A trip like no other

North Korea is unique in many ways — not just in its political system and ideological determination, but also in the striking atmosphere that permeates its centrally planned capital of Pyongyang and the much less developed countryside. While the primary reason we travel to the DPRK is to support the emerging business community and its budding entrepreneurs, Choson Exchange programs are also an opportunity to get a rare impression of the country while interacting with locals in ways that are impossible for tourists. Here are some of the highlights that volunteers get to experience when traveling to North Korea with Choson Exchange.

 
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Taedong Riverside Walk

Walking or jogging along the Taedong river is often one of the most pleasant and reflective experiences for our workshop leaders. It is a chance to enjoy the early Pyongyang morning calm on our own, to observe locals playing badminton or cards, and go fishing or doing morning exercises before the citywide loudspeakers crank up the motivational music and propaganda broadcasts while people rush to work.

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Mirae Scientists Street

Mirae (Future) Scientists street is a newly developed area in the capital city that gives a glimpse of the ‘new North Korea’: Lots of neon, modern Koryo-style architecture, and even a wood-fired pizza restaurant serving kimchi pizza and other fusion food. The six-lane street recently opened amidst great fanfare, with the stated aim of accommodating Kim Chaek University of Technology and its employees. You’ll be impressed!

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Pyongyang Circus

Impressive acrobatics, magic acts with a retro flavor, and political slapstick tailored for a local audience make the Pyongyang Circus a unique opportunity to see how the DPRK government entertains its citizens. The circus is extremely popular among North Koreans in Pyongyang and features an in-house orchestra performing the musical accompaniment live. The building was the venue for much of the 2012 romantic comedy, Comrade Kim Goes Flying.

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Sci-Tech Complex

The Sci-Tech Complex is a new development on an island down the river from Pyongyang, and, like Mirae Scientists Street, a symbol of North Korea’s strident ambitions. Shaped like an atom when viewed from above, it has floors and floors of interactive science fun for visiting school children (and curious Choson Exchange volunteers), but also boasts a comprehensive e-library for scientific works.  Oh, and it’s got an enormous faux rocket as the centrepiece in the library. Of course it has.

 
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Tower of Juche Idea

Juche is an ancient Korean concept that was developed into an entire ideology by the DPRK’s founder and the present leader’s grandfather Kim Il Sung. The term roughly translates to ‘self-reliance’, but for those with an interest in philosophy has distinct Hegelian overtones of the ability of man to master his own environment. Built on the occasion of President Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday, and containing one block for every day of his life, this is the tallest stone tower in the world. Take a ride in the elevator up to the top floor of the tower just under the enormous eternal flickering red torch to take in an unrivalled open air view over the city and beyond!

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Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

From a gruesome reconstructed battle field to a rotating 360 degree painting that shows North Korean military feats complete with light and sound effects, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is a showcase of the DPRK view of the Korean War. It’s one of the fanciest buildings in Pyongyang and has more photos and war artefacts than anyone could view in a single day, so we usually pick out the highlights and leave the rest for another time. Next to the museum, visitors can board the USS Pueblo, a US Navy ship that was captured by North Korean forces when it entered DPRK waters in 1968.

 
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Mansudae Art Studio

Over the past decades, the hand-picked artists at Mansudae Art Studio have been contracted around the world to create anything from statues of Central Asian strongmen to a replica Art Nouveau water fountain in Germany. The expansive campus houses hundreds of craftsmen and women who plug away in little studios where they make everything from socialist paintings to intricate ceramics. Visiting them is also a great opportunity to get an impression of where the countless statues, murals, and paintings of North Korea’s leaders are being produced.

 
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Pyongyang Metro

Reportedly the deepest subway system in the world, the Pyongyang subway serves two purposes -- to move busy commuters around town, and to act as an air raid shelter. Most subway cars were imported from East Berlin, but these are gradually being phased out by sleek new North Korean assembled trains.  Each of the stations is themed according to a different revolutionary socialist goal, with inspirational names like Glory, Paradise, Reunification and others. The most elaborate are adorned with chandeliers, mosaics, gold statues and uplifting music, all under the ever-watchful eye of the President Kim Il Sung.

 
 

Kim Il Sung square

When thousands of North Koreans march against “U.S. imperialism” or dance in unison for their leaders, they often do it on Kim Il Sung Square.  The largest in the city,  and one of the biggest public squares in the world, it is less than a kilometer from the hotel we usually stay- and right in front of the Grand People’s Study Hall where Choson Exchange volunteers give their workshops. We often walk across the square during lunch breaks on our way to a local coffee shop, and drop in on a nearby bookstore selling foreign language publications. Kim Il Sung Square is also a great place to watch Korean kids on roller skates or fool around while waiting to visit one of the nearby museums during school outings.

