The Definitive Guide to North Korea
A photographic, cultural and business tour of the world’s most inaccessible country
Nov. 26 – As North Korea grabs the headlines again for all the wrong reasons, we take time to look beyond the saber rattling and consider life inside the hermit kingdom. Few tourists or businessmen have ever been. But what is North Korea really like? Two partners of Dezan Shira & Associates visited recently: Chris Devonshire-Ellis, the firm’s principal, and Olaf Griese, the Shanghai regional partner, who just returned from Pyongyang. In this article, they provide a snapshot of life inside the world’s most reclusive, difficult to enter, and potentially dangerous country.
The first sight many visitors will see is the Sunan International Airport – the main airport serving Pyongyang. Air China has service from Sunan to Beijing three days per week and there is a weekly service from Dalian. Korean Air and Asiana Airlines also provide chartered flight services to Incheon, the international airport serving Seoul, and Yangyang on the east coast of South Korea from Pyongyang. The airport is also the main hub of North Korea’s national airline Air Koryo.
Air Koryo mainly flies Russian-built Tupolev and Ilyushin aircraft, and has regular daily service to Beijing. Flights to Dalian have been added to the Air Koryo schedule with a twice-weekly Tu-134 flight from Pyongyang. Direct services from Pyongyang to Shanghai Pudong have also been inaugurated with a twice-weekly service. On March 30, 2010 Air Koryo had two Tu-204 aircraft lifted from the European blacklist allowing the airline to recommence flights to Europe. Flights are also undertaken between Moscow and Berlin.
Upon arrival at Sunan International Airport, mobile phones are routinely collected from those who had them. Foreigners are not allowed to possess either these or computers in North Korea. However, North Korean travel guides do have mobile phones, use them frequently and often, and decorate them in the typical bling fashion as everywhere else in Asia. Immigration and customs clearance is tedious and thorough, with all luggage being x-rayed and then hand inspected.
The drive to Pyongyang, along the main highway to the city, is a 24 kilometer motor, typically in a large Mercedes coach. The main highway is deserted with maybe the exception of one or two vehicles. The surrounding countryside looks green and fertile, and occasional glimpses of farmers and agriculture can be seen. It certainly doesn’t appear poor.
The traffic police in Pyongyang are smart young women who stand astride platforms, yet can only see a handful of vehicles a day, even in the city center. These girls have become a cultural phenomenon in their own right, and even have a web site dedicated to their beauty.
When driving into the city center, one passes through the Arch of Triumph (inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but even larger). It was erected in 1982 to celebrate the Korean resistance to Japanese occupation from 1925 to 1945 and, specifically, then-President Kim Il-sung’s role in the resistance against Japanese rule. Inaugurated on the occasion of his 70th birthday, each of its 25,500 blocks of finely-dressed white granite represents a day of his life up to that point. It is the world’s tallest triumphal arch, standing 60 meters high and 50 meters wide, and has dozens of rooms, balustrades, observation platforms and elevators. It also has four vaulted gateways, each 27 meters high, decorated with azalea carved in their girth. Inscribed in the arch is the “Song of General Kim Il-sung,” a revolutionary hymn; the year 1925, when North Korean history states that Kim set out on the journey for national liberation; and the year 1945, the end of World War II, which ended the Japanese occupation.
Pyongyang has an abundance of memorials, and early in the morning and in the late afternoon one will see schoolchildren sweep the steps and clean the podiums of fallen leaves and dust. North Korean children are taught from a young age to respect and honor their leaders and memorials to them.
One monument all visitors are taken to see to pay respects to is the Statue of Kim Il-sung, in the heart of the city. Standing some seven stories tall and flanked by a museum dedicated to his life, visitors are taken here to bow before the Great Leader before being taken to their hotel. A small ceremony, including the laying of a wreath of flowers at the base is also conducted to demonstrate the role he had in both freeing North Korea from Japanese occupation but also leading the country through the Korean War with the United States.
