A North Korean couple pose for a wedding photograph. Photo: Dan Medhurst

We Come in Peace | There’s Never Been a Better Time to Visit North Korea

2018 has been a landmark year. So is the 'hermit kingdom' finally opening up?

by Tristan Kennedy; photos by Dan Medhurst
Dec 20 2018, 8:58pm

A North Korean couple pose for a wedding photograph. Photo: Dan Medhurst

The Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang is a building that you’ll recognise, even if you don’t realise it. Situated on the western side of Kim Il Sung Square, its multi-tiered green roof has provided the backdrop for the TV footage of every North Korean military parade since it was built in 1982.

"Opening up a conversation about the role of political analogy in 1984 with a bunch of North Korean students would not be a good idea"

Outside is the balcony on which successive generations of the Kim family have stood to wave at the missiles, tanks, and massed ranks of troops as they file past. Inside, off a central hall dominated by a statue of the eldest of the Kims, there’s a library filled with approved texts, and a network of classrooms in which adult learners can study subjects deemed acceptable by the Great Leader and his progeny. There are seminars on Juche thought (North Korea’s ruling ideology) and, more unexpectedly, IT classes (albeit on computers connected to a limited North Korean intranet, rather than the world wide web). Perhaps even more surprisingly, there are also foreign language lessons.

It’s at the front of one of these that I currently find myself, microphone in hand, talking to a group of inquisitive North Korean workers: Not about Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell, or any of the crowning literary achievements of the language they’re learning, but about English breakfasts.

The view from the Grand People's Study House over Kim Il Sung Square. The leader's balcony is visible in the foreground, and across the river is the monument to Juche thought. Photo: Dan Medhurst

In my defence, I suspect that opening up a conversation about the role of political analogy in 1984 with a bunch of North Korean students would - at best - lead to the microphone being swiftly removed, and at worst could get my North Korean guides and the teacher in serious trouble. I’ve also had to brush over a question about what I do for a living - in order to get a visa, it’s been recommended that Amuse’s senior photographer Dan and I leave this deliberately vague on official documents. Even so, looking back, I can’t help thinking that I could have chosen a marginally more enlightening aspect of anglo-saxon culture to educate them on than the merits of black pudding in the morning.

Yet the main reason I’m struggling with what to say - and only get into my stride when someone poses the easy question about what Brits eat for breakfast - isn’t because of my reluctance to talk job specifics, or wax lyrical about the literary canon. It’s just, if you’re asked to explain how your home country differs to North Korea... where do you even start?

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as it’s officially known, is famously among the most closed societies on earth. Commonly referred to as “the hermit kingdom”, it’s usually assumed that its 24 million citizens live in a state of near-complete isolation from the outside world. Radios and TVs can only be tuned to domestic channels; that intranet system, while more sophisticated than many outsiders realise, only tells people what their government wants them to hear; and although it’s estimated that more than four million North Koreans now own mobile phones, the network, introduced in 2008, doesn’t allow for connections outside the country.

A lone North Korean worker sweats over his books in the Grand People's Study House, watched over by the ever-smiling omnipresent portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Photo: Dan Medhurst

Looking from the outside in, things seem equally opaque. The world is not short of books, documentaries or scholarly articles about North Korea, and the internet seems to have an insatiable appetite for memes of its more “unusual” quirks. And yet, even the best-informed experts would admit that a lot of what’s written about the regime is based on guesswork.

What we do know - from academic studies of North Korean texts, and plausible accounts from defectors - paints a pretty unpleasant picture. The severity of the information blackout pales in comparison to the reports of horrific human rights abuses, or the verifiable stories from their gulag-style network of prison camps.

Pyongyang's pastel architecture has become one of the city's most distinctive features. Photo: Dan Medhurst

From the point of view of outsiders visiting, the story that looms largest in the public psyche is the tragic tale of Otto Warmbier, the 21-year-old American student who tore down a propaganda banner on a drunken night out in 2015, and was returned to his parents two years later in a vegetative state. While serious doubt was later cast on their culpability, at the time, US officials claimed that he’d been beaten into a coma by his North Korean jailers, for what seemed like a laughably petty crime.

