DPRK: A Journey Beyond the Border

1. Losing Contact Begins in Sinuiju

No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. no more avatars.[1]

The tour notice stated that the participants of the North Korea tour should gather at the ticket hall of Dandong railway station at 8:20 in the morning. At that time, the visa, entry and exit documents, and precautions would be distributed. Most of the tourist groups to North Korea were composed of middle-aged and elderly people, with few young people.

After the departure, the bus drove across the Yalu River New Bridge, which stood next to the bridge that was once destroyed by the US army, and now the broken bridge has become a tourist attraction. After crossing the bridge, the train arrived at Sinuiju railway station, where it would stop for about two hours to accept personnel, luggage, and train inspections. North Korea stipulates that tourists must report all electronic products, including mobile phones, cameras, computers, recording pens, USB drives, memory cards, and so on. The tour leader will mark them on the tourist list and provide them to the North Korean side.

The North Korean visa is a separate visa and will not be affixed to the passport. It will be collected after returning, and the only trace left on the passport is the entry and exit stamp of Dandong.

Following the instructions, we sat on the lower berth and waited. A North Korean came over and collected our entry and exit forms. Then a People’s Army soldier in a green uniform also came to the train to collect passports and visas. After that, the passport was left in the hands of the North Korean side. He walked around and chatted with the tour leader, then casually checked the leader’s luggage and took out a pack of cigarettes. The tour leader approached him to take out a few cigarettes, but he knocked them down and took the entire pack away.

“Prepare to get off for inspection. Except for the food, all backpacks and suitcases must be taken off for security check. Everything must be taken off.”

The security personnel were particularly meticulous in checking printed matter. A big brother’s suitcase was opened, and several books were taken out for everyone to read, occasionally whispering to each other.

After the security check, the bus would wait for another hour before departing. Tourists can take pictures when getting off the bus, but the space for activities is limited, and they cannot move around at will. I tried to walk to the front and the back of the train but was stopped by the stationed soldiers.

If the scenery along the way is used as a yardstick for social development, then this journey has been in reverse since the departure from Sinuiju. Due to the shortage of energy, the train can only travel at a speed of 30-40 kilometers per hour to Pyongyang, which is 227 kilometers away. It is like traveling back to China’s 1970s-1980s era.

The trees alongside the railway were also meticulously taken care of like farmland, with a neat and orderly arrangement. Most of them had a circle of white pebbles around them, whether they were grown trees, newly planted saplings, or even empty spaces. I had read online before that these stones were not all white, and many were painted with white paint. When I visited a place in Pyongyang later, I picked up a stone from a flowerpot and twisted it with my hand. The white powder fell off, and the stone revealed its original gray-white color.

When we first arrived in North Korea, everyone was excited and gathered in twos and threes at the window to comment on the farmland, houses, roads, pedestrians, bicycles, etc. After an hour, everyone’s enthusiasm had waned. They chatted, watched videos, and went to bed in their own bunk beds.

As we passed through a field, I saw a child running towards us from a distance, looking up at the train. Perhaps in his eyes, the power and speed of this behemoth, as well as the distance it was going, would fascinate him deeply.

The electric poles visible in the field were relatively primitive, mostly square or circular cement pillars. At railway crossings, most of them were still guarded by special personnel. In some remote villages, the guardrails were often simple, with two slender cement pillars standing on either side and a wooden stick in the middle.

Some villagers may also work as road maintenance workers, removing the ice from the road in winter and using an iron shovel to level the raised areas in the dirt road.

The country roads wind and bend and are not hardened, all of them are dirt roads. Occasionally, vehicles passing by do not slow down, raising clouds of dust. However, there is a layer of fine and compact soil on both sides of the railway, making it more comfortable to walk on. So people have developed a second use for this railway, besides transportation. Pedestrians and cyclists stick to the side of the railway, and when the train passes by, they can always see them through the portholes, and they will also stop to watch the tourists.

Children in the countryside do not have many entertainment activities, such as playing in the water in summer and skating in winter. They can also have fun with their homemade simple slides and two small sticks. However, most adults look distressed. In the later period of Kim Jong-il’s administration, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the deterioration of relations with China, aid to North Korea plummeted, leading to a severe famine. The people could only find a way out for themselves. They wore old clothes, mainly women aged 30 to 60, carrying a bulging backpack with exchangeable goods, shuttling between the city and the countryside to exchange goods, or taking them back for processing and selling them at a slightly higher price. Thus began a self-rescue market that gradually spread throughout the country.