Juche is the North Korean strand of part-Marxism, part-philosophy that teaches self-reliance. It is the prevalent thought process in North Korea, which even marks its calendars and years in Juche terms and numbers rather than the Western Julius system. This year, for example, is the year of Juche 99. Rather like Mao’s Little Red Book, copies of Juche Thought and Ideology, written by Kim Il-Sung, are taught and learned by heart by all North Koreans. Copies are also made available, free of charge, to anyone else who wants them, including foreigners.
The importance of Juche as an underlying philosophy to the North Korean psyche should not be underestimated. It is taught from cradle to the grave, and its entire contents learned by heart. It teaches that “man is the master of everything and decides everything,” and that the Korean people are the masters of Korea’s revolution. Quotes and slogans from the many books available on Juche thought are constantly being promoted to deal with every eventuality the North Koreans are likely to face. Consequently, its teachings are revered and considered the epitome of truth. English copies of Juche Thought and Ideology can be downloaded here.
Naturally, a monument to Juche exists in Pyongyang. The 170 meter structure is a four sided tapering spire (the world’s tallest in granite) dressed in white stone with 70 dividers (to represent Kim Il-song’s 70 years) and capped with a 45 ton illuminated metal torch. It is possible to ascend the tower (there is a lift) and there are excellent views over Pyongyang from the viewing platform just below the torch. In the base of the tower there are reception rooms where videos explaining the tower’s ideological importance are sometimes shown. It is presumed to be modeled on the Washington Monument, which it surpasses in height. The towers epitaph, “The Juche Idea, Shine All Over the World” and carved into the base, can be read in English here.
An interesting example of how the Kim regime has sought to incorporate traditional Korean myths into its socialist ideology is the bronze statue of the Korean Pegasus, the steed Chollima. According to legend, Chollima could cover hundreds of kilometers a day and was untamable. Erected in 1961, this 46 meter high monument depicts this winged, soaring horse of Korean folklore being mounted by a worker and peasant woman. The worker holds the red letter of the Central Committee and the peasant woman clutches a bag of rice. The Chollima political movement, named after the horse, began during a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party. The speedy horse of legend became the symbol of the post-Korean War reconstruction movement (“maximum production with evincing thrift”).
Another popular monument is the The Arch of Reunification, which has a map of Korea being unified. It is supported by two concrete Korean women wearing a traditional dress straddling the multi-laned Reunification Highway that stretches from Pyongyang to the DMZ. At the base of the structure, there are messages of support from various individuals, organizations and nations for reunification and peace.
The Ryugyong Hotel, for miles away the prominent landmark in Pyongyang, is a tall pyramid shaped structure that has laid nearly derelict for the past 16 years. The 105-floor, 330-meter skyscraper began construction in 1987, but was halted in 1992 due to the economic disruptions that afflicted the country following the fall of the Soviet Union. The hotel stood topped out but without windows or interior fittings. Construction resumed in April 2008 and exterior work on the building is expected to be finished by the end of 2010, with interior work taking until 2012 or later.
There are a number of hotels for foreigners to stay at in Pyongyang, although undoubtedly the prime place to stay when it eventually opens will be the Ryugyong Hotel. Currently, the Koryo Hotel and Yanggakdo Hotels are the officially designated and best destinations for handling foreign guests. The Koryo is grand and Stalinist in size, and has an excellent beer bar on the ground floor. The Yanggakdo is more modern and has a revolving restaurant on the top floor.
Chris recalls: “I met a Russian businessman in the bar at the Koryo. He told me he was selling tractors to the North Koreans. I asked him how he got paid, and he replied: ‘Cash. US$1 million. You see those men over there?’ I looked. Several, burly looking Russian gentlemen in long leather coats looked menacingly back at me. ‘They are my bodyguards. Tomorrow we take train back to Moscow.’”
