Seoul-based journalist Geoffrey Cain enjoyed an 11-day excursion to North Korea – as a tourist, since journalists are generally restricted from visiting the reclusive nation – traveling by train from Pyongyang to the more remote cities of Chongjin, Wonsan, and Hamheung, and the provinces of North and South Hamkyung and Kangwon. Geoff discusses his trip with Scott Coates and Trevor Ranges on this week’s episode of Talk Travel Asia podcast.
Only a few years ago, traveling to North Korea was essentially impossible. Even the few journalists who were allowed access to the rogue nation ran the risk of being imprisoned as spies. While that risk certainly still exists, it’s not just very select journalists and freaky retired NBA stars who have access to the reclusive, isolated, dictatorship, it’s now mainstream journalists and package tourists as well. In this issue of Talk Travel Asia, we chat about traveling in North Korea with an American who recently did so.
Trevor: I’ve spent quite a bit of time in South Korea and I’ve never felt as much like a foreigner as in South Korea, the most homogenous country on earth. The South Koreans are an interesting lot and I felt that I had a bit of insight on what things might be like in the North based on how the people behaved in the South, but Seoul is one of the most modern cities in the world and North Korea must be, for the most part, one of the least developed. Perhaps its more like Hungary was when I visited there in 1980, before the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Scott: I’ve been to Seoul a couple times and it’s amazing how modern it is, considering not so many decades ago it was a poor military-run country. I imagine North Korea being two separate worlds: one is the capital with the military and elite who are in view, and everything you would see and experience would be carefully engineered for tourists. Then if you’re traveling the countryside I can imagine things would be quite stale and boring as you’d only be allowed to again see very certain things and not really get a good sense for the truly oppressed lives most people are living.
Today’s guest: Geoffrey Cain
Trevor: When I was roommates with today’s guest in Phnom Penh Cambodia I think he was no more than 23 years old but he was already one of my journalistic idols. Aside from not being very keen on getting up early in the mornings, he had the most amazing go-get-em attitude, which I witnessed numerous times, including his tenacious interview of a regional police officer in a floating village on the Tonle Sap when he was a stringer for the United Nations wire service. Since that time, he was a Fullbright Fellow in Vietnam and received a masters degree from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He has gone on to become GlobalPost’s senior correspondent for North and South Korea specializing in politics and business and has traversed Asia writing for The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Fast Company, The Christian Science Monitor and others. His name is Geoffrey Cain and if you Google him, you’ll see a picture of him playing with his trombone. Let’s give a warm welcome to Mr. Geoff Cain who joins us via Skype from Dallas.
Here are some excerpts from our interview with Geoff.
Impressions of Pyongyang: “On arrival in Pyongyang we were treated to the typical lineup of Korean War memorials, party monuments, and the USS Pueblo–a US reconnaissance ship seized in 1968 and now a patriotic museum moored on the banks of the Taedong River. We later finished the tour in Pyongyang, where we got a front row seat of a military parade. We didn’t get to see Kim Jong Un give his speech to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling party, but we had a remarkable upfront view of the tanks, missiles and troops in cars driving by that evening. Also fun was that the parade was surprisingly unstructured. It was one of our few chances to get out, walk around, and mingle with the local people.”
The hotels: “In Pyongyang the hotels are pretty international as far as standards. My hotel was full of tourists from China and Russia, and also business people from China, Switzerland, etc. Outside of Pyongyang it’s an altogether different story. Small hotels in the countryside don’t have running water–you use a big spoon to pour water over yourself to bathe, like in parts of Southeast Asia, such as Laos or Cambodia. You need to bring your own toilet paper and soap.”
The food: “People say that Pyongyang is famous for its nangmyeon, or chilled buckwheat noodles. But I didn’t see much in terms of good cuisine. The food in South Korea is far better, loaded with spices and flavors and catered to a fiery tangy palate. We were mostly served “tourist” food, but I requested Korean meats and pickled side dishes in the train’s kitchen car and did not find it appetizing compared to the usual fare of Seoul.
