In September 2015, I traveled to North Korea to see, first-hand, what life was like inside the Hermit Kingdom. Much of the country was what I had expected: strange, ersatz, thick with propaganda and every so often, seriously unsettling.
And yet, the journey was also filled with some truly wonderful, completely unexpected surprises. One thing’s for sure: North Korea really is unlike any other place on Earth.
Since my return, I’ve had a lot of people, friends and strangers, ask me about my trip. There has been way more curiosity about North Korea than I would have imagined — so much so, that I thought I’d write down some of my experiences, and share them with you here.
Pictures and stories alone can’t do justice to what it’s really like being on the ground in North Korea. As a visitor, you’re watched 24/7, you have no freedom and you’re constantly tense and on edge. But hopefully, this post will at least give you a glimpse into what life is like in one of the most restricted, enigmatic destinations in the world.
My journey began with mixed feelings of trepidation, excitement and unbridled curiosity. With my visa in hand, I boarded North Korea’s national air carrier, Air Koryo — the lowest-ranked airline in the world, and the only carrier to have a one star safety rating with SkyTrax.
On board, we filled out a rather ominous customs declaration, where we were reminded not to bring in any killing devices, poison, “historical and cultural wealth,” “publishings of any kind” or “cell phone and other communication means.” We were seriously about to go off the grid.
We were fed a peculiar hamburger made from mystery meat, and subjected to our very first taste of North Korean propaganda.
Our in-flight magazine had articles with headlines like:
Local Elections Display the Invincible Might of DPRK Government
which referred to Kim Jong-un with a very official-sounding title that took up nearly a whole paragraph:
Kim Jong-un, First Secretary of the WPK, First Chairman of the DPRK National Defense Commission and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army
Throughout the entire flight, TV monitors overhead played nonstop propaganda videos, featuring an all-female rock group called Moranbong. These women are the North Korean equivalent of U2. Each band member was hand-picked by Kim Jong-un.
The video was apparently filmed live in a massive auditorium, filled with expressionless men all dressed in identical military uniforms, sitting stiff and upright. They all remained frozen in their seats, motionless, until an enormous image of Kim Jong-un was projected onto a giant screen behind the rock band, at which point, all the men would commence applauding robotically in unison. They wouldn’t stop clapping until the image came down.
We were prohibited from taking photos or videos on the plane, but I did manage to sneak this short video when the stewardesses weren’t looking:
Nonstop rock band propaganda video aboard my Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang
Pyongyang Airport was not at all what I had expected. The airport was relatively modern-looking and clean. I was a bit nervous going through passport control, but that turned out to be pretty uneventful.
Everyone did have to go through special luggage screening in order to enter the country, and that’s where things got a bit more interesting.
I was bringing a fair bit of photography equipment with me: two cameras, a portable hard drive, lens filters, a bunch of spare batteries and lots of extra memory cards. Upon seeing all this camera gear, security guards pulled me out of line and escorted me to a walled off, secondary security area, where they closely examined all my equipment.
I also had a smartphone and tablet with me, and had to hand these over for inspection. North Korea now records the serial numbers for all smartphones brought into the country. I watched as a security guard entered my devices’ digits into a log book, before he handed them back to me.
The government is particularly paranoid about foreigners bringing in any kind of literature that could be used to influence their people (e.g., the Bible). Finding nothing offensive in my bags, or stored on my memory cards, I was finally permitted to enter the country.
As it turned out, a lot of what I had previously read about North Korea was true. You are assigned government-trained “minders” who are with you 24/7. They monitor your activities, manage your itinerary and tell you what you can and cannot do. You are in their custody for the entirety of the trip. There are always at least two minders assigned to a group, because the minders also have to mind each other, making sure their comrades don’t succumb to the devious devilry of us American imperialists. No joke.
Before our shuttle had even left the airport parking lot, our minders were already beginning to walk us through all the rules we had to obey, including:
- We must always travel in a group. For the entire trip, we almost never got to walk around outside. Instead, we were bused from place to place, even if we were only traveling 4 blocks. You’re definitely not allowed to do things like leave the hotel at night or explore the city on your own.
- No photos of military sites or soldiers. This often proved to be difficult, given that nearly 40 percent of North Korea’s population serves in the military.
- No photos of construction sites or any people at work. The government wants the world to see their country represented only by pristine pictures of perfection. Photographs of half-finished buildings and sweaty laborers apparently don’t make the cut.
