north korea is sometimes called the land of whispers; people don't say things out in the open. they generally whisper to each other and then quickly walk away! it's one of the most secretive places on earth, it's one of the most isolated countries on earth, and as a visitor you much experience the same reality! you're never shown the whole picture; you're never told the whole story! all you get are blurry shadows;
all you get are quiet whispers! and it's up to you to figure out what is honesty and what is fear, what is truth and what are lies, and what's reality and what's complete and pure propaganda. one of my friends had gone to north korea and she was very shaken up by her experience. north korea was crazy! it was one of probably one of the most exotic places i've ever been in my life and it completely changed the way i think about the world. it changed the way i think about governments, it changed the way i think about society,
it just changed the way i think about how people can live their lives. i was fascinated! i wanted to know more. so, i went online, i tried to find more information about north korea, but there isn't a whole lot of fresh material out there. what i found was generally western produced, one-sided and quite often - it seemed simply uneducated. in october 2000, the president sends his secretary of state, madeleine albright, to pyongyang, for direct talks with kim jong il. i went having been briefed on what kind of a weirdo he was.
from our own people, he was portrayed as reclusive-like, with many girlfriends and watching porno movies and basically a very weird kind of person that you had no idea what he was going to be like. i had always been interested in the soviet times, in propaganda art and architecture and simply in mysterious, out of the way places. so, i wanted to go. every year only about 1,000-2,000 foreigners are allowed to visit the dprk. most visitors come for the arirang games and do not get to experience much else. but i did not want to go as a typical tourist.
i wanted to do something meaningful. after exchanging a bunch of emails with the company running tours to north korea i was given a rare permission to bring my camera and to film video. i was to shoot a very small travel promo for the company and i was allowed to use the rest of my footage to put together a project of my own. most people seem to think that travel to korea is impossible, or at least very difficult, but the truth is that it's actually very easy! all i had to do is email a copy of my passport to the company and they took care of everything else from there.
the downside of it is that you have to travel with a group. unfortunately, it's the only feasible way to enter north korea. well, that's what i had to do. my trip begun in viet nam, in one of my favorite cities, in my beautiful, thousand-year old ha noi. from here, i took an overnight train to nanning and then later beijing, in china. we're going up there! ... up, over there, somewhere... i can't see. ...he's actually filming, not taking a picture. finally, i was ready to board my train to pyongyang.
at the station i met my western tour leader. are we picking up this mic? the wind's not gonna be a problem, is it? i got on my train, everybody's excited because we're going to north korea and then the train moves and suddenly, panic breaks out. and i look out the window and it turns out a man was left on the platform. now, had this been a foreign tourist - well, it's his fault for missing the train,
he's gonna have to catch the next one. but being a korean man, i can't help but wonder, what's gonna happen to this guy when this train actually arrives in pyongyang and he's not on it. it's dramatic. later that night i got to talk to another korean man and he told me that the guy had left all his things on the train. the guy seemed to think that his brother, as he called him, was gonna go to the north korean embassy in beijing and was gonna get help from them. you know, i think he will either take a flight or he will take the express train.
i asked him - is your brother going to get in trouble? is he gonna get punished? he'll be ok... i hope so. the guy told me: "well, he's not gonna get punished; he's gonna get criticized." now, what does 'criticized' mean?! we're going to north korea! this is 'moranbong band'. it's the new band that apparently kim jong un hand-picked. ...picture - no problem! ...uh, my friend! the border crossing, it's basically a river. on one side it's china, on the other side it's korea.
on the chinese side you see commercialism, you see tall buildings, you see some advertising and then you cross the river to the korean side and there's some people wandering around the river there's... there's nothing there really. and then the train pulls up to the customs office, i guess, to some kind of a building and the excitement died down pretty quickly because for the next three hours nothing really happened. and, after a pretty typical luggage check, the train slowly moved again and i was in the dprk. country 33. north korea. it's the evening, i arrived in pyongyang and i get to meet my tour guides.
long live the glorious workers party of korea! long live the great leader, comrade kim jong un! president kim il sung and dear leader kim jong il will always be with us! ...and then, in front you can see the... party foundation monument... ...you're not cold? ...a little cold! i went up to the tour guides, i introduced myself. they didn't want to be friendly. they wanted no interaction. instead, they presented me with a number of rules to abide by when visiting their country.