After the sky had darkened, there wasn’t much to see outside the window, mostly just darkness. As we approached the city center of Pyongyang, there were some lights visible, and someone in our group exclaimed, “North Korea also has taxis!”

Our North Korean guide, who had come to pick us up, had been waiting on the platform for a long time. After taking a headcount, we got on a bus and headed to the West Mountain Hotel. In North Korea, only carefully chosen people can interact with foreigners, and the majority of them are women. The service staff at hotels, restaurants, and shops are all young, beautiful women.

I heard that in the past, travel groups were usually composed of four North Korean personnel: one driver, two guides, and a person known as the “political commissar.” Nowadays, due to the increasing number of tourists, there are usually only three. Regardless of the size of the tour group, two North Korean guides are essential. In Kaesong, I saw a two-person tour group with two guides. Besides taking care of the tourists, the guides also have a duty to monitor each other to prevent bribery or inappropriate disclosures.

Before departure, the Chinese travel agency provided us with a notice with some highlighted items:

  1. Passports and visas must be carefully guarded. If lost or damaged, the tourist is responsible for all losses incurred!

  2. You can bring home video cameras, cameras, tablets, and game consoles to North Korea. It is prohibited to bring materials, publications, propaganda films, American, Japanese, South Korean (Korea) movies or TV series that defame North Korea, professional cameras, or military telescopes. Do not photograph North Korean military or police personnel. Do not take pictures of places or objects that local guides prohibit. When visiting the North-South Military Demarcation Line at Panmunjom, do not greet the soldiers on the other side to avoid unnecessary trouble. Otherwise, you will be held responsible for the consequences.

  3. It is not allowed to print statues or portraits of the great leader of the North Korean people in any written materials such as promotional materials, tour notices, or commemorative publications carried into North Korea. Otherwise, you will be held responsible for the consequences.

  4. Please turn off the Wi-Fi function of all electronic devices during your stay in North Korea. Otherwise, you will be held responsible for the consequences.

  5. All missionary activities are prohibited in North Korea.

After arriving in North Korea, the definition of “places or objects that local guides prohibit” falls under the jurisdiction of the North Korean guides. In other places, what is not prohibited is generally allowed, but in North Korea, what is not permitted is prohibited.

2. Pyongyang! Pyongyang!

Make the whole country transform into a socialist paradise, following the example of the revolutionary capital city, Pyongyang![2]

On the bus, the North Korean tour guide said that 80 million North Koreans welcomed our arrival. The guide’s 80 million also included South Korea’s 50 million population, as well as the 6 million ethnic Koreans living in China and overseas. In contrast, the map printed in North Korea is a complete map of the Korean Peninsula, including the territory of South Korea.

When introducing buildings, the tour guide can always recite a long string of numbers without stopping. For example, the total height of the Tower of the Juche Idea is 170 meters; the tower body is made up of 25,550 pieces of white granite, symbolizing the total number of days in 70 years of Kim Il-sung’s life multiplied by 365 days; the tower has 18 sections in the front and back and 17 sections on the left and right, totaling 70 sections, commemorating Kim Il-sung’s 70th birthday.

The obsession with numbers is also reflected in the pursuit of time. “Pyongyang Speed” is a well-known political slogan. It first appeared after the Korean War, and the government claimed that the flattened city of Pyongyang was rebuilt in just one year. In the subsequent Chollima Movement, this slogan was given more meaning and became a slogan for quickly achieving certain production targets.

Throughout the trip, the concrete manifestation of “Pyongyang Speed” can always be heard from the tour guide’s mouth. For example: “The Future Scientists Street was built in just one year; the Xishan Hotel was renovated in just six months; the leader said that the old houses on Changdeok Street did not match the new look of the center of Pyongyang, so they were renovated in just one year…”

The tour guide requires tourists to wake up at 6:50, then go downstairs for breakfast and gather on the bus at 7:50. There is a wake-up service in the morning, and the big brother in the same room initially thought it was provided by the hotel, but later learned that the wake-up calls were made by the tour guides.

There is a one-hour time difference between North Korea and Beijing, so according to Beijing time, we have to get up at around 5 am and depart at 7 am, returning to the hotel at 5 or 6 pm in the evening. In the itinerary of the day, the density of the arrangement of attractions is high. Apart from the time for lunch, most of the time is spent either visiting scenic spots or on the way to them.