- If you take pictures of any of their Dear Leaders, you have to capture their whole figure. You can’t crop out any part of their bodies.
- If you have any printed materials depicting the Dear Leaders (e.g., newspapers, magazine), you can’t crease their images. You also can’t throw these materials in the garbage, or use them as wrapping paper.
- Whenever you visit a statue of a Dear Leader, your group will need to line up single-file in front of it, and bow. Your hands must be at your side; not in your pockets or behind your back.
The North Korean government begrudgingly welcomes only a handful of tourists into its country each year, and it does so with a tremendous amount of fear and distrust.
To cope with these foreign visitors, North Korea has constructed an elaborate facade, designed to make the country look prosperous and flourishing.
Many of the sites we visited and interactions we had were blatantly staged. At times, the country’s attempts at portraying perfection were so contrived, it was comical. At other times, the fakery was just downright unsettling.
However, every so often, you come across a crack in the facade, and in that fleeting moment, you catch a glimpse into the real North Korea (or at least a slightly less fabricated version). For me, those were some of the most memorable moments of my trip.
Below, I’ll share some of those moments, and in doing so, do my best to present a balanced view of what I saw on my visit: the good and the bad, the outlandish and the beautiful, the pageantry and simple, ordinary life.
The first thing you notice as soon as you pull out of the airport is the propaganda. It’s literally everywhere. Every street intersection, every building, every subway station, and even every subway car proudly displays portraits of the nation’s Dear Leaders. Banners and giant murals extol the virtues of North Korea and Kim Il-sung’s Juche ideology around self-reliance.
The country has propaganda vans trolling the streets with giant megaphones perched on their rooftops.
Every morning, at 6:30am, you awake to the delightful wake-up call of propaganda music blaring into your windows from the streets.
Even the people themselves are part of the propaganda machine. Nearly every North Korean wears a red pin patriotically emblazoned with the faces of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. I tried really hard to lay my hands on one of these pins, but tourists aren’t allowed to have them. They have to be earned through loyal servitude.
Even at work, there’s no escaping the propaganda. Factories, like this textile plant we visited, had propaganda posters plastered all over the inside and outside of the factory walls.
What was perhaps scariest though, was the propaganda we found inside the nation’s schools. During our trip, we visited two schools: 1) a primary school in Pyongsong, a small, provincial city north of Pyongyang, and 2) the Children’s Palace, a school in the capital city for gifted children. What we saw on the walls of these institutions was disturbing — gruesome images of war, killing and death, side-by-side with Disney-like portraits of the Dear Leaders adoring (and being adored by) children.
On one of the war murals, the school administration had even covered up specific photos in advance of our arrival. Given how graphic the visible parts of the mural already were, I can only imagine what was hidden underneath. I asked our minder about these pieces of paper, and she sidestepped the question, saying that they were probably just touching up parts of the mural.
Our Gilded Prison
Because we weren’t allowed to leave our hotels at night, we got to know our hotels very well. We called them our gilded prisons. Thankfully, all of these hotels had some type of bar, and, as it turns out, North Korean beer is really quite good. So, most evenings, we just relaxed at the hotel bar, and bonded with other adventurous travelers and a very select group of locals who’ve been pre-approved by the government to mingle with foreigners.
In Pyongyang, we stayed at the Koryo Hotel. It’s one of the top hotels in North Korea, and equivalent to a 3-star hotel in the United States. There was a huge fire in this hotel just a couple months ago, and a few tourists were arrested for taking photos of that fire. I don’t know what became of them, but one thing was for sure though, I was going to have to be extra careful with my photography.
The hotel lobby had this over-the-top, tacky Vegas feel to it, and the rooms were really dated. Here is a video tour I shot of the hotel:
Video tour of the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang.
The Koryo hotel is the second-largest in North Korea, and has 43 stories. That’s a lot of floors, particularly for a hotel that didn’t seem all that busy. I noticed that most of the guests were all clustered on just a couple of the floors. So, one night, I decided to go explore the other hotel floors. I found myself wandering around some really creepy, abandoned hallways that were completely pitch black. Check it out:
Creepy empty floors in Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel.
The Pyongyang Elite
Living in Pyongyang is like living in The Capitol in The Hunger Games. Only the elite are allowed in. Out of the whole country, the propaganda here is the loudest, the love for the Dear Leaders is the most passionate, and life is as good as it gets in North Korea.
