I travelled to North Korea as a tourist for several days in the winter of 2016 in order to gain first-hand access to the world’s most secretive country. All persons mentioned by first name in this article have provided written consent, acknowledging their inclusion in the “Under Watchful Eyes” series. All other names have been changed.
Under Watchful Eyes is a series exploring North Korea through my eyes.
“The United Nations is the puppet of America!” Mr. Lee shouted into the microphone of a portable karaoke machine at the front of the bus. On the early morning drive, my group’s three minders took turns singing Korean folk songs and bad-mouthing the United States; I’d come to find out that this is how every one of my bus rides in North Korea would be. But I didn’t care. It was 6 a.m., and I was on my way to the most militarized place on Earth: the South Korean border.
As our bus rattled along the pockmarked roads of the capital, the city’s morning routine was placed in full view. Men rode to work with sacks of coal and produce stacked precariously on their vintage bicycles. Fully-stocked stores without a single customer opened their doors for business. Two children ran to school carelessly on a wide avenue built for hoards of cars that did not exist.
Pyongyang felt dead.
After leaving the city, we stopped at the Arch of Reunification, a beautiful stone sculpture of two Korean women in traditional dresses. It bridges over the road that symbolizes the unity of the North and the South. As tourists posed for photos in the middle of the roadway, a handful of workers swept away any dust or dirt that had accumulated on the monument the previous night, ensuring it was always immaculately clean. In addition to its symbolic meaning of togetherness, the monument also marks the beginning of Route 1, a.k.a., the Reunification Highway.
The Reunification Highway is unique in the DPRK, as it is the country’s only major highway that leads to South Korea. Because of the route’s strategic importance, those who travel it are subjected to intense surveillance from the North Korean government. Six military checkpoints were set up along the crumbling highway which felt like it hadn’t been repaved since its initial construction. We drove for nearly an hour without seeing another life form. No towns, no trees, no cars. Nothing.
About halfway through the journey to the South Korean border, our bus stopped at a roadside souvenir shop that spanned the trafficless highway. The strangely-designed bridging structure is almost entirely supported by two thick concrete pillars which, according to Mr. Lee, are filled with dynamite; in the event of an American invasion from the south, they are meant to explode and block the highway.
The building lacked electricity, lit only by the sunlight that poured through its grimy windows. We wandered the poorly-stocked store and highway beneath it before beginning the final leg of our drive. Back on the bus, we were explicitly warned, “no pictures.” We were about to enter a seldom-seen part of the DPRK that the government considers unacceptable for foreign eyes.
In this part of rural North Korea, malnourished oxen plowed lifeless fields in anticipation of the meagre summer harvest. Soldiers in disheveled uniforms hitchhiked en masse in the bitter cold. Red propaganda banners and loudspeakers spewing round-the-clock messages from the government peppered the mountainsides. It was not staged. It was the real DPRK, and it was clear why photography was discouraged.
Our cameras were allowed to be turned on again when we reached Panmunjom, an uninhabited village in the shadow of one of the world’s tallest flagpoles. Panmunjom is most famous for being the site where the armistice that ended the Korean War was signed in 1953. Although the armistice was technically a truce from a stalemate during the war, North Korea still insists that it won and remains the only nation in history to have defeated the “American imperialist aggression forces.”
It was not staged. It was the real DPRK, and it was clear why photography was discouraged.
At Panmunjom, there was an oddly placed gift shop— a last-minute cash grab owned and operated by Kim Jong-un’s government in an effort to squeeze out every last tourist dollar possible before the end of the country’s territory. The souvenir store specializes in hand-painted propaganda posters that almost exclusively depict anti-American, pro-Dear Leader scenes. Shopping there was surreal.
After touring the propagandistic historical exhibits in Panmunjom, we were driven along a winding one-lane road to an imposing concrete fortress that serves as the DPRK’s primary border command post. It was the official entrance to the DMZ, or the De-Militarized Zone—a misleadingly-named strip of land along the border of North and South Korea filled with barbed wire, landmines and armed troops ready to attack. I was led to a row of three narrow blue huts at the base of the fortress that are literally divided in half by the physical border line.
Inside one of the huts, a senior Korean People’s Army general ordered everyone to sit before he presented us with a brief history of the Korean War as he had learned it: America, for “capitalist reasons,” invaded the DPRK using innocent South Koreans as “human shields.” But, when all hope seemed lost, “ever-victorious iron-willed commander” Kim Il-sung pushed the imperialists back and won the war, roundly humiliating the United States and securing eternal glory for North Korea in the process.
For the record, that’s not what really happened.
