North Korea – Pyongyang, Mysteries & Secrets of a Reclusive Nation’s Capital

Pyongyang Subway Mysteriousness

A surprising highlight of our journey was the Pyongyang subway, which was both exciting and mysterious. Only in North Korea is the subway thrilling.  At 110 metres (360 ft) it’s one of the deepest in the world, apparently designed to double as a bomb shelter.  The station was bustling with people as our group boarded the train. Wood paneling?  Marble?  It definitely beats the London Tube. On arrival at our final stop, the station seemed equally as busy until there was an apparent snag in our tour itinerary. Someone was supposed to meet us there—and wasn’t—or something to this effect. This caused us to wait at the station.

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Ten minutes later I noticed something very odd: we were the only ones in the station. Minutes earlier the station was teeming with activity. How was our small group, now, the only ones in the station?  Fifteen minutes later and the station was still deserted except for our small group; our tour guides were scrambling to sort some logistical complication. In the meantime, subway trains came and left with not a single person on them.

Exploring the Streets of Pyongyang

Finally, we left the station and our North Korean guides informed us that they needed to leave. There was a problem and they could not accompany us to the other end of the city for our next activity. A 50 minute walk. The solution: we would wander unaccompanied through Pyongyang with no government minders. No North Korean government minders for almost an hour?  This was completely unheard of for most tours, but absolutely incomprehensible for a group of Americans to be allowed to wander freely through North Korea.  Had we established some sort of trust? In any case, off we went. Along the way, we passed through streets adorned by thousands of flags in preparation for the upcoming holiday. Propaganda posters were everywhere. My favorite part?  There were no stoplights and barely any vehicles on the roads. At “major” intersections there was a small circle in the middle where a lady stood directing traffic. Completely magical.

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Yanggakdo International Hotel

Back in our hotel that evening….whoa, before I go further, let me explain our hotel situation. The 1000 room Yanggakdo International Hotel stands 47 stories tall, making it one of the tallest buildings in the capital. Located on an island in the middle of the city and capped with two rotating restaurants, it’s impressive though empty. The lobby bar has an aquarium with a lonely sea turtle inside. It concerns me that the tank is barely big enough and I’m not sure how this full size sea turtle even turns around.  Our room was fine. That’s about all I remember. Interestingly, the elevators had some kinks and would often stop at random floors which were entirely dark and empty. Spooky
We were in fact the only guests in the hotel. 15 of us. 1000 rooms. The basement contained a bowling alley, a pool room, a sauna, a swimming pool, a barber shop, a casino and a massage club; it is questionable which of these were open.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was hanging out at the hotel lobby bar enjoying beers with my government minder. There are so many absurd details to mention about North Korea. A simple story is like a snowball rolling down a slope. Each of us had our own government minder who accompanied us throughout the trip.  I won’t lie, mine was great—laid back with little filter. He spoke his mind and seemed genuine, telling it how he saw it.  We swapped mp3 players each day. I was respectful, and as a result, he allowed me to take pictures of everything I wanted, which is a luxury here.

We enjoyed sharing pictures and chatting about the details of our everyday lives. The details seemed mundane but as we described them we both were fascinated at how completely different our lives were in every way. Beers at the hotel bar became a cherished evening ritual, chatting about life in North Korea and America.

Years later, another American, Otto Warmbier, visited the same hotel and took a poster off the wall which cost him years of imprisonment and tragically led to his death.

USS Pueblo – Captured USA Spy Ship

In 1968 North Korea attacked and captured a US Navy intelligence spy ship. One person died and 83 crew members were captured in international waters (US story) or North Korean territorial waters (North Korea’s version.)

The situation was a major event during the Cold War. The Pueblo is still held by North Korea today, and is moored in Pyongyang outside the Victorious War Museum. Interestingly enough, the Pueblo is the only ship of the U.S. Navy still on the commissioned roster currently being held captive.Why not stop by for a visit?  While visiting the nearby Victorious War Museam we added this to our itinerary.

The ship is casually moored on the riverbanks. Very cheery tour guides who clearly had their tour and speeches practiced and polished to perfection greeted us.  This is where things got a bit awkward for our guides. The tour was clearly intended for an audience of non-Americans and featured many mentions of the “the evil imperialist Americans” doing this and that. Each time we were referenced as “evil imperialists” I chuckled a bit. In turn, they futilely would turn red and smile. One of my favorite moments in North Korea came towards the end of the Pueblo tour while we were shown the guns at the aft of the ship. The tour guides were mentioning something the “evil American imperialists” had done again. I was at the gun and casually asked, “On behalf of America, could we have the boat back?” Silence. For a golden moment our guides weren’t sure how to react. Perhaps they saw my smirk. They erupted in laughter. Everyone joined in raucous laughter. The tour guides then abruptly stopped laughing and firmly responded, “No.”

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