All of which makes the idea of North Korean tourism seem like a strange one. Travelling to a place that’s seemingly impossible to get to know - not to mention dangerous - wouldn’t conform to most people’s idea of a holiday. And then there’s the morality of taking such a trip. Are you better off going, on the assumption that even the limited interactions you’re allowed with local people might break down barriers? Is there any truth in what could be called the “Marlboros & Blue Jeans” argument: that exposure to heterodox, westernised culture could contribute to a crisis of legitimacy for the regime, as it supposedly did in Eastern Europe? Or, on the other hand, will your presence in the country merely add legitimacy (not to mention an injection of hard currency) to a nasty, despotic dictatorship?

North Korean citizens - and soldiers - on the streets of Pyongyang.

Yet despite all these obvious difficulties, western tourism to North Korea persists. “We’ll take in maybe 1,500, maybe 1,800 tourists this year,” explains Simon Cockerell, a Beijing-based Brit who’s worked for DPRK-specialists Koryo Tours since 2002. “Overall, the whole market - the so-called European Market, so excluding Chinese tourists - may be around 5,000.”

"It’s estimated that more than 4 million North Koreans now own mobile phones, but they can't connect outside the country"

These numbers are of course tiny, but they’re starting from an even smaller base. “[North Korea] only opened to tourism from “imperialist” countries in the late 80s,” Simon says, “‘88, or something like that. And when I joined, our entire market - not just our company, but our entire market - was no bigger than four or five hundred people a year.” Interest, it seems, is growing.

Pyongyang citizens packed on a bus. Photo: Dan Medhurst

But then perhaps this isn’t altogether surprising, because here’s the thing: As much as it might seem scary, there’s something undeniably fascinating about a country that we know so little about.

If human nature abhors an information vacuum, filling it with suspicion and fear, we also can’t help but be intrigued. And a mystery of the size of North Korea exerts a powerful pull on people. Jessica, Simon’s colleague from Koryo Tours, who is accompanying our group, tells us at one stage that she’s visited the country 33 times. Simon himself is up to 177.

From a personal point of view, the Siren song of North Korea became a lot harder to ignore as I watched the landmark events of 2018 unfolding. Not least because I was lucky enough to have a ringside seat when it started, at the South Korean Winter Olympics in February.

North Korea's leaders are everywhere in the country - in offices, schools and on street billboards. Every home in the country has to display their portraits and clean them regularly with a special cloth. Photo: Dan Medhurst

On a down day between covering events, I ventured up to the eastern edge of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) on an officially-organised tour for journalists. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a curious kind of tourist attraction - and yet, as with the North Korean side, visiting from the South remains perennially popular. Young and old, Korean and foreign, groups of friends and families, everyone had gathered to peer across this arbitrarily-selected (but militarily all-too-real) dividing line, and wonder what life was like on the other side. At the time, I thought there was little chance I would get to see it up close - but what struck me then was that the desire to do so was universal.

In fact, by the time I visited the DMZ things were already changing, and fast. The last time the Olympics were held in South Korea, in 1988, the North demanded a share of the glory. Having been told that hosting more than two or three events in Pyongyang would be a logistical nightmare, they threw their toys out of the pram in spectacular style. Two agents, disguised as Japanese tourists, planted a bomb on Korean Airlines flight 858 to Seoul, killing all 104 passengers and 11 crew on board. The attack was allegedly carried out on the orders of the then-future leader, Kim Jong Il himself.

A portrait of Kim Jong Il at the North Korean Mass Games, made up by thousands of school children holding up coloured flip books. Photo: Dan Medhurst

Fast forward exactly thirty years, and Jong Il’s son was playing a very different game at the Olympics. In a surprise move, he’d agreed not only to send athletes to Pyeongchang, but for the two countries to walk into the opening ceremony under a unified flag. His sister, a trusted confidante, was sent south as part of the delegation, and for the two weeks I was in Korea, you couldn’t move for images of her demure - apparently sincere - smile, or commentators remarking on how she’d charmed the South.

"If human nature abhors an information vacuum, filling it with suspicion and fear, we also can’t help but be intrigued"

As my party of journalists drove back from the DMZ, our South Korean guide pointed out that the enormous speaker stacks - normally used to pump propaganda and K-Pop over to the North at aggressive volumes - had been silenced, at least for the duration of the Olympics.

