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For Carlos Anchieta, Christmas of 2015 was not spent around a decorated plastic tree with presents, good food, and family. It was spent in the only totalitarian state in the world, surrounded by anti-imperialist propaganda and murals of a tyrannical family. Carlos, who is originally from Niteroi in Brazil, is a third year International Relations and Political Science student at Victoria University, and spent three long, strange days in Pyongyang, North Korea last December. He sat down with Salient to talk about his experiences in one of the most enigmatic places on earth.
A: When were you in North Korea, and how were you able to get into the country?
C: From the 24th of December to the 26th, 2015. I found this company called Young Pioneer Tours (YTP) online after doing some research. They had a good deal, I liked the youth-focused environment and the fact that it is also run by a Kiwi guy.
A: Why did you want to go to North Korea in the first place?
C: I decided to visit North Korea because I wanted to go on a full trip of the north part of Asia. I was curious, and simply googled if it was possible to travel into the country, found out that it was through YPT, and just went from there. It is actually a lot easier to get in than you think.
A: What were your first impressions of the country?
C: My first impression was going through immigration. We met at a city called Dandong in China, which borders North Korea, and then we passed through the border on a ten minute train ride across the Yalu River, so not that exciting. My first impression of Pyongyang was from my hotel room window, and I realised that it was actually quite pretty, with a lot of modern buildings in the cityscape.
A: Was it terrifying going through immigration?
C: The immigration officers were actually quite friendly, so it was not so bad, but we were stuck on the train for about three hours because they had to check out everyone on board, not just the Westerners. We had to unlock our computers, cameras, and cellphones so they could check all the files in case there was any Western propaganda or pornography. And, you couldn’t have a GPS. YPT had told us what was going to happen beforehand and so we made sure that there was nothing like that on our electronic devices.
A: Wait, they went through all of your files? You’re a POLS and INTP student, we talk about North Korea being a dictatorship all the time!
C: I did have all of my notes from my POLS and INTP lecture notes on my desktop, and they did go through all of them, but luckily they did not read English that well. I wouldn’t have been arrested for it though, but we were warned that they could confiscate your devices if there was any unauthorised material on them. I had heard of this happening to someone on a previous tour, but luckily I made it through with everything. You couldn’t use anything though, there is basically no internet anyway.
A: Tell me about the tour, what sites and landmarks did you visit?
C: There was 30 of us on the tour, and we had YPT guides from Australia and New Zealand with us. There were also two other “guides” who were North Korean locals, but they were from the government and had to make sure we weren’t doing anything illegal like leaving the hotel or taking photographs of things that you weren’t allowed to, like things inside the war museums. One of them didn’t speak much English, and kind of just observed us. He was very nice. I did talk to him a few times to say hi, but that was about it.
We went to a lot of museums because they wanted to show us their interpretation of history, like how great Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are, how they won the Korean War, and how evil the Japanese and Americans are. We also visited the House of Culture, the city squares, the National Library, the Grand Study House, and other official places like that. We also did normal tourist things like go out for meals and do karaoke.
A: Because the North Korean government had planned the tour out, what kind of propaganda were you exposed too?
C: There was propaganda everywhere. In our hotel room, there was a radio which we were told were used for broadcasting state programs, but I couldn’t turn it on to hear them. There was a working television in the room, and everything was state news and state propaganda programs. Actually, I was surprised to see a BBC news broadcast, but it would have been screened beforehand though.
There was one broadcasted program on TV that was like the intro scene to Star Wars, where the text scrolls up along the screen, but instead stars in the background, it was a burning US flag and showed a picture of President Obama making a stupid face. It was pretty funny.
I mean, the tour was obviously propaganda in itself. It was focused on the history of the country, and we went to all of the squares where there is a lot of murals and statues. We saw people leaving flowers at the statues of the two leaders, and pray and cry. Their pictures are in every train of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il as well above the door. It is like a religion almost.
A: Did you see any examples of poverty or human rights violations whilst in Pyongyang?
C: No, because the tour is planned so much that there are specific streets that we walked down so we would never see anything like that. Even when we went through the countryside, we didn’t see anything because it is all selectively hidden. We could never interact with anyone other than someone associated with the tour either. The other people in Pyongyang, if we saw them, don’t speak English, so even if they wanted to say anything to us they couldn’t. But, I doubt it would be allowed anyway.
A: So you couldn’t even walk around? That doesn’t seem like a good “tourist” experience.
C: No we couldn’t, because they use these tours as not only a source of money for the government, but as propaganda for the regime. Every tour guide wanted to make sure that we would tell everyone back home how great the regime was, and that the people were devoted to the Kim leaders. It was quite obvious that this was happening, because when we arrived in the main square of Pyongyang, music started playing immediately, and I am pretty sure when we saw those people lying flowers at the monument of the Kim’s that it was staged. It was all done just to “impress” us.
A: Were you able to see any examples of North Korea’s isolation from the international community?
C: The main one was the décor. It was like being trapped in the 1970s. They also have massive blackouts because they don’t have enough electricity for everyone, they shut down some of the grids for like four hours a day. We took the metro trains to travel around the city, and the trains were really old and run down. We had a blackout once and the train stopped, it lasted a while and we were stuck with no air-con with lots of people.
The buses are also old, but I was surprised to see some really new cars driving along the road. Although, nobody actually owns a car because they don’t believe in private ownership, so you have to apply to the government to “borrow” a car. There would be nice cars driven by government officials or diplomats, but they have different plates. Once I saw a really nice Mercedes which was not marked as a diplomatic car, so it made me think that there is still a class system in place because someone would have been favoured by the government to get it. It kind of went against their whole Socialist philosophy of everything being equal.
A: To reverse that question, was there anything to indicate that Pyongyang was not so isolated from the rest of the world? Such as a seeing piece of technology like a popular brand of mobile phone or an international brand of food.
C: I thought it was funny when I first got to Pyongyang and saw that there was a guy at immigration who had a smartwatch. It was this piece of technology that was absolutely useless, because there is no wifi, so the watch can’t work. But, it was the prestige that went along with having it, you would get that kind of stuff from the government for doing something good for the regime.
One of our guides told us that she went to Sweden for a few years to study English, which was organised by the government. Even though she went to another really progressive Western country, the government invested in her and this is why I think she went back to North Korea. She believed everything she was telling us.
A: Out of curiosity, was there anything in Pyongyang that was similar to Wellington?
C: Not really, but I was surprised how “normal” it was. I mean that like, people still go to work and go to school like we do in New Zealand. They are all really proud that the government provides everything like food, healthcare, and free schooling, and love the regime and leaders.
A: Would you recommend a trip to North Korea with YPT to other students?
C: Yes, absolutely. It was just so different to any other place that I had been to. It killed the myth I had about the country that I would see so much poverty and desperation, but in Pyongyang, they do a good job at hiding that stuff from the foreign visitors.
It’s not that human rights violations don’t exist in North Korea, because human rights are eroded by the state in every way. The people are policed on everything, and I couldn’t talk to a local to find out the their real story because they would have been in a lot of trouble for communicating with us about anything other than the Great Leaders and the wonders of socialism, even if they could get beyond the language barrier.
So, yes, I would recommend this tour, but I wouldn’t do it again. It gets a bit tiring trying to be convinced on how great a place is, when we all know that it is really not.