If you believe the steady stream of items propagated by the corporate media and government agencies, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a ‘totalitarian dictatorship’ with closed borders. People are not allowed to enter and its citizens are not permitted leave. If someone does happen to try and leave the ‘hermit kingdom’, he or she is dubbed a ‘defector’. Conversely, anyone who wishes to enter the DPRK is also a ‘defector’ – a recent example being the Chondoist leader, Ryu Mi Yong, who opted to leave South Korea and move to the north to join the bulk of her fellow Chondoists.
I must admit that I entered the DPRK with such a mindset. The warnings from governments like those of Australia, the United States and Canada did not help. They either warn against all travel or strongly advise you to reconsider your travel plans and go somewhere else. I believed that I could visit only with an officially sanctioned tour company (Koryo) and I had read that at most 2,000 foreigners visit the country every year. The very fact that I was able to visit amongst others should already have alerted me to a somewhat different situation, but such is the strength of preconceptions that it did not. Even more, the fact that the flight into the DPRK – a glorious Tupolev 204 – was filled mostly with citizens of the DPRK should have set me thinking. Yet again, it did not.
Only after arriving and spending a few days there did reality set in. Our hotel, Yanggakdo, was quite full, with tour buses clustered outside on any given day. People were constantly arriving and leaving, many of them Chinese but also a good number of people from other countries. For some reason, it seemed to me that Australians were everywhere. I had come with the assumption that we would be largely on our own. Clearly this was not the case. Even at the Demilitarised Zone close by Kaesong, there were buses aplenty, so much so that we were lucky in being the first in a long line of groups visiting the area.
I had to find out more. In one of my many discussions with the older tour guide, I asked. ‘How many visitors come to North Korea each year?’
He thought for a moment and said, ’10,000 or so’.
That made far more sense. Not a huge number by some standards, but way more than anyone would expect.
‘But is this the only hotel where visitors can stay? I said.
‘Oh no’, he said, ‘here are many places throughout the country where you can stay’.
‘So where could I travel?’ I said.
‘Most places’, he said. ‘You can travel in the far north, stay in the countryside, do some volunteer work on farms’.
Later I began to ponder the possibility of spending some more time in the place. I asked about foreigners working in the DPRK.
‘We have a quite a number at different levels’, said another guide.
‘What about universities?’ I said.
‘Oh yes’, he said, ‘foreigners come and teach at some of them. Many come as volunteers through UNESCO, and there is also the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology’.
‘Is that the one funded by Christian groups, with classes taught in English?’ I said.
‘Yes’, he said, ‘and it teaches students about many facets of international education’.
‘Would I be able to spend some time at one of the universities?’ I asked.
‘What do you teach?’ he asked.
‘Marxism and philosophy’, I said.
He smiled. ‘Very interesting. I will see what I can do.’
I gave him my email address.
But what about Koreans travelling, working and studying internationally? I was admittedly quite astounded to find out how many from the DPRK do exactly that. Most go to China, but some travel further afield. Indeed, the week before, when I was in Harbin in the north-east of China, I had encountered students from the DPRK studying there. And this was only one example. To be sure, they need clearance from a government agency to do so. But I was reminded of the fact that I too need to request permission to travel overseas, albeit from my university rather than the government.
Even with this knowledge, on the day of our departure, I was still amazed at how many Koreans were boarding the train out of Pyongyang. On the platform were a few foreigners, but most were from the DPRK. Each day the train leaves for Beijing, carrying locals to various destinations outside the country.
Closed borders? If so, the gate is not securely fastened.