The definition of time is also a form of power. After the First Sino-Japanese War, the Qing Dynasty signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki with Japan, which recognized the independence of the Kingdom of Korea as a sovereign state and abolished Korea’s tribute system and rituals to China. Based on this, the Joseon Dynasty of Korea established the “Great Korean Empire” and created the “Korean Standard Time” as part of modernization. Later, the Russo-Japanese War broke out, and Japan defeated Russia, consolidating its colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula. Japan ordered the Great Korean Empire to modify its standard time to align with Japan, thereby ending the brief existence of Korean Standard Time.

In 2015, North Korea issued a decree to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the country’s liberation (from Japanese colonial rule), changing its standard time back to the “Pyongyang Time” to reflect the indomitable will and belief of the North Korean military and civilians. The decree also stated that the evil Japanese Empire had implemented a policy to annihilate the Korean nation, trampling on Korea’s history and culture, and depriving Korea of its standard time. Therefore, the establishment of “Pyongyang Time” is a reckoning for the crimes of the evil Japanese Empire.

In 2018, the “Panmunjom Declaration” was signed at the Peace House in Panmunjom, and an agreement was reached to align Pyongyang Time with Seoul Time. According to the South Korean presidential office, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in discussed during their meeting at the Peace House that he saw clocks hanging on the wall displaying the different times of North and South Korea, which made him “very sad.” He then made the decision to change the time, saying, “Let’s start with time to unify North and South Korea.”

Before departure, many travel blogs online mentioned the experience of a night tour in Pyongyang, which is a mixed experience of taboo, heartbeats, and challenges. North Korea has not opened up to individual tourism, and all tourists must join a tour group. They cannot go out at night and cannot interact with ordinary North Koreans during the day. All itineraries must be accompanied by a North Korean guide. There is no signal, no network, and everything is in isolation.

North Korean guides will check into the same hotel as the tourists after receiving the group. However, there are subtle differences. For example, at the Koryo Hotel, there are four elevators that can be used, but only elevators 2, 3, and 4 can go to the high floors above the tenth floor, and elevator 1 can only go to the second to the tenth floor. Tourists’ rooms are all on the tenth floor or above, while the guides’ rooms are all below the tenth floor. These rooms may not have a television or cannot receive TV channels other than North Korea. Tourists’ rooms can watch channels such as China Central Television, Phoenix TV, and some Russian TV channels.

The Yanggakdo International Hotel and the Koryo Hotel are closer to the city center and have a greater chance of free movement. The Westin Hotel, where we stayed, is located near the outskirts of the city, and there are guards outside the hotel. The road leading to the outside world is also without streetlights.

On the night of my arrival, I anticipated that the surveillance might be lax and there would be a good chance to slip out of the hotel, so I prepared and went outside. In the lobby, many North Korean tour guides were doing various tasks, including our own guide. Our eyes met, and we couldn’t help but greet each other, so I said hello and suggested going for a walk in the small garden outside. After walking around the garden for a while, I realized that I couldn’t leave on foot. Then I saw a taxi parked outside the hotel and wondered if I could use it to leave. I approached the driver, who thought I was a customer, and greeted me in Korean. I smiled at him, spoke a few words in English and Chinese, and then opened the map on my phone to show him the location of Pyongyang Train Station and asked if he could take me there. He took a few glances and immediately refused, closing the window.

My thieving heart still wanted to give it another try, but I caught a glimpse of a figure approaching me from the corner of my eye. It was the guide who had just been in the hotel lobby. He acted as if nothing had happened and didn’t mention the taxi at all. He just inquired about my well-being and suggested going back to the hotel because it was so cold outside.

The next night, when the guide saw me wanting to go out again, he invited me to chat in the lobby.

On the last night before I left, I thought this was my last chance. I walked far away from the hotel and saw an empty taxi, so I waved to it and took out the Chinese currency and map on my phone, hoping to persuade the driver to take me. I tried two or three drivers, but they all refused. When the last taxi drove away, I suddenly heard a voice behind me. It was the guide, calling my name. Just like before, he completely ignored the taxi as if nothing had happened. It was like an accidental encounter, very natural. We greeted each other and he led me back to the hotel. Perhaps we had an unspoken agreement in our hearts: he knew I wanted to sneak out, and I knew he was ordered to “guard” tourists.

