North Korea 2015

North Korea 2015


Our flight to Beijing was due to depart at 8:30am.  Working backwards, that meant waking up at about 5:00am for most of us, having breakfast at 6:00 am and leaving the hotel by bus to go to the airport at 6:30am.

Outside, the weather was overcast with steady light rain - a sure sign that the Korean skies were sobbing because we were about to depart.  (Okay, that is probably a bit over-poetic, but as those who know me well will testify, that’s the type of guy that I am when I’m travelling in socialist paradises).

On the way to the airport, I made my farewell speech of thanks to our guides and our driver.  During the ten days we had spent together with our three Korean helpers, we had become good friends as they had shared their country and engaged with us as true friends.  As the tour leader, I had really appreciated their flexibility and willingness to go out of their way to help us, and I agreed with them when they commented that they thought we were a good team working together.  As a gesture of our deep appreciation, we presented them with a gift as a token of our appreciation.

When we arrived at the airport at 7:00am, another flight (an Air Koryo flight to Vladivostok) was occupying all the check-in counters, so it was not until 7:30am that our check-in began for the flight to Beijing.  Check-in was slow but courteous, and shortly after 8:00 am we had all cleared immigration and were waiting in the departures area of Pyongyang’s new airport terminal.

The new terminal building had only been open for a couple of months, and it was certainly a huge improvement over the cavernous, box-like concrete structure of the old terminal that I had used for many years when entering and leaving North Korea.  Bright and well-lit, the new terminal resembled a small-to-middle level Chinese regional airport.  With just three air bridges, capacity was probably excessive given the small number of flights in and out of Pyongyang, but as we left we could see that the airport is already being expanded, presumably to fulfil the Respected Leader, Marshall Kim Jong Un’s expressed priority to expand tourism in the years ahead.

Our flight to Beijing was on one of Air Koryo’s two relatively new Tupolev Tu-204 airliners (registration P-633).  This is a comfortable aircraft with good seats and generous leg room, and as we entered the plane we were greeted with inspiring martial music over the speakers.  This theme continued through the flight, as the in-flight video showed the Moranbong (Army) Band and the State Merited Chorus performing a range of songs with scenes of war, explosions, tanks, artillery, fighter jets, and of course The Leaders in the background.

In-flight reading was also provided in the form of four English language periodicals; Korea Today, Korea Pictorial, Foreign Trade of the DPRK and the Pyongyang Times newspaper.  The journals had several common themes such as the wisdom of the country’s leaders, the care taken by the Party of the masses, historical biographies of several notable people with the family name Kim, the evils of the continuing US occupation of “south Korea”, and so on.  As with all publications in North Korea, whenever the names of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il or Kim Jong Un are mentioned, their names are printed in letters one point larger than all the other words in the sentence.

One extract from an article in the latest Korea Today (September 2015, or 9 Juche 104) might give you an idea of the tone of the journals.  An article by Jiancarlo Elia Valori titled “The Sun Shines for Ever and Ever” that I read on the plane, includes these words on page 16:

“What kind of person is Kim Jong Il, who commands respect from the world?  He is the type of President Kim Il Sing - that is my answer.  And what kind of person is Kim Il Sung?  That is a needless question, I dare say.  But if it needs to be answered, it would be good to remember what (former US President, Jimmy) Carter said after he met Kim Il Sung as the first of the former US Presidents to talk to him.  ‘President Kim Il Sung is greater than the Three Presidents of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln altogether, who were representative of the establishment and fortune of the United States’.  These three are respected by the Americans like the God.  But Kim Il Sung is greater than the three celebrities altogether.  This is rather a praise from the 20th century than a private appreciation.  Kim Jong Il is a man of the type of Kim Il Sung who is the greatest of the personages born in the 20th century.  Kim Jong Il is truly the greatest man who is endowed with the sense of moral obligation unparalleled to any of those who have ever shown up in the world, in addition to the wonderful brain, courage and humanity of the sun”.

As you might imagine, with material such as this to read, and the music and video of the KPA Merited Orchestra playing overhead, this flight was quite a heady experience.  In that context, the small drink of lemonade served mid-flight provided very welcome relief.

We landed in Beijing about 15 minutes late, but the lines at Immigration were quite short and we arrived at the luggage carousel at about the same time as our luggage appeared.

The trip had ended and it was time to say our farewells.  With a mix of hugs and shaking hands, we headed off in various directions, with most members of the group getting connecting flights while a couple of us were remaining in Beijing overnight.  I was in this latter group as I needed to return the First Aid kit I had been carrying and collect some things I had left in storage.  Then I began the depressing process of sifting through the 320 e-mails that had arrived while I had been off the internet grid in North Korea.

The folk on the study tour had shared a highly unusual experience in the world’s least known, least understood country.  For the twelve of us, we had peeked into the most secretive nation on the planet.  Even at this stage, I can hardly wait for our reunion so we can share our reflections more fully than was ever possible over our glasses of strawberry soda in the DPRK, because you never knew who might be listening or watching.  But then again, maybe we were just being careful.  Or perhaps paranoid.

And now for the next task; sorting through the 3012 photos I took on the trip.  These days, photography in the DPRK is not really as restrictive as many people think.

POSTSCRIPT: At the end of the trip, a survey was distributed to all the trip participants.  To download a copy of the trip evaluation report (in PDF format, 5.4MB file size), click HERE.

Day 12 - Pyongyang to Beijing


11 September 2015

Photo by Maks Maydachenko,