In general, hotels for foreigners in North Korea are comfortable and clean, if a little dated, and not dissimilar to a three or four star hotel run by a state owned enterprise in China. The Koryo Hotel is currently the most up-market option. Built in 1985 under the close scrutiny of Kim Il-sung, the hotel was intended to “showcase the glory and strength of the DPRK.” The hotel’s entryway, consists of a nine meter wide jade dragon’s mouth that leads into an expansive lobby dominated by a mosaic of North Korean cultural symbols. North Korea rates it as five stars. The Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs describes it as “deluxe” and the “best international hotel in Pyongyang.”
The Yanggakdo International Hotel is the largest hotel and currently the tallest operating building in North Korea. It is located on Yanggakdo Island, two kilometers to the southeast of the center of Pyongyang. It rises to an overall height of 170 meters and has a revolving restaurant on the 47th floor. The structure was built between 1986 and 1992 by France’s Campenon Bernard Construction Company and opened in 1995. The hotel also contains a bowling alley, a pool room, a swimming pool, a barber shop, a casino and a massage club run by a Chinese company with an exclusively female staff. Also on Yanggak Island, next to the hotel grounds, is the Pyongyang International Cinema Hall, which hosts the opening and closing ceremonies of the Pyongyang International Film Festival.
These hotels also have great views over Pyongyang and the River Taedong.
Pyongyang City Center is clean, well laid out, and has good, if somewhat dated-looking facilities to travel around. Foreigners, depending upon the political situation at the time, may be allowed to walk around freely, but on other occasions, they are heavily escorted.
Chris again: “I have been able to walk to the main rail station and provide sweets to curious children for example. Reactions towards foreigners in North Korea are mainly friendly, and curious, although the occasional disapproving look from some older residents, convinced we are responsible for the nation’s woes as evil capitalists, can sometimes be given.”
The Kim Il-sung main square in Pyongyang is smaller, but similar to the Communist-era parade grounds of China’s Tiananmen and Moscow’s Red Square, and is still used for holding significant military parades. It is flanked by the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the government in the Kim Il-sung building, and the foreign ministry.
Pyongyang also has an excellent metro system. It consists of two lines: the Chollima line, which runs from Kwangbok Station in the southwest to Ragwon Station in the northeast, and the Hyoksin line running north from Puhung Station on the banks of the Taedong River to Pulgunbyol station. The two lines intersect at Chonu station. Daily usage is estimated to be about 500,000. The Pyongyang Metro is the deepest metro in the world – the track is approximately 110 meters deep underground. It was opened in 1973.
The city is also interlinked by a clean, timely, yet somewhat dated tram system.
Moving out of Pyongyang, most visitors will take a trip to the border with South Korea at the 38th Parallel. Taking a trip by coach to the demilitarized zone here is a strange experience; one passes south through green fields and some quite beautiful countryside. The demilitarized zone separates North and South Korea and is some 250 kilometers long, approximately four kilometers wide and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. The 38th Parallel north, which cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, was the original boundary between the U.S.-occupied and Soviet-occupied areas of Korea at the end of World War II. Upon the creation of the Democratic People’s Republic of and the Republic of Korea in 1948, it became a de facto international border. The North Korean side is marked by the Panmumgak Hall, which faces the United Nations buildings known as Conference Row inside of which the Military Demarcation Line goes down the center of the DMZ and indicates exactly where the front was when the agreement was signed. The MDL extends right along the center of the DMZ from coast to coast.
Owing to this theoretical stalemate, and genuine hostility between the North and the South, large numbers of troops are still stationed along both sides of the line, each side guarding against potential aggression from the other side. The armistice agreement explains exactly how many military personnel and what kind of weapons are allowed in the DMZ. Soldiers from both sides may patrol inside the DMZ, but they may not cross the MDL. Sporadic outbreaks of violence due to North Korean hostilities killed over 500 South Korean soldiers and 50 U.S. soldiers along the DMZ between 1953 and 1999. Soldiers from both sides have been killed for activities such as pruning trees within the DMZ, and as a result a strict policy of no entry is now followed.
