Subway North Korea

I’m neck-deep in a toilet bowl in an embassy bathroom in Pyongyang, North Korea, throwing up the day’s ‘traditional’ Italian pizza and the previous night’s clams cooked with petrol. Then, the bathroom lights go out. This, I tell myself, is living the dream.

For three months, I’d been living in Seoul studying Korean; a language that's crazy hard, by the way. My weekends would alternate between banging my head against a wall trying to fruitlessly cram more language into my brain and forgetting it all in hazy soju-fuelled nights of partying with expats and U.S. army personnel.

The South Korean locals and long-term residents rarely speak of their neighbors to the north. Seoul is less than an hour from the border, and when you live here long enough, threats from the unstable dictatorship come in unpredictable bursts. Of course the aforementioned US soldiers also serve as a reminder to the instability that the South lives in day-to-day.

Naturally, choosing to travel to North Korea was a difficult decision to make, and is one that no traveler should make lightly. Before heading to Seoul, I was studying Korean in Sydney, Australia, and after one of my classes I lingered behind to talk to my teacher about visiting a country that she, as a South Korean citizen, was barred from entering. 

My teacher explained that she had family living in the North. She told me a story about her family who, even though the government forbade rice cookers in their homes, got their hands on one anyway and hid it away so inspectors wouldn't find it. One evening, a government official was inspecting their home, and as they were leaving, the rice cooker finished cooking and made its customary chirp — a cutesy robotic song well known to the appliance. She tells me this story as an amusing anecdote, just a lighthearted tale about her family. But the story stops there. What happened to the rice cooker and her relatives, I don’t know. Maybe neither does she.

As for advice on the ethical or moral issues of my visiting North Korea, her English wasn’t quite advanced enough to understand what I was asking, but she didn’t warn me against it. A glint in her eye implied that if I have this opportunity, then I am a lucky person. As an Australian, I was granted the permission to visit a country that so many of my friends couldn’t. This privilege wasn’t lost on me, and after struggling whether ethically I should go at all, I decided I should assess the situation for myself. After all, how could I comment on a country that I had never been to?

As our bus hurtles towards the capital from the airport, propaganda posters dot the wide main thoroughfare. Having failed my Korean course and still only holding very basic comprehension, a veil of language obscures their messages, but it's easy to get the gist. Rich red and yellow hues give them a Soviet-era communist look, and most of them depict a juxtaposition of destruction and war holding hands with joy and love. I’m deeply fascinated by them, but within a few days I find they blur into the background. 

For the most populous city of a country, Pyongyang is eerily quiet. But at the same time, it’s also busier than I expect. Women in old-fashioned clothes of an indiscriminate era walk briskly through the main square, their fancy and elaborate Chinese-import sun umbrellas shielding their skin from the warm pre-summer sunshine.

Despite the propaganda posters and murals of the Great Leaders plastered everywhere I go, Pyongyang is not what I expected. Preparing myself for rubble and grey, depressing cloudy days and sour-faced locals, the city is some kind of strange old-fashioned village trying its best for modernity. People smile and wave at us with genuine warmth and curiosity, a welcoming glow that doesn’t seem manufactured or coerced. If we are, indeed, the enemy, the people of Pyongyang don’t appear to look at us as such. 

Our hotel, the 47-floor Yanggakdo International, sits on an island in the middle of the Taedong River. As I arrive to the lobby, I notice that the decor hasn’t been updated in decades, but like the ladies’ fashions, it’s hard to pinpoint just which exact era it’s stuck in. Here, the distinguishing marks of past decades don’t exist. The ‘50s were spent quite differently here than they were in the West, as were every other decade since, so any point of reference I have is meaningless.

Spare time is limited on this five-day tour, so after checking in to my room I use my precious few minutes to explore the lower level of the hotel, where, I’m told, is where the fun happens. It’s musty down here, and reminds me of grandma’s basement where she’s set up all the old toys you’ve grown out of while she stands in the doorway expectantly waiting for you to enjoy them. You play along and smile, but feel the overwhelming sadness that the effort she’s put in just comes across as… desperate.

Behind one door, I find a woman who runs the karaoke room, her young son singing some unfamiliar North Korean folk song. When she notices me, a pained desperation flickers in her eyes as she begs for me to join. “Maybe another time,” I tell her, but as I go, she seems genuinely upset.

