North Korea: 'Travel to this secretive country can be life-changing'


With a stern face and eyes fixated on land beyond the 38th parallel, US Vice-President Mike Pence visited America's ally South Korea last week. 

It's not surprising. Tensions between the hermit state and the US are almost at a flashpoint. The words 'nuclear' and 'war' haven't been closer together in tough-talking global statements than any other time since Kim Jong-un, the grandson of North Korea's founding ruler of Democratic People's Republic of Korea, took over as leader at the end of 2011. 

But life inside the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is somewhat more relaxed – and a lot more nuanced.

Matt Kulesza is a Melburnian and a North Korea tour guide at Young Pioneers.

Two weeks ago he took part in that very Western pursuit – a fun run – through the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. He ran in the last 10 kilometres of the city's marathon.

"Running into a packed stadium of 50,000 cheering Koreans would have to be one of the more surreal experiences of my life!" he said from Beijing, one of only two entry points into the reclusive peninsula country.

"Due to the nature of travel in DPRK it was incredible to run freely throughout the streets of Pyongyang alongside Korean and international amateur and professional runners."

It was much less so 10 years ago when fellow Melburnian John Hooper was working in the DPRK on behalf of the International Olympic Committee and World Hockey to develop the sport.

The frustrating lack of autonomy had got to him on a freezing day at the hotel designated for foreigners. "I escaped one day and went for a walk towards the golf course. I got about 300 metres before this white nondescript minivan pulled up and I was forced in."

John had been allocated two minders who would translate and at times delete photos from his camera they didn't approve of, with great proficiency.

"I was told never to leave the hotel without these guys being present. Later on in the day some other Koreans in long thick woollen coats turned up to give me another dressing down."

This experience remains the pervasive notion of what it's like to be a foreigner in Pyongyang. Strict adherence to security and whereabouts at all times. However, Kulesza's experiences, first travelling there in 2014, have been the opposite.

"What we don't see or read about is that this is a country of 25 million people, living their lives, very much with opinions, as opposed to the brain-washed automatons they are often depicted as in the media.

"I have never seen any hostility towards tourists from Koreans – they are an extremely welcoming, warm and proud people."

Guiding tours in the 'hermit kingdom' requires a routine commute between Pyongyang and Beijing, and sometimes the Chinese border city of Dandong on the banks of the Yalu River that divides the two countries.

"All our tours start and end in Beijing, so we use Beijing as a base in between running tours," Kulesza says. "I'm in and out of DPRK twice a month and in the last eight months have taken 15 individual tours."

He describes the atmosphere in Pyongyang as 'business as usual', despite  military parades and celebrations of a former leader's 105th birthday.

"The major changes I've noticed since 2014 would be more taxis, a slight opening up to tourism and more colour in the fashion department."

Remembering his trip in 2007, Hooper says that it was the children who colourfully stood out. "The children were all in beautiful blues, yellows, reds, and pinks, the adults were all in black, browns and greys."

Dr Euan Graham visited many times between 2004 and 2009 while working at the British Embassy as diplomat and is now at the Lowy Institute. He noticed that as South Korean soap operas became popular, young women put more effort into acquiring fancy shoes and some of the kids in Pyongyang would go round on rollerblades.

He says the capital is a bubble within the borders. "Pyongyang is not the ground truth to judge the country."

Pyongyang is the most open destination for travellers, showing the best of North Korea and its achievements. It's also known as a city where the elite live separated from a countryside that endured years of famine in the mid to late 1990s.

Tourists tell stories of a schedule where you routinely see the sights the government has approved, one being a captured US gun boat.

"I was taken to the gun boat and they used it as proof the Americans were coming … I said 'the Americans know about your nuclear program', they were quite shocked about that. But they didn't deny it," Hooper recounts when he was working there in 2007.

"I said 'the Americans just want peace, there's nothing here that they want'."

The 2017 Pyongyang Marathon ran the gamut of landmarks. Kulesza's tour group took around 100 runners from Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and Brazil. 

"The full marathon runs past all the main sites of Pyongyang so it's a fantastic way to see the city by foot. One guy from Slovenia in my group actually won the amateur marathon race, which was very cool."

For anyone wanting to travel to North Korea, Kulesza urges an open mind and respect for the country.

"The DPRK remains one of the most fascinating travel destinations on earth, provided people follow the very basic local laws (which we brief people at length about).

"Travel to this secretive country can provide a life-changing and hugely rewarding experience."

This article On the run in Pyongyang: 'Travel to this secretive country can be life-changing' was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.