Both a highway and rail line connect North and South Korea, throwbacks to the time prior to the Korean War when the country was unified. These have from time to time been opened, but currently remain closed. A bridge across the small river that runs here is known as “The Bridge of No Return” but has not been used since 2008 when a South Korean tourist was shot following an incident in which he strayed off the designated path.
Amazingly, two villages still exist within the DMZ. Tae Sung Dong and Kijong-Dong Villages were the only villages allowed by the armistice committee to remain within the boundaries of the DMZ. Residents of Tae Sung Dong (South Korea) are governed and protected by the United Nations Command and are generally required to spend at least 240 nights per year in the village to maintain their residency. In 2008, the village had a population of 218 people. The villagers of Tae Sung Dong (North Korea) are direct descendants of people who owned the land before the 1950-53 Korean War. Kijong-Dong features a number of brightly painted, poured-concrete multi-story buildings and apartments with electric lighting. These features represented an unheard of level of luxury for rural Koreans, north or south, in the 1950s. The town was oriented so that the bright blue roofs and white sides of the buildings would be the most distinguishing features when viewed from the border. However scrutiny with modern telescopic lenses reveals that the buildings are mere concrete shells lacking window glass or even interior rooms.
The Northern Limit Line, or NLL, is the de facto maritime boundary between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea and the coastline and islands on both sides of the NLL are also heavily militarized. It is the NLL that caused the recent exchange of fire earlier in the week. Neither North Korea or China recognizes the NLL, as it was not part of the 1953 armistice, which specifies the 38th Parallel as the dividing line, even out to sea. The NLL at sea follows the North Korean coastline northwards and actually is significantly further north than Pyongyang. North Korea therefore regards Yeonpyeong Island, right at the most northeasterly tip of the NLL as being illegally occupied, a situation that enables both China and North Korea to label the shelling a ‘domestic dispute’ rather than an act of war.
North Korea also has its own infrastructure of pertinence to the few foreigners that live there, and of course a somewhat unique culture.
The North Korean Won became the currency of North Korea on December 6, 1947, replacing the Korean yen that was still in circulation. North Korean won are intended exclusively for North Korean citizens, and the Bank of Trade issued a separate currency (or foreign exchange certificates) for visitors, like many other socialist states, and as China used to do until 1994. However, North Korea made two varieties of foreign exchange certificates, one for visitors from “socialist countries” which were colored red, and the other for visitors from “capitalist countries” which were colored blue/green. In recent times, FECs have been largely depreciated in favor of visitors paying directly with hard currency, especially the euro. The won was revalued in September 2009 with disastrous consequences. North Koreans were given seven days to exchange a maximum of 100,000 won (worth approximately US$40 on the black market) in 1,000 won notes for 10 won notes, but after protests by some of the populace, the limit was raised to 150,000 won in cash and 300,000 won in bank savings. The revaluation, seen as a move against private market activity, would wipe out many North Koreans’ savings and was seen as a backlash to stamp out growing private enterprise and “capitalist tendencies.”
However, the won plummeted 96 percent against the U.S. dollar in the ensuing days after revaluation. According to one report, North Korea backtracked on some aspects of the revaluation following a riot by market traders which led to 12 executions. Authorities eventually raised the limit to 500,000 won, Korean State Media outlet Chosun said, and promised no probe into savings of up to 1 million won and unlimited withdrawals if savings of more than 1 million were properly explained.
North Korea also has an English language newspaper, The Pyongyang Times. The eight page tabloid was first launched on May 6, 1965, and is distributed in approximately 100 countries. For this reason, its staff are trained in English abroad. The newspaper also runs a web site in several languages. Fifty-two issues of the paper are published annually. In North Korea, The Pyongyang Times is circulated in hotel lobbies, flights into the country and other places frequented by foreigners. The Pyongyang Times can be subscribed to here and is also on Twitter here.