...in our country you have to do this, in our country you cannot do this. 1. no footage of korean comrades in their country, i am not allowed to take video, i am not allowed to take pictures of the local people, because they will be angry with me and i will get in trouble. 2. respect the press in their country, if i read a newspaper which has a picture of kim jong il, kim il sung, kim jong un - i am not allowed to fold that newspaper in half; i am not allowed to crumble it, i am not allowed to disrespect it in absolutely any way.
and by the way - every single newspaper has pictures of their dear leaders over every single page. 3. "filming should be realistic" when photographing any statues or any monuments of the dear leaders, you always have to shoot them from a low angle point of view, you always have to shoot the whole image. you shouldn't cut off the shoulder, you shouldn't cut off the shoes, you shouldn't cut off anything at all. now did i abide by all of those rules?
well, within reason. i really feel that i had done enough not to truthfully offend anybody, yet to stay true to myself. i was to stay at the yanggakdo hotel and i was told that yanggakdo means "the horned sheep island". so i suppose, i was staying at the "horned sheep island" hotel. the yanggakdo is a 50 storey building with a revolving restaurant on top; it's located on a small, isolated island in the middle of pyongyang. i was put on floor 26 - all the floors below 26, all the floors above 26, they're completely empty! all the lights are turned off, there's nobody there,
the restaurant on top - empty! there's a casino down in the basement, there's some karaoke rooms, there's apparently a spa, a swimming pool, several different restaurants - nobody there. completely empty! ...sorry, no picture! and, one more thing. at the yanggakdo hotel, floor number 5 is missing. there's no access to floor number 4 or floor number 6 either. what is on those floors? nobody knows! the next morning i got up pretty early and i headed up to the airport for my flight up to mt. paektu, which is the mythical birthplace
of the dear leader comrade kim jong il. air koryo, the north korean national airline, is infamous for apparently being the worst airline in the world. the flight was really nothing special, but then again - i flied american before, i flied united before - they suck! air koryo was not worse. it wasn't better, but it also wasn't worse. and, they had no extra luggage fees. from the base of mt. paektu, where the bus parking was to the top, where you could see the iconic "heaven lake" it was actually quite a bit of a trek.
everybody went at their own pace and well - i separated from the tour guides. once i got to the top, i set up a timelapse shot over the lake. but, suddenly this angry korean guy shows up and he demands that i move my camera, apparently it's in his way. well, i bought myself some three minutes trying to reason with him but eventually i had to cut it short. i walked away, i asked somebody for a picture and out of nowhere, left and right, everybody wants to take pictures together. and before i knew it, the grumpy guy shows up! he pushes everybody aside and now he insists on taking a picture together as well. then the tour guides showed up and it was pretty much the end of local interaction.
from mt. paektu, i head over to the secret camp. this is the historic place where our great leader kim jong il was born and spent his childhood. that picture shows our president kim il sung and then the mother kim jong suk and then our great leader kim jong il, at the age of one year old. and then, you can see over there, the "jong il" peak. "jong il" is the name of our great leader "kim jong il", just "jong il", so we call that one "jong il" peak. half the things, half the places, have been named after the dear leaders! ...that area is a very mysterious area!
there are mountains named after the dear leaders, there are trees named after the dear leaders, there's a flower named after the dear leader in korea! ...that is a poem written by our president kim il sung. and then, that is a signature of our president kim il sung. ...let's go! according to old documents, kim jong il was actually born in russia, however in korea, the story involves double rainbows and talking birds. throughout my whole visit there, i really could not help but wonder, how are all those people gonna feel when one day they find out the truth?
since the beginning of the trip, i have been waiting for some kind of local experience. i was stuck on a train and i was thinking: "well, when i get to pyongyang, the trip is finally gonna start" then i arrive in pyongyang and well, i'm stuck in the hotel. the next morning i'm thinking "that's when things are gonna happen", but no! i get ushered to a bus, i get put on a plane and i am constantly sheltered! that's the point when i figure out that this local experience - well, it's simply not gonna come. but, i walk up to mr. moe and i ask him: "mr. moe, can you tell me a little bit about your life?" - no. "ms. selma, can you tell me a little bit about your government?" - absolutely not. and at that point i come to my second realization that those two, they're not really tour guides!