If you’re living in Pyongyang, you are the 1%.
And with this status comes privilege that you won’t find elsewhere in the country:
1. You’re given free housing in high-rise apartments in return for loyalty and service to the country.
2. You have access to grocery stores that are stocked with Nutella, Oreos, Absolut Vodka, and…jelly shoes. Some of these pictures are a bit blurry, because you’re not allowed to take pictures inside any of the country’s stores. So, I had to get creative with my photography.
Products were arranged in perfect rows, and shelves were fully stocked. Everything was designed to show bountifulness and prosperity.
Notice in the top picture how many security cameras are hanging from the ceiling. There was more surveillance in this small grocery store than in my bank back home in the U.S.
3. You get to ride on Soviet subways.
4. You get to use a smartphone.
5. You even get to go to amusement parks and water parks on the weekend.
Clearly, what we saw in Pyongyang was definitely not representative of what life is like for most North Koreans. But even still, this was better living than what I had initially expected to see in the city.
A Soviet Concrete Jungle
Overall, Pyongyang was much more developed than what I had imagined.
Sure, most of the city was comprised of drab, Soviet-style buildings—hulking Lego blocks of faceless concrete. But the sheer scale of it all was greater than what I had anticipated.
From afar, there were even parts of the city that were quite picturesque.
But that beauty quickly faded as you peered just a little bit more closely. Upon closer inspection, you find yourself staring at a cityscape that was all too often rickety and raw.
Abandoned construction sites littered the city, leaving Pyongyang pockmarked with ghostly scaffolds and half-constructed buildings.
Perhaps the most famous unfinished construction project is the Ryugyong Hotel, the tallest building in North Korea. Construction began in 1987, and the building remains unfinished and unopened to this day.
Fun fact: the North Korean elites love revolving restaurants. They’re seen as a must-have for any high-end, luxury hotel. The top two hotels in Pyongyang — the Koryo Hotel and the Yanggakdo Hotel — both have one. So, to ensure its supremacy in the world of hospitality, the Ryugyong Hotel was designed to have not one, not two, but five revolving restaurants! You can see them in the cylindrical cone at the top of the tower in the photos below.
During our visit, we had a chance to visit a number of different workplaces, and all of them were just a little bit strange.
The Textile Factory
One of our first visits was to North Korea’s largest textile factory. All the workers here were women, and it seemed like their lives basically revolved around this factory complex. This work site was like a school campus. It had dorms, convenience stores and even a small library.
The convenience store had all your basic living essentials, including some really uncomfortable-looking cardboard toilet paper.
The dorm rooms were very basic. Women slept seven to a room, and they were literally packed in like sardines, with their beds stacked side-by-side-by-side. The beaming portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hung overhead.
They had prepared a model dorm room for us to see (the same one that Kim Jong-un was shown when he came to tour this factory, we were proudly told). When we were ushered inside, there was a woman fast asleep on one of the beds. This was pretty awkward, but our hosts didn’t seem to think so.
Our factory guide also proudly told us that Marshall Kim Jong-un himself personally picked out the paint color for the dorm walls (pink) and the wallpaper (some kind of a peach-taupe concoction).
The textile factory also had a small museum attached to it, which chronicled not so much the history of fabrics in North Korea, but rather every visit their Dear Leaders had paid to their workplace. A giant plaque in the main lobby listed the date of every visit. In fact, pretty much every business we went to in North Korea began their tour by talking about how many times their Dear Leaders had graced them with their presence. This was clearly a very big deal for them.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the museum, but one exhibit in particular caught my eye, and I decided that it had to be shared with the world. So, when our tour guide wasn’t looking, I quickly snapped a picture.
It was a series of photographs celebrating all the gifts the Dear Leaders have bestowed upon this factory and its workers over the years — tokens of gratitude for all their hard work: oranges, buses and scarves.
When our tour guide mentioned the scarves, I couldn’t help but question the irony. As politely as I could, I asked our tour guide:
Me: Did the Dear Leaders gift back to these women the very scarves they themselves had made?
Tour Guide: I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
Me: Were these scarves made in this factory?
Tour Guide: I don’t think so.
<An even longer, awkward pause>
Tour Guide: Actually, these scarves were made in a different factory. In Kaesong maybe. Let’s move on.
I see, thank you. That was very convincing. Yes, let’s move on.
