The days around 15th April 2012 were busy to an unprecedented scale in Pyongyang. It’s hard to understate the importance of the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung in the country. There were due to be thousands of tourists in the country at this time (this is a country that only caters for ~1500 western tourists per year), as well as many domestic and foreign dignitaries. Air Koryo usually provide around three flights a week between Pyongyang and Beijing – however on the day of our flight, 12th April, there were no fewer than five flights from Beijing to Pyongyang on the state carrier. I counted three Air Koryo planes from one window at Beijing airport T2. An unusual occurance!
I have a slight fear of flying, which is not helped by the fact that the old Tupolev Tu-154 we boarded is specifically blacklisted from EU airspace on safety concerns. However, flying Air Koryo is a great introduction to the country and a chance to catch up with the news from some fairly hilarious English language publications such as The Pyongyang Times and Korea Today. The Pyongyang Times is an 8 page newspaper, the first 5 pages of which were entirely about Kim Jong Il.
Our 15-strong group congrigated at the airport and we were introduced to our guides for the first time – Mr Zhou and Miss Hoh (and Mr Lee the driver). Mr Zhou is an English speaking guide and he explained that due to the large amount of tourists in the country, Miss Hoh would be joining us despite usually being a Chinese speaking guide. She was however keen to practise her basic English with us!
Our change of itinerary to the Ryanggang Hotel was welcomed by myself, as i’ve stayed in the Yanggakdo quite a lot now and am always up for new experiences! The Ryanggang is in the sports district of Pyongyang (built in the late 80’s, around the time that the North Koreans were hoping to share the ’88 olympics with Seoul). It’s not a great hotel, with very hard beds, but as with everything in North Korea it’s best to take it with good humour. Later in the trip I stayed on the 10th floor with a large balcony facing towards the city which gave excellent sunset and nighttime views of the river, monolithic apartment blocks and some of the iconic city centre buildings.
We stayed at this hotel on three separate occasions during our two-week long trip. The most interesting part for me was seeing capitalism in action via the well-stocked bar on the ground floor! On our first night, a 640ml bottle of Ponghak beer was €0.40. By the second night this had increased to €0.50 and by our last short stay at this hotel the price was €0.70 for the same drink. A 75% increase in price in a matter of a week – now that’s inflation!! Such a process of guaging the value of a product through price, supply and demand might seem completely normal but it is striking in North Korea. This is a country which functions on an undercurrent of black market capitalism, yet officially claims to be a socialist paradise. With little access to up-to-date information from the outside world and relatively few visitors, the locals who work in the tourist industry probably do not have much concept of how much something like a bottle of beer is worth.
All media is under strict governement control in this country. All our hotels in North Korea had a TV, and so came our first chance to check out Korean Central Television, the state-run broadcaster. KCTV is a spectacle itself, and probably the most interesting and entertaining foreign TV channel i’ve watched, although not for the reasons you would normally tune into your favourite station! There are lots of rousing, nationalistic music videos and performances between various news reports about the leaders and announcements in a highly emotional and quite unique public speaking style. There is quite a lot of material on youtube (some with subtitles) if you are interested. The following new music video which praises Kim Jong Un was played many, many times while we were in the country: