A train rattles along the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge on its way to North Korea. A wide blue-green stripe runs the length of the white carriage, punctuated by the North Korean coat of arms.
Commuters waiting for the train at Sinuiji, the first stop in the pariah state, will soon get a closer look at the emblem. They will immediately see the five-pointed red star – a communist symbol from the Russian Civil war, each point representing one finger of the worker’s hand. Beneath the star’s scarlet rays sits Mount Paektu, an active volcano rising nearly 3000 metres above the Chinese-North Korean border. In Korean mythology, the mountain is the birthplace of Dangun, who founded the first Korean kingdom. At the centre of the coat of arms, lies a hydroelectric plant. It is usually identified as Sup’ung dam, a power station built by the Japanese along the Yalu River between China and North Korea. At every turn, North Korea struggles to claim more than partial ownership over the symbols of its own existence.
The train’s paint is glossy and thick; from afar it has the appearance of an oversized miniature model. The knitted curtains are drawn back to reveal curious faces. As they coast past an industrial area, the passengers glimpse a man straining under a load of scrap metal. Inside the train, several tourists murmur conspiratorially. There is a disapproving tsk tsk and a few pitying headshakes. Alex Apollonov and Aleksa Vulević watch the other tourists with bemused frowns. Their train keeps moving and the burdened worker recedes into the distance.
Several months before their trip, the two Sydney University students had seen viral articles claiming there existed a restricted menu of thirty approved haircuts in North Korea. A brief internet search showed this story first appeared in 2013 and had resurfaced every year since. Sometimes there was one permitted haircut, sometimes 15, sometimes 28. The articles always relied on “unnamed sources”. Cynical and adventurous, the two students decided to test the reports first-hand.
It’s well known that North Korea only affords visas to tourists on approved tours. Several companies compete for English-speaking customers. Their websites offer readers a breadcrumb trail of words like “intrepid” and “pioneering” and “audacious” all the way to the point of purchase. The tours provide a source of stable foreign currency to a regime that desperately needs it.
Alex and Aleksa had chosen one of the cheaper options and travelled to Dandong, a Chinese city separated from North Korea by the Yalu River. In Mandarin, Yalu means “duck-green”, although the water better resembles mud-brown. Some areas are shallow enough that it’s possible to wade across to the other side. Unsurprisingly, most people cross at the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge instead.
Along Dandong’s harbour, Chinese vendors sell trinkets that tourists are forbidden from buying across the border. Aluminium coins, pressed notes, and patriotic badges each bear a face from the patriarchal line of leadership: Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, or Kim Jong-un. North Korea watches from across the water as its reclusive reputation is flogged as novelty for profit. There’s little to begrudge; the same reputation props up its own tourism industry.
Each night, Dandong lights up with thousands of incandescent yellow dots and neon advertisements. Across the river, Sinuiju sleeps in darkness. Looking down the bridge to North Korea gives the impression of staring into an abyss. Aleksa calls it the “bridge to nothing”.
The train stops in Sinuiju long enough for passengers to buy snacks. Ladies patrol the platform carrying baskets of bottled beer and scaled fish. Foreigners are not allowed North Korean won so Aleksa hands across 10 Chinese yuan – around two Australian dollars – for an entire smoked mullet. It tastes like pungent beef jerky.
The Australians arrive in the capital, Pyongyang, and meet their group’s guide: a stern North Korean woman in her mid-forties. Many of the chaperons have relatives in the upper echelons of government. They are future diplomats and leaders, corralling foreign tourists before they deal with foreign politicians.
The guide addresses the assembled tour group. She has never left the country but her English is flawless. The tourists glance around the concrete station, hungry for some tell-tale North Korean idiosyncrasies. “The North Korean people’s greatest dream is to be unified with South Korea again. Can you tell me the dreams of your countries?”
The only American on the tour, a 50-year-old pilot named Bill, calls out first: “Americans dream of world domination!” Everyone laughs.
Yanggakdo Hotel provides accommodation to nearly every Western tourist who visits Pyongyang. The hotel sits on Yanggak Island, surrounded by the Taedong River, which flows through the city.
The hotel’s rooms are unremarkable. Two single beds are separated by a black box that might pass for a bedside table if its face wasn’t decorated with indecipherable dull yellow buttons and grey knobs. Opposite the beds is a television. The first channel offers Al-Jazeera’s 24-hour news, the second shows a frantic choir accompanying a military parade, and the third is a nature documentary where a thick-legged spider subdues an insect to the beat of Darude’s electronic dance hit “Sandstorm”.
Rumours of bugged rooms had inevitably spread among the tourists. Although Alex and Aleksa were sceptical, they spend several hours speaking in gibberish, revelling in the image of a North Korean officer desperately trying to decipher their coded messages.
In the morning, the pair wake to the sound of ringing. Their black box apparently functions as a phone. When they lift a blocky receiver, the deadpan voice at the other end tells them, “Your time is up”. They had received their first North Korean wake-up call.
On the way down, the elevator prematurely grumbles to a halt and the doors begin to open. They reveal a dark corridor. A shadow emerges from the gloom and a male tour guide enters the elevator and stiffly acknowledges his wide-eyed company. There’s a moment of bewilderment before the guests realise that this floor, occupied by tour guides alone, has not been afforded the extravagance of electricity. As the elevator doors close, the guide stands like a disgraced magician who has inadvertently revealed his trick. His eyes slide down and find a spot on the floor to bear his self-conscious gaze. Some of the tourists snicker. Later, over several beers, they’ll openly laugh at the charade’s undoing.
