An Irishman in North Korea. Part 1, getting there!

Statue of the Kims in Pyongyang, North Korea

In November 2015 I achieved a long term ambition of mine to visit North Korea, or as a friend put it I helped to fund the nuclear program of one of the worlds most dangerous countries.

In the Mid 1980s in school I was quite the history buff and a TV documentary aired which outlined the Korean War and since then I always had an interest in the countries and its conflict.

Having booked flights to Hong Kong earlier in the year, I noticed that Lupine Travel were running a tour into North Korea and decided to avail of the opportunity, considering I was in “the region”

Travelling there

As an Irish citizen I had the option to travel by train to North Korea, American and Japanese passport holders must travel by air directly to Pyongyang.

After spending a couple of days in Hong Kong I boarded an early morning flight to Beijing, the plan being to arrive early, pick up the train tickets and get the train to the Chinese North Korean Border at Dandong.

I booked a hard sleeper berth on the train, and boy was it hard to sleep. I got a top bunk which had about 18 inches of headroom. The bottom bunk is used by the occupants of the two higher bunks as a communal couch. The lights go off at about 2230.

Arriving at 0730 in Dandong the group formed up and we had the option to visit around the Dandong Area

Dandong

The city of Dandong is the commercial hub between China and North Korea. Originally two bridges connected the cities of Dandong in China and Sinŭiju in North Korea. However only one bridge remains since the UN forces bombed the other bridge during the Korean War.

At the PVA crossing point

Out side of Dandong they have rebuilt a proportion of the Great Wall long the border of North Korea. A visit here provided with my first glimpse into North Korea

Notice at Chinese Border with North Korea
The Tiger Wall
North Korean Village viewed from the Tiger Wall

In an agreement between the Chinese and North Koreans the Yalu River is a shared river which means that boats from China and travel right up to the shore of North Korea. The group availed of a speed boat trip on the river and we got to see the start of what passes for life in rural North Korea.

North Korean troops in the distance
North Korean River Ferry
Young North Korean lady washes clothes in the river
Homes in North Korean village

There is a remarkable difference between the near western lifestyle that the Chinese population enjoy compared to the grinding poverty that their North Korean neighbours live in.

In the picture below you will see the cities of Dandong in China (right)and Sinŭiju in North Korea (left)

Sinuiji North Korea, Left hand bank and Dandong China on the right hand bank

In an effort to improve trade with North Korea the Chinese built a new bridge between the two cities, and although finished from the Chinese end it remains uncompleted.

The Bridge to Nowhere
The operational bridge on the left hand side

To Pyongyang

The following day it was time to board our train to North Korea and take the slow train ride to Pyongyang

My North Korean Visa

First up we received our North Korean visas, unfortunately we couldnt take them back with us as the North Koreans held onto them at the end of the trip, no doubt in the hope to prevent forgeries

Having being processed by Chinese border authorities it was time to board the train for what turned out to be the very slow trip. First up was a two hour border stop at Sinuiji. Our train was packed with an orchestra of young North Korean girls who had been visiting China and came back over the border with new clothes, shoes and oddly enough pressure cookers!

Border Corruption

As later in the trip the North Korean guides would tell us about the Juche ideology of the Great Leader however I dont think that applied to extorting young girls.

When the border officials boarded the train they allocated a number of officials to each carriage. We had to stay in our assigned carriage and provide our passport, visa, customs declaration and a health and quarantine declaration when the official arrived. He inspected my papers and was quick to usher me out of the “room”, under the pretence of having my iPad inspected by a colleague, but his real reason being to extort the girls that where in my carriage.

I briefly looked for the official who was meant to inspect my iPad but he seemed busy so I just put it away. In the meantime my carriage became transit central for various officials and the orchestra group leaders. There was a lot of coming and going from the room and I could see an orchestra group leader collecting cash from each of the group members, she went into my carriage and handed it over. There was lots of shouting coming from the carriage and when I went to look I could see the border official opening cartons of cigarettes and helping himself to the contents. He eventually left my carriage with a plastic bag of his bounty and soon after the train started to move again.

Grinding Poverty

As these pictures show, once you get over the border into North Korea, it become pretty obvious at the horrendous standard of living even in the cities.

Pictured here is a standard scene from Sinuiji. Most people are on bicycles and the food seems to be transported by either ancient tractors or vans or oxen

Cabbage is grown everywhere! Kimchi is a staple diet, a bit like potatoes were once in Ireland . I’ve seen it grown at the side of the road, train tracks and even in window boxes on houses!

The remainder of the train journey was pretty uneventful, the Korean girls kept to themselves, high on the third bunk level away from the westerners on the lower bunks and after about 6 hours of what had to be the slowest train journey possible the train pulls into Pyongyang

Part two coming soon!

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