Opening the door to North Korea

By Kathryn Whitmer
This article appears on page 44 of the September 2015 issue.
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The Reunification Monument in Pyongyang.

When MIR Corporation sent out an announcement that they had been given permission to take a tour group to North Korea (DPRK) in the summer of 2014, I immediately signed up. The trip, entitled “Opening the Door on the DPRK,” turned out to be one of the most interesting tours I have taken in my travels to more than 100 countries.

Getting there

Flying from Seattle to Beijing, where our tour officially began, our tour group of 12 stayed at the Regent Beijing. We were met by Jamshid Fayzullaev, our tour manager, and Douglas Grimes, MIR Corp’s president, and given our DPRK tourist visas. 

From Beijing, we took a 2-hour flight to Pyongyang on Air Koryo. Going through Customs and Immigration, I tried the Korean greeting “Annyeong-hashimnikka.” It brought a smile to the face of the serious-looking officer. 

When he finished looking at my documents, I said “Kamsa-hamnida,” meaning “Thank you,” and he smiled again. 

Those phrases represented the sum total of my Korean vocabulary, but they brought smiles and I felt welcomed to North Korea.

Our group was met by two North Korean guides and a representative of KITC (Korea International Travel Company), the company that had made the tour arrangements. 

On our way to the Koryo Hotel we stopped at the Arch of Triumph, similar to the one in Paris but 3 meters higher. It commemorates former leader Kim Il-sung’s role in the struggle to liberate Korea from the Japanese from 1925 to 1942.

Celebrations in Pyongyang

We visited a wide variety of fascinating places in and around Pyongyang, traveling west to Nampo on the Korean West Sea, south to the DMZ area and north 150 kilometers to Mt. Myohyang. We stayed in several fine hotels, ate a variety of delicious meals, saw many museums and historic sites, attended music performances and drove through beautiful countryside in a comfortable, air-conditioned coach.

Gracious servers at the restaurant where we had lunch at the DMZ.

Victory Day (July 27) is one of the most significant holidays in the country. It commemorates the end of fighting in the Korean War, known in the DPRK as the Fatherland Liberation War. We all dressed up in anticipation of the day’s scheduled visits to a number of patriotic sites. 

Our first stop was the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the embalmed bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lie. The place is an enormous palace/mausoleum where medals and awards given to the two leaders, as well as their well-preserved bodies, are on display. I have viewed Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow and Mao’s in Beijing, and both are minuscule compared to this one.

The Victory Day celebrations included a chorus singing patriotic songs honoring veterans, who sat proudly wearing their uniforms adorned with medals; a dance performed by hundreds of people (the women dressed in their beautiful traditional dresses) outside in a public square; a show with acrobats and other circus performers, and, to end the day, a fireworks “finale” with patriotic music in Kim Il-sung Square.

Into the countryside

On another day we rode the Metro and stopped at various stations, each decorated with socialist-realist murals. The Korean Central History Museum, with displays from various periods in the country’s history, and the Grand People’s Study House, where it is said that 30 million books are available, also were visited. 

On Ryongak Hill, we had a picnic in its woodsy setting, and we toured a collective farm community at the Chongsan-ri Cooperative Farm.

About 30 miles southwest of Pyongyang is Nampo. There we visited the West Sea Barrage, a vast system of dams, locks and sluices that separates the Taedong River from the Korean West Sea. At our lodging, Ryonggang Hot Spa Hotel, we ate delicious clams (a local specialty), sampled their rice wine and marveled at beautiful white herons in the sky and perched in the trees. 

As we traveled along the highways, there was little traffic. Most people rode bicycles. 

In the fields along the way, I saw signs encouraging people to work harder for the sake of their country. Many places we visited had beautiful mosaics depicting Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il giving “field guidance” to locals, and there were quotes from them engraved in stone monuments. 

Citizens of North Korea each wear a small pin depicting these two leaders, and respect for the country’s leaders is expected.

A mountain temple and the DMZ

Mt. Kuwol, one of North Korea’s sacred mountains, offered another beautiful setting. Then it was on to Sariwon for a walk through an area designed to resemble an old, traditional Korean district. 

