A Passage to North Korea

The recent death of Kim Jong-il reminded me of my passage to North Korea.

In the summer of 1994, a couple of weeks after the death of the great leader Kim II-Sung, I was asked by my firm to go to North Korea for a due diligence assignment commissioned by a South Korean company. I was to go to the very far northern corner of the country where it has borders with Jilin province of China and Primorsky Krai of Russia;  the “golden triangle” area known as Rajin-Sonbong ( name now changed to Rason).

I had no choice but to accept the assignment. Anyway, there was something in me that wanted to go. Not because it was a particularly glamorous destination but because it was so mysterious — literally and figuratively closed off to the real world. It was so isolated and today it’s still called the “hermit kingdom.”

North Korea left no traces in my passport, not even a visa. It showed that I left Beijing  and returned a week  later. There was no indication of where I had been.

Actually, I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang on a plane with propellers, it was the kind of plane which emitted white fumes that flowed down to the cabin when the air conditioners were switched on. I knew I was going back in time and the clock had started to rewind.

When I reached Pyongyang, my passport was taken away from me to be kept “in safe custody”,  to make sure that I would not leave their country without permission.

I was taken to the hotel and then to pay a tribute to their great leader who had just passed away. The street was meticulously clean ( they could not afford to have any rubbish), orderly ( who dared to disobey), no signs of animals (all eaten), no obese people (nothing much to eat, healthy diet?),  people all dressed up in similar manner (fashion?) , many buildings construction of which had been abandoned (lack of funds).

Then there was this long journey of 23 hours on board of a slow train from Pyongyang to Rason with villages and barren areas along the way. The train journey seemed to have last for ages.

Rason was basically a very remote and backward rural area and I stayed in a bungalow.  Guess what I had for breakfast?  A couple of small crabs eaten whole ie. with the shells so that, I was told,  I would have the necessary calcium!

A special economic zone with an airport was planned. The professional people I met were quite intelligent and also somewhat secretive but the assignment did not present any problems. From talking to people, you knew that they had limited knowledge of the outside world. There was strict control on what information was given to the people.

On returning to Pyongyang, for the first time in the week, I was offered meat. . . . . dog’s meat which I delightfully accepted.  In any case, it wasn’t man’s meat (re Tian & Di).

Flying back to HK, I couldn’t help thinking how lucky and blessed we were.  When the plane finally touched down on the Kai Tak runway, I knew I had travelled all the way from Di and had now reached Tian.

39 thoughts on “A Passage to North Korea

  1. This is akin to a MI5 assignment-no visible evidence that you have travelled to the commies!
    On reflection, I am sure that you are glad that your accommodation was not broken into during your night’s rest unlike your trip to China(Yangtien).

    • Hi Kong,
      I had several worries:
      1. the possible instability on their death of their leader.
      2. the fact they confiscated my passport in PyongYang made me nervous.
      3. we were asked by our clients to bring some goods into North Korea.

      We were given a little piece of paper to get through the immigration. This paper was collected and therfore the were no traces of we having been to North Korea at all.

  2. Visiting a communist country should be a good experience. I planned to visit some Eastern European countries 30 years ago when I finished my university study but due to lack of funds and time to apply visas, I missed the chance to those communist countries. And now they are all changed. What a miss.

    • Hi James,
      I was reading the book “1000 Places to See Before You Die” and realized that there are so many intersting places to visit.
      It is true that it is more beneficial to walk 10,000 miles than to read 10,000 books.
      While we would not be able to visit all the places, I think we should try to visit the more interesting one while we have the time and before these places disappear or substantially changed.
      Thanks for commenting,

  3. I agree with jamesandmarian, fascinating. It is interesting that even though they are so cut off from the rest of the world they obviously still have business links with external companies like the one you worked for. What a unique experience!

    • I am still surprised that they are still so isolated after so many years; news is still very much controlled. I hope that they will open up themselves a bit more and we also try to understand more about them from their persepective.

    • Hi Bucketdave, we were not allowed to take any photos so there were none in my post. Actually, I was most unhappy to learn that many people died of famine in the year after my visit. Thanks for visiting my blog! Michael

    • Yes, I figured that was the case. I suspected that if the authorities took your passport, they probably wouldn’t want you snapping a bunch of pictures either.

    • I think this requirement is more relaxed now, I could now see some pictures of North Korea in the blogs although they seem to be the kind of shots with prior approval. The apparent reason for keeping our passports was to make sure that we would be out of the country after the visit.

    • There are now tours to North Korea, but I suppose the tourists would be very restricted in where they can travel and what they see. Thanks for liking my post! Michael

    • It was a difficult decision. Going there enabled me seeing some of the things which outside people still wouldn’t able to see / understand. Thank you 🙂

  4. This is a fascinating glimpse into a country where so few have been, yet I suspect that most everyone is very curious about what it is really like there. I’d heard that they’ve started allowing in more visitors nowadays, but I didn’t know that they let in a few businessmen in the 90s. That was a very rare opportunity, and I’m glad that it went well for you.

    • Our client was a South Korean firm who wanted to invest in North Korea but they were not allowed to go in. We were acting for the client to investigate. Naturally in the 1990s, no photo taking inside was allowed. That was an unique and rare opportunity for me, as before that I have not the faintest idea about the county. Thank you 🙂

  5. Very interesting!!! Just for fun, I looked up North Korea on YouTube.com and watched one 48 minute video of a photo journalist who visited in 2012, posted in 2013, if you are interested to see more.

    • Thanks for the information. I’ll check it out. The year when I was there, it was about the time of their famine. Thank you ; have an enjoyable weekend 🙂

    • You have a great weekend too, Michael!!!! I have viewed several youtube videos on Hong Kong, the marvelous construction of the new airport now over two decades, and the extension of land through leveling other islands. The bridges, tunnels, etc. quite amazing!!!! We moved to Colorado for its nature and vast land. I will be enjoying my garden, the chirping birds, their love of the waterfall of the pond, and fortunate enough to have great privacy, solitude and peace surrounded by trees.

    • Apologize for the belated reply as I thought I have already responded. HK has undergone a quick process of urbanization. Like you, I live in the rural area and enjoy very much to be in the midst of chirping birds and the lush green surrounding. I am sure that you love your surrounding and I think it is a blessing !

    • Hi, my trip was taken at about the time of their great famine and immediately after the death of their ruler. After so many years, the country still remains mysterious. This usual trip has engraved deeply in my mind ; glad that you like the post. Hope you enjoy your stay in South Korea : -)

    • So fascinating! I really feel it would be a trip you’d never forget. We’re loving our stay in South Korea, not going to be going home for a while. Too much exploring left to do. 🙂

    • Unlike two decades ago when I made the trip, you are now allowed to go into North Korea to sight see although I think such trips are under strict control; you are allowed to view whatever they consider can be viewed. Thank you for the kind words 🙂

  6. My father’s family is from NK and it is my life’s milestone to visit the part of our country that is so close and yet so faraway. Thank you for sharing this story as this was very inspiring.

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