The day we went to the cooperative farm was Sunday, which was supposed to be a day off. There were a kindergarten, a primary school, a high school, a sports field, and so on in the farm. We arrived there a little after eight in the morning, but the gate to the kindergarten we were supposed to visit was tightly closed. The guide told us to wait at the gate, and he made call after call on his phone.

I walked to the back of the kindergarten and heard voices inside. Later, I found out that it was the teacher calling the children. After about ten minutes, we filed into the kindergarten. There were a dozen or so three- or four-year-old children in a small room, and the teacher was playing a simple piano next to them. Soon, the room was crowded with tourists. The children sang nursery rhymes with the teacher’s guidance and waved goodbye when it was over. But the tourists did not have the necessary self-awareness; they took photos, videos, and said hello to the children, and the teacher didn’t hurry them, singing and waving goodbye to the children repeatedly.

After the kindergarten visit, our tour guide led us to a nearby farmhouse, telling us that it was home to “ordinary” North Korean farmers and that tourists could observe the daily life of ordinary North Koreans. We took off our shoes at the door and the male head of the household was nowhere to be seen, probably at work. The sun was shining brightly and there was not a speck of dust on the front and corners of the house. The hostess chatted with the tour guide and smiled at the continuous stream of visitors. In the corner of the bedroom, two older women sat quietly on the floor, silently watching everyone without saying a word.

At first, I thought that these people and this house were deliberately arranged, but when I saw the cosmetics neatly arranged on the dressing table with obvious signs of use, I was inclined to believe that this was indeed the daily life of North Koreans. When the country needs it, this place can also become a showcase house for external display. But if given a choice, how many people would be willing to be viewed by a group of strangers and even pointed and commented on from time to time? After leaving, I would occasionally think of those two women sitting in the corner of the room, watching the scene of tourists laughing and taking pictures with their phones and cameras. They just looked on silently, without any expression on their faces.

North Korea implements 12 years of compulsory education, from primary school to university, with classes in the morning and various interest classes in the afternoon. The Kangpan Rock High School we were going to visit was also a “very ordinary” high school according to our tour guide. After getting off the bus, we were instructed to go to the auditorium where we could take photos of the students on the playground, but without any contact.

After everyone was seated in the auditorium, a group of high school girls came on stage to perform. They played saxophone, violin, drums, and other instruments skillfully, and their singing was also pleasant. After the performance, the teacher said we could take a group photo on stage. The female students on stage immediately took action: the front row automatically half-squatted, and the back row divided into two columns, standing in a semicircle to allow the tourists to stand in the middle and take pictures.

There were various slogans around the auditorium, and I pointed to one above and asked what it meant. The tour guide gave an answer that was a bit unexpected but made sense: “There is nothing to envy in the world.”

“Nothing to Envy in the World” is a well-known North Korean children’s song with another name, “The Whole World Envies Us”. The content praises North Korean children for living in the happiest country in the world under the care of the leader and the North Korean Workers’ Party, so there is nothing to envy. The lyrics symbolizing “Kim Il-sung” as a father have changed over time to “Kim Jong-il” or “Kim Jong-un”.

Climbing the Juche Tower is one of the few optional activities during the trip, but it’s not mandatory. The entrance fee is 40 yuan. The guide proudly says that this is the tallest stone tower in the world, with a height of 170 meters and a top of 150 meters. Despite being so high, the elevator inside takes only 20 seconds to reach the top. I tested it myself and secretly timed it with my phone, and found that it took about 90 seconds.

After reaching the top of the tower, I realized that photography was not allowed. The guide said, “Sometimes it’s allowed, sometimes it’s not. I don’t know when it’s allowed, but it’s not allowed now.” Like other regulations, it only needs to be informed and not discussed. Tourists must obey.

After the Korean War, Pyongyang was in ruins and urgently needed to be rebuilt. Kim Il-sung went around seeking help and received aid from socialist countries around the world, especially from the Soviet Union and China. Soviet architects brought Stalinist architectural style to North Korea, which often displayed revolutionary passion and glory with magnificent and towering buildings, symmetrical layouts, and grand decorations, showcasing the communist ideology. After decades of development, North Korea gradually developed its own architectural aesthetics. Looking out from the Juche Tower, this is a carefully designed world where macaron-colored buildings vary in height in the distance, and perfect symmetrical structures can be seen everywhere. The idealization of power and order echoes the official slogan: “Efforts to transform North Korea into a socialist paradise.”

