This must be a joke right? That’s what I said when I was asked to join a group going for a race in Pyongyang, North Korea. Ultimately it turned out to be one of the most fascinating experiences imaginable. Here is how it all went down…
So when I first arrived in Shanghai, I was meeting new coworkers for the first time and found that a couple of the guys shared my interest in running half-marathons. Turned out they were planning to go run the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon in April and tried to convince me to join them. I told them there was no way my wife would let me go but we just happened to see Lauren later that day and they mentioned how unfortunate it was that she wouldn’t let me go. Not knowing anything about it, her first reaction was to say on the contrary I totally should go and if she hadn’t been pregnant at the time she would have wanted to go! So I had no out and signed up.
I was still a bit shocked that they would let me go and that technically at the time the US did not forbid citizens from going as they do now. I really wasn’t sure I would go through with it until we went to Seoul for Chinese New Year. There we met up with an old friend who just happened to know someone that had recently returned from a 10 day tour. This was an American that spoke fluent Korean and he told me that it was totally fine so long as you followed all the rules to the letter.
While I remained quite nervous, in the end Lauren convinced me that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a country that we only hear about in the Western media. Who knows what it would really be like, what we would be allowed to see and what they would intentionally try to show us. So late on a Thursday night I headed to Pudong International Airport for my North Korean adventure.
Shanghai to Pyongyang, North Korea
The Air Koryo flight was scheduled to leave at 10:30pm but I didn’t even have a visa in hand before getting to the airport. The tour guide said not to worry and that we’d all meet in the departure hall 2 hours prior to the scheduled flight time. Uncertain of the protocol, I got to the airport a bit earlier than this and had no trouble finding the checkin area. It was swamped with fellow race runners waiting to get checked in. Apparently all the visas were being distributed at the time of check-in and so I found my co-worker Philippe and his girlfriend Helena and they introduced me to our tour director Du who promptly handed me the most unofficial visa you could imagine.
Just this blue folded page called a Tourist Card that had my information inside and confirmation that I was able to travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Since Air Koryo is not accustomed to such large groups, it took us quite a long time to get checked in and ultimately board the flight for Pyongyang. I was somewhat reassured in the process though as there were a handful of other Americans in the broader group. The majority of the participants seemed to be Western European with a fair number of Chinese as well. Our group, which was a bit smaller than the larger outfits, was essentially a third French, a third Singaporean and a third Chinese with myself as the lone American in the group.
North Korea Arrival & Customs
After finally departing well after midnight, we arrived after an uneventful flight in Pyongyang, which was 0.5 hours ahead of China. I suppose it was appropriate that they would use neither South Korea’s timezone nor China’s and instead one in between. (Though they have since changed and in a symbolic move towards reconciliation adopted the same time zone at South Korea). We disembarked and proceeded to immigration where we had to present our Tourist Card and Passport. While I was pretty nervous at this point, after seeing everyone else proceed rather quickly I calmed down and it was a rather non-eventful process.
However, after we got our bags and proceeded to go through customs it became more strict. They had explicitly said no foreign books or publications and they took our phones from us for inspection as we placed our bags for x-ray and went through the standard metal detectors. I was questioned because they saw a magazine but it was the free piece of propaganda that they had distributed on the flight so it was fine. However, they did give me a hard time about my iPhone and asked me if it had GPS, which of course it does, but I was rather evasive and ultimately they let me finally go through. In the end the GPS was irrelevant as it didn’t work there anyway. My coworker had a TomTom watch that did work and he managed to get it through without detection so now he has the actual race path he ran through Pyongyang.
