North Korea in 2005

Table of Contents
Visit Overview
Kim Il Sung
Maps of Pyongyang
People & Kids
War Art
Map of North Korea


North Korea, officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), is high on the list of every serious traveler because it is a unique experience. North Korea is the first communist country in Asia and the first communist monarchy. It has Juche, its own philosophy based on Marxist Leninism and its own version of the calendar. It's racially pure. It's the most regimented country in the world. It's weird. I highly recommend it to serious travelers.

For Americans, North Korea has the additional appeal of the forbidden. Only 500 (five hundred) American tourists have been allowed to visit from 1985 thru 2005. For example, in 2004 when the North Korean government was very unhappy with the US government, no American tourists were allowed. In September 2005, the North Korea government signed an agreement after the 6 party talks, and 200 (of the 500) American tourists were allowed to visit. The North Korean government uses tourists as one method of signaling its level of satisfaction with the US government, but they have their signaling system backwards. Study question: which would make the US government more unhappy: no American tourists or 50,000 American tourists each year?

I have already visited over 100 countries. By visiting North Korea I have now visited virtually all of the East Asian countries on the Pacific Rim and virtually all of the communist countries. This provides important context to understand North Korea.

Communist Country My First Visit Communism Start Communism End
East Germany 1965 1949 1990
Russia 1969 1917 1991
Ukraine 1969 1918 1991
Bulgaria 1969 1947 1989
Romania 1969 1947 1989
Czechoslovakia 1969 1948 1989
Poland 1969 1947 1989
Hungary 1969 1948 1989
Yugoslavia 1984 1945 1989
China 1984 1949 ?
Albania 1995 1944 1992
Cuba 2001 1959 ?
Vietnam 2002 1954 ?
Estonia 2003 1940 1991
Latvia 2003 1940 1991
Lithuania 2003 1940 1991
North Korea 2005 1948 ?

Visit Overview

My trip to North Korea was arranged by UTS, which is associated with the Travelers Century Club, an organization for people who have visited at least 100 countries. I'm a member and have traveled with them to Cuba in 2001 and Libya, Algeria and Tunisia in 2004.

Our group of 5 people was lead by Bill Altaffer, who is the most traveled person on planet earth. It was an excellent group and we enjoyed extensive discussions with each other. The Los Angeles Times published an article about the 5 of us. I was one of the persons quoted.

We arrived on Tuesday, October 11, 2005 and left on the following Saturday. We visited Pyongyang, Hyangsan and Panmunjong. In Pyongyang, we stayed in deluxe rooms at the 45 story twin-towered Koryo Hotel, considered to be the best in the county, for 3 of our 4 nights. We stayed in the Hyangsan Hotel near Mt. Myohyang in the scenic mountainous area 100 kilometers north of the capitol one night. We also made a day trip to Panmunjong in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) 160 kilometers south of the capitol, and near the famous old capitol of Kaesong.

Our bags were not opened at customs, but cell phones and laptops had to be checked. We were not allowed to have video cameras, but tourists from other countries had them. We had to ask permission before taking any photograph. For example, it was not permitted to take photographs from the bus. We were not supposed to wander around at night. This was a supervised visit and there was no real interaction with the local people.

Our group consisted of 5 tourists, a North Korean government guide, a North Korean government security man and a bus driver. The guide and the security man spoke English and we had a good relationship with them. The guide planned our visit to maximize the number of attractions that we were able to see. He was flexible to accommodate our requests, but was unable to let us see the Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung probably due to North Korean government restrictions. Since the North Korean Government considers the United States Government to be the the only imperialist country in the world, American tourists face the most restrictions.

We were on the go day and night, and were able to see most of the top tourist attractions in our short visit including the famous Arirang mass games. See my separate report on this unique spectacle. It was also the subject of an extensive article in the Los Angeles Times and I was quoted several times.

Background on North Korea

North Korea is a small country between South Korea and China with a limited border on Russia. It is 84% mountainous. Its population is between 19 and 23 million. Our guide used the figure of 20 million. Racially it is over 99% Korean, one of the most racially pure countries in the world.

In 1444, Korea developed its own alphabet, now called Hangeul, considered by linguists as the best in the world. This is the one used almost exclusively in North Korea. There are very few signs in English or Chinese. It is easy to learn Hangeul, which has 24 letters. Knowing it makes your trip to North Korea more interesting.

