North Korea: Communist No More

North Korea: Communist No More

The great social experiment of the latter 20th century that was Communism is finally coming to an end. I’ve just visited the last bastion of Communism – North Korea – for my second time and the changes are dramatic.

2012
2019

Seven years ago there were no traffic lights because there was no traffic. There was no traffic because there were practically no cars. Imagine a 10-lane wide highway running over 100km to the DMZ (separating North and South Korea) with absolutely no vehicles.

Imagine the one North Korean vehicle I did see on a remote and particularly lonely stretch of road. This military truck ran on wood. Yes, wood, as in dead trees. Soldiers in the back of the truck continuously fed chunks of wood into a fuel barrel that propelled the vehicle forward, belching out campfire smoke. It was painfully slow.

2012
2019… some things haven’t changed so much

Now there are lots of cars, so many that the famous “traffic girls” have been replaced with traffic lights. And no one seems to know how to drive.

In 2012, I remember seeing a table set up outside a grey drab concrete block apartment, so typical of Communist countries. An old woman seemed to be selling some sort of snacks. Our guides (you’re required to have two guides at all times) made some excuse about it being authorized by her work unit. Cracks in the system.

2012

Now, shops are everywhere. Outside the subway, multiple stands compete for customers eager to snap up junk food and plastic toys.

2019

Once quiet streets are now lined with barber shops, furniture stores, and supermarkets. The ubiquitous rickety bicycle is still the main means of transport, now joined by a growing number of e-bikes and motorcycles.

2012

It’s hard to imagine the face of a city changing much more quickly. There are so many new skyscrapers and they’re modern, stylish, beautiful.

2012
2019

There’s also electricity. On my first visit, we stayed at a hotel in a small town. Across the street, the two buildings within our view were all lit up at night. But if you looked through the gap between those two buildings, everything was dark.

2012

Much of what you see in North Korea is an illustration. Well, no longer. It’s starting to feel a bit like Dubai.

It must all sound so normal: wearing clothing that isn’t an exact copy of everyone else’s, jeans, shorts, solar panels, street lights, taxis, pet dogs. Pizza. But all of these things are new. So new. They just didn’t exist in North Korea seven years ago.

Kimchi pizza: unexpectedly good
Dinner: squirting ignited gasoline onto clams

What’s the cause of all these changes? I first visited right after the death of Kim Jong Il. Is Kim Jong Un opening up the country? Is it Chinese money pouring in, like this glass factory where all of the German machinery was purchased by the Chinese and 60-90% of the glass produced is sent to China? North Korea is becoming “China’s China”.

Or is it smartphones? Seven years ago most North Koreas were lucky to have a landline powered by a car battery. Now they have their noses stuck in their phones just like we do.

I still have so many questions about this fascinating country. Like, what is happening with the massive amount of gold dredging that is tearing up the country’s rivers? Where does that gold end up going? And who profits from it?

North Korea must be one of the most rapidly changing countries on earth. There is so much economic growth, so many new buildings, cars, shops and smartphones. And freedom?

Flying to North Korea

Flying to North Korea

When most people think of North Korea they imagine a dictatorship closed to all outsiders. Surprisingly, it’s actually quite easy to visit. The hardest part is applying for a Chinese visa, as you have to go through China (or Russia) first. Here’s what it’s like to fly from Beijing to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Air Koryo is the national (and only) airline of North Korea. They used to fly to a surprising number of places like East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and all over Russia but most of these flights have been cancelled due to the fall of communism and the airline being banned in the EU. Now a quick direct fight from Beijing is the easiest way to go.

The check-in and boarding was all handled by Air China employees, even though Air China runs its own competing flight.

I was very surprised to see a rather modern large plane waiting on the tarmac. On my first visit to North Korea seven years ago, we flew an ancient Russian plane with big plush seats and tons of legroom.

That old Russian plane had additional seats that fold down into the aisle, so they can completely fill the plane, passengers all the way across.

Despite all those seats, Sil (who visited even earlier than me – 5 years earlier) said that one of the passengers on her flight was confused when he realized that the seat on his boarding pass didn’t exist. The rows just didn’t go that high. After some discussion among the Koreans, the tourist was given another seat and a Korean man moved to the toilet. That actually worked out pretty well for the Korean – he didn’t even need to leave his “seat” to smoke!

Well, things have changed. No one was without a seat this time and, shockingly, the plane didn’t fill up with cigarette smoke.

I don’t recall having to fill out many (any?) forms last time but now they want lots of information.

They’re most concerned about books that might be illegal and images that might embarrass the leadership. Bibles are strictly prohibited and distributing religious material is a serious crime.

Amazingly, you’re now allowed to bring a mobile phone into the country. Seven years ago I handed over my phone when I arrived at the airport and didn’t see it again until I left the country.

My phone was returned beautifully gift wrapped

The flight is only a little over an hour but the stewardesses were wonderful, treating everyone to the famous Koryo Burger.

Yummm…

Flying over fields of rice and little villages, we soon landed in Pyongyang.

Seven years ago the airport felt like a military base. In 2015 a brand new terminal was built. It feels positively modern, a sign of things to come on my journey through the Hermit Kingdom.

Glimpses of North Korea

Glimpses of North Korea

It’s been almost a year since I visited North Korea. The country has changed a lot in that time. In May of 2012 it still felt very isolated and secretive. Now visitors are permitted to bring in mobile phones and access the internet. That’s a big change. While I ponder where the Hermit Kingdom is headed, here are some photos from an amazing trip.

Kids on their way to school
Kids on their way to school
On their way home from work
On their way home from work
Wonsan, an industrial city on the east coast
Wonsan, an industrial city on the east coast
Revolutionary posters decorate the street much like billboards in other countries
Revolutionary posters decorate the street much like billboards in other countries
Kids practicing for the Mass Games in front of Hamhumg Grand Theatre
Kids practicing for the Mass Games in front of Hamhumg Grand Theatre
Unification monument symbolizing the two Koreas joining together
Unification monument symbolizing the two Koreas joining together
Brand new apartments development, constructed in under a year
Brand new apartments development, constructed in under a year
View of Pyongyang, the capital, from Juche Idea Tower
View of Pyongyang, the capital, from Juche Idea Tower
Smash the Imperialist American!
Smash the Imperialist American!
Kim Il Sung, internationally renowned leader.
Kim Il Sung, internationally renowned leader.
Pyongyang's metro system puts any 5-star hotel lobby to shame
Pyongyang’s metro system puts any 5-star hotel lobby to shame
Squirting clams with gasoline from a water bottle
Squirting clams with gasoline from a water bottle
Our guides: Mr. Kim, Hannah, and Hwong
Our guides: Mr. Kim, Hannah, and Hwong
Power!
Power!
Her dress remains perfectly clean. Chollima Steel Works
Her dress remains perfectly clean. Chollima Steel Works
Everyone loves a carnival ride
Everyone loves a carnival ride
Koreans love to express themselves through dance and song
Koreans love to express themselves through dance and song
Pyongyang's streets see more and more traffic every day. A few years ago there were few vehicles. Now buses, trams, motorcycles, and private cars have joined the bustle alongside military lorries.
Pyongyang’s streets see more and more traffic every day. A few years ago there were few vehicles. Now buses, trams, taxis, motorcycles, and private cars have joined the bustle alongside military lorries.
A passionate guide takes us through the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
A passionate guide takes us through the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War (i.e. Korean War) Museum
Beauty transcends borders
Beauty transcends borders