The Electronics Factory
I was really looking forward to this visit. We were supposed to go see an actual working electronics factory called Hana Electronics. According to the North Korea Tech blog:
[Hana Electronics] has been making, or at least assembling, DVD and Video CD players for many years. The actual level of production that goes on at the factory is unknown. The only pictures that have been issued are of what appear to be quality control stations, where finished products are checked.
So much mystery. So much excitement!
Unfortunately, all that excitement went out the window when we showed up, and were brusquely told that there had been a change of plans, and that we would no longer be able to visit the factory. Apparently, the assembly line wasn’t operating that day, and they didn’t want to show us the plant when it was shut down.
Our group leader argued, but to no avail. I have a strong suspicion that this factory has never actually been operational. As far as I can tell, after doing some research online, no foreigner has ever stepped foot on the factory floor. Either way, we felt completely duped, but there was nothing we could do about it.
Instead, the company representatives said that they would be more than happy to show us their music library. I don’t think we had much choice in the matter. Regardless, what we were shown was just plain strange.
We were led onto a barren office floor filled with 100 cubicles. Each cubicle had a computer, and every computer was off, except for one that they had turned on expressly for us. We were the only people in the entire space.
On that computer, they pulled up a collection of music videos, all hand-chosen by Marshall Kim Jong-un himself. We then spent 15 minutes watching propaganda music videos on a small computer monitor. I was getting horrible flashbacks from our Air Koryo flight into Pyongyang.
When the videos stopped, I thought we could finally escape, but the situation only got worse. Our guide excitedly led us into another room, which turned out to be a small theater. She instructed us to sit down.
She proceeded to explain that Marshall Kim Jong-un himself designed the acoustics for this room, and personally tested different audio systems: 5.1, 7.1 and 9.1 channel setups. He ultimately settled on 5.1. Great choice, Dear Marshall!
We were then subjected to another 20 minutes of music videos, but this time in all the wondrousness of Dolby surround sound. I tried to walk out halfway through, but was told to sit back down.
Apparently, Marshall Kim Jong-un really likes Sarah Brightman
The last video we had to watch was Sarah and Andrea Bocelli singing “Time to Say Goodbye.” I used to love that song. But now, and forever more, hearing that song will conjure memories of being trapped in this theater, and the scintillating soprano of Sarah’s voice will forever haunt me.
In the end, the closest we ever got to Hana Electronics’ alleged products was in its company store, which, conveniently, also sold teddy bears, bathing suits and women’s face cream.
The Car Dealership
Another absolutely bizarre business we visited was an auto dealership in Pyongyang called Pyeonghwa Motors. Here, they allegedly sold North Korean-made cars. I say “allegedly,” because I had serious doubts about how real this whole operation was.
In fact, the entire showroom felt staged, complete with fake customers conducting fake business, and having fake conversations with fake salespeople.
But don’t take my word for it. Check out this video I shot, and judge for yourself:
The Farming Cooperative
We spent a couple days driving around the countryside, and it was clear that life out here was not as easy as in the city.
We were taken to a cooperative farming operation on the outskirts of Kaesong, the ancient capital city of Koryo (basically a unified Korea, before the land was split into North and South).
The local guide was reasonably cordial, but he didn’t seem to know what to do with us. We took a quick walk through the fields, which was very uneventful. And then he showed us where the workers lived. I was surprised they let us see this place.
The homes were completely run-down and dilapidated. Most of the windows were barred, apparently to prevent break-ins — something the government would never admit was happening. The entrances to the homes pointed straight into their outhouses. I felt bad for anyone who would have to live here.
And that’s when you can’t help but wonder:
They would only be showing us this place if this is the best they’ve got. So, if this is the best, what does the worst look like?
The Dear Leaders
Throughout this post, I’ve made a lot of references to the Dear Leaders. Who exactly are these men? Let me break it down for you:
- President Kim Il-sung — The granddaddy of the Dear Leaders. Literally. Kim Il-sung was the founding Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and is referred to as the nation’s “Eternal President.”
- General Kim Jong-il— Son of Kim ll-sung, Kim Jong-il served as the DPRK’s Supreme Leader until he passed in 2011.
- Marshall Kim Jong-un — Son of Kim Jong-il, the 32-year old is the current Supreme Leader of the DPRK. Fun story: Kim Jong-un’s exact birthday was always shrouded in mystery until Dennis Rodman accidentally revealed the state secret after returning from a visit to North Korea in 2013.