Kim Il Sung

The first leader of North Korea was Kim Il Sung, referred to as the Great Leader. He ruled almost 5 decades until he died in 1994 when his son, Kim Jong Il, referred to as the Dear Leader, took over. He is now training his son to be the next leader of the country. This makes North Korea a monarchy as well as a communist country.

The image of Kim Il Sung is everywhere: statues, paintings, stamps, mosaics, buildings, stadiums, etc. He influenced and shaped every aspect of life in North Korea. He is the author of the guiding philosophy of the country, Juche that is studied by all North Koreans. He is venerated with a kind of religious devotion. For example, instead of using the year 2005, North Koreans refer to it as Juche 94 because Kim was born in 1912. When we visited the Grand Peoples Study Hall (the main library), our guide explained that even the type of desk used had been suggested by the Great Leader. The scope of Kim's impact on North Korea is total.

The purpose of our overnight visit to Hyangsan was to see the memorial building where all of the gifts to Kim Il Sung are stored. Every gift has been carefully counted and indexed. There are over 200,000 gifts. There are vast rooms were the most valuable gifts are displayed. There are gifts from most world leaders. For example, Stalin gave Kim a railroad car. Jimmy Carter gave a glass vase. We were not allowed to take photos of the gifts.

The North Koreans do not consider Kim Il Sung to be a religious figure, but other observers consider Juche to be a religion with the 10th largest number of adherents in the world - more than, for example, Judaism. It is expected that all tourists will buy flowers, line-up in front of Kim's statue in downtown Pyongyang, bow, and present the flowers. And we did.

We saw large crowds of school children come to pay their respects. You can see a cadre of girls in 2 photos below approach Kim Il Sung's statue. They appeared suddenly and strode purposely to his statue to bow in unison.

We also visited the grave of Kim Il Sung's wife and the mother of the current ruler. Once again we were expected to line up, bow and present flowers. And we did. There is a photo below of me presenting the flowers.

Thumbnails of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il or his Mother

TCC Group Kim Il Sung Girl Cadres Girl Cadres Two Kims DMP Wreath Mother Kim
TCC Group Kim Il Sung Girl Cadres... ...Visiting Kim Statue Father & Son Flowers to the Wife, Mother
Kim Subway Kim Painting Kim Kaesong Sitting Kim Kim Arirang Kim Card Section
Kim in Subway Kim Painting Kim in Kaesong Sitting Kim Kim Photo at Arirang Card Section Close-up


Pyongyang, the capitol, has a population of 1.5 million in the city and 1.5 million in the surrounding suburbs. It is an attractive location with 2 rivers flowing thru it, the highest percentage of parks of any city in the world, and mountains in the distance. The streets are very broad, but there is very little traffic. The buildings are well spaced and there is a pleasing spaciousness to the city. There is no graffiti. Because of the paucity of cars, busses and trucks, the air quality is good certainly during the non-winter months. Anthracite coal is burned for heating and electrical power production.

When you look at the details, you notice that the bushes have been carefully trimmed everywhere in the city. The buildings reflect the communist approach that sacrifices quality to quantity. There are no streetlights at night and light levels in typical buildings are lower than in other countries. This is to save energy. All escalators I saw were auto-start, presumably to save energy.

There are virtually no traffic lights. Women in uniforms in the intersections direct traffic. The lack of cars, trucks and busses is just amazing. Even the number of bikes is low. How a modern city can function with so few vehicles is a puzzle.

The most noticeable aspect of the city was how quiet it was. Unlike typical vibrant Asian cities with large crowds that bustle with life and commerce, Pyongyang is very peaceful. People are formally dressed in muted colors. They queue up quietly to wait on busses. Everyone is thin. I did not see an overweight North Korean. People are not talking on cell phones, children are not riding on skateboards and couples are not kissing on the streets -- not even holding hands.

We stayed in deluxe rooms in the Koryo Hotel, the best hotel in the country. While the windows were of a high quality (like the windows in Germany), the carpeting and the wall covering were poor quality and didn't match. Furniture was old fashioned.