We also wandered the grounds of the Buddhist Songbul Temple and visited the 14th-century tombs of King Kongmin, the 31st ruler of the Koryo Dynasty, and his wife, the Mongolian princess Queen Noguk.

In Kaesong, the southernmost city in North Korea, we stayed in the quaint Folk Custom Hotel and slept on traditional mats on the floor — a pleasant change from the modern hotels. 

The Mansudae Grand Monument, with bronze statues of former<br />
leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

There we took a tour of the northern side of the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The DMZ is a 160-by-2½-mile buffer zone that cuts across the Korean Peninsula near the 38th parallel. 

We visited the Armistice Talks Hall, where the final armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, and stood on the balcony of the DPRK headquarters overlooking the area. From the south side, tourists were looking at us on the north side. It was a surreal moment!

Lunch at the Panmun Restaurant inside the DMZ area was delicious, and our servers, female soldiers, were gracious and friendly. There were souvenirs for sale — candy, paintings, T-shirts, postcards, stamps — and the postcards I purchased and sent to family members arrived within a couple of weeks.

Museum visits

Back in Pyongyang we visited the renovated Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which reopened in 2013. 

Inside, a series of rooms presented different wartime themes: heroes, battles (including a life-size 3-D depiction of one important battle), etc. Outside, the USS Pueblo floated in the Taedong River. 

This US Navy Intelligence ship was seized in 1968, and its crew was imprisoned for 11 months before they were released. Touring the inside of the ship was fascinating.

We drove 160 kilometers north, past rice paddies and farmland, to Mt. Myohyang, an important historic, natural and sacred site with an 11th-century Buddhist temple. It is the fabled home of King Tangun, the forefather of the Korean people. 

Mt. Myohyang is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. We took a hike up to one of its waterfalls and enjoyed the rock cliffs and the magnificent scenery.

Hyangsan Hotel, where we stayed in the Mt. Myohyang area, was extremely luxurious and had a swimming pool — welcome after a day of hiking and sightseeing. 

Located in this scenic area is the incredible International Friendship Exhibition, constructed in 1978 to house the gifts given by world leaders and other important visitors to Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and the current leader, Kim Jong-un. 

A huge map showed where the gifts were from, and a sign declared that 113,030 gifts had been received to date. These gifts were displayed in 120 rooms, of which we saw only a few in the several hours we were there. Gifts included a bullet-proof limousine from Stalin, an engraved silver Revere bowl from Madeline Albright, a bear’s head from Nicolae Ceaus¸escu, a bird sculpture from Billy Graham and three autographed basketballs from Dennis Rodman. 

Ending at the begining

Returning once again to Pyongyang, we continued our sightseeing with visits to the Juche Tower, the Arch of Reunification, Pyongyang Film Studios and Mangyongdae School Children’s Palace. Our group also attended a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra. 

Another highlight was climbing the steps to the Mansudae Grand Monument to view the 65-foot-tall bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. We took flowers to place before the statues, making the mandatory group bow to show respect, as the other visitors did.

Our group enjoyed a delicious farewell dinner at Pyongyang Duck Barbecue followed by a karaoke performance by our DPRK guides and coach driver — a wonderful finale to a memorable trip.

North Koreaans dancing en masse during the Victory Day celebration.

From Pyongyang we flew back to Beijing, enjoyed another day and another farewell dinner with our excellent MIR Corp. tour leader, Jamshid, shared personal highlights of the trip with each other and headed home with an appreciation of the opportunity to visit this unique country. 

The 2015 11-day tour with MIR Corp. (Seattle, WA; 800/424-7289, www.mircorp.com) costs $5,295 per person, double occupancy (land only), plus $650 per person for air travel between Beijing and Pyongyang.

The people of the DPRK had treated us with both curiosity and respect. I came home with a feeling of genuine warmth toward the people and a changed perspective. 

I took many photos during the trip and respected the wishes of our guides, as I do in each country I visit. (Visitors were asked not to take photos inside the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the International Friendship Exhibition and the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War museum.  I also respected their request to take only full-view photos of the huge bronze statues of the Kims at the Mansudae Grand Monument.) 

