A few years back, rumour went round our children that we might go to Eurodisney. We went to Auschwitz. We did eventually go to Eurodisney (never again!) but the culture shock would be dwarfed by our trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Or so we thought.
The five of us, my wife, Eirene, and daughters Hannah (14), Emily (12) and Abigail (nine), flew out from our home in Tunbridge Wells in August primarily at my behest. It’s a country I hold a morbid fascination with but I also have genuine concern for its approach to human rights. The 32-year-old basketball-loving Kim Jong-un leads with a Kafkaesque style that is inevitably unsustainable. Whether the change comes via gentle introduction of capitalism or violently through revolution is up for debate but surely it will happen.
But now I’m not sure.
We travelled with Koryo Tours, a specialist North Korean tour company. There’s no independent travel in DPRK.
We had been briefed, twice. Bringing and/or leaving a Bible was a no-no as was saying you weren’t a journalist but were. But the advice was generally common sense – behave with the respect you would in any other country.
We were escorted by English-speaking North Korean guides around permissible sights. We saw the Arch of Triumph, almost identical to the Arc de Triomphe, went to a funfair, saw a waterpark, roller and ice rinks, stadiums, futuristic architecture and the rocket-shaped Ryugyong Hotel. We went to a dance where thousands, in traditional dress, danced, followed by fireworks celebrating the anniversary of Korea’s destruction of the Japanese imperialists in 1945.
We went to a DMZ (demilitarised zone) and saw wooden border lines between huts at the most militarised area in the world. We ate in restaurants with only westerners, and set meals.
Our hotel was on an island and we were asked not to wander into town but there was nothing to stop us had we chosen to. We paid tribute to former leaders at a mausoleum and strolled a well-stocked and busy supermarket. We saw families picnicking and singing and dancing, and joined in. We travelled on the immaculate underground and walked clean streets. We went to a museum of US atrocities and toured the captured USS Pueblo spy ship where we ran a sweepstake on how many times the monosyllabic female soldier would mention ‘American imperialists’ (36).
The people dressed smartly, each wearing a badge with the face of a former leader on. Some had mobile phones and there were new cycle paths everywhere. The roads were quiet but busier than ever, and taxis were emerging.
There was occasional conflict in what we were told by guides, but they were open, informed and honest. There was no wide-spread act for our benefit.
I came back home and researched – the leader didn’t have his girlfriend executed, didn’t feed aides to dogs and nobody had to have hair like him. Unfortunately, lazy journalism ensures the above makes headlines but the retractions or dubious sources don’t.
The country has no PR, it’s like an Asian Jeremy Corbyn. It’s quoted as having over a million troops, making it one of the biggest military powers in the world. But the army does everything; there are no building firms – everything is built by the army.
The countryside life is simple but the people seemed happy. We didn’t see a tractor – just lots of fertile fields and furrows, managed by hand with no electricity or running water. The question is whether it’s right, the villagers’ lack of knowledge, but they know no different. And there’s something to be admired about their existence.
North Korea’s track record is indefensible. But so is China’s and Saudi’s and even the US’s. And we’re not whiter than white. The Koreans are manipulated by the press and lied to by the government but so are we. They are a one-party country but the people who run our governments have proven self-serving and, despite political differences, mutually self-serving.
It’s clearly a country of haves and have-nots. They are fed propaganda, just not as sophisticated as the stuff we get from the spin doctors our taxes pay for.
The Korean people are proud of their country. They think it is the best in the world, and I’m quite jealous of that belief.
Pyongyang represents the higher tier many aspire to and few get to. But again, I’m not sure a similar hierarchy, protected by glass ceilings, doesn’t exist in the West.
We departed by train. At the border, Korean guards did a token check of one bag, looked through some pictures on iPhones, ignoring the digital cameras, and laughed as we practised Korean. I think I wanted to see a black and white country I could compare starkly with my own great one but it was shades of grey and differing degrees.
Quite substantially in some cases admittedly. It’s our country under feudalism. Our dispute maybe isn’t with the country per se but what year it’s in.
I left with more questions than I arrived with.