To DPRK and Back – Part 1 – The Trip and the Cast

Where do I begin, to talk to you about a country on which most people in Hong Kong and in the West have very little to no firsthand information?  Partly because of this and partly because a friend dared me to join him for a one-week trip, I took up the challenge, packed a suitcase, went and came back, in one piece, somewhat wiser, I hope.

DPRK or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is hardly a country that attracts many tourists, western tourists in particular. The country is land locked in the north with the provinces of Jilin and Liaoning of China for about 880 miles and with Russia for about 12 miles. These borders are formed naturally by rivers, the most famous of which is Yalu from a point of which the city of Dandong in China is within shouting distance from DPRK’s Sinuiju. Indeed, travelling in Sinuiju which has a population of 250,000, we can pick up wi-fi signals transmitted from Dandong. In the south, the country is separated from South Korea by the Korean Demilitarized Zone or DMZ which is a strip of land of four-kilometre wide of buffer area across the Korean Peninsula, two kilometres for each side, physically separating the two counties, established through the Korean Armistice Agreement on 27 July 1953. On its east is the Sea of Japan, and on the west, Korea Bay and Yellow Sea.

The two countries have roughly the same area, with DPRK slightly bigger. In terms of population, North Korea has about 25 million, while South Korea, twice as many; and their per capita GDP are US$1,800 and US$35,000 respectively or about a difference by 20 times. You may recall I wrote about Nepal’s per capita GDP was only about US$700 in 2015.

I first visited South Korea in 1990, but I have never been to their side’s DMZ. I knew very little about North Korea at the time. For that matter, I cannot claim I know a lot about both countries after these years and after my last visit to DPRK. By the way, in DPRK, it is not politically correct to refer to the country as North Korea. Its people have learnt to accept and firmly believe that Korean Peninsula was and will be one country someday under the guidance and resolve of their country’s visionary leadership.

Let me quickly go to the trip itself. First, it took my friend less than two weeks to get our visas approved. They were printed on a piece of paper separated from our passports so that there are no records of either of us having been to the country. The visas had our photos, names, and our passport numbers, which the local tour guides kept while we were there until we crossed the border between DPRK and China at Dandong when they were collected by the DPRK border officials. Our tour was organized by a Xian based company known as Young Pioneer Tours (YPT) and sponsored by a DPRK official NGO called Korea International Travel Company (KITC). In the end, our group comprised four men: Sean is 36, a Canadian living or who had lived in Boston and was working on a PhD in Physics and who had developed allergies to wheat produces; Nicola is 39, a Croatian and fan of Bill Bryson (who was Chancellor of Durham University when I collected my Masters in Educational Research in 2011); my friend who is 47 and brought up in North America and now lives in Hong Kong; and myself. We met our group leader Josh at Beijing Airport. Josh is 31, an YPT employee, an Australian who had lived in UK and is now based in Beijing. He had been to DPRK eight times, but it was his first time flying to Pyongyang, by Air Koryo. We were met at Pyongyang International Airport by two local guides, a 26 year old young lady called Kim whom Josh had met before and was rather friendly with; a man in mid-forties called Ry; and a driver called Ahn. In short, we had four “staff” taking care of our group of four tourists.

Josh gave us a briefing at Beijing Airport. We were to rid our phones and cameras of all graphics that could be interpreted as pornography; we must not carry books or literature that might offend their culture; and we are to declare at the customs all electronic equipment and publications. When we are in the country, we should endeavor to observe their house rules: we must not take pictures of military personnel or installations, uncompleted buildings, or local people without permission. If in doubt, we should ask the local guides. The operative phrase is this: while one can get away with minor rule infractions, it would be serious if one breaks the law.

We stayed in the same hotel in Pyongyang for five nights before taking a train the next morning to Sinuiju where we stayed overnight before crossing over to Dandong the following and last day we were in DPRK. At Sinuiju, our group was pared down to just my friend and I. We were met by two young local guides in their early twenties, a boy and a girl, both of whom claimed to have studied foreign languages at top local universities, but who appeared to be rather ill informed and inexperienced compared with their colleagues in Pyongyang. There was a minor hiccup at the customs in Dandong, but it was inconsequential. I would discuss more details in the next issues.

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