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A journey of a lifetime?

By MSBob in Op-Ed
Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 12:54:31 AM EST
Tags: etc (all tags)

For some time I have been obsessed with the idea of visiting one of the most unusual countries in the world.

I've been thinking about going on a trip to North Korea.

North Korea is a very strange land. It is probably the closest approximation of Orwell's '1984' any country ever managed to achieve.

North Korea has been completely closed to the outside world for many years. As a country North Korea doesn't have friends to speak of. The relationship with China is as good as it gets in terms of North Korea's diplomatic achievements. And that isn't saying much as China is getting increasingly impatient with Pyong Yang's constant demands for more and more support. North Korea is the generally recognised pain in the neck of the far east predominantly because they are believed to have some nuclear weapons. Ironically in 1997 the US, South Korea and Japan signed an agreement to help North Korea build its nuclear power plants! North Korea seems to play the clever political game of blackmailing its neighbours into subsidising their doctrine based economy further. North Korea knows that its neighbouring countries just want to be left in peace and North Korea plays that card pretty well. Despite their less than adequate relationships with Japan and South Korea both countries are believed to have subsidised North Korea with over $1 bilion USD last year alone.

Kim Jong Il who currently presides the Party in North Korea seems to be just as conservative as his deceased father the Great Leader Kim Il Sung who passed away in 1994. The unique doctrine that North Korea is religious about is the 'Juche idea'. Juche means 'self reliance' which indeed describes the country's foreign policy quite accurately. When I said that Koreans were religious about Juche I meant what I said. Religion as such is banned in North Korea. The only belief that the state permits is Juche. The idea of Juche and its implementor Kim Il Sung who was also the first Great Leader of the communist Korea are glorified to a god-like status in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In fact Kim Il Sung's death in 1994 was no impediment to making him the 'eternal president' of North Korea, the title he will hold forever or at least as long as North Korea keeps on going. Throughout the country there are special places where citizens can (read: have to) pay their respect to the Great Leader and Juche. Generally speaking North Korea is as close to an Orwellian state as humanely possible. Citizen's rights of free speech are non existent even traveling from one place to another within North Korea is not possible without a special permit issued by the state. The state controls everything and everyone including all industries, media and press and education is highly influenced by the doctrine of you guessed it, Juche. Juche ideology is for all practical purposes none other than a sophistry to theorise the idea of personality cult of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong Il.

Yet, knowing all of the above I still want to visit North Korea. I think it is the one in a lifetime opportunity to learn about the evils of state control and how a government can gravitate towards total control and domination of its citizens given the right circumstances and consistent policy.

Pyong Yang the capital of North Korea is however, one of the most amazing and unusual places on earth. Unlike most other communist cities which haven't seen proper urban maintenance since the end of the fifties Pyong Yang is pretty much spotless. The city has been designed and built as a great showcase for the Juche ideology and a place where the aparatus would enjoy living. Actually if you live in North Korea you have to be well connected to be able to move to Pyong Yang. At one point in time the old, the disabled and pregnant women were all banned from living in Pyong Yang. Still, Pyong Yang is one of the finest accomplishement of modern urban planning. As exemplified here and here and on this picture there are even some architectural gems in Pyong Yang not to mention the overall skyline of the city which is very impressive at night.

Visiting North Korea is no mean feat. Actually if you hold a United States or a South Korean passport you can forget about it right away. They simply won't let you in. However, for everyone else there is at least one travel agency that can organise the trip. I won't give their name to avoid accusations of generating free advertising. If you're interested you'll easily find them on the net. Before obtaining the visa your journey has to be planned upfront and can only include selected regions that tourists are allowed to visit. Surprisingly enough the Demilitarised Zone is one of such places. When you go to North Korea a government appointed guide will be with you all the time to the point of getting a hotel room right next to yours. Lack of privacy you say? Hey, you're in North Korea man, don't expect even the slightest bit of privacy while you're there. I believe that to be a part of the experience. Sort of like a free extra in a normal holiday package!

