I’ve been to North Korea many times now. Despite a world which is so eager to pour cynicism, mockery and disdain on visiting, I can honestly say that my first trip to the DPRK in 2014 left a powerful impression on my life which was able to inspire me in profound ways. Those who scorn don’t know the experience what they are missing out on, and, never will should they try it themselves. Nevertheless, for someone who was going to a country like this for the first time via train, it was a slightly scary, yet surreal experience, one I will look back on for the rest of my life.
We arrived at Dandong station at 9am to head through customs to the 10.30 train. My nerves were killing. As I walked out onto the platform I realised that the trip I had booked up for was now becoming a reality, for in front me stood a somewhat ageing green carriage, embedded with the national crest of the DPRK on the side. I glanced at it carefully, seeing the bundles of corn around its edges and the red star hovering above Mount Paketu. Despite the obvious differences to the reality on the ground, it could only strike me with starry imagination of an industrious Communist nation. This was it, I was now about to board this train and head to a country which is vilified by Western media and politicians on an almost daily basis, a country which has been misunderstood and caricatured like no other. I had let my curiousity drive me forwards and now, I was going on a journey which still most people would find unthinkable, if not impossible. Despite the heavy anxieties in the back of my mind, I had no regrets. It was scary, but this was awesome.
Soon enough, we were aboard. We were given a bombarding of various customs forms to fill in for our various devices and luggage, that was quite hectic. Then, an eary silence struck as the whistle blew in the station, we were off, there was no going back now. The train trundled out Dandong station and moved slowly across the Sino-Korean friendship bridge over the Yalu river. Soon, the sprawling and thriving urban scenes, busy streets and colourful posters of Dandong faded away into the distance; before us, stood a new and very different reality. As the train moved off the bridge, we faced a place which was gloomy, quiet and perhaps even desolate. My eyes sat upon an abandoned fair ground which was reminiscent of scenes of Chernobyl, I had to keep reminding myself that this was real, we were now inside North Korea. As this happened, the signal bars on my phone began to fade away, we had left the world behind.
The train came to a stop, outside stood a station. Above the platform stood two massive portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, illuminating the surroundings with their smiles. What was going to happen here? The doors swung upon and on came a number of North Korean soldiers, dressed smartly in green uniforms, with noticeably large hats and shining red label pins of the very same portraits above the station. By now I was terrified, these people are made out to be monsters by the media, is it true? how they will treat me? When one of them told me to sit down and checked my passport and visa, I feared the worst. But this is where I began to realize everything I was made to believe was misleading.
I soon learned that the guards were nothing to be scared of. A guard came walking down the small train corridor and I sensed I was in the way, in fear I backed off quickly back into the bunk room. Suddenly, I felt someone touch my hand as if to express gratitude, I looked up and he smiled at me and continued walking on. It thus turned out when you shown them courtesy and respect they responded with warmness, cheerfulness, friendliness and even interest in you. If you spoke Korean to them, they became even friendlier. These guards were not soulless robots, they were real people, they were down to Earth and they were not blinded by ideology, fear or any kind of hatred, but they shown a genuine sense of interest and appreciation, for those visiting their country. At this point I began to realize that for all we accuse the DPRK of being in a bubble, it was us who was in the bubble. Our understandings of this place had been so polluted with politicized garbage and hysteria, that we had lost our ability to even see them as human. North Korea is indeed different, but they’re not out to get you.
The customs obviously took a long time, it was a bit of drag. We would soon head onwards to Pyongyang and witness the scenes of the North Korean countryside, real demonstrations of how people live, yet for me, it was that first hour of it all which was the defining moment, an experience to ponder and think about forever. I felt it was important to interact with these people, I felt that we shouldn’t be depraving them of their humanity or right to contact with the outside world because of political disagreements. There’s a lot of junk out there, if you really want to get an objective picture of North Korea, be skeptical of the media, be skeptical of those who talk up U.S foreign policy goals and try to simplify everything into a crusade.
The train journey to the DPRK is an incredible and moving experience, one which will make you think deeply about the world around you and your place in it, it was enough for me to back again and to want to share these experiences with other people.