north korea

National day in North Korea

So, one of the excitement for this trip was that it coincides with North Korea National day on 9 September. I expected it to be with much fanfare, because 2012 also happen to be the year of Juche 101 in North Korea, 100th anniversary of Juche.

Fun fact: North Korea uses Juche calendar (more about Juche in another post). Juche year 1 is 1912, the year in which Kim Il Sung was born. So, current 2016 is Juche year 105 in North Korea.

However, national day was celebrated without much fanfare. In fact, when I arrived 3 days before the national day, it didn’t even look like the country will be celebrating its national day in a few days. Unlike in Singapore, in which buildings will be decorated with flags at least a week before National day, in North Korea, the flags and buntings were up only the day before. Then, everything was taken down right the day after (in Singapore, the flags remain up for at least a month). I understand from the guide, celebration is more eleborated on Kim Il Sung’s birthday, 15 April. There will even be fireworks display.

In North Korea, National Day seems more of a solemn affair, a day for remembrance (something like Total defence day in Sg) rather than a day for big, fancy celebration.

Before we set off for the day, we were repeatedly reminded by the guide that the places we’ll be visiting will be crowded and that we had to be mindful of our manners, be solemn and respectful, which means don’t smile too happily, laugh loudly etc and to follow protocols and not to stray away from the group. We were also reminded not to interact with locals or foreign media that might be present and not to take photos of military vehicles and personnel.

5 Places Visited for National Day in North Korea

Mansudae Grand Monuments

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Mansudae Grand Monument

Gigantic bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansudae Hill. The backdrop is a mosaic image of Paekdu Mountain, the highest mountain in Korean peninsula. It’s a sacred place for the North Koreans as they believe it’s the place of their ancestral origin. Originally, it was only the bronze statue of Kim Il Sung. We were lucky that the bronze statue of Kim Jong Il was unveiled just a few months before the trip (early 2012).

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22 m high bronze statues of Kim Il Sung (left) and Kim Jong Il (right) [Credits: Nilsen Travels]

On both sides of the statues, there is a structure made up of a long line of figurines of workers, farmers, soldiers etc. This represents the people fighting in the wars against Japan and USA.

We were warned that it will be more crowded and greater presence of media than previous years because it was the first national day with the new statue. Despite the crowd, the flow of people was well coordinated. Almost all locals carried flowers to be placed at the foot of the statues as a mark of respect for the Great Leaders. They walked up towards the statue, bowed, walked closer to lay the flowers at the feet of the statue and then another group of visitors will take over their position… this cycle repeats continuously due to endless crowd.

Some interesting points to note:
– We were encouraged to purchase flowers to abide by the customary act of showing our respect to the Great Leaders (a few of us pooled some money to share a bouquet of flowers)
– We were reminded to look respectful when taking photos with the statues (e.g not widely smiling/ laughing while posing, no peace sign, no rabbit ear sign etc)
– The statues cannot be cropped in the photo, which means it has to appear as the whole figure.

Chollima Statue

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Chollima is a mythical winged-horse which fly at very high speed.

Chollima represents the vision of the Great Leaders for the nation to advance rapidly. Chollima flies very fast that it almost impossible to ride it. But, the statue is also made up of a man and woman riding it. So, this represents bravery of the people and their fighting spirit to move forward at great speed. Chollima Statue was constructed in 1961 to encourage the people to reconstruct the country after the Korean War.

Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery

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Dedicated to those who fought in the Korean War, this is where their national heroes are laid to rest.

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It is situated on the top of Jujak Hill of Mt. Taesong, overseeing Pyongyang, symbolising the heroes laid to rest witnessing the growth and progress of the capital city.

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Statue of Kim Jong Suk is in the centre

One of the notable heroes is Kim Jong Suk. She’s Kim Il Sung’s wife and mother of Kim Jong Il.

Mangyongdae Native House

native-house

This is the (supposed) birthplace of Kim Il Sung. It looks like a regular thatched house, which apparently shows his humble beginning.

Here, you’ll get to see exhibits of stuff that he and his family used over 4 generations. Personally, having been to folk village in South Korea before, I think this village is almost typical of any other Korean traditional village.

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What struck me most though was how passionately the guide spoke about Kim Il Sung and his family… in a freaky way. She was praising him high and mighty all the time and her intonation shows just so much love and adoration for Kim Il Sung as she narrate to us his life story. I’ve been to many history musuems and guided tour, but this really takes the cake. So vivid in her description and passionate that it was as if she knew him personally. Not surprising I guess because they really hold him in high regard. But it did get a bit annoying at some parts that I almost roll my eyes at some of the exaggeration, like… “he even sleep on the floor”. Ermmmm, which is common for those living in traditional houses.

