The following is a consolidation of my earlier posts on Facebook capturing some facets, experiences and thoughts of ‘My Visit to North Korea’ put out as a run-up to the Singapore summit between the US & North Korea that took place on 12th June, 2018. These are not posted in chronological order but organised under specific themes that struck me as interesting.
Post date and time: 7th June, 2018 (14:27 IST)
5 Days to the Summit
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
I very recently visited North Korea. It has been an experience of sorts. In the next 5 days, as a run-up to the Singapore Summit between America and North Korea, I will post a picture or two, and maybe an anecdote or a thought.
And yes, whether you want to call me ‘mad’ like the cat calls Alice or you want to believe that North Korea is a ‘Wonderland’ – that’s up to you. 🙂
Post date and time: 8th June, 2018 (12:43 IST)
4 Days to the Summit
The first steps towards the Humans of North Korea
Just a little over a month ago, my trip to North Korea began from Singapore – the place where Trump-Kim Jong Un Summit is slated to take place on the 12th (hopefully!). Of course, Singapore was not confirmed as the venue of the meeting then. But it was a pleasant surprise to be greeted with the headline of The Strait Times – Korean Leaders Pledge Peace – as I boarded my flight to Beijing, China. From there, I was to proceed to North Korea (charmingly, on a train – more on that perhaps in a later post!)
Back to the headline, the optimism was a shot in the arm considering all the negative things I had heard or read about North Korea about its sunken relations with South Korea and of course, Americans (who are referred to as ‘imperialists’). While stories about the isolated North Korean Kingdom were chilling when I was initially researching and it did feel weird that I was toying with the idea to go there, I also knew that I had no idea of the ground reality. That realization strengthened my will to visit the country. Without meeting (or at least seeing) the Humans of North Korea, I could not be judgmental.
Result of not holding a bias or a preconceived notion? Waking up to a beautiful Pyongyang, mingling with locals, dancing like no one’s watching, waving out to cute kids, and a roller-coaster ride in North Korea (you read it right!) and yes, a customary ‘hello’ to the larger than life ‘Supreme Leaders of North Korea’ – Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il.
The pictures say it all.
Post date and time: 9th June, 2018 (11:56 IST)
3 Days to the Summit
The Future of North Korea – The Kids
I am not particularly fond of kids and I often think of myself struggling to engage with one. But it just seems so false when I look back at pictures of my North Korean visit. I not only got clicked with a cute kid in the picture you see in the collage, but I was also waving out with glee to practically every kid I saw. I remember also practicing Korean telling every kid I came across ‘An nyong’ – thankfully, an acceptable and shortened version of the (initially) never-ending ‘an nyong ha shim ni ka’ meaning Hello.
In North Korea, I came across kids almost everywhere – in villages, in metros, in parks, in schools, etc. But what floored me was not only their cuteness factor but also their talent. In a school, where I saw them doing ballet, playing musical instruments, practicing fine embroidery and creating strokes of calligraphy. And this was followed by a fine performance of song, dance, drum beats and I cannot forget the little boys dressed as penguins (no pictures of them, alas!).
Some may think that these kids are ‘tortured’ and ‘forced’ to perform as a show for the ‘civilised outside’ world. I won’t debate or discuss this here. All I know is that I saw smiling faces on dusty roads on my way to Pyongyang and I saw smiling faces in Pyongyang. Some kids were over-enthusiastic to wave out to us in the bus, some were hesitant, there were those who respectfully bowed to me and there were also those who found my accent of ‘an nyong’ funny and giggled.
Children are the future of any nation, including North Korea. May they be blessed and smile forever.
Post date and time: 10th June, 2018 (16:24 IST)
2 Days to the Summit
Bahubali in North Korea – The Indian Connect
(ALERT: Long- read. But you may enjoy.)
As an Indian visiting North Korea, I remember being looked upon curiously initially. Then almost instantaneously, a North Korean would ask ‘Indian?’ As soon as I said ‘Yes, I am from India.’, there would be a warm smile, a look of ‘wow’, and surprise-surprise – chants of ‘Bahubali…Bahubali‘. On one occasion, two men even smiled end to end went ‘Devasena…Devasena‘ looking at me mischievously. For a society, where media consumption is controlled and monitored, Bahubali sure seemed to be a highly loved Indian export. To add a nugget – among a lot of hearsay, it was a revelation that films are smuggled into North Korea in micro SD cards stuffed into one’s nostrils across border points.
