Sunday, October 25, 2015

[The Life of Shaun #521] The Life of Lottie

For the final installment on North Korea, we turn to my travel companion, Lottie, for her perspective on the experience.

Guest column on TLOS  

What a great honour to feature on TLOS – but with honour comes responsibilities, of course.  It is now upon me to not alienate Shaun's reader base, which is going to be hard as a married female heterosexual.  Perhaps I should start with a warning.  WARNING!! The following features flora & fauna, food and, whilst alliterating, f-ing children. Proceed at your peril.  

Flora & fauna  

Flora – I have left the country none the wiser as Shaun answered any "What tree do you think that is?" with: "Well, that's not a palm tree. And that's all I have to say about that." 

As for fauna, there were no cattle, there were no pets, we pretty much saw no animals at all in North Korea, which seemed very unusual.  Anyone we asked what their favourite food was, said it was  meat. The books that we read mentioned meat isn't abundant in North Korea.  A large part of the country is covered in mountains (78.5% our guide repeatedly told us) and therefore not useful for agriculture. The land that remains is fully used to grow crops. By hand. We saw one tractor which was so unusual that we pointed it out to each other.

Lottie not under a palm tree.

Needless to say people were astonished upon hearing Shaun was a vegetarian, especially our driver who, after we expressed our surprise at the sheer amount he ate*, explained that all Koreans have at least three stomachs. Which brings me to the second aspect of the trip that I know Shaun is unlikely to comment on: food.   


We were pleased at us being seated in breakfast room two in our hotel, which was the Western breakfast room. In the Western breakfast room there was something stale resembling toast, something gooey resembling jam and something powdery resembling coffee. Of course, in order to reach breakfast room two, we had to go through breakfast room one. This was an almost religious "grin and bear it" British-style experience. Asian breakfast was served in breakfast room one. A typical morning meal in room one seemed to consist of soup, an array of vegetables, and what I can only describe as the smelliest fish dish I have ever come across. How anyone would happily be able to smell it on a sober stomach, let alone eat it, is a complete mystery to me.   

Surprisingly enough though, we invariably had amazing meals in North Korea. The cuisine was varied, spiced with many tasty herbs and of course, the kimchi didn't hurt. It would be great if I could include   a picture of our lunch in the revolving restaurant on the 44th floor of the (for North Korea) luxurious Koryo hotel. Apparently though the pine nut mushroom dish we ordered there is not only an authentic North Korean recipe, it's also a state secret. And so we weren't allowed to take pictures in the restaurant at all.   


On the morning of our departure, I took my children to their nursery. Unfortunately, I was silly enough to tell one of the teachers that I was going to North Korea for a week. On a non-essential holiday trip. Let's just assume I will not make it in the top three of our nursery's super mom 2015 ranking. So perhaps it's not odd that I went to North Korea being extra sensitive towards encounters with children as I felt biased about leaving my kids. I found it interesting to see how a country that we in the West percieve as a harsh, perhaps even non-emotional state, interacts socially. And so I was thrilled when our guide Kim took us to a middle school, called Kim Jong-suk (after Kim Il-sung's wife and Kim Jong-il's mother, of course). The school was in a lovely building with red ivy covering  part of the brick walls, amidst extensive sports grounds. We were first taken to a ballroom size chamber containing all the prizes this school won, followed immediately by a room twice the size containing taxidermy exotic animals. At this point we wondered: is this school the best in the country? To which the head mistress answered: "Oh no, this is just an average school".

At the entrance of the school.

We were then pushed inside a classroom. There were about 40 fourteen-year-olds in the room and they were very eager to test their English on us. Before we knew it, they fired questions at us. They asked us simple questions, wanting to know what our favourite colour was, what hobbies we had, where we were from, what our ages were. The questions weren't odd – they were the usual questions we all learn when we learn a new language. But what was unusual was the enthusiasm with which the questions were fired at us. They had been taught to stand up when they spoke and they were probably also told to speak up, they were overeager – it was the exact opposite of the typical behaviour you will see in any Western classroom. But just when I thought that this was a perfect example of a charade, of these children being told that they had to impress the foreigners, I noticed that there was a boy sitting in the second row who kept trying to ask me a question. But others beat him to it, time and time again. With body language I tried to help him, but it still took a little while until he managed to speak up. He stammered a little and I didn't quite catch what he said right away, he had to repeat his question. It was a question that had been asked before – probably what my favourite colour is, which I said is blue by the way – and then I saw him sitting down again and he looked truly disappointed at his performance. He even made a little universal hand gesture, moving his fist from his right hip up towards his left shoulder.