Among the North Koreans we were exposed to, the Dear Leaders are revered like gods. Everywhere you turn, there are statues, paintings, mosaics, songs and books dedicated to the greatness of these men.
On any given day, you’ll find North Koreans making pilgrimages to giant statues of their Dear Leaders, and paying their respects by bowing deeply and laying flowers at their feet.
Young soldiers bowing to their Dear Leaders.
Students will bring straw brooms, and dutifully sweep the steps leading up to their monuments.
Even newlyweds will visit these sites to take pictures, and to pay tribute.
Of the hundreds of statues we saw of the Dear Leaders, the one I loved the most was this one:
I secretly shot this picture at the entrance to the Pyongyang Water Park. They literally have Kim Jong-il chillin’ on a beach scene straight out of a Katy Perry music video. Photos were strictly prohibited, and they had a guard standing there whose only job was to make sure you didn’t take photos of this statue. I had to get really clever in order to grab this photo.
As I mentioned above, we toured primary school in Pyongsong the Children’s Palace, a school in the capital city for gifted children.
Both of these school visits were simultaneously touching and disturbing.
On one hand, the kids were truly adorable, and some of them were really impressively talented.
There was a young boy who started off by singing a cappella into a Madonna-esque headset. After a couple minutes, he suddenly jumped behind a drum kit, and started accompanying himself on the drums:
Boy wonder singing and drumming in a Pyongsong primary school.
Then there were the 7-year-old ping-pong masters who crushed all of us in table tennis:
Ping pong training at a Pyongsong primary school.
Across both visits, countless children were paraded out to showcase their artistic and musical talents:
What was so disturbing about these school visits was how meticulously choreographed and over-rehearsed the whole experience was.
These schools seemed to be just one giant theatrical production, and the child actors had no say in the matter.
Perhaps some of these kids genuinely enjoyed putting on these performances. A number of them legitimately looked like they were having fun. Many others, though, had anxious, plastic smiles plastered on their faces. Either way, one thing was for sure: we were witnessing firsthand a massive propaganda machine in action.
The music the students played on their accordions and gayageum, a traditional Korean stringed instrument, was the same tune repeated over and over again, for a seemingly endless revolving door of foreign visitors. Look at the faces of these girls after they finish playing their instruments. Maybe it’s just me, but I think the look of fatigue is written all over their faces.
Gayageum performance at the Children’s Palace in Pyongyang.
Down the hall, in an English class, we watch as a group of children repeat the same 4 lines of text over and over again. I’m not sure they knew any other English.
English class in North Korea.
Even the performances themselves, while impressive displays of talent, just felt a bit odd. Like here, in this accordion performance, the musicians’ movements just felt so…robotic.
Accordion performance at the Children’s Palace in Pyongyang.
I was surprised by how many smartphones I saw in North Korea. My minder was kind enough to let us browse around her device.
Checking out a North Korean-branded smartphone.
It was a North Korean-branded device, called the Arirang, running a modification of Android Jellybean.
And believe it or not, the phone had apps! The first app our minder showed us was a Juche pocket reference guide, so you could look up Kim Il-sung’s teachings while on the go.
We then checked out a mosquito repellent app, which emitted an annoying, piercingly-high pitched tone. However, I’ll tell you what: if it really works, that’s the first app I’m going to download when I get back home.
My most favorite app, though, was what looked like the Google Drive app. I got all excited when I saw it.
Google? In North Korea?? How can this be??
I tapped on the icon, and let out a sigh of disappointment. What popped up on the screen was some Korean desktop themes app. Apparently, U.S. trademark laws haven’t made their way into North Korea yet.
Encouraged by the sight of all these apps, though, I wanted to see what other kinds of apps my minder could download onto her phone.
Me: So you have an App Store?
Me: Awesome! Can I see it?
Oops! At this point, I was afraid I had crossed one of the many invisible lines in North Korea, and accidentally stepped into an Off Limits Zone.
Me: Oh, I’m sorry. Am I not allowed to see it?
Minder: No, it’s not that. It’s just not here.
Me: Not here? I don’t understand. Where is it?
Minder: Well, it’s a store. We would have to go there.
Me: Wait, your App Store is a physical store?? [pause, as I digest this incredible information] Can we visit one?
Minder: No, it’s not on our itinerary.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Their App Store was an actual place! You physically go to this place, ask a man behind the counter for the Mosquito Repellent app, pay him, and he plugs a cable into your phone and installs it for you! Mind officially blown.
