North Korea Victory Day: Why I Went Back

A new direction or continuity?

The nascent Kim Jung-un era in North Korea has produced tantalizing hints of change amid continuity and habitual brinksmanship. Early July the all-female Moranbong Band, hand-picked by Kim Jung-un, appeared on state TV in a performance that featured cameos by unlicensed Disney characters with Mr. Kim and his wife in attendance, in what was widely read a sign of increased openness. I saw Moranbong’s videos in virtually every vehicle and restaurant of the trip, they have taken the country storm in the way that their Chinese and South Korean predecessors have in their own lands.

I previously visited North Korea in May 2010, struggling with the go or no go decision. As with so many things, doing it the second time is easier, though no less morally conflicted. The money does go to the regime. The benefits of cultural exchange are harder to quantify, especially when tourists are so tightly controlled, yet I was heartened this time to be allowed much more opportunity for unscripted interaction with North Koreans. The holiday festivities had people out of doors and welcoming. How much society has opened is difficult for any tourist to judge.

The opportunity to experience the country three years later in the midst a major holiday, Victory Day, the 60th anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War, was too exciting for me to resist. I was already in Asia on business. To have this rare, repeat inside look at a society shrouded in mystery was irresistable and why I travel.

The posts in this series will focus on what I experienced as a tourist who does not speak Korean. The dark sides of life in North Korea are impossible for me in this capacity to gain insight. Observation only provides small clues such as the visible malnutrition of many people. There are many reports and studies by courageous sources that are worth exploration by any concerned in the welfare of fellow humans. All I can do is shed small light on the sliver of population in Pyongyang and the top of the social pyramid that appear to be having things better than three years ago and in some capacity have a stake in the status quo.

There are suggestions of improvement, mobile phones are commonplace, store shelves are better-stocked. Does this mean the elite get richer or that society as a whole is on the uptick? Is greater change in the wind or is it a false dawn? What would it look like for a country closed for several generations to enter the global society and economy?

For those interested in my personal reflections from May 2010, please see parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 of my travelogue and the photo slideshow.

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  • Shannon

    What’s an exciting journey! Saw the 60th military march and arirang festival on the news. Did you join one of these events?

  • @Yes – yes, both, posts coming!

  • charles alan s

    These photos are cool. Its strange how normal everything looks. how much do these trips cost?
    a

  • @charles alan s – prices generally are quite similar among providers and it is not the cheapest destination. They are all quoted based on all-inclusive with roundtrip airfare from Beijing, US$2,000 and up for the shortest 4-5 day group itineraries. Add to that your own cost of getting to Beijing and potentially any China visa, though many nationalities can now take advantage of Beijing’s 72-hour visa-free transfer program.

  • Lively

    Love your NK trip report. I agree with you, the first step for positive change is getting food to the people of NK.

  • Probably a question you’ve been asked before (or I missed it), but what passport do you have that allows you into North Korea?

  • @Trevor – currently pretty much any passport except Republic of Korea (South Korea) is ok, their main concern regards journalists. Up until 2010 US were the most restricted, limited mainly to the July and August high seasons, and tourists generally were not often welcomed in the winter. Now tourism is open year round. There is still a restriction on US citizens exiting the country by train, while others can.

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