Touring North Korea? An Interview With Author Robert Willoughby

Pyongyang, North Korea. (Photo: Gabriel Britto)Pyongyang, North Korea. (Photo: Gabriel Britto)

An interview with Robert Willoughby, author of North Korea, edition 3 (Bradt Guides; trade paper; $29.99).

Peter Handel: Your new edition of North Korea is one of the few books available (and the only one allowed into the country by the North Korean government) for people who are interested in traveling to this remarkably isolated country. How did you come to write the guide in the first place?

Robert Willoughby: I lived in Beijing in the very late 1990s and 2000, my last hurrah at living abroad as I’d done so in Moscow and Hanoi. I’d heard vague things about North Korea, but knew nothing about it except it was one of the extreme socialist states, small and self-isolated like Albania, totally inaccessible, so I thought, and all the more mysterious for it. One day at Beijing airport I saw Pyongyang as a destination on the flight board, and I realized not only could you go there, but you could do so by plane (that level of ignorance, to be honest!).

That took a hold in me and I became more and more fascinated by the place, then found Beijing was North Korea’s main portal to the world or the base for anyone who had any regular business with the country. A small community within a small world, and I ended up meeting a few of them, and learning more and more.

I visited on business and as a tourist, then returned to England, and found out Bradt wanted someone to do a guide book, so I said “me,” and spent six or seven months at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) researching the country and talking with the contacts I’d made in China, and on that basis wrote the guidebook. . . .

What changes have you been able to discern on subsequent visits since the death in 2011 of Kim Jong-il and the ensuing rule of his third son, Kim Jong-un?

Not much has massively changed from the Dear Leader to the Great Marshal, but there are tangible differences between when I was there in 2001, when the country was staggering out of the famine, and more recently I’ve been, where there’s a lot more economic activity going on.

At one end of the scale, when going through towns, you can see down alleys the distant awnings of markets and throngs heading in their direction, that originally sprang up – and kept the general population alive during the famine when the Public Distribution System collapsed in the 1990s – and have now become the begrudged (by the state) bedrock of the economy. You are not allowed to visit them (except in the Rason special economic zone, but that’s an exception), but you know they’re there.

At the other end, you see many new buildings going up in Pyongyang; nearly everyone’s got a mobile phone and tablets; there are many new cars (and evidently the fuel to drive them), more lights on and that stay on all night and evidence of consumerism. There’s a vibrancy and people are much more inclined also to catch your eye and smile. But this is all very relative – Pyongyang’s wealth is a world apart from the outlying cities, let alone the countryside, and as soon as you’re back in Beijing, or even see the Chinese border city of Dandong from the train on the North Korean side, you’re starkly reminded how poor in fact even Pyongyang is.

As we hear of Americans being held in detention and tourists in general under close supervision at all times, why would anyone really want to visit in the first place? Can visitors really manage to get a sense of the actual day-to-day lives of the citizens?

While we deplore how North Korea treats people, believers of Christianity included, missionary work is illegal. And while Americans are welcome and make up a good quarter of visitors, the US along with South Korea have not been at peace with North Korea since 1950, something the rest of the world forgets but is very much in the foreground of North Koreans’ minds.

It’s not so much that visitors are supervised; it’s that they’re not allowed to roam freely and are taken on well-trodden itineraries that (are possibly designed to) preclude visitors’ ability to get involved with ordinary people and their lives. But you’ve also got the linguistic barrier. Locals are as friendly as they can be, but they’ve got their own stuff to do. Being a tourist is a contrived state in any country, and you can’t expect people just to pour forth about their lives just because you’re foreign.

Overall, it’s an extraordinary place in an extraordinary time and situation; go see it and wonder what the worth is of the world seeking to isolate the place as much as it’s said that that is the strategy of the state, and present yourselves to the locals as people like they are. All very small beginnings, but worthwhile.

How hard was it to write a guidebook to a country where choices for lodging, food and recreation are so seemingly limited?

In the first instance, the lack of choice actually made the book easier to write – same as for tourists on group tours; once they’ve got past the panic over how not to offend anyone, they realize all they have to do is follow the guides, get on the bus and have a good time. That the country is infamous as an information black hole made for some interesting games of reference, cross-reference, inference and classification of data along lines of fact: probable, possible, unconfirmed, unverifiable and obvious rubbish, and that’s still true.

