Air Koryo, the national airline of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is the only airline that flies to North Korea. As soon as you board the plane you enter the twilight zone. Communist music plays in the background, and a newspaper with propaganda is waiting for you. From glancing at the newspaper Kim Jong-Un can do no wrong, all glories and achievements are the results of his genius.
This newspaper was to be a glimpse into a week of non-stop propaganda. By day four, I would be exhausted of it. At this point, I read the tabloid as I tried to gain some insight into the propaganda machine. It was clear that no world exists beyond the DPRK.
After being fed a burger which was quite possibly the worse burger I have ever tasted, I looked back on my days in Beijing, China, and onwards to the huge contrast I would encounter in the city of Pyongyang, North Korea. There’s only one flight a day to North Korea and I was on it.
The flight was mostly empty, I looked around trying to figure out who would be crazy enough to visit this communist regime. On board, there was an odd mixture, some Asians, a few Australians, Russians, and some Eastern-Europeans. Soon enough, we were set to land. and I, along with everyone else took our cameras out to take pictures.
There was not much to see, a small airport with a few planes which appeared to be in a state of disrepair. I took pictures regardless, not knowing what I would be allowed to take footage of after I landed.
As soon as I disembarked I knew this would be an adventure into craziness. Customs was shockingly efficient since they only had a dozen passengers to deal with. Afterwards, they confiscated our cell phones, and our passports for safe keeping.
With my passport now out of sight, they had full power over my destiny. If I said something stupid, a thoughtless remark, or if I took a picture that wasn’t allowed, I could risk being interrogated or imprisoned.
We boarded a bus that took us to Pyongyang, and on this bus is when I spotted the first crack in the armor. As soon as we were a safe distance away, I saw poor villagers run to the road to drink water from a pothole. This was done quickly, and it was intended to be done out of sight from the authorities. This is how destitute the people were, they were illegally drinking water from a pothole.
Onwards, we went to the Yanggakdo International Hotel. This hotel is surrounded by water and only has one entry point. This was to ensure that all guests could be safely segregated from the rest of society.
The Yanggakdo is quite a stale hotel. It was the oddest check-in process, before we showed up the staff knew our names, and they knew what room we were staying in. They didn’t even have to look at our identification since the government had it, and they didn’t need a credit card, as there was no room service, no mini-bar… or any other reason to ask for a credit card.
We were taken to our room, and I should specify that we were the only guests on the entire floor. It felt like we were staying at an abandoned hotel. This hotel was the cleanest of the hotels that we stayed at, and it had two twin beds. Oddly enough, the central night table, also used to serve as some type of radio in a long-gone era. I was never able to get it to work, but I did take a picture.
I took some pictures from my window. Pyongyang is a beautiful city, which is not a surprise as it’s used as a propaganda prop. I took many pictures and realized this was going to be quite possibly the most memorable trip of my life.
It didn’t escape our attention that the room was possibly bugged. We censored ourselves in our discussions, something that would be increasingly challenging. The more we saw, the more we were shocked, and outraged at how the propaganda was simply inescapable.
We ended up staying at this hotel on three different occasions. We went to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) on the South Korean border… and when we returned we were given the same room. It’s like they saved it for us. We then toured the Western coast of the country visiting the town of Nampho, and as you guessed we returned to the exact same room.
It was on this third and final visit that we realized it was very possible that our room was bugged, but in a very outdated way. As we exited our room one morning we surprised a worker who emerged from the room next door, panicked they returned inside, but not before we both saw that there were a dozen workers inside.
And they were not dressed as housekeepers. Since we had the floor to ourselves, we felt it was strongly possible that part of their duties was spying on us. Even if this was not accurate, we censored ourselves for MOST of the trip.
Our first days in Pyonyang were the most mentally taxing, as you can read in my next post.