My only reservation now is the fact that going to North Korea will mean subsidising this unbelievably oppressive state somewhat further and most likely putting a few extra dollars into Kim Jong Il's coffers. North Korea is not a holidaymaker's destination. It's a traveller's destination. It is certainly not something for your average fun in the sun loving suburban Joe with one point six kids and a mid management job. But I think it could well be one of the most incredible adventures one can encounter on this planet. A journey of a lifetime.


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The future of North Korea
o Peaceful reunification with South Korea 33%
o War with the South 3%
o Economic collapse 48%
o Status quo 15%

Votes: 33
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o nuclear weapons
o here
o here [2]
o this
o gems
o skyline
o night
o Demilitari sed Zone
o Also by MSBob

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A journey of a lifetime? | 11 comments (11 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
definitely worth pondering (4.33 / 3) (#1)
by %systemroot% on Mon Jul 16, 2001 at 10:42:46 PM EST

I concur that visiting a country with a political system so different from Western democracy would be fascinating, but I'd have to think twice about supporting it with my tourist money.

This has been on my mind recently after reading this NY Times article (free reg. req'd) about Saudi Arabia slowly opening their country to tourists. On the one hand, I am utterly fascinated by their history and culture, and I've been captivated by the Rub al' Khali since I was a gradeschool child.

On the other hand, I can't say that I agree with their treatment of women or how they punish those deemed to have broken their laws.

Obviously, who am I to judge an entire country, especially if I've never been there -- but when I consider how I want to allocate my travel funds, I'm much more likely to choose to visit a country that I believe to have a less repressive government.

My thoughts exactly (3.50 / 2) (#2)
by MSBob on Mon Jul 16, 2001 at 10:48:55 PM EST

Like I said in the story this is my problem too and that's why I'm not on a plane yet. One option is to get there with a charity organisation but I'm not prepared for this kind of commitment yet. Having lived under a communist regime (albeit not nearly as strict) I don't really fancy the idea of staying there for a year or more.
I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
Humane? (none / 0) (#3)
by Kasreyn on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 05:48:59 AM EST

"Generally speaking North Korea is as close to an Orwellian state as humanely possible."

I dunno, I don't think it's very humane at all. =P Oh, you meant "humanly"? I doubt that. I think Orwell knew just what was humanly possible - and wrote it.

So I suggest you go read 1984 again. And then once more for good measure. Then I'm sure you will realize that N. Korea has a long way to go before they can become that powerful and self-sustaining. But they are definitely one the right (wrong?) track.


"Extenuating circumstance to be mentioned on Judgement Day:
We never asked to be born in the first place."

R.I.P. Kurt. You will be missed.
one the right (wrong?) track (none / 0) (#8)
by wiredog on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 12:46:41 PM EST

one the right (wrong?) track

Sorry. Had to do it.

"Anything that's invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things", Douglas Adams
[ Parent ]

Is it really that bad? (4.00 / 1) (#4)
by JonesBoy on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 09:40:51 AM EST

I don't think the place is as bad as it is portrayed. They are really beginning to open up to the rest of the world. Last I heard, North Korea was getting ready to open up a highway to South Korea to improve trade. The DMZ is a big tourist attraction on the South Korea side too.

I would not be disappointed to have a guide on a trip like that. I think it would be nice to have someone along that spoke the language and knew their way around. Don't think for a minute that many people there speak english or any other non-east asian language. The cabs there aren't too reliable on finding destinations either.

If you do go, enjoy your trip, avoid the water (including fountain soda!), and get your shots. Bring immodium AD and keep it with you!!!!

Does anyone else here have any information about the political climate of N. Korea?

Speeding never killed anyone. Stopping did.
me too (none / 0) (#5)
by fonebone on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 11:59:32 AM EST

I had a similar interest in travelling to cuba, or some other communist country. From what you've described North Korea to be, I'm sure Cuba would be a very friendly place (in comparison).

