Alistair Wilson provides us with a first hand account of what it’s like to be inside one of the world most secretive countries
Checking in with Kim
The curl of a burning Chinese cigarette spiralled up next to the hotel check-in desk. Its questionable quality burnt my nostrils as I looked up at the mounted clock – “Beijing 01:20 am”. The owner grinned into his phone, its brightness highlighting the cracks of his face. His Chungwa 中華 brand cigarette burned with an orange tinge, bathing the dim room with an extra amber glow. I looked back up at the check-in desk. ‘Surely my room must be ready,’ I muttered bitterly into my cold noodle soup.
I’d just arrived in Dandong 丹东市, the Chinese border city with North Korea after an arduous 2-day journey north from Hong Kong 香港. With all the miles and terrain behind me, my memories of overpriced Starbucks and under-priced solitude of my Hong Kong home seemed distant. The temperature had plummeted to -5 outside, leaving the 30 metre statue of Chairman Mao shivering as he greeted me at the railway station. I stood with him, halfway around the world in a city with a population nearly that of Birmingham and about as welcoming as a cement factory, pondering my current position. Dandong is a product of China’s growing pains; a city stuck in limbo between mass-produced plastic and wide streets occupied with KFCs, Tescos, and nightly Party-approved collective t’ai-chi. I stood staring into the darkness, watching the wisps of smoke stacks pierce the skyline, taking in the artificial glow of Dandong at-large. Tomorrow, North Korea was calling and I wasn’t ready to pick up.
“Another train, another day, yet this one moved only 2 kilometres down the straight track, across the border river and into North Korea before grinding to a halt.”
Events leading up to this point had made my arrival in Dandong part of one long surreal journey that left no time for reflection. I left Hong Kong early on the 7th of March and reached Beijing 北京 that afternoon, meeting up with a friend in one of Peking’s cooler corners: Wudaokou 五道口. We caught up over street food and Tsingtao beers before retiring to bed and waking early to catch the metro. Train G397 from Beijing South blasted along at 308 kilometres per hour, an impressive reminder of China’s infrastructural capacity. Perhaps the speed explains why the scenery outside remained a single blur of amber-coloured earth and factories; some peeling and decrepit, some just cranking into life. Daydreaming out the window, I felt numb to the journey ahead. The young Kim had recently fired more toy missiles into the Sea of Japan, releasing much international condemnation and Facebook mentions about the Hermit Kingdom.
Stalled Emotions and Standstill Trains
‘Where is the anger, or fear, or reluctance I anticipated?’ I quizzed myself in my hard seat. I recalled the well-documented examples of the human rights abuses, genocide, and abhorrent totalitarian control committed by my soon-to-be hosts but my emotions felt absent. I concluded the gravity of the upcoming situation was running alongside (if not, 12 hours behind) this high-speed train snaking through the dusty Gobi Desert. Until they caught up, I was left reeling, with only an aging Chinese couple for company, and the physical source of “MADE IN CHINA” whirring past for entertainment. Getting to this point was easy – a simple visa application, a considerable fee and a short text message that read “Your contact is Rocky. Meet him at the Dandong Railway Hotel at 8am, 8th March 2016”. Rocky; the tour organiser’s local fixer, handed over the folded blue-coloured visa the next morning, mumbling some tips before quickly departing – the whole thing probably easier than a future French-UK visa.
Another train, another day, yet this one moved only 2 kilometres down the straight track, across the border river and into North Korea before grinding to a halt. Inspection time – teams of guards milled aboard each car of the 8-carriage train. Stories of ‘barking guards’, confiscated phones and instant exile were fresh in mind; my second SD card felt precarious hidden in my sock.
To my surprise, we passed freely and easily as the guards laughed us through. After sharing Marlboro cigarettes, our guard scolded me for too many selfies on my South Korean-made smartphone.
“In North Korea, the colour spectrum, like the narratives that the regime survives on, are owned and controlled by the government.”
It hit me as we crossed the bridge. First silence, no awe, just a familiar sense of sorrow at the poverty within sight, replayed from reports done by VICE, the BBC, and others. Our welcome party past the border point is mud, ice, and empty open spaces. Our carriage-companions were a 20-strong pack of Japanese train spotters whose cameras clicked furiously. I scribbled some notes in my journal:
— Japanese Trainspotting 2016 —
“Just with less heroin and heroines and not in Scotland” —-
Have this little reflection too, “Through a Window Pane”:
“The beer trolley shunts down the corridor. Catching toes and elbows without prejudice. The crowd gathers around, flicking their money and sitting back down with glee. Outside, Kim’s World creaks past, globalisation and all that is ‘New’ ticks by inside. Thick fur blobs picket the dead scenery. A beer pops open, and the foam is met with a wave of cheers. The hay is raked and collected. A camera lens pans outward, catching the setting scene of toil outside with a click. Silence peers in through the glass, panning across the drained orange earth we pass. We observe the thick fur figures mutely work. Exhaling clouded breath show these figures have life, but maybe only as clockwork toys to their owner. Cigarette smoke muses around the cabin, complemented by the crack of a lighter struck and another round of laughter. Sounds come and go. The moving picture of farmers, half-sized and underdressed for the bitter chill, look like poorly projected moving images from an old film. The footage comes into focus onto the sluggish colours. For an extended moment, the world outside seems uncomfortably 2-D and lifeless. Time slows down. The trolley darts once more, another toe falls victim.”
