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.
As a young aspiring journalist and an American citizen, I am not exactly welcome in North Korea. After months of exchanging emails with a handful of tour companies, signing a host of complex paperwork and wiring an obscene amount of money to an anonymous Chinese bank account, I found myself thousands of kilometres from home with little more than a change of clothes and a one-way ticket to Pyongyang.
Travelling to North Korea requires one thing: the ability to follow rules.
First rule: don’t say “North Korea,” as it offends the locals—only say Korea or the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-un’s preferred term). Always get consent from one of your tour’s omnipresent minders before taking a picture. Do not disrespect the Great General, Dear Leader, or Party Marshal; and for God’s sake, don’t mix up their titles! Bow when you are told to bow, walk when you are told to walk. Handling the local currency is forbidden, and so is creasing a picture of the Leader’s face. Importing any art, music, literature, or anything else that could undermine the glory of North Korea is illegal. Oh, and no Bibles… or DVDs of The Interview.
There are pages upon pages of rules that travellers to the DPRK must obey, and while they’re all pretty straightforward, remembering every single one can be a challenge. A slip-up could mean decades of hard labour in a North Korean prison camp. I studied the rules day and night until the last minute until flight JS152 to Pyongyang was called for boarding. I put the rule book away and hoped that I could remember it all.
First rule: don’t say “North Korea.”
I was herded into a shuttle bus populated by a mix of dour North Koreans and giddy Western tourists. The North Korean aircraft it brought me to was parked on a desolate stretch of tarmac far away from any other planes; the only other one in sight was a Chinese cargo jet whose engines and windows were covered by thick tarp. I was already isolated from the outside world, and I hadn’t even left China.
Complimentary newspapers detailing Kim Jong-un’s activities were handed out on an aging Air Koryo jet, while the standard instructional safety announcement was replaced by patriotic marching music and grainy video of the Supreme Leader’s speeches. All passengers were given comically-misspelled declaration forms to fill out, including one that asks if passengers had any “meets, pet, or blood ant it’s products.”
After a 90-minute flight over the Yellow Sea, I found myself in Pyongyang. In the newly-built terminal, passengers are separated into two groups: North Korean passport holders on the left, all others on the right. I waited anxiously in the corridor for a few minutes before being called over to an available kiosk where I stood face-to-face with an expressionless Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldier who demanded I present my travel documents.
I was already isolated from the outside world, and I hadn’t even left China.
The soldier stared at my American passport before barking, “What do you study?” I meekly tried to explain that I study everything because, at the time, I was in high school, but he didn’t understand—to him, “high school” was just another phrase that got lost in translation.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the soldier waved me forward to baggage claim, which then led me to customs—the final and scariest part of my entry. I put all my belongings through an X-ray machine before a group of KPA soldiers examined my camera and rifled through my backpack, all while interrogating me in Korean. I nodded yes in response, though I didn’t understand a thing.
After deleting a few pictures I took on the flight into Pyongyang, the eldest soldier gave me the all-clear to proceed through the opaque glass door and into the arrival hall. The vast room was dominated by a hand-painted world map which placed the Korean Peninsula at its centre point, relegating the United States and Europe to the fringes. I had little time to explore the terminal, though, as my group and I were quickly ushered into the parking lot towards a convoy of awaiting bright blue tour buses emblazoned with the logo of the state-owned Korea International Travel Company.
I made sure I was the first one on the bus so I could sit by a window which would give me an unobstructed view of North Korea. As the remaining tourists climbed aboard, a man in black sat beside me. I was too busy staring out the window to acknowledge him. It wasn’t until the bus started moving that I noticed the man in black was wearing a red lapel pin stamped with the face of Kim Il-sung.
He introduced himself as Mr. Lee, a minder. He was a short, stocky, bespectacled man in his late 30s with minimal English skills. Before he even asked my name, he asked if he could see my passport. I agreed.
When Mr. Lee saw the words “United States of America” etched in gold on the cover of my passport, he frowned. “You’re American,” he told me, “In my country, you are the enemy. I want to sit here to see how the enemy behaves.” His comment unnerved me. Although he refused to shake my hand, he insisted that he didn’t hate me; he only hated the actions of my government. He stayed put in his seat right next to me.
He smiled as he flipped through the pages of my passport, inquiring where each stamp was from and what the different countries were like. I asked him if he had ever travelled outside the DPRK, but of course he hadn’t. We made polite small talk about our hometowns and slowly built up a rapport. After about 15 minutes on the bus, I asked him if I could take photos through the window—a request that he granted. I held my camera to the glass every day for the rest of the trip, snapping pictures of everything that our bus drove by.
