As one of the first tourists allowed to travel on an overnight sleeper through a remote part of North Korea, Allie Dunnington reports on how things have changed since she last visited a decade ago.
I don’t agree with boycotting countries. They never harm the regime, but hurt the people. That’s why I’m here, on Kim Jong Un’s ‘Orient Express’ in North Korea.
In this country led by a man who’s been accused of committing all but one of the 11 crimes against humanity, a country whose image is that of an evil, ruthless and unforgiving regime, I want to see for myself what life in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) might be like. And what better way than traveling on a sedately moving North Korean train?
This journey will take me and my fellow travelers from the scenic eastern coastline northwards to the industrial city of Chongjin near the Russian border. We’re the first tourists ever allowed to travel on an overnight sleeper and to this remote part of North Korea. Carefully guarded by our two young North Korean guides, Mr Pak and Ms Kim, we’re given our first instructions: “You must always speak respectfully of our Dear Leader, Kim Jong Un. You can take photos while the train is moving, but please not in the stations. You must never walk alone. We are responsible for your safety and have to look after you”.
Pyongyang’s Central station. Everyone’s keen to get on board and settle into their compartments. There are four beds in each wagon and a dining car. As we leave the city, the landscape opens up to ploughed fields, small villages, rolling hills and pine trees.
With the light spring drizzle, it’s like traveling through a Chinese water painting—one that’s occasionally interrupted by bright red revolutionary flags. In the fields and along the railway are oxen, and people are working with their bare hands. Most are walking. Cars are still a rarity. In the cities, bus queues are endless and many people drably dressed. Shops are infrequent and often bare.
Sheepishly I dare to pull out my camera, open the windows and take a couple of hasty shots of kids excitedly waving at us.
I’ve been to North Korea before. It was 2007 and I visited the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone, the border between South and North Korea), the historic city of Kaesong, enjoyed a concert at Pyongyang’s symphony hall, and wandered through the vast Friendship exhibition hall in the Myohyang mountains, home to a mind-blowing 220,000 gifts from foreign dignitaries.
At that time, my husband Phil and I were closely guarded by our two guides, and photography of the countryside or people was strictly forbidden. We had to leave our computers in Beijing and our phones were confiscated until we were on the train back to China. Strict rules governed the language of our guides and hearing “Our Dear Leader” was common.
Food shortages have always been a problem here … With rugged mountains covering most of the land, there’s little space for farming while harsh winters often kill many animals. But there’s another reason: The regime doesn’t want to fully feed all its people.
This time, I’m surprised by the more generous approach to photography and our guides appear more relaxed when discussing topics like reunification between the two Koreas or daily life.
The villages we pass remind me of the China I saw in the early ‘80s: Stone-tiled roofs and little gardens with vegetables. I notice wooden stalls that look like mini-shops, contrasting starkly with high-rise Dandong in China on the other side of the Yalu River.
Ms Kim explains in perfect English: “People are now allowed to grow their own vegetables and sell the products on the streets. This was introduced by our Great Marshall Kim Jong Un. It helps us a lot”.
Food shortages have always been a problem here. Two out of five North Koreans are undernourished according to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). There are several reasons for this: With rugged mountains covering most of the land, there’s little space for farming while harsh winters often kill many animals. But there’s another reason: The regime doesn’t want to fully feed all its people.
The so-called ‘Songbun’ system punishes people—for up to three generations—if they’re linked to ‘conspiracy’ acts or if their grandparents came from the South; conversely, they reward ‘loyal’ citizens through food benefits. Recent sanctions have also negatively impacted food aid with organizations concerned about helping North Korea.
… Our guides seem even more relaxed. They’re well informed of world politics (given the media restrictions) and they love their booze—our compartment has turned into a private bar and meeting point.
It’s late evening when we arrive in what’s billed as North Korea’s prime holiday destination: Wonsan on the east coast. High-rise buildings, even some neon glitter and advertising. We check into the Wonsan Tongmyong hotel, ready for a refreshing Taedonggang beer. “Chu-pe! Cheers!” shouts Mr Pak. The beer seems to have relaxed him. “And remember, don’t leave the hotel! See you in the morning!” With this, he heads up to his room.
