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  • Wolfgang Fobo

North Korea, May 2009

I kept this journey for me, as a secret. Because I could not imagine to really obtain a visa. Then, one day, I received a call from the North Korean Embassy in Berlin. They wanted to verify my data, and why I wanted to visit their country. Finally, one day before the scheduled departure from Beijing, I got my visa, and only then I was sure to be able to continue my journeys to the so called "axis of evil" countries.


This is how a North Korean visa looks like. You won't get a stamp into your passport.

The aircraft - it is an Ilyushin62 of the Northern Korean Air Koryo - is fully booked, and the flight attendants wear white gloves. Many foreigners, among others a group of Japanese Koreans. We who have booked our journey with Koryo Tours are 19 foreigners, divided into 4 groups, of which I - as an individual traveller - am my own group. All North Koreans wear the Kim-Il-Sing-badge.

I am excited like a child and I am looking forward to what will await me. I have a book with me with the title "Happiness rarely comes alone", a German bestseller at the time (written by a doctor, von Hirschhausen). This book more or less describes how happiness can happen, and since I am traveling to the country of happiness, as the official propaganda will make you believe, this book shall serve as a kind of scientific accompany to my endeavors over there. Anyhow, entering the country of happiness entails the absence of internet, of mobile phones, of journals, of any free information in general, and also those journals that were distributed in the airplane give me a foretaste that indeed I am on the way to paradise. 4 days of being administered a happiness drug, how shall I cope?

The IL62 did not have their seats numbered, so I had to count, to make sure to find the right seat. Apparently without making a mistake, because nobody challenged my seat.

Upon arrival in Pyongyang, I had the feeling of arriving at a provincial airport, with perhaps 2 daily international flights (the other one to Wladiwostok). Easy immigration procedure, we wait at the baggage carousel. Next to me a group of Pakistanis, which arise my phantasy about what might be their motivation - certainly not touristic. This my phantasy right away was confirmed, because in their Urdu communication I could figure out the term "National Defence", and one of these guys indeed looked like the infamous nuclear bomb designer Khan who just earlier was released from his house arrest. Then, after I had to leave my mobile phone with the customs officials - against receipt - I had finally arrived, and was welcome by my 2 guides, a Mrs. Kim and a Mr.Li. Both guides fluent in German, and my only explanation why I got 2 guides was that probably these 2 guides had to keep themselves under mutual surveillance.

We drove in a Russian 4x4 to the Yongakdo hotel, the best hotel for foreigners in Pyongyang. Situated on an island, strict entry surveillance to the island, so we foreigners can not just simply "disappear". After dinner I went to my room, studying the first pages of my happiness book.

First of May 2009

Of course, you can see propaganda everywhere. Fotos and messages of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, no matter in which direction you look. As expected, I am not allowed to make fotos as I wish, and it is exactly that scenery that most attracts my attention which I am not allowed to photograph. Such as the long queues at the bus and tram stops, or the overcrowded busses, or the many trucks full of passengers on the loading space.

I had many unexpected encounters, like during the visit in the park, which gave me food for thought. There I have seen the probably biggest density of happy people ever. Everywhere the people danced (bear in mind we have First of May), sang, made music, making picknick. Happy faces, laughing faces. And then I was invited by an old lady to dance with her, and the total flock was enthusiastic. All of them wanted to dance with me, and even the men dared to touch me, carefully, sensibly. In all of their faces I could observe honest happiness. Wherever I looked, a Hosianna. When I initially mentioned my visit to the country of happiness with a flavor of irony (see above), like "having the privilege to enjoy 3 full days of mere happiness", I have to confess that already on day one the reality taught me a lesson. And how!

Happy faces wherever you look

Here is people's paradise, and I am invited for a brief visit to it, dancing,

Flowers for Kim Il Sung, 5 Euro – obligatory

The shining light

Yes this encounter made me wonder. Do you have to be brainwashed to demonstrate such mere and honest happiness? Or is it something like poverty that may make your belief stronger into something superior, like religion? Will such kind of devotion make your life more bearable?

We continue our sightseeing of Pyongyang, everywhere Kim Il Sung and his message, and I ponder, is this the perfect world? This strange feeling that infests me soon is yet being topped. The driver inserts a CD. The "Kastelruther Spatzen" start singing, new German folk music of a perfect world, about Sister Irene and whatever nonsense, which I normally would zap away in less than no time. But not here. My 2 guides hum along with the song, pure kitsch, and I have to keep a stiff upper lip. Two seemingly perfect worlds crash into each other, so far away, and yet so close?

Then, I continued with my hobby studies, asking the guide for the sounds that some animals make in Korean language. I learned that the dog barks wal-wal, the duck quacks bak-bak, and the frog kaegul-kaegul. My interest in these sounds amused Mrs.Kim a lot, and she laughed a lot when I taught her the German equivalents. Over the course of the next three days she always questioned me about the Korean animal sounds, such that I shall not forget.

The female police in Pyongyang is a show. I guess that the prettiest ones must have been selected for this job. How the regulate the traffic, how brisk movements they make, almost moving like a robot.