Our class waving good-bye.

After teaching "our" class English, we were taken to a room where the talented children of this  school – remember each school is as accomplished as this one, it really wasn't anything special – were showing off their skills. As any North Korean school, this school has their own band, complete with singers, guitars, a really cool girl on the drums and several dancers. In order to showcase this very average group there was an auditorium with over a hundred seats.

Performers at Kim Jong-suk school

This picture was taken on Kim Il-sung square. I was a bit nervous about taking it as we weren't supposed to take pictures of any army personnel, but I took it secretly from the car and my  phone wasn't searched when we left as it was when we entered the country. If I had to pick one   picture showing the schizophrenia I experienced when visiting North Korea, this would be it:


*I have serious concerns that the guides and (especially) the driver ate so much as they may not be used to   having abundant food, or perhaps they don't get some types of food regularly, such as meat. The driver also   took any leftovers with him. I sincerely hope this is me being paranoid.  

Shaun H. Coley ~ Shadwell ~ Tower Hamlets ~ London E1 ~ UK ~

You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups "The Life of Shaun" group.
To unsubscribe from this group and stop receiving emails from it, send an email to
For more options, visit

Performers at Kim Jong-suk school

Saturday, October 24, 2015

[The Life of Shaun #520] Even hermits have lives

My favourite part of our trip to North Korea was the (limited) brush with normal life that we were allowed.  North Korea is called the Hermit Kingdom because it's so secretive and cut-off from the world, and consequently we know so little about life in the country, other than how it's portrayed in the media.  It's so silly, but I remember the first time I saw someone entering the stairs down to the subway in Pyongyang - it was so jarring, almost like a revelation.  You don't think about the North Koreans as people commuting to work, as having friends and families, doing the normal things in life within their own reality.  It was so odd to see someone just being.

As the days went on, our guides got to know us better and seemed to understand our respectful curiosity about their country, and they began to open up to us.  We got to know about husbands, sons, boyfriends, favourite Western books, which British pop band was best (Westlife), ambitions in life, hopes for travel; and we were increasingly peppered with questions about our lives, our pasts, our countries and their politics.  It was structured and in a controlled setting, but the sentiment was real.  Our guide acknowledged that Westerners like to visit North Korea because it is such a "unique" country, but we also got the sense that there's a desire in North Korea to be more engaged with the world, but also a desire to be respected.  Regardless of our views of the country and the personality cult around the Leaders, the affection is genuine and North Koreans, like most other nationalities, are a proud people.

Lottie commented towards the end of the trip that it's not very often you travel somewhere that makes you put up a mirror to your own country and reality.  There were many times in North Korea that I was reminded of America with its strident patriotism, chants of "USA!  USA!  USA!" and the unquestioning belief that America is the greatest country in the world.  Now I'm not saying America is North Korea, where you are never far away from the watchful eye of a soldier or policeman, as I got to grow up and hear competing viewpoints, travel around the world to see things for myself, and I never had to worry about being thrown into a gulag for speaking my mind.  But I think of how many people there don't question what they see around them or try to learn about the world outside their borders, even though they can, and it's a bit easier to understand the North Korean condition.

I've been back almost two weeks now, and though my mind is not spinning the way it was at the end of the trip, I couldn't honestly say that I've got a grip on North Korea.  I can say it was one of the best trips I've ever taken, life-changing, or at least life-questioning, on some levels.  I've often said that everyone should have to be a waiter for three months, because if they did, they would be a lot more respectful to anyone in a service position.  Similarly, I would love for everyone to visit North Korea.  There's something about going to a country that is so monolithically portrayed and seeing an unexpected reality that makes you go "Huh.  I wonder what else I've got wrong."  And I think the world would be a lot better of a place if people asked themselves that more often.

The morning rush hour on the highway near our hotel.

Flats in Pyongyang <3

More flats - these were built for the professors at a nearby university.

After getting back, I looked at Google maps and noticed that in our travels around Pyongyang we never encountered any neighbourhoods like this, which look suspiciously like the slums of Mumbai in satellite view.

Signs celebrating the 70th anniversary were all around the city.

Lottie and I with hotpots - we cooked!

Pyongyang's version of Ampelmännchen, the "human traffic lights"

Pyongyang's got a leg up on TfL when it comes to tube stations.

But possibly not when it comes to breadth: our guide, Kim, shows us where we're going on the helpful interactive map.

