asia · China (PRC) · North Korea (DPRK) · Travel

My journey into North Korea (Part 10: returning to China. Concluding the series)

Hi guys, so this series is now at it’s end, I’ll be talking about how it felt to be back in China, my thoughts and experiences of the trip and DPRK in general.  If you’re new to this series then welcome to the blog and in particular this series about my journey into North Hamgyong province in the DPRK.  For those who are unaware, DPRK stands for the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.  You can find all of the other parts here:  Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6 , Part 7Part 8 and Part 9 I hope you enjoy it.

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I’ve handed my passport over to Chinese customs officers numerous times to get exit and entrance stamps but none had felt as good as this, I got the stamp and officially crossed back into China clasping my camera with a death grip expecting some sort of DPRK spy to come and swipe it off me… Reading this may sound ridiculous but I’ll explain why it wasn’t in the next paragraph.  Anyway, each member of the group had made it through customs and it was at this point that we would all part ways, some of the group were getting flights back to their home country or returning to Beijing, Phil was going on for another leg of the DPRK tour, travelling around the borders if I remember correctly.  Myself, Tommy and Taylor were heading to the nearest major city, Yanji in the autonomous prefecture of Yanbian.

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Above: Mud bricks drying out in the sun to build walls and houses.  A good idea, nothing to be ashamed of at all here, making proper use of all the resources at hand.  But again, something they didn’t want us to photograph so another sneaky shot had to be taken.

Let me explain the paranoia…we’d spent a week in the DPRK, one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, a place where not many people venture, were freedom of the press doesn’t exist, where concentration camps do exist and where crimes against the country routinely result in torture and/or execution depending on the severity of the crime, the same place where I’d taken photographs that the government official guides didn’t want me to take.  When I woke up on our first day in North Korea it was due to propaganda music being blurring out of megaphones in the street, this was basically like the alarm clock to tell people to get to work, I had never witnessed anything like this in all my years.

When we arrived in Yanji we found a cheap hotel, put our bags down and went out to find ourselves some food, we were in China but none of the shop signs were in Chinese, they were all in Korean; this made me feel a little jittery, the paranoia started playing tricks on my mind, I began to think that we were still in Korea, this paranoia started to subside especially after we sat down to some good old shitty western McDonals which tasted absolutely amazing (ridiculous I know).

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Above: A nationalist song praising Kim Jong Un, I can’t remember the exact meaning but it was something to do with grabbing a rifle to defend the country from the enemy.  They handed these around the coach and the vast majority of people felt awkward as fuck, most of us didn’t sing it for obvious reasons and this made the supervisors quite annoyed as they saw it as a sign of disrespect, but there was no way I was going to sing a song about giving my life to North Korea and fighting for the ‘great leader’.  Some of the brainwashed ones sang the song clearly, some of us just kind of mumbled some monotonous groan and when it got to Phil who was ex-military he was just like ‘nah’.

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When we eventually decided to lay our heads down in the hotel it was around 12 at night, we’d been for a few beers beforehand, we said our goodnights and I fell fast asleep, only to wake up a few hours later in one of those states where you’re unsure where you are, I thought I was still in North Korea, I panicked for a couple of minutes before realising that I wasn’t.  The mix of paranoia, booze and being in a half awake state isn’t a good combination.  When we woke up the next day we took a cab to Yanji airport and boarded our flight to Shanghai…now I was really home.  Civilisation never felt so damn good.

