It feels like yesterday I packed my bags and left Melbourne for Beijing to start a literal dream job working as a tour guide in North Korea for Young Pioneer Tours. That was 2016 and since then I’ve visited North Korea countless times, learned so much, grown as a human, met an insane amount of wonderful people from around the world and now have more dinner party stories than I’ll ever remember. So, as I take a side-step in my work with YPT, here are my top 5 experiences over the last three years.
5. Bridging the Gap
My biggest take-home-message I had after my first trip to the DPRK as a tourist in 2014 was having my misconceptions of North Korea challenged after experiencing a 12-day summer tour. The “Truman Show” experience the media so often write about was nowhere to be found and instead, I was surprised to experience a nuanced and very surprising country with a lot more happening than goose-stepping soldiers at military parades, ICBM tests and “Kim Jong Un looking at things.” Meeting the people and forging friendships with the Korean guides and others you meet along the way is something I always encourage travelers to engage with.
I’ve always been a firm believer in positive cultural exchange through tourism and to not just be a spectator, but to engage with people, culture and history, to listen to peoples’ experiences and to put our own Euro-centric (or otherwise) cultural viewpoints into context with those from other parts of the world. For a country as closed off as North Korea is, I see tourism as an important window for both foreign travelers to humanize the North Korean people, and on the flip side, for the North Koreans to see that the outside world isn’t a big, bad place out to get them and find mutual understanding between both parties.
In my pre-tour meetings, I always stress the concept that we’re “ambassadors for the outside world” and the importance of being a “good house guest.” I’ve always wanted travelers to share the same multi-faceted experience of learning something different – not only about the DPRK – but about concepts of travel, the media, and possibly even learning something about themselves. When travelers can come away from their experience with a more nuanced and less black-and-white notion of what North Korea is, I always feel as though I’ve done something right. The satisfaction of hearing someone say “…that was the best travel experience of my life,” while coming away from their North Korea experience with a more nuanced idea of what the “scary North Korea” is after human-to-human experiences with the people is something that has kept me going after three years of constant tours.
4. YPT’s First Study Tour
Helping to organize our very first Korean Language Study Tour certainly ranks as one of my highlights. The experience of studying and living in Pyongyang for one month and the way our small group became a family is something that I’ll never forget. Watching our group members begin the tour with zero Korean language skills to be able to read, write and translate basic sentences from Korean to English by our final week was extremely impressive and very cool to see.
This was a real turning point tour for me in many ways. I learned more about North Korea on this tour than maybe on all my tours combined. But, simply, becoming part of the background of Pyongyang and engaging with the day-to-day and more mundane parts of life in North Korea was something truly fascinating. From watching North Korea revolutionary movies with school kids laughing at inappropriate (but very funny) moments to visiting the apartments of locals, to simply hanging out and drinking beers in the sun on our afternoons off school at Kwangbok Department Store’s beer garden, this was as close as to “living an ex-pat life” in Pyongyang you can get.
3. Mass Games Opening Ceremony 2018
“So, have you ever seen Kim Jong Un?” is a question that every guide would usually respond with “no, unfortunately, it’s not possible for tourists to be even remotely in the same vicinity of him.” That would all change during the Opening Ceremony of 2018’s return of the Mass Games during the 70th National Day. A story I have regaled many a time, but never fails to amaze.
National Day 2018 held record numbers of tourists in Pyongyang. It was peak season, a significant 70th anniversary of National Day and of course the return of the Mass Games after a five-year hiatus. Things were chaotic in Pyongyang, to say the least. After lunch on National Day, all groups in Pyongyang were instructed to go back to their respective hotels, get changed into their “best, most smart clothes” and told “please! Do not drink!” We were also told to leave absolutely everything behind – no cameras, no phones, no water, no room keys, not even a paper clip to be found in your pocket. (Yeah, that was a fun one to explain to disgruntled travelers!). Naturally, word started to go ‘round that Kim Jong Un himself would be in attendance at the Mass Games. Of course, not wanting to disappoint, I kept this information to myself, hoping that peoples’ disappointment at the no photography rule would hopefully be soon understood.
We all boarded our buses and drove to a massive car park with literally hundreds of buses and thousands of tourists. The military did a sweep through all the buses with everyone going through body scans to check we had nothing on our persons. Yep, something big was going to happen… As we all re-boarded our buses and drove to the May Day Stadium, I heard the orchestra inside practicing the song that’s played whenever Kim Jong Un enters a room with the roar of what would be over 150,000 Koreans all yelling “MANSAE!” (long live) in unison. My eyes widened and without hesitation, I excitedly announced “GUYS! WHO WANTS TO SEE KIM JONG UN!” That was enough for me, there was no doubt we would be seeing Kim Jong Un. Insane.