While in North Korea, I also tried really hard to buy a local smartphone to bring back to the U.S. However, I apparently wasn’t allowed to, although no one would give me a straight answer about this. Instead, what I could have purchased was a North Korean SIM card for over $200 USD. This would have given me phone service within North Korea, and even spotty 3G data from time-to-time (at over $1 USD per megabyte). But even then, I’d be behind the North Korean firewall. So, good luck trying to access Gmail or Facebook.
Internet vs Intranet
As expected, there was no Internet.
However, there did appear to be a national Intranet. It didn’t seem like most citizens had access to this either, but a couple institutions we went to did seem to be wired in.
One of these institutions was the primary school in Pyongsong. The first thing the headmistress showed us when we arrived was the school’s webpage. Yup, you heard me correctly. A webpage — complete with animated gifs and cheesy MIDI background music.
The website looked like something you would have found on Yahoo! GeoCities back in 2000. Here’s some video I took as some of the school administrators were demo’ing the webpage to us. Make sure you watch all the way to the end for the crazy surprise…
Demo of a primary school’s webpage in Pyongsong, North Korea
Didn’t make it all the way to the end of the video? Okay, I’ll tell you what happened. Toward the end of the demo, the administrator nonchalantly clicks on another app on the computer, and suddenly a grid of video thumbnails fills the screen.
Everyone’s jaw dropped when we saw this. We were staring at live video feeds of every classroom in the school. Crazy!
Here’s some video of this surveillance feed:
Live video feed of every classroom at a primary school in Pyongsong
During our tour of the primary school, the administrators made sure they showed us their computer room, which was comprised mostly of old Dell Latitude towers. The room was very empty.
The Three Revolution Museum
Another destination our minders insisted on including in our itinerary was a visit to the Three Revolution Museum — a sprawling complex comprised of five or six massive exhibition halls. This is where North Korea celebrates the nation’s revolutionary advances in ideology, technology and culture.
The best way to describe this place?
Imagine the Smithsonian Institute mashed up with Disney’s Epcot Center, but then stripped clean of any fun and truth.
Inside, we walked past exhibit after exhibit that shocked and awed. There was an enormous replica of a CNC machine, a towering rocket and even a miniature model of the country’s nuclear reactors (yikes!).
And the grand finale in this hodgepodge collection of technological bric-a-brac? Around the corner from the nuclear reactor, we found ourselves staring at a display of old-school, corded telephones. Yup.
And just to further add to the surrealism of this trip, we were the only people in the entire museum. When we arrived, all the power in the building had been switched off (I assume to conserve electricity). So, as we wandered the museum halls, a woman would walk in front of us, and flip on power switches for each exhibit one by one. We certainly felt very VIP.
To get an even better sense of this place, check out this video tour I shot from inside the museum:
Tour the inside of North Korea’s Three Revolution Museum.
The looming specter of war is ever-present in North Korea.
For a country that is officially at war with its sister nation just to the south, the threat of conflict is very real in North Korea. And nowhere is this risk of war more palpable than at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
The drive from Pyongyang to Panmunjom, the border city at the DMZ, is three hours long — placing Pyongyang twice as far from a potential border battle, compared to Seoul, which is less than a 90 minute drive away.
The drive down to Panmunjom was really interesting. The highway was six lanes wide, and yet the road was almost completely devoid of cars for the entire three-hour drive. We mostly just saw people biking and walking along the edge of the asphalt. The only other vehicles we saw were military jeeps and an occasional bus or two.
As we got closer to the DMZ, the military checkpoints got more and more frequent, and the soldiers at these checkpoints looked more and more fierce. Each time we approached one, our minders would emphatically remind us not to take any pictures.
One fascinating thing: every mile or two, the North Korean army had erected giant concrete towers by the side of the road. Some of these were thinly disguised as monuments. But these towers served a much more significant purpose. Should the South Koreans ever break across the border and march north, the North Koreans would blow up the base of these towers, causing them to topple over onto the road and block the advance of South Korean tanks.
When we arrived at the DMZ, the air was electric. The name Demilitarized Zone is really a misnomer. This was one of the most militarized places I’ve ever seen. Security was super tight. We were escorted by soldiers single-file around the compound.
The Bombing Run
During our drive back from the DMZ to Pyongyang, we were passing through some farmland when we saw a small biplane approach from the west. I rushed to the window of our shuttle and managed to grab a couple pictures of the plane as it flew right over us.
