North Korea 2015

North Korea 2015


If yesterday was a physically arduous time, today was the opposite.  Our main - indeed, almost the only - task today was to travel by train from Dandong across the border into North Korea, and then onwards to the nation’s capital city, Pyongyang.

Our train from Dandong was due to depart at 10:00 am, which meant leaving our hotel at 8:10 am for the short, five minute drive to Dandong Railway Station.  Dandong Station is a huge building that houses several railway platforms and, of course, an international immigration and customs processing facility.

Standing in front of the railway station is the city’s large statue of Mao Zedong, arm stretched upwards in a triumphal pose.  Interestingly, this huge statue used to face towards North Korea, but at the request of Kim Il Sung (the then-leader of North Korea), the direction of the statue was changed to face away from North Korea.  Despite its impressive size, the statue of Mao was very modest compared with the statues of North Korea’s leaders that we were to encounter in the coming days.

Mao and Kim certainly seemed to have been close allies.  Mao’s son was killed in Korea during the Korean War while serving with the Chinese People’s Volunteers, and some Chinese people speculate that had Mao’s son survived, perhaps China would have followed a similar pathway of socialist development to that taken by Kim Il Sung’s son in North Korea.  Of course, we will never know the answer that “what if”.

The process of clearing immigration and customs seemed somewhat inefficient, but it worked, and after keeping our passports for the standard 40 minutes, we were able to board the train.  It departed right on the dot of 10 am.

A short, slow seven minute journey across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge took us across the Yalu River and into the border city of Sinuiju in North Korea, or as it is officially known, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  It was here that North Korean immigration and customs processes were completed.  No-one was allowed to leave the train; the officials all came to us to collect our passports, inspect our bags, read our forms, and scrutinise the iPads and laptops of those who were taking them into North Korea.

As we entered North Korea, we advanced our watches half an hour but went back in time half a century.  Had we entered North Korea before 17th August this year, we would have advanced our watches by an hour.  However, on that date, as we learned, North Korea reversed the colonial humiliation imposed on the Korean people by the Japanese colonial oppressors in the early 1900s when they took away Korea’s own time zone and imposed Japanese time based on the longitude of Tokyo.

We seemed to be let off pretty lightly by the customs and immigration officers as we managed to get away right on the two hour estimated time for the stop.  The rest of the day was spend completing a north-south transect from the DPRK’s northern border through to the capital city of Pyongyang.

Interestingly, American, Japanese and South Korean passport holders are not permitted to make the rail journey.  In many ways this is surprising, as almost all the scenery is rural countryside with extensive rice, corn, sorghum, beans and potato cultivation.  Perhaps the rationale could be explained when we spotted a female soldier in a combat helmet manning an anti-aircraft search light; this was apparently near the Nyongbyon nuclear reactor and plutonium processing factory that features in the western media from time to time.

Some of the key features of the North Korean rural landscape were readily apparent to us, such as the lack of mechanisation, the intensive use of every skerrick of flat or gently sloping land for food cultivation, and the characteristic layout of the small towns, each with its Tower of Eternity and/or mosaic showing one or more of “The Three Great Generals of Mount Paektu” - Kim Il Sung (who was North Korea’s leader from 1948 to his death in 1994), his son Kim Jong Il (who was leader from 1994 until his death in 2011), and Kim Jong Suk (the wife of Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong Il, who died in child birth in 1947).  North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, is the youngest son of Kim Jong Il, and bears a somewhat uncanny resemblance to his grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

The towers of eternity that are found in all but the smallest North Korean villages are tall, thin, rectangular concrete pillars, usually decorated at the foot with a mosaic of the leaders, or a floral representation of them (such as the two flowers named in their honour, the Kimilsungia and the Kimjongilia), or a slogan.  Until 2011, the towers featured a large inscription, which when translated into English, read “The Great Leader, President Kim Il Sung, will always be with us”.  This inscription reminded North Koreans that although he passed away in 1994, Kim Il Sung remains the President of the country, as he was declared President for Eternity.  Following his death in 2011, the towers were modified, and they now read “The Great Leader, President Kim Il Sung, and the Great Chairman, General Kim Jong Il, will always be with us”.

Our rail journey was a little faster than expected, and we arrived at Pyongyang Railway Station at a little after 5:30 pm.  Indeed, our early arrival even surprised our guides, Mr Kim Young Un and Ms O Hye Song, who ran onto the platform about ten minutes after the train’s arrival.

Our arrival into Pyongyang coincided with the beginning of light rain, making our welcome somewhat greyer than our journey had been.  Although our hotel, the Koryo Hotel (Pyongyang’s best), was only about 150 metres from the railway station, we loaded our liggage onto a bus that had been provided, drove to the hotel, unloaded everything again and checked in.  The group’s room are all on the 26th and 27th floors, so I am hoping that we will have some impressive views over Pyongyang when the rain clears.

At 7:00 pm we enjoyed our first dinner in the DPRK, a delightful and very adequate meal in an underground restaurant attached to the Koryo Hotel.  This was followed by a wander through the surprisingly large shop and supermarket located in the Koryo Hotel where we stocked up on water and various other necessities.

Meanwhile, I spent an hour with our guides to negotiate the program for the coming week and a half.  Fortunately, most of the program remains very close to the program I had negotiated before departure, although a few changes have been required for a variety of reasons, such as a bridge washed out during recent rains that have made one destination inaccessible, a factory closed for renovations and a hospital that no longer accepts visiting groups.  Despite these changes, the program looks excellent; I think we are in for a great study tour!

Day 3 - Dandong to Pyongyang


2 September 2015