Further down the hall is a casino full of gambling relics, like a graveyard where ancient slot machines go to die. The boy behind the change counter naps while the empty casino floor remains eerily silent. It, too, reeks of desperation, and not in a seedy-yet-fun Las Vegas kind of way, but rather in a legitimately depressing and completely missing the point kind of way. 

When traveling, it’s often the mundane moments that shed the most light. As a tourist in North Korea, however, capturing mundane moments isn’t quite so simple. There is no free time to explore on your own, get lost in side streets and stumble upon street vendors that make you feel like one of the locals. Understanding the ‘mundane’ is the last thing our guides would want me to experience. Despite this, I am gifted with a few moments that felt the closest to normal as you’re likely to get in a place like this.

In downtown Pyongyang, our guides lead us to a little bookshop filled with foreign language books and subtitled DVDs clearly set up specifically for Western tourists. Translated books written by the unbelievably prolific Supreme Leaders Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un line the shelves, feeling part souvenir shop, part bookstore. The authors have penned hundreds of titles, ranging from children’s books through to in-depth political treatise.

As with most countries, stupidity is never rewarded with trust. You show respect and follow the rules, and in turn, you will be rewarded with a much richer experience. Nowhere is that more true than in North Korea. Stories of foreigners breaking simple rules and ending up with heavier penalties than expected are scary reminders that this isn’t a place worth messing with, but give a little, and you’ll receive so much more for your efforts.

So, when my bookstore perusal was done, the guides trusted our tour group with a walk around downtown. It sounds menial, but here, a walk down the street with real local people is a rarity. So I strolled with the intent to take my time, straggling at the back with one of the guides, engaging in a little light chit chat. I let the leading guide move further away so that when she turned a corner, I felt I was here on my own, taking a nice walk on a lovely day and going about my business like any other person here. For a few moments, I could forget the imaginary leash that constrains me and just enjoy the real North Korean air.

When it comes to the food, modern-day North Korea isn’t exactly known for its cuisine. In general, the dishes are under-seasoned and bland; some confused misunderstanding of Western and European fare. As the story goes, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il was a big fan of Italian food, so he made the effort of importing an Italian pizza oven and few Italian chefs so that they could open a pizza restaurant in Pyongyang. Even the ingredients are flown in from Italy so that they can make truly authentic Italian cuisine. Or so we’re told.

Like most places in this city, the pizza restaurant has seen better days. The interior looks like your local suburban Chinese takeaway, but with a slightly more Italian bent and a fake Christmas tree by the wall (it’s May). The pictures of the food on the menu don’t leave much to be desired, either; to say the pizza was barely edible might be an understatement, but I politely finished my dish nonetheless.

Things don’t go well. And while it’s likely that my misfortune with the pizza later in the evening is due to a virus that hits several others on the tour over the next few days, there was no denying that it sure as hell didn’t help things.

Our tour later takes us beyond the confines of Pyongyang, and it’s during these day and overnight trips that I get a taste of the real country. Moments of stunning countryside intercut flooded rice fields and skeletal farmers working in the hot direct sun. Women, barely skin and bones, squat in the meagre shade of a small tree, staring blankly into the distance. We stop at a co-op farm and kick a soccer ball around with some children, all while dodging the pick-ups packed with skinny workers in the back, smiling and waving to us foreigners. To say North Korea is a place of extremes is an understatement, and the confusion never lets up.

While staying in Kaesong – a gorgeous town to the south that borders with South Korea, angry Korean announcements over distant loudspeakers wake us early. I’m told these are just the morning news for the farmers of the area, but the tone of voice implies otherwise. With every moment of beauty, there is the slap of reality to remind you where you are.

In the end, North Korea is kind of like the unsigned hipster speakeasy bar: theoretically hard to get into unless you know where to look, it’s overpriced, the food is bland, and they act like they don’t want you there but would struggle to survive if you didn’t go. And for all the hype, fear mongering, and horror stories, North Korea is nothing like you expect. It can’t be. There are no other places in the world where you can draw similarities to what this country is like. It’s beautiful and sad, fun and tragic. No single destination will teach you more about yourself and the world than a trip to North Korea. It’s the reason why we travel.