For 99 per cent of people who travel, North Korea isn’t a must visit.
Unconventional to say the least, life inside North Korea is often concealed. Pyongyang is often mentioned due to it being the capital, but Rason — the special economic zone — is one of North Korea’s off-the-beaten-track destinations.
Rason was also one of the biggest culture shocks I have ever experienced in all my years of travelling.
In case you didn’t know already, North Korea is locally known as the DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea). Rather than it being labelled “North Korea”, locals say they are in “the north of Korea”.
This was one of the little cultural differences I had to get used too.
BEHIND STATE LINES
After a gruelling 25-hour train journey from Beijing to Yanji in eastern China, we crossed to the immigration border.
I have to admit, after years of visiting third-tier destinations, I found myself a little uneasy. With all the political issues North Korea has today — from missile tests to dictatorship — I did wonder what this secretive state would have in store.
To go anywhere in North Korea, it is compulsory to visit via group tour along with state sponsored guides.
Soon after we passed through immigration, Matt, our Melburnian tour guide and the rest of our group, met our state guides who chaperoned us onto our bus. As we journeyed through the rocky outskirts of the state, we passed empty terrain with the odd factory the only thing of note.
North Korea is 90 per cent mountainous and like a flip of a coin, it was like entering a different world.
Our phone signals were now with “no service”. We were in unknown territory, and in other words, there was no turning back.
As we entered the city the air was brisk and bitter but it was sunny and the skies were clear. There was hardly any noise pollution at all.
There were few cars, with most people walking by foot or via bicycle. The buildings were bare with advertisements, only political posters. The surrounding environs were littered with worn houses.
At night, the streets were empty by 10pm. Street lighting was scarce and there wasn’t an echo of a late-night bar or a barking dog. Rason was very much a city under curfew, stuck in the past. It was hardly a place ready for nuclear war.
Rason is a little more open than the rest of North Korea, so we managed to haggle for a couple of things with our sponsored guides.
My hair was wavy and given the chance, I’d have liked a trim. I got the chance to get a haircut in the world’s most secretive state.
I’ve had some questionable haircuts in Asia so getting one in North Korea didn’t fill me with confidence. Thankfully, it wasn’t compulsory to have a haircut like Kim Jong-un.
Admittedly sideline was definitely lower but for $6, it was worth it.
Another quirk was opening a DPRK bank account. You don’t have to be a North Korea citizen to do that in Rason.
At the Golden Triangle Bank, the whole process was fairly easy. A debit card was produced within minutes.
Although, there wasn’t any online banking app and international bank transfers were currently unavailable.
Next, we visited the Emperor Hotel & Casino, built by Hong Kong investors, including Hollywood and all-action actor Jackie Chan.
It’s safe to say things inside weren’t as lively as his movies.
Security was tight and during an innocent stroll through to the roulette tables, we were intimidatingly glared at. It was clear we weren’t that welcome.
I glanced around the room. There were dial-up telephones and desktop computers from the 90s. The card dealers were female, dressed in grey sharp suits. Smoking was allowed while pen and paper were used for noting down winnings.
And yet, the whole venue was powered by solar panels. Talk about old meets new.
First hand interactions with the North Korean locals came at the Rajin Foreign Language School. We chatted to students about their hobbies and their aims for the future.
“What do you want to do for a job when you leave school?” I asked two 14-year-old schoolmates.
“When I leave school I want to be a teacher like my father,” one said.
“I want join the military and support the government to protect our country,” the other replied.
“Oh right,” I said as I gently nodded.
According to my guides, the answer from the second kid wasn’t uncommon.
Before leaving, I managed to kick a football with some students in the playground before encouraging them for a selfie.
Rajin Market is the only market available for foreign visitors in the whole of North Korea.
We were able to peruse with certain freedom, haggle and buy including a traditional North Korean suit for only $28. Two hundred cigarettes sold for as little as $3.
There’s no doubt in my mind these are some of the cheapest prices on the planet.
Over a local pre-meal snack that included dried Talpi fish, wasabi, soy sauce and Soju, we chatted about the Vietnam Summit that had occurred a few earlier. State TV had yet to air it, so inside North Korea, no one knew anything.
Our lead guide quizzed us on the outcome. With food shortages and the sanctions from the US, the uncertainty genuinely concerned him.
“They decided that talks would continue. These things can take time,” I said, trying to stay positive.
“We don’t want to have these nuclear missiles here in the DPRK, but we need them as insurance to protect ourselves,” he said.
There was distress in his voice. After that, we got an insight on just how anxious the rest of Rason was.
As we left for dinner after dark, the only beam of light came from the big screen above the Namsan Hotel in Central Square. All the locals in sight were stagnant, as if time had stood still, glaring up.
State TV was airing their version of the Vietnam Summit. TV presenter Ri Chun Lee melodramatically bellowed out the narrative as it echoed into the streets of Rason.
The use of propaganda was evident. Kim Jong-un’s visit Vietnam was the main event, marked as a joyous occasion in itself. Yet the outcome with US President Donald Trump was over quickly towards the end, almost as if it didn’t matter.
It does beg the question of what must go through the minds of DPRK citizens. What their hope is and what they think will come next.
On the last night, we discussed tourism and photography.
“We limit visitors taking photos because they are used for propaganda, to show the DPRK struggling,” our guide insisted.
“If more people saw how interesting North Korea was, more would visit. If the DPRK opened up to visitors more, it would be better for your economy,” I replied.
The guide paused and sharply replied: “What do you mean, opened up to visitors more?”
It didn’t take this conversation for me to realise the different mindset here. Their hesitation to allow outside influence is obvious, however it was a first-hand reminder of the contrasting
culture of this country.
Evidently, the DPRK is some distance from freely opening its doors.
Being able to visit a local market, use the local currency and the examples of foreign investment show strands of capitalism do exist here. Rason could well be the city that’s the kicking-on point for the future.
Only time will tell.
Tommy Walker is a British freelance travel writer, journalist and social media micro-influencer based in Hong Kong. His trip to North Korea was with Young Pioneer Tours.