I thought this was a great idea, giving people the newspaper to read while they wait.  Lottie pointed out that if the government want you to read the newspaper, it's a great way to get it out there.

Lottie and her fair hair were quite the head-turners in North Korea.  These two girls took a pause from sweeping the street (we saw lots of people sweeping streets) to look at her as she passed.

Two ladies in a park.

On Kim Il-sung Square.  I asked our guide what it was, and she told me it was a sign letting people know about the portraits available in the establishment it fronted.  I believe this is what we in the West would call an "advertisement".

Lottie taking in the view along the Taedong River.

Shaun H. Coley ~ Shadwell ~ Tower Hamlets ~ London E1 ~ UK ~
You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups "The Life of Shaun" group.
To unsubscribe from this group and stop receiving emails from it, send an email to
For more options, visit

[The Life of Shaun #519] The Juche tour

The anticipated climax of the trip, the 70th Anniversary of the Founding of the Workers' Party of Korea Extravaganza, turned out to be a bit of a dud.  Though we never expected to be right on the square, we thought we'd see the action further along.  We had only been in there a day and a half by the anniversary celebrations, but we had already begun to understand what it meant when the answers to our questions elicited vague, noncommittal responses.  At first we got a few firm "Yes!" responses about the parade, but they quickly degraded into "I am not so sure".  (To be fair, I think our guides often didn't know either; they always had to call into the central tourist organising agency, KITC, to be told what we could or couldn't do.  Lottie and I made quite a few changes to our itinerary, and each one necessitated a call to KITC.) 

Eventually we accepted that we weren't going to get to see the Supreme Leader give us a thumbs up for waving our DPKR flags and settled into the supreme bureaucracy of the day.  We, as well as all the other tourist groups, were shuffled about from place to place, and given shifting answers to the same questions, until we were all eventually safely corralled into the same parking lot outside the Kimilsungia-Kimjongilia Exhibition Hall, a rather large space dedicated to emphatic displays of the flowers bred in honour of, and named after, the Great Leader and Eternal General.  It was kitty-corner across the Taedong from Kim Il-sung Square, so we could hear the celebrations, if not see them, except for the aerial bits.

After some time, we were led to a road where the military parade would progress after the main event.  We waited for hours, growing ever colder, until finally the parade started to trickle in.  At first it was truckloads of soldiers, but eventually this gave way to  tanks, planes and ever bigger missiles, all wrapped up and ready to go back to the DMZ.  We tired of this fairly quickly, and asked our hosts to take us to dinner where, as we were getting out of the van, we saw a Kim Jong-il pass on a rise next to the restaurant.  We went up with one of our guides and found ourselves in a completely different parade.  Rather than being surrounded by tourists watching the soldiers commute home, we were amongst Koreans, absolutely ecstatic Koreans, cheering on their soldiers.  There was a live group singing over loudspeakers, everyone was waving flowers and flags,  having a bit of a party.  Lottie commented that it looked a bit like the clips we see of Europeans cheering the liberating troops in WWI
t felt for the first time that we were seeing North Koreans as themselves.

A display of Kimilsungias (purple) and Kimjongilias (red) at the Kimilsungia-Kimjongilia Exhibition Hall.

Lottie and I enjoying the sounds of celebration.

About as exciting as the main event got for us
​: fighter ​
planes forming a 70 approaching Kim Il-sung Square.

Some of the hardware on display.

Eventually we found where the real party was.

The parade stretched on and on - and they kept on cheering.

There were fireworks to end the night; our hosts were very excited about fireworks (as they were about the one passenger plane we saw in our week there - "Look!  A plane!").  I took
utre a bit out of politeness, but more so because I was intrigued by the lack of light in the nearby blocks of flats compared with the distant sparks.

We had two trips outside the capital.  The first was the obligatory daytrip to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the armistice line between North and South Korea.  It's definitely a site that, without the history, loses its impact.  Tourists snap a few photos, buy some "Down with the USA" postcards, and then have lunch.  There is legitimate tension at the border - the soldiers are for real - but the DMZ is, by definition, in stasis.  The iconic flags of North and South flutter at one another across the border, and every tourist is dutifully shown the line that crosses through the buildings showing where the peninsula is divided, but not much happens.

