June 8, 2015

DPRK North Korea

By Mindy Tan In TRAVEL

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10 days in North Korea, taking in the sights and sounds of Pyongyang, the demilitarized zone, and the countryside was an eye-opener.

I can’t say I’ve seen it all, but I’ve been allowed more leeway than expected to make my own observations and opportunities to come close to locals.

Photography isn’t part of the culture in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). It isn’t understood the way we obsess over in our world.

Like the old days, it was something our grandparents would dress up in their best for, on a special occasion and formally photographed, from head to toe.

Photographing a man in his worn-out workclothes and boots walking on the streets would be a bizarre concept. As you can imagine, street shots were not greeted with welcome. Selfies weren’t understood.

To capture an authentic moment, I feel, was often interpretated as an act of scrutinzing a person’s actions, right or wrong- and generally scorned upon. It is drawing attention to a single person, in a socialist society that moves in masses.

A monk, in a temple, on being photographed said “I feel like an animal in the zoo.”

Perhaps things will change once the new airport is completed, and North Koreans will get used to the world’s curiousity, eager to debunk or strengthen the existing stories we read about the DPRK. Each one of us will inevitably have our own agendas, photography can be a dangerous tool for misinterpretation if used poorly.

Casual jokes ran around, how this have could all be complex set-up, how the streets were spanking clean, and beggars nowhere to be found, that tourists were shown only what they want us to see – but isn’t this mostly true of any country, any family, any person?

I’m glad to have been there to witness what I could see to believe, no other story can take that away first-hand experience.

The journey begins on Air Koryo, rated world’s only one-star airline by Skytrak. I can’t see how.. I can easily name worse, don’t see what the fuss is about.

The airline uses a fleet of aircraft made in Russia.
Service = super

Arriving at the new interrim terminal at Pyongyang Sunan airport. A new airport is underway with construction at full-swing, signalling new times, a tourist boom and significant changes to behold.

Entrance of the largest hotel in Pyongyang, the 1000-room Yanggakdo Hotel built between 1986 and 1992 by a French company.Sunrise over PyongyangView of the river Taedong and the Juche Tower (with flaming top), a monument representing the ruling party’s Juche ideology, stating that the individual is “the master of his destiny” and that the North Korean masses act are to act as “masters of the revolution and construction”.

Wikipedia backgrounder:
Pyongyang was reduced to rubble during the Korean War and has been entirely rebuilt according to a design reflecting Kim Il-Sung’s vision. His dream was to create a capital that would boost the morale and ego of Koreans in the post-war years. The result was a city with wide, tree-lined boulevards and monumental public buildings with terraced landscaping, mosaics and decorated ceilings.

The twin-towered building would be 1985-built Koryo Hotel, the second largest operating hotel in Pyongyang right in the city centre where most tourist would stay, and 10 mins walk from the central train station

River Taedong
Public Housing, typically 75-90sqm per family of 3 to 4 pax. It comes free – meaning the buildings are state-owned, and provided for. A newly married couple is eligible to apply for a new flat. Should they state they would live with parents, they would be allocated a larger flat. Those unhappy with their flats can go to the residents office to submit their names for a ‘swap’, or if they have special requests to live on lower levels, e.g. if they elderly has movement problems. They may also be upgraded to better apartments if they have made significant contribution to the state.
Most buildings on the main street are given a coat of paint, while those with an inner facing typically look like this, with its orginal cement facade. It’s the beginning of summer, sprucing up and repair begins

Bus-Stop at peak hour. Pyongyang is a city undergoing major reconstruction, people are relegated to farms in the outskirts, construction sites, and factories. The mural in the background, I believe, depicts one of the scenes from the bitter Korean War, which destroyed 80% of Pyongyang. resulting in a total rebuild of the city according to Kim’s dream.View from my hotel room, and old-school telephone. International calls are permitted, but costly, starting from the moment the call is connected- meaning, the moment it starts to ring, regardless or not the received picks upA glimpse of the bar at my hotel. Facilities, strangely, are mostly underground – unless there is a revolving restaurant which seems very popular here
Residential apartments come in all types, and are provided free. The more deserving people – those deemed to have contributed more to the state, eg. professors, researchers, sportsmen, are allocated better apartments as a reward for their service.White little kiosk sometimes selling food, or flowers.

Cute traffic ladies are the highlight of any street junction. Seen here, a traffic lady on her way to a shift change
Staying fair – I guess Koreans, North or South, are the same!
Portrait of the late Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are common sight around the DPRK, here the main parade square and the Grand People’s Study House in the background, where the public sign up for enrichment classes, eg, to learn English or Chinese, it also houses a library and audio-visual materials.
At first I thought these were men in military uniform, then the guide explained it was just fashion, which started after their late leader Kim Il sung wore these Khaki greens outfits, people followed suit and went to tailors to get their own versions made.Local boys walking pass the Kim II Sung Parade Square. No they weren’t marching, and yes people do love walking together as a group, often in straight lines.

It’s not uncommon to see women, sometimes men, holding hands on the street – the same way a trip to Little India on Sunday sees Bangladeshi and Indian males holding each other’s arms as a sign of brotherhood. 
Trams, the metro and buses are major transportation modes. Cars and given to derserving people, or belong to the militarty. A small miniority of the rich, own cars, all denoted by different coloured platesVisiting the church on a Sunday was a surprise that came completely unannounced. A small minority are Christians, some are Buddhists. An orthodox Church also exists.Puhung Metro station on the Chollima line. Construction of the metro network started in 1965, and stations opening between 1969 and 1972. The Pyongyang metro supposedly one of the deepest metro systems in the world at 360ft underground, also doubling as bomb shelter.

The design of the network was based on, in particular the Moscow Metro and is completely underground.11am on a workday

It’s common sight for badges – usually of the party flag or Kim II-sung/ Kim Jong-II, to be worn on the right, on their hearts, representing loyalty to the state. Locals are each given badges with new designs each year and sometimes on special occasions, such as the worker party’s anniversary, or on Kim’s birthdayThe two Kim’s portraits even on metrosThe daily newspaper spread out on notices all around town.The mural in the background depicting their leader Kim is made of mosaic, as with all images of him. Incredible craftsmanship.Below: Shops, above, RestaurantsTypical tourist shop, also for the locals.Mount and dismount – cyclists diligently abide by these laws at each traffic crossing. No rogue cyclists here.At night, the city is mostly dark. Underpasses arent’ lit. This is perhaps the most ‘glittering’ street in Pyongyang come nightfallDad was dragging this child up and down the hill walking at a crazy pace, I wonder why. He did stop for the pic though.Sunday at Moran Hill


Mother and daughter at Moran Hill, before I arrived they were laughing over playbacks on the camcorder.Outside the central train stationPublic transport – trams and buses -are this crowded almost all day, but in exchange the roads are free of cars during non-peak hours
I’ll be posting more pictures as I don’t want the blog post to get too long, do keep a lookout for the next installment.


  1. Stunning pictures and a great insight into the everyday life of North Korea. Surprised they have churches!

    Many thanks for this!

  2. mtan2 June 10, 2015

    Thanks for dropping by! I saw two churches, this Catholic one, and an orthodox church, newly built. Perhaps it signals new things to come.

  3. N.B. Bennet Raj June 11, 2015

    Thanks a lot for these wonderful pictures and information about Korea. It is understood that the living standards are far better than most of the capitalistic countries

  4. SJYY June 27, 2015

    Wow! such a great pics. I can’t go to North Korea because I’m South Korean. So now I can see a part of North Korea because of you. Thanks!

  5. A great record of your visit Mindy – Thanks Adam

  6. Peace Shen July 18, 2015

    I like the authentic sean and images.
    How did you get visa? Where?
    Hope to see more intereting news and photos and detail prices.

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