Thumbnails of Aerial Photos of Pyongyang

Typical Pyongyang Monument Kim Il Sung Stadium May Day Stadium Arch of Triumph Failed Skyscraper
Typical View of Pyongyang Monument Kim Il Sung Stadium May Day Stadium Arch of Triumph Failed Skyscraper

Thumbnails from Koryo Hotel

Koryo Hotel View Koryo Hotel View Koryo Hotel View Koryo Hotel View Koryo Hotel View Koryo Hotel View
View from Hotel View from Hotel View from Hotel View from Hotel View from Hotel View from Hotel

Maps of Pyongyang

A good map of Pyongyang makes your visit there more understandable. Here is the best quality map of Pyongyang on the Internet. I took 4 different views (900 x 900 pixels) of the map to minimize the need for scrolling. The Map of Central Pyongyang covers a majority of the places you will visit while the Overall Map of Pyongyang covers them all, but it is huge (3000 x 2081 pixels):

Pyongyang Central Map Pyongyang SouthWest Map Pyongyang NorthEast Map Pyongyang SouthEast Map Pyongyang Overall Map
Central Pyongyang Southwest Pyongyang Northeast Pyongyang Southeast Pyongyang Overall Pyongyang

Pyongyang Monuments

Pyongyang is laid out to be a capitol city with wide streets and strategically placed monuments. The main library, called the Grand People's study house, is supposed to contain 30,000,000 volumes, but the number of foreign books is limited. The examples we saw were out of date. Students were studying Juche. Lighting levels were lower than other countries. We visited an English class that had a Canadian instruction, and talked to the students for a few minutes.

Monuments reflect political and military themes. They are built with a pleasing scale and quality with propaganda aspects given foremost attention. For example, the Arch of Triumph is higher than its prototype in Paris.

Thumbnails of Various Monuments in Pyongyang

Study House Study House Arch of Triumph Korean War Monument Martyrs Cemetery Reunification Monument
Grand Peoples Study House Grand Peoples Study House Arch of Triumph Korean War Monument Martyrs Cemetery Reunification Monument


North Korea is the most communist country in the world. Not only are all means of production owned by the state, but all of the stores, shops and restaurants are too. I believe that North Korea will be the last country in the world to abandon communism. Castro has allowed small-scale private enterprise in shops and restaurants since the early 1990s. China and Vietnam have been transforming their economies and integrating them into the global economy for half a generation. Indeed some would consider these two countries as authoritarian, but no longer communist. In fact, leaving North Korea and landing in Beijing almost felt like returning to the free world. This is how regimented North Korea is.

The Monument to the Party Founding showcases a unique North Korea twist on the typical hammer and sickle symbol of communism with the addition of a pen to represent the intellectuals. The celebration for the 60th anniversary of the Korean Communist Party occurred the day before we arrived.

The broad avenue leaving the monument strategically faces the unfinished 105 story Ryugyong Hotel. Construction was stopped in 1992. What was supposed to be a triumphant example of communism, now has the opposite effect. It looks like the giant miscalculation that it is. This building might be a useful marker to measure the state of North Korea in the future.

As expected the Tower to the Juche Idea is just a bit taller than the Washington monument. In the base is a list of organizations in various countries that study Juche. This gives the North Koreans the feeling that they are world leaders.

The spot across the river from the Juche Tower is a favorite with newlyweds. We asked permission to photograph the newlyweds and ended up being photographed with them. I noticed that some professional looking camera men were videotaping us with these couples. Perhaps we have been on North Korean TV.

Thumbnails from Monument to Party Founding

Monument Party Founding Monument Relief Monument Relief Monument Art Monument Toward Skyscraper Ryugyong Hotel
Monument to Party Founding Relief Detail Relief Detail Inside Monument View of Failed Skyscraper 105 Stories Stopped in 1992

Thumbnails of Tower to Juche Idea

Juche in Korean Alphabet Juche Tower Foreign Organizations Joan Couple TCC Group Couple Wedding Party
"Juche" on Building Juche Tower Foreign Juche Organizations Joan with Newly Weds TCC Group & Newly Weds Wedding Party


People work from 9am to 6pm six days a week, every day except Sunday. They get a two hour lunch hour. Apartments and medical care are "free". (Of course, to be exact no government service is ever free; someone had to pay for it. So wage levels are lower in communist countries so the government has the money to provide "free" apartments and medical care.) In North Korea, the waiting list to get an apartment is 3 years.

