North Korea is one of the most secretive countries in the world, and Westerners sometimes envision a dystopia with armed soldiers in lockstep. But North Korea tour guide James Scullin says the reality is much different.
The first thing heard in the morning is the faint sound of music from outside, which wakes you at 7am. Outside the hotel window, operatic revolutionary anthems can be heard from megaphones along the streets throughout the city, rallying residents to wake up, clean their apartments and prepare for another day. So begins the day in Pyongyang, North Korea.
I first travelled to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in April 2013, then found myself a job as a tour guide there. Before each group travels to DPRK, I brief everyone at a pre-departure dinner at one of Beijing’s 11 North Korean restaurants, over a soundtrack of saxophone and bass guitar from the resident all-girl Korean band. I tell them of the need to be “respectful and diplomatic” regarding political topics such as Korean leaders and Korean war.
Those with a passing interest in North Korea no doubt have their own expectations on what it would like to visit. These assumptions often include surveillance, political indoctrination and streets filled with actors choreographing scenes of normality. They’re partly right; travel is restricted in North Korea, and two guides escort the group at all times. However, against a backdrop of anti-American propaganda murals and shrines to the leadership, daily life goes on in the DPRK in spite of the difficulties.
Being a tour guide is a highly desired job. Attaining it depends on language proficiency, which is of a very impressive standard considering many tour guides have never left the DPRK. The guides are usually aged in their 20s, professional, personable and fun. They dress smartly and always wear a badge of the leader. The women carry Western handbags and love singing. My Heart Will Go On is a clear favourite, with the men being more My Way inclined.
Foreigners are naturally an object of fascination for the shy but curious North Koreans. Mothers encourage their children to say hello to visitors in English, and the Pyongyang marathon, which tourists can now participate in, allows amateur runners to take off from the 50,000-seat Kim Il Sung Stadium alongside Koreans and run freely throughout the capital, with locals coming out to cheer and high-five runners from the track’s sidelines. There are also moments when the interest in foreigners can become a little overwhelming, with the change rooms of the pools at Mansu Water Park being a case in point.
Witnessing long lines of collective work groups pruning sidewalk gardens by hand gives a sense of North Korea belonging to a different time, rather than a different place. Yet there are also glimpses of a new affluent generation wearing Western clothing, singing karaoke in restaurants or texting on their smartphones before catching recently imported Chinese taxis around streets more vibrant than one expects.
There are a variety of tours on offer, including bird-watching and marathon tours. While tours are bound to authorised sites, contact with locals does occur, and spontaneous street football games with teenagers, which gather large, curious and friendly crowds, are not uncommon. Picnicking locals invite tourists to drink with them, and during a road trip to Mt Chilbo last summer our group was invited to dance on the beach with a bunch of elderly women in paper mache pig masks.
The lasting impression for tourists is the interaction with the local guides, who have become personal friends of mine. They are first to acknowledge the uniqueness of the DPRK. If tourists wish to discuss nuclear weapons, leaders and other “sensitive topics”, guides are trained in rote answers. For example, when asked on the prospects of a unified Korea, the guides refer to the DPRK’s proposal of a federal structure of two systems within one country. When asked of the famine of the 1990s, or “arduous march”, guides will remark at the tragic timing of how drought and flooding came within a few years of the Soviet market collapse, which isolated the economy significantly.
However, if you avoid politics, guides will openly discuss social aspects of life in the DPRK, such as relationships, the pressure applied by parents for them to marry and how asking of a potential mate’s blood type is a vital question on a first date.
Catching a glimpse through apartment windows of the evening, all living rooms are adorned with identical portraits of the leaders. For North Koreans, politics is indeed a major part of life. It is impossible to truly empathise with a citizenry raised collectively by a single political entity. After visiting the DPRK several times over the past year, it remains mysterious and I have more questions than answers. However, witnessing a human face of the DPRK does help gain insight into daily life beyond the headlines.