With around 1.1 million members, and 7 million reservists, North Korea’s military is one of the largest on earth. There is universal conscription for males and selective conscription for females, with a three to five year period of service.
North Korea – Long Read

Most secretive country on earth

Photo by Eric Lafforgue

North Korea – Long Read Most secretive country on earth

Life in North Korea, with its borders still sealed to outsiders except on carefully controlled group visits, is little known to the outside world. As China, its last major ally, opens up, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea still holds out, building a god-like cult of personality around the hereditary Leaders and putting the Korean Army at the center of civic life.

Robert van Sluis
Robert van Sluis Travel Photographer

In the lobby of my hotel is an exhibition about the last years of the life of Kim Jong Il. I ask one of our guides what she remembers. “I had the day off,” she says. “At midday, there was an extra news bulletin. Usually, those bulletins are about nuclear engineering, but not this day. It announced the death of Kim Jong Il.” As she recounts the story, tears come to her eyes.

I am in North Korea (or the DPRK as it prefers to be known) on an organized tour – the only way to enter the country for foreigners. We have three guides, two men and a woman. Working in tourism here is a much sought-after job because it gives access to hard currency and some contact with the outside world. Our tour guides work for 30 days straight before having a couple of days off. “We are always studying the works of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il”, one says, “and have political classes about once a month.”

The guides illustrate our visit to North Korea with a stream of facts and figures. In scientific socialism, whatever can be measured is recorded and used to track its development. We hear about heights of buildings and statues, number of workers used to build roads, the weight of the copper used in a statue. There is a lot to take in and after a while I switch off, wondering what it would be like to hear this constantly, without having an exit.

Pyongyang is a city of broad streets with barely any traffic, save the odd trolley bus, black cars with dark-tinted windows (often Mercedes), some trams and a few bicycles. I see few taxis, but long lines at every bus stop wait for the double decker buses, which are often very full. The famous Pyongyang traffic girls stand at some intersections, but most have been replaced by traffic lights.

Too large for the people living in it

The scale of public places is huge, too large for the people living in it. This is a city designed to inspire pride in its citizens, and impress and intimidate outsiders. We pass a group of brand new apartment buildings, glamorously lit at night, with neon strips in bright colors running along the balconies. According to our guides, anyone is eligible to live there.

I see almost no commercial advertising of any kind, which adds to the feeling of calmness that Pyongyang evokes. There is one giant billboard for a North Korean- made car and quite a few military and political slogans: on columns, buildings, posters and banners. The slogans contain phrases like: “The great comrade Kim Il Sung will be with us forever”, “Follow the command of the great people’s party” and “Always have a strong heart”; quite different from the Western enticements to buying that I'm used to. The fact that the colors of many of the buildings are muted, but the propaganda is always in bright colors, definitely adds to its impact.

On my first evening, I visit the Arirang Festival at the May Day Stadium. The festival is a dance, music and gymnastics spectacle showing the Korean history from the oppression of the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), through the 1950-1953 Korean War, until the revolutionary present. It also represents the achievements of the nation: harvests, sports, gymnastics and its relationship with China. There are thousands of people in the stadium grounds, but we skirt around it all into a separate entrance for the VIP seats.

A perfect way to train young socialists

There are approximately 20,000 youngsters in the seats directly opposite us, turning the pages of placard books on cue to spell messages and create landscapes, portraits and special effects as a backdrop to the performances below. Before the show starts, they perform a series of practice runs, with loud screaming and feet stamping, an impressive prelude of what is to come. It strikes me as a perfect way to train young socialists; they all work together, but if one steps out of line, it spoils the whole.

The show is, without a doubt, utterly impressive. There is so much happening at the same time, with such volume and at such a large scale, that I do not quite know where to look: circus acts, lip-synced singing to recorded music, dancing, acrobatics, lasers, birds flying and trapeze artists. Because the overall structure of the show has not changed much since its inception in 2002, the audience knows exactly when to clap, stand up or sing along, but I am totally overwhelmed.

With about 80,000 performers in the show (many more than there are in the audience), everything is done perfectly. When I look at my photographs afterwards, zooming in on individual faces, there is not a single one that does not smile.

When the lights come on, there is a quick stop at the shops selling hand-painted posters and other souvenirs. This is good money for the DPRK, especially when you add in ticket prices between €80 and €300. We are kept separate from the North Koreans, who wait while we exit first.