they're simply propaganda speakers, they're there to escort me from one place to another, to give it the impression of a well rounded trip, when in fact - they can't wait for me to just leave. as my final attempt i walked up to mr. jim and i asked "mr. jim, can you tell me anything about your juche ideology?" and to my great surprise, he actually really lit up! he was very happy that i asked! his answer did not make a whole lot of sense. a lot of their propaganda, a lot of their ideology does not make a whole lot of sense to me, and if i had to guess, most koreans probably can't follow it either. the juche idea is the idea of 'self reliance'. it's the idea that man is the master of his own destiny.
and without pushing, i asked him "well, do you really believe that this ideology translates to the people?" "do you really think that all koreans can accomplish anything they dream of?" he simply didn't have an answer for me. and by that point we were back at the bus and our conversation kind of ended. the hotel that evening really reminded me of stanley kubrick's "shining". it was deserted, it was in the middle of nowhere and it felt as if nobody has been there in ages. and i really wondered, do the staff of this hotel, do they come to work every day, even when there's no tourists and do they still pretend that it's business as usual? then i got to my room and i turned on the tv.
i had the tv running for that evening. i wanted a local experience and i very much got one... i was sitting in this crappy hotel room, with no hot water, with old, stinky carpets, with black and white images and revolutionary music blasting from the tv and i simply felt transported to some strange, other reality. if this is the western luxury that you show off to foreigners, what kind of conditions do the locals actually live in? that evening was spent drinking blueberry wine in the hotel's hallway. what i found more interesting, though, was the cute waitress and the fact that she
was completely mesmerized by the touch screen on another tourist's tablet. she spent most of the evening playing 'angry birds' until suddenly mr. moe showed up. he sent the poor girl away and... he started playing the game himself. on july 4th, 1976, dear leader kim jong il came here and set the place where we can build this monument. all the korean people call the president kim il sung as the tiger of the mountains. so we have to build this monument as a very young aspect of the president kim il sung. after learning all about the height, weight and density of the dear leader's statue and visiting a museum dedicated to... the dear leaders, i headed up to the airport for my flight to chongjin.
chongjin region has received a lot of negative attention in the recent decades. during the 1990's the areas experienced heavy famine which resulted in deaths from starvation from supposedly as many as 20% of the local population. in 2009, an award winning book called 'nothing to envy' has been released by an american journalist. through interviews with defectors and smuggled materials, the book attempted to uncover the reality of every day life in the region. its release greatly embarrassed the regime of kim jong il and it served as one of the reasons why travel has been even more restricted there in recent years. if there's one image that stuck with me from chongjin, it has to be the factories. this is the main city for the heavy industry. there are many metal complexes and many chemical complexes here. and also there are many military bases. every time when we open the factory the two leaders came here.
not to support the military base, but only to improve the people's lives. the two leaders visited here more than fifty times. under the warm guidance of the president kim il sung and dear leader kim jong il this city has become a modern city. after some 6 hour journey i was taken to the apparent highlight of the modern city chongjin, the fisherman's club. it was basically a gated building with a karaoke room, with a pool table, with beer and... with very little else. i was told that i had about three hours to kill there.
after this, what's on the schedule? yeah, i think, quickly finish this beer, then go to the hotel quickly, check in, shower and drink at the hotel - it's better. i was not allowed to wander, but i could go out to the courtyard. and it turns out that the foreigners' presence sparked quite a bit of interest from the local people, especially from the kids. many of the children, they came up, they poked their faces through the gates, they tried to see better and i waved to some of them, some of them smiled, some of them got shy and understandingly so they were very curious - after all, they may have never seen foreigners before.