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His family is poor and humble that even when the water jar is dented, they still continue using it.

Another interesting point is… how much the locals treasured this place. The moment I alighted from the bus, I was surprised to hear faint, classical music playing. So, apparently speakers are placed up on the trees. It was just a short work to the house from the bus drop-off point but it was really an interesting experience walking through the lush greenery around while enjoy the calm, soothing music. I’ve never had a walk in a park in that manner ever. Maybe Singapore NParks can consider installing speakers too?? 😁

Kim Il Sung is so revered by them that so much care taken to beautify the place and to provide the best experience for visitors. Afterall, this is another sacred place for the North Koreans, with many visiting it to pay homage to Kim Il Sung.

Kim Il Sung Square
Save the best for the last… the highlight of the celebration is the mass dance at Kim Il Sung Square, located in the heart of Pyongyang. It was pretty simple steps to follow and anyone can just join any of the locals. Some of them are shy, but they will welcome you warmly and willingly agree to ve your dance partner. They  will guide you through the steps and all you have to do is to enjoy the dance 💃

Here’s a video (not mine) to show you what’s the mass dance is like…

Well, it has to come to the end of the list of how I celebrated National Day in North Korea. Lookout for my next post on other places of attraction there!

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My trip to North Korea in 2012

Way back in 2012, I made a trip to North Korea over the September term break.

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Destination: Pyongyang

Crazy, I know. But, why did I really wanted to travel to the hermit kingdom? and wasn’t I worried about war, nuclear bombing, missile attack etc?

Couple few reasons why North Korea was my choice of destination..
1. I had been teaching 2 North Korean students. Yes, I know you guys are probably shocked that there are North Korean students enrolled in normal government school in Singapore (background info: the girls are cousins who joined 3NA class in mid-2011. The elder girl was new to Singapore and the younger girl had been studying in Singapore up to P6, then returned to Pyongyang for 2 years. Both said they’re in Singapore with their grandfather who has business in Singapore.). I was quite close to both of them and through my interaction with them and occasional questions about North Korea, I realised that North Korea is not too bad. It’s really unlike what it’s portrayed as in media. I became really interested to see and experience the country by myself.
2. Term 3 2012 was really a busy period for me in terms of work that I felt I needed a crazy adventure. A trip to North Korea does sounds like a crazy adventure, right??
3. Traveling during the September break in 2012 coincides with North Korea national day, which I thought will be pretty cool to see the country in celebratory fanfare.
4. 2012 is the 100th Anniversary of Arirang Mass Games (which is iconic of North Korea), which runs only in August and September and… there was rumours that it’ll be the last year for the Mass Games.
5….. because I can.

So… lets start with some FAQs!

Who can travel to North Korea?
Anyone can travel to North Korea. Even South Koreans! I was also surprised that even Americans and Japanese are allowed to travel to North Korea. I thought they are probably not allowed considering the anti-sentiments by North Koreans towards Americans and Japanese as portrayed in news.

Basically, it is legal for almost anyone can travel to North Korea! The only restriction on travelers to North Korea are journalists, writers, media staff etc. North Korea does not issue Visas for them. If you’re journalists/writers, please do not submit fake details as this will compromise not only your safety but also the staff of the tour group.

For those keen to travel to North Korea, you have to apply through authorised agents. Even if you’re travelling alone, you still have to sign up through authorised agents. There are quite a few which you can consider… Koryo Tour, KTG, Lupine Travel, Explore North Korea and New Korea Tours. Then, during your stay there, you have to be accompanied by the assigned tour guide at all times when you’re outdoor. So, if you signed up for individual tour, you’ll have the guide all for yourself the whole day. And when I accompanied by tour guide at all times, it is really at all time. You are not even allowed to step out of the hotel on your own, even if it’s a just to walk around for fresh air.

But, you’re a civil servant! Are you allowed to?
Well, I didn’t really look up on that. But I did follow through the regular paperwork any government officers have to do – “Request to Leave the State” form. No comments from my RO or the principal, so I guess no problemo!

Did I travel alone?
From Singapore yes…  But for the trip, I signed up for a tour group under KTG, based in China. My tour group was made up with people from all over the world, US, Europe and me- sole Asian representative, yo! All of us had similar story- found out about the company through googling and made all arrangements (visa, forms, payment etc) with the company via online.