1950s or Nothing
Leaving the last bastions of “North Korea through a window pane”, we stepped into the bustling streets of Pyongyang. Many of the images were similar to sights in European capitals but in a bastardised mix of 1951 and present. Ancient street trams, cathartic and quaint in a modern city like Prague, only show underdevelopment and isolation in Pyongyang. Dimly lit, filled with figures draped in black, the trams shuffle past, stopping frequently to allow lines of statuesque figures board. They have no other option – 1950s or nothing. Time travel occurs on the Pyongyang Metro too; the deepest metro system in the world (a fact for your next pub quiz) with a misplaced Soviet-style grandeur, lathered across its golden-coated ticketing and waiting halls.
The sight of Pyongyang from the Yanggakdo International Hotel, our fenced off home for the next week, was like a shot of adrenaline. There, below our partially revolving restaurant, were the cornerstones of the regime; the all-seeing portraits of the two dead Kims (Kim Il-sung 1912–1994 & Kim Jong-Il 1941-2011). Kim Il-sung Square, the Juche Tower, all lit up, projected, and rising above all else. Our English guide, Tom, said that Kim’s private compound is about 30 minutes from here. Kim Jong-un seems omni-powerful, unapologetic to all through the regime’s mammoth propaganda projects. They have a character to them, an air or cult of unparalleled power – you could easily inhale them. I had this moment alone, the rest of the group were sat together at the table; food delicious, conversation slow, live piano music overpowering. All westerners drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in big leather booths on our own island, un-humbled by the cold air of Pyongyang and distracted by our laughter and addictions. Kim grins.
Making sense of the world
Understanding the extent of a trip to North Korea deserves a book-length piece; only then can you describe and contextualise the impossible cult of personality that hangs over daily life. It was surprisingly easy to forget or ignore the regime outside at times, especially during our luxurious meals, constant travel, and relaxation in the hotel and restaurants. Although that was likely the regime’s intentions, to neatly pitch and manage your perceptions of the world you record and interact with. Of all the time spent in North Korea, only five minutes of the week may have been spent seeing what locals see, snatching glimpses of garrisons of soldiers between buildings and counting down to the nightly city-wide power cut. When reality called however, it only served to show how separated tourists were from seeing any true colours of North Korea. Separation can be found in the simple act of writing; my comments and silent objections would be suicidal for everyday citizens, from the poorest to the most powerful. But for tourists, on our island, with our coffee, beer, hot showers, and TV, dissent was free. Other examples pitch the same separation. One day, when visiting the Korean War Museum (one of many), we were paraded past a few hundred North Koreans who stood waiting at the bottom of the museum steps. As the door opened and we were ushered in, I turned back to the watching eyes and playfully stuck my tongue out. The titters and hushed giggles in the crowd shattered the rehearsed formality but showed the distinction between our worlds, an act of silliness being a break from the enforced norm.
Between the windowpane of our touring coach and the world outside, the space I saw of North Korea was like a learned play, prepared specially for the regime’s tourists. In the cities, we saw a hint of the familiar; wide boulevards, buses, and some commuters. Further afield, along rocky roads that splash through the countryside, we see poverty and images of degradation North Korea is known for. Nestled in the bomb-sized potholes, soldiers rested from their recent military exercises, still covered with camouflage and equipped with assault rifles. Farming teams work the barren lands before spring arrives, their working perimeters clear set by red flags pitched in the soil. The occasional oxen or rare tractor filter past the separating glass of the bus; a familiar sight to the first train journey into North Korea, as if for show. The divide between tourist and local is certainly present globally, but perhaps the fact that we share one compelling way of life, capitalism, reassures and distracts us from the gritty reality of facing the gap between us. North Koreans may as well be from Jupiter, and myself from Mars, in terms of finding joint ground and breaking the separation between transient tourist and citizen. That said, North Koreans, despite what media reports and this article may suggest, are in fact humans
In North Korea, the colour spectrum, like the narratives that the regime survives on, are owned and controlled by the government. Bright colours are exclusively seen in pastel forms printed onto buildings and government structures. Elsewhere, the urban and rural landscapes are devoid of real shades, instead drained and discoloured until all that is left is a rusty orange glow of sun against white cement. Fierce reds, are monopolised by political slogans, work flags, and propaganda posts that litter Pyongyang and the surrounding countryside. Huge portraits depicting mystical scenes of the Great, Eternal Leader Kim Il-Sung stand broadly, emitting a barrage of lush greens and relaxing blues for the citizens below. Beyond these works, concrete and grey control the scenery. They are the only colours seen in the daily life of a North Korean. North Koreans are branded at birth into ‘loyal’, ‘wavering’, and ‘hostile’ depending on their family history. Those loyal can live in Pyongyang and receive adequate food supplies, and those at the very top may be able to briefly communicate with tourists. During a walking tour of the capital, through the hallowed streets seen globally beneath the tank tracks of massive military marches, we saw what loyalty bought: a slice of counterfeit development that showed its cheap manufacturing. The towering skyline above, electricity, and public transport networks may demonstrate the trappings of modernity, but they’re misshaped to the world they occupy. They could be one long facade, vulnerable to a single flick to make the whole structure fall down.
The regime stands tall in the cities and in the minds of North Koreans and its visitors. Unpicking the clockwork that Kim Jong-un sits proudly atop deserves careful inspection and even repeat visits. I left the Kingdom with a sense of shellshock, derived from the awe of witnessing the dystopian reality. This surely clouded the world I saw and will be different to the reflection of another tourist. For me, North Korea was a step into the pages of despotism, a living homage to the turmoil and extremes of the other face of the world, away from the safety of BBC coverage and ‘marked safe’ options. It was a touch of the abhorrent and surreal, and I despised it. Yet, I encourage all those who have a genuine conviction in confronting the boundaries of this world to visit, so they can stop and pause at the limits of collective existence. Alternatively, imagine a jilted dream you can just about escape from.
Originally featured in Rebel Issue 1.