I would strongly encourage people to go and see the DPRK for themselves.    

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
The Reunification Monument in Pyongyang.

When MIR Corporation sent out an announcement that they had been given permission to take a tour group to North Korea (DPRK) in the summer of 2014, I immediately signed up. The trip, entitled “Opening the Door on the DPRK,” turned out to be one of the most interesting tours I have taken in my travels to more than 100 countries.

Getting there

Flying from Seattle to Beijing, where our tour officially began, our tour group of 12 stayed at the Regent Beijing. We were met by Jamshid Fayzullaev, our tour manager, and Douglas Grimes, MIR Corp’s president, and given our DPRK tourist visas. 

From Beijing, we took a 2-hour flight to Pyongyang on Air Koryo. Going through Customs and Immigration, I tried the Korean greeting “Annyeong-hashimnikka.” It brought a smile to the face of the serious-looking officer. 

When he finished looking at my documents, I said “Kamsa-hamnida,” meaning “Thank you,” and he smiled again. 

Those phrases represented the sum total of my Korean vocabulary, but they brought smiles and I felt welcomed to North Korea.

Our group was met by two North Korean guides and a representative of KITC (Korea International Travel Company), the company that had made the tour arrangements. 

On our way to the Koryo Hotel we stopped at the Arch of Triumph, similar to the one in Paris but 3 meters higher. It commemorates former leader Kim Il-sung’s role in the struggle to liberate Korea from the Japanese from 1925 to 1942.

Celebrations in Pyongyang

We visited a wide variety of fascinating places in and around Pyongyang, traveling west to Nampo on the Korean West Sea, south to the DMZ area and north 150 kilometers to Mt. Myohyang. We stayed in several fine hotels, ate a variety of delicious meals, saw many museums and historic sites, attended music performances and drove through beautiful countryside in a comfortable, air-conditioned coach.

Gracious servers at the restaurant where we had lunch at the DMZ.

Victory Day (July 27) is one of the most significant holidays in the country. It commemorates the end of fighting in the Korean War, known in the DPRK as the Fatherland Liberation War. We all dressed up in anticipation of the day’s scheduled visits to a number of patriotic sites. 

Our first stop was the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the embalmed bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lie. The place is an enormous palace/mausoleum where medals and awards given to the two leaders, as well as their well-preserved bodies, are on display. I have viewed Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow and Mao’s in Beijing, and both are minuscule compared to this one.

The Victory Day celebrations included a chorus singing patriotic songs honoring veterans, who sat proudly wearing their uniforms adorned with medals; a dance performed by hundreds of people (the women dressed in their beautiful traditional dresses) outside in a public square; a show with acrobats and other circus performers, and, to end the day, a fireworks “finale” with patriotic music in Kim Il-sung Square.

Into the countryside

On another day we rode the Metro and stopped at various stations, each decorated with socialist-realist murals. The Korean Central History Museum, with displays from various periods in the country’s history, and the Grand People’s Study House, where it is said that 30 million books are available, also were visited. 

On Ryongak Hill, we had a picnic in its woodsy setting, and we toured a collective farm community at the Chongsan-ri Cooperative Farm.

About 30 miles southwest of Pyongyang is Nampo. There we visited the West Sea Barrage, a vast system of dams, locks and sluices that separates the Taedong River from the Korean West Sea. At our lodging, Ryonggang Hot Spa Hotel, we ate delicious clams (a local specialty), sampled their rice wine and marveled at beautiful white herons in the sky and perched in the trees. 

As we traveled along the highways, there was little traffic. Most people rode bicycles. 

In the fields along the way, I saw signs encouraging people to work harder for the sake of their country. Many places we visited had beautiful mosaics depicting Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il giving “field guidance” to locals, and there were quotes from them engraved in stone monuments. 

Citizens of North Korea each wear a small pin depicting these two leaders, and respect for the country’s leaders is expected.

A mountain temple and the DMZ

Mt. Kuwol, one of North Korea’s sacred mountains, offered another beautiful setting. Then it was on to Sariwon for a walk through an area designed to resemble an old, traditional Korean district. 

