By Emma Reynolds
A travel blogger who visited North Korea on one of the secretive country’s tightly controlled tours says everything outsiders see is a lie.
On their arrival, tourists have their passports taken away and are given a half-day briefing on dos and don’ts. “It was don’t more than do,” Anjaly Thomastold news.com.au. “We were told not to take pictures of unfinished buildings, work half done, or local people. You have to bow to every statue of [North Korea’s ruling family] the Kims and there’s no folding of a newspaper with a picture of them on it.
“If you’re asked to walk in a straight line, you walk in a straight line.”
Thomas said her group stayed at a hotel on an island in the middle of a river, where tourists could drink and gamble at a casino — something citizens are rarely able to do. At the hotel, she said, “you’re free, because you can’t escape.”
The Indian writer and blogger said guests would look out at Pyongyang at night and see total darkness, because no one else in the capital has electricity to light their homes after dark.
“It’s all make-believe,” she said. “They show you the best of Pyongyang, you eat at the best restaurants, but you don’t see many locals eating there. They get their food through a public distribution system, they can’t buy it themselves. For tourists, there’s plenty, but people have a food shortage.
“Coffee shops are few and far between.”
But the clean, pretty facade is convincing, she added. “If you drove down the streets, you wouldn’t believe something is wrong,” she said. “Everyone seems really happy and beautiful.
“Everything is big, it’s huge. The buildings are old but well-kept, like they’re stuck in the 1950s or ‘60s.
“The school was big but there weren’t a lot of students. There was nobody, it could have been put there for us. They know when the tourists are going to arrive.
“You always have a guard with you, and a guard minds the guard, and they have cameras on us.”
A brief visit to a town to the north of the capital revealed there was “no architecture, nothing to see.” It was only the “fabulous” sacred palaces in Pyongyang that were filled with marble and gold, chandeliers and travelators that “go for miles.” Local visitors were crying genuine tears as they looked around the buildings that they were given time off once a year to explore. “They really feel it.”
The group were taken to a library filled with books on the Kims. Thomas bought chopsticks and fridge magnets with pictures of the ruling family on them as souvenirs. “There’s nothing else to buy,” she said. “There are no stores you can walk into and buy off the rack.”
She said the North Koreans she met seemed surprisingly content with their lot. They don’t have GPS or hi-res cameras, but they believed the presence of a few mobile phones from China showed they had “the most modern technology.”
“A girl had an iPod and our North Korean guide had never seen one before,” she said. “He looked at it and said, ‘What is this?’”
Most ordinary people avoid tourist groups, she said, because they could get in trouble for approaching them. A few tall, attractive, impeccably polite representatives are assigned to speak to visitors. “They are the public face of Pyongyang,” said Thomas.
One belief that unites everyone in the repressive Democratic Republic of North Korea is that they are at war with America — and that they can win. “Americans are infidels, bastards,” she said. “Postcards show Korean soldiers pulling out the liver of Americans.”
At the museum, the visitors heard a different version of history, and the few US citizens in Thomas’s group were not allowed to take the train back to Beijing, but had to fly out. Officials checked everyone’s photos as they left before handing back their passports.
Looking back on her short, carefully managed trip, Thomas says she remains curious about many things.
But as tourism starts to increase, she’s fascinated to see what happens, and if the illusion could fall apart.
The above originally appeared at News.com.au.