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Saturday September 6, 2008

A world of its own

A visit to North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom, proves to be a different kind of experience altogether from the usual tourist destinations.

Time stands still in North Korea despite a much-repeated local saying here that the country changes every 10 years.

Standing in the middle of a nearly-empty street in the capital city of Pyongyang, in early August with seven other Malaysian journalists, I felt like I had just stepped off a time machine and been transported back to the 1970s.

Local people waiting for a metro train at Bu Hong station.

We were there on a four-day visit on the invitation of Yangtze Cruise & Tour Sdn Bhd, the sole agent in Malaysia for North Korea’s state-owned Korea International Travel Corporation (KITC). Besides some sightseeing, we would be attending the opening of the annual Arirang Festival in conjunction with the country’s 60th anniversary.

We entered the country by morning train from Dangdung, China. It took a mere 10 minutes to get to Sinuizu in North Korea. The journey was a brief one but crossing the Yalu River still felt like travelling to an alien land, mysterious and without Internet and handphones.

Here, we spent two hours waiting for a train to connect us to Pyongyang, which would take another five hours. When the train finally arrived, we quickly boarded, hoping to reach our destination as quickly as possible.

But that was not to be. Soldiers came to do their routine check-up, collecting our passports and other necessary documents. Besides being subjected to body searches, we had to open our luggage for inspection.

We were asked whether we had brought along any handphones, a prohibited item. Fortunately, we had left our phones in a hotel in China, on the advice of the organiser.

When we left the country four days later, we had to undergo the same routine inspection, plus a “check” on our cameras. The soldiers went through each picture just to make sure that we did not take any photos that “should not have been taken”.

Visitors have to bow to the statue of the country’s founder Kim Il-sung as a gesture of respect.

The military personnel were friendly, though, while carrying out their duties.

We reached Yanggakdo International Hotel on the Yanggak Islet on the Taedong River in Pyongyang late in the evening. After dinner, our North Korean tour guide Pak Yong-hei told us it was time for bed as there was no nightlife in the capital city.

Tourists are not banned from going out at night but there was nothing much to see or do here, at least that was what I thought on the nights that I spent wandering the streets with the other journalists.

We felt safe walking around, even though the streets were often dark and secluded. The locals did not pay much attention to us. However, we could not go far as no taxi driver would take us anywhere without a local guide accompanying us. This seems to be an unwritten rule in the country.

Night owls could spend the evening at the casino in the hotel if they really wanted some distraction. Yes, North Korea has a casino but it is open only to foreigners.

The next morning, our local tour guide Pak, together with two other officers from KITC and National Tourism Administration, waited for us at the hotel lobby to show us around. All visitors, even a group of two, must be accompanied by a driver and two local tour guides, one of whom must be able to speak fluently in the language of the visitors.

Like other tourists, our first destination was the Mansudae Grand Monument, a giant bronze statue of the late president Kim Il-sung. Each of us was told to lay flowers and bow to the statue of the country’s founder as a gesture of respect.

Local people having fun singing and dancing at Mt Ryongak.

“Please be sure the whole statue of our respected and beloved leader is completely captured in your photos; otherwise it is regarded as disrespect,” said Pak, who always referred to Kim Il-sung as the respected, beloved or great leader whenever she mentioned him.

From there, we headed towards the International Friendship Exhibition at the foot of Mt Myohyang, which means “queer-looking mountains with fragrance”. A three-hour drive from our hotel, this place exhibits all the gifts received by Kim Il-sung and General Kim Jong-Il.

“Some countries still present gifts to our great leader Kim Il-sung even after his death. Our leader is well-respected by many others,” said Pak proudly, adding that it would take visitors at least one month if they wanted to see all the gifts on display in the various halls.

On the way back to the city centre, we saw locals selling ice-cream, drinks and snacks in blue-and-white makeshift kiosks, or what the locals called snack bars. The kiosks were also owned by the state.

Wherever we went in Pyongyang we saw huge portraits of Kim Il-Sung in various poses. There were also countless numbers of Towers of Immortality. These were erected after the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 to remind North Koreans that the late president was still with them.

We also noticed the locals wearing a badge bearing the image of Kim Il-sung pinned to the left side of their chest.

“The country does not force us to wear the badge but North Koreans will make sure they put it on before going out as we love our great leader,” said Pak.

When asked where we could buy the badge, Pak said sternly, “This is not a gift or souvenir. It is only for North Korea people.”

The next morning, we went to Panmunjom in the southeast of Kaesong, where the Armistice Agreement was signed between North Korea and the US.

We visited the hall where the Armistice Talks were held as well as the hall where the agreement was signed. Then we went to Military Armistice Commission Conference Hall where the military demarcation line ran right across the hall.

Although the distance between Panmunjom and Seoul across the border was just 70km, it seemed very, very far to the people of both countries.

The tram car is one of the forms of public transportation in Pyongyang (in the background are multi-storey apartment buildings, which have been provided for the people).

“It is the dream of every North Korean that both countries be reunited one day,” said Commander Sung Zeng-chol, who has served in the army for over 20 years.

The following day, Pak took us to Pyongyang Metro, a two-line rail system said to be the deepest metro in the world. We took the metro at Bu Hong Station and got out at the next stop Yong Guang Station.

“Every station has different designs. Our people built the subway through our own efforts, materials and technologies,” said Pak, who once again, recited her country’s achievements with great pride.

Besides the subway, Pak said people moved around the city via tram car, trolley bus and city bus.

“No matter how far the distance, we only need to pay five won (about 10 sen) for every ride,” she said.

Pak later took us to a North Korean-styled barbeque lunch at Mt Ryongak, a popular place for outdoor activities. While we were enjoying our lamb sticks, a sweet voice sang in the background. It made us curious, and we wanted to know where the voice came from.

It turned out to be from a group of locals who were enjoying an outing here. A woman was dancing and singing while a man played an accordion. The others cheered them on. They were very friendly and humble folk, who, seeing our interest, invited us to sing and dance along with them.

This was the closest contact I had with the ordinary North Koreans during the trip. Even though I could not understand a single word they said, the way they shook my hands and greeted me made me feel welcomed.

That night, we went to watch the opening of the annual Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang in Rungnado May Day Stadium. About 100,000 well-trained children and teenagers re-enacted the history, achievements and culture of their country through their performances, which encompassed acrobatics, gymnastic and dances, as well as flip-card mosaic animation.

I also visited many other places such as Arch of Triumph and Tower of Juche Idea, but I missed some beautiful places like Paektu Moutain and Rimyongsu Falls due to time constraints.

It was a brief four-day stay, and I left with more questions than answers. I returned home wondering whether North Korea was a terribly isolated place from the rest of the world, or if it was a country where people were perfectly happy with their own version of paradise.

o Yangtze Cruise & Tour Sdn Bhd will chart direct flights with North Korean national carrier Air Koryo between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang soon. Visit www.premiumyangtze.com.my or call (03) 4044 3777 for details.

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