North Korea: Behind the veil

A rare glimpse within North Korea's heavily fortified borders reveals a surprising side to this secretive society. Behind the choreographed displays of power and 'cult of the Kims' you'll find cheeky humour, individuality and quirky flourishes

By Nigel Richardson
Published 27 Sept 2013, 18:01 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 14:50 BST

A ride on the Metro in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, is a journey through milestones of revolution, though not necessarily in the right order. We embarked at a station called Prosperity and passed through Glory, Torch, Victory and Reunification before alighting at Triumphant Return (Triumphant for short).

"This is Triumphant Metro Station," says our guide, Miss Han, as we emerge blinking into the sunlight and warmth of a May afternoon. She gestures at familiar landmarks around us. "Triumphant Cinema. Triumphant Street." And, of course, the triumphant elephant in Triumphant Street; the thing you can't tear your eyes from it's so damned big: the Arch of Triumph.

Pyongyang's triumphal arch is a replica of the one in Paris, with one crucial, vainglorious difference: it's slightly bigger. "The arch represents Kim Il-sung's triumphant return to Korea in 1945," says Miss Han, who then explains that Kim became the founding leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1948.

The Metro is just one of an exhaustive roster of political and cultural sites I visit on my week-long tour of the DPRK — as it prefers to be known. Few foreigners visit the country the West likes to pigeonhole as the world's number-one pariah state
— between 5,000 and 6,000 a year, excluding Chinese. You may believe that visiting is ethically dubious — after all, you'll certainly be contributing directly to the coffers of a state with one of the worst human rights records in the world. Or you may believe the only way to bridge divides is to meet across them — that tourism, in its small, cumulative way, helps.

If you decide to go, you're guaranteed a trip of fascinating, thought-provoking experiences. But you need to understand the parameters. Westerners are obliged to visit in a group, and the group is rigidly controlled. You're bussed about from place to place according to inflexible itineraries and instructed never to wander off — although there's little danger of us slipping away undetected. "I mean, it's not as if we're going to blend in," Hannah Barraclough, our English guide, points out during the pre-tour briefing.

That briefing takes place in Beijing, in the offices of Koryo Tours, a British-owned company that's been taking Western tourists to North Korea since 1993. Hannah lays down some ground rules: have a 'flexible attitude'; don't lecture the Korean guides on politics or history; go easy on the photos ("If they see you taking pictures of a shop, they'll think there's an ulterior motive."); and, above all, don't insult 'the Kims'.

The Kims are the aforementioned Kim Il-sung, referred to as 'Great Leader' and 'President'; his son Kim Jong-il ('Chairman' and 'Dear Leader'); and the current leader, the youthful Kim Jong-un ('Supreme Leader), the only one still alive. Throughout the parts of the DPRK I visit, their images — from billboard to thumbnail-sized — were so pervasive (on most street corners and every single jacket lapel) the adjective 'Orwellian' is for once not an exaggeration.

On the coach from Pyongyang airport to downtown Pyongyang, two specific prohibitions concerning the Kims are spelled out by Mr Li, the principal of three North Korean guides assigned to our group of 10 (there's also a coach driver and a video recordist, plus Hannah). "When taking pictures [of statues and monuments], please put the whole part of our leaders on the camera, don't cut in half," he says through his microphone. "And don't throw newspapers [with images of the Kims on them] in the trash — it's an insult to our country."

As Mr Li lays down more don'ts ("Outside of Pyongyang, no taking photographs from the coach…"), beyond the coach windows the most secretive state in the world is showing some leg. The North Korean capital is a relatively new construct that rose from the ashes of the Korean War and it has the look of an unfinished architect's model — concrete housing projects in pastel colours, wide boulevards, few cars, no apparent shops (next-to-invisible, they're located in the ground floors of apartment buildings), no advertising billboards (unless you count the Kims' smiling mugshots) and a vague air of unreality.

What are those children doing by the side of the road, scrubbing the base of a tree? Apparently they're on a work detail (it's a Saturday, so school's out), preparing the trunk for a hoop of white paint. As we drive deeper into the city, there are work parties — sorry, 'neighbourhood committees' — everywhere; old men and women, as well as children, carrying hoes and pickaxes like khaki parodies of the Seven Dwarves.

