The guides showed us many different forms of art from the DPRK. We even visited the main art studio in Pyongyang, the place that builds the impressive statues and murals of the Kims. We talked to some of the artists and they explained about the importance of their work.

We also saw a circus program, but I had no camera with me. It was mainly about acrobatics.

At some point we visited the Children’s Palace of Pyongyang. This is the place where the school children go for extra curricular activities. There was one such palace in Bucharest too and I am very familiar with it because I attended some activities there too. The palace in Pyongyang brought me many memories from the childhood. So much resemblance with the building in Bucharest… same marble, same cold rooms, same decorations. We visited some of the classrooms, where the children were rehearsing dances, sewing, playing instruments and so on. Last thing we were invited to attend a show. It was such a great performance. So well they sang, so well they danced. I’ve seen professional artists in commercial shows doing so much worse than these little children! The show started with a song named “I am grateful to hug General Kim Jong-il” :-). There were many patriotic songs but also something from the folklore. Amazing performance!

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Not much is today left from pre war Pyongyang because it was razed by US carpet bombing during the 1950-1953 war. It was quickly rebuilt afterwads with soviet aid in socialist realism style, with wide avenues, massive buildings and somptuous art works. It was completely forbiden to take close pictures of the citizens or through the store windows, but I could not resist doing it. We were told that walking on the city streets (even accompanied by guides, as we were) was a recent freedom.

Private vehicle ownership is uncommon so the streets are pretty empty. There is wide public transit coverage but many people walk. Therefore the city is unusually quiet and the air is very clean. Koreans seem pretty concerned with dust and I’ve seen city employees with little brushes removing debris from the cracks in the pavement. Flowers, trees and grass all around complete the most tranquil urban landscape we’ve seen so far.

There is an evident lack of consumer goods as most stores we’ve seen were empty but people told me the overall economical condition has been improving steadily during the past 2 years. The Koreans call the period after 1994 “the national disaster” blamed on the fall of socialist system in the Eastern Europe as well as abnormally bad weather.

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Government propaganda

As you might know, propaganda is very strong in the DPRK. The cult of personality is far beyond what I witnessed in Romania 25 years ago. For example, upon their death, Kim Il-sung was “elected” “eternal president of DPRK” and Kim Jong-il “eternal president of the Worker’s Party”. Therefore, the current person in charge of that country, Kim Jong-un, is actually the first secretary of the party, the top position not occupied by dead people. Their statues and murals are displayed everywhere and people, including foreigners, are expected to bow in front of them to show their respect.

The ruling party is the Workers’ Party of Korea. The guide said there are two other smaller party that govern the country in alliance with the main worker’s party. The national insign features a brush in addition to the hammer and sickle of the traditional communist countries. The brush is the symbol for the educated people, similar to the compass used in the former GDR.
In the hotel we had some Russian, Chinese, Japanese TV channels and also BBC. But the koreans can only watch the national broadcast, which covers mostly Kims’ activities. A common scene is when one of the Kims is walking in front of a group of peasants, workers or military personnel and suddenly, a group of 2 or 3 crying bystanders start running to hug him. Kim returns their hugging and pets them to calm their emotions, and then he walks further.
Each museum or exhibition emphasizes the close and direct guidance Kim Il-sung gave in development of agriculture, industry, transport and even subway system. Each objective, such as school, library park or railway station proudly displays a list of visits made by each of the leaders. This red plaque reads when each leader took a ride in the free fall tower in one amusement park. There was one such plaque in front of each ride in that park.
To further glorify the leaders, their accomplishments and their ideas, each summer the mass games are held, during which huge crowds display synchronized dancing, martial arts and other movements. We were able to see school children rehearsing for such games everywhere in Pyongyang during our visit.
First day of our trip was particularly solemn and wearing a shirt and a tie was compulsory. We visited fist two Kims’ mausoleum and the cemetery of national heroes.

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Getting in

At this moment, most tourists can only go inside the DPRK as part of a guided tour. We picked Koryo tours, a travel company with (mainly) British staff based in Beijing. They booked the flight tickets, hotel, obtained visas and took care of all the details.

We departed from Beijing aboard a Tupolev 204 flown by Air Koryo, DPRK’s flight carrier (which was parked side by side at the gate with a South Korean counterpart). Service was good and food, although not fancy, tasted better than most other food we had aboard planes.

The terminal building in Pyongyang was basic but enough for the light traffic. We cleared the immigration and customs without issues and without luggage search, but we had to declare all electronic devices.

The group was formed by 20 tourists, mostly from UK, Australia and Germany. We were accompanied by 2 guides from Beijing and the following Korean staff: 2 senior guides, 2 junior guides, 2 drivers, 1 camera operator and 2 more persons that appeared to be in charge with general oversight. At the beginning they were very tense but after 1-2 days everybody was friendly and relaxed.

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We arrived recently in Beijing and we had one day before departing to North Korea. I felt incapacitated without wheels so I decided to try to rent some bikes from the Beijing bike sharing project. Since we were non residents the situation was a bit more complicated. Furthermore, after some 2 hours of trying we had to give up when we understood that in between the bike rental place and the metro station across the street (the place where we purchased the required metro cards) there was a district boundary and the cards weren’t going to work at that particular rental center. OK… we took the train and after sweating for some 30 minutes we arrived at the Forbidden City. In our opinion the fame is well ahead of the actual value of this objective. Perhaps, after seeing so many exciting sites, the average ones can’t impress us anymore. Anyways, the compound consists of a few similar looking buildings that housed the Chinese emperor from around 1420 until 1925, during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

After that we took a rickshaw ride in narrow alleys in Hutong. In the gate picture, the 4 things above the gate show the social rank of the owner while the 2 rock sculptures on the sides show his employment.

Last thing we went on a nearby hill to have a better view of the palace.

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