I looked at many countries' profiles on some travel website (something similar to expedia.com) at various countries most people wouldn't consider for travel. Sites like these can be handy in picking exotic destinations. It's always important to make sure the country you'd like to visit isn't currently at war, for example. =)

PHP and Ajax Web Development
Been to Cuba (none / 0) (#6)
by nobbystyles on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 12:21:41 PM EST

Highly recommended. Great beaches, friendly people, pictaresque decaying colonial buildings and it's fairly cheap for a carribean holiday.

You can hire a restored 1950s Caddy for around $10 a day in Havana and cruise around the sites in style.

It's not as authoritarian as North Korea by a long chalk as you don't need to be accompanied by a guide. Brush up on your Spanish though as the local don't speak much English...

[ Parent ]
I lived in Cuba (none / 0) (#11)
by threshold on Wed Jul 18, 2001 at 09:24:02 AM EST

For 3 years I lived in Cuba, well not Cuba persay, but the US Naval base on the isle of Cuba. My dad was stationed there when I was young. It was pretty fun. Great beaches. We weren't allowed off of the bases. But there were a bunch of Cubans that worked there so the base was full of their culture. It was pretty interesting. Cubans are pretty nice people, they fix everything with duck tape, you'd see a car driving down the street with its grill and bumper duck taped on.

Open Source, Open Standards, Open Minds
[ Parent ]
I'd get the heebie jeebies prety fast. (none / 0) (#7)
by Apuleius on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 12:26:37 PM EST

As many as 200,000 people in NK may have died of starvation in recent years, and we just don't have any way of knowing the actual number. I don't think I could bring myself to visit a country like that.

There is a time and a place for everything, and it's called college. (The South Park chef)
Starvation (none / 0) (#10)
by odaiwai on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 10:11:48 PM EST

There are a quite a few people who've escaped from NK to northern China in search of a better life...

The governments of North and South are doing occasional exhanges where families who were split fifty years ago can get together again.

-- "They're chefs! Chefs with chainsaws!"
[ Parent ]
Go for it... (5.00 / 1) (#9)
by John Thompson on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 03:52:46 PM EST

Having spent over three months traveling through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe at the height of the Brezhnev era (1977) can can empathize with your desire to go to N. Korea. It will be an experience you won't forget. The week I spent in a Russian hospital was particularly memorable. Not at all like American health care, but they cured me, and for free, so I can't complain too much.

Although I haven't been back to Eastern Europe or Russia since then, I would like to mention that the major cities were also quite well kept. Leningrad was gorgeous. and I remember walking through the streets and alleys at 2am feeling perfectly safe. From what I hear that is no longer the case. In Moscow the subways are true works of art. They ran on time, were cheap to use and served a wide area. Riding on NY or Chicago subways has been a let-down ever since.

As with N. Korea we had an Intourist guide traveling with us in the USSR and staying in the same lodgings, but not always in the same vehicle. Which brings up another interesting memory: foreign travelers were closely monitored on the highways. There were only a few highways designated for foreigners to use and every few kilometers there would be a watchtower that you'd have to pass slowly so they could check your license plates on their list of approved travelers. At one point we had become separated from our guide and were running low on fuel. The Soviet maps conveniently showed the locations of gas stations and we found one only a couple km's off the main road. So we turned down the side road to get some fuel and not more than a few seconds later we were pulled over by the police. Of course we were worried: foreigners off the approved road, without the Intourist guide, etc. We girded ourselves for an unpleasant confrontation. The officer came over and asked why we were off the approved road. We explained that we were running low on fuel and were not likely to be able to reach the next gas station on the approved road, so we were heading to this other station. "No, you can't do that" came the answer. "So what are we to do?" we countered, showing our fuel gauge with the needle barely above the empty mark. "No problem" he responded and pulled his vehicle next to ours. He opened the trunk, pulled out a siphon and siphoned fuel from his vehivcle to ours. "Compliments of the State!" and he sent us on our way!


A journey of a lifetime? | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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