Elderly North Koreans waiting for the bus in Pyongyang. Photo: Dan Medhurst

From those early, tentative steps, things progressed rapidly. The decision to end the weaponised use of K-Pop (surely an offence under the Geneva Convention?) was followed by that memorable moment in April, when South Korean President Moon Jae-in shook hands with Kim Jong Un, and spontaneously stepped across the line into the North. Shortly afterwards President Trump put a stop to his own bellicose blowing of hot air, trading in tweets about the size of his nuclear button for conciliatory soundbites, and eventually a handshake of his own.

By the time Dan and I boarded a Air Koryo Tupolev 204 bound for Pyongyang, there was a feeling that, when it came to North Korea’s relationship with the outside world, change was in the air. Whether or not this would translate to change on the ground was, of course, another question altogether.

It’s hard to imagine a more immersive way to spend your first night in North Korea than attending the Mass Games. If arriving in Pyongyang is already liable to cause culture shock, then this is the equivalent of being strapped into a 2,000-volt electric chair, and then thrown in the deep end of a swimming pool.

Identically-dressed child gymnasts performing at the Mass Games. Photo: Dan Medhurst

The Games involve tens - if not hundreds - of thousands of North Korean gymnasts, soldiers, and school children performing a series of patriotic-themed dance routines to a cheering, capacity crowd in the central May Day stadium. And while I’ve seen photos of similar performances previously, nothing prepares you for the full-blown, audio-visual assault on the senses that is witnessing it in the flesh.

It’s a baptism of fire - at times, quite literally: Athletes leap through it, the performance is capped off by an enormous fireworks display, and at one stage a decidedly Olympic-looking flame is lit over the stadium. Construction on the May Day Stadium was apparently started during the abortive discussions about hosting some events in Seoul ‘88, and if you look closely, the five-ringed Olympic logo is still clearly visible in certain places - presumably etched into the concrete before they decided to blow up that passenger jet.

Gymnasts dancing at the Mass Games. Photo: Dan Medhurst

But the Mass Games are about more than just showing off. This year’s event, designed to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding, also provides a crash course in North Korean history - or, at least, the North Korean version of North Korean history.

Contrary to popular belief, our guides are well aware that we in the West see things differently. Yet despite (or perhaps because of?) this, the official version of history is reiterated on an almost daily basis throughout our trip. In fairness, it would be near-impossible for them not to talk about it. Almost every tourist sight in North Korea - from the Arch of Triumph celebrating “their” victory over the Japanese in 1945 (slightly larger than the one in Paris, we’re told), to the flame-tipped Tower of Juche Thought, in honour of Kim Il Sung’s intellectual brilliance - has something to do with the regime.

The Arch of Triumph in central Pyongyang celebrates the North Koreans victory over the Japanese in 1945, which was all down to the military brilliance of Kim Il Sung and nothing to do with the Soviet Red Army. Photo: Dan Medhurst

The official narrative is writ large in the gloating photos of captured American crewmen on the USS Pueblo; it’s there in the exhibition emphasising the shameful Yankee surrender at the DMZ; and it’s there again in the grisly, life-sized models of dead US soldiers, their guts being pecked out by crows, on display in the Museum of the “Victorious Fatherland Liberation War” (aka the Korean War).

Any doubts we may have about the facts we’re being fed are politely, but firmly, brushed aside. Our tour of the museum, for example, begins with a video telling us “Who Started the War” (Spoiler: It wasn’t the North Koreans). And when Park Chol Su, the incredibly smiley Senior Lieutenant who guides us round the DMZ, asks what I learned about the Korean War in school, he listens carefully to my version, then pats me patronisingly on the arm: “Well, now you know.”

There are strict rules around the photographing of the leaders' statues - they must be full length, and you're not allowed to crop out any part of their bodies. The flowers along the front of the pedestal are left by grateful citizens. Photo: Dan Medhurst

These messages, and the sites and sights that reinforce them, are of course what the regime wants western tourists to see. But what strikes me travelling round is that it’s also exactly what western tourists want to see. Our group, a mixture of Brits, Germans and Canadians, all with at least a passing interest in left-wing political thought, are a case in point. We’ve come expecting certain things, and to an extent, we’re all enjoying the confirmation bias.