A feast for one's eyes - the female police

Father and son rule the people

Kumsusan – the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung

No, we Westerners really do not fit into this irreal scenery. Arbitrarily dressed up, some of us - youngsters - even not wearing a tie (but we were strictly "recommended" to wear one, which I did). In an unorderly manner we stroll through the holiest of holies. Even me, in my sneakers, felt a bit misplaced, and even a bit embarrassed about those two youngsters who refused to wear a tie. This is mere lack of respect. You can think what you want, but when you visit a country, at least you should respect the rules, or else you better stay away. Usually I would never wear a tie, but I have to respect the local rule. Ok. In full contrast to us the Koreans. All in their best dresses. All men in a dark suit, Kim-Il-Sung badge a matter of course. This sense of uniform is all the more enforced because all Koreans have black hair.

The ladies mostly wear their hanbok, the traditional Korean costume, very beautiful. Not a single woman in trousers. All with very serious faces, fully disciplined. Long tracks, security stricter than at any airport. We had to deposit our cameras, nothing metallic was allowed inside. Moving walkways should make it possible even for the physical handicapped to pay honor to the Great Leader. These moving walkways are so slow that it takes about 10 minutes to traverse one hall. And you have to use these walkways. Standing there, you. have enough time to study the faces of the Koreans who pass into opposite direction. What will they think if they see such disorderly dressed Westerners? In some respect, with our outfit as well with our attitude we desecrate the ceremonial atmosphere which prevails here.

Then, coming closer to the Holiest of Holies, solemn music. An exorbitant statue of Kim Il Sung, and then we are directed in rows forward and bow to the Great Leader. There he rests, the Great Leader, in a darkened hall, red light, in a coffin of glass. This formerly most important ruler of the world, who, when he passed away, drove every single Korean into utter desperation, over 10 days.

We again bow, from the front side, from the both sides, but shall not bow from the back. And then we are through, off to the hall of decorations. There, all decorations and medals are displayed which Comrade Kim ever received. Inclusive of the Karl-Marx-medal of the GDR, and a decoration from the Vatican. On we go, passing the railway carriage which the Great Leader used, passing a big world map displaying all journeys which the Great Leader ever made, by rail and by air. The whole of Asia he traveled by train, and the westernmost point must have been the GDR, 1984. Finally we passed the official car of the Great Leader, a Mercedes 600 SEL. That's what I like. From the East Germans the Karl-Marx-medal, and from the West Germans the Mercedes 600. So it has to be, order restored.

Back towards the exit in the moving walkway, now studying the faces of the incoming Koreans. Serious faces, nobody talks. We Westerners chat, so what. Outside I could retrieve my camera, and finally we were allowed to take fotos. Koreans take memory fotos, of Kumsusan Palace. Some of us sit on the railing, no Korean would ever dare to do that.

On the way to the memory foto

Kumsusan Palace, the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung

A bit further away we can see an oath taking ceremony of students in their first semester, which line up in military manner. A loudspeaker sounds with a solemn speech. George Orwell could not have described this scenery any better. Yes, this country of "1984" is real, you can visit it, and cold shivers run down my spine (dearly paid for). It is so bizarre, may I stress the term "mother of all bizarre?". I wouldn't miss it, and I ponder why the Koreans are so visibly happy, like I could witness their happiness two days ago, in the park. Honest happiness, thousandfold. From here we continue to the hero cemetery, around 150 statues in bronze, commemorating the resistance of the heroes which vanished in their fight against the Japanese devils.

Back in the Hotel

The meals in the hotel I always take at the same table, and once I arrive, the table is already set for me. Korean TV displays Korean propaganda, of course. War movies, hero songs. The prices in the hotel are acceptable, for a bottle of Korean beer you pay 40 Euro Cents. And when I invite my two guides for a cup of coffee, I pay in total less than 3 Euros. But even this is already a fortune. After some hesitation, Mr.Li disclosed what the average Korean makes in a month. 20,000 Won, he said. Officially this would correspond to 125 Euros, but there is a black market, and this exchange rate Mr.Li did or could not disclose. Anyhow it would be useless to change money here, because all foreigners have to pay in Euro. Restricted to those shops were we are allowed to shop. There, all prices are displayed in EUR and Won. Normal shops we were not allowed to visit, they are taboo, and we only may visit the hard currency shops, and if so, under surveillance.

Food is always in ample supply, rather too much. No, we tourists shall not suffer. The Kimchi here tastes as good as in the South. But South Korean cuisine is more refined, with a bigger variety. Restaurants here cannot be recognized from outside. The water ice cream which I was invited for in the park is, hmm, how shall I phrase it, something to get accustomed to. Brand name "Eskimo", cold and sweet.