How much is the trip?
1200 Euros for 5 days 4 night  (include Air Koryo return flight Beijing-Pyongyang), hotel accommodation and all meals. Entrance fees to certain places not included (eg theme park, Mass Games). Exclude return flight Sg-Beijing.

How did you arrange of the visa to North Korea?
After my trip, I found out that Singaporeans do not need Visa to visit North Korea. (Fun fact: Only Singapore and Malaysia do not need Visa to North Korea for up to 30 days)

However, as I was simply following the SOP by the tour group (basically completed and submitted all documents that were emailed to me), I did eventually applied for Visa. You’ll just need to submit a copy of your passport and a scanned photo and the tour company will make the necessary arrangement. It’s hassle free! I collected the Visa card from the tour leader in Beijing on the day of the flight to North Korea. Unfortunately, it is a separate piece of paper, which the immigration officer took away upon exit.

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Cover page of Visa card to North Korea

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Inside pages of Visa card to North Korea

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Back page of Visa card

By the way, there is no evidence in my passport that I traveled to North Korea because they stamped on the Visa card (which was taken away before leaving departure gate) instead of the passport. . Grrrr!!

Can you take photos?
Yupps! But we were advised not to take photos of restricted stuff (mostly military vehicles, places and personnel- we were reminded about this numerous times during the visits we had on the National Day as most places were crowded with military personnel). We were also not allowed to take inappropriate photos with iconic stuff (e.g the tour guide told off someone who posed with a “peace” hand sign next to a statue of Kim Il Sung).

At the start of the trip, the group was also advised that the tour guide or officials periodically may look through our photos to ensure no inappropriate photos taken. We also have to oblige if they identify any inappropriate or restricted photos and instruct us to delete it.

If there are places that we can’t take photos (e.g airport, International Friendship Exhibition), the guide will warn us beforehand.

Anything that you can’t bring to North Korea?
During my trip, handphones are not allowed in North Korea. We have to surrender it after luggage collection before walking through security and we can collect it back on our departure. Initially I was worried if it was safe, but oh wells, have to follow the rules and everyone doing it too.
Anyway, from 2013 onwards, tourists are no longer required to surrender their handphones.

GPS-enabled gadget items are also not allowed. In the briefing notes provided by my tour group, it was stated that if our cameras are GPS-enabled, we have to bring another camera instead. Well, my brand-new camera has the GPS function but I’m not gonna buy another camera just for the trip, or borrow another camera (which might be tricky too, cuz who would be willing to lend me something for a trip to North Korea??). Desperate, I went ahead to bring my GPS-enabled camera. So yeah, I actually smuggled in an illegal object into North Korea. How did I manage to smuggle it in? I pasted a sticker label to cover the GPS word and logo on my camera and wrote my name on. I used sticker label on the pretext of labelling my camera though it’s actually to hide the GPS label =D

Anyway, there’s also an interesting story about my GPS-enabled camera. Whenever I traveled, the GPS function of camera is accurate and quick to detect the city I am in once I switched on the setting. But in North Korea,  whenever I tried at different locations, it failed to detect the location. Really shocked that they have GPS blocking mechanism. So, whether I am really in Pyongyang or it the whole place is fake and just a set-up for tourists… I’ll leave it to you guys to ponder over it 😉

What’s the currency in North Korea?
There is “Won” currency for North Korea, but it’s not used by tourists. Tourists can make payment with Euros, USD, Yuan or Yen. However, Euros is commonly accepted.

How did you travel into North Korea?
By flight! There are two airlines that fly into Pyongyang, Air Koryo and Air China. For this trip, I flew on Air Koryo.

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Air Koryo Boarding pass

Yes, I know Air Koryo is the only airline with 1-star rating by Skytrax but it’s been arranged by the tour group. But I didn’t mind as traveling on Air Koryo is a good first experience to receive North Korean hospitality. Also, most companies travel by the national carrier, Air Koryo, too anyway.

There is also train between China and Pyongyang (23 hours from Beijing!) and some tour groups do make such arrangement for it. You can also make arrangement to enter by flight and depart by train or vice versa if you wish to have a richer experience.

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North Korea national carrier – Air Koryo

So, there! I hope I’ve answered most of your questions! But if there are stuff that you’re curious about and it’s not covered here, drop a comment at the end of this page 🙂

Kaeson Youth Park – Amusement park in North Korea

Kaeson Youth Park, 
an amusement park in Pyongyang.
Reopened in 2010, with about 10 rides.