Now talking of the Indian connect, it is not an everyday affair when you hear of an Indian visiting North Korea. But India is among a few countries that does maintain ties with North Korea. In fact, it might surprise one that India has an embassy in North Korea (unfortunately, which I couldn’t visit). It was also a pleasant news when I read, after my return, of a high-level (and hushed) visit by Minister of State for External Affairs Gen. (Retd.) V.K.Singh to Pyongyang. His trip (almost a first in 20 years) closely followed my own. Clearly, you can sense the current activity and interest around North Korea.
Talking of Indian interest and activity in North Korea, it may have been prominent even earlier, I guess. I found traces of the Indian connect when I visited the Juche Tower – which essentially represents the State ideology of Juche, meaning ‘self-reliance’. The 170 meter (560 ft.) tower had memorial plaques at its entrance showing visits of various groups that had visited North Korea to study the Juche ideology. I clicked some from Gujarat and Madras among many more I saw from other Indian cities and international ones too. Clearly, it was humbling and interesting to know of this connect with North Korea.
The last Indian connect was when the military officers came on board the train (interestingly, for immigration checks) at Sinuiji, border town of North Korea on the way out towards Dandong, border town of China. When the particular officer checking the contents of my bag asked me ‘You from UK?’ I went, ‘No. India’. ‘Ah Pakistan…’ he blurted heavily accompanied by what seemed to be a gnashing of the teeth. I reiterated, ‘No. India. I am from India.’ He looked up and muttered something so as to mean that ‘North Korea have America…enemy. India…Pakistan.’ Before, I could react, he dismissively waved me off shouting ‘Next…’ Clearly, I did not share similar sentiments towards Pakistan like the ones he had towards America.
Ah, well! In a few minutes, I would be chugging out of North Korea. 🙂
Post date and time: 11th June, 2018 (14:06 IST)
1 Day to the Summit
The War Continues
The Korean War technically still continues as on today. There is only an armistice in place. Of course, tomorrow is a new day and there may be miracle of sorts at the historic summit of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un. Who knows? Amen to a formal end of war.
Yet looking back, it’s important to note that the narrative in North Korea is that it is the US which is the perpetrator of war crime. Citizens are fed with the idea that US is an oppressor. Similar sentiments against South Korea and Japan are felt. My visit to the DMZ – Demilitarized Zone at Pumojan was an interesting one. Here is where I felt a blast of anti-American sentiment loudest. But again it was an experience to see the place where the North Korean Leader and South Korean President had met and pledged to bring in peace in the peninsula, within less than a week of my visit. I could see the fluttering South Korean Flag across the border, and I had opportunity to overhear possibilities of the summit in Singapore (it wasn’t final then). The air was uncertain yet felt upbeat.
Of course, I took the anti-American rhetoric with a pinch of salt, soaked in images of the propaganda posters and yes, I we had good memories (and clicks) with the officer who had an unusually over-sized headgear.
P.S. North Korea has a dedicated War Museum that speaks loudly against America and how North Korea is a victor. Here is also housed the USS Pueblo – an American ship, and the only (as per North Korean narrative), in custody of a foreign nation, which ‘is a matter of shame for the US’ as told to us.
An interesting tid-bit: North Korea officially turned back its clock and returned to a time-zone to match South Korea’s as symbol of peace and a step to reunification. I guess, we were among the last foreigners to experience the old time zone.
Post date and time: 12th June, 2018 (00:37 IST)
What the Future Holds – No One Knows
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS – NO ONE KNOWS – this sentence sums up my final thoughts in this final post about My Trip to North Korea.
12th June, 2018: Whether the summit between Mr. Donald Trump and Mr. Kim Jong-un will be a ‘historic success’ or a ‘monumental misadventure’, only time will tell. In fact, I will mostly be tucked in my bed India-time when they begin their talks in Singapore. What I will wake up to, I don’t know.
In a similar vein, I don’t know whether I will visit North Korea again or not. I am also not sure where life will take me on another adventure. Because that is the future, and I can only hope for it to be beautiful.
I leave you with some more pictures and one lesson that North Korea taught me – “One should not believe all that one sees. But one should also not judge if one does not see at all.”
Thank you everyone who followed this series of ‘My Trip to North Korea’ in the last five days.