These grand buildings unconsciously make people feel small, as if the only way out is to merge into the collective. Meaning does not need to be created or sought, following the footsteps of great comrades, refusing to think and doubt, and just following what others do. In a highly isolated world, the information that can be received is all censored and selected. As long as you believe in these, you can find peace in your heart.

Also inherited from Stalinism is the cult of personality of the individual leader, which is mainly reflected in ubiquitous portraits of the leaders, and devout patriotism is carved into the hearts of every North Korean. “The eternal sun of mankind, the eternal chairman of the republic, the great leader” Kim Il-sung and “the eternal sun of the Juche, the eternal general secretary of the Workers’ Party, the great leader” Kim Jong-il are also engraved into the texture of national construction and people’s lives, everywhere from inside buildings, stations, schools, homes, and more. Some are bronze statues, some are plaster sculptures, and there are also portrait paintings and chest badges that every North Korean wears.

The great leaders are always alive, so when visiting the Tower of the Juche Idea, we are sternly instructed to bow once instead of three times. “Three times are for the dead, but the great comrades Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are always alive,” the guide says. The Tower of the Juche Idea is dedicated to the memory of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, it is located all over the country and can be seen everywhere, with the words “The great comrades Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are always with us” written on it.

Places with the “Sun statues” of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are often equipped with lighting spotlights. Even if there is an energy shortage and the night is pitch black, the smile of the great comrades is still clearly visible.

Similarly, in official North Korean propaganda, there are many stories about how ordinary people, during earthquakes, fires, and floods, prioritize saving the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il over their own possessions.

In this context, religious beliefs are certainly considered heretical. Since the founding of North Korea by Kim Il Sung, religious beliefs have been vigorously rejected, and the only belief in North Korea is the worship of the Kim family, with the Juche and Songun ideologies being the main manifestations. As part of the worship of the Kim family, whenever the names of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un appear in written form, they must be printed in larger font sizes to show respect. The same rule applies to the internet as well. On the official website of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, called “Minjok Tongshin,” whenever their names appear, they are bolded or printed in larger font sizes.

"Minjok Tongshin" is the official website of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland in North Korea, established in 2004. It mainly promotes political ideas for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. The website's server is located in Shenyang, China.

As the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung enjoys the highest honor. Therefore, North Korea’s highest institution of higher learning is named Kim Il Sung University. Kim Jong Suk, as Kim Il Sung’s wife and Kim Jong Il’s mother, is revered as the “Mother of the Nation,” and the Kim Jong Suk University of Education is named after her. Kim Hyong Jik, as Kim Il Sung’s father and a former teacher, has the Kim Hyong Jik University of Education and the Kim Hyong Jik Military Medical University named after him. Kang Pan-sok, as Kim Il Sung’s mother, has the Kang Pan-sok Revolutionary School and Kang Pan-sok High School named after her. The list goes on.

I once saw a passage on the internet that said, “The ‘Juche ideology’ created by Kim Il Sung is like the ‘Bible’ of the North Korean people, which provides spiritual nourishment. The ubiquitous Eternal Life Tower and Sun statues are like Christian churches, reflecting the spiritual will in architecture. The leader’s chest badge worn by every North Korean is similar to the cross worn by Christians. It is both a symbol of the group and a marker for outsiders. When young North Koreans get married, they also express their gratitude in front of the leader’s bronze statue, similar to believers holding their wedding ceremonies in churches, as a way of showing their piety.”

When traveling to various tourist attractions, buses do not necessarily take the shortest route, but rather follow pre-selected routes. These routes often represent the image that the government wants to showcase to the outside world. Even if tourists are not arranged to get off and visit, the tour guide will still dutifully introduce them and occasionally insert some not very clever anecdotes.

Most of these stories are similar, and it is likely that tourists who have been to North Korea have heard them. The protagonists are often South Korean or Western journalists. When asked by a North Korean young pioneer how tall the statue of the Monument to the Party Founding in Mansudae is, the pioneer answered that it is as high as the sky of Pyongyang. Sometimes the question of how heavy it is will also be asked, and the answer becomes “as heavy as the hearts of all North Korean people who praise the two great leaders.”

The Kim family designed a strict system of social classification based on loyalty, dividing the population into three classes: the core class, the wavering class, and the hostile class. Under these three classes, there are 51 different categories, based on which citizens are allocated different levels of education, work, food rations, medical care, and allowed cities to live in.

