In December 2017, I stood on the southern side of the military demarcation line that cuts the Korean Peninsula in half and stared into North Korea. I technically crossed the border that day, in one of the U.N. command buildings. I technically visited North Korea. But technically wasn’t enough. I wanted more. Why? I wanted to be totally immersed into the North Korea that I’d read about. Seeing it from the sidelines was a taster, and a memorable experience, but from where I stood, the real thing seemed life-changing. So I decided to return.
Nearly a year later, I set out from my hometown of Lincoln, England. I’d spent the day clock-watching at work, and then finally made my way to London, where I caught a flight to the sprawling Chinese capital of Beijing. It was there, after a couple of days spent in jet-lag recovery, that my journey truly began.
The train to Dandong took 14 hours. I didn’t manage much sleep on the overnight ride, but I’m not sure if that was due to the jolting of the train or the thought of what I was set to do the next day.
When I arrived in Dandong, I had just enough time to get a cup coffee, a traveler’s essential, and a bite to eat before squeezing through the bustling train station, up to the platform, and aboard the train that would take me to Pyongyang. Once on the train, I located my bunk and watched as the vehicle came to life and began to trundle forward. I could see Dandong and its high-rise skyscrapers slowly disappearing out the window. As we crossed the Yalu river, we seemed to be going back in time — there were no high-rise buildings or cars here, just a seemingly empty concrete train station.
Just minutes later, the train shook to a stop. Uniformed men with impressively large hats spawned out of nowhere and boarded the cars. All conversation stopped. Over a period of two hours, every passenger had their passport checked, their luggage searched, and their electronics inventoried. After a nervous wait, our belongings were returned and the train finally began to move again.
Once we were in motion, I finally relaxed. I looked out the window and let the day sink in — I was actually in North Korea. This fact first struck me when I saw a set of expansive portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, their faces hanging above a train station in an otherwise barren region. Every place we passed looked similar: the landscape, though plain, was beautifully mountainous.
Roughly seven hours after I’d boarded the train, I caught my first glimpse of Pyongyang. Outside the window stood the illuminated Ryugyong Hotel, the tallest abandoned building in the world. This pyramid-like structure had been on my photo-wishlist for years, so I recognized it instantly, towering above the rest of the skyline. When the train finally pulled into Pyongyang Station, I rushed to the platform, ready to explore the mysterious city. I was quickly reminded that North Korea is a country like no other, however, as government-issued guides were sent to greet us. From that point on, we would never be alone again, except within the confines of our hotel rooms.
From there, our guides took us to our hotel, a grand building where we had dinner in a revolving restaurant that offered stunning views of the entire city. No photos were allowed, though — we were in North Korea, after all.
When we finished our meal, I went to bed. My room was defined by its ’60s décor, but it served me well. I felt like I was in the midst of a strange dream, overlooking Pyongyang from my hotel room, among decidedly abnormal surroundings. I couldn’t shake what “normality” meant to the local citizens; I couldn’t comprehend where I was. The next morning, I was set to return to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) — but this time, from the North.
I was up and reading the essays of George Orwell by 6 a.m., wondering what he’d make of the North Korean situation, but by 7, I found it difficult to concentrate. From the distance, I could hear a noise that was slightly unsettling. I stood up and put my ear to the window. It was the sound of chanting in the streets, something that I couldn’t make sense of. I later found out from our guides that the chanting ensues like clockwork each day, as a way to “encourage the workers to redouble their efforts.” After a big bowl of kimchi and two rounds of toast, I climbed into the van that would take me and the others to the DMZ. Though Pyongyang is only 110 miles (175 kilometers) away, the drive takes between two and three hours, as the roads make for a long and bumpy ride. The scenery along the way was beautiful, as is often the case in North Korea, with frozen rivers and lakes and jagged mountains stretching far and wide.
The closer we got to the DMZ, the more security checkpoints we passed through. Just before we reached our destination, I spotted several man-made boulder fields and wondered if they were there to prevent people from driving too close to the border.
Eventually, we arrived.
As we climbed out of our vehicle, we were greeted by the square-jawed military personnel that would be leading our visit. They delivered a brief talk, which was translated by our guides, explaining the purpose of the DMZ. We then proceeded to the building where the armistice was signed between the U.N. (USA) and North Korea. This is an odd situation to be in — the history that the North Koreans know and teach isn’t the truth we know in the West. While in North Korea, it is imperative that you agree with what you’re told, and that you don’t question it — otherwise, the consequences can be dire.
