North Korea – Day One

The plane is a slightly battered, rear-engined Ilyushin with bus-style overhead racks, shrieking jets, and a carpet that appears to have been purloined from a Leicester curry house in 1973. On board we’re served the largest airline meal I’ve ever seen, our trays overflowing with typically mediocre airborne slop, but the flight itself is smooth, the stewardesses are attentive and friendly, and copies of the English-language Pyongyang Times bring us news of Kim Jong-il’s latest exploits, offering on-the-spot guidance to the faithful. It’s gripping stuff.

Air traffic control at Pyongyang International is not a full-time job.

After passing through customs and immigration without fuss, we’re separated into groups and meet our guides. Ours is Mr Lee, an elegant North Korean with a sharp suit and extravagant nasal hair, assisted by the pretty but prim Miss O, a language student obviously nervous at the prospect of spending the best part of a week ferrying irresponsible foreigners about. We clamber aboard the bus, driven by another local, this one with a big smile, negligible knowledge of English, and a peculiar resemblance to Christopher Walken. On the short drive into the city centre Mr Lee gives us the welcome speech, telling us about Pyongyang and how global warming has led to a ten-degree increase in the average summer temperature. We all nod our heads politely in deference to this particular revelation, and get used to the idea that not everything we get told on tour will tally with what we’re led to believe by meteorologists back home.

Our first stop is The Grand Monument, a 20-metre high bronze statue of Kim Il-sung that sits proudly atop Mansu Hill. Kim stands in front of a mural of Mount Pektu, his arm outstretched to show the way forward for the Korean nation, most of whom appear to be queuing up to pay their respects at the foot of the statue.

Waiting for God.

It’s an operation of near-military precision. Each immaculately attired group takes it in turn to pay their respects, moving forward on some unseen signal, depositing a bunch of flowers at the Great Leader’s feet, then bowing in unison before exiting stage-right to leave room for another batch to do the same. Soon it’s our turn, and we find ourselves gazing up at the Eternal President in all his bronzed glory, revolutionary music wafting across the dusk, and pay our respects. It’s an uncomfortable moment given the Kims’ reputation in the West, but most of us seem quite happy to do as expected, not wanting to cause offence in a place obviously considered sacred by the locals. When in Rome, etc.

Kilburn comes to Kim Il Sung

Next up we’re taken to our hotel, the Pyongyang Koryo, 45 floors of once-luxurious splendour that’ve seen slightly better days. It feels a bit moth-eaten, a little stale, but the rooms are large and comfortable, the views are spectacular, and the restaurant makes up in kitsch appeal for what it might lack in culinary innovation, adorned with models and cutouts celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Workers Revolutionary Party. It’s a big deal in these parts.

That slightly bewildered ‘we’re in North Korea!’ look.

Highlights of dinner include kim’chi, a spiced cabbage dish we’ll be served at every meal throughout the trip and gradually come to loathe, and a slightly suspicious looking battered fish creation.

Whaddya mean, no chips?

Very quickly we’re ushered back on the bus for one of the highlights of the tour, the Arirang Mass Games, taking place this year for the first time since 2002.

It’s extraordinary, an Orwellian wet dream choreographed by Walt Disney, a festival of brilliant colour, outrageous gymnastic skill and breath-taking discipline. Thousands of school children cartwheel, tens of thousands more control an ever-shifting mosaic stretching from one side of the 150,000 capacity May Day Stadium to the other, motorcyclists ride tightropes across the sky, soldiers parachute in from the roof, and athletes perform extraordinary acrobatic feats across the arena floor.

You put your left leg in…

You take your left leg out…

In out, in, out, Shake it all about.

You do the hokey-cokey and you turn around…

That’s what it’s all about!

After ninety minutes it’s over, and we’re hurried out of the stadium and back to the hotel. We visit the shop (among the items on sale are North Korean biscuits and a motorbike) then retire to the bar to sample the local draught, an almost black, malty affair served in proper pint pots. Everyone is breathless with excitement, discussing the first day’s events and the following day’s plans. It’s difficult to believe that we’re really here – it genuinely feels like we’ve landed on another planet – but the beer tastes good, the group is beginning to gel, and I’m not even bothered when the girl drinking next to me starts rattling on about Sting’s charity work.

Well, maybe a little.

Not actually Guinness.

Read about Day Two (morning).


  1. That wasn’t fish, it was a deep fried crispy poo. I can tell.

    I like the two gentilehommes in the hotel. How much do they charge and can I book them please?

    PS: Were they any good?

  2. Typical. I’m giving you a rare insight into the most closed nation on Earth, and you’re thinking about your libido again.

    Please behave yourself.

  3. That human LCD screen is incredible. Amazing what you can do with hundreds of thousands of brainwashed people. Did they make any mistakes?