Meanwhile, in the city's many civic spaces, thousands of soldiers, paramilitaries, Young Pioneers and teenage members of the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League have gathered in regimented ranks to practice for the Mass Games. This mind-boggling spectacle of drills and gymnastics, which takes place every summer, is the product of many hours of rehearsal by Pyongyang's youth on their 'days off'. No slouching around shopping malls for them — even if there were shopping malls.

From our coach windows, we Westerners gawp, struggling to comprehend what we're seeing. I'm grateful to be able   to take stock that first evening in the sanctuary of our hotel. Yanggakdo International Hotel is isolated on an island in the Taedong River and has a revolving cocktail bar on the roof, a microbrewery in the lobby and a karaoke bar, bowling alley and casino in the basement — hence its nickname among Western expats: the Alcatraz of Fun.

It's a Soviet-style hulk of a place, for sure, but the shower is hot, the dinner (chicken noodles, fried fish, kimchi) pretty good and the home-brewed lager excellent. Our group (from New Zealand, Holland and Romania, as well as Britain) begin to relax, shifting from a state of culture shock to amused curiosity at the prospect of the week ahead. Before going to bed, I watch from the window of my room as the neon piping on buildings and bridges in downtown Pyongyang is switched off to safeguard the feeble power supply, while the images and statues of the Kims remain bathed in golden light (each graven image having its own off-line generator).

The Kims

To begin to understand how the DPRK functions and holds together, you have to experience the full force of the personality cult surrounding the Kims. The next morning, we do just that at our first port of call, the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where Comrades Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lie in state. After being divested of our cameras, phones — even sunglasses — we're fast-tracked through patient lines of homegrown pilgrims on a moving walkway that takes us into the heart of the mausoleum.

Here we're obliged to cross a platform of green rotating brushes that clean our shoes, before passing through a wind tunnel that squirts jets of air strong enough to remove the dead skin from our faces. Suitably scourged, we're fit to be ushered into the marble halls where the bodies lie. Mr Li instructs us to line up in fours as we approach the glass boxes. "Bow three times," he says, ushering us forward so we can do a circuit of each corpse. "Three times to the feet; three times to both sides. But do not bow to the head."

Beyond these halls is a museum housing the Kims' personal trains and limousines. Mr Li points inside Kim Il-sung's train carriage to a clock on the wall. "See? It still works," he says. "It's the beating heart of Korea. It shows Kim Il-sung is still alive."

Art is a vital propaganda tool in the deification of the Kims and the constant renewing of the national myth, which is why our itinerary takes us to the Korean Film Studio (it claims to churn out between 10 and 20 patriotic films a year; there's a permanent mock-up of a South Korean street, complete with decadent drinking dens and girly bars) and the Mansudae Art Studio. This vast factory complex is where all the billboards, posters, monuments and statues of the Kims are made, by a 4,000-strong army of highly skilled artists and craftsmen.

We tour galleries of accomplished paintings in the socialist-realist style — smiling female tractor drivers, an avuncular chap with a pig in a city garden — but are not allowed to see any of the colossal statues under construction. And as we drive out of the compound, a squad of female soldiers marches past our coach with rifles shouldered and bayonets attached — a coincidence? Or a show of strength? As with many of the eccentric goings-on on this trip, it's impossible to know.

And so our tour continues; by turns compelling, mystifying, hilarious and sinister — and sometimes all of these at the same time. After riding on the Metro we're given front-row seats at the Children's Palace for a superb revue of singing, dancing and general show-offery, delivered by smiling children aged from nine to 17. And however much I remind myself of the hours of gruelling rehearsal that must have gone into a show of such a professional standard, it's impossible not to get swept along with it all. My favourite is a tiny girl in a white fairy dress who looks as fragile as a dandelion clock but turns out to be a demon percussionist; bouncing around her drum kit as crazily as Animal from The Muppet Show.

Changing perception

This revue, which comes on our second day in Pyongyang, gets us thinking. Our group include some strong-minded individuals who are determined to see beyond the stereotypes of North Korea peddled in the Western media. But our initial responses are predictable. Commenting on the crowds at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the Kims lay in state, a companion whispers to me, "This is scary. So many emotionless people. Impossible to know what they're thinking." And now, at the Children's Palace, we find ourselves criticising the children's 'fixed smiles'. The truth is, the kids are different from those who compete in Western talent shows in one respect only: they're more talented. We begin to see our minds haven't been as open as we've liked to think they were.