Taedonggang Beer is brewed by the state-owned Taedonggang Brewing Company based in Pyongyang. In 2000, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il decided that he wanted a brewery. At that point, having good relationships with the West via connections to Germany, the government of North Korea bought the brewery plant of the bankrupt Ushers of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, England for 1.5 million pounds via broker Uwe Oehms. British brewers Thomas Hardy Brewing and Packaging bought the plant, and arranged for a team from North Korea to travel to Trowbridge to dismantle it. Reinstalled and operational from 2002, the brewery uses German-made computerized brewing control technology. With an alcohol content of 5 percent and a taste significantly more bitter than most Asian beers, Taedonggang beer resembles a British Ale and is targeted primarily at domestic consumers, but in 2005 limited export began to South Korea, where it is imported by Vintage Korea, a company based in Dogok, Gangnam, Seoul. Taedonggang beer is named after the Taedong River, which runs through the center of Pyongyang. On July 3, 2009, a commercial for the product was broadcast on state-run Korean Central Television in a rare move, as there are very few advertisements on North Korean television. It has been broadcast three times in all, however China Briefing readers may view it here:
[wposflv src=https://china-briefing.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/north-korean-beer-commercial.flv previewimage=https://china-briefing.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/cb_video_play.jpg width=600 height=355 title=”China Briefing Video”]
If North Korea has one product that is truly world class, then that is North Korean ginseng. Korean ginseng is a type of ginseng native to Asia, and is known as a tonic, and has been known to treat diabetes mellitus and helps “develop human brain efficiency.” The best is grown on Mount Baekdu, (Mount Changbai in China, on the border with Jilin). Located on the border between North Korea and China, Mt. Baekdu is the highest mountain on the Korean Peninsula. A dormant volcano, the mountain has been considered sacred ever since the legendary first Kingdom of Korea, Gojoseon (2233 B.C.-108 BC).
However, a South Korean academic studying the mountain said it will see a major volcanic eruption in four to five years. Last month, the National Emergency Management Agency of South Korea reported that any eruption of the volcano would likely cause severe flood damage in North Korea, destroying roads and buildings within a 30 kilometer-radius in just 3 hours and 20 minutes.
Nonetheless, North Korean ginseng is highly sought after and very expensive. So much so that earlier this year when settling debts with former Soviet allies, the Czech Republic agreed to accept ginseng from North Korea in full settlement of US$10 million in outstanding loans. Another excellent North Korean advert demonstrating the wonders of its ginseng is here:
[wposflv src=”https://china-briefing.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/KCTV(North-Korean-Commercial-of-Ginseng.flv” previewimage=https://china-briefing.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/cb_video_play.jpg width=600 height=350 title=”China Briefing Video”]
North Korean postage stamps are also heavily in demand from collectors, due to their scarcity and exotic value. That has not gone unnoticed by the Ministry of Post and Communications, who regularly issue commemorative sets for special events, even as a tribute for Princess Diana and to commemorate the birth of Beethoven. However, natural scenes, sports events and propaganda remain popular. With the internet only accessible to a few, many North Koreans still rely upon the countries postal service to keep in touch with distant relatives.
Of international fame, and a huge tourist attraction, are the North Korean Airirang Mass Games, the largest sporting event of its kind in the world. A clip here, from the documentary “A State of Mind” demonstrates just how spectacular they truly are.
