All travel to North Korea is handled by the government’s tourism body, the Korea International Travel Company. Foreign travel companies, like the Peking-based Koryo Tours where I booked my tour, arrange itineraries and help travellers acquire visas, all under the watchful eyes of the KITC. There are many organizations around the world that work with the KITC, and I contacted every one of them when I first expressed a serious interest in going to the DPRK late last year. I chose Koryo Tours because they had been in business longer than any other company (twenty years) and, more importantly, their itineraries, broad travel range and prices were the most impressive. The staff at Koryo answered every one of my questions–and coming from me, there were dozens of them over my nine months of planning. Since Peking is twelve hours ahead of the Eastern Standard Time zone where I live, and also since I am very much a night owl, going on-line well past 2 a.m., I would often receive a reply from Koryo Tours before I logged off.
Any blog post I write about my trip to the DPRK must include the name of my main Koryo contact, Amanda Carr. Amanda answered every one of my questions, and when she was out of the office (usually accompanying a tour of the DPRK), she answered as soon as she got back. My questions ranged from those that she must have answered hundreds of times before, to those that she may never have dreamed of being asked. Amanda always had an answer for me, and helped me plan for the trip without any unexpected surprises. I was delighted to finally meet her and was happy to sit with her for this photo at Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Hotel:
When my tour group boarded the bus at the airport, Amanda introduced us to our driver and two guides, who would be accompanying us throughout the entire trip. Ordinarily the KITC provides a male and a female guide, as they did with the other groups, however for our group we had two men, both of whom were named Mr. Kim. When Mr. Kim #1 introduced himself, he said that if you called out “Mr. Kim!” anywhere in Korea, 80% of the men would turn around and look at you. The Kims left it up to us to differentiate them with nicknames. I wasn’t comfortable addressing them by any other name than their own surnames, and I, as well as a few others, called them both Mr. Kim. We thus always had to establish eye contact with them when we addressed them.
One Mr. Kim sat at the front of the bus and did all the talking through a microphone. His partner sat at the back of the bus and watched us. This Mr. Kim wore dark sunglasses and rarely said a word. While the first Mr. Kim came across as friendly and easy to approach, the back-of-the-bus Mr. Kim seemed intimidating and made us all wonder if he really was a cop sent to spy on us. In spite of this initial impression, I got to know back-of-the-bus Mr. Kim better than microphone Mr. Kim, and would have discussions with him about his country on a deeply personal level that I never dreamed I would ever have with any North Korean.
Wherever we travelled, Mr. Kim #1 always stated the rules for photography. The general rule was that photographs were permitted anywhere in Pyongyang and one was allowed to take pictures of the capital even from the bus. One was not allowed however to take pictures from the bus once we left Pyongyang. In spite of this rule, three or four of my fellow travellers flouted the rule and they were issued warnings. Before I even left on my vacation I knew that I had wanted to establish a sense of trust with my guides. I always asked them permission to take photographs. I even asked them if I knew that we were in a location where photographs would be permitted. Sometimes I even brought my camera over to the guides to show them the pictures I had just taken. My intention was to portray myself as a model tourist who obeyed the rules. Since the guides spent most of their time once we left the bus monitoring those few who often needed reminding about the rules for photography, the other travellers and I were often left to ourselves and could photograph what the others couldn’t. On a couple occasions I witnessed the guides yelling at and running towards those who were, sometimes innocently, taking unauthorized photos. My own roommate had been issued several warnings about taking unauthorized pictures. He told me that he had to delete a photo that the guides saw him take. Upon checking my photos later that day I discovered that I had taken numerous shots of the very scene that he himself had to delete. I imagine that I was not asked to delete the same photographs because the guides were not monitoring me. I had shown them early on that I was trustworthy and obedient and although in this particular instance neither I nor my roommate was deliberately taking illicit photographs–we had stumbled across a rural scene plopped in the middle of a major urban centre, no doubt an image the guides didn’t want us to photograph–the guides only focussed their attention on those who had always needed more vigilant supervision.
In spite of my model behaviour I got yelled at on one occasion. I love to take pictures of signs wherever I travel, and road signs in North Korea were irresistible. The problem was, I would have to take such pictures from a moving bus, which was not permitted if we were outside Pyongyang. I stuck my camera out the open bus window and snapped a quick shot of a highway sign. Back-of-the-bus Mr. Kim saw me and told me that was against the rules. I realized that the focus of my subject matter was not a problem so much as disobeying the rules was. Later on in the trip I would have numerous occasions to snap traffic signs freely. Our bus stopped at the side of the road frequently, and I had a fun time snapping signs during street walks in Pyongyang. All the shots of signs I would take later were clear and focussed, while the shot I sneaked from the moving bus wasn’t all that great.
This photo of all the guides, with Amanda Carr, was taken at the end of the group trip at the Pyongyang train station. Mr. Kim (back-of-the-bus) is second from left, and Mr. Kim (microphone) is second from right.
The next post will be about Arirang, also known as the Mass Games, which is quite possibly the greatest show on Earth.