As the plane pulled away from us, I stopped taking photos, but continued to watch the plane. Suddenly, a saw a black object drop from the bottom of the aircraft. My first immediate thought was that the plane was dropping an aid package to the farming village below. Seriously. My second thought was that this was some kind of a mail drop.
Both of those theories went out the window when the black object lit up midair, and rocketed straight into the earth below, leaving behind a fiery contrail. Before I could realize what was happening, a second rocket shot out from the bottom of the plane, again straight into the ground below.
Both rockets then exploded, launching a towering column of fire and smoke into the air.
We had just witnessed a bombing run!
The military was literally shooting missiles out of a biplane, less than one mile away from us! And by the looks of it, the locals were just as surprised as we were. You can see them all standing in the foreground of the picture below, staring at the smoky aftermath of the explosion.
Our entire group was in shock. I turned to our minders, to see if they had anything to say about what just happened. They didn’t. They just stared straight ahead at the road as if nothing had happened.
The Korean War Museum
Another war-related visit on our trip was to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, or, as most people simply call it: the Korean War Museum.
This museum was more like a palace, complete with an enormous crystal chandelier, a marble staircase straight out of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, and a two-story-tall statue of King Il-sung greeting you as you walked into the lobby. I wish I could have taken photo of it for you, but cameras were strictly prohibited inside.
Our military guide was a rather intimidating, humorless soldier who spent most of her time elaborating on the evil and moral decrepitude of the American Imperialists. I really wanted to know how she rationalized the fact that she was delivering this speech to a group of, well, Americans.
On display outside was a wide collection of damaged U.S. warplanes and tanks.
You can get a closer look at these army artifacts in this video I took:
Tour of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.
The biggest trophy at this museum was the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy ship that was attacked and captured in 1968. Our guide took us aboard, and pointed out, in painstaking detail, all the shrapnel holes the gallant North Korean sailors had shot into the hull of the ship. The pride was oozing from her voice.
Watch this video to hear how our military guide describes the capture of the USS Pueblo:
Tour of the USS Pueblo warship at the Korean War Museum.
All of these tanks, planes, and ships on display outside, however, paled in comparison to what we were about to see inside the museum palace itself. We were whisked through room after room of lies and horrors. Perhaps the most over-the-top exhibit was a life-sized diorama depicting a macabre war scene where maimed American soldiers lay dead or dying on a scorched battlefield. A black crow stood atop the body of a dead solider in the center of the tableau, picking away at his heart.
We were all relieved to finally leave that place.
The Military Parade
During our visit, the country was preparing for a massive celebration: the 70th anniversary of its Communist Party. The festivities would take place on October 10, 2015, their Party Foundation Day, and would include the biggest military parade demonstration the country had ever staged.
Thousands and thousands of volunteers had been granted weeks of leave from work to rehearse for the enormous spectacle. Throughout the week, day and night, we saw masses of people lined up in formation, practicing their marching routines over and over again.
The sheer scale of it all was both impressive and intimidating. And this was before they had even rolled out the tanks and antiballistic missiles!
Practicing marching formations for Party Foundation Day
Out of my entire week in North Korea, three moments in particular stood out as highlights. In all three cases, I found myself interacting with real locals in a way I never thought I would, and it was this human connection that made these experiences so special.
Singing in the Park
The first highlight took place one afternoon, as we were hiking in Moran Hill Park in Pyongyang. The park is located in the middle of the city, and is actually quite large in size — perhaps a quarter the size of New York’s Central Park? Much of the park is forested, and pretty hilly. Scattered throughout the park are grassy clearings where locals would gather and picnic.
We visited on a Sunday, which was a day off for many North Koreans. As a result, there were lots of locals spread out throughout the park. At first, I was feeling a bit disappointed that we were wasting an afternoon trudging around a public park.
We tried smiling or saying hi to locals as we walked past, and most just ignored us. Some of the younger kids would giggle among themselves and then run off.
Fifteen minutes into the hike, I saw group of North Koreans gathered in a clearing about 100 feet away. They weren’t very close to the path we were on, but their singing caught my attention. The men (who seemed just a bit drunk) had stripped off their soldier uniforms, and were dancing in their tank tops.
Amused, I danced back at them from the path. The saw me, and instead of ignoring me, they laughed and danced right back at me.
Ladies and gentlemen: we have a North Korean dance off!
After a couple minutes of this, they waved at me to come join them. This was awesome! I looked over at our minder, and she gave a nod. Woohoo!
