The forgotten people: A trip to North Korea

Anna Pavlakis

Society and culture | Asia


Anna Pavlakis journeys from mainland China to Pyongyang, and her findings are remarkable.

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Dubbed by many as a land of ‘man-made misery’, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) makes regular headlines worldwide for its vitriolic threats, infamous nuclear weaponry program and its seemingly unbaiting longevity under the iron fist of current leader Kim Jong-Un. Desperate to witness, at least to some degree, the dogged persistence of a regime that was suffered the full spectrum of socioeconomic setbacks in its 65 years; I decided to fulfill a long-standing dream to visit the Hermit Kingdom.

Boarding the 22 hour train from Beijing to Pyongyang, I expected to enter the country second-guessing everything I saw, rebuking every comment made by tour guides, and scoffing with humorous disdain at the obvious lies propounded as we toured the country. I expected the confirmation of ideas put forth in my countless essays, and to have a surreal experience akin to visiting East and West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. What I didn’t expect to see, and what I had forgotten to consider, was the human factor.

My first interaction with a North Korean was when a throng of stern faced guards carrying large guns and adorned with military medals boarded our train at the border crossing. We had been warned to have all electronic items, all books and all identity documents ready for a thorough inspection. We were told to scribble out any indicator that our cameras had GPS, and to hide all map applications on our phones and tablets. We were tense. They did search our bags, they flicked through our books, our electronics were inspected, but the first indicator that there were more to these guards than fervent fealty was when the our cabin’s guard, who had been inspecting the photos on a Russian man’s camera, started to laugh. He beckoned us closer and showed us a ridiculous selfie the traveller had taken. Together we skimmed through the photos together, the guard showing his delight and interest at photos of Moscow and Beijing, and even zooming in on a skimpily dressed Russian girl at a club and remarking in broken English “very good, beautiful, beautiful”.

Driving from Pyongyang Train Station to our hotel I waved at children coming home from school, neatly dressed and holding hands walking along the clean wide streets of Pyongyang. Their faces lit up, grinning at me, and they started to run and wave along the side of the bus until we couldn’t see them any more. Throughout the week, amongst visiting the DMZ, the enormous bronze statues of former leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, and then seeing their embalmed bodies in the Kumusan Memorial Palace, I witnessed an array of human emotions from North Koreans that shattered my misguided preconceptions of them as emotionless pieces of an autocratic regime. We drank beers almost nightly with our tour guides, who would often drunkenly grab a microphone and sing Western songs in thick Korean accents. We visited a theme park where despite a crazed moment where the power went out mid rollercoaster ride, we screamed with joy with the people of Pyongyang. We walked through a park on the national holiday of May Day where we danced and sang national songs with strangers we met.

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I also saw children who would look at us fearfully on the subway, and women pull their children close and give us a wide berth when we walked past. I watched in shock as grown women cried and wailed upon sighting the bodies of their former leaders at the mausoleum. I witnessed laughing families jokingly spoon-feeding each other at picnics, only to be silenced when a guard walked past.

There was a point during that week where I realised I had to some extent been conditioned into feeling a strong albeit warped type of affection for North Korea. The majority of footage on my camera was of smiling children, elegantly dressed women, gargantuan monuments in spotless Pyongyang streets and memories of the voices of our tour guides whose every word dripped with a deep ardent love for their country and its leadership that I had never witnessed before. It took significant effort to shake myself back to the reality that I had seen only the lucky 1% of the country, in the richest city they had. That less than 20km from the splendours of Pyongyang was the gulag that Shin Dong-Hyuk famously escaped from, and that much of the population is said to be living in abject poverty.

I won’t deny that there were many inconsistencies with what I saw. The tour guides often spoke of the compulsory 12 years of education for all children, but from the train I saw groups of dirty children ploughing fields during weekdays. They also adamantly denied knowledge of the existence of prison camps, but a UN worker I met on my final night told me in hushed tones that he had personally seen trucks of corpses. My preconceptions of the ruling party had been somewhat confirmed, but my holistic approach to the country had utterly changed.

I had come into North Korea seeking to further understand its seemingly crazed leadership, but had come out of it with a deeper perspective of its people. Behind a veil of suspicion and apprehension, the North Korean people I met were open and warm. They laughed and cried for the things they loved and were as multi-faceted as any other human. The people of North Korea are the forgotten faces of a country depicted only for the policies of its leaders.

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