  4. Not that I saw. I noticed one of the dancers (a child dressed as a goat) fall over, but the rest was pretty flawless.

  5. Did they shoot the kid then and there or wait until after you’d all left?

  6. That is a dark looking beer. Quite unusual to find bittery beers in Asia. Maybe it’s the more northern, chilly climate? Although I suppose tastes could change with the 10 degree increase in temperature your Mr. Lee put you right on.

  7. Is that a trackback then? Never quite got my head round them.

  8. Hmm, yes, it would. Still not entirely convinced of their usefulness… In theory maybe, but somehow not in practice. Could just be me being an old curmudgeon though.

  9. My libido? No, I was thinking about my gable end. It needs repointing and I need two big lads and a wheelbarrow to complete the task you see. It’s them or 2 Polish day labourers.

  10. Is it just me, or does everybody I know who’s been to the DPRK been ushered into some sort of mass games event? This is possibly the North Korean version of a Spanish tourist trap, where they take you up to the hills, relieve you of your money and force you to watch the local harridans flamenco dancing. I bet they made you buy the expensive tickets, too. In hard curency.

    Veh impressive, nonetheless.

  11. It’s a bit like that, but the Mass Games isn’t a one-off event. This year’s started in July, and there’ve been regular performaces ever since – they’re viewed by 2,000,000 people throughout the ‘season’. And they’re obviously a huge attraction – most people will book their trips to the DPRK to coincide with the games.

    On the other hand, there weren’t any events in 2003 or 2004.

    You’re right about the currency – 50 hard-earned Euros.

  12. Where did the hokey-cokey come from?

    travelling through germany this summer, I had heard the Hokey-cokey and thought it was “interesting” since in the US i grew up with the ‘hokey-pokey’.

    instead of “in out, in out” it’s “you put your left leg in and you shake it all about”…”you do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around…that’s what its all about.”

  13. it’s the “Hokey Tokey” here in New Zealand… Hokey Pokey is a type of ice cream (don’t know about other parts of the world)


  14. Where’s the rest of your hair?? I like it the way it is now ;)

  15. Hi,I will take my trip to DPRK soon, and nice to come across to your blog, and very interesting, however I can’t make it to the Mass Game, but will go for the individual tour, anyway, nice to meet you !

  16. I didn’t know one could get a tourist visa to go there! Wow.

  17. Is that a mosaic GUN presented so alluringly on a mosaic draped red cloth? What? Freaky foreigners.
    I’m with “hokey tokey” too, in NZ. That’s what I was searching for when I found your site.

  18. I am North Keorean, I can not belive you mock us like that. Now I understand why when my faher comes home he talkes about an attack on the USA and al of the evil ones. My father is very high in the goverment and says our life is the best in all of the world. You Americans Kill little babbies and rape our women and you call us evil. There are nopeople dieing of hunger here and we are all happy with our ruler and can not wait until one day when we rule the world. If you have any questions I will anwser them.

  19. Sure, I have a question for you: if you are North Korean, how are you connecting to the Internet? Your IP address is in a block owned by SBC, which is in the USA…

  20. Hi Fraser,
    What country are you from and did you travel alone and meet up with a group or did you have a group from the beginning? What countries were your fellow travelers from?

  21. i think you should take a look at your own country before saying anything ill-natured about DPRK…..TWAT…..when i visited USA ive never been so horrified.the difference between rich and poor….you are the richest nation in the world……i agree with bush “close the borders” but i just wish they would close them in and out…theres all hope i suppose

  22. I’m not from the USA, JuHee. Don’t jump to conclusions.

  23. Your not the boss of me,

    isn’t that the kid from Malcolm in charge? Frankie munezzz. I invite our little cool aid drinking friend from the north to spend 1 month in the USA he will find us to be very rice people and end up burning his visa. I will bet monthly rations on it. Just a regular American Joe God bless the USA.

  24. i’m interested in going to north korea… ive been doing a fair bit of research on the whole situation and i fully expect to be on a conveyor belt most of the time and have to worship the great leader when asked… truthfully how hard is it to get a video camera through customs? i dont really want it to be confiscated… secondly… which tour operator did u use? im currently teaching in south korea and have been told the only entry point is from beijing… is this correct? great blog by the way… thanks for sharing ur experiences… and sorry for the lack of punctuation!

  25. Thanks for sharing your experience, I too was looking up hokey tokey as I hav a long running argument with some Aussie friends. Looks like we’re both wrong. It seems the Poms wrote it originally as either hokey cokey or even cokey cokey. Damn

  26. I’ve heard the astronomy viewing is so much better in North Korea.

  27. Hello, I’m from Korea. You’ve been in Northkorea!! Give me a break!

    Can you tell me about more?
    How did you go there? because I wanna go there and help people there in the future that’s the one thing I wanna do.

    Hoping you reply~


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