We also begin to realise our guides aren't as rigid or humourless as they seemed at first. They've simply been as wary of us as we have of them. But gradually they turn a blind eye to our little transgressions (photographing when we've been told not to, having a quick snoop round the back of a building) and we slip into a relationship of good-natured sparring. One of our group, septuagenarian Ken from Lancashire, is particularly well-informed on North Korean history and presumes to share his learning — to the mild irritation of Miss Han, who's in her early-20s.

"He said the father of Kim Il-sung was Christian," she tells me crisply. "This is wrong information." That evening, Ken says to me, " I think she knows very well that I'm not misinformed. And she's tacitly conceding that by the way she talks." By the end of the trip they're like a bickering old couple and their farewell handshake is genuinely affectionate.

We also begin to see beyond the apparently expressionless stares of the populace. Our visit coincides with International Workers' Day (1 May), a day to paint the town red. Literally so: red flags flutter from buildings and at road junctions, while fountains are turned on along the banks of the Taedong River. And people take to the public spaces with picnics, musical instruments, loudspeakers and liberal amounts of soju, the local rice liquor. Freed of the cares of a working day, they call out to the foreigners, using the only English words they know — "Hello! Hotel! Restaurant!" — and include us in their dances and folk songs.

These are North Korea's most privileged people; Pyongyang is a showcase capital — as public a face as the DPRK is prepared to present to the world. As we trundle along its clean avenues on well-worn routes, we know we're not seeing the 'real' North Korea. But for two days, we escape its clutches, on separate visits to Nampo, on the west coast, and Kaesong in the south, beyond which lies the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) dividing the Korean Peninsula into North and South.

On these excursions, we travel through rural landscapes of desperate poverty: crumbling hovels, no tractors and peasants working the bare earth by hand. Ironically, the richest-looking farmland appears to be in the DMZ itself; in the three-mile strip behind the razor wire and tank traps, where farmers are cultivating ginseng beneath thatched awnings. Here, in the eye of a geopolitical storm that's set the world on edge for more than half a century, they grow a root that heals the world.

On the west coast, the local delicacy is clams, and the local way to prepare them is to pour petrol over them and set them alight — while drinking soju, of course. The night we spend in Nampo is marked by a bizarre barbecue, during which we Westerners and our North Korean guides make increasingly hysterical toasts as we tuck into a pile of the incinerated molluscs. "The workers united!" shout Mr Li and Miss Han. "The clams united!" we shout back. Our political masters should try it some time.


Getting there
It's only possible to visit North Korea as part of an organised tour (see the 'How to do it' section below) that starts in Beijing and includes a flight to Pyongyang on Air Koryo (around an hour). There's the option of returning by train, in a sleeper car (23hrs from Pyongyang to Beijing). Air China, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic all fly direct from the UK to Beijing.
Average flight time: 10h40m to Beijing.

When to go
April/May for the blossom season and the 1 May International Workers' Day holiday; August/September for the Mass Games; October for pleasant autumnal weather. Tours tend to finish in November and pick up again in March.

Need to know
Visas: Cost around £50 and can be arranged through a tour operator.

Currency: Euros (€) or Chinese Yuan Renminbi (CNY) are the accepted currency for visitors.

£1 = €1.16. £1 = 9.59CNY.

International dial code: 00 850.

Time difference: GMT +9.

More info
North Korea – Bradt Travel Guides.

RRP: £14.99.

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Granta Books). (Don't take it with you!) RRP: £9.99.

How to do it
Koryo Tours has a five-night tour (with one on a train), from 19-24 November 2013, from €990 (£843) per person including transport, accommodation, sightseeing and meals. The May Day Long Tour (26 April-4 May 2014) costs from €1,690 (£1,440) for eight nights (one on train). 

Opportunities to stay in your choice of hotels don't exist. In Pyongyang, most Westerners stay in Yanggakdo International Hotel. In Nampo we stayed in the Hot Spa Hotel and a Japanese-style teahouse in Kaesong.

Published in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Follow us on social media 


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved