The DPRK (North Korea) is not what you think it is, or maybe it is. I have just returned from what is said to be the most secretive and protective state in the world. This adventure lasted five days where I was playing and coaching ice hockey in North Korea. I will tell more about the hockey later, but I will tell you why it was nothing of what I thought it was.
Before the trip I had built up in my head a picture of what I thought the country was going to be like, perhaps dark, poverty stricken, and isolated. I had read books, articles, and watched videos over the past few years; along with carefully watching the news and dissecting it from an international law and political point of view. Even in the morning of our departure date from Beijing, North Korea had launched four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. Therefore, with this in mind, I thought it must be a crazy place to visit and one that only true “travellers” would only dare to go, but I was wrong in many ways.
Our transportation into the country was a 24-hour train ride. Arriving at the border was perhaps the most nervous situation we were confronted with as we were not sure what to expect or what was expected of us. As we were being searched by border guards everyone was quiet, we did as we were told and agree we had no religious material in our possession. One moment that changed it for me was when the guard stopped searching, looked at his “watch,” at least what we thought was a watch. He clicked the button on the top, removed the face of the watch (which looked identical to a Fitbit style wristband and face), and put it in the ear like a Bluetooth device and start talking. We looked around our cabin saying to one another, “did you just see that?”, or “I can’t believe I just came to North Korea to find the latest technology.” I think that was the starting point that changed my perception of this trip.
Pictures and video are things that were built up prior to the trip. Our guide had suggested that we must not take pictures on the train ride in and that guards would be checking often or even take your sim card and delete the pictures as they choose. While this is somewhat true and they did look through some cameras on the way out (mainly to look at pictures from the “west”), it is more flexible than you think. If you ask in advance to take pictures of things your guides will often allow it. Only once on our trip the guides were worried about a Gopro that had been filming outside the bus for about 45 mins and that it could have captured footage of soldiers in the city, but nothing had happened after that.
Prior to the trip I often wondered how this country could still be functioning with all of the sanctions that had been put on their economy. How is it that these people could still be getting food, electricity, money, etc.? When taking the train in and later the bus to the Demilitarized Zone, I was able to see other villages and cities along the way. Although not directly engaging with the people, I could see that things were still functioning and surprisingly well. I mean, some villages don’t have electricity, but outside almost every apartment we could see solar panels that allowed for powering lights and appliances. It shocked me because I saw more solar panels on the roofs of apartments and houses there than I have seen in Canada, Finland and Australia combined. Furthermore, there were fields and fields of wheat, rice patties, goat farmers, turkey herders carrying out their daily work. What surprised me the most is how sustainable and unconcerned the people were. I mean, four ballistic missiles launched and people in the countryside wouldn’t care either way, perhaps due to their limited access to information, but I think they were more concerned with surviving.
In addition, I had conversation with officials on a number of occasions, some did mention that sanctions had limited their ability to develop sports and import certain things. However, one conversation on the issue said, “oh but it is not a big issue, we are learning to make those things on our own.” Therefore, I got the feeling that these people are just so determined and hardworking that they will always find a way, even if it seems like the world is against them (or their government).
Lastly, the country is surprisingly clean. For a country that has an incredible amount of smokers and a growing number of tourists, I saw virtually no garbage. The streets are swept, the walls are clean, it is fabulous! Also, on this note, there was no advertising on any of the streets. Meaning no open or closed signs, no sale signs, nothing. Think about all of the advertising we are exposed to everyday, it is hard to believe there was nothing there. You don’t notice it while you are there, but I can tell you that when you get back to Beijing you sure do!