"It's like a time capsule, a sort of living, breathing totalitarian theme park. Except that people actually have to live here"

We lap up the ludicrousness of Kim Il Sung’s infant revolutionary exploits, related to us outside his childhood home. We comment approvingly on the retro feel of the Party Foundation Monument, a structure that looks like it’s stepped straight out of a 70s Soviet architecture manual, but was in fact built in 1995. We marvel at the fact that we’re woken in the morning by patriotic songs, which float eerily over the city like a communist call to prayer, exhorting the workers to greater efforts in the day ahead. And we all line up eagerly to photograph the iconic, 60-foot high bronze statues of The Great Leader and The Dear Leader on Mansu Hill.

To anyone who’s interested in the architecture, aesthetics and ideologies of the old Eastern Bloc, North Korea is constantly fascinating. It's like a time capsule, a sort of like a living, breathing totalitarian theme park. Except that people actually have to live here.

If you’re not one for organised tours, or mic-wielding guides on busses, then North Korea is not the destination for you. You cannot visit the country as a foreigner without being accompanied at all times. But despite the insinuations of more hysterical media outlets, tour guides in North Korea are just that. (As Simon explained wearily in our pre-trip briefing in Beijing “they don’t work for the interior ministry - they’re not spies...”)

The Pyongyang Metro, with a picture of Kim Jong Il at the top of the stairs. Photo: Dan Medhurst

What they are is constantly attentive - if you wander off somewhere, say or do something that inadvertently insults the leadership, or end up photographing someone you shouldn’t, they’re liable to be in trouble. They’re also among the few North Koreans that the vast majority of western visitors will ever get to interact with on any kind of meaningful level, and are invaluable translators not just of the Korean language, but of the North Korean world around us.

Permanently pencil-skirted, with hair tied back in severe ponytail, our head guide Ms. Chang is only 27, but addresses the group with the authority of a spinsterish schoolmarm. She will smile indulgently at our “sillier” questions on points of history, and isn’t above cracking a joke, often at Dan’s expense (“I can’t work out whether she hates me or she’s flirting with me,” he says at one stage). But for the most part, she runs a tight ship. We have places to go, things to see, and facts to learn, and it’s her job to ensure we do it - however much we feel we need to hang back and get “just one more photo”.

North Korean cyclists at sunset. Very few people own cars in the country, so most citizens either walk, catch a bus or ride a bike. Photo: Dan Medhurst

In this occasionally exasperating endeavor, Ms. Chang is ably assisted by her two colleagues, Mr. Li and Ms. Rim. She might be the youngest of the three, but Ms. Rim has equally-excellent English, and charmingly, seems less black-and-white in her assertions than her senior colleague - although she’s more than capable of shutting herself out of a conversation if it takes a controversial tone.

Mr. Li is the oldest and most talkative of the three - curious about our lives and customs back home, and equipped with a passing knowledge of Premiership football. With an easy, high-pitched laugh and a book full of well-honed jokes, his jolly persona makes him a good to sit next to on the longer bus rides. But there’s an edge to him too - when we visit a shooting range as part of a tour of leisure facilities, he turns out to be a crack shot with a pistol, pumping an entire magazine, rapid fire, into the bullseye.

Of course, a lot of the most interesting things you see in North Korea are not sights that you’re bussed to, and a lot of the most interesting insights aren’t things your guides would ever spell out. Look out over Pyongyang from the towering Yanggakdo Hotel for example, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a communist capital city.

The Party Foundation Monument, featuring a hammer (for the workers) a sickle (for the peasants) and a writing brush (for the intellectuals) is a classic example of North Korea's communist aesthetic. Photo: Dan Medhurst

Pyongyang’s millennial-pink tower blocks might make it look like an unlikely Instagram dream (or a site of pilgrimage for particularly intrepid Wes Anderson fans) but underneath their pretty paint-jobs they’re still mass-housing units, filled with identical flats for dutiful workers. Elsewhere, the aesthetic is equally communist.

The style of the statues, the propaganda posters, the billboards that hang over main squares - all are very Soviet. Pyongyang also adheres closely to the must-have municipal checklist of the old Eastern Bloc: There's a circus, a TV Tower, and a revolving restaurant at the top of every luxury hotel (or five, in the case of the enormous, as yet-unfinished Ryungyong hotel). Having spent a lot of time in former-Soviet Central Asia, I frequently find myself doing double takes.