I often see this effect in former “communist” or isolated countries. The sad fact is that war, isolation, and poverty chase out the resources, money, and people needed to make good food. A South Korean historian tells me that Pyongyang was once famous for two things: food and kisaeng (geishas). The Korean War and the revolution destroyed that, sending the very best restaurateurs south.”
Traveling by train: “The real adventure started when we left the capital by train. North Korea gets thousands of foreign visitors a year–mostly shepherded around from the big three hotels in the capital–but train travel is less typical: until recently American citizens weren’t even allowed on it. The train showed us a stunning view of the countryside. For all its terrible politics, the DPRK is home to some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in all of Asia. The mountains of Kangwon were covered with a palette of orange and red autumn foliage, with crisp and nourishing air, and the rivers and streams so clear that you could see the bottom.”
An undeveloped countryside: “Obviously, North Korea is home to terrible poverty, so I’m not romanticizing rural life here. But I could see why North Korean propaganda is incredibly successful. It preaches that this nation and race is the “purest.” Surely its countryside, untouched and virginal, is convincing enough for its people. Another Western visitor remarked that the ramshackle villages were straight out of a William Blake poem. Aside from pockets of modernity and mechanization, the countryside looked like it was trapped in history: bicycles were the main mode of transportation, red peppers and corn were spread on the rooftops of traditional homes, and farmers harvested their rice and wheat by hand.”
Interacting with locals: “The guides were friendly and approachable, but it was also clear from that start that they had years of training in Western etiquette and culture, and had dealt with thousands of tourists. They knew what we think about North Korea and how to manage us–they run a tight ship and will get in trouble if we step out of line. They err on the side of caution, and avoid revealing too much.
On the train, our guides were more festive and open. They drank soju and beer with us, and brought side dishes like crab and squid. After the drinking started, they would occasionally open up for short periods before getting back to work. One guide told me about how his family struggled through the famine, but why he truly believes North Korea today is a paradise.
We didn’t have many opportunities to openly interact with regular people beyond the occasional “hello.” One time, I was sitting in the kitchen car having a coffee and speaking Korean with the waitresses and crew. Somebody must have told the guide, because he soon came out and politely escorted me back to the passenger cars. A few days later, this happened again. Interaction with locals was fine to a certain limit, but it was clear that they did not want us going too far.”
How scripted did the tour feel? “I don’t agree with the notion that if you go to North Korea, you’re only going to get propaganda. Some parts of the tour were heavily scripted. But the beauty of taking the train was that many parts were not. Yes, you will have to listen to the party line — but if you pay attention, look around at what people are wearing and selling, drink with your guides and understand Korean etiquette, you can glean quite a bit.
Between scripted portions, we got plenty of downtime on the train, when we could freely look at the countryside and wave at locals. But the train ride was where we got closer to the “real” North Korea, even if there were still barriers. We saw what appeared to be squatters living in old rusted train cars. We saw villagers riding bicycles and going about their daily lives. We saw the occasional market — random items laid out on the ground, being sold to passersby.
Chongjin was where the tour got very interesting. Throughout the entire trip, we were instructed not to take photos of things that would shine a bad light on North Korea–poverty, run-down train cars with squatters, construction sites. But in Chongjin we basically couldn’t take photos of anything outside of the approved tourist sites. We couldn’t even take photos outside our hotel window–we were informed that security informants were watching from outside and would not hesitate to report us.”
Culture Shock: I didn’t have any culture shock. In fact, I was amazed at how similar North Koreans were to their southern cousins. Even down to everyday anxieties like marriage. I hear a lot of South Korean youngsters complaining about the family pressures of having a big wedding, where the guests consist mostly of old friends and business partners of the parents. The North Koreans had similar grievances. If there was any “shock,” it was simply having no running water and electricity at times. But I’m used to that. I lived in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Number one take away from the trip: “Go before it’s gone. Nobody knows how long North Korea, in its current state, will last.”
About our guest:
- Follow Geoffrey Cain on Twitter
- Learn about Geoff on LinkedIn
- The tour company that Geoff traveled with.
To learn more about Scott & Trevor: