For the time following the conference in Beijing, I had booked a three-day-tour to North Korea.
If you book with a proper agency, it is surprisingly easy to travel to North Korea (at least for many nationalities). Some people might find it questionable to visit this nation and I agree that there are different valid viewpoints. Tourism in North Korea is dominated by several hundred thousand Chinese visitors each year, while I was told that only around 2000 Europeans make the journey. Considering the bigger picture, I felt that my presence in North Korea would not make any difference and therefore my curiosity won.
During my time in North Korea, I was always accompanied by two travel guides (aka minders) and a driver. I stayed in the quite luxurious Yanggakdo International Hotel, which offered a fantastic view across the Taedong River and the city from my room in the 41st floor. The first day was spent visiting the major sights of the country’s capital: Pyongyang. This included the Kim Il-Sung Square, the Grand People’s Study House, the Juche Tower, the Mansu Hill Grand Monument, the Mangyongdae Native House (alleged birthplace of Kim Il-Sung), the Mansudae Art Studio, the Ryugyong Hotel, the Pyongyang Metro (with its impressive murals), the Arch of Triumph, the Victorious War Museum (including the USS Pueblo), and the Arch of Reunification.
I must say that the city itself was nicer than what I had expected with impressive skyscrapers and proper apartment buildings. Obviously, I could not talk to “normal” people or see how much of everything was fake (for example, what the flats in the fancy buildings look like inside). Some of the sights necessitated special behaviour – such as bowing in front of the statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, but I already expected that. I was allowed to photograph and film almost without restriction.
While we mostly drove from sight to sight, I also had the chance to walk along the Taedong River and in the Mirae Scientists Street. I also used the subway of the Pyongyang Metro – together with many Chinese tourists. Locals looked at me with curiosity and children smiled and waved at me from train windows. Most North Koreans wear little red badges with the images of Kim Il-Sung and/or Kim Jong-Il, which I believe show that they are trustworthy citizens (and I was told to photograph only people with badges!).
All in all, my first day in North Korea left me with many mixed feelings. My guides and the employees in the hotel were superficially nice, but I did not sense any true hospitality. Instead, I felt that the mood might change drastically and without compassion, if I would do something wrong. I do not know how much of that feeling was based on reality or if that was only my mind playing tricks on me due to all the stories you can read about North Korea.