By Leslie Jones
When Kim Jong-il died in December, footage of North Koreans weeping en masse flooded the news around the globe. Millions watched the spectacle on YouTube. Images of Koreans falling to the ground in anguish garnered bemusement and skepticism. Media reports implied something sinister was afoot: “North Korean mourners, crying to survive?” read a CNN headline; BBC coverage emphasized that the mourning was “publicly orchestrated.”
Because of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s isolated status (for the record, they don’t like to be called North Korea, they consider it divisive), it’s tempting to imagine it as a sort of comic-strip dystopia where brainwashed automatons are forced to shed tears on command. But that’s exactly the kind of distorted picture that Koryo Tours attempts to dispel on the guided trips it coordinates to the DPRK. Sure, the government is deplorable, but it’s possible to find common ground with regular people on a visit.
Tour leader Amanda Carr was on one of the first group trips to visit after Kim’s death. Every winter, the DPRK takes a month off from tourism – when the weather is extremely cold and local tour guides return to the classroom for continuing education – so Carr’s group entered on Jan 21. The official mourning period was to end two days later on Jan 23 (lunar new year), local guides said.
Public mourning areas with portraits of Kim were still set up for people to lay flowers and reflect. Korean guides told the group that it was said that on the night of the death, Kim’s son and heir apparent Kim Jong Un traveled around Pyongyang setting up the mourning sites – though whether that was to be taken literally or was simply a metaphor for the whole country united by grief was unclear.
“The atmosphere was quite somber,” Carr, who has been making trip to the DPRK for two years, says. “People were at these sites just sort of privately, inwardly mourning.”
As the tour pressed on, there were times when the local guides would get teary-eyed, one might need a minute to compose himself before continuing to speak about the late Kim.
“To me and everyone else in the group it seemed completely genuine.” Carr says.
Another thing to remember is that nothing very spontaneous happens in the DPRK. Life is highly organized. It’s typical for people to make trips with their work units, so it follows that groups would arrange to go out and mourn together.
“I think this tour helped people in the group see how powerful the leadership is. There’s just no question that people hold them in high regard. It’s not a joke.” Carr says.
Hope for the future
Despite the un-mystery of the mourners, there’s still plenty of oddity on offer that makes the DPRK a travel destination unlike any other [I traveled there last September]. There’s no visible consumer culture, no ads anywhere, the nicest apartments in Pyongyang are described as having “24-hour water supply” and cars are scarce – rush hour means a surge of bicycles and foot traffic. One of the first things you’re told upon arrival is never crumple a newspaper, lest you wrinkle the picture of a Kim.
But then all those details have been hashed out in countless travel articles. What many in my group (and many others who travel with Koryo) found most memorable were the little conversations we had with our guides and the brief, friendly encounters with people we happened to meet.
An elevator operator linked arms with an older women in our tour when we reached the observation deck of Juche Tower and gushed about how she reminded her of her mother. On the bus ride from the DMZ, we listened while our guide explained how he felt about the six-party talks and his hope for future economic collaboration with South Korea. Outside the home where Kim Il Sung was born, our other guide talked about how much her children begged to go to the zoo on a recent holiday.
Whether visiting during times of sorrow or celebration (April 15 will mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday), it’s moments like these that highlight the fact people in the DPRK are just that, people. Sinister headlines just don’t read the same once you’ve been inside.
Leslie Jones is deputy editor at That’s Shanghai. You can follow her on Twitter here.