Looking back at the 15-year-old me and my first visit to the DPRK
Each person’s first trip to North Korea stands out to them in a different way. Each person has a distinct moment when they first realised—to paraphrase Dorothy in the Wizard from Oz—that they weren’t in Kansas anymore. For me it was very early: on the transit bus from the plane to customs. I remember looking at my phone and being struck by the lack of welcome message or warnings about roaming costs. Just a blank space where my signal bars should’ve been. For me Wonderland was the fact that we’d just gotten off a plane and there was silence in the bus. Not a single person texting or phoning someone to say they’d arrived. No chatter between friends. No trashy music bleeding from a stranger’s headphones. Nothing.
My first trip in 2011 ended in disaster. I was visiting with my father who—because he was there for work—got a special, private tour of the country. We were taken to the eastern city of Hamhung and spent four days at Majon Beach Resort. North Korean men played volleyball all day and got drunk on soju (the Korean liquor) while Korean women sat back on towels and chatted amongst themselves.
In the evenings, each group would have their own outdoor Korean barbecue on the edge of the beach and sing and dance and drink into the night. I, on the other hand, spent the day paddling around dejectedly and building sand castles alone. One of the car drivers, ex-military like all North Korean men, noticed how bored I was. He came out of the sea towards me clutching something in his fist. It was a pile of shellfish.
‘To eat’ he said in broken English, laughing.
I looked around for something to open them with but there wasn’t a stone in sight.
‘Na, na, na’ he shook his head in answer to my unspoken question. He pointed at a shellfish. Then he pointed at his fist. Then he pointed at the shellfish. Craacckkk! He casually wiped a sliver of blood from his knuckles and offered me the demolished crustacean.
‘To eat!’ he said again, smiling warmly.
We spent the rest of the afternoon breaking and eating shellfish and we collected more for dinner that night. When all the adults started doing shots of soju though, I stuck to water. I’d just started drinking beer and liquor tasted awful to me. So while the rest of my group neutralised the live bacteria in the shellfish with alcohol, my shot of soju went untouched.
That night I was sicker than I’d ever been. It was a humid summer night, with mosquitos buzzing near my ears as I puked into the sink. I had no aspirins and no painkillers. It was 3AM. There was also no running water in the hotel.
The following afternoon I tried to suppress the urge to be sick as we drove to an art gallery. My Dad told me to try slowly counting to 10 in my head. 1,2, 3..4..5…6…..7. I passed out on 7. When I woke up the car was speeding down a deserted road as my Dad and our guide, Mr. Kim, both looked at me with concern. Meanwhile Mr. Kim was speaking urgently into his mobile. Hamhung Provincial Hospital clearly didn’t get many Westerners. There were two doctors in my room and four nurses when I arrived.
I was put on a drip as Mr. Kim panicked in the corner and my Dad snapped pictures of me with his camera. ‘Oh think of the stories you’ll have’, he reassured me, excitedly photographing the concerned doctors.
The drip caused some sort of physical reaction in my body and I soon began shivering, then convulsing on my gurney. The nurses held me down as this happened.
I was released four hours later on the insistence of my Dad and Mr. Kim. After a mad, 300 km-dash back to Pyongyang in under two hours, we flew out on-schedule the following morning.
I left exhausted, underweight and sickly. But I knew I’d be back. It was too exciting, too enticing, too unique: the pull was irresistible. And three years later, in 2014, I returned like I knew I would, this time to study for a semester at the Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang.
Alessandro Ford is an intern at Koryo Tours and has worked as a Tour Leader on multiple occasions. Alessandro was the first British student to study at the Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. He is also the first foreign tourists we know of to have spent time at Hamhung Provincial Hospital. Do make sure to drink your soju with your shellfish!
For an account of Koryo Tours' General Manager Simon Cockerell's first trip to North Korea, see Simon's blog post from January 12, 2017.
Correction: A previous version of this blog post listed Ford as the first 'western student' to study at Kim Il Sung University. He was actually the first 'British student' to study there.