The Ryungyong Hotel is one of Pyongyang's most iconic buildings. Construction started in 1987, and at the time it would have been the tallest hotel in the world. Revolving restaurants were considered the height of sophistication in Eastern Bloc countries in the '80s, so the Ryungyong has five. But at the time of publishing, 31 years after construction started, the interiors are still unfinished and the hotel isn't yet open. Photo: Dan Medhurst

And yet the ideology doesn’t marry up with appearances. The official line from our guides is that the country pursues “our Korean form of socialism”, and Ms. Rim talks proudly of the fact that everyone is given housing for free, and no-one pays taxes. But the reality, according to the experts, is that North Korea has only ever really paid lip service to Marxism-Leninism.

In his book The Cleanest Race, the academic B.R. Myers suggests that North Korea’s foundational myths owe as much to Imperial Japan as they do to Mao’s China or Stalin’s Soviet Union. Their ideology, he suggests, with its emphasis on the leader as an all-powerful parental figure, has more in common with fascism than communism.

"North Korean ideology, experts suggest, has more in common with fascism than communism"

Nowhere is this more obvious than when visiting the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lie embalmed. It was Lenin, of course, who started the trend for mausoleums when his body was mummified and set to one side of Red Square. Mao has his own, right next to the Forbidden City. But both of these pale into insignificance when compared with the sheer size and scale of the house the Kims built. But again, it’s only the communist aesthetic that’s been borrowed.

Soldiers, who've been bussed in on their day off, assemble for a photo outside the Kumsusang Palace of the Sun. Photo: Dan Medhurst

Having put on shirts and ties, we queue alongside smartly-dressed soldiers and workers who’ve been bussed in on their day off. Handing in our phones, cameras and wallets, we step onto a travelator down the first of several kilometre-long corridors that take us past immaculately groomed gardens and into the palace proper. At one point Ms. Rim taps me on the shoulder, and sweetly, slightly sheepishly, asks me to stop standing with my legs crossed. “It can be disrespectful,” she says. We’re still several hundred metres from the main building.

The rules for entering the presence of the President himself (Kim Il Sung is officially still the country’s president, despite having died in 1994) are even stricter. In an antechamber, we line up in rows of four and bow to a plasticy-looking statue of the man, before passing through the climate-controlled barriers and into the enormous room where his actual body still lies. We bow at the feet, again on his left side, and a third time on his right. And then we file out in silence, to do the whole thing again for his son downstairs.

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are often portrayed together, watching over their people. Photo: Dan Medhurst

As with seeing Lenin, or Ho Chi Minh, I’m struck by how waxy the bodies look, and struggle to believe that what we’re looking at is actually them - the real life (or rather, real death) Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. At the same time, I’m also struck by the differences. The chambers they lie in are many times the size of Lenin’s. And then there’s the religious nature of the approach: the ritualised bowing and the reverence, which goes beyond mere respect for the dead. On the surface of it, we’re paying tribute to two beloved, but mortal, rulers after they’ve died. But although this might have started out as a communist tradition, it’s clearly become something else in North Korea - these aren’t so much men, as gods.

The walk out of the Palace of the Sun is almost as instructive as our route in. As you leave the coffin rooms, you’re ushered past a series of luxurious limousines and armoured train carriages that each leader used while alive. They point to a life of opulence and wealth that might sit uneasily with the idea of leading a “Workers Party”, but the North Koreans have never been ones for letting the facts get in the way of the official narrative.

Left: A billboard shows the smiling faces of the leadership. Right: A North Korean worker walking somewhere in Pyongyang.

Raised under his father’s rule, Kim Jong Il lived the life of a playboy princeling. He developed a taste for fine cognac and (according to a podcast that Dan has been listening to on our way round) wore his signature sunglasses to hide the fact that he was frequently hungover. Spotting the glasses on the table of one of the train carriages, I ask Mr. Li about them. “He was always working hard for our Korean people, and he always wore sunglasses because he would work so late into the night that his eyes would be red.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, the train carriage is well-appointed, the dwelling of someone with a decidedly un-comradely taste for the finer things in life - certainly it’s worlds away from the accommodation enjoyed by the average North Korean worker. And yet, the reverence in Mr. Li’s voice, and the belief that the leadership had his best interests at heart, is totally genuine. “This carriage has been left as it was when he died,” says Mr. Li. "He was working when he passed away, signing a decree about providing fish for our people.” Next to the sunglasses, his shoes, and his trademark grey-and-purple skiing jacket, another item catches my eye - on his desk there's a shiny-looking, 2011-era MacBook Pro.