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As far as the DPRK is concerned, my view is this that no ‘communist’ nation has ever survived.  Communism is good on paper yet it is always destined to fail due to the natural greed in humans.  Look at the Russian oligarchs that rose from the ashes of the USSR or the Communist Party of The Peoples Republic of China for example; sure China still calls itself communist but having lived there for a little over a year I can safely say it is one of the most capitalistic countries in the world.  The keystone of communism is that the farmers, the workers and the intellectuals form a union in which they all work to better the nation as a whole so as everyone can live as equals, the problem arises when the ‘intellectuals’ decide they need a bigger slice of the pie in order to fuel their ideals to allow their nation to thrive, and just like that the citizens of the country are no longer equal; slowly the foundations of the nation that made it communist are slowly eroded away.  There is no living example of how communism has thrived, it has always gone in the direction of Orwell’s Animal Farm; we see this in North Korea, from the country’s birth to the present day – Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un have all been a bit on the heavy side, as have a lot of their right hand men, their advisors and their generals, they get the big slice of the pie (figuratively and literally) whilst the rest of the nation picks weeds at the side of the road to survive.  This isn’t even an exaggeration and I have witnessed it first hand as you can see in the photo below, children picking weeds surrounded by fields of crops.

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The kicker is that crops are often sold to other countries such as China, a country with over a billion inhabitants who need all the food they can get their hands on.  The result is that the DPRK gets money for what it chooses to spend it on and the poor citizens starve.

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Driving through North Korea it seems like the land of plenty, there are fields upon fields of crops, orchards and rice paddies.  But the DPRK is not a nation where food can be harvested and taken to shops, it is all controlled by the government.  North Korea has more than enough arable land to produce a surplus of food, which they do, they just don’t evenly distribute it…literally the exact opposite of communism.

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I think if we’re all honest with ourselves we are quite naive and I am happy to admit that.  Driving around North Hamgyong Province I knew I was in an oppressive regime, I knew bad things happened here but I guess I just pushed it to the back of my mind.

You may have seen me mention a place called Hoeryong, this is a county in Hamgyong province. Now if you go to Google and start to type in Hoeryong the first thing the search engine will predict is ‘Hoeryong concentration camp’.  We were literally a few miles from an active concentration camp; now, there have been stories from people who have managed to defect including some of the guards who have revealed some pretty graphic torture methods that are used at the camp.  There is a secret execution site located in Sugol valley, it is also estimated that of the 50,000 prisoners at the camp 2,000 will die each year from malnutrition alone.

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It is important to remember that when you enter North Korea you’re going to be subject to some intense brainwashing, you must stay grounded at all times and realise that there is always going to be a hidden agenda, you might think that nobody can crack you but I saw plenty of people crack during the trip.  North Korea still imprison people for trivial crimes, imprisoning their families along with them assuming they’re guilty by association.  North Korea is a nation of humans, humans who don’t deserve a life of fear and sadness, they’re ruled by tyrannical leaders and always have been, they’re treated like slaves yet taught the rest of the world is the cause of their suffering.

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I saw people walking around that looked like skeletons wrapped in skin, it’s a sickening thought that with the money they spend on weapons they could provide the whole nation with food.  I remember one moment actually when we were driving along the road and all of a sudden the supervisors jumped out of their seats and told the driver to go another way, I only caught a glimpse of what freaked them out, at the right hand side of the road were massive artillery guns on the train tracks ready to be moved.  I suppose we just live in a world of fear, a world where the leaders would choose weapons over food and healthcare.  It is the same in North Korea as it is in the UK, we spend billions of pounds on nuclear weapons when we have a crumbling healthcare service (but of course I’m not comparing the two).

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To conclude, I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to North Korea, although Becky does seem quite eager now…Also considering the amount of material I have posted off my visit I’d be quite nervous incase I am now on some DPRK watch list, even though I don’t think I’ve done anything to really lambaste the country.

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My thoughts on the place now are that some of the children I saw along the way may not even be alive today since the country is in a constant state of famine.  I am not sure what the fate of North Korea will be, I do think in the future it will fall and when it does it will be incredibly messy since it is a country that has been separated for nearly 70 years with two very opposing views and a neighbour that really doesn’t want America on it’s doorstep.  They’ve been supported by the USSR and now they’re supported by China and I think as China moves into the modern more civilised world they are eventually going to have no other choice but to ditch their annoying little brother.

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If you get a chance to visit the DPRK I highly recommend you do, because if reunification occurs will become very different than it is today, if you go now, you will be seeing a piece of history.  If the regime were to fall I very much doubt that all of the Kim and Juche propaganda will remain, nor will any of the monuments.

