Tag Archives: Koryo Tours

North Korea, Part 2: A Hint of Color

1 May

Because of the 100th birthday celebrations, no hotel rooms were available for our tour group on the evening of April 15. Thus, we were relegated to an even crappier hotel in Pyongsung, an hour north of the city. Hard beds, no elevator, no hot water, and uneven stairs. Interestingly, the two hotels we stayed at both had heated floors.


Day 2: Our hotel in Pyongsung.

As we spent more time in North Korea, we began to interact with some of the locals and got to see a small glimpse of what life is like in Pyongyang during the biggest national celebration in decades.


Two young girls at an open-air festival.


Band performers.


We attended a children’s performance which was fantastic. All the children were supremely talented and performed singing, dance, music, twirling, hula hooping, etc. These children were well on their way to their 10,000 hours of expertise.


After lunch, we got lucky in that our tour guide allowed us to see the military parade. This was the largest parade in decades and everyone in the city came out to celebrate and cheer the soldiers. Both soldiers and citizens looked genuinely happy on this day.


The soldiers rolled by in a neverending convoy of hundreds and hundreds of trucks, cheered on by schoolchildren in this stretch of the street.





Each truck had a couple dozen military soldiers. Unfortunately the tanks and rocket launchers didn’t go the full parade route so we couldn’t see them. Supposedly on this day they debuted a super huge rocket launcher, but western experts had no idea if it was really functional or just a prop.


Schoolchildren intrigued by us foreigners.


Traffic signalers in their blue uniforms. Because there are very few stoplights, these traffic signalers control the traffic. Of course, on most days there are few cars and at many intersections there’s not a whole lot of work to do.


People lining up to buy some sort of food from the shack.

One of the more interesting museums in the world that we’ve ever been to was the Korean War museum in Pyongyang. In this museum, the history of Korean resistance against the Japanese in the early part of the 19th century and the history and “successful defense of the homeland against imperialist US aggressors in the Korean War” is taught. Some of the language and history is so skewed I almost burst out laughing. One video said that the “US invaded South Korea and turned it into hell on earth.” Exact quote, I’m not kidding. Another video showed images of the great depression and stated that after US involvement in the Korean War, the great depression occurred. Kinda off by 20 years, but who’s counting?


This is the entry hallway to the Korean War museum. The mural is painted such that no matter what angle you stand at, Dear Leader is always facing his front square towards you.


Being taught a history lesson from the other perspective.


The museum also has a collection of captured/abandoned American military equipment.



Inside the world’s deepest subway. The escalator ride is probably at least a minute to get down to the bottom. Everyone suspects that this subway system doubles as a bomb shelter, but who really knows why it was built so deep. Inside each station is some beautiful communist tile art. Interestingly, the NK subway has quite a bit of graffiti keyed into the windows, even though I’m sure the punishment for that in North Korea is much worse than graffiti on BART.





We also got a chance to visit a real fun fair aka amusement park. This one is right in the heart of Pyongyang by the Arch of Triumph and includes working rides made by an Italian company. Once again the entrance line was extremely long, but as foreigners we could walk right up and take the next ride.


Jeannie and I rode this one. Pretty fun.


Those small dots are people sitting around a ring which swings and revolves at the same time.


Fireworks over the Taedong river on April 15th.


Here is a video shot by another member on the same tour with us.


Coming up in Part 3: North Korean Pride.



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.

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