Ironically, it was one of the few tenets of communism that the regime actually adhered to that arguably lead to the darkest period in the country’s recent history. Our guides refer to it using the official, euphemistic, term “the Arduous March”. But the rest of the world would simply call it “the famine”.

Citizens in Pyongyang queuing at the bus stop. Photo: Dan Medhurst

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s, the economic aid they’d been providing to the Koreans as a “fraternal nation” dried up. Despite having merrily done away with much of Marxist-Leninist theory, Kim Jong Il, who succeeded his father in 1994, decided that the centrally-planned economy had to stay. Instead of opening up, he doubled down.

Brilliantly portrayed by journalist Barbara Demick in her book Nothing to Envy, the resulting economic collapse saw industry grind to a halt and farming shut down. North Koreans of all stripes, including doctors, teachers, and even party members, staved off starvation by eating whatever they could find. One of the defectors who spoke to Demick talked of widespread rumours of cannibalism. In total, it’s estimated that, in the last decade of the 20th Century, between 800,000 and three million citizens of this once-developed country starved to death.

The North Korea's rural landscape is beautiful, but the agriculture uses techniques last seen in medieval times. Photo: Dan Medhurst

Drive out of Pyongyang, and the evidence of this disastrous period of economic mismanagement can plainly be seen. From the main motorways at least, the North Korea of 2018 doesn’t seem to have a food problem - if anything, it looks like the opposite. We’re visiting during harvest season, and the golden colour of the fields, punctuated by rolling hills, makes what’s already a pretty landscape look even more beautiful. But it’s not about what’s there, it’s about what’s not.

"In the last decade of the 20th Century, between 800,000 and three million citizens of this once-developed country starved to death"

“In the 80s, they had a lot of mechanised agriculture,” explains Simon Cockerell, “but all that fell apart during the Arduous March, when the fuel ran out. Go to certain places and you can see the tractors just rotting in the fields.” Since the 90s, the countryside has gone backwards. The farmers we see are using equipment that is quite literally medieval - single-share ploughs pulled by oxen; sickles to bring in the harvest, and ox-carts to transport it. It’s hard to believe that this third-world level of poverty exists in the same country that’s capable of building ICBMs. At the same time, any threat to "bomb them back to the stone age" would seem futile - agriculturally at least, they're almost there already.

Citizens on a bus in Kaesong, North Korea. Photo: Dan Medhurst

Things are, apparently, changing. As we drive out towards Mount Myonghang, one of the prettiest of the country’s mountainous districts, Ms. Chang subjects us to a lengthy explanation of recent agriculture reforms introduced by “our wise Marshal Kim Jong Un”, allowing farmers to keep and sell a share of their produce. Peter Ward, a Seoul-based academic who’s studied the official proclamations closely, tells me that the reforms are part of a slow, if grudging, recognition that marketisation may have some role to play in the economy.

As well as sparking this official move away from the previous, archaic system of vouchers (and into the brave new world of cash), the long shadow cast by the Arduous March also contributed to an altogether more insidious development: black markets. Daniel Tudor, formerly The Economist’s correspondent in Seoul, literally wrote the book on the subject, publishing North Korea Confidential with fellow journalist James Pearson in 2015.

North Korea Confidential details the creeping role of markets and private enterprise in North Korean society. Here a shopkeeper writes out a receipt at a service station. Photo: Dan Medhurst

In it, they offer detailed, well-researched accounts not only of the security apparatus, prison camps, and internal power struggles of the Kim Jong Un regime, but also fascinating chapters on how the influx of South Korean fashion, smuggled memory sticks, and Chinese SIM Cards on the black market are altering North Korean society. As he tells me over the phone: “It’s gradual, but it’s changing the dynamic between couples, it changes fashion, people's sexual mores, all of that.”