To Kaesong

It is an expressway, and yes it has 4 lanes. Separated by a planted barrier. Although, the term "expressway" you have to take with a grain of salt. Its a bit rocky, with potholes in the asphalt, connecting Pyongyang with Kaesong, some 168 km away. And, strikingly, we drive almost all alone, Almost no other vehicle can be seen, rarely a car into opposite direction. and to me, it makes no economic sense, certainly however a military one. For the same motivation, our German Great Leader also built expressways, some 70 years ago. Every now and then you see very high steles at both sides. I speculate that these might serve as tank traps, which you simply blow up in case of need, and then they block the way. I cannot ask our guides about the economics of such a lonely expressway. Unless I want to hear what the official propaganda states. Ok, apparently the expressway is empty because we drive on a Sunday. (But no change on the return, a Monday). At the banquet of the expressway sometimes we can see hitchhikers, and I ask who would pick them up (no reply). When you see a bus, it is hopelessly overcrowded. Farmers work in the fields (no fotos allowed), all manual labor. Cows pull the plough, and children and the elderly plug grass or herbs and stow it in a bag. As it cannot be pulling up weeds by hand, I wonder whether it serves as some kind of food (herbs, vegetable?).

Half way to Kaesong, we stop at a service area. Including a restaurant, constructed as a bridge over the expressway. But nobody enters. At the parking lot you see booths, including parasols and seatings. Here you can buy some food, against hard currency, and I invite my company to a cup of coffee. Here stop the few tourists on their way to and from Kaesong. Somehow you see always the same foreigners, over the course of 4 days, all of us absolve the same program, one by one.

Loneliness on the Expressway

The gate to the expressways leading to Kaesong. Displaying the wish of the Koreans for reunification.

The villages which can be seen nearby do not even look so bad. Only the new structures look shabby, they are nothing to impress a foreigner. How far is North Korea behind? My guess is that 50 years behind South Korea may not suffice, and I cannot imagine that with whatever system this government may employ in future, they will ever level up with South Korea. And, me being a German I cannot expect the South Koreans to display the same solidarity with their poorer kin that we Germans still display today, after reunification. I cannot imagine that a reunification will ever happen, or, if so, it will take generations. If I were a South Korean I would strictly object a reunification. That would ruin me, such sacrifices cannot be enforced, let alone expected. But the North Koreans dream of it. Unlike in the former GDR, here the North dreams of a unified and sovereign Korea. And this objective is consequently highlighted. With such thoughts I roll along towards Kaesong, a pretty little town near the DMZ. And the DMZ is what I want to see, now from the North, the year before I did the very same from the South.

We move in to a nice little guesthouse, sleep on the floor, on tatami. Dinner for three, I empty the pot of Soju, rice liquor, almost alone. Mr.Li cannot digest alcohol, and Mrs.Kim practically never drinks booze. In my half bliss with Soju I almost turned political, but luckily I had enough awareness left to realize that this my advances will bring nothing about. What shall poor Mrs.Kim tell me other than what she had to learn by heart!

Old town of Kaesong

In front of the guesthouse

All the time I avoided questions who could be interpreted as critics. Where and how should my guides learn to differentiate? What you always will get is the official statement, and once heard, I have left these statements, or truths, uncommented. For example, when the Koreans wash their clothes in the river, then not because they do not have running water at home, but because the water is so clean. Even if I would openly bring forward my point of view to any subject, political or economical, and would make my guides think, what would be the result? They would be unsatisfied or even unhappy, and yet could not change anything. Better I leave them happy and unknowing, rather than unhappy and knowing.

So, is this country a lost case? Perhaps yes. Perhaps, looking from outside, you can stabilize this country with some kind of support (what the Chinese do anyway), and we keep this country like an open air museum, in which a presumed brainwashed but happy people honor their Great Leader. The outside world only has to pay attention that they would not pose too great a threat for the rest of the world.

Pammunjom, May 4

The highlight of my journey, now that I can visit the very same unreal spot like the year before. This time approaching from the North. Four Spaniards and me are accompanied by Korean officers, which have to ensure that we will not make wrong movements. The visit starts with an update into the present military situation, from Northern perspective, of course. Then we visit the barracks where the armistice was signed in 1953. According to Mrs.Kim this was a great defeat for the Koreans. On we go, until to the very border.

Pammunjom. The two soldiers at the back stand directly at the line of demarcation. My guess is that they also serve as post to prevent anybody running towards the South.

The barracks with the open door is the barracks where both sides meet and negotiate. In the morning you can visit it from the North, in the afternoon from the South. The solders make sure we make no nonsense.

Here they are again, the 7 barracks, through which the line of demarcation runs. We are allowed to make fotos, as many as we want. Exactly this building, which I entered from the South the year before, I enter now from the North. Inside, at the Southern door, two grim faced soldiers guard that door, such that nobody even thinks of escaping to the South. Last year 2 grim faced South Korean soldiers guarded the door towards North. "No nonsense types", as the American liaison officer stated. "Don't even think of coming too close to them".

Guarding the for towards South...

The table is located half in the North, half in the South

A very friendly and courteous North Korean officer.

A big step sideways, and they would stand in the South...

Opposite behind the silver building the South Korean observation point. The big structure was intended as a meeting point for separated families. So far a bad investment.


In blue the barracks which are administrated from the South, those in silver are administrated from the North

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