North Korea is the Real Matrix- the DPRK tour

Apologies for not updating the NK series sooner, been on the road from NK to Philippines and now Hong Kong.


If you’ve ever seen the Vice Guide and Don’t Tell My Mother I Went to North Korea, you’d know that most NK tours are basically the same. Pay homage to Kim Il Sung (now with a bronze statue of Kim Jung Il), stay in the hotel with a revolving restaurant, go to the National Library, Children Palace and finally to the DMZ (the 38th Parallel – the most heavily guarded border in the world). It’s as if there’s nothing else the DPRK has to offer but that.

What made my tour memorable though were the people in our group and our tour guide.

You see we were traveling with a group I call the Paypal Noppies. Four American writers who hated yuppies and were having serious problems with Paypal ever since they arrived in China. They had embarked on a month long trip on the Tran-Siberian train from Russia to Mongolia to China and end their  travels on the crown jewel- North Korea. It was their epic Communist Soviet Union tour. The way I see it– North Korea attracts either assholes or really interesting people.

So back to Paypal. They couldn’t use their US cards in any of the ATMs in China for some reason so decided to transfer money to our North Korean tour agency bank account via Paypal. The minute they used their Paypal, the latter froze their accounts since they were using it in China. Paypal has a procedure that once it detects you’re using it outside your own country, they freeze your account as an anti-hacking measurement. It happened to my friend in Burma. So on the morning of their flight to Pyongyang, the American Noppies crowded around a dying Iphone trying to call the States to unfreeze their accounts. Couldn’t get through and their flight was going to leave in 15 minutes. Our tour agent decided to trust they were going to pay when they come back from their tour. One of the American Noppies though only had a single entry to get into China which he got from Mongolia and he needed at least a double entry visa to get back into China from North Korrea. Thankfully, he was able to get another visa in the Chinese consul in Pyongyang.

Our tour guide, Mr Kim was bad ass. The first thing he told us was, “Is anybody here a journalist?”. When no one answered he said, “Good. Cuz if you are, fuck you. I don’t want people lying to me.” We grinned from ear to ear. Pure awesomeness.

So the combination of those Americans, my friends and the tour guide was an interesting mix in our travels.

During the daytime, we’d go to:

DMZ– it was cool seeing South and North Korea at the same time. I had been to the South Korean side of the DMZ before and we had more liberty in taking photos in the North Korean side. In the houses where the US, South Koreans and North Koreans had their talks, I was very surprised that one of our guides (we had three) suddenly went on a tirade against the South Korean president ending with venom dripping from her mouth, “Die Lee Myun Bak!”

Bronze Statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il- “Bow or die!”

Children’s palace- the children are exceptionally talented. They are able to perform feats no ordinary children can perform -spinning a million rounds per second, acrobatics, playing different instruments in perfect unison and singing in an eerie staccato rhythm. Everything with frozen ghostly smiles, like robots forced to play in front of tourists possibly with the threat of being forced to labor camps if they fucked up. The most outrageous performance was when the children came marching out in military gear with propaganda music soaring (I mean patriotic music) and started shooting at tanks with firework effects. It felt so wrong but in North Korea it was perfectly normal.

National Library– I’ve never seen such a lavish library- marble floors, crystal chandeliers. So this where a lot of the money went while the rest of the country starves. Naturally there were a lot of books written by yours truly, Kim Jung Il. What I was most surprised though was the presence of computers. They actually used desktops now in North Korea- DELL too. Sure the word processors were outdated but computers nevertheless. Take note in the photo above the absence of USB sticks or printers, they’re still copying everything by hand. The library also had a touch screen monitor to navigate around the library.

Their graphic arts class impressed me, the students were crowded around computers playing around with some CGI and graphics.

Unfortunately, their audio library could use a little updating. They were still using old school boom box and the latest CD they had was Madonna’s American Pie 2000 remix.

Souvenir shops– yes, North Korea has souvenirs. Most cater to Chinese tourists, the shopkeepers speak mostly Mandarin and only accept Euros and RMB. The best one had propaganda posters and anti-US imperialists posters and postcards.

Kim Il Sung well water– do not drink this stuff. Our guides said if you drink it you become president. We decided to have a go for laughs. We then got sick and went to the bathroom a lot.

At night, we basically become prisoners as there were guards and checkpoints outside. As a result, we got to know our hotel, Yanggakdo II (like we had any choice) a lot. The first night we got trashed at its brewery, gambled in the casino and invaded the deserted Pyongyang Egypt KTV till a NK guard chased us away. By the way, the KTV is poorly maintained. The rooms smell musty, there were molds on the ceiling and there was dust everywhere. Our guide specifically told us not to go to the 5th floor (that’s where the North Korean hotel staff lives) so we spent a good portion exploring the dark staircases looking for that elusive floor. No surprise,# 5 was not found among the floors listed in the elevator and the door did not even exist when we came to what we thought was the fifth floor. There was nothing but a wall. Creepy. This was a country that would do anything to keep its dirty secrets.

On our last night, the mischievous Kiwi had bought a bottle of snake wine and decided to share with us.

It was downright foul.

it smelled like rotten fish sliced open with its guts spilling out and left to spoil on the sea shore for a week. And yes, we all had a swig of it.

The Kiwi took the dead snake out of the bottle and we went downstairs to meet our guide in the brewery.

“I have a surprise for you,” he said, hiding the snake behind his back.

Our guide, Mr Kim was curious. “What?” He leaned closer as they settled down on the booth.

“Here.” Brendon whipped out the snake.

“Eeek!” I’ve never seen a man jump so high.

Overall the DPRK definitely surprised me. It was more modern than I thought it would be. It had more cars than I thought it would, taxis, city night lights and more people than I thought. There was also definitely something refreshing being in a country where the coils of information bytes can’t reach you. No internet. No cellphones. No advertisements. No consumerism. No shopkeepers pushing their products or tourist packages at you. No scams.If you want to be completely shut off from the rest of the world, go behind the Iron Curtain.

People waiting for a single bus would snake down the block

However, being back now in the Philippines I can’t help but compare my own country to North Korea. Both countries are poor but I see a lot more smiles on our streets than the Hermit State. Never have I seen a country whose people were devoid of smiles. They walk outside with this robotic staccato gait, often having somewhere to go, often having a mask on their faces as if they’re afraid to let a crack of emotion show.

The North Koreans often look at us foreigners with hostility. That’s when we know we are in a totally different country. We eventually made it into a game to see how many North Koreans could smile at us.We boldly waved and beamed huge smiles at the oppressed people. We were lucky. One in five would actually smile back.

Looking at this utterly surreal world around me sent shivers to my spine. It was like being in the Matrix, stepping into Mordor, into the Looking Glass, into the rabbit hole and into the darkness. They must know they’re living a lie and there’s a whole different world out there beyond their borders. They must.

One man we talked to seemed to have an angry chip on his shoulder. Having been exposed to so many foreigners have done damage to his cerebral brainwashing. He told us in so many words he doesn’t know what to believe anymore. He wants to be a diplomat, earn a lot of money and get out of the DPRK. And once he is out he said, he will run and he is not coming back.

On the last day of our tour, our train chugs towards the kitschy lights of Dandong, China leaving behind the dry shrubbery, the still masks, the propaganda and the decaying Soviet Union blocks of the State.

The Iron Curtain descends behind us.


Read the rest of the North Korea series

The Strangest Phone Call Ever

My National Geographic Moment with North Korea

Being Detained in North Korea