 
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Mangyongdae

Mangyongdae Native House is the birthplace of President Kim Il Sung and has huge significance for North Koreans. Perched on a hill just outside Pyongyang, it enjoys a grand vista of the city and surrounding countryside.  School children, students, professionals, and workers from around the country are expected to visit regularly to show their respect. For us, it’s an interesting opportunity to say hello to friendly locals who are often excited to interact with foreign visitors.

Party Foundation Monument

Post-war Pyongyang is a testament to the powerful political statements that can be made with mere concrete. The Monument to the Party Foundation features the familiar hammer and sickle, but with the added twist of the calligraphy brush to symbolize the contribution of the intellectuals to the workers and farmers. Standing 50 metres high, the structure commemorates the 50-year anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea.

Arch of Triumph

The enormous Arch of Triumph bears a distinct resemblance to a rather similar arch in Paris, although the Koreans are at pains to point out that their one is bigger. The Pyongyang version was built in 1982 in honour of Kim Il Sung’s resistance to the Japanese occupation. We have recently been granted access to take Choson Exchange volunteers up to the top level of the arch, offering an amazing viewpoint of the nearby football stadium and residential areas, a vista that was previously off-limits to foreign visitors.

 
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Mansudae Grand Monument

After Pyongyang was all but levelled in the Korean war (the U.S. and its allies dropped more than one bomb per capita of Pyongyang’s population at the time), it was reportedly rebuilt to the exact wishes of the President, Kim Il Sung. After his death, a 22-metre bronze statue of him was erected on Mansu Hill, as well as a second statue of his son some years later.  From the square in front of the statues, visitors can look across the city to the monument to the Worker’s Party of Korea, a striking view that reveals the symmetry and centrally planned layout of Pyongyang. While power cuts are a fact of life in the DPRK, the lights never go out on these statues which can be seen from far and wide across the capital.

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Town of Pyongsong

About 30 kilometers north of Pyongyang lies the bustling market town of Pyongsong, home to one of the DPRK’s Special Economic Zones, as well as a number of academic institutions that are part of the State Academy of Sciences. When there is time, we can arrange a tour of the campus and local neighborhood -- a great opportunity to get an impression of how North Korea’s scientists are working on anything from nano-coatings to commercial software. The journey to Pyongsong is itself eye-opening: As a planned city, Pyongyang has no suburbs or urban sprawl, and instead immediately gives way to farmland, simple villages and ox-drawn carts.

 
 

Kim Jong Suk Silk Mill

Named in honour of Kim Jong Suk, President Kim Il Sung’s wife and grandmother to the incumbent leader Kim Jong Un, a visit to the Silk Mill is an unforgettable experience: row after row of enormous machines relentlessly churn out silk, while the (entirely female) staff toil away under motivational banners to reach their production targets. The combination of steaming hot water baths, the cacophony of noises from the machinery, and an unmistakable smell of silkworm cocoons can be quite overpowering. Like many model North Korean institutions, the silk mill has its own campus with schooling, leisure facilities, and accommodation for the staff who live and work there.

 
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Kwangbok Department Store

Tourist spots are always interesting, but for a real insight into everyday Pyongyang life, we like to visit this department store where middle class North Koreans in Pyongyang do their shopping. Three floors house an extensive supermarket, a homeware and clothing department, and a food court where local families spend their afternoon snacking on Korean specialties. Visiting Kwangbok Department Store is a great opportunity to buy domestically produced items with local currency that are all but impossible to find outside the country.  Hot pepper paste, local honey from the north-eastern countryside and soju rice wine make excellent gifts.

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Gold Cup Food Processing Plant

Rarely visited by tourists, a trip to the Gold Cup Food Processing Plant is a chance to see a working factory that produces a variety of confectionary and other food products for domestic consumers. Gold Cup is a sizeable North Korean company, and several of their employees have attended our programs to hone their business skills and learn about international best practices which may give them a competitive edge. Whole families live and work on the factory grounds, which recently received a grand reopening by Kim Jong Un after being refurbished and modernized. We often get to sample some of the goods here -- the ttok (sweet rice cakes) are highly recommended!

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Taeddonggang No. 3 Brewery

Taeddonggang (Taedong River) No. 3 Brewery is a bar like no other.  It is located just next to the Juche Tower -- quite a spot for a sundowner -- and serves up to seven different types of beers on tap, plus one of the best bibimbaps in town. While you enjoy your meal, watch Russian pop concerts on a big screen, but resist ordering their take on German cuisine (it’s generally awful). What many visitors do not realise about Taeddonggang is that the brewery was purchased in its entirety from the UK (a former brewery called Ushers of Trowbridge), disassembled and put on a boat, and then put back together in Pyongyang.  So, in the heart of Pyongyang, you can drink British beer -- or at least, Korean beer made with British equipment.