 

This is one of the unexpected places as part of my tour itinerary to North Korea. I really did not expect that there is an amusement park in North Korea. Like.. woa, they actually know how to have fun? Oh wait, are they even allowed to have fun?
Another surprise was that, it was at night. I didn’t expect any activities in the evening for my trip to North Korea due to my impression of North Korea as a country with strict regime. I thought the roads would be deserted and quiet at night cuz Kim Jong Un strictly make sure everyone goes to bed by 9pm.. Ok, I exaggerate, but it goes to show just how much assumptions we have due to how the country is portrayed by the media. Anyway, after the trip, I found out there are 3 others in North Korea.
I did wonder if the amusement park was for tourists only. But, when we arrived, it was crowded with families and young couples. Well, I guess the locals do get to have some fun activities. But, some friends pointed out that these people could be planted by the authorities to give an impression to tourists that it’s a normal country. I have no evidence for or against that, so just think what you want it as yeah…
Other than families, group of friends and couples, there were also kids looking like they are on excursion because they were in big group, led by some adults. I found it strange because in Singapore, having an excursion at night is quite unheard of. Then, we found out from the guide that this theme park is open only in the evening, 7pm to 12am.
 
About the kids… Some of them are dressed in formal wear (shirt and pants for boys, and dress for girls), others in school uniform (identified by their white top and red neck scarf), but most are just in casual wear of shirts and shorts.
When we had just arrived, we were standing around waiting for instruction from the guide, when one of the ladies from my tour group offered the children nearby some candies she had in her bag. Soon, there was a crowd of kids around us. They were curious about us as much as we were curious about them. But before we can have interaction with them, our guide quickly stepped in to disperse the crowd. I don’t understand what he spoke to them, but one can sense that it wasn’t pleasant. After that, he told off the ladies who gave the candies and reminded us not to take or give anything with others. He also told them that those kids are not beggar. Since he raised his voice at them, I guess he was pretty much angry and upset of the incident.
The tour guide, the guy with lanyard, quickly dispersed the crowd forming around us. He snapped at the kids to scoot off.
Generally, I did observe on the trip that my tour guide seems to dislike it whenever we try to communicate with the locals. This incident also is one of the times that gives me the impression that the guide really do not like it when a negative impression is portrayed. The kids crowding around us for sweets may give us the impression that the kids are pitiful, and he was clearly embarrassed about it. It seems like he thinks it’s his duty to ensure that tourists have nothing but only the good and positive takeaways from North Korea.
Anyway… back to the amusement park.
The place was pretty and cheerful with bright lights hanging even on trees and songs being played.
They also have pretty much all kind of rides..
Credits: abandoned kansai
viking ship…
Credits: abandoned kansai
drop tower

 

belly-down rollercoaster…
360-degrees pendulum swing…
As we were tight for time, we were offered VIP treatment. For VIP treatment, the rides are 1-3 Euro, without having to queue. As the tour group has to remain intact and accompanied by the guide at all times, we were not allowed free and easy.
Flow of event…
The guide brought us as group from one ride to another ride. At each ride, he quoted the price and asked who was interested for the ride. These people were then accompanied by the theme park staff to the ride, bypassing the queue, whilst the rest remain with the tour guide. The rest waited for those on the ride to return before moving on the next ride.
There weren’t many tourists, so we got a lot of attention from the locals when we got on the ride. There were some who will be blushing and looking away timidly when they sit next to tourists while on the ride, while others who were more confident, shook our hands and smiled.
One of the memorable rides for me was the drop tower. It took us quite awhile to get everyone seated, fastening the belt etc.. and so, while waiting, since we were facing the crowd, some of us smiled and waved at the crowd. We actually got some cheers! Lol… Driven by the response, we cheered along and waved more vigorously…. and the cheer got louder.
We felt like superstar…
but only after seeing this photo taken by my guide,
the view from the crowd,
it seems more like we’re caged display in human zoo =/
Other than the incident with the kids in the earlier part, it was pretty much just a regular evening. I went for most rides and the experience was the same, like any others that I had before in Singapore or anywhere else. It does not feel unsafe, weird or any different just because it was in North Korea. If you’re expecting adventurous stories like failed ride that stop halfway cuz you know, it’s North Korea… well, I’m sorry to disappoint you cuz it was really just simple night spent having fun on the rides.
It was uneventful, but you can check out more actions at the amusement park in this video.

 

But if you prefer the propaganda kind from North Korea media, it’ll be this video..