In situations such as this, it’s easy to forget that North Koreans don’t have access to the same internet that we do, that they don’t have international phone signals, and that dissenting opinions aren’t tolerated. If I had to live under these restrictions, what would I be like? How would my beliefs differ? What version of history would I subscribe to? These are questions that I couldn’t escape from for the remainder of my time in North Korea, and ones that I still don’t have answers to.
After we listened to a speech about how North Korea won the war, we were then escorted back to our van. We drove for roughly ten minutes down a narrow road flanked by barbed wire before I noticed a large stone-walled building up ahead. I then realized that the next part of our tour was to the joint security area (JSA) — I’d seen Panmon Hall.
Once there, we got out of the van and were led into the area behind the JSA. The excitement began to build in me — excitement that only a photographer can understand. It was a feeling that I was about to get “the shot” that I’d wanted for years. After entering Panmon Hall through an understated doorway, our guard pushed open the double doors at the top of the dark stairwell and light flooded in. As I mounted the top step and rounded the corner, I saw them: the South Korean military personnel guarding the border. When I reached the front of the building, I stopped. It was as if the moment required an immense amount of energy to fully comprehend. Just a year prior, I had stood in South Korea staring, wondering, dreaming into the North. And now I was in the North, staring South. I also realized that I’d now traveled the entire length of the Korean Peninsula, from the Yalu River down to the coast at Busan — something that not many have had the privilege of doing.
I showed our guard a photograph that I’d taken of Panmon Hall from the South side but immediately regretted it. I was unsure if he would be hostile to somebody who’d been to the South. My worry turned out to be unnecessary, though — he simply laughed and said, “Now you can make a pair.”
I continued to take photos, almost forgetting that it was the location of one of the most long-standing military standoffs in history. But quickly, our time ran out. The guards ushered us back down the stairs we had climbed only minutes before, and we made our way back to the van. Just before I stepped into the vehicle, I looked back once more at where I’d been. Perhaps I’ll be back again one day, I thought.
As we drove away from the DMZ, I was left with my thoughts. The guards, stern-faced as they were, had posed for photos, engaged in discussions, laughed and joked, and made us feel at ease at the border — something that I remember the U.S. and U.N. troops also doing on the South side. How can two versions of the truth, so wildly different, be guarded and espoused by people who, at least in the most fundamental ways, are so similar? That question typifies my time in North Korea: I arrived expecting answers, but left with more questions.
The journey back to Pyongyang was broken up by a couple of detours. The first stop was in Kaesong, a city that belonged to South Korea during the Korean War and avoided being bombed. It stood as a time capsule of sorts, transporting us back to an era before the war. Whereas Pyongyang has been rebuilt over a 70-year period, the majority of buildings in Kaesong are hundreds of years old. The newly built giant bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, similar to those in the capital, are perched imposingly atop the ancient city, though — a sign that they’re never too far away, nor too conspicuous. After a welcomed late lunch, we digested what North Korea had to offer us, both literally and figuratively, and continued on toward Pyongyang.
Just outside the capital, we were greeted by the striking reunification monument. It signifies the strong desire of all North Koreans to reunify the Korean peninsula and straddles the main road so that you have to drive through it if you’re going toward or coming from South Korea — a powerful symbol. As with all monuments in North Korea, bigger is better. It’s as if things need to be seen to be believed. The roads, empty as they are in the country, acted as the perfect backdrop for photographs.
I spent the next week in North Korea, and it was a time filled with truly unforgettable experiences. Dressed in my smartest attire, I bowed in unison with hundreds of North Koreans at the feet of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as their bodies rest in state. I laid flowers at the base of two of the largest bronze statues in the world. I spent hours perusing the seemingly countless gifts given to the Kim family over decades from countries across the globe. I went to the Pyongyang circus. And I rode the deepest subway line in the world. But all of these experiences together are greater than the sum of their parts — just being in North Korea was the experience.
North Korea is a country filled with contradiction. It is a place shrouded in mystery, yet it can be seen on our television screens almost daily. A place that borders three other nations, yet is the most cut-off inhabited “island” on Earth. A place that citizens can’t leave, but outsiders can visit — albeit with difficulty and carefully curated itineraries. The itineraries themselves offer contradictions: they’re not designed to ensure that tourists see what they want to see, but so that the tourists see what the government wants them to see. The mystique that surrounds North Korea is comprised of such contradictions and unanswered questions. But the country also has much more to offer, from its mountain ranges to its beaches, from its people to its history. Perhaps that’s why I longed to visit North Korea so badly, to gain a bit of this perspective.
My advice? Go to North Korea with as many questions as you can think of, but be prepared to come back with many more.
To read about Josh’s initial experience in North Korea, click here.