For the first edition, as I said, I researched at the school, SOAS, and there was a handful of people only to talk to, who’d refer me from one to the next. Now there are scores of observers, analysts, academics, NGO workers, human rights workers, charities and organizations, all readily contactable on Twitter, Facebook et al; handily available information, along with Google Earth as well as a score of travel companies with guides gleaning new information all the time; and innumerable blogs; and not least, numbers of defectors and refugees who’ve become settled outside North Korea and whose stories are now being told.

The amount of information available compared with what it was is quite staggering, but there again, there’s any-fold more that we don’t know, and the scope for total rubbish to be printed in the western press – from “rare glimpses” to half-cocked sensationalism to utterly uncorroborated rumors and lies planted by NK’s enemies – is as broad as ever. Specifically, re tourism though, the number of new destinations, restaurants and information about the nuanced changes on the ground now going on, partly as Kim Jong Un is promoting tourism, made the third edition much harder work in editing, and frustrating for the relative dynamism of the situation, but also more fun.

If you were to highlight five “attractions” in North Korea, what would they be?

The capital Pyongyang almost unavoidably is the centerpiece to nearly all tours, and it’s worth it for things to see and do, if only for the intensity of the monolithic, all-exclusive narrative of the Korean Workers’ Party and the Kims in images, architecture, even the city’s layout, and the vestiges of wealth and glitzy high-rise contrast starkly with the total decrepitude of the trams, for example.

Mount Paektu up on the Chinese border is stunning, if you go in autumn it’s so cool, beautiful and remote, and you see something of how basic rural life is for people, yet the area’s also absolutely integral to the history and mindset of Kim Il Sung. Along the East Coast, you’ve got the industrial port city of Chongjin, with its population about a third of Pyongyang’s, and it’s fascinating not least as it’s only now beginning to open up; again, contrast the new Chinese investments amid age-old rusting Soviet-era stuff and poverty. It’s also near to the glories of the Chilbo mountains, and as much can be said of Wonsan port city and Kumgang mountains farther south along the coast. Pyongsong is a trader town, a wholesale market center that kind of stands out as what’s been achieved regarding building a critical mass of market trading of all goods at all levels – although that’s not the official story – and is just 40 minutes’ drive outside Pyongyang, and, in summer, there’s a tangible verve in the air.

What would be the top five do’s and don’ts for visitors touring the country?

Don’t bring a Bible. Don’t mock the Kims or deface any images of them. Do not take photos of military subjects. Get along with your co-travelers on these intense, once-in-a-lifetime trips, and don’t see your guides as chaperones or minders, but facilitators (seeking to antagonize them, as with anyone, will be counter-productive). If you go along with their requests, they’ll open up and tell you a lot about the country and their lives, albeit perspectives likely colored by the position of some privilege being a guide in North Korea is, for the trust and benefits it comes with. But always with North Korea, you have to qualify or justify everything that anywhere else is obvious or taken as par for the course. More than anything, keep an open mind.

What are the primary misconceptions the West has about North Korea?

What seems to freak some people out about the place is how many more vestiges of normality there are, including the locals. Try and see them for who they are.

For reasons of internal governance, poor resources and international sanctions, it is a markedly poor country, and that is obvious – if what you’re being shown is the best there is, it is frayed.

There’s a lot that’s extraordinary about the country and how it’s run, and there’s a lot that’s pretty terrible, the worst aspects in terms of poverty or camps you wouldn’t see, but you don’t see these things on any tour anywhere.

I read a blog piece by a guy who’d spent four or five days there and detailed how he’d felt at one point like he was having some kind of almighty existential crisis simply because when some children looked at him and smiled, he really couldn’t tell if they were doing so genuinely, or were actors in this massive show put on solely to impress him.

Recently the Daily Mail, a newspaper in England, published a feature by a photographer from Singapore who visited North Korea – on a tour – and came back surprised he didn’t witness any of the popular perceptions the Western media portrays about life in the country, such as starving populace and ultra-control of the citizens. Your take on his experiences?

It’s somewhat self-explanatory in that no tour of anywhere would show visitors starving people. There is still a major problem of food shortages and malnutrition in parts of the country that tourists aren’t taken near to. But as I said, you see where the markets are, if for the most part, you don’t go to them. It’s more to do with the imagery that westerners are normally presented with, a population of automatons forever engaged in military march-pasts in Pyongyang, rocket launches, Kim Jong Un looking at something, twirling female traffic wardens on empty roads (not because there’s no traffic, but because outsiders fetish about them), or reprinting some floridly-written threat to the world from the official North Korean press. Then you go there, and you see people just trying to get by, kids playing in the streets, teenagers on mobile phones, women doing backbreaking work pushing handcarts of boulders along roadworks – and this blows people’s minds.