For our safety, of course, we were shown around by three soldiers, one of whom told us the history of the Korean War from the perspective of the North.  You could tell he had told the same stories many times before; the
were probably the same stories about American imperialist aggression he'd heard since childhood, but you could feel the earnest with which he relayed them.  There is a genuine feeling of threat from the outside world in North Korea.  Of course, I grew up hearing the flipside of the same stories, believing my truths as deeply as he did his.  But as he was telling his version of the truth, I couldn't help but think back to 2003 and the gusto with which America went unprovoked into war
 Iraq, and it made me think the real truth must lie somewhere between his and mine.

A sign outside the DMZ, which says North and South should leave a reunited country to their children.

​.  T​
he line running through the middle of the buildings in the
​raised ​
line between North and South Korea; the building in the back is the 
​tourist complex in South Korea.​

This flag was left on the table where the UN - sorry, the US - signed the armistice agreement.  The story behind it is that the Americans were so upset about having lost the war that they forgot to take the flag with them, and though the colours of the flag may have faded, the aggression of the imperialist invaders is as strong as ever.

The other excursion was an overnight trip
​ to​
Myohyang-san ("Mysterious Fragrant Mountain" - it wasn't a mystery for long, the fragrance was stale cigarette smoke) to a temple (we nixed that in favour of a lie-in) and the International Friendship Exhibition.  This is a massive - and probably massively expensive - museum where the all the diplomatic gifts that have been given to the Kims are on display.  North Koreans are very proud of the admiration shown by world leaders and dignitaries, and that the Leaders display the gifts for the people to see, rather than keep them as private gifts.  Lottie and I weren't so enthused about this on our itinerary, especially when we first started and it seemed as if our local guide was going to read every one of the 220,000 plaques labelling
​each item in the musem​

As we went along, she asked some questions, which we answered honestly, but sensitively, and she become more and more animated and engaged.  Proper from the start, she matured into what could only be described as a Juche fundamentalist.  It was intense and genuine - and Lottie and I loved her for it.  We weren't there to judge, and I think she sensed that
​.  Y​
ou could literally feel the pride and love she had for her country and the Leaders, and the genuine joy she felt in sharing them with a receptive audience.  Other than a photo of the Supreme Leader with Dennis Rodman, I couldn't tell you anything we saw in the museum, but we were enraptured.  It was, quite surprisingly, one of the highlights of the trip.

The flame of the Juche idea burned brightly in our local guide.

Lottie and I with what could only be described as an amazing mural at our hotel in the mountain.

Shaun H. Coley ~ Shadwell ~ Tower Hamlets ~ London E1 ~ UK ~

You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups "The Life of Shaun" group.
To unsubscribe from this group and stop receiving emails from it, send an email to
For more options, visit

Friday, October 23, 2015

[The Life of Shaun #518] An Egomaniacal SimCity

The first thing you see when you cross into North Korea is a rather sad little amusement park, obviously not used in years, workers in grey suits, some propaganda as you pull into the station, and then you stop.  For another two hours, the North Korean border guards come onto the train, collect your passports, and then, one-by-one, interview everyone on the train about what they're bringing into the country.  They have you unlock your phones so they can look through them, and any pictures they don't approve of get deleted.  Eventually the train pulls out and you begin the seven-hour journey through the Korean provinces.

There's no idle countryside along the route.  North Korea is a mountainous country, with only about 17% of its land being arable; where the land is flat enough for a railway, it's also flat enough for crops, so the scene rotates between cooperative farms, gardens, villages and towns, all quite obviously poorer than China, but busy with activity.  What is striking is that, in these massive fields, absolutely everything is being done by hand - no tractors, no plows, not even work animals, just mile after mile of people hunched over in fields.

It's not quite Disneyland...

Three ladies laughing on the road next to the tracks; the city of Dandong in China rises in the background.  We saw people walking everywhere in North Korea, often along startlingly long stretches between any possible origin and destination, and in the countryside in far greater numbers than you would think a rural density could produce.

Two women working a field

A solitary figure

A village behind a cultivated field

At semiregular intervals, we'd pass larger hardscrabble population centres.

But you are never far away from some motivational words!

The arrival into Pyongyang is sudden.  In the planned state, there's no gradual buildup in density or urban sprawl to warn you that you're getting close; one minute you're riding through fields, the next you're between tower blocks.  The first buildings were very similar to the rural towns in aesthetic, just better maintained, but soon the blocks of flats got taller and grander, and the distinctive monuments and edifices of the capital passed by the windows.  We disembarked onto a large, modern platform with patriotic, but soothing, piped music, where we met our guides.  When visiting North Korea, you always have two guides, no matter the size of your party; this is so each guide can make sure the other doesn't say or do anything they shouldn't.  We left the station to meet our driver, a giant screen outside beamed stories with pride over the latest doings of the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, and the scene was set for our stay in North Korea.

