Kim Jong’s the Illest: A North Korea Travel Diary

I’ve stepped over dead bodies in Egypt, uncovered dinosaur bones in Mongolia, been drugged and kidnapped in South East Asia, robbed, threatened and truly believed I was seconds from death.

I’ve been travelling since I was eight years old, I’ve seen some remarkable places, experienced some astonishing things. I’ve stepped over dead bodies in Egypt, uncovered dinosaur bones in Mongolia, been drugged and kidnapped in South East Asia, robbed, threatened and truly believed I was seconds from death. I have been off and on the tourist trail and seen more than I ever thought possible.

These experiences and many more have shown me the importance of loving and caring for yourself in all aspects of life.

When traveling to a different country you have to care for yourself, all the responsibility is on you. Each decision you make has consequences whether good or bad.

So to begin with, you’ve got to know the basics. Secure your money, have backup money just in case you get robbed or worse. Be conscious of the fact that you are not just strolling along Chapel St or Flinders lane, people will and do see you as a target, you must be aware.

Make sure you have the right equipment, first aid, medication, stay hydrated, clean and healthy. These are just the basics. Not special information, something that you will find on the front page of any travel guide book.

However it is essential not to underestimate how important caring for yourself is in a foreign destination. No one’s looking after you; you are on your own. Love it or hate it, mummy and daddy aren’t coming to your rescue.

I’m not trying to sound contemptuous, each to their own, however it appears to me that a theme of our generation is to travel in order to party, get wasted, do drugs and sleep with anyone who has tits or a six-pack. Whilst this may be fun, exciting and rebellious, it really is the opposite. You aren’t just caring for yourself, in certain cases you are putting yourself and others in danger. Don’t get me wrong I love a good party, probably a little too much. However, I have learned that when traveling anywhere, caring for yourself means being mindful and respectful of the culture that you have immersed yourself in. Any dickhead can hop on a plane wearing a Bintang singlet and drink gallons of Tiger Beer. Yet what does that mean? What does that prove?

For me, nowhere have I found as enticing as North Korea. Nowhere in the world do you have to be more self-aware, respectful and careful.

When I decided to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea earlier this year; everyone I spoke to either thought I was crazy, had a death wish or maybe a bit of both. The most common response was, “That’s impossible.” For me, and for many others, venturing into the unknown is the excitement of travel.

But with this excitement, comes a thrilling sense of insecurity. I am alone, I am not in control and I need to care for myself. You mess up, you’re dead. You make a wrong move and the consequences could stay with you forever. North Korea is perhaps the most secretive, isolated and mysterious nation in the world.

We rose out of bed at 6.30am on our second day in North Korea. Today was not just another day, today was significant, today was Kim Jong Ill’s birthday.

I wonder how many people can say they attended the birthday celebrations of a dead dictator.

I dressed in my finest shirt and tie, pulled on my polished shoes and off we went. We were on our way to see the body of, “Beloved leader” Kim Jong Ill, lying in state, preserved in a glass casing in the nation’s mausoleum.

We are instructed to be on our best behaviour. We are to show utmost respect and do what you are told or the consequences are going to be severe. If you do love yourself, don’t make any mistakes.

The procession into the mausoleum is made along a series of travellators, kilometers long. Two by two you stand, mouth shut, eyes wide and hands by your side. At the end of the travellators we enter a dark, ominous room. There he is lying enclosed in glass, still and waxy.

Each corner of the dim room is patrolled by soldiers with fully loaded shining silver AK-47s.

Now, if we’re talking about you looking after yourself in a foreign country, this is certainly not the time to slip up. Don’t sneeze, don’t cough, don’t breathe, I tell myself as I proceed to bow at his feet, and both of his sides. Not his head! To bow at the leader’s head is disrespectful, no one is to stand above the supreme leader. Or you might feel a little pinch from an AK-47 bullet.

This experience is reflective of the whole time spent in North Korea. You constantly feel on guard, aware of what to say and how to act. You really do need to care for yourself, not just how to act, but how you think, and how to talk. It is an experience like no other.

Whilst in North Korea you feel as though you have stepped into the largest play on Earth. There is this inherent sense of a false reality, this sense of falseness is about the entire place, from its facilities to its citizens. However, I began to understand that this falseness is not the people acting, or putting on a show for tourists – in many ways this is embedded into their culture.

I realised that the hundreds of grandiose monuments, elaborate civic art and exaggerated attractions are not put on for the outsider. They are carefully constructed to have influence over the population, to engender this sense of nationalism and pride. It’s a show for its citizens.

Large groups of soldiers walk, stroll and march throughout the entire city. Other soldiers work on construction and any other forms of labor that the leader has deemed necessary.

Throughout the week, we experienced more than I thought possible. We joined in on the celebrations of the 75th birthday of deceased leader Kim Jong Ill. Participated in a mass dance in the city square, dancing hand in hand with everyday North Koreans.

We walked along the north side of the DMZ looking across at South Korean guards patrolling the most militarised zone in the world. We visited schools and universities, drank Ginseng liquor and dined on dog meat soup (not my favourite dish).

The people inside North Korea are living a completely different life. One we could never comprehend. However, that is their way of life. Who are we to judge? Are we much better off living in a world of mortgage rates, decaf lattes and reality TV?

Leaving the DPRK you are left with more questions than answers. You never know how much of what you have seen is the real North Korea.

Of course, you have only seen what you were meant to see and only know what you are meant to know. However, I’ll take it, what a surreal experience and something I will never forget. I am thankful that I obeyed the rules, took care, respected their culture and returned to tell my story. Unlike others who have suffered the disastrous consequence of traveling by their own rules and not those of the regime.

Words and photography by James Robertson

IG – @asnapinmyworld

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