[wposflv src=”https://china-briefing.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/North-Korean-Mass Games.flv” previewimage=https://china-briefing.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/cb_video_play.jpg width=600 height=350 title=”China Briefing Video”]
Chris has visited a casino in Pyongyang and recalls: “I went to the original Emperor Casino in Pyongyang, which catered exclusively for Chinese and visiting foreign businessmen. No North Koreans were allowed in. The facility was fairly small, but very glitzy in a Macau type style. It featured a large bar and bowling alley, and rows of slot machines. The main gambling hall was cozy, and full of card tables, roulette, dice and blackjack, and probably capable of holding 200 to 300 people. I played a few hands of blackjack and lost about US$200. Only U.S. dollars were accepted at the time, although I understand euros are now preferred. Downstairs from the casino, from a staircase leading down from the red velvet clad lobby, was a sauna and KTV. Two menus were provided, one for massages and genuine treatments such as ear cleaning and manicure, and another, furtively provided that left me in no doubt there was also some monkey business available. Not wanting to risk being placed in a compromising position and spend any time in a North Korean prison I declined, but I am sure the imported girls were all from China. Otherwise, the casino was quiet, but had maybe about 20 Chinese businessmen lazily passing the time. With little else to do in Pyongyang, it was understandable. However, I believe the Chinese government got wind of certain officials nipping across the border with North Korea to gamble serious sums of money there, and I have heard that the Emperor Casino in Pyongyang closed after a Chinese crackdown on officials visiting denuded it of much of its business. However at least two other casinos remain open in North Korea, and gambling – as long as it doesn’t include any North Koreans – is seen as a legitimate form of generating foreign currency by the North Korean Government.”
Pyongyang at night is rather empty – there are no neon lights advertising products, and only a very few restaurants open. It is almost impossible to perceive of any foreigners being allowed out during the evening unless escorted, although trips can be arranged to suitable restaurants (and casinos), all of which tend to be located inside hotels or specially designated buildings. Curiously, this gives a sense of inner city relaxation not found elsewhere – the absence of being permanently sold products can be quite refreshing. Pyongyang therefore has little light pollution and is almost totally dark by 9 p.m. – it must be one of the few capital cities in the world where on a clear evening, the Milky Way can be seen.
Olaf Griese comments: “The North Korean countryside looks very beautiful and the river waters appear clean. Pyongyang is not a very industrialized city, and does not have the sort of pollution that say Northern China seems to tolerate. We would see a lot of people walking, and it appears that the use of cars was limited to privileged persons. Nobody seemed to pay particular attention to us, only our guides who would follow us and make sure that we stayed within the prescribed radius of activity. Overall it was an interesting experience to be in a country which is completely isolated from the outside world. No international or domestic brands are constantly advertising, resulting in an atmosphere untainted by a desire to consume unnecessary products. It was worth spending time in North Korea to gain another sense of the concept of a workers utopia.”
Finally, although North Korea is atheist, that doesn’t stop it sending out greetings cards at appropriate times of year to people it considers friends. Come Christmas 2002, Chris was delighted to receive this card from the North Korean Ministry of Commerce for work he’d done for them back in 2001 providing legal advice on the establishment of Free Trade Zones based upon the Chinese model. Marked the Year of Juche 91, it actually celebrated the New Year of 2002. If you get sent one of these, you have friends in high places in the DPRK.
While North Korea remains problematic in terms of the political situation, it remains an enigmatic and interesting destination to visit. While the current circumstances remain far from ideal, we hope that this travelogue will at least provide some insights into the North Korean culture, and in its own way, will lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of the North Korean situation. After all, at the end of the day, all everyone really wants is peace.
Chris Devonshire-Ellis and Olaf Griese work for Dezan Shira & Associates, a foreign direct investment practice with 17 offices across Asia. To contact the firm, or Olaf and Chris, please email email@example.com.
China Briefing Issue on Investment into North Korea
The original 2002 issue on handling investment into the DPRK (complimentary download via the Asia Briefing Bookstore)
Profiling all 14 of China’s neighboring countries, including DPRK trade, demographics and border crossings, priced at US$25 (hardcopy) or US$40 (pdf)
Includes information on traveling and conducting business in the DPRK
The guys to use to arrange travel and tours to North Korea. Run by Nick Bonner, a Brit with many years of experience
North Korea Fine Art
The only gallery licensed to sell artworks from North Korea outside the country
North Korea Propaganda Art
A gallery selling original North Korean Communist & Juche Posters
North Korean Cuisine
From soups to Kimchi, it’s all here
The Game of their Lives
A documentary about the famous North Korean 1966 World Cup Finals Soccer Team