In June 2013, I traveled to North Korea’s North Hamgyong Province undercover, not disclosing that I was a journalist in order to get a sense of life in areas far from Pyongyang.
Things started out in exciting fashion. I crossed into the North Korean city of Namyang overland from China, across the Tumen Border Bridge. Built in 1941 by the Japanese occupying the area, the bridge measures 1,690 feet in length but is less than 20 feet wide.
During the Korean War, it was one of the border posts from which the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army entered North Korea to help drive out US, South Korean, and UN forces. Though there was lots of security on the Chinese side, the North Korean side was strangely quiet.
Upon arriving, I was led to a low concrete building along the river and taken into a small room. There, my backpack was searched for contraband, such as Bibles or literature critical of the government. Possession of Bibles and religious DVDs was partially what led the arrest of American Kenneth Bae in the Rason Special Economic Zone in November 2012. Sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for various crimes against the state, he is still in North Korean custody.
Panic shot through me when the North Koreans looked at my passport, inside which was my worker’s permit for Germany which states I’m a journalist (“Beschӓftigung nicht gestattet mit Ausnahme der Tӓtigkeit als akkreditierter Korrespondent beim Presse-und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung”). Fortunately they couldn’t read German, and I lied by telling them it meant that, as a foreigner, if I were hired for a new job in Germany I must provide correspondence to the Ministry of Information. They nodded approvingly at the mention of “Ministry of Information.”
After customs I met Suh Byung Kim, a wiry 34-year-old guide. Born and raised in North Hamgyong Province, he later confessed he had never been to Pyongyang and was not a member of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party.
Traveling in a rickety Chinese-built bus, I also met Shin Sun Ming a large man who appeared to be in his early forties with a shock of floppy black hair that was the very thing the public service campaign “Let’s trim our hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle” warned against due to the belief that hair length affects human intelligence because of the amount of nutrients required for hair to grow. There was also Pak, the driver whose small but muscular build suggested he’d be a champion wrestler.
The first place we went was the Wangjaesan Grand Monument, an 89-foot-tall bronze and granite statue erected in 1975 to commemorate a speech made by Kim Il-sung in 1933 that is the largest monument of its kind in northern North Korea. A woman led us around and explained the importance of the monument in Korean, which Suh translated into English. I didn’t know why, but her outfit reminded me of the Boy Scouts.
I was terrified I’d be arrested and sent to prison. Thankfully, after an on-the-spot self-confession — where one apologizes for their mistakes in front of others and offers ways they aim to correct the problem — and the deletion of photos, I was allowed to leave.
I couldn’t look Suh straight in the eye for the rest of the afternoon.
Pretty views aside, security was tight, perhaps because the Camp 22 political prison is less than five miles from the city center. At night, I saw a man in a military uniform with what appeared to be a machine gun slung over his shoulder pacing back and forth in the parking lot of the Hoeryong Hotel. By morning, he was gone.
I felt hesitant bowing to the images of two men with questionable human rights records, but I really didn’t have much choice.
Barreling through the countryside in a rickety bus, our next destination was the coast, but the bus broke down along the way, requiring several hours of repairs and leaving us stranded somewhere in Onsong County.
Suh used his mobile phone connected to the nearly nationwide Koryolink 3G network to call for another bus. While waiting, I took a dip in a nearby river sans clothing to cool off. Fortunately, no locals saw me as far I knew.
The computers also had features such as Microsoft Office, running on what appeared to be a Windows XP operating system.
Due to frequent power cuts, water in the Gomalsan Guest House where I stayed in Chongjin had to be stored in bath tubs. Scooping a bucket of water and pouring it in the toilet would help it flush. Needless to say, it was a bit dirty.
Near Mt. Chilbo was Nojok-tong, an isolated village of large and spotlessly clean traditional homes filled with a variety of modern conveniences and smiling residents that made me question whether it was real or being shown only for my benefit.
I made the most of my time, interacting with villagers by playing volleyball, beating rice cakes with a large wooden mallet, and even battling a local man in a traditional game of knee-fighting. I lost, unfortunately.
I was taken aback by how pastoral the village seemed. Everyone carried out their work with a broad smile that, if they were actors, would be worthy of an Oscar.
One young girl took a particular interest in my old and rather beat-up Casio Exilim digital camera, flipping through the images in a manner that suggested she was familiar with electronic gadgets. Her childish intensity as she performed the task was hilarious.
I spent one night in an old hotel in rural Kyongsong County that was located across the street from what appeared to be a small military base or local militia headquarters.
Though the hotel was very rundown, dinner that night was fancier than anything I had ever had in my life.
With food insecurity known to be a serious problem in North Korea — especially outside of Pyongyang — seeing the lavish spread of whole crabs, mussels, shrimp, sea snails, fresh vegetables, succulent beef, sticky white rice, spicy kimchi, chewy squid, steaming soup, and gallons of beer, bottled water, soda, and tea made me feel sick.
