This trip was always going to be an interesting one. Following the nuclear test on 12th Feb, the UN imposed even tougher sanctions which this time were supported by China. This also coincided with the announcement that the annual military exercises between the US and ROK would soon be carried out. The reaction in the north was to try to end the armistice agreement which had been signed on 27th July 1953 and to announce retaliation with all-out war should even a single bullet stray onto DPRK territory. As expected, for Koryo, this resulted in many emails and calls from people booked on tours and prospective tourists concerned about the safety aspects of travelling to the DPRK at this time. As always, we were in close contact with our partners in Pyongyang and the British Embassy in the DPRK, and we asserted that despite the heightened rhetoric, tourism could continue as usual – as it had been known to in similar periods of heightened rhetoric in the past.
The tour this time consisted of 3 groups of 16 so quite a large number – all very keen to go in and see for themselves how the DPRK was – particularly at this time. Upon arrival at Pyongyang Airport all seemed to be as normal – no increased security measures etc. Driving into the city though, there were definitely more signs of ‘readying for possible war’. These included groups of civilians doing military training in public areas (mainly marching practise), more anti-US slogans and propaganda posters up and even some vehicles with camouflage netting draped over them.
Life seemed to be continuing as usual however. Lots of signs up acknowledging that this year is the 60th anniversary of the end of the war (July 27th) and the 65th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK (Sep 9th). Construction was still going on with various projects – the new war museum (where we caught a glimpse of the Pueblo’s new location) and a new park and underground shopping centre is being constructed between the Fountain Park and Mansudae Assembly Hall. The Mangyongdae Prize Cup was also being held and we were able to go and see a football match in Kim Il Sung Stadium – April 25th (military team) vs Light Industry Team. This was the equivalent of seeing Manchester United vs Chelsea. April 25th are known to be the better team but they always lose against Light Industry and this time was no exception – the final score was 1:0 to Light Industry.
The visit to the DMZ was a highlight for many – especially considering the current situation. The only difference with the visit though was that we were not allowed to enter into the blue hut which we usually do where we are able to ‘cross over’ to South Korea. American soldiers were spotted walking on the south side. The military guards who accompany the groups were jovial as ever but they did talk about the cutting of the military hotline between DPRK and ROK and said that tensions were running very high.
There was a decent amount of footage on the local television about the situation and one night there was a long programme showing Kim Jong Un giving on the spot guidance to the military as they practiced shelling an island that lies off the west coast near to Nampo.
The Koreans we spoke to were all very curious to learn about what we had been hearing in our western media, how the situation was being described and what was being said about the DPRK. Comments heard from locals about the situation included:
- Why do the US want to kill us?
- Why is the UK involved?
- We need to protect our national honour.
- We are ready for war, we have nothing to lose.
- The US has promised us food in exchange for giving up our nuclear weapons but we cannot trust them. Look what happened in Libya and Iraq.
- The soldiers at the DMZ are all ready to attack whenever they get the call.
- This is no longer the DMZ – this is now the front line.
- More than 2000 nuclear tests have been conducted throughout the world – why shouldn’t we be allowed to do it?
- Guides were particularly worried about the effects of the new sanctions on daily life they mentioned in particular worries about the electricity supply and heating and remarked that it is coming at a time when they feel life was just starting to get easier again. There seemed to be a large amount of fear that hardship for many may return.
- At the DMZ the local guides said they definitely felt that the situation was more tense there and asked if we felt the same.
In other news from the trip – the 3G access for foreigners has now been restricted to long term visitors/residents of Pyongyang only and tourists are not permitted to use this service. They can still buy simcards to make calls but no internet access available.
Pictures by Hannah on Instagram – follow her on: hannahkoryo