February 09, 2018

Welcome to North Korea

North Korea. AKA 'The Hermit Kingdom', or more recently 'The land of ICBMs'. An unusual travel destination, and also one becoming increasingly difficult to visit, particularly if you are an American.  I had planned this trip months in advance, but as my departure day got closer the rhetoric between Trump and Kim reached new levels of abuse, with threats thrown from both sides, and there were murmurings of preemptive strikes on the country. I guessed international diplomacy might cool the hot heads, and if not it could be an even more interesting experience.

Getting permission to visit North Korea, as long as your government allows it, is fairly straightforward. You cannot travel independently so you have to join a group tour. There are a number of reputable, and some not so, travel companies. I went with Koryo, based in Beijing. As they have they been running tours for 25 years, they have the experience and contacts, and, as a bonus, some of the most entertaining tour leaders in the business. 

The important thing to do before departure is to send copies of your passport to the tour operator two weeks before departure, and then you just have to turn up in Beijing for the flight to Pyongyang. With the recent upgrades of sanctions all Chinese Airlines now banned from flying to North Korea. Which leaves you with Air Koryo, the nations own government-run airline.

There was a large queue of North Korean nationals waiting to board at Beijing Capital airport. I joined the Business Class queue, not because I had upgraded myself, but because it had fewer trolleys full of electronic goods than the rest. Air Koryo was making a small fortune in baggage excess charges, which made for slow going for those like me with just carry-on luggage.

The flight was called almost as soon as I cleared customs, and we made by bus to the outer reaches of the apron to find our rather small Russian-built Antonov jet waiting for us. It may be rated the 'Worst Airline in the World' by Skytrax reviews, but what do they know?! The airline has a good safety record, is punctual, and the cabin crew smiled politely and nodded greetings as I clambered up the small set of steps on board.

Apart from the unusual in-flight magazines (with little interesting content, just articles generally praising the munificence of Kim Jong-un as he visited various factories and carpet warehouses), nothing distinguished the airline as being North Korean. The food was particularly inedible, a cold chicken burger and cold cabbage on a bun, but I have had similar on Singapore Airlines. 

That was until the Captain made an announcement. There had been no news from the cockpit so far, no “Fasten your seat belts” or an explanation as to why we were waiting on the apron at Beijing airport for what seemed an eternity before departure. So when the intercom burst into action after 90 minutes flying time I was expecting an update on when we were to land, or of the latest weather in Pyongyang. Nope, it was to inform us solemnly that we were flying over the birthplace of Kim Jong-il, with the pilot slowing the plane noticeably as a mark of respect. That would give them bonus points from me if I did a Skytrax review. 

The land in the north-west of the country looked fertile with plentiful water, unlike the south and east which was suffering a significant drought causing food shortages. Again, with no announcement (who needs them, they only wake you up from a pleasant nap) we began to descend into Pyongyang International airport.

A bus took us to the modern terminal. It looked as clean and neat as most modern Asian airports, and considerably nicer than most in the US. My passport and visa were barely glanced at as I was waved through to customs. Here, the personnel were the most thorough I have ever encountered. My suitcase was x-rayed, searched and then emptied, and then every inch of the lining carefully examined with gloved hands, and then again it was put through an x-ray machine.

A smartly dressed official with a white jacket took it upon herself to look at every photograph I had taken on my camera. After the two-hundredth picture of abandoned buildings in Pripyat, near Chernobyl, where I had visited recently she sighed and gave up. I smiled knowing I had nothing of interest in my luggage.

I was wrong. I had forgotten the Australian Financial Review newspaper I had picked up in Sydney before my flight. I had not read it, all I had noticed was that the front cover was devoted to a far from exciting article about the fortunes of the Australian dollar. But on page 16, as the North Korean officials quickly discovered, was an in-depth article on the rise of Kim, his family, and his military options in the current showdown with the US. 

The newspaper was taken from me, and I was directed to a table at the far end of the immigration hall. An English speaker was called for, and I sat on the table and waited until one was found. The older, bookish-looking man with glasses approached me, said “Good Morning” and sat down to read the paper.

It was a slightly surreal situation. The rest of the group were all waiting for me in the arrivals hall as I sat and watched a man reading a newspaper. He slowly read the article, nodding his head a few times, and then starting leafing through the rest of the paper. He was clearly reading articles, although not just about North Korea, but taking advantage of the opportunity to read a foreign newspaper.

After about ten minutes he stood up, carefully folded the paper and returned it to me, obviously there was nothing derogatory there. He smiled and said “Welcome to North Korea” before pointing me to an exit where I could finally rejoin the rest of the group.

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