Once an isolated Asian outpost, North Korea
is slowly opening its borders to the outside world. Mary King takes the
From the minute we stepped off Air Koryo Flight 832 in Pyongyang, it
was clear who the star of our tour would be. A huge portrait of a smiling
Kim Il Sung welcomed us as we alighted from the three-hour trip from Nagoya.
As we set off for the Myohyang Mountains some 150 kilometers northwest
of the capital, our first fleeting views of what has long been considered
a “pariah state” were of brightly colored patriotic posters
of determined workers and the man who led his people down a Soviet-style
path after the 1950-1953 Korean War left the peninsula officially divided.
From our tour bus window we also caught glimpses of peasants walking or
cycling along the highway where cars were strikingly few and far between.
Some peasants were busy tilling their fields with the aid of cattle and
antique machinery while others huddled together, peering over the roof
of the occasional truck that passed us as we headed for some of the country's
most celebrated highlands. The lush rice paddies and verdant mountain
scenery were awe-inspiring.
North Korea is certainly blessed with some of the most glorious countryside
imaginable, and more tourists are now making the journey to see it for
themselves. Awaiting them are such scenic spots as the sacred Paektu Mountains,
which have been worshipped by Koreans since ancient times. In other parts
of the country, tourists can venture out to hot springs or visit the mausoleums
of ancient kings.
Our visit to the Myohyang Mountains included stops at the International
Friendship Exhibition Hall and Ryongmun Cavern, a six-kilometer series
of spectacularly beautiful grottoes where we viewed stalactites that have
taken eons to form. Even more palatial was the exhibition hall, where
“things are not quite what they seem.” Dressed in a dark pink chima (flowing
skirt) and matching jogori (blouse), Korean women's national costume,
our guide explained: “It is a building that has no windows, but every
wall looks as if it is fitted with windows. The building may look like
it is made of wood, but no timber was ever used.”
We put cloth covers over our shoes to protect the carpets before shuffling
on through the six-story edifice, constructed in traditional style as
recently as 1978 specifically to house 100,000 gifts presented to Kim
Il Sung by heads of state and public figures. In room after room, floor-to-ceiling
glass cabinets gleamed with gifts. A stunning gold sword from Libya's
Moammar Gadhafi sat in one room; in another, two black limousines presented
by Josef Stalin, alongside a Mercedes-Benz, a 1962 gift from Rikidozan
(Korean name: Kim Sin Rak), a world champion professional wrestler who
was fatally stabbed the following year at a nightclub in Tokyo.
But the piece de resistance was yet to come. Our guide reverently ordered
us to straighten our clothes before entering the final room in decorous
fashion. To military fanfare, we filed along the pink carpet to a stage
at the far end of the spacious room where a wax model of a benevolent-looking
Kim Il Sung stood amid pink plastic bushes. Gazing upon this stout figure
dressed in a gray suit before a rustic backdrop that featured a rendition
of a rippling lake, we were mesmerized by the incredible likeness to the
Great Leader, who died in July 1994. “Now bow. Twice,” commanded
More goodies awaited us in the annex that houses gifts received by the
late Kim's son and heir, Jong Il—among them a gorgeous Japanese
doll presented in 1991 by Shin Kanemaru, a Diet member and former deputy
North Koreans are eager to impress visitors with the great strides they
have made over recent decades, and certainly nowhere is this more apparent
than in Pyongyang, a city founded some 4,000 years ago and razed by US
bombing during the Korean War. Although more traditional sights include
Chilsong and Taedong Gates (remnants of the ancient Walled City built
in the mid-sixth century by the powerful Koguryo kingdom), most of the
capital's buildings and monuments are scarcely 40 years old.
Pyongyang boasts many impressive structures and sites. The Tower of the
Juche Idea, a 170-meter-tall needle on the east bank of the Taedong River,
was built to mark Kim Il Sung's 70th birthday and symbolizes his “immortal
Juche Idea,” a philosophy our guide explained in the following
succinct form: “Man is responsible for his own destiny and man
has the capacity to shape his own destiny.” A stupendous bronze
statue of Kim Il Sung at the Mansudae Grand Monument is another worthwhile
sight. When we visited, North Koreans were flocking en masse to lay flowers
and pay respects before the monument, which was erected in 1972 to mark
the 60th birthday of the leader of the Democratic People's Republic of
Korea. Across the Potong River lies the Monument to the Victorious Fatherland
Liberation War, built to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1953 armistice.
It comprises various sculptures depicting battle scenes, most notably
one called “Victory.”
Perhaps the most romantic of the world's monuments dedicated to victory
is the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which commemorates Napoleon's supreme
success at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. However, Pyongyang's counterpart—marking
the spot where Kim Il Sung made his rallying speech after Japanese forces
left the peninsula in 1945—eclipses even Napoleon's grand monument.
we stood at the foot of Moran Hill in the heart of the capital, our guide
proudly recited: “Our Arch of Triumph was built in 1982 on the occasion
of the 70th birthday of the Great Leader, and it is three meters taller
than the one in Paris.” At that moment, I felt myself in the midst of
a city that can only continue to make great strides forward.
North Korea's national airline is Air Koryo. China Northern Airlines
also serves the country on a limited basis. Trains to Pyongyang are available
from Beijing and Moscow. Contact one of the following groups for information:
The National Directorate of Tourism of the DPRK, tel: 850-2381-8901.
Kumgangsan International Tourist Company, tel: 850-231562.
Korean International Travel Company, tel: 850-2817-201.
www.worldtravelguide.net is a also a good source of travel and tourism
According to the US government, tourists are only allowed to travel within
North Korea in organized groups with permission from the North Korean
government. Visas are also required and can be obtained in China prior
to entry into North Korea. Tourists can contact the North Korean Embassy
in Beijing at 86-10-6532-1186. However, the easiest option is to arrange
a tour with a travel agent such as Best Travel (www.bestravel.co.uk) or
Koryo Tours (www.koryogroup.com). They will arrange for transportation
and accommodation in addition to tours.
Photos: Mary King