by Minty Clinch, The Telegraph, May 24, 2018
I stand in the heart of the demilitarised zone between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and South Korea on a sunny April morning. Within a week, Kim Jong-un will walk past these bright blue huts to the frontier, while Moon Jae-in, his counterpart, approaches from the southern side. The two men will shake hands on the frontier and retire for talks in the cautious hope they can make history.
The world applauded the first crack in the ice between the two nations in February when Kim’s sister attended the opening of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and players from both countries formed a joint Korean ice hockey team. The DPRK paused nuclear testing and a meeting between Kim and US President Donald Trump was scheduled for June 12 – although this may now be off.
A visit to North Korea underlines the country’s isolation. Pyongyang International Airport, updated in 2015, is immaculate but Koryo Air’s veteran jet from Beijing stands alone on the tarmac. There are few visitors to the country, for obvious reasons. The Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel but Britons can still visit the country as part of a highly organised tour. Which is what I do.
We’ve been warned about searches and delays at the airport, but unsmiling officers deal swiftly with minimal paperwork, while customs officials show no interest in scanning tablets for banned photos of South Korea. The only confiscation is my half-completed crossword in an arts supplement.
The Saturday evening drive into the city centre is equally eerie. Few cars, no pedestrians, a cheery high-rise skyline in gelati colours: pink, pistachio and lemon. Monuments and apartment blocks postdate the Korean War (1950-53), essential rebuilding after the United States dropped 300,000 bombs, one for every citizen, on Pyongyang. Or so our guide informs us, without mentioning that Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, started it by invading South Korea.
When the ferocious hostilities ended in a stalemate that left the border roughly where it was drawn in 1945, Kim Il-sung ruled a country with an understandable terror of American nuclear capability for 46 years until his death in 1994. His austere militaristic regime, based on his juche ideology of self-reliance and unification of the peninsula, was demonised abroad, but he was venerated at home.
As he and his son, Kim Jong-il (Supreme Leader from 1994 to 2011), are the only permitted publicity, many walls feature larger than life pictures of the happy couple. The favourite is the father in “all this will be yours, my son” mode, as he stretches an arm towards snowcapped mountains. “Make sure you get all of both leaders in your pictures,” the guides insist, the prelude to photo mandates: no military, no workers. “Koreans only like to be photographed wearing their best clothes.”
On our 10-night tour, our three English speaking guides, the enforcer, the cheerleader and the persuader, show us a good time while keeping us on message. They take the lead in the open mic sessions on the bus that becomes our daytime home. They sing Korean folk songs with gusto but take even more pleasure in telling jokes against Americans and Japanese, the latter loathed on both sides of the DMZ for their brutal colonisation (1910-1945) and the “comfort women” they conscripted to pleasure the Imperial Army.
Our group of 20 aged 23 to 79 originates in a dozen countries in Europe and Asia, plus Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but not Japan or the US. We all get on famously from the moment we meet up in British-owned Koryo Tours’ Beijing office for a stern and mandatory pre-tour briefing.
The Yanggakdo Hotel is on an island, the better to keep us corralled. We are not encouraged to leave the building without a guide, even to run around the grounds. Most visitors wouldn’t want to, but we are here for the Pyongyang marathon, a high scorer for global trophy hunters, so leg stretching is a bit of a drug. Those who prefer a snifter head up to the revolving bar on the 47th floor where cocktails supplement magnificent overviews of the city. In the basement, bowling, table tennis and pool tables are open long after midnight.
Sunday April 8 dawns blustery with flurries of snow, but spirits are raised by parading around a 50,000-seat stadium packed with spectators. The 1,200 contestants walk four by four, elite marathon runners followed by full marathon, half marathon, 10km and 5km runners. We stand on the grass for the opening ceremony and then we’re off, supported by crowds using metal clappers to ramp up the applause to Olympian heights.
Among us is Bristolian Nick Butter, who has pledged to run 196 marathons in 196 countries in 550 days in aid of Prostate Cancer UK. He’s flown from Peru for a three-night tour, but by Friday he’ll be back in the Andes at 9,300ft for the Quito race. Does he ever feel like doing something else? “Rolling over and going back to sleep,” he says wryly, preparing to nurse an injured Achilles tendon around deserted streets for the next four hours.