with the street blocked off by fences i tried to shoot some images through the cracks with a longer lens, but within seconds - selma showed up. she was more angry than ever before and she claimed that the locals came to her and that they told on me; she claimed that they were very angry with me and basically, i'm in big trouble. i walked into my room, i looked through the window and i got quite excited! i could actually see the life of the local koreans from much closer than at any other point since the start of the trip. later i was told that with no other hotels in town the tour guides had no choice but to bring foreigners to the very center,
to a place surrounded by locals. but after my earlier encounter with selma, now i feel quite paranoid and i keep wondering, even without the tour guides around, will the locals see me? will they genuinely tell on me? and will i really get in trouble for filming? although feeling a bit stiff, the dinner performance from the waitresses was a nice accent to end the day. their guitar was missing strings, it was completely out of tune, but they made up for it with their smiles. after dinner, jim came up to me and he asked me if i was satisfied with his earlier answer
about the juche ideology. it was pretty obvious he wanted to talk more. i told him a bit about my travels. i told him what i knew about south korea. suddenly i'm getting nervous looks from the western tour leader, he wants me to shut my mouth, but well, i kind of ignored him and i told jim that i didn't think north korea was a really happy place for its people. maybe i went too far, but jim listened. later i also asked him - if the dprk considers north & south korea as one country, why would the north bomb the southern yeonpyeong island, why would they risk hurting their own brothers?
shells raining down on the island of yeongpyeong marking the first artillery strike on south korean soil in more than half a century. as the plumes of smoke billowed from the tiny island community, seoul lifted the state of military readiness to its highest level short of war. firing in response to the hail of some 200 shells from the north, south korea scrambled f16 fighters to the scene. the exchange lasted about an hour. up to 70 houses and other structures were set alight by north korean artillery shells forcing residents to evacuate to underground bunkers.
jim told me it was a distortion by the western media. he told me it was a retaliation attack and that it targeted only a military base on the southern island. i did some research later on and well, he wasn't exactly wrong. suddenly moe stormed in, he accused me of being a two-faced spy and an undercover journalist. i asked him to share his honest thoughts but unfortunately he wasn't willing to do that. should the south korean puppet group dare intrude into the territorial waters of the dprk even one hundredth of a millimeter, the revolutionary armed forces of the dprk will continue taking merciless military counteractions against it. the truth is, you do have to be a bit two-faced in north korea.
in my eyes, so many things are so twisted, straight wrong and terribly evil, however for most people, whether it's genuine or as a result of heavy indoctrination, they really believe all of it to be true. so even feeling so much anger towards their leaders, i recognize that only by respecting what they believe in, can i expect them to open up to me. then... the power cut out. in the morning i visited another monument to - surprise, surprise... the president kim il sung. somebody asked: "well, with all the problems that your country is facing, why do the leaders
waste money and resources, why do they put up statues to themselves. president kim il sung and dear leader kim jong il receive the best things only for the people, not for themselves. i mean - good life and... good health, best things. the great leaders are completely selfless, they only care about the people. kim il sung was a shy man, he didn't want the statue! but the people begged him so much that he finally agreed. the statue used to be hollow, but apparently the people felt that it wasn't a strong enough expression of love.
why did they decide to fill the inside and make it solid? more spectacular. more important. at 4-5 year old those children were much better than most adult professionals i had seen. ...and it was just the beginning. by that time in the trip i worked out my best strategy for filming. i had to stay as far away as possible from moe and selma and i tried to hang around mr. jim, who was really quite friendly and supportive. on the way back to pyongyang, perhaps to further discourage my filming, moe announced that he will
never bring another tourist to the area. he then started bragging about harassing other visitors with cameras. one day i organized an undercover journalist. me and my driver broke the journalist's camera. he always opened the window, always taking pictures... then, ok, i promised with the driver: "if i touch your shoulder, please stop the bus very suddenly." ... so i, pssh! and then the journalist dropped their camera on the road. i liked it.
later on, he decided to sing for the group. today is a national holiday. this is a very significant day when the dear leader kim jong il started the songun policy. songun means "army first" policy. to celebrate the songun holiday i had lunch at one of the most unique restaurants in north korea, its only fast food joint. deserted and possibly the only place in the world without coca-cola it was otherwise pretty typical afterwards i headed to the bowling alley, where after some encouragement
from the western tour leader, moe finally agreed to give me an audio bit to the camera. normal people, every people: workers, students, even the old people for the exercise come here to play the ball. walking back to the bus i noticed a grocery store. nothing special, except - all the shelves are empty and the fruit on display is made from plastic. apparently, it's decoration. and - i'm not allowed to film. then came yet another 70s film set. a massive health and spa center equipped with a surreal, jetsons-style barber shop.