We also wandered the grounds of the Buddhist Songbul Temple and visited the 14th-century tombs of King Kongmin, the 31st ruler of the Koryo Dynasty, and his wife, the Mongolian princess Queen Noguk.

In Kaesong, the southernmost city in North Korea, we stayed in the quaint Folk Custom Hotel and slept on traditional mats on the floor — a pleasant change from the modern hotels. 

The Mansudae Grand Monument, with bronze statues of former<br />
leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

There we took a tour of the northern side of the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The DMZ is a 160-by-2½-mile buffer zone that cuts across the Korean Peninsula near the 38th parallel. 

We visited the Armistice Talks Hall, where the final armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, and stood on the balcony of the DPRK headquarters overlooking the area. From the south side, tourists were looking at us on the north side. It was a surreal moment!

Lunch at the Panmun Restaurant inside the DMZ area was delicious, and our servers, female soldiers, were gracious and friendly. There were souvenirs for sale — candy, paintings, T-shirts, postcards, stamps — and the postcards I purchased and sent to family members arrived within a couple of weeks.

Museum visits

Back in Pyongyang we visited the renovated Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which reopened in 2013. 

Inside, a series of rooms presented different wartime themes: heroes, battles (including a life-size 3-D depiction of one important battle), etc. Outside, the USS Pueblo floated in the Taedong River. 

This US Navy Intelligence ship was seized in 1968, and its crew was imprisoned for 11 months before they were released. Touring the inside of the ship was fascinating.

We drove 160 kilometers north, past rice paddies and farmland, to Mt. Myohyang, an important historic, natural and sacred site with an 11th-century Buddhist temple. It is the fabled home of King Tangun, the forefather of the Korean people. 

Mt. Myohyang is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. We took a hike up to one of its waterfalls and enjoyed the rock cliffs and the magnificent scenery.

Hyangsan Hotel, where we stayed in the Mt. Myohyang area, was extremely luxurious and had a swimming pool — welcome after a day of hiking and sightseeing. 

Located in this scenic area is the incredible International Friendship Exhibition, constructed in 1978 to house the gifts given by world leaders and other important visitors to Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and the current leader, Kim Jong-un. 

A huge map showed where the gifts were from, and a sign declared that 113,030 gifts had been received to date. These gifts were displayed in 120 rooms, of which we saw only a few in the several hours we were there. Gifts included a bullet-proof limousine from Stalin, an engraved silver Revere bowl from Madeline Albright, a bear’s head from Nicolae Ceaus¸escu, a bird sculpture from Billy Graham and three autographed basketballs from Dennis Rodman. 

Ending at the begining

Returning once again to Pyongyang, we continued our sightseeing with visits to the Juche Tower, the Arch of Reunification, Pyongyang Film Studios and Mangyongdae School Children’s Palace. Our group also attended a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra. 

Another highlight was climbing the steps to the Mansudae Grand Monument to view the 65-foot-tall bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. We took flowers to place before the statues, making the mandatory group bow to show respect, as the other visitors did.

Our group enjoyed a delicious farewell dinner at Pyongyang Duck Barbecue followed by a karaoke performance by our DPRK guides and coach driver — a wonderful finale to a memorable trip.

North Koreaans dancing en masse during the Victory Day celebration.

From Pyongyang we flew back to Beijing, enjoyed another day and another farewell dinner with our excellent MIR Corp. tour leader, Jamshid, shared personal highlights of the trip with each other and headed home with an appreciation of the opportunity to visit this unique country. 

The 2015 11-day tour with MIR Corp. (Seattle, WA; 800/424-7289, www.mircorp.com) costs $5,295 per person, double occupancy (land only), plus $650 per person for air travel between Beijing and Pyongyang.

The people of the DPRK had treated us with both curiosity and respect. I came home with a feeling of genuine warmth toward the people and a changed perspective. 

I took many photos during the trip and respected the wishes of our guides, as I do in each country I visit. (Visitors were asked not to take photos inside the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the International Friendship Exhibition and the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War museum.  I also respected their request to take only full-view photos of the huge bronze statues of the Kims at the Mansudae Grand Monument.) 

I would strongly encourage people to go and see the DPRK for themselves.