From the station we went immediately to the first of many monuments to the Kims, two giant  bronze statues of Kim Il-sung (the founder of modern North Korea, referred to only ever as the Great Leader) and his son, Kim Jong-il (the Eternal General) on a bluff overlooking the city, where we paid our respect with flowers paid for in euros (only euros, US dollars and Chinese renminbi are accepted from foreign visitors).  While we admired the statues and the view, there was a steady stream of locals adding to the already enormous collection of flowers surrounding the Leaders.  From there we went to our first of many excellent Korean meals, and then to our hotel - where our guides, though locals, stayed as well - and Lottie and I got acquainted with the bar.

Pyongyang is meant to impress, and inspire fervent pride, patriotism and loyalty.  You are never far from a monument, stadium or tower built to the glory of the Leaders, the WPK, the eternal victory over the imperialist aggressors, or the anniversary of some historical event or another.  There is some truly stunning architecture, if you're of a certain bent, set out along bustling (with people, if not cars) boulevards and squares radiating out from the Taedong River.  A post-modernist socialist Paris of sorts, I was immediately taken with it.  The city was destroyed in the war of imperialist aggression, so it's not classically beautiful (it's a "useful city", residents say), but it certainly is kitsch.

Lottie and I, laying flowers at the feet of the Leaders.  North Koreans show great respect to the Leaders, often with flowers, always with a bow.  You cannot take a picture that cuts them off, it must be only their faces or their whole bodies.  A local once noticed on my iPhone screen that I'd inadvertently cut off Kim Jong-il's legs in a portrait across the room, and she made sure I deleted it from my phone.

Kim Il-sung Square; when you see North Korea on TV, this is what you see.  The marks on the ground are for the coordination of the parade and spectacle for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Worker's Party of Korea (WPK).

Great People's Study House at the head of Kim Il-sung Square.  Its balcony is where the Leaders stand when parades are passing in front of them.  Notice the twin portraits of the Great Leader and the Eternal General.  Notice them again a block away, just in case you had forgotten about them.

The Tower of the Juche Idea, in alignment with the Great People's Study House across the river from the square.  The Juche Idea encapsulates the philosophy of North Korea.  We asked several guides what it meant, but we're not at all clearer.

Pyongyang's own Arch of Triumph

The elegant Arch of Reunification, two ladies in traditional Korean dress joining hands at the Southern entrance to Pyongyang

The planetarium

Lottie and I outside the Kim mausoleum, where the Great Leader and Eternal General lie in state.

The Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, North Korea's Arlington Cemetary, is built on a hillside overlooking the city.  Each bust has four dates: when they were born, when they joined the WPK, when they went into war, and when they died.

May Day Stadium

Inside the May Day Stadium.  Home of the now-discontinued Arirang Festival, the stadium holds 150,000 people and has just undergone a massive renovation to bring it up to international standards.  It was at this point I said to Lottie "I wonder how many tractors that could have bought."

The Ryugyong Hotel, named after a previous name for Pyongyang, towers over the city at 105 stories.  Construction began in 1987, but was halted when money ran out.  For more than a decade it remained a giant concrete shell on the skyline.  In 2008, Egypt's Orascom Group finished off the exterior and added communications equipment to the top.  Unrelated,  Orascom Group was awarded a $400m contract to build and run North Korea's 3G mobile network.  I asked one of our guides when the hotel would open, but she wasn't sure - it's a very big project, you see.

The Ryugyong Hotel even towers over the Leaders, creating a modern peak to the mural of Mt. Paektu, the sacred mountain of North Korea.

The delightfully brutalist monument to the WPK, with flats behind designed to look like a waving Korean flag.  Like the Soviet emblem, the WPK's has a hammer and sickle, representing workers and farmers; unlike the Soviet emblem, it also has a calligraphist's brush to symbolise the student/intellectual.  The brush is always higher that the other two at the insistence of the Great Leader, who believed that the worker and farmer must look to the intellectual, who endeavours to constantly improve the lives of the people.

Inside the monument

A worker climbs a ladder aside the Tower of the Juche Idea, while monumental workers hold aloft the symbols of the WPK.

Shaun H. Coley ~ Shadwell ~ Tower Hamlets ~ London E1 ~ UK ~

You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups "The Life of Shaun" group.
To unsubscribe from this group and stop receiving emails from it, send an email to
For more options, visit