The next morning, we step outside to a view of the sea and tiny islands. Once an important trade port with daily ferries to Japan, a turbulent, violent past has stopped most of Wonsan’s international exchange: “We were invaded by the Mongolians, Jurchens and Chinese,” explains Ms Kim, “then the Japanese took over from 1910-1945. After this, the Imperialists [she means America] wanted to take our country. But our revolutionary army under the great leadership of our President Kim Il Sung defended our nation.”
An armistice was signed on July 27th 1953 between the DPRK, the UN South and North Korea, but after 65 years, there’s still no formal peace treaty. The Kims always had their country under tight control: Rights such as ‘freedom of speech or movement‘ may be in the constitution, but they don’t de facto exist.
It’s the government who decides what’s allowed or not, down to hairstyles. Any wrong-doing and you could end up in a prison or endure a lifetime of forced labor—and this can affect the wider family. Those who safely leave for China or South Korea continue to worry for families and friends who may be punished instead.
In Wonsan, we briefly visit the old steam train museum. The railway linking Wonsan to the capital Pyongyang opened as early as 1910 and is the country’s oldest. But we have to rush. Our train is leaving—there’s just enough time for a quick photo-op with the railway staff.
“We are now entering Chongjin. It is the third-largest city and was the main industrial hub for iron and steel production. We have worked very hard to get permission for you to visit, so please stick to our rules!”
Mr Pak, guide
We’re following the coastline now, crossing rivers, passing tunnels and climbing over steep mountain ranges. I still can’t believe it’s permitted to take all those photos; it was taboo in 2007. The train journey provides a fantastic insight into rural life and our guides seem even more relaxed.
They’re well informed of world politics (given the media restrictions) and they love their booze—our compartment has turned into a private bar and meeting point. We chat about pop music, sports and gently address the subject of whether they believe that North and South would ever reunite and who would rule it. The answer is the same as 10 years ago: ‘Dear Leader’.
Next stop: Hamhung on the north-eastern coast. It’s a lesson in chemistry while holding our breaths, thanks to the noxious smell in one of the DPRK’s largest fertilizer plants, followed by a refreshing if freezing-cold swim in Korea’s East Sea and an unexpected clam barbecue beach party with our guides.
It’s welcome respite before a long stint on the train the next day. Soon, we are only 200 kilometers from the Russian border. Mr Pak puts on a stern face: “We are now entering Chongjin,” he tells us. “It is the third-largest city and was the main industrial hub for iron and steel production. We have worked very hard to get permission for you to visit, so please stick to our rules!”
I feel his concern and worry. Misbehavior reflects badly on guides and tour operators: there may be an inquiry, penalties or, worst-case scenario, accusations of being ‘Western collaborators’. With tourism in its infancy, visitors are even asked to sign a form that we will comply with the rules.
It’s a tight schedule in Chongjin, which includes a ‘foodstuffs’ factory, a massive statue of Kim Il Sung, the first Supreme Leader of North Korea, a modern ‘e-library’, the Chongjin revolutionary museum and a musical performance by the Chongjin ‘Steelworks kindergarten’ where kids sing and dance in perfect synchronization with slightly disconcerting doll-like smiles.
Soon, it’s time to socialize with the locals at the Seaman’s Club. The pub is empty. Has everybody gone home already? It’s only 6 o’clock. Slightly disappointed about not really meeting the locals, we return to our hotel. This is a country deeply stuck in a myriad of hidden rules, regulations and repressions; spontaneously mixing with locals in some areas may be years away.
So has anything changed in the past 10 years?
Certainly Pyongyang is busier and you can now dine on luxury cruise ships on the Taedong river or mix with locals in the parks, especially on national holidays. Photography is more relaxed and you may bring your phones and computers—although don’t expect decent wi-fi or much signal. Our guides seem less concerned about ‘Big Brother’ and activities such as marathons, hiking and camping are opening up.
While behind the brighter façade, there remains a dark back stage, it’s certainly worth jumping on Kim’s train and explore this mysterious and secretive country with your own eyes.
The writer traveled with Koryo Tours, a specialist in adventure travel to unusual destinations and supporter of humanitarian projects.