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Well, it was a good series and it’s kept me quite occupied, and now it’s goodnight from me.  I think I’ll be moving on to Japan next, if you’ve got any questions feel free to shoot them my way.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and thank you for reading and following.  If you have any suggestions on anything you’d like to read about then shoot them my way.  I’m sure I’ll make a few more short posts in the future as I still have a lot of material and I remember new little stories and events each day.

Matt

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7 thoughts on “My journey into North Korea (Part 10: returning to China. Concluding the series)

      1. You’ve had such an amazingly unique experience…and have been able to write about it! In late spring, it was all over the news that North Korea was having some sort of political convention. News companies from around the world were invited to attend but most of their footage was confiscated in the end (and/or they were kicked out prematurely). Yet, you got to keep yours!

        And thank you! Photography is something that I’ve been working really hard on!

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  1. Great set of blog entries on what is a such a reclusive nation. I think it was really quite brave to take photos on a secret memory card, I think most people would constantly fear getting caught and the potential consequences of that. Having read it, I have 2 questions. 1. How on earth did you explain this trip to your family? 2. Did you consider the ethics of being a tourist in North Korea before you went? I’m not judging either way but it’s quite a debate whether you feel even visiting is morally right and whether it just indirectly helps the NK government.

    Chris

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    1. Hi Chris, thanks for commenting, I hope you’ve been enjoying the posts and those are some pretty interesting questions and the second one is a little difficult to answer. I don’t think the photos I took were of a sensitive nature, certainly nothing that could be considered treason or anything like that, I think the issue really is that they don’t want the outside world to see that they are actually quite a poor country, I think I kind of had faith that when coming in and out of the country we wouldn’t be searched too much which we weren’t and the people at customs knew we had been with our guides the whole time so wouldn’t have seen anything that we really shouldn’t have, except that one time when we accidentally drove past some artillery guns on the train tracks and as soon as we went past it they demanded our cameras to make sure we didn’t get any photographs of military equipment. For your fist question, I was living in China at the time so they had already gotten used to me being in a far away place, so when I explained that I was going to Tibet and then North Korea they were worried but had faith that I would do things in a manner that wouldn’t put me in danger, North Korea is quite a safe place to visit really, providing you don’t disrespect the nation, the leaders, the ideology or the people then you will be fine. As far as ethics go, yeah there is the point of view that you’re providing money to the North Korean government, but at the same time you’re providing as insight into what the country is really like, you’re showing that the vast majority of people in the country are just normal people. In response to your second question, North Korea have survived in the past with no tourism, they have been supported by nations in the past and present, economic sanctions that have been placed on the country have only forced them to underground to get money, they have money laundering operations in places like Hong Kong and Macau, their workers are contracted by African countries and some Asian countries like Myanmar; they have secret weapons, nuclear and manufacturing deals with various nations and still manage to get their hands on products that are supposed to be unobtainable due to global sanctions on the country. It may not be a popular opinion but I think we’re not going to see a change in North Korea by constantly imposing sanctions on them, I think they need to be closely monitored but also allowed to make money without having to resort to dodgy deals, I think this is the only way human rights will improve.

      Matt

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      1. Very detailed response! I honestly don’t feel I know enough to make any sound judgement on this.

        I’d say my current thinking re. Economic Sanctions and trade with NK is this. Who do the sanctions actually damage? Is it causing harm more to the NK government or to the NK people?

        Clearly the government don’t feel too harmed by the current sanctions as they haven’t reached out internationally. So there is one argument that would say if you restrict the size of their economy with sanctions, it just means less money for the NK people and the government will continue to siphon what they see as fit. But then on the flip side, if economic sanctions were dropped, is there any guarantee that the government wouldn’t just rake in more money for themselves to say, advance their nuclear programme, rather than the people.

        To me, I’d see the main benefit of any tourism to NK being that some NK people might see first hand that the west isn’t the way it is portrayed by the propaganda.

        Chris

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