After the general’s supposedly-historical lecture, we were allowed to roam freely in the small hut, take pictures and even take a few steps into South Korean territory before being corralled and brought back to the fortress on a hill behind the row of blue huts. There, we stood on a third-storey balcony and passed around a pair of military-grade binoculars which we, alongside a pair of KPA soldiers, used to peer into the South. Only high-tech cameras peered back. I asked one of the uniformed men if, being stationed on the front lines, he was concerned about another war. “Absolutely not. At night, I dream of war,” he said.
Upon leaving the DMZ, we were taken to the nearby border city of Kaesong, where we were treated to a lunch of dog meat soup. We were then brought to an ancient Confucian university outside the city, where it is claimed that early inhabitants of the Korean Peninsula invented the spoon. Following a brief stop at the thousand-year-old campus and an impromptu visit to a gift shop that exclusively sells North Korean ginseng, we returned to Pyongyang.
Upon re-entering the city, we were taken straight to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which is the North’s distinctly patriotic way of saying “Korean War Museum.” Our bus came to a stop beneath a towering ornamental gate memorializing fallen Korean soldiers, at which point we were walked towards the museum’s security team. After passing through a metal detector and enduring a pat-down so thorough it bordered on being a sensual massage, I was given permission to enter the grounds of the museum.
On the other side of the gate, we were met by our museum guide, a young female soldier wearing a headset microphone who introduced herself as Ri. She promptly led us through a maze of fake World War I-style trenches to the Captured Weapons Exhibition, an open-air hall filled with damaged American trucks, tanks and aircraft that were seized mostly during the Korean War. Ri proudly explained the history behind each vehicle on display, repeatedly using the phrase “imperialist aggressors” in her descriptions.
The tour of the Captured Weapons Exhibition culminated in a visit to the USS Pueblo, an American naval research ship seized by North Korea in 1968. Onboard the vessel, visitors are shown a lengthy, poorly-narrated informational video and a handful of artifacts detailing the year-long detainment of the 83 American sailors who were captured along with their ship. The exhibit does not acknowledge the fact that the North murdered one of the U.S. seamen while he was in custody.
After disembarking from the USS Pueblo, our cameras were confiscated and we were led into the museum’s main building. Upon entering the imposing building, we are forced to form several orderly lines and bow to a larger-than-life statue of Great General Kim Il-sung. It is only after paying our respects to the beloved leader that we were allowed to ascend the grand marble staircase leading to the main exhibition halls and revel in the awe-inspiring opulence of the grandiose institution. No expense was spared.
Although the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is magnificent in scope and scale, it is almost entirely built on lies. The museum repeatedly claims that Kim Il-sung, who is often referred to as the “Shining Star of Korea,” single-handedly led the North to victory (it should be again noted that the DPRK did NOT win the war). A display placard claims the North Korean Navy torpedoed and sunk the USS Baltimore, an American battleship, in 1950; in reality, the ship never served in Korea and was eventually scrapped in the early 1970s. In fact, the museum’s very basis—the assertion that it was South Korea who instigated the war—is false. Lies like this permeate the exhibitions, of which are numerous.
Due to the museum’s immense size, we were only shown a select few exhibits, including the expansive “Hall of U.S. Atrocities” and a life-sized diorama of ravens eating the flesh of dead American soldiers rotting on a gloomy battlefield. After our main tour concluded, we were led through a narrow, seemingly-unending corridor that connected the museum’s main building to a panoramic hall that was only described to us as the “big room.”
Although the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is magnificent in scope and scale, it is almost entirely built on lies.
The so-called “big room” is an enormous, revolving cyclorama of smoke and mirrors that depicts the Battle of Taejon, one of the first battles of the Korean War in which the DPRK was the victor. Here, tourists sit on an elevated pedestal and are treated to a bizarre narrated reenactment of the war complete with surround sound speakers, fog machines, and a 12-metre tall painting of North Korean troops slaughtering Americans encircling the cylindrical room. It was a sight to behold; words alone cannot do it justice.
Upon completing a full rotation of the “big room,” I was escorted down a spiral staircase to a modest gift shop below, where visitors exchanged fistfuls of crisp euros for state propaganda presented as souvenirs. The shopping spree was cut short, though, by one of the rolling blackouts that plague North Korea—minders pulled out bulky yellow flashlights, tourists pulled out cellphones and together the two dozen beams of light safely led us all out of the shadowy museum and into the darkness beyond, where it became apparent that the entire neighbourhood had lost power. In the black Pyongyang night, I asked Mr. Lee if blackouts like that were a major inconvenience for him.
“No,” he said. “That’s just life.”