I am surprised at how it can take you over

Dinner that evening sets the pattern for the meals to come. It is wonderful and plentiful, with cold summer kimchi soup, rice, tofu and many varieties of vegetables, and the food just keeps coming. Our group starts talking among themselves about what we've seen so far. “Everything is beautiful and it is presented as such a perfect world that you really want to believe in it,” says one. “You never see anything that disagrees with the image the government wants to project. It is a struggle to keep your own thoughts and I am surprised at how it can take you over.”

The next morning sees a visit to Mansudae Fountain Park. I am allowed to stroll off a little from the group, but our guides ensure we do not venture off too far. A guide seems essential in Pyongyang, a city with no real commerce, where you cannot just go and sit in a café. Museums are frequented only by groups, there are no taxis, hardly any shops visible and certainly no places to window shop.

At Mangyongdae, the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, we visit a park with a small group of houses. One of them is consistently referred to as a “simple, thatched roof structure”, the official name that underlines Kim Il Sung’s humble birth. Our energetic local guide gives a 15-minute presentation on the Eternal President’s early years and afterwards I ask her about the fact he lived so much longer than the rest of his family. “I am happy he lived that long,” she says. “So he had the time to be able to do so many great things.”

The next day, we travel on the Pyongyang Metro. The stations do not seem to be marked with lettering on the outside and allegedly double as underground shelters. They are certainly extremely deep and there is barely any lighting on the escalator down. The journey takes me through Glory, Torch, Victory, Reunification and Triumph stations and I glimpse colorful chandeliers and mosaics of holy Mount Paekdu, and Kim Il Sung guiding his people. In our compartment, we are traveling with the locals but the adults avoid eye contact.

Our guides at first seem a little apprehensive

The children however, cannot hide their curiosity. One of our group photographs a group of children and then presents them with an instantly printed copy of their likeness. This causes considerable excitement, even among the adults on the platform; although at first seem a little apprehensive, it becomes the talk of the day.

After exiting at the Arch of Triumph, we take a short drive to the Metro Museum, which has 19 enormous rooms with almost no one in them. The museum guide diligently explains every object on display, ranging from a model metro train to the pair of scissors with which Kim Il Sung opened the Pyongyang Metro. As we enter a room, two elderly ladies switch on the air conditioning in each and lock the door of the last room behind us. The most impressive exhibit is a Mesdag-like panorama of construction work on the underground. We enter through a tunnel and the display shows how the tunnels were carved out of the rock underneath the Taedong River under the guidance of Kim Il Sung. As we leave, our guide is making notes in a small notebook, handed to her by a senior. I wonder what will be done with all this information?

The road to Kaesong, Korea’s capital during the Koryo Dynasty and our destination the following day, is a long drive through lush green scenery with sharp mountain peaks skirting the horizon. Although the three-lane road is virtually empty, we drive slowly; according to our guides this is because of the international fuel sanctions that have been imposed on the country. We share the road with the occasional pony and cart, or people on foot or bicycle.

The old parts of the town are still intact

When we enter Kaesong it is dusk; people’s apartments are lit but their curtains are not drawn. Through the windows of each home I can see the two official portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, hung on the one wall on which nothing else can be displayed. Every family is also issued with a white cloth that can be only be used for dusting these framed images.

Kaesong was not damaged much in the Korean War, and in contrast to Pyongyang which was practically leveled, looks much more authentic. The old parts of the town are still intact, with block after block of Korean-style tiled roofs. After breakfast, we spend some time at the open gates of our hotel, catching glimpses of the town waking up and going to work. Even though the gate is open, none of us step outside. Without too much explanation from our guides, we already know where our boundaries are.

South of Kaesong, we pay a tense visit to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. With clear instructions on what to do (a handclap signal from the soldiers present indicates some offence), most of us are quite happy to play by the rules as we move ever closer to South Korea, which at one point is only a short jump away. It is only back in the parking lot, when we happily pose with our broadly smiling soldier-guide, that the tension is relieved. Maybe it is part of the show, maybe not, but fellow travelers say this was nothing compared to the atmosphere on a visit to the South Korean side of the border.

Journeying on, we pass through Nampo to the West Sea Barrage, a huge dam complex built to provide fishermen with more fresh water to fish in. According to the introductory film in the information center, Kim Il Sung himself decided where and how the barrage was to be constructed. The film is a celebration of the socialist tradition of overcoming nature by mass endeavor; indeed, its climax is the closing of the dam, with thousands of workers cheering and patting each other on the back, happily serving the nation and their Eternal President.

It feels as if we do not exist

After such extensive travel, we welcome a break at the Golden Lanes bowling alley. Even though it is around noon on a weekday, we find several groups of people thoroughly enjoying themselves. The software running the lanes has a distinct 1980s look and we are assigned a lane, but I spend most of my time looking around, taking photographs. Nobody pays any attention to us at all; it feels as if we do not exist. On the first floor, some chain smoking Chinese businessmen are working the slot machines, wearing gloves to handle the coins. The people bowling look as if they are having a lot more fun.

