Cordially invited to Kim Jong-Il’s birthday bash in Pyongyang

“Welcome to Korea everyone! For us there is no North or South, this is a term of foreign countries. For us it is Korea or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK. It would be great if you could also use those terms. Thank you very much.” Chimed our local Korean guide in the tour bus with a smile. “On the left is the Kim Il-Sung Square named after our country’s founding leader Kim Il-Sung. We are coming up to the Mansudae Hill Grand Monument where we will go and pay our respect to our President Kim Il-Sung and our Great Leader Kim Jong-Il…” While the guide, like an old record player, continues to list places of interest, I cannot help my brain from humming: “I am ronery, so ronery, so ronery and sadry arone.”

At the same moment, it dawned on me, we have finally arrived in North Korea. Sorry, I mean DPRK. Today is 16th of February, Day of the Shining Star, the second most important holiday for the people here because it is Kim Jong-Il’s birthday (father of the current leader). The most important day, needless to say, is the Day of the Sun, which celebrates the birthday of the first leader Kim Il-Sung (grandfather of the current leader). So here we are, came all the way to celebrate this special day with the people here. Capital.

In an ideal and free world, we would have preferred to roll into the DPRK with Toyotoro and explore the country our way but reality hits us square in the face. It’s honestly a shame we are two such sensible souls who believe there are some risks in life that one cannot afford to take. Therefore, we took the safer route of using public transport. It had been quite an effort to arrive in Pyongyang, which involved a 15 hours overnight train ride from Beijing to Dandong, followed by another 8 hours train ride from Dandong to Pyongyang. When we arrived yesterday, the city was already dark and when the wind blew the bitter cold went straight to our bones. Another nation full of hard, tough people it seems.

In an ideal and free world, we would have preferred to roll into the DPRK with Toyotoro and explore the country our way but reality hits us square in the face.

We started the day early hitting one main site after another. Constantly hopping in and out of our tour bus because it seems like the perimeter in which foreigners are allowed to roam is pretty limited. We bowed and paid our respects to their great leaders, took dignified photos in front of the statues of the great leaders, consumed in their designated Foreign Language Bookshop and supermarkets consequently, most likely, contributing to the regime. At the encouragement of our guides, we joined in to what was the largest dance of the masses in public I have ever witnessed in celebrating the birth of Kim Jong-Il. 

We joined in to what was the largest dance of the masses in public I have ever witnessed in celebrating the birth of Kim Jong-Il. 

We clapped to a performance during a dinner that involved singing and dancing that took us back to what socialist entertainment could’ve felt like at the end of the Cold War. We nodded politely when the guides emphasised, in countless occasions, that the people here are very happy, and food is plenty, with a special mention of different kinds of potatoes. When they stressed the economic prowess and speed of construction of DPRK’s infrastructures we smiled impressively. We did not take down any party posters in our hotel nor did we do anything that would jeopardise our departure from this country.

At the end of the day I would have felt content and mind rested that the people of DPRK are in the good hands of its great leaders if it wasn’t for a little nagging voice inside bursting with questions and telling me something is amiss. For example, why can’t I shake off the feeling that wherever we went people were following us? BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU in capital letters starts to float in front of my paranoid irises. Why do I have the funny feeling those ‘guests’ lingering in the hotel lobby feel like actors and actresses? And I definitely don’t like being herded and cooped up like animals, who are deprived of freedom of movement. 

A little nagging voice inside bursting with questions and telling me something is amiss.

Oh and why can’t I buy my own metro ticket so I can keep it as a token of souvenir? I was that close to interacting with a local! Too close. Most of all why are there two currencies and to openly deceive us? We had been using Chinese RMB or Euros during the whole trip, but the guides took us to a supermarket to change some local currency. True enough we were able to buy food and commodities in that supermarket. However, when someone in our group tried to buy something not from one of the assigned shops for foreigners with the Korean money we just changed it was not accepted. It was only afterwards did we find out, that like many other socialist states, there is one currency for the locals (red won) and one for the capitalists (blue won) a.k.a. tourists. I feel so cheated! How dare you spin your web of lies around me! I want my money back!

After my fury subsided what came to my mind are, short but sweet clips, of smiling faces of local children and some adults, waving at us. Many curious and harmless faces looking towards our tour group. During the Day of the Shining Star, people gathered in public smiling and joking with each other, like you would see in any other country. The Korean guides felt mechanical when giving us the tour, and restrained when answering some questions, but they are undoubtedly kind. They would enjoy the feelings of joy and happiness, and like the rest of us in the world want a good life for themselves and their family. It is only a shame that we are kept so far away.

The centre of Pyongyang might not look very different from other cities we have visited, that had a socialist past, but I feel we barely scratched the surface of discovering this mysterious country. I will never know if those grapefruits placed in those potentially fake supermarkets are real or not! But at least we made a start to understanding a way of living that is quite different to ones we lead. This trip recalls certain uncanny parallels to the socialist ideologies and scenes of oppression from the world of Big Brother from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”

"War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength."

But who are we to judge another country’s governance. After all, democracy comes in different forms and spectrums. We might hold these to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We might believe “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…” What works for one government might not work for another, right?

All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

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