Our group scrambled down a small hill, dodged through some trees, and joined the North Koreans in the clearing. For the next 15 minutes, we sang and danced with our new friends. Some of the locals seemed a bit uncomfortable with our presence, and stepped back. However, the men were really into it. We sang some Korean songs, including a famous folk song called “Arirang.” Well, the Koreans sang, and we did our best to fake it.
Singing “Arirang ”— a traditional Korean folk song — with North Koreans
More singing and dancing with our newfound North Korean friends.
Then, the Koreans motioned for us to sing something. I quickly wracked my brain and started singing the first inoffensive song that came to my head: “Be Our Guest” from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Yup, what better way to bridge two warring nations, than a little Disney.
Without understanding a single word that I was saying, the Koreans happily danced to the music:
Singing and dancing to Disney songs with North Koreans.
This was such a fun, beautiful, human moment. Sure, there’s always a chance that this entire experience was staged. In North Korea, you can never be sure. But I find it highly unlikely, given that there were thousands of people in the park that day, and how improbable it was that out of all those people, I would have picked this particular group of folks to do a dance-off.
Definitely one of the top highlights of my trip.
The Mass Dance
My second trip highlight took place on the country’s National Day holiday (September 9, 2015). To celebrate, Mass Dances were held all over the country. A Mass Dance is basically when hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of Koreans dress up in their finest clothes, and gather in a public space for synchronized dancing.
That afternoon, we went to watch the largest Mass Dance in Pyongyang. There were well over 1,000 locals gathered here. The tableau was really stunning. A seemingly endless expanse of multi-colored hanbok dresses transformed the public square into a floral rainbow of colors and movement.
Like many things in North Korea, the event was very rehearsed. Between songs, the Koreans would line up like soldiers in a perfectly regimented grid. They would stand there silently, staring forward, waiting for the next song to begin. It was honestly a bit unnerving.
Also, I barely saw anyone smiling, even during the dancing. I got the sense that some of the folks may have been there more out of obligation than choice.
However, the Mass Dance was still a unique experience to behold. And then things got even more fun when we were told that we could join in if we wanted to. Most of the tourists held back, but our group happily jumped in.
I asked one of the friendlier-looking dancers if I could cut in, and she shyly agreed. The dance moves were relatively straight-forward, and I did my best to blend in without stepping on my partner’s toes:
Joining in on the 9.9.15 Mass Dance in Pyongyang.
Before I knew it, I was engulfed in a swirling whirlwind of people and fabric.
It was thrilling to be so easily accepted into this massive, colorful event, and even more thrilling (and unexpected) to find myself dancing with a North Korean stranger. None of this was even remotely close to what I had expected when I first signed up to come here.
The final trip highlight took place earlier that same day, on September 9. As I mentioned before, we were almost never allowed to walk around outside on the streets. I can only assume that this was to minimize any chances of us having illegal contact with the locals.
However, after a couple days of building trust and goodwill with our minders, they gave us permission to do a short walk outside in Pyongyang. We would still have to stick together as a group, and we would only be walking for about 10 blocks. But let me tell you something: for those 10 blocks, the air never smelled sweeter, and the sun never shone brighter.
For two days, we had been essentially cooped up and held prisoner in our hotel and shuttle bus. And now, for the next 15 minutes, we could roam the streets like normal people (almost). On this day, I learned:
You can’t fully appreciate freedom until you’ve lost it.
During our walk, I got to peer into windows, peek into storefronts and mingle among everyday life in the DPRK.
Here’s some video I shot of the walk. Watch all the way to the end, if you want to see one of the world-famous North Korean traffic ladies in action:
Walking the streets of Pyongyang.
Nine out of 10 people we saw in North Korea steered clear of us. However, making that occasional connection with the remaining 10 percent was so much fun. Sometimes, a smile would be returned, or, if we were really lucky, a wave. Almost all the time, these exchanges would be with kids or students.
I suppose it’s not too surprising that children and teenagers were far friendlier and more curious, compared to the adults. Perhaps they hadn’t been fully indoctrinated by propaganda yet. Perhaps the hardships of life hadn’t begun weighing down on their shoulders.
Whatever the reason, seeing this next generation of North Koreans gave me hope — hope that someday, change will come for the North Koreans. And when it does, their country, and the entire world, will be better for it.
Erick Tseng is a Director of Product Management at Facebook.