speaking through a translator. “Many people in the village ate grass — what pigs and cows would eat.” If not properly washed, it caused their faces to swell. Her husband starved to death, she says.

    Brokers led them to China, the women say. On arrival, the brokers exacted payment for their services. Women are often sold to Chinese men. The three weren’t specific about their tasks — generally they said women work as maids, and some were unofficial wives to elderly men. One said a friend was sold to a man with two sons. “She was shared by three men.”

    Did they ever grow fond of the men they were forced to live with? “No!” they say emphatically. “This must be exposed so the world can know what women are being forced to do to survive,” says a 32-year-old mother of two girls.

    The youngest of the group is more solemn than the others. She is facing a deportation hearing at the end of May.

    Unlike the other women, her journey took her beyond China and through Vietnam, Cambodia and South Korea. North Koreans are eligible, though not automatically entitled to, South Korean citizenship. Canada’s policy is to return refugee claimants to the country of first asylum.

    But North Koreans can find it difficult adapting to life in South Korea, where they are viewed as outsiders and often fear the North Korean spies known to operate there. They often face discrimination in employment. “They have no experience in a capitalist society and often fall victim to fraud schemes,” says immigration lawyer Catherine Bruce.

    Faraway Canada seems a safe haven. “I want to raise my children here,” says the mother whose deportation hearing is coming up. “I like it that this country respects individuals. I want Canada to be my village, my permanent home.”

    And she has found kindness here. “My English teacher is a gentleman,” she adds (all three are studying English during the day).

    The other two women have the same desire to remain.

    “If they are North Korean refugees, why can’t Canada accept them?” the 46-year-old woman, a homemaker, asks. Furthermore, Canada should pressure China to stop returning refugees to North Korea, as is the current practice.

    Chris Kim says the Canadian government should be doing more to help the refugees beyond delivering “a cheque once a month.” (Some refugee claimants are eligible for social assistance.) He says there is no practical support provided to the North Koreans, other than aid coming from human rights organizations, shelters and volunteers from Korean Christian churches.

    One of those is Rev. Joo Sung Cha of the Korean Peace Presbyterian Church, where some 120 North Koreans attend his services. He offers more than spiritual guidance.

    Kim says the North Koreans’ deep reserve and the mental trauma inflicted by “all that suppressed, hostile psychology they were born with and grew up with” have to be addressed in resettlement and are as critical as food, shelter and compassion.

    “We need more attention on this, we need people to volunteer to guide these people to become better citizens, better human beings.”

    Dredging up the past is unpleasant for the three North Korean women. “By digging into our memories, we will likely have trouble sleeping tonight,’ says the 40-year-old, who trained as a hairdresser. “But we hope by telling our story, we can shine some light on what is going on in North Korea.”

    This woman, who came to Canada last year, animatedly relates her happiness. “Canada, I like,” she says. “There’s plenty to eat.” At the supermarket, she says, gesturing as if filling a grocery cart, “I want to buy everything!”

    But mostly, they say, they want to world to know of the suffering of their home country. “We have to life live to the fullest,” says one, “for the people stuck in North Korea.”

    • Jeannie April 30, 2012 at 11:19 PM #

      Betty, interesting read. I had no idea the GTA was a hotbed for NK immigration. We saw no evidence of starving people, but keep in mind we were in Pyongyang and during a time of celebration. I’d bet that the small towns in the countryside are quite different than what we saw during our few days there.

  2. Ken April 30, 2012 at 8:29 AM #

    Jer & Jeannie – are you forbidden to smile in your photographs?

    • Jerry April 30, 2012 at 11:27 PM #

      @Ken, no, we just don’t feel like smiling in front of communist monuments.

  3. Dad April 30, 2012 at 10:04 AM #

    The Ryugyong Hotel is actually a front…it is tilted for a reason–it is a large rocket ship ready to blast off into outer space!

  4. Rosalyn April 30, 2012 at 10:50 AM #

    Wow, really interesting. Glad you went, saw so much, and got out safely. Glad they didn’t detain you for not bowing to their beloved leaders. They’re probably running that tape on tv to further bash America.

    • Barry April 30, 2012 at 11:01 AM #

      Did you get to see the failed launch!? Be careful Jerry, they might recruit you to help fix the problem

      • Jerry April 30, 2012 at 11:26 PM #

        @Barry, no, they launched the failed satellite 2 days before we got there. Interestingly our NK tour guide didn’t know that the rocket was a failure until we told him. We’ll have to show them what a real satellite launch looks like in 3 days!

  5. lydia April 30, 2012 at 9:09 PM #

    This was so interesting to read. Looking forward to more on NK!

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