As tourists, we don’t see any of this contraband ourselves, of course. But when we stop at a motorway service station - a bizarre spaceship-like building squatting over the empty carriageways - we do encounter a jangmadang, or semi-official market, selling cans of knock-off Vietnamese Red Bull and Malaysian-made King Cola.

For a few minutes, it almost feels like we could be anywhere in Asia... until Dan decides to shoot a photo of the main building, and wanders out into the middle of the four-lane motorway without even checking for traffic. Fuel may be more easily available these days than in the ‘90s, but there are still no cars in North Korea.

A service station, shot from the central reservation of an entirely empty four-lane motorway. Photo: Dan Medhurst

One of the great pleasures of visiting a quote-unquote “off the beaten track” destination (especially one whose reputation may not match up with reality) is the chance to make a genuine impression on people you meet - and to be genuinely impressed by them in return.

I have fond memories of a trip to Iran, for example, shortly after it had been named as part of the original “Axis of Evil”. Obviously we were far from the only westerners in the country. But for a few people we were, I was told, the first representatives of any country allied to “The Great Satan” (ie. the US) that they had ever spoken to. This struck me as an incredible privilege - to be given the opportunity to show, even in a miniscule way, that not everyone on the “other side” was evil. “Our governments may disagree,” I was told at one stage, “but that should never stop people from getting along.” Looking back, I can only hope that my friends and I made as positive an impression on our Iranian hosts as they did on us.

It's estimated that over four million North Koreans have mobile phones. Photo: Dan Medhurst

In North Korea of course, you never really get this chance. You can’t wander off and get lost in Pyongyang, or follow your nose to some back-alley dive bar. Even if you speak Korean, as Peter Ward and Daniel Tudor do, your interactions are largely limited to border checks or buying things. As Daniel puts it: “If you just went up to someone in the street and spoke to them they might think: ‘Oh, am I allowed to talk to this foreigner?’”

What the guided tour system does give you, however, is a chance to spend time in the close company of at least some locals in a way you wouldn’t otherwise. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we know Ms. Chang, Mr. Li, or Ms. Rim well by the end of our trip. They’re the guides, we’re the clients. They’re North Korean, we’re from the west. But if the cultural divide at the start of the week was a yawning chasm, then by the end it feels - largely thanks to the efforts of these three - that that gap has been bridged to a certain extent.

Kids scamper to school. Photo: Dan Medhurst

There are nights out together - at one point we’re taken to Pyongyang’s answer to a craft beer pub, an honest-to-goodness microbrewery known as “Taedonggang no. 3”, complete with faux-exposed brickwork walls, and a selection of tasty beers on tap. We go bowling (in the same hotel where Otto Warmbier fatefully tried to steal the banner) and pose for a series of ridiculous photos smoking cigars. We sit and chat on the long bus rides, share cigarettes, and pass around bottles of Scotch, duty-free from China.

By the end of the week I know that if Ms. Chang could go anywhere in the world it would be Paris; that Mr. Li eventually wants to graduate from guiding to the diplomatic service; and that Ms. Rim, while unimpressed by The Beatles, does quite like the sound of Cowboys From Hell, by Pantera.

A bus stop in Pyongyang. Photo: Dan Medhurst

The night we stay over near Mount Myonghang, our whole group goes for a hike. Exercise is one of the few times that North Koreans will take off the badges of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that otherwise stay permanently pinned over their hearts when they’re in public. As we climb, the atmosphere seems to ease, and when Mr. Li runs off ahead up the vertical trail, it’s Ms. Chang who instigates the pisstake - with his sharp-shooting and his hiking prowess “he’s like the Korean James Bond”.

On the climb back down, I fall into step with one of the Canadians in our group. “It felt like they really let their hair down there,” he says. When we get back to the hotel the bus driver, who up until this point hasn’t spoken more than two words to us, asks me for one of my Marlboros.

The significance of any of this is, of course, debatable. The experts I speak to are divided as to what, if any, role tourism might play in the opening up of North Korean hearts and minds. B.R. Myers puts his argument succinctly in The Cleanest Race, arguing: “It would be folly to extrapolate from Cold War history. Blue jeans will not bring down this dictatorship.”