gloria, oh dear! i can't let her see me looking like this! distracted, i wandered away and i spent a half hour exploring the hallways of this several storey building before catching up with the tour guides by the olympic-size swimming pool, built for the people by the gracious leaders of the dprk. as a little treat, i was taken for a ride on the pyongyang metro, including some stations not usually open to visitors. i stuck to my strategy of hanging around jim and trying to avoid the other guides. what i didn't consider is that by doing so i may actually get jim in trouble. before the day's highlight i took a stop at the mass dance,
a celebration for the songun holiday. jim had told me even more about korean culture and he agreed to give me an on-camera interview about his country and about the performance i was to see that evening. but only seconds later, i'm getting on the bus and jim suddenly gets pulled away. he's told that he's needed somewhere else and i'm told that he's not gonna be with the group this evening. whether a coincidence or a planned intervention at the hands of the senior guides, i can only speculate.
but by this point in the trip even the most paranoid scenario seems eerily possible. that evening i was to experience the guinness world record winning north korean dance & acrobatics extravaganza and the key highlight for most visitors - the arirang games. what the arirang performance lacked in resources they certainly made up in creativity and a huge number of performers. twenty thousand showing the backdrop. and eighty thousand performers. eighty thousand people in the performance? wow!
twenty thousand for the backdrop. in total, all together, one hundred thousand people will join there. before reaching wonson i stopped by a collective farm in the region. one thousand three people are living in this farm and out of them eight hundred people are engaged in this farm. i was no longer surprised when the farm looked nothing like any other ones i saw on the way. president kim il sung teaches us we are not allowed to work by our own hands, we have to use the machines. from the bus earlier i saw many destroyed crops, but here the fields looked perfectly green and healthy.
i wasn't sure if this excursion had any tourism value at all and i found it quite difficult to believe that this farm was a typical one. i did, however, learn the story behind why number 3 is the lucky number in korea. president kim il sung asked the officers: "can you guess, how many persimmons are in this tree?" the officers said - 500 persimmons are in this tree. at that time, president kim il sung laughed. "why you said only 500?" president kim il sung said "eight hundred"
so after the president kim il sung left, all the farmers took off the persimmons from this tree and then counted how many persimmons are in this tree. exactly either hundred and three persimmons are in this tree. so the korean people think number 3 is lucky. like in western countries - lucky number 7. koreans think number 3 is lucky number. so... eight hundred and then three. three means three lucky ones. after visiting a local school which thankfully was much more subtle than chongjin i continued on to the beach town of wonson. i love traveling to unknown, to undeveloped spots yet in this case
i really hope that i can come back and see this city thriving and the people's lives improving. tourism could make that happen, but only if the restrictions on the people were lifted. i tried to get a shot of a fisherman at sunset and moe pushed me too far. i told him what i thought of his constant hostility, i told him what i thought of his constant harassment and i told him that my friendliness could only go so far unless it's returned.
after all, we had agreed i'd be filming. we had agreed that i'm filming parts of the video for them! moe and selma talked with each other in korean, they were clearly uncomfortable, they were clearly embarrassed and well, i wasn't two-faced anymore. but, that certainly escalated the tension between us and now i wondered if i'm gonna be restricted even more. i'm not sure how, but within ten minutes moe's attitude changed completely.
he suddenly became friendly, he invited everybody for seafood on the pier and for the first time since the beginning of the trip he was nice, he was open. in a subtle way, he also told me that allowing me to film may carry heavy consequences for him. i tried to imagine myself in his situation and i tried to understand. after a morning game of beach volleyball - "dprk vs. the imperialists" my korean experience was slowly coming to an end. after lunch at the nearby ulim waterfall, i got back on the bus
and found another tourist explaining the concept of 'youtube' to jim and selma. he then showed them one of the most popular videos online which he pre-recorded beforehand. jim wanted more and on the way back to pyongyang he asked me for my mp3 player and the first thing he noticed was that the player was made in korea. i was a little concerned that i hurt his pride but he wasn't hurt... i think it was just another seed that got planted somewhere in his mind. (...we all live in a yellow submarine, yellow submarine...)
