It’s an oft-used tourism cliché that there’s never been a better time to go. But 2012 really could be a watershed year for North Korea and a pivotal time to visit. With leader Kim Jong-il dying in December 2011 and his youngest son Kim Jong-un taking the reins, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is in an exciting state of flux. Furthermore, as this summer’s Arirang Mass Gymnastic Performance approaches, rumours abound that the most spectacular show you’ve never seen is about to draw its final curtain.
For political details, check out any number of newspapers; for tourism, things keep getting better. The number of travellers continues to rise, photography restrictions are increasingly elastic and more Western-style eateries are opening up – and being frequented by more Korean families.
Many locals pose for pictures and wave on the streets; Sunday afternoon park-goers ply you with soju and pull you into folk dances. US tourists in particular have more breathing room; once buried by prohibitions, now American itineraries almost mirror those of their European counterparts.
Of course, Koreans have had a mercurial year. This past winter, Koryo tour leaders saw a palpable sense of gloom – local guides would well up or even break down when speaking about their departed ‘father’, while passers-by wore long faces. In April, with both the 100th anniversary of President Kim Il-sung’s birth and the 80th anniversary of the founding of the military, the mood lifted and the festive atmosphere included a perpetually lit skyline, river fountains and copious banners. By May, streets were even more active; children on school-sponsored picnics were playing games with tourists, and thousands of students were practising for Arirang, the highlight of the tourist season.
For the DPRK (then Korea), mass games began in the 1940s, but Arirang brought them to a whole new stratosphere. Launched in 2002, performed again in 2005 and then annually since 2007, Arirang sees 100,000 singers, dancers, flag-bearers, card-holders, gymnasts and trapeze artists come together to celebrate the power of collective thought and chronicle Korean history since the birth of Kim Il-sung.
While 20,000 middle-school students form a giant, ever-changing mosaic backdrop, 2,000 performers in each number dramatise historical events such as the Japanese occupation, the birth of revolution and the Korean War. Act two features cultural priorities such as hydroelectric power, silk production, iron smelting and children-as-future; the salute to agriculture even includes giant dancing eggs. Most astounding is that performers enter and exit in total darkness and, when necessary, turn handsprings in pouring rain.
But Arirang’s historical element may well signal its demise. Sources within Korean International Travel Company (KITC) point to the specific 20th-century narrative and say that with a new leader and a new epoch, DPRK needs a new show. As always north of the Korean Demilitarised Zone, the future is unclear, with only rumours to go on; mass games of some sort will no doubt continue to take place. Still, Arirang constitutes a complete work of art and is not to be missed.
While things have improved for tourists, there are still numerous restrictions. Even solo travellers need a driver and two guides, and the only place you can wander freely is your hotel grounds. Koryo works with KITC, a state-owned company with 70 trained tour guides (not minders). They might surprise you. Their bus-front speeches are peppered with references to the Great Leader, but their evening conversations over beer, karaoke and bowling are about family, school, where they have been and where they want to go – just like the rest of us.
Best of all, they can help explain a mysterious country. Yes, urbanites take countryside trips to help with the harvest, but at night they all sing songs together. Yes, the children in the mass games train a lot, but it’s a strictly volunteer, extra-curricular activity. And yes, they dislike the US government – but not the people.
Tourists need little encouragement to love the guides, and many stay in touch (through Koryo) for years after their trips. There’s one who wants to learn all about foreign trade, a serious one who tells terrible jokes and another who knows all the Backstreet Boys’ songs. One particularly beautiful guide always finds herself surrounded by slack-jawed tourists asking whether she would ever date a non-Korean. (‘No. Never.’)
DPRK is a tabula rasa – travellers see a socialist paradise or a people groaning under the yoke of oppression. What you’ll take away with you – and why you’ll want to come back – are the conversations. Tourists can ask whatever they want, but be warned: North Koreans consider their leaders as sacred as Mohammed is to Muslims, or Jesus is to born-again Christians. Their Juche philosophy is based on having Korean blood – less a political structure than a faith.
After 5,000 years of an agrarian, then feudal system that saw invasions by China and Japan, followed by 40 years of Japanese colonialism, Koreans see their proud nation as the trampled grass between international elephants. That is, until General Kim Il-sung gave Korea back to the Koreans. To them, he expelled the Japanese colonial oppressors, fended off the ‘American invasion’ of the Korean War, rebuilt the country from rubble and still posthumously protects them from foreign powers, while the US has divided not only resources but families. However, the rhetoric never filters down to the personal level. History buffs may notice factual discrepancies, but this is their reality, not yours, and Koreans believe security is more important than material comforts.
DPRK is a confusing, mystifying place, but keep your eyes and mind open – and don’t go to lecture or liberate. Go because you’ll meet some wonderful people, you’ll see things you’ll never see again, and you might understand an enigmatic country just a little better.
Getting there: Koryo Tours offers a number of tours to North Korea during the August-September mass games period and beyond, leaving from Beijing. For more information, see www.koryogroup.com.