That’s also the target for Richard Dunwoody, the former National Hunt champion jockey turned photographer, in his first marathon in 15 years. We short track finishers watch the football while we await our heroes. Richard is behind the clock two miles out, but puts in the kind of steely finish that won two Grand Nationals to dive over the line in 3 hr 59 min 52 sec.
The next morning, we visit bronze Supreme Leaders surveying main squares, buy literature in the foreign book shop and ride the metro – long escalators with publicity-free walls, bucolic mosaics along the platforms, a golden statue of Kim Il-sung to welcome folk aboard the trains. The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum has sheds of American military hardware, a magnificent 360-degree diorama recreating the Battle of Taejon and a tour of USS Pueblo, captured in 1968.
The first of several feasts in Korean International Travel Company (KITC) restaurants is an eye-opener. The room is dominated by a raised wedding table obscured by swagged blooms, the chairs are adorned with pink satin bows, a floral arch invites posing. The food is tasty, with small dishes of roast duck, chicken, fish and vegetables accompanied by beer and kimchi, the spicy cabbage staple of any Korean meal. No nuptials today, but the meal becomes increasingly festive as musicians and dancers draw guests into the action.
The afternoon agenda starts with the Mangyongdae Native House, the thatched birthplace of Kim Il-sung, proceeds to the Stalinesque clenched fists of the Party Foundation Monument and finishes with a sunset ascent of the symbolic Juche Tower. And so the pattern is set: eight attractions and two banquets a day, with quality bus rest on journeys to the eastern seaboard to overnight in the fishing port of Wonsan and the mountainous Kumgang National Park.
The itinerary is education rich – a primary school, a children’s camp, an agricultural university, a couple of dodgy art galleries – but we join local life at the Golden Lane bowling alley and the Maeri shooting range, drink in the smart Unjong beer bar and attend a symphony concert during the Spring Friendship Arts Festival.
Everyone is friendly, the ambience totally non-threatening, but genuine mingling is severely limited. Foreigners can buy souvenirs, postcards, posters and paintings – or bananas and chocolate – in US dollars, euros or Chinese yuan but the only time we can change them into DPRK won is at Kwangbok Supermarket in Pyongyang. Anything we don’t spend on knock-off Burberry and genuine Stolichnaya vodka has to be changed back at checkout.
At the Yanggakdo, we can watch Al Jazeera TV and send a $3 (£2.25) email on the hotel account, but citizens have no foreign television, no internet and no right to travel outside their provinces. The fields, seen through the windows of the bus, are ploughed by oxen and harvested by hand. On occasion, uniformed soldiers are spotted digging ditches. Housing allocation ensures that children stay with their parents until they get married. Workers have 15 days holiday a year plus Sundays. What do they do? Go to the cinema or have a picnic in the park.
Or dance, the authorised outlet for a passion for colour and movement that is often frustrated in a repressive dictatorship. For most of their daily duties, Koreans dress soberly, but when the loudspeaker vans set up, they stream into the squares, the men in grey jackets, black trousers and red ties, the women in ankle-length frocks in rainbows of primary colours. Many groups are from universities, their affiliations signalled by 100 identical female haircuts. They step proudly to the beat, whirling and circling in complex formations, but laugh uproariously as they insist passing strangers wreck them by joining in. When the music stops, they regroup and file away: within minutes the squares are empty.
By our second Sunday, the sun and the cherry blossom are out for the annual celebrations of Kim Il-sung’s birthday. I’d assumed a triumphalist parade of military hardware, but we dine elaborately on a river boat while bowing citizens present flower urns to the gigantic Supreme Leaders on Mansu Hill. This is a vantage point for fireworks that frame the Juche Tower as it sends out its symbolic message. As we all enjoy a magical party night, it’s easy to imagine how welcome change would be.
How to go to North Korea
Koryo Tours (koryogroup.com, 0086 10 6416 7544) offers group trips of between two and 10 nights to North Korea throughout the year. Ten nights out of Beijing, including a flight to Pyongyang, return by train, accommodation, transfers, meals with beer costs $2,090 (£1,566).
Owing to tensions on the peninsula, the Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to North Korea. Those that do go as part of a tour are urged to follow the advice of those leading the tour, as failure to do so could lead to a severe punishment from the local authorities. For more details, see gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/north-korea