Hidden behind a border, The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea Part I

Behind the lines of North Korea, where most have only heard the rumors, lay experiences one can only understand by taking a step into the unknown.

WASHINGTON, November 4, 2012 - Traveling becomes a step into the unknown and learning to adapt to such newness. That is the easiest way to adapt to traveling, where, not knowing what to expect could truly be fatiguing, especially there: North Korea. Allow yourself to go. Exploring depends on the mindset with which you take on the journey.

North Korea is buried from most people’s thoughts.  It is even more remote to consider actually stepping foot in the isolated land. The departure screens read the normal list of cities all over the world. There is Air Koryo, JS flight 152 on an Ilyushin 62, staged at the end of the terminal, awaiting the departure to Pyongyang, North Korea. People stop, taking a photo as slight whispers move through the end of the Beijing International Airport Terminal. Even the plane sits in solitude. It is difficult to see the beauty of traveling when there are so many thoughts rolling through your head at the moment of going somewhere new, let alone North Korea.

Rarely is it possible for anyone to receive access to enter the DPRK. Only tourists go as travelers may dislike the lack of freedom in the country: nobody can speak to the locals, you cannot go anywhere you want without your three guides (they do not follow you, they take you where they want you to go), you cannot eat when you want, you have to ask for permission to use the toilet, and you are told what to do.

Traveling is the freedom to discover a new country, but this is not the case in the DPRK. You are alone only when you sleep. You are part of a larger tour without really knowing. You see everything everyone else before you and after you sees. The only deviation from the schedule is the time of year you go.

A trip like this could simply alter your thinking about the life you lead.

The cover of Pyongyang Times reads, “…deep support of the ‘Dear Leader,’” referring to Kim Jung Il.  Guards and flight attendant greet passengers from all over the world with North Korean government officials standing at their side. Whispers, followed by announcements, overtake the noise of the rustling bags in the open bin storage. The noise of China is lost. The solitude of North Korea begins. The propaganda begins.

Customs officer’s open bags, “What is this? This camera zoom too powerful, only 250mm permitted in Korea.” Another guard asks, “You have mobile?”

The control has already begun.  Everyone would like to speak to a fellow traveler to set their mind at ease on what to expect. But nobody will begin a conversation in this environment.  Amid the quiet, loud speakers overtake your thoughts without you even knowing the freedom you once understood slipped away. The simplest thing to do is bring the smallest bag you can and do not pack anything. You realize this when the line of people does not move.

Finally you pass, entering the DPRK.

Three guides await you, “We take you to the Yanggakdo Hotel where you may refresh yourself. Yanggakdo Hotel was opened in 1995, and is a 47-storey hotel on the Yanggak Island in the Taedong River, which is one of the five biggest rivers in the country. It is 440 kilometers in length. Then we have dinner. Please do not leave the hotel, though, until we come for you. You do not know our customs and the city. You could get lost.”

Another guide speaks with excitement in his eyes, “The country of bright mornings was founded 9 September 1945, by our ‘Great Leader.’ Pyongyang means flat land and peaceful area. It is 2630 square kilometers with 3 million Koreans living here. As the foreign forces divided our nation and took away our peaceful area.” One of the guides stops immediately, “Mobile? Do you have mobile? Give it to me with your passport.” She reaches her hand out then, “Please,” she grins as if she forgot to be polite. “We keep your passport until the day you are due to depart.”

Vehicles seem foreign in the streets to people walking and riding their bikes. The guides regurgitate massive amounts of information during the drive into Pyongyang. “Look here at the Grand People’s Study House,” Yu says as Rim and An, the other two guides, watch your reaction, “It can hold 30,000,000 books. Kim Il Sung Square is here,” Yu points then says, “it is 75,000 meters squared. Across the Taedong River along Juchetap Street is the Juche Tower, which was built in 1982 for our ‘Great Leaders’ 70th birthday. All the stones in the monument add up for a day of his life. Look there,” she says, “the hard working Korean people enter the Ponghwa Metro stop as they finish their day. Kim Il Sung Square is 75,000 square meters.” The drive continues down Songri Street. To get your attention diverted to another side of the road, so you do not see something you do not know you are not supposed to see, Yu raises her hand to cover the air.

“Here is your mobile receipt. You may receive it back when you leave. She continued to speak about how many square kilometers the country is and how many square meters Kumsusan Memorial Palace is. “Proud Koreans work hard everyday.” This country represents several worlds: the row of block apartments[1] tells one of socialistic living, the world of it being a country on its own accord, then there is the world where people rarely know what is going on outside its borders.

Read Part II in Exiting the Comfort Zone tomorrow.


Henry Biernacki

“Global Henry” (Traveler to over 120 plus countries)


Author: No More Heroes


[1] Socialistic countries commonly refer to this urban development as apartment blocks or block housing.

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Henry Biernacki

Henry Biernacki has been traveling with his rucksack since he was 17 years old when he took a Greyhound Bus from Colorado to Mexico. In one year, Henry went around the world, sleeping in the streets, spending only 3700USD. He met Mother Teresa 2 September 1997 (3 days before she passed away) and had a personal audience with her. He has traveled to over 120 countries and continues to travel. 

He earned a BA in Romance Languages (French/Spanish) and International Affairs. He has lived in France, Germany, Taiwan, the West Indies and Mexico before returning to the United States.

Today, Henry is an airline Captain for one of the top airlines in the United States. He has flown Airbus319/320 and Boeing747-400/757/767.



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