No Korea for a photographer

No Korea for a photographer.

The travel bug got to me again recently and I found myself on a plane to China. It’s one of those places that I really wanted to visit; see the Great Wall, take a look at that Bird’s Nest stadium that served as the focal point of the last Olympic Games and to stand in Tiananmen Square where back in 1989 possibly the most iconic protest was ever staged. Then, a lone protester carrying his shopping stood in front of advancing tanks and stopped their progress. That image has never left me, or the results of that action, which made China a very scary and oppressive place to live but, as an outsider, I still wanted to see the spot where this unbelievably selfless act took place. However, these days’ things in China are changing little by little, opening up and letting foreigners and locals mix, exchanging thoughts and ideas… but only to a certain extent.

I’ve recently visited Cuba and was impressed by the people, who had nothing but still had an unbelievably Latin spirit of making the most of things…even if the county’s leaders still seem a little paranoid and I thought that China would be much the same. It isn’t. China is a very wealthy country and even has the obligatory McDonalds in the capital but despite the chilly weather, the people themselves were anything but.

However, I was given the opportunity to visit another ‘closed’ country, and, as it was on my list of ‘must see’ places, jumped at the chance of a trip into North Korea.

A flight from the Chinese capital Beijing to the North Korean capital Pyongyang had me all excited about just what to expect. With the thoughts of my Cuban visit still whizzing around my head I was expecting much the same but, in a display to show how open the place is, we had to hand our Iphones in at the Immigration Department, to be collected on our way out. All our trips were pre-organised and it was very difficult to get any deviation from any planned visit. We didn’t meet a single ‘local’ – they were around and ‘working’ but the feeling that everything was prearranged and totally for our benefit was all pervasive. The excursions were in government vehicles, with government guides who were well versed in the ‘brilliant’ attainments of their glorious… past, present and future leaders. They seemed unbelievably proud of their vast monuments to the struggle the country has been through but the sad fact is that those monuments are the only visible sign of anything achieved in this dismal country. The hotel I stayed in was vast but had few other occupants. Even to my rather unsophisticated taste-buds the food was boring… and I spent a fortune at their local ‘super-store’ buying some produce. There was nothing there except jam, which cost a loads but I was desperate to spread some on toast as a change from the noodles that seemed to be the only constituent of every meal. I also paid approximately $25 for what I thought was yoghurt but tasted like goat’s sperm… and I normally only pay $4 for that (I joke - you are short of laughs in this country). When the guides were asked to change the itinerary, even in a minor way, it was almost impossible. I asked about taking photographs, even of people working out in the fields but it was suggested that I shouldn’t and when asked “Why not” was told that the person 100 yards away in a field who probably didn’t know of my existence “… might not like it.” I felt somewhat cheated as I like to meet the locals. I continued to be frustrated, like when questioned our guide about taking photos said there were absolutely no restrictions… yet there patently were. Even the soldiers turned their backs and hunched over hiding from my inquisitive but not imposing lens.

The North Koreans have in their constitution no laws against homosexuality but they also have nothing for gay people. It’s not that it doesn’t exist but it isn’t acknowledged so gay people grow up with their feelings but have to subjugate it and marry someone of the opposite sex. Here’s what the official North Korean site says: 

"Due to tradition in Korean culture, it is not customary for individuals of any sexual orientation to engage in public displays of affection. As a country that has embraced science and rationalism, the DPRK recognizes that many individuals are born with homosexuality as a genetic trait and treats them with due respect. 
Homosexuals in the DPRK have never been subject to repression, as in many capitalist regimes around the world. However, North Koreans also place a lot of emphasis on social harmony and morals. Therefore, the DPRK rejects many characteristics of the popular gay culture in the West, which many perceive to embrace consumerism, classism and promiscuity." 

North Korea, officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, appears to be like many other countries that have democracy in their title… the least democratic places around. We weren’t allowed to meet or even see past the organised itinerary of events, mausoleums, statues and tributes to the ‘great’ beneficent leader that was, is and always will be Kim Il-sung, who after his death, was declared to be the country's Eternal President. The North Koreans don’t have an organised religion but an ethos that is called Juche, which teaches that "man is the master of everything and decides everything". Alas, it would appear that a man is master of everything and decides everything. Also, I never got to chat to anyone to find a different voice either offering approval or denial of this claim.

It was very strange returning to China. For all my misgivings about China and the oppression and secrecy I thought I’d find there it was like the most open society in the world compared to where I’d just been. I’m not sure if I’ll ever return, or even be allowed to, although I must say I’d missed the huge annual spectacular and colourful gymnastic display, an event that features thousands upon thousands of people. 

Since my return I’ve spoken to a few people about my experiences and I’ve read about others who have visited this strange country. This year’s I’m A Celebrity – Get Me Out Of Here contestant, and all round funny man, Dom Joly has written a huge amount about his experiences and I urge you to read what he says about the country… it is funny and very insightful