The next day is National Liberation Day and, after a stop at the moving Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery, we visit a botanical garden dedicated to the Kimjongilia and Kimilsungia flowers. It smells fabulous and I find it amazing to see an entire museum dedicated to two flowers, which were originally a gift from Indonesia and Japan to North Korea’s leaders.

In the entrance hall, there are two giant mosaics of the leaders: ideal for a group photo. There are very specific guidelines for photography here: blurred and cropped photos of the leaders are not allowed. We are also advised not to fold a newspaper across a photo of a leader and never to throw anything away that has a picture of them. Instead, we should give it to a guide who will dispose of it properly. Outside, the rain comes down by the bucket, but in spite of this, hundreds of people are practicing for one of the upcoming parades. In this weather, it appears as if the whole of Pyongyang is wearing the same type of rubber boots.

That afternoon, our visit to Moran Park is presented as a chance to mingle with the local people. The park is gorgeous but seems empty when we enter, until we meet a group of elderly ladies and one man who, as if prompted, turns on some music. The speaker is a meter tall, not really the sort of thing you would take to the park with you. We are invited to dance with the frail but elegant-looking 70-year old ladies. However, after only a few minutes we are kindly escorted to the next event. As we exit this section of the park, the music is turned off and any effort to have a second look is softly discouraged.

Always something that is controlling you


This is one of the first times we have seen a crack in the façade we are being presented with and our group discuss it afterwards. Someone mentions how we have not seen any poverty or disabled people; we are seeing only what the government want us to see. “You feel incredibly small beverywhere you go, because there is always something that is controlling you,” says one. “The most telling thing is that you do not feel free. Nothing is moving you that does not come from the outside, not the inside. People do not smile very much and the seriousness does get to you after a while.”

The evening presents a second opportunity to mingle with the locals, this time with more success. We visit a Pyongyang funfair, recently opened by Kim Jong Un. The fair is clean, with light music playing, and the attractions are in good shape. An Italian company designed the rides and most of them look hair-raising. The screams are real screams of fun, some of the few spontaneous reactions I have yet heard from North Koreans.

A small woman keeps track of the rides we go on and we visit quite a few and have a great time. On one of the rides, somebody loses a shoe that comes flying through the air. There is laughter all around, a welcome break from the stern impression the country often makes.

Our visit to North Korea is concluded by a two- day visit by charter flight to Mount Paekdu. The area is not connected to the rest of the country by road, and its exuberant growth of pine trees give it a Siberian or Alaskan feel. From Samjiyon airport, we drive gradually up the mountain, passing groups of people repairing the unpaved road by hand. About an hour below the top, we park and walk the last stretch up to its 2,774 m summit.

Where the Korean nation was formed

Mount Paekdu is holy to all of Korea and, according to Korean cosmology, the place where the Korean nation was formed. Coincidentally, the official birthplace of Kim Jong Il is also nearby. The actual mountain is a volcano, with a huge pristine lake in the crater and the border with China running through the middle of the lake. Because of its sanctity, many South Koreans also visit the mountain, but on the Chinese side, since they are not allowed to enter the DPRK. Our visit to the top is enlivened by a group of five North Korean women, all singing and seemingly very happy to be there. For the first time in days, our guides are nowhere in sight and the atmosphere is very relaxed.

At the base of Mount Paekdu lies the Secret Camp, the center of the anti-Japanese resistance lead by Kim Il Sung. There, we visit the official birthplace of Kim Jong Il, a famously rustic log cabin. “At the time of his birth, two rainbows were seen in the sky,” according to our local guide, who is dressed in the uniform of the time of the resistance. The area is littered with monuments, and it all comes together in a hyperbole finale at the Samjiyon museum, dedicated to these monuments that in their turn were dedicated to the struggle.

On our last day, a torrential rain is pounding Pyongyang. At the railway station, we are quickly escorted to the platform, past rows of waiting North Koreans. Our guides see us off and we settle into our sleeper accommodation in the guarded international carriages. We pass through expanses of green fields, with the occasional man or woman walking the flooded, muddy roads.

After we cross the Yalu River, we get our phones back. It's amusing to see so many re-connect at one time. Messaging beeps start to go off everywhere and I think how wonderful it was to spend time away from phones, news and email.

In Dandong, China, I realize it is the first time in ten days that I can move around without our guides; I find myself waiting to be told what to do. But, no, I am on my own again.


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