Our guide at the International Friendship Exhibition, a bizarre complex near mount Myonghyang that displays all the gifts given to North Korea's leaders down the years. Our visit finished with the recitation - with this balcony view as a backdrop - of a poem "by Kim Il Sung himself". Photo: Dan Medhurst

But others have a more positive take on it. “It's not going to make people go: ‘Oh, the government's lying to us and we must rise up’”, says Daniel Tudor. “But I would see it as a small part of a very slow-burn process of normalisation.”

Peter Ward is even more openly enthusiastic. “I'm a huge fan of tourism,” he says. “I think the country could do with having hundreds of times more tourists than it currently has. Obviously it will give money to the North Korean government but it will also bring jobs, they'll have interactions [with foreigners] and they'll learn more about the outside world.”

"When we were at the DMZ, the soldiers on the side of the road were clearing mines. I’ve never seen that before"

As to whether the seemingly-seismic events of 2018 have made a difference? That’s harder to say. Simon takes a fairly cynical view - he’s seen the Koreas share teams at Olympic games before, and worked in the North throughout the expensive, and ultimate fruitless, era of the South’s “sunshine policy” in the early-2000s.

A guard on a slightly battered train in Pyongyang station. A lack of resources means that old vehicles are kept running well after they would have been scrapped in the West. Photo: Dan Medhurst

At the same time, however, he concedes that the Korean leaders meeting is a step in the right direction. Certainly the signs in the North and the noises from our Korean guides were overwhelmingly positive. “I don’t know if you noticed,” says Simon, “when we were at the DMZ, the soldiers off to the side of the road? They were clearing mines. I’ve never seen that before.”

Perhaps Daniel Tudor, who lives in Seoul, sums it up best when he says: “It's much better than what was going on last year at least. A year ago I was thinking, about 30 percent, that there was going to be a war...”

The dramatic entrance to the recently rebuilt Pyongyang Zoo. Photo: Dan Medhurst

As for the morality question, the sticky issue of whether or not you should visit the DPRK at all, most give it fairly short shrift. “You're not just providing foreign currency to the regime,” Ward argues. “Those interactions matter but [more importantly] the lives of the people who work in that industry also matter. They're not all just pawns, they're real people who need better jobs and more fulfilling lives. Tourism can clearly be a part of that.”

Back in Beijing, over a beer, Simon is even more dismissive. “In what other country in the world would the act of going there imply support for the government? We’ll pay tax on these beers we’ve bought, does that mean we support the suppression of the Muslim minority in Xinjiang Province? That's obviously absurd.”

Kids bathe in the water of a river in rural North Korea. Photo: Dan Medhurst

Of course, Simon works in the industry, but I can’t help feeling that he’s right when he argues that the potential positives of North Korean tourism far outweigh any possibly negatives. “Everyone I know in North Korea who's spent time with foreigners has spent time with some really despicable ones and some really awesome ones. So when their national media paints this picture of all foreigners as being ‘up to no good,’ they know it's not true. And if that's not true, when the same source of media tells them other stuff, maybe they'll start to think that's not true either.”

The chances of our individual visit having any lasting effect on any North Korean lives is, of course, minimal. As with the Iranians, I can only hope that we didn’t totally blow our chance to act as ambassadors for “the other side”; that, to use Simon’s terminology, we were more “awesome” than we were “despicable”.

What I do know for sure is that visiting North Korea, and spending time with North Korean people, has certainly had an effect on me. It’s blown away some of my preconceived notions about the country. It’s reinforced others. But overall, it’s given me a glimmer of understanding about what the “other side” is actually like. And, if the same can’t be said for the North Koreans we met? Well, at least a few of them now know what black pudding is.

The night time view from the front doors of the Yanggakdo Hotel - Pyongyang is not particularly well-lit at night. Photo: Dan Medhurst

Read more of our coverage of North Korea, including the full account of watching the Mass Games, here.

Tristan and Dan travelled to North Korea with Koryo Tours. Based in Beijing, they’re one of the oldest and best-respected North Korea tour operators in the business. See koryogroup.com for bookings and more info.

Tristan is the editor of Amuse. You can follow him on Twitter or Instagram. Dan Medhurst is Amuse's senior photographer. You can follow him on Instagram.

North Korea