BACK ISSUE #406

Heading north
Once an isolated Asian outpost, North Korea is slowly opening its borders to the outside world. Mary King takes the official tour.

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.

Hidden treasures
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 our guide.
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 prime minister.

Capital gains
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.
As 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.

Getting there
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 information.

Information
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