Soon Alex and Aleksa’s tour bus arrives at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. Since Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent renovating the site. Its main attraction is the elder Kim, whose body is kept preserved in the same manner as other communist leaders like Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Ho Chi Minh. Aleksa has come down with a cold and sniffles continuously as he observes the small man’s corpse. His watery eyes are put to shame by the sobbing of several North Korean visitors. Another part of the mausoleum is dedicated to the Korean war, and contains a life-sized diorama of dead American soldiers in the style of Madame Tussaud. Speakers play the sound of crows cawing.
That night, dinner is served in the rotating restaurant atop Yanggakdo Hotel. Six kilometres away, a triangular building rises sharply like an arrow tip above the rest of the city. It is Ryugyong Hotel, the tallest unoccupied building in the world. If it were operational, its 105-stories could provide accommodation for more international visitors than the city is likely to receive anytime soon.
Tonight, a lively Yanggakdo makes up for its lonely sister. In one of the hotel’s karaoke rooms, drunken lips stumble around lyrics. The Korean tradition is alive and well in Pyongyang. Surprisingly good craft beer fills glasses and loosens tongues. Guests buoyed by whisky courage compete to see who can laugh loudest at the expense of the North Koreans and their leaders. The hotel workers pretend not to notice. Alex and Aleksa mouth Korean lyrics into their microphones and receive excited praise from the guides. One crowd favourite is Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”. Alex belts out the hook and the bizarreness of this hermit country momentarily fades.
Wake me up before you go-go
Cause I’m not plannin’ on going solo
On their last day in Pyongyang, the two Australians get the haircut they came for. Aleksa sits down in his red Ribena shirt and shows the hairdresser a photo of the 16th “hipster hairstyle” on a Men’s Fitness listicle. The model has a low fade on the sides and a slicked back pompadour on top. The request causes no commotion. No pre-approved haircut menu is thrust into his hands. The lady begins to wash Aleksa’s longer-than-shoulder-length hair. The hipster cut eventually emerges. Either the rumours are false or North Koreans are more willing to accommodate tourists than we’ve been made to think. The seat reclines entirely flat and Aleksa is treated to a shave with a cut-throat razor.
The pair’s final stop is Munsu Water Park in the east of Pyongyang. Electric blues and pop-art reds spiral giddily in every direction, pipes twirling into funnels of orange and yellow and pink and green. The water is a crisp chlorine-smelling turquoise. A statue of Kim Jong-il stands in the shallows wearing a military jacket and board shorts. The park luxuriates like a rainbow paradise in an oasis of sand-coloured apartment blocks. The two Australians tower over the locals waiting in line. The crowd parts and a handful of North Koreans yell at each other to let the foreigners through. As they are ushered through, Alex realises that the red pavement isn’t warm from the sun, but from expensive underground heating.
Over the course of a few hours, the two students receive various cuts and scrapes from the slightly misaligned pipes. Alex remarks that “the slides were not built for tall white people”.
In fact, that is precisely who the slides were built for. They are another colourful and transparent attempt to counteract the prevalent and largely correct Western view of an undeveloped, impoverished North Korea.
Back in Australia, Alex and Aleksa appear on Channel 7’s Sunrise. They’re being interviewed about The Haircut, a 20-minute documentary the pair made using footage they took in North Korea. The title alludes to the The Interview, a 2014 comedy where Seth Rogan and James Franco’s characters assassinate Kim Jong-un. The documentary mocks media stories that sensationalise life in North Korea and has received over 75,000 views on YouTube.
Sunrise hosts Monique Wright and Andrew O’Keefe, their foreheads shiny under the lights, jump when Aleksa says North Korea wasn’t as bad as people assume. The presenters are almost unintelligible as their voices scramble over each other: “But didn’t you get a sanitised view?”
Alex and Aleksa are aware of the orchestrated nature of their experience. Aleksa equates it to the way that tourists usually only visit the best a given country has to offer. But North Korea is unique in only offering that part of itself.
Few could argue that Western mainstream media have ignored the plight of North Korean citizens. The towns that languish outside Pyongyang are well-worn territory for the Western gaze. But that’s not why most tourists go to the reclusive nation. The currency of interest is now pinned to the regime’s eccentricity: mandated haircuts, bugged rooms, fake corn. Each tour group is either starting a pity party or looking for a freak-show. And every North Korean guide knows this. It is little wonder that, once those guides are promoted to positions of power, they double down on demonstrating North Korea’s strength with military parades, or its supposed wealth with unnecessarily heated water parks.
When those actions are then reported in sensationalist terms, it often reinforces the stereotype that North Koreans are “obedient robots” who are “too stupid to realize [the] government is bad” – to use the words of North Korean defector, Kim Joo-il, in an article for Dazed.
Those flimsy clichés have tangible consequences. There was little protest when Australia cancelled its humanitarian aid program to North Korea in 2002 or when the United States followed suit in 2008. The United Nations programs in the country, which depend on government donations, consistently fall short of even modest funding goals. This is despite half of the population living in extreme poverty and, according to the World Food Program, one third of children suffering stunted growth from malnutrition.
Nuclear posturing and brainwashed stereotypes have eroded worldwide empathy for the plight of ordinary North Koreans. Western media can do very little about the regime’s atomic threats, but all journalists have the capacity to reverse the dehumanising narrative surrounding the North Korean people.
As the Sunrise interview draws to a close, a graphic fills the screen. Someone has been paid to Photoshop Kim Jong-un’s infamous hairstyle onto two television personalities. Monique and Andrew laugh. Alex and Aleksa smile rigidly for the cameras. The ridicule machine rolls on.