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On the tourist trail in North Korea


Holidays Under the Son

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un appears to staking his country’s economic future on mass tourism.   Marcel Theroux tries to make sense of his plans.


Tired of the Swiss Alps?  Bored with the impeccable powder snow of the Rocky Mountains?  Perhaps it’s time to consider skiing somewhere further afield this year — like North Korea.

A three hour drive from Pyongyang, Masikryong Ski Resort is the country’s first effort  to put itself on the map as an international skiing destination.  It boasts over 10 kilometres of runs, an ice rink, an Austrian-made chairlift that was imported in defiance of international sanctions, an Olympic-sized pool, saunas, bars, and a gymnasium, all of which, when I went there, stood completely empty.

Although the first snow of the season was yet to fall, our North Korean minders were clearly keen for us to bear witness to the country’s most luxurious hotel and its attached world-class skiing facilities.

“It was our Great Leader’s idea, Comrade Marshal Kim Jong Un,” explained our head minder, the charming but enigmatic Mr Ri, using the unavoidable circumlocutions without which no member of the Kim dynasty can ever be mentioned.

Comrade Marshal Kim Jong Un, of course, went to boarding school in Switzerland.  Was that where he got the idea?   “I’m not aware of that,” said Mr Ri.   In spite of his fluent English — refined during many trips outside North Korea — Mr Ri must have known better than to admit to any unofficial knowledge of the Comrade Marshal’s private life.

This was prudent.  One unspoken fact that hovers over Maskikryong’s après-ski activities is  that during the first six years of his rule, Kim Jong Un ordered the executions of at least 340 people.  The accusations against the condemned have included applauding with insufficient enthusiasm and falling asleep in meetings.

Mr Ri took us up in a gleaming elevator for a tour of the beautiful rooms that we wouldn’t be staying in.  In fact, no one was staying in them.

The only economic activity taking place in the Masikryong Hotel at all was down in its basement.  There, in a tiny subterranean hairdressing salon, a young woman cut my hair according to one of twelve approved styles  shown in a poster on the wall.   The cuts had evocative names like “Traditional Fan”, “Goose”, “Cloud”, “Firework” and “Wave,” but were largely indistinguishable, all being minor variants of a classic short back and sides.   The young woman, who wouldn’t give her name, worked in silence with a pair of very blunt scissors.  While my hair was being cut in “Swelling” style, I tried to ascertain from one of the other minders, Mr Kim, whether the styles were suggested or obligatory.  “These are the most popular styles,” said Mr Kim.  So what would happen if you had something else?  “No one would have anything else, because other styles are not popular,” said Mr Kim, with a frustrating circularity.   Given the likelihood of being stopped by police or enthusiastic members of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, it’s not surprising that other hairstyles are not popular.   In a similar spirit, despite having 10 different runs of varying degrees of difficulty, Masikryong offers nothing for off-piste skiers.

One of the proud boasts about Masikryong is that it was completed at Stakhanovite speed in an astonishing 10 months.   While it may be working someway short of full capacity, the resort is tangible evidence of something that no one would have believed even a few years ago:  North Korea is keen to encourage foreign visitors.

In the last twelve months, there have been extraordinary and unforeseeable developments in North Korea.  I was travelling there in the only way possible:  on the steel rails of a guided tour, accompanied at all times by minders.   And yet, it was clear from the moment we set foot in North Korean territory that big changes are underway.  At Pyongyang’s Kim Jong Il International Airport, I was able to buy a special SIM card (albeit for close to $300)  for my mobile phone that enabled me to call abroad and enjoy fast and untrammelled access to the internet.   In a country whose 24 million citizens have been fed an official diet of heavily controlled information for the last 70 years, this felt like a heavy responsibility.   Some of North Korea’s 120,000 or so political prisoners are in re-education camps for things as trivial as watching South Korean soap opera.