jim listened to my player for the entire ride back to pyongyang. he got scared when he put on a random rammstein song, but otherwise - he liked john lennon. (...imagine all the people living live in peace...) and i realized the north koreans have never heard of the beatles, they have never heard electronic music, they do not know 'gangnam style'. they've never heard of the dalai lama and they don't know shakespeare. they have no idea what modern cities such as tokyo, such as dubai
or even hong kong look like. he also spent about two hours playing with what in my eyes is the absolutely most primitive drawing application and it really touched me when i got home and i turned on my player and... ...and i saw this. welcome to dprk! have a good time during your stay! see you again! in the afternoon i filmed my final interview with the western tour leader.
it's good to exchange ideas, exchange feelings and emotions with people. everybody learns about each other and that helps. don't make him laugh, come on! there was just one more mystery i felt i had to solve before leaving korea: the fifth floor of the yanggakdo. throughout the trip i overheard that floor 5 is where the korean guides stay under heavy surveillance to make sure that they don't get corrupt by western ideas. i noticed many koreans getting on the elevator at floor 7, so i decided to go down to 7 and try to take the stairs to floor 5.
while uncovering this mystery would serve as great closure to my film, sadly - i failed. just as i got to the staircase this korean guy shows up and he wasn't gonna let me through. instead of a confrontation, this time i decided to walk away. i guess that will give me one more reason to visit the dprk again. i never saw china as a free country more than the day i returned to beijing from north korea. i could cross the street without asking for permission,
i could buy whatever i wanted, nobody seemed to care about my camera. well, at least it seemed free until i looked up at the screen above. before going to korea, i expected the tour to show me how perfect and ideal their country is, i wanted the tour guides to indoctrinate me, to show me what a paradise korea is because i wanted to understand them better and i wanted to understand what they are taught. instead - questions were not appreciated and answers were not given. the north korean threat is in my view quite strongly overplayed, i don't think they're nearly as threatening as they are made out to be.
they're not really a rogue state, they're a very threatened state, they feel very threatened by the united states having war games every year with the south koreans and japan. i think what they really want is to have... ...to have a peace agreement, which goes back to the armistice and erases that with a peace treaty and some reassurances from the united states and from western countries in general that they're not going to be attacked. it's a very difficult country to live in, the citizens have a terrible time,
but it's made worse, it's exacerbated by the embargo against them. i'm still unsure if visiting korea was ethically right or not. people will tell you that money from tourism supports further abuses by the regime, but then again, does every single person really know what their tax money is used for in their home countries. and what's hard to comprehend is that north korea is as far away from capitalism as humanly possible. i have no doubt that have desires, that if given the chance they'd love to buy things, they'd love to have things, but - there is nothing to buy!
there's no concept of supply and demand, people do not earn real salaries, they earn rations in jobs they're assigned to. the koreans - they're no different than other people in the world! what is different is that somewhere in their modern history things went terribly wrong. the more they're threatened the more they're like a porcupine, they'll put their quills out. when the south koreans send up a 3 stage missile, when the japanese do as they often do,
is this regarded as provocative action? it's dual-use technology, just like the north koreans. it seems that north korea is the country that cops the flak every time and if we were only less suspicious, if we could have some kind of... much more relaxed approach, much more intelligent, careful approach towards north korea, i think that we'd find that those quills would go down, as they have in the past, demonstrated, they might become more cooperative. while korea mostly gets negative attention,
it's important to note that the people actually accomplished some pretty impressive feats! pyongyang is quite futuristic! it's a future as imagined in the 70s, but it's unspoiled by neons, by lcd screens, by starbucks logos. arirang didn't use lcd screens. they had low resolution projectors, cheap led effects and they had twenty thousand performers flipping colored cards to form an image. and i thought - wow - if they can pull off a show like this with no technology, what could they do if they did have the resources of the west? i think if it only opened up a bit, north korea could easily become one of the
leading economies of the world. there'd be cheap, hardworking labor. there'd be a market for nearly any industry. the lives of the koreans could improve. the country would develop rapidly. the sad downside is - if korea does open up, will the people feel transported into the future? will they be ready for the modern world having never used a computer before, having no reference point in terms of modern culture, music, film; having never heard of wikipedia, iphones, or google
and for most koreans, having never met a foreigner before. all i know is if korea does open up, i'll do my best to be there the very next day to experience it firsthand. our golden targets for our party is to build our country great, prosperous and powerful. a nation like heaven. so, we have to build this strong country as soon as possible and hand it down to the next, coming generation. subtitles by: etherium sky mediaThe Coloring Book Project 2nd Edition Pdf