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What it's like to visit North Korea

February 7, 2015, 8:00 pm | This story has an Influence Score of 772

By @mariocantin

Written by Davis Smith -- originally posted on Quora.com

I spent 5 days in North Korea in the summer of 2010, just as Kim Jong Un was being presented to the world as a possible successor to his father, and the same week that Jimmy Carter came to Pyongyang to win the release of American prisoner, Aijalon Gomes.

North Korea is arguably the most isolated and secretive country in the world with only about 100 Americans visiting the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) each year. Tourists are not allowed to freely explore the country and are required to be accompanied by government handlers at all times. Our handlers accompanying us every minute of our trip (even escorting us to the bathroom), restricting our visit to predetermined buildings, sites and museums. Our cell phones were confiscated at the airport and returned to us five days later when we left the country. Internet is non-existent. We are required to ask permission before taking every photograph (much of the time being denied). We were not allowed to speak to unauthorized North Koreans, and they are not allowed to speak to us, under penalty of arrest, detention and imprisonment. Propaganda is rampant, blaring from loud speakers and covering billboards. Despite having my every move and word monitored (the 43rd floor of our nearly empty hotel is reserved for foreigners and we were warned that it was bugged), the trip was fascinating and unforgettable.

Bill Clinton said The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the 38th Parallel was the "scariest place on earth." I don't disagree. You can see the North Korean soldiers on the near side of the picture and the South Korean soldiers on the far side. The 38th Parallel is the cement line that runs from left to right through the center of the three blue buildings. One interesting side note, you'll notice that on the NK side, there are 3 soldiers: two facing each other directly on the parallel line, weapon in hand, each preventing the other from defecting and one soldier facing North Korea (which I thought was interesting) apparently to ensure nobody from NK attempts to defect to the South. On the South Korean side, there are typically two soldiers, each facing North Korea. As we drove to the 38th Parallel, the road was booby-trapped with massive concrete cubes that were positioned diagonally and rigged with explosives which would allow them to block the access roads to Pyongyang, in case of an invasion.

As you can see, the roads throughout North Korea are wide and empty. We drove on a number of 10 lane roads with one or two cars on the entire road. The roads are also lined with street cleaners who painstakingly sweep and maintain the roads.

Our government handlers/guides referred several times to "rush hour." At first, I didn't quite understand because even when they said it was rush hour, the street were empty. I soon realized they were referring to the length of the bus lines. The buses in Pyongyang are as packed as I have seen anywhere in the world. The lines were often several blocks long and we were never allowed to take pictures of them.

The "Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum" in Pyongyang is one of the most intriguing museums I've ever visited. It is full of anti-American propaganda which painted the "US Imperialist Aggressors" and their "Puppet Regime" (South Korea) as inhuman and evil. They have their own version of history which differs greatly from the history told by the South Koreans and the rest of the world. They explained how they were living peacefully when the US bombed them "relentlessly." Eventually, the story ends with the North Koreans triumphantly winning the war and the American cowards surrendering. As you can see from the sign, Room #25 shows the North Koreans "Victory" and Room #26 shows the US Imperialists' atrocities.

Our guide showing us how the North Koreans victoriously crushed the American cowards in the Korean War and then effectively executed their "planned retreat" back to the 38th parallel.

Many of the museums and buildings throughout DPRK (North Korea) show pictures of Americans surrendering and confessing to war crimes. The letters are clearly penned by Americans (writing style), but the grammar and tone of the writing was not that of a native English speaker. No doubt that the prisoners were told exactly what to write and didn't make any attempts to make the letters grammatically correct.

Kim Il Song (the founder of North Korea and father of Kim Jong Il) is revered as a God. The "Great Leader" is featured on a pin worn by all adult North Koreans, there are over 500 statues of him throughout the country, almost every book sold in North Korea was either written by him or written about him, and you can plan on hearing his name several hundred times per day. We were obligated to visit several of his statues, deliver flowers and then bow. We were told that if we did not bow, it would be a crime punishable by imprisonment.

Our handlers constantly discussed how much food they had, which seemed strange. One day they drove us out to some rice paddy fields to show us how much rice they had. Unfortunately, the truth is that over the last decade, over 1 million North Koreans have died of starvation. During their teenage years, North Koreans are 20 cm (~8 inches) shorter and 20 kg (45 lbs) lighter than their South Korean counterparts due to malnutrition. People's rations shrink or become non-existent depending on how "loyal" they are to the regime.

Whenever we passed by the main mall in Pyongyang, we would see tens of thousands of people practicing marches and "the wave" from dawn till dusk (even in the rain).

This picture overlooking Pyongyang was taken from our hotel, which is located on an island in the Taedong River (a clear effort to ensure tourists cannot leave the hotel). The hotel is empty aside from the 43rd floor which houses the few tourists in the country (mostly from China and Russia). From our hotel window you can see nearly every building is grey (we literally saw them up-keeping the exterior of buildings with fresh coats of grey paint). The tall pyramid shaped building in the background is a hotel which was started in 1987 and would have been the tallest hotel in the world had it been finished. Twenty-three years later, it was still partially built and empty.

One evening our handlers took us to the Arirang Mass Games (which is held in the largest stadium in the world - 150,000 capacity). We paid for "VIP" seats and really weren't sure what to expect. Upon arrival we realized we were part of a group of maybe 20 or 30 foreigners with the rest of the stadium filled with North Korean military. The stadium is primarily used for the Arirang Mass Games, but has also been used for executions (several military generals convicted of attempting to assasinate Kim Jong Il were burnt alive in the stadium in the late 90's).

Arirang was an incredible show - they were shooting people hundreds of feet through the air with large rubberbands. Some of the performers were as young as 5 yrs old. They perform on a nightly basis and many will perform until retirement.

The background/backdrop you see (with the trees and mountain) is actually created by tens of thousands of people holding large colored flipcharts- they flip them constantly to change the backdrop of the show. This happens hundreds of time during the event.

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Source: www.quora.com. Link: http://www.quora.com/What-is-it-like-to-visit-North-Korea

Republished with permission, as per Quora's Terms of Service, under the subsection titled, "Quora's Licenses to You".

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