The checks on what we were bringing into the country were strict but inconsistent.  I managed to take in the excellent Bradt guide to North Korea.  The man ahead of me had his copy impounded.  I certainly wouldn’t push my luck with anything more controversial.  It was my first time visiting Pyongyang, but our tour group included some old North Korea hands.  They were amazed by its transformation.  The anti-American propaganda posters that were a feature of the North Korean capital have been supplanted by ones calling for economic development.   Once notorious for its power-cuts and the profound darkness of its nights, Pyongyang was colourful, well-lit, and eerily resembled the Soviet Union of the mid 1980s.

Over the course of the week, we spent close to 14 hours a day in the company of our minders, Mr Ri, Mr Kim, and Mr Yu, the junior minder, who killed a lot of time playing a version of candy crush on his North Korean smartphone.  As we drove from showpiece to another — exemplary farms, exemplary factories, performances by precociously gifted children — we did catch little cracks opening in the North Korean façade.  There’s no hiding the backwardness of the North Korean countryside, the oxen that are being used to plough, the people bent double in the fields, or the skinny-looking soldiers washing their uniforms in the river.   “They are fishing,” insisted Mr Ri, against all the evidence of his eyes.   Mr Ri deflected all remotely controversial questions with the dogged unflappability of an opening Test batsman.   When one of our group asked him what an average farmer’s salary was, Mr Ri said, “We can ask at the collective farm.  I will ask.”  And then added with a dark satisfaction: “—and I am sure they will not answer.”

To me, North Korea is worth visiting simply for the feeling it gives of achieving something like time travel.   I never thought I would ever get another chance to experience the strangeness of the USSR.  Yet here, in this little East Asian rockpool, we found all the propaganda posters, the uniforms, the talk of building socialism and the leading role of the party that I thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Of course, to become a mass tourism destination, North Korea will have to appeal beyond the narrow circle of those who feel nostalgic towards 20th century communism.   The intended jewel of the project is at Wonsan, on the east coast.   Here, close to his childhood home, and where North Korean rockets have been test-fired from the beach, Kim Jong Un intends to build a vast beach resort.  I could see the outlines of its hotels in the distance:  ziggurats of brutalist looking buildings, being erected, no doubt, by the vast pool of free labour that is otherwise known as the North Korean army.  But we were not allowed to get close.  Mr Kim apologized for the strictness of our schedule.   At that moment, I thought  he actually meant it:  he seemed to imply that it would take a while for his country to come into line with practice elsewhere and he was sorry about that.   But I wonder if it ever will and I wonder if he really is.  All North Korean minders belong to that elite to whom Kim Jong Un’s rule has delivered a degree of prosperity.   He needs foreign investment for their standards of living to keep rising — to build more pizza restaurants like Heun Italian Food in Pyongyang, where the waitresses performed patriotic songs while we ate excellent pizza made with North Korean mozzarella.    But it seems hard to imagine that he would ever risk a real opening and the torrent of information from South Korea that will expose so much of what the government has told its citizens as lies.   Any real change will be truly dangerous for Kim Jong Un and many of his subjects.  A single image from one of our interminable long drives through the countryside has stayed with me:  soldiers in the back of an open truck packed so tightly they had to stand.  All of them were wearing gas masks to protect themselves from the fumes of the exhaust.   They looked sinister and warlike, but they were just trying to breathe.

On the last night, we spent the evening, as we had every previous evening, with our minders, eating, chatting, trying to probe, without success, the depth of their commitment to the regime.   The meal over, we all piled into the hotel’s karaoke room.  Our driver, also a Mr Kim, sang a propaganda song.  Mr Ri sang an unforgettable rendition of “Barbie Girl.”  I sang “Suspicious Minds” as I thought it summed up the state of political relations between our countries, and also because it’s easy.   Fortified by a lot beer and shoju, North Korea’s equivalent to vodka, Mr Ri decided he and I should do a duet.  I felt drunk and well-disposed towards him, but the firmness of Mr Ri’s grip on my shoulder as he marched me towards the microphone made it feel like he was taking me into custody.

A version of this article first appeared in the Sunday Times on November 11th 2018