As the capital of North Korea, only carefully selected, politically reliable, and talented individuals and families are allowed to settle in Pyongyang. It is rare to see disabled people in the city, as they are often regarded as useless and not allowed to appear in the city. Checkpoints are set up at various intersections in and out of Pyongyang, not only for foreign tourists but also for domestic citizens. Ordinary North Korean citizens are not allowed to enter the capital, and similarly, residents of Pyongyang cannot go to other cities or rural areas without special reasons.

Due to the lack of energy in North Korea, power outages are not uncommon, even in the capital city of Pyongyang. The night before we left, we were chatting outside our door after dinner when suddenly it went pitch black. The tour guide calmly shouted to the group still shopping in the store, “Don’t move, it will be back on in a second.” Sure enough, the power was restored shortly after.

At times, this country is like a person who is overly self-conscious yet also excessively self-confident, doing unexpected things. At the West Mountain Hotel where we stayed, they probably figured out the tourists’ schedule of going out at seven or eight in the morning and returning at six or seven in the evening. Therefore, unnecessary lights were turned off to save electricity. One day, the itinerary of the tour group ended early, so after dinner, we returned to our room first. My roommate later came up and asked me if the corridor lights were broken, as it was so dark. I said it might be for saving electricity and that they turned off the lights when tourists were not back yet. Sure enough, after about ten or twenty minutes, when they thought tourists might be returning to the hotel, the corridor lights were turned on.

When visiting a painting museum, the staff followed the tourists as they toured the exhibition hall. When the tourists finished viewing the paintings and got up to leave, the staff were responsible for turning off the lights in the exhibition hall. These staff members also have the obligation to prevent tourists from taking pictures of certain paintings, often portraits of the leaders. Tourists pointing at the leaders with their fingers would also be stopped, and the correct way is to “extend your palm, facing upward, and point your five fingers towards the leader.”

3. Korean DMZ

“There is only one Korea, leaving a unified homeland for future generations.”[3]

The naming conventions for the two countries on the Korean Peninsula differ depending on the region. In China, due to traditional customs, the two countries are generally referred to as Korea and South Korea, while in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other regions, they are usually called North Korea and South Korea. In English, both countries recognize “Korea” as their name, and when referring to them, outsiders will often say “North Korea” and “South Korea,” abbreviated as “N. Korea” and “S. Korea.” Most of the time, due to South Korea’s stronger national power, “Korea” refers to South Korea. North Korea has never recognized the name “South Korea,” and they don’t like being called “North Korea” either. They refer to themselves as “North Korea” and in English, as the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), while referring to South Korea as “South Korea,” and sometimes even as “the southern side.”

Although North Korea promotes a sense of kinship with South Korea to outsiders, the vigilance towards South Korea has never decreased, and is even stronger than their wariness towards the United States. At the Sinuiju checkpoint, if Korean songs, books, or movies are found, strict questioning will follow. South Korean tourists are also unlikely to be allowed into North Korea.

A powerful external enemy is beneficial for creating internal unity, and for North Korea, the biggest enemy is undoubtedly the United States. The guide explained that due to US economic sanctions, North Korea cannot import enough oil and other materials, which causes the road to the Panmunjom Joint Security Area to be bumpy. Since “American imperialism” is the common enemy of both China and North Korea, everyone on the bus shouted “Down with American imperialism!” during the bumpy ride.

After a short time on the bus, we drove onto Unification Street, where there is a “Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification” built to commemorate the 2000 North-South Korea summit. Dozens of buildings line both sides of the street, “half of which are empty and reserved for our southern compatriots after reunification,” said the guide. In recent years, due to resource shortages, the remaining half has also gradually been occupied by North Koreans.

The distance from Pyongyang to Panmunjom is 160 km, and from Panmunjom to the Joint Security Area is 8 km, a total of about three and a half hours of driving. The road conditions are poor, and cars can only travel at a low speed. There are very few vehicles on the road, and most of the time we were the only car. Occasionally, we would see farmers walking or riding bicycles on the road, carrying large bags filled with various exchangeable goods. Compared to residents in Pyongyang, they dressed plainly, had dark skin, and mostly kept their heads down while walking, occasionally sitting on the roadside to rest, appearing as hard and silent as stones in the water.

After passing through four military checkpoints, we arrived at Panmunjom. According to some elders in the tour group who had been to the South Korean side of the border, the North Korean side was more worth visiting as the South Korean side did not allow people to approach the military demarcation line and one could only view it through binoculars. At one point, the tour guide pointed to some mountains outside and told us that there were both the North Korean and South Korean flags flying there. To make sure we heard him correctly, he emphasized again, “That’s the South Korean flag, not the national flag.”

