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Curious About Pyongyang Because Of 'Crash Landing On You' ? Here’s A Peek Into The North Korean Capital

If you’ve been watching the hottest K-drama of the season 'Crash Landing On You,' then you must be curious about North Korea. Here’s a glimpse into its capital, Pyongyang

To reach North Korean soil from Manila, it takes two visas (one to China, another to North Korea itself), two weeks of processing documents, and five trips by air with nine hours in between. The last flight crosses the border from Shenyang, China to North Korea through Air Koryo, the country’s flag carrier. 

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Air Koryo

Boarding an Air Koryo plane already promises an immediate culture shock. Just from the way the flight attendants act, you’ll notice an immediate shift to the peculiar orderliness and presentability that the country is known for. Though naturally attractive (their trendsetting neighbors from the South pale in comparison), disciplined, and systematic in their movements, the flight attendants of Air Koryo are unaccustomed to communicating in the universal language.

Symbols of a Nation’s Identity

By the time you arrive at the capital city of Pyongyang, you’ll encounter the first main attraction: The government’s strict attention to outsiders, part of the nation’s identity in itself. As a tourist, you’re considered a foreign body in a highly protected fortress—there’s no special treatment to expect, except the meticulous safety measures and regulations. 

Local officials have no tolerance for the typical habit of tourists exploring on their own. The extent of your access is limited to the tourist spots such as restaurants and souvenir shops. It’s a respectable gesture in a way—this is a small country of 25 million with two superpowers at its doorstep, not to mention, its proclivity to experiment with very powerful weapons. They don’t take too kindly to strangers walking on their grounds as if they owned the place. If, in other more neighborly countries, first impression is key, in this slice of the peninsula, boundaries are the best rule of thumb for recreational travelers. 

Another useful tip is to have an apolitical mindset. Perhaps the most startling taste of authentic local tradition is the unbridled aversion to anything reminiscent of the United States. The nationals are not timid in making American tourists unwelcome and misplaced. One might call it a cultural impulse echoing an old grudge at a nation responsible for dividing the Korean Peninsula. In any case, it’s better to romanticize the trip—embrace the aesthetics, do as the Romans do. 

Because what this country lacks in hospitality, it makes up for in its unquestionable care for its monuments—both natural and manmade. If you haven’t seen the 66-foot-tall bronze statues of the national heroes Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung on Mansu Hill complex, you’ve missed North Korea altogether. 

Basic courtesy dictates that one must bow before these memorials. The exaggeration in size and attention to detail are not an accident. Such craftsmanship and dedication alone are worthy of the gesture. One can observe how sacred these statues are to the nationals, who take it as far as policing the camera angle of the photos you take of the monuments. Security officers will take liberties in deleting any photos that don’t include every inch of the statues to avoid any risk of misrepresenting their leaders. 

The Heart of the Capital

Another tribute to the late founding leader is Kim Il-Sung Square, seated at the heart of the capital. Known to be one of the largest city squares in the world, the life of the nation is often celebrated on these grounds—from military exhibitions to creative performances and rallies. 

At the periphery of the square are other urban sceneries: The Grand People’s Study Hall, the city’s central library; and the Tower of Juche Idea, which provides a breathtaking vantage point of the Taedong River, are noteworthy among others. The idiosyncratic symmetry of the city is a rarity that, despite the collective tension in its people and history, is something to admire. 

Despite its ominous reputation for lawful order, North Korea can boast its own luxury. In terms of accommodations, its best hotel by far is the four-star Yanggakdo International Hotel, considered the largest hotel and the second tallest building in the country. In terms of easy travel, the Pyongyang Metro, the city transit, with its cathedral-like architecture, large steel doors, and stations dubbed with patriotic names, gives you a glimpse of the country’s hardened history and not a dull moment in between trips. 

Why now, not later?

Despite trade sanctions, a travel ban, not to mention, the ire and ridicule of the global community, North Korea’s dictatorship has managed to allow a limited number of visitors to its isolated capital. but renewed threats from Donald Trump’s administration are raising the stakes of war and closing the door to foreign travelers altogether.

Beyond City Limits

Beyond the city, another side of North Korea reveals itself. North of the city, a two-hour drive can bring you to the province of North Pyongan, where you can relish the overwhelmingly ethereal beauty of Mount Myohyang. True to its name, the “Mysterious and Fragrant Mountain” bears a cradle of waterfalls, summits and ancient hermitages such as the Korean Buddhist temple Pohyon-sa. It’s a refreshing panorama away from the uniformity of the capital. 

Riding 136 kilometers south from Pyongyang takes you to Kaesong, the ancient capital of the Koryo dynasty which reigned the peninsula from 918 to 1392. Today, you’d find in its place UNESCO World Heritage sites—deserving in their own right of a visit. Humbler destinations are also worth a look-see, like Panmunjom in North Hwanghae Province. This small village is situated at the center of the Military Demarcation Line. Barely populated and inhabited by a small cluster of huts, it marks one of the last remaining sites of diplomacy between North and South Korea. 

It might be virtually impossible to avoid the political climate altogether, but it’s best to extend the benefit of the doubt and see North Korea beyond the headlines and controversies and under its own light, through the eyes of its own citizens. The firm hand and vigilance they exercise are, to them, an honest gesture of courtesy and professionalism that other independent countries can learn from. 

Text by Lora Lumba, as told by Vernon Prieto. This article was first published in VAULT (The Exploration Issue), Issue 24.

Vernon's Travel Advice:

"No matter how adventurous one is, I wouldn’t recommend anything other than an accredited agency to organize your travel to North Korea. For one based in Manila, I highly recommend Goldlink Travel, a company with the right kind of experience and contacts in Pyongyang."

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