Drive into Pyongyang, North Korea
Once through security, we were introduced to our local tour guides, Ms Kim and Mr. Paek. Ms. Kim was the Chinese language guide while Mr. Paek was the English language guide. Since I had my GoPro with me and wanted to try and get as much video as possible, I chose to sit up in the front of the bus with Mr. Paek so that I could confirm permission to film or take pictures. The sun was coming up as we drove into Pyongyang and the lack of motorized vehicles on the road was striking. It seemed that everyone on the road was either walking or riding a bike. There was very little development between the airport and the city but what was there would best be described as “drab” with virtually identical looking buildings next to one another with just a different faded color of paint to distinguish them. One interesting observation was that occasionally you would see a balcony that had a solar panel and it seems that even in the highly state regulated economy that you hear about in North Korea, some people either have the connections or side commercial activity to enable them to buy such technology. From what I understand these are quite coveted items as the electrical grid can be highly unreliable and it is said that sometimes children will migrate across the street when one side has electricity turned off and the other turned on.
We arrived at the Yanggakdo Hotel and were promptly checked in with surprising efficiency. Unfortunately we only had 2 hours before our bus was scheduled to leave for the DMZ so all we had time to do was shower and get some basic breakfast. One nice surprise was that they had a telephone that guests could use in the lobby for a steep fee to make international calls. Needless to say the first thing I did was to call Lauren and let her know that I had arrived safely and that I’d try to call everyday to give her peace of mind. We didn’t talk much about the trip other than me explaining what we had done that day since it was something like 10 dollars a minute if I remember correctly. The rooms were pretty basic and if you want to see what they looked like check out my video at the end of the post where I did a quick tour of the room.
3 Hour Drive to the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ)
Once we all had a couple cups of coffee and breakfast, we loaded up for a 3 hour drive south to the DMZ. It was fascinating to see the city in the morning and just how many people were walking or riding their bikes to work. We got out of the city on the highway south but it was a very rough drive. The pavement was rarely well maintained and often had potholes of various depths that would rock our bus up and down for virtually our entire drive. What was also fascinating was the number of people that were working on or along side the road with manual tools. We couldn’t figure out if this was a scene that was presented to us to illustrate the industriousness of the North Koreans or if it was just a normal expectation of these people to come out and do some modest work on the roadway. There is some good footage of this in my video at the end as well. What didn’t seem to be for show were the farmers in the picture above that were toiling in the fields as we saw this in many places and at a variety of distances that made it seem genuine.
Our arrival from the North to the DMZ was a stark contrast to that of the one I had done from the South just a couple months earlier. There it was highly controlled by the US military with significant constraints placed on the tourists in terms of where we could go and how long we could stay. I suspect this was primarily due to the higher number of visitors from the South because in the North is was much less regulated. Our group first went to a souvenir shop where the majority of the interest was in a large table with propaganda posters for sale. These had the standard themes you would expect such as the strength of the North Korean people, the capability of the military, and their victories over Imperialist Americans of course. Our guides made sure that anyone that bought a poster received a formal receipt and this was securely fastened to the poster in such a way that there would be no question that it was properly purchased.
Once it was our group’s turn to enter the DMZ, we were given a history lesson about the Korean War, the “fact” that it was started by the Americans. We then proceeded to board our buses again to be escorted into the 2.5 mile wide DMZ to an area known as the JSA, or Joint Security Area, where meetings between the two sides take place. Once in the JSA, we were allowed to walk relatively freely within our group from building to building and eventually all the way up to the line of demarcation that splits both sides. We then proceeded into the main building on the North Korean side and up to the top floor where there was a viewing platform from which we could see the majority of the JSA. It felt quite strange looking across to see the South Korean and American soldiers on the other side on what was otherwise a beautiful and peaceful day. After everyone had taken their fair share of selfies and pictures with the North Korean military guide, we walked back through the building and into our buses that immediately drove out of the DMZ and towards Kaesong.
Back to Pyongyang via Kaesong
We stopped in Kaesong on the way back to Pyongyang for lunch and it was really interesting to see all the people on the street in the middle of the day going about their business. Well, I suppose not business as there were no stores along any of the streets, but from somewhere to somewhere. We passed a couple vans that had large speakers attached to them for mass communications and rather than street lights, the intersections were managed by central traffic police. In Pyongyang these tend to be young women but here in Kaesong they were men. What was also fascinating was just how few cars there were and how almost all the traffic was pedestrian or bicycle. It appeared that the cyclists were required to walk their bikes through the intersection but when we were walking down the street after lunch they would get off their bike at the beginning of the intersection but once they were more than halfway through would get back on and pedal away.