Sure enough, we all filed into the world’s biggest stadium, took our seats and waited in anticipation. With all 100,000 performers centre stage and a stadium with a 150,000 capacity packed to the rafters, the anticipation was wild. Then, all of a sudden, all eyes turned to the centre of the stadium and a “FWOOM” sound of hundreds of thousands of people standing up in unison sounded as Kim Jong Un walked into the stadium. The crowd roared with their practiced “MANSAE,” the Koreans around me seemingly losing their collective minds, some literally jumping up and down as if they were at a k-pop concert. Tourists looked at each other in absolute bewilderment at what was happening. Needless to say, the energy and atmosphere in the stadium were like nothing I’d experienced before and something I won’t forget for a long time.
2. Moran Hill sing-a-longs
Way back in 2016 I wrote of my first experience in the DPRK singing “Pangapsumnida” to hundreds of North Koreans in Moran Hill during Liberation Day and my first tour in 2014. This would be an experience that would be repeated almost every single visit to Moran Hill, eventually being recognized by the park “DJ” and many of the lovely retired Koreans who would excitedly grab me and make me sing and dance to the crowds, at times physically grabbing me and refusing to let me leave. Love it.
No Moran Hill experience will ever top National Day 2019 though. The group and I visited the park and were dancing and “people watching” along with countless holidaying Koreans. With a big patch of grass on the hill off-limits to spectators, whenever a Korean would walk over this side of the hill an angry park ranger would blow his whistle and instruct them to leave. Inevitably, the addition of our rag-tag group of Europeans dancing in their very strange ways led to more Korean spectators, seemingly finding the concept of Europeans dance styles the most hysterical concept imaginable. Eventually, our whistle-nark friend had had enough, instructing the DJ to cut the music, ending the festivities and dance party altogether. We sat and watched as a few Koreans, overly-confident-after-a-few-sojus, yelled out in protest to the party is essentially shut down. Alas, the party was over and the “DJ,” possibly wanting to get out of there before she was held responsible for the growing crowd, began to pack up her speaker.
Now I’m not sure what came over me, but something inside me knew that music or no music, “the show must go on.” I stood up, turned around to the crowd of Koreans sitting on the hill above me and yelled “Karira Paektusan?!” the name of my favourite Korean jam. An enthusiastic cheer and laugh was all I needed, and, counting in with a “hana, dul, set, net” I took a deep breath and launched into an acapella version of the North Korean pop song. Within a few lines, the back of the hill began to join in and I turned around to face the thousand or so Koreans who had gathered around the park. Like a musical wild fire, the song spread throughout the park, with everyone singing along as I sung the song to the crowds of bewildered Koreans. The “illegal grass patch” soon became filled with hundreds of Koreans, the whistle-nark retreating away at the hopelessness of controlling the masses, who were now back in control of the vibe. Soon enough, more people were dancing, a Korean drum player was involved and before long the entire crowd was up. The musical revolution is here! Give the people music! I finished the song, my adrenalin absolutely pumping after the roar of the applause and immediately was grabbed by a Korean grandma and instructed to sing another song. And when a Korean grandma tells you to sing another song, you sing another song. Eventually, the vibe became so uncontrollable the DJ resumed music and we were back in action. From that day on, I was recognized whenever I visited Moran Hill, with the “DJ” spotting me as I would approach with a new group, instantly playing “Karira Paektusan.” An honor and the special moment I’ll never forget.
Click here to see a video of the moment.
1. The Friends
I’m an earnest guy, what can I say! I love a bit of cheese, and it goes without saying that the number one experience over these last three years is without question, without any doubt in my mind, the friends I’ve made along the way. Of course my friendships with the people I work with at YPT, all the guides who have come and gone, all the Koreans I’ve worked with, both guides and local guides at key sites, the hotel staff, the DMZ guys, “Grandma and Grandpa Makgeolli” in Sariwon… Saying goodbye to these people who have been such important fixtures in my life over these years, who I really don’t know if I’ll ever be able to see again has a really profound effect. Of course, not to mention the revolving door of wonderful travelers I’ve met along the way. People from all over the world, the vast, vast majority all being some of the most lovely, open-minded people I’ve been lucky enough to introduce to the DPRK. One of the hardest parts of the job is becoming close friends with people for the duration of a tour, only to say goodbye and do it all again with another group of people who become the centre of your world, time and time again. A truly bizarre, social experience.
As my time with YPT comes to an end, I aim to continue my work with North Korea and YPT through different projects to come in the future. This has been truly one of the quintessential experiences of my life and if I was lucky enough to take you on tour to the DPRK at some point over the last three years, thank you for being a part of the experience.
See you somewhere in the world for a Karira Paektusan sing-a-long!