Pyongyang seemed to be made up of pastel-coloured apartment blocks, unfinished glass skyscrapers and Soviet-style brutalist monuments honouring one or more members of the Kim family. Vacant storefronts topped with expansive red-and-white propaganda billboards lined the capital’s mostly-empty streets, though uniformed children waving red flags could be seen in groups on every other city block. It was unlike anything I had ever seen.
After cruising around Pyongyang and stopping at a handful of monuments over the course of two hours, our bus stopped in front of an unnamed restaurant in the southern part of the city. Our group of 16 tourists was ushered upstairs, and although the minders acted like we had pulled over at a random roadside eatery, the restaurant’s only dining room conveniently had 16 plates of traditional Korean hot pot already laid out—they had known we were coming for months.
The meal was undeniably bland. However, I didn’t complain. Because food is so scarce in the DPRK, I knew I was lucky to be fed at all. As we prepared to leave the restaurant, I noticed two of the waitresses carefully scooping up some of the uneaten food and returning it to the kitchen. With nothing left on the itinerary, we were brought to our accommodations.
For years, tourists in Pyongyang stayed exclusively at the Yanggakdo Hotel, a towering resort conveniently located on an isolated island in the middle of the Taedong River. However, a handful of hotels have been renovated and reopened in recent years. Among these is the monolithic Sosan Hotel, a triangular tower rising 30 storeys above the impoverished suburbs of western Pyongyang. This is where I stayed.
Solo travellers have the option to pay a supplement of around 50 euros a night for a single room, or they can save money by being paired with a roommate at random. Being a broke student whose life savings had already been handed over to North Korea, I chose the latter. After dinner, I was introduced to my roommate, a tall Dutch business student named Arie. Our bus came to an abrupt halt in the parking lot outside the hotel, where we were forced to surrender our passports before being allowed inside.
The Sosan Hotel’s lobby was a grand space of marble floors and high ceilings, complete with gift shops, lounges, and every other Western luxury imaginable. We were handed a green key card for our room and told the rest of the evening was designated as “free time,” with one major exception—we couldn’t leave. A trio of minders smoked and drank around a table near the front doors, making sure no foreigners set foot outside. The Sosan was our prison.
Arie and I were given a room on the 29th floor which, to my surprise, was normal—not even a portrait of the Dear Leader hung on the wall. Before leaving home I had read that every hotel room was bugged with a hidden microphone, though after peeking under every lampshade and drawer, I am confident that that allegation is nothing more than a rumour. Aside from the balcony door being inexplicably sealed shut, everything else in the room was normal—except for the bathroom.
The bathroom seemed very similar to every other hotel bathroom in the world, but when I turned on the sink, I found that it spewed foul-smelling, yellow-tinted sewage. The shower was even worse—randomly dousing me in grainy, blood-coloured water. Arie and I jokingly referred to the bathroom as “Hell.”
In addition to my roommate Arie, I quickly befriended Marcio, a Canadian expat who’s now a gym teacher in South Korea, and Ellie, a British woman who tacked North Korea onto the end of her very extensive Asian backpacking adventure. Though the DPRK seems like a prison, my fellow travellers and I made the most of our time stuck together in the Sosan Hotel. We crowded into the hotel lobby and drank cheap local beer late into the night until the bar stopped serving us, laughing about everything in our very different lives that led us to be around the same table that evening in Pyongyang, North Korea. And oddly enough, our minders laughed with us.
Since we entered the country, my group’s three minders had acted like straight-faced, brainwashed robots who shunned the outside world. But that night, things were different. We invited two of our minders to our table, and within moments, it was like we were lifelong friends. I bought them drinks and they shared stories, both scripted and unscripted, about life inside North Korea. For the first time, we recognized each other simply as humans, not as enemies.
More and more people went to bed as the night wore on, leaving only me and a few other tourists in the lobby by the early hours of the morning. Just before I went to bed, I heard an Italian man travelling in another group suggest that the reason we were all given rooms on the top few floors of the Sosan Hotel was because the KITC wanted to make it seem like it was full of guests, when in reality, the hotel was mostly vacant. I decided to investigate for myself, stopping at the 13th floor before heading to my room on the 29th. And I was shocked—he was right.
For the first time, we recognized each other simply as humans, not as enemies.
The 13th floor was completely empty and eerily silent. No heating or lights were turned on; the glow of the elevator illuminated a small patch of carpet in front of its open doors, though beyond that was just a cold black abyss. I noticed the red light of a security camera blink at me from the darkness. Too scared to investigate further, I closed the elevator, returned to my room, and never mentioned it again. I would quickly learn that North Korea doesn’t always appreciate the truth.