North Korea Arch of Reunification
As we approached Pyongyang, we stopped at the Arch of Reunification, which is a large structure that was constructed over the Reunification Highway. It consists of two Korean women in traditional dress, symbolizing the North and the South, leaning forward to jointly uphold a sphere bearing a map of a reunified Korea. The sphere is the emblem of the Three Charters; the Three Principles of National Reunification; the Plan of Establishing the Democratic Federal Republic of Korea and the Ten Point Program of the Great Unity of the Whole Nation. From here we went to dinner in what appeared to be a normal building but had a place to eat on the second floor. We were all pretty exhausted at this point having not slept since the day before so we headed back to the hotel to crash.
Monument to Party Founding
The first thing we did the next day was to visit this massive central monument to the Party Founding. The Worker’s Party of Korea is the founding and ruling party of North Korea helmed by Kim Jong-Un as Chairman. The party is credited with the victories of the Korean people and this accolade is idealized in the monument’s design. The hammer, sickle, and brush represent the idea that individuals themselves hold the key to North Korea’s prosperity under Juche, which is the North Korean principle of self-reliance.
While didn’t go into this hotel, it’s prominent pyramid was often visible on the skyline during our drive and the race and is worth mentioning not because of its opulence but rather the opposite. Construction began in 1987 and until 2009, it was the tallest hotel in the world. Originally intended to house over 3,000 guest rooms, it was never opened to the public and remains under construction with no timetable for completion!
There was a long line to enter and take the elevator up to the top of the Juche Tower but it was worth it as it provided unparalleled views of the city. The Tower of the Juche Idea is North Korea’s tallest monument. This obelisk commemorates the state ideology of ‘Juche’ developed by Kim Il-Sung. ‘Juche’ is loosely translated as ‘self-reliance’ and is otherwise the foundation to the political and economic isolationism of North Korea today. Exactly 25,500 granite blocks make up the Juche Tower, each representing a day in the life of Kim Il-Sung by his 70th birthday. At the tower’s entry there was a wall of plaques and tributes from those supporting the Juche ideology internationally.
The Pyongyang Metro in North Korea
Next we visited The Pyongyang Metro, which isn’t just the deepest metro system on earth, but also a nuclear bunker and an ultra-nationalistic museum of North Korea’s revolutionary history, ideals, and achievements. Each station is uniquely themed. The ‘Golden Soil’ station celebrates agriculture by showcasing murals of wheat harvests and fresh fruit, while the walls of ‘Construction’ station include mosaics of smiling labourers at work as Kim Il-Sung offers field guidance. Statues, bronze plaques, and ornaments scatter the platforms.
This was the location that seemed to be the most clearly staged for our benefit as there were many “passengers” that seemed all to keen to position themselves close to us to see various scenes intended to show the diligence, intellect and advancement of the North Korean populace. There are two specific examples that I can share here that were particularly obvious. The first consisted of a middle-aged man rushing past me on the platform only to take up a strange position reading a newspaper posted in a central stand. There was no train on the platform and no reason to rush to that specific spot when there were many other identical papers available to read.
The other situation that was blatantly staged involved two young boys of what appeared to be late elementary school or early middle school age. They got off of a subway car while we were at the platform and then proceeded to walk around us until the next train arrived and followed us onto a car. They then proceeded to sit down across from me and next to one of the Frenchmen on our tour and opened up textbooks to a chapter about evolution!
Mansudae Grand Monument
The Mansudae Grand Monument is an iconic memorial most notable for its formidable bronze statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. Each statue stands at 22 meters tall. It’s here that men, women, and children will make a visit to lay flowers at the feet of the past leaders who are seen as guiding fathers to the Korean people. Everyone was expected to line up and bow in front of the statues, a Korean form of greeting and a showing of respect. We were allowed to take photos but told to ensure the entire statue was in frame.