In 2002, the government was forced to make reforms because price, wage and currency levels did not reflect reality at all. Wages were raised 18 times and prices were raised 25 times which was a massive shock to the population. In addition, the won, the local currency, was devalued by a factor of 70!! I learned these details from a briefing book given by the North Korean government to a visiting Polish economist who was speaking at conference on the North Korean economy.

Now prices for items sold to foreigners are quoted in euros, not dollars.

Before the collapse of other communist countries, North Korea enjoyed a kind of subsidy that propped up its economy. For example, when the ill fated 105 story Ryugyong Hotel was started in 1987, the Soviet Union was still supplying North Korea with subsidies. Now the North Koreans have a problem competing in the global market for many reasons: quality, lack of connection to the Internet, not a member of the WTO, etc. We were unable to use our credit cards in North Korea.

The photos below show the subway, which is not as deep as the ones in Russia, nor are the stations as dramatic. The subway is old fashioned; note the sign of subway stations were you push a button to locate a station. The art is in the socialist realism style. It is not crowded. The stations are clean. There is no graffiti. Users are quiet and polite.

Thumbnails from Subway

Subway Map Subway Stairs Subway Tractor Art Subway Train Subway Crowd Subway People
Subway Map in Korean Only Massive Staircase Socialist Tractor Art Subway Train & Mural Crowd Leaving Typical People

People & Kids

Most men get married from 27 to 29 years old. The age range for women is lower, I believe from 25 to 27. There are no restrictions on the number of children.

There is one TV channel during the week and three on weekends. Of course, the government runs all TV stations and strictly controls its content.

In the photos below, I'm clowning around with the security man and asking the price of a book from sales ladies in festive clothes. Mr. Lee, our guide, is kindly taking photos of the group using each person's camera. Not as easy as it looks. The photo of the father biking his son shows a typical seriousness that you see on the streets.

Note both the father and the security man have a badge to Kim Il Sung that all North Koreans wear. These are not sold to foreigners.

Since the 60th anniversary holiday of the Korean Workers (Communist) Party occurred the day before we arrive, we had the opportunity to photograph kids in festive clothes. The photo of the twin boys is a classic.

We also attended the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren's Palace, were we saw the propaganda kids, the ones routinely photographed by tourists. They were supposed to smile as they played musical instruments or embroidered.

Finally, there are a couple of candid shots of kids in the subway or on the street.

Thumbnails of Various People Photos

Victory Sign DMP Sales Ladies Mr Lee Cameras Soldiers Father Biking Son People Fishing
Flashing Victory Sign Questioning Sales Ladies Mr Lee Takes Our Photos Soldiers Father Biking Son Men Fishing

Thumbnails of Kids

Cute Kid Twins Kids Accordian Kids Embroidering Kids Subway Kids Street
Kid by Party Monument Twins Dressed for Holiday Accordion Class Embroidery Class Kids in Subway Boys in Street

War Art

Koreans have artistic talent. We enjoyed our visit to the National Art Gallery; however, the best art in North Korea is the war art. There are 6 typical examples below, but many more photos would be required to give you a full appreciation of the skill of the artists.

All of the bronze statues were well executed with fine detail.

In the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, there is a spectacular 360 degree panoramic painting of the battle of Kaesong. This diorama is about 450 feet in circumference and 50 feet high. From the observation platform it is over 40 feet away creating the illusion of real life. This is the largest painting that I have ever seen and you should definitely see it if you visit DPRK. My two photos do not do it justice. It took 40 artists almost 2 years to paint it.

Thumbnails of Examples of War Art

Detail Detail War Statue War Statue Panorama Panorama
Detail from Korean War Detail from Korean War War Statue War Statue Part of Huge Panorama Part of Huge Panorama

U.S.S. Pueblo

The North Korean government opines that the United States Government is the only imperialistic government in the world. The United States is blamed for every problem that exists in North Korea. The U.S. Government serves an important function in North Korea: the common enemy.

In 1968 the U.S.S. Pueblo was collecting electronic information off the coast of North Korea in international waters when the North Koreas attacked it. The ship was very lightly gunned so it was easy for North Korea to capture it. The Pueblo Veterans Association has a website which explains the incident, the forced confessions and the 11 months of captivity. In December 2005, I met someone who knew one of the Pueblo's crew members. This man explained that the North Koreans smashed Captain Bucher's testicles with a hammer as part of the torture to force these men to give false confessions.