After dinner, things devolved rapidly thanks to seemingly endless shots of baijiu, a type of Chinese spirits with 40–60 percent alcohol by volume. Around a half dozen people showed up, taking turns singing karaoke tunes and cracking jokes while downing shots like there was no tomorrow. I didn’t have a clue what was going on.
I found myself drinking more and more, locking arms in a “traditional” manner as I swallowed shots with a woman half my size.
I even redeemed my knee-fighting shame by emerging victorious in an indoor match that nearly knocked over several tables, and gave a karaoke performance that probably ranks as the worst in human history. Needless to say, I awoke the next day with a hangover.
For reasons that were not explained, I eventually had to say goodbye to Suh, Shin and Pak. Saying farewell to my new friends, with whom I’d been through so much, was tough.
I soon met Kim Jaehyok, a 30-year-old with a steely expression who would remain with me for the rest of my journey. We made our way to the Rason Special Economic Zone, an area established in the early 1990s to promote economic growth through foreign investment and based on China’s economic model.
The most northern part of the country near the border with China and Russia, it was the most modern of any place I’d seen in North Korea. Young women in high heels and Western fashions casually strolled past while checking messages on their phones, while taxis could be seen on the paved roads.
There were parks with playgrounds for children, an ice cream parlor, big screen TVs in public places, and even a bank that looked just like one a person might find in the U.S. After the past few days, it was like stepping into another world.
One place I popped into was the Rason Taehung Trading Co. seafood processing plant, where I saw female workers sorting the morning’s catch. Though North Korea has one of the highest percentages of working women in the world, very few women are promoted to managerial or senior-level positions.
With all the raw fish around, the smell was terrible.
The Rason City Market is among the largest public markets in North Korea and was bustling with activity. All manner of goods brought in from China and Russia were readily available, from saxophones and textiles to plastic toys and power tools.
At the market, I picked up an authentic zhongshan suit — also known as a Mao suit — for less than $30. The style is common among North Korean men, thanks in part to it being the preferred fashion of Kim Jong Un.
Wearing it around Rason, I received a number of approving smiles from strangers, including some kitchen workers who showed me how kimchi is made and let me help them out.
While the standard of living in Rason seemed much higher than in Hoeryong and Chongjin, conditions in the nearby Rajin Shoe Factory were unpromising.
Here, about 120 workers in four shifts produce around 180,000 pairs of women’s and men’s shoes to be sold domestically per year. Revolutionary music glorifying the state blared from loudspeakers amid an acrid smell of hot glue.
Surrounding the workers and their whirring machines was a myriad of propaganda posters inspiring them to work harder. As I walked around through the semi-darkness, workers seemed to barely notice me.
As visas only allow a foreigner to be in the country for specific dates, my time in Korea was coming to an end. The last place I stayed was near Pipha Island, a small peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow strip barely wide enough for a car to traverse.
Less than an hour’s drive from Rason’s hustle and bustle, the pace of life here was much, much slower.
If I had to retire in North Korea, this would be the place. It was so peaceful, one could almost forget they were still in one of the mostly tightly controlled countries in the world.
June 24 was my last day in Korea. Before leaving, I met kindergartners during their Monday morning lessons at the 516 Kindergarten in Sonbong.
The school’s name came from the month and day Kim Jong-Il visited in 1979. The bright-eyed children spoke only a little English but were more than happy to burst into song.
I wasn’t sure exactly what it was about, but Kim muttered something about “glory to the leaders.”
Kim and I said goodbye near the so-called Three Borders Area, which marks the border between North Korea, China, and Russia.
Like Namyang had been when I’d entered, security was conspicuously light. Before leaving, Kim told me he hoped I would come back.
Finally I was out of North Korea and back in China. After eight days in the country, it was good to be in familiar surroundings where, among other things, I learned the Miami Heat had come back to win the NBA Finals and some guy named Edward Snowden had fled from Hong Kong to Russia.
My experience affected me deeply. I was so moved, in fact, that I returned to North Korea a few months later.
I learned much on my journey. While some beliefs I had about North Korea were confirmed, such as how closed to the outside world it is and how controlled things can sometimes be, I also discovered that there is much more to the country.
More importantly, I learned that despite the oppression and government propaganda the North Korean people are humans — ones with their own wants, desires, hopes, and dreams.
In other words, we’re not all that different.
Ben Mack is an American journalist based in Berlin, Germany. A 2012 graduate of Boise State University, he has written for outlets including Deutsche Welle, Air India Magazine, The Local Sweden and The Hillsboro Argus. You can follow him on Twitter @benaroundearth or check out his blog at Ben Around Earth.