Kim IL-Sung Square
Kim Il-Sung Square is the major public space at the heart of Pyongyang. Similar to China’s Tiananmen Square, North Korea holds its well-publicized historical events, mass dance celebrations, military parades and even firework displays here. If you’ve seen marching North Korean soldiers on television, then you’re familiar with Kim Il-Sung Square. The area can accommodate 100,000 people and is surrounded by high-profile ministries, most notably the Worker’s Party of Korea headquarters. One thing we found interesting was just how many people they had working to scrub and clean the square in front of the Palace. We suspected this was to make sure the grounds were in pristine condition for the upcoming military parade planned to commemorate the birth of Kim Il-Sung later that month. Little did we know the time it was probably also for the practice parade that was to take place later that same night.
Arch of Triumph
Located just outside Worker’s Stadium, The Arch of Triumph is not to be confused with the 10-meters-shorter Arc De Triomphe in Paris and apparently was built in the exact spot Kim Il-Sung was met with thundering applause upon his return from victory over the Japanese and liberation of Korea. Kim Il-Sung became determined for liberation by 1923, but it wasn’t until 1945 that he became successful. These dates are now immortalized on the arch itself, as is the poem “Song of General Kim Il Sung”, a piece claimed to be recited on State television every day. We ran past this monument at the start and conclusion of our race, which made for a thrilling finish!
Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is a newly renovated exhibit of the Korean people’s fight against foreign invaders. We had a female solider as a guide and she shared a North Korean version of history that was virtually the opposite what we are taught in the west. The museum is filled with historical photography and video, expansive dioramas. On the way into the museum we walked past captured US Army helicopters, shot down US Army planes and even walked through the infamous USS Pueblo, America’s ‘Spy Ship’ still held hostage by North Korea. The most surreal aspect of this museum was a small room off the tour path past the bathrooms that seemed to be a celebration of North Korea’s missile prowess.
Mangyondae Native House
This straw-thatched home is Eternal President Kim Il-Sung’s official birthplace and where he spent his childhood. This was probably the least interesting part of the tour and we were ready to get dinner and a good night sleep before the race. In hindsight we should have skipped this as we had an impossible time getting back into town and to our riverboat for dinner due to the military closing all the streets for a practice parade that evening! We drove around for an hour trying to get to our destination and ultimately our guide decided to walk the entire group 3-4 blocks to the river past the military setting up for the parade. We walked through a street underpass that was reinforced with lumber throughout in anticipation for the heavy equipment later that night. Upon our return from dinner we were given strict instructions to put all phones and cameras in bags to avoid any possibility that someone would think a picture was being taken. We walked along the street past rocket launchers, tanks, amphibious vehicles and just about every type of military vehicle that you can imagine! What a way to finish off the day.
The Pyongyang Marathon in North Korea
The race itself was really unbelievable as it started in the Worker’s Stadium with 50,000 spectators cheering us on. In reality they weren’t so much there for us but for the football matches that were to be played during the race. We ran through the streets of Pyongyang and the residents lined the streets giving us high-fives as we ran past. Since I had a hard time training with all the pollution in Shanghai, I was less concerned with my time as I was the opportunity to take in my surroundings as I ran the 10km through the city, past monuments and Kim Il-Sung Square and then back again.
Souvenir Shopping and Return to Shanghai
Just before we headed to the airport I accompanied some of the rest of the group to visit some souvenir shops at nearby hotels to find some additional items to bring back with us from the trip. While most of the group were interested in North Korean tracksuits or Ginseng, I ended up getting a small vase to remember the trip but neglected to get a receipt… which was not a good oversight on my part. We went to the airport, said our goodbyes and thanked our tour guides for their hospitality. After checking in we went through security where the officials took my small vase out of my bag and proceeded to question me on its origin. They escorted me out of security and to the side where they further inspected the vase and I tried to explain that I had purchased it earlier that day. I frantically waved for our tour guide Paek and he came over to explain that he had indeed been with me when I purchased it. After some back and forth and notations made in their log book, I was eventually allowed to go back through security and board our plane!
It was a fascinating trip that I would have never imagined taking but am glad that I did. I tried to capture as much of the trip as I was allowed and pieced together the video below to further help others see some of the highlights of the trip.