Now the U.S.S. Pueblo is a rotting trophy moored near a bridge over the Taedong river in Pyongyang. The location of the U.S.S. Pueblo is the site of the burning of the U.S.S. Sherman in 1866. Its entire crew was massacred. Kim Il Sung claims that his great grandfather took part in the attack on the U.S.S. Sherman. The message seems to be the United States has been our enemy for over 100 years.

Thumbnails of the U.S.S. Pueblo

Pueblo Pueblo Stern Pueblo Flag DMP in Captain's Chair Pueblo Electronics Pueblo Guide
U.S.S. Pueblo Pueblo from Stern Pueblo Flag Sitting in Captain's Chair Pueblo Electronics Pueblo Guide


We had perfect weather when we made our day trip down to the Demilitarized Zone. As usual there was virtually no traffic on the highway. The lack of traffic is so extreme to make you wonder what is going on. How can a country function with so few vehicles on a major highway? We also made a brief stop in the famous city of Kaesong.

As you can see in the photos, we were in a light-hearted mood in the DMZ. We all had our photos taken with Major Han. He is 27 years old and unmarried, and now in the 2 year window in which North Korean men are expected to get married. We were too polite to ask how the dating scene is in the DPRK.

I had visited the DMZ from South Korea in 1980 and was looking forward to seeing again the famous negotiating room in the hut (guarded with 2 soldiers in the photos below). However, we were informed by the North Koreans that the United States had locked the door from the inside and thus we would not be able to see the room. We were too polite to explain the epistemological value of their report.

Thumbnails of DMZ

Mr Lee at Map DMZ Diagram Major Han TCC Group Major Han Joe Walker DMZ Buildings Major Han DMZ
Mr Lee Explains DMZ DMZ Diagram TCC Group & Major Han Major Han & Joe Walker DMZ Buildings Negotiation Hut


One of the biggest difficulties in visiting North Korea is explaining it when you return home. This is not an easy task because North Korea is just bizarre. It is almost totally cut off from the rest of the world. It is impossible to buy any Western magazine or newspaper. At times, it seems like a parallel universe.

One blogger described North Korea as the place were "Nazi Germany meets Disneyland". I can understand the meaning of that colorful soundbite although I wouldn't be so flippant. Clearly, North Korea is the most regimented country I have ever visited, and clearly the North Korean Government uses art to project that everything is fine. The Arirang mass games are the classic expression of this technique.

My attempt to explain North Korea is in the table below. This is a rough view and I'm sure scholars could tune-up the precision of my approach. However, this table demonstrates that North Korea is the logical consequence of an amalgamation of culture, philosophy and theories of government that result in a country with no individual rights and totally centralized power. On top of that is a cult of personality of Kim Il Sung that a Stalin or a Hitler would never have dreamed of.

Imagine a prison were there is such total mind control over the inmates that no one would try to escape even if the doors were opened.

Layer Emphasis on Example
Kim Cult  Establisher of Correct Thinking  Everyone should follow Juche philosophy
 Fountainhead of Ideas  Even desk type at library specified by Kim
 Public Devotion by People  Bowing to Statues; presenting flowers to Statues
 Public Devotion by Foreigners  Bowing to Statues; presenting flowers to Statues
Monarchy  Hereditary Rule  Grandson in training to be third ruler
 Unique public Status Symbols  Travel by private train car
 Gifts from foreign leaders  Exact count and inventory maintained
Communist  Ownership of Means of Production  All businesses owned by government
 Collective over Individual  Arirang mass games
 Quantity over Quality  Goods cannot compete with other countries
 Orthodoxy over Progress  Don't take chances; follow the leader
Totalitarian  Control of Info to People  Total control of media; no access to Internet
 Control of Image  Photo restrictions on visitors
 Use of Art to glorify Regime  Best Art is military Art; Arirang mass games
 Create Common Enemy  USA blamed for all problems
Current Korean  Conformity  Dress, hair styles, etc.
 Respect for Social Norms  2 year marriage window; no PDA
Old Korean  Isolation from other countries  Old description was Hermit Kingdom
 Racial purity  Racial solidarity emphasized at Arirang
 Cultural Superiority  Exclusive use of Korean Alphabet in Signs
Confucian  Respect for Hierarchy  The masses had no role in government
 Respect for Authority  No concept of the rights of the individual
 Respect for Family  Desire to produce a male heir