After leaving Panmunjom, the tour group went to Kaesong, an ancient city with a long history. It belonged to South Korea after World War II but was later ceded to North Korea after the Korean War. The tour guide took us to visit Sungkyunkwan University, but most of the elderly people in the group were only interested in taking photos and showed little interest in the explanations, causing the group to become scattered. Seeing this, the tour guide’s enthusiasm for explanations waned, and he often just briefly mentioned some points before chatting and joking with the staff inside the hall.

I told the tour guide that there is a famous university called Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea. He widened his eyes and repeatedly said, “Really? I’ve never heard of it.”

Power always flows from the top down, and the degree of implementation decreases as it radiates outward from the center. When we were in Pyongyang, the tour guide told us more than once that people in residential buildings did not hang clothes to dry on their balconies because it was considered “uncultured” and showed a lack of “quality.” Similarly, in every season, there were always several pots of flowers on the balconies. If someone did not do so, they were considered to be from a family that lacked “culture” and “quality.”

However, things were different in Kaesong. Although the walls of most residential buildings along the road were painted with colors, the buildings behind them were mostly dull, faded, and cluttered. Most homes had solar panels with low power that could only drive lights or charge mobile phones. The number of visible flowerpots on the balconies had significantly decreased, and some families were too lazy even to display fake flowers. Instead, visitors could see many clothes hanging on makeshift clotheslines made of ropes or wires, with more than ten pieces of clothing hanging openly in front of their homes.

The tour guides often boasted about the superiority of the socialist country’s distribution system, saying that every North Korean had access to a home. But in these two places, I still saw many unfinished buildings. Some of these unfinished buildings were only half-built, with no windows or outer layers, while some were used as normal residences with plastic films pasted on the windows.

4. Homeward Bound

This fantastic journey is largely due to the Korean complex that more or less exists in the minds of the Chinese people. Only the Chinese can truly understand Korea because China’s past is now Korea’s present. When the Chinese look at Korea, it is like looking back at their own reflection from yesterday.[4]

On the day of our return, although we only had one or two hours of free time, the tour group still arranged for us to visit the Victory Memorial Museum of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.

After decades of education, almost all Koreans believe that the war was launched by the United Nations led by the United States to invade North Korea. As the number one enemy, “American imperialism” is always on their lips, while “Japanese devils” are occasionally mentioned. The southern neighbor, the most familiar stranger, can only be called a “puppet of American imperialism.”

In the memorial museum, the Koreans collected “spoils of war,” the majority of which were various weapons, tanks, and airplanes of “American imperialists.” What they were most proud of was the capture of the American spy ship Pueblo in 1968. The museum guide led us to board the ship and introduced us to the heroic deeds of the Republican soldiers and the ignominious defeat of American imperialism.

The work of the North Korean tour guide began when they picked up the tourists from the Pyongyang railway station and ended when they sent them off. After escorting us to the waiting room, the guide bought two platform tickets from the staff at the door, without which we could not enter the platform. The train slowly started, and the guide waved goodbye from the window, watching the train leave before leaving.

The same process was repeated when we arrived at Sinuiju. We handed in our electronic devices, sat on the beds, waited for the passport and visa checks, and then got off the train with our luggage.

When a Korean People’s Army soldier checked our passports and visas, he suddenly climbed onto the middle bunk, opened the pillows and blankets on the upper and middle bunks, carefully checked them, and then left without saying a word.

After the inspection, the train slowly left Sinuiju and finally crossed the Yalu River Bridge back to Dandong Railway Station. As signals gradually appeared from inside the carriage, everyone took out their phones to check WeChat, make phone calls, and post on their Moments. Suddenly, an elder brother raised his voice and laughed into his phone, “Guess where I went these past two days?”

The original text of this article is in Chinese, translated by ChatGPT-3.5).

  1. 1.Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  2. 2.In 2015, the Central Committee and Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea released a total of 310 new joint slogans to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of North Korea and the 70th anniversary of the founding of the party. This is one of them.
  3. 3.Propaganda slogan at the Panmunjom Joint Security Area
  4. 4.Unquiet Rivers: A Fantastic Journey Along the China-Korea Border / Yang Meng / 2016 / Bachi Culture Publishing House