North Korea: An inside look

Branson Quenzer travels through North Korea, Branson Quenzer photos.
Branson Quenzer travels through North Korea, Branson Quenzer photos.

Journey through North Korea

A look Inside a Seldom Traveled Place

By Branson Quenzer

A Westerner entering the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s formal name, especially with the perspective of eyes formed by media drilled into him from birth, will likely find himself with shaky nerves in this rarely visited nation.

North Korea 2
Locals met along the way.

What can he expect? What will happen? So much more is the unknown. It is said in the “Dictator’s Tour Guide” that no Korean language materials or mobile phones are allowed in, and that normal behavior may be deemed combative and punishable by expulsion or jail time.

Our first contact with the DPRK was a soldier dressed in a green uniform checking our bags for anything illegal. To many, it is a surprise that the border check is a breeze, even for Americans who have built-up resistance in the political chess game.

We quickly transfered from the Chinese train to the platform and then into the old but well-maintained North Korean train which departs once a day. Pictures of their great leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il stared back at us from the walls of the train.

Minders Everywhere

On the platform and in the train we sat with our supervisors, who are there to mind our words and behavior. They are ‘officially’ tour guides. Mr. Pok speaks, translated by the young 23-year-old university student and unprofessional translator nicknamed U.B., “You are Americans; I am North Korean. My country does not like yours nor yours mine, but we are all people and we can answer any questions you have even if they are bad.” Ok then.

We politely, though skeptically, received their claims to such openness. Mr. Pok continues: “If I was in your country we could be friends; you are in my country, so we can be friends.” Questions of general life such as employment and our purpose for living in China ensue. Mr. Pok asks U.B. to translate, “What languages do you speak?” I responded that I know a little Chinese and a little Spanish. Mr. Pok spoke fluent Spanish, so for the next hour our conversations continued in Spanish, and U.B. was left out, saddened.

Ushered out of the station quickly, we met with another two North Koreans who have been assigned to accompany our little group. Conversation dominates the memory of us two Americans and four North Koreans riding through the countryside in a private van.

Branson Quenzer with the tour guides.
Branson Quenzer with the tour guides.

The second of these two newest North Koreans we met in Pyongyang asked, “What were your thoughts about the DPRK before you came?” The American president had already been referred to as a ‘king,’ and western state government sites advised sensitivity in political discussions. “Trying to keep an open mind to get the real DPRK is my purpose – not to think about it before, but to learn about it now.”

Without asking, their political opinions begin pouring out. What the West projected about political sensitivity was something that seemed inescapable in the DPRK. It was in them and was something inseparable, something that was a hard rock at the core of existence, and something that if it were broken would mean certain self-destruction.

Mr. Pok expressed his views saying, “The Eternal President Kim Il-Sung is in all of us.” U.B. followed later with a cute and pleasant smile, “We look at him as our grandfather.” She was happy to have suchThe Arirang Mass Games celerates the "Eternal Leader, Kim Il Song" and Korean heritage on both the North and South side.The Arirang Mass Games celerates the “Eternal Leader, Kim Il Song” and Korean heritage on both the North and South side. a wonderful grandfather.

They want to know and I have learned not to tell. The six of us drive into the sunset not understanding each others world.

DPRK Hospitality

After a propaganda-filled visit to the Eternal President’s gift hall which nearly every visitor to NK sees, and is filled with gifts that include cultural relics and art masterpieces, to televisions, and bottles of brandy, our posse of six headed to a mountain nearby. When we arrived we saw a family organized at the trailhead with instruments armed with music and songs. There were no tourists and two of our party members decided to stay at the trailhead.

NK is mostly mountains, generally preserved, with the lowlands being used for farming that has been terraced by oxen or tractors into rice patties. The mountains and rivers are pristine in the countryside, great for hiking, and free of any pollution.

All of the contact we have had with the NK people have been more than friendly to this point. I have always heard of the polite nature of South Korea, but heard little of the DPRK hospitality.

At a pool and waterfall halfway to the top UB calls me over to where see is kneeling at the river bank. UB, “Come here!”


“Come here and look.”

“At what?” bending down gazing into the crystal water she is pointing to.

She hoists a deluge of water into my face as she begins laughing and I begin thinking about my mental approach to NK.

The mountains in North Korea are great for hiking and free from pollution.
The mountains in North Korea are great for hiking and free from pollution.

Not Grey and Cold

North Korea is not grey and cold. There are problems and that can easily be seen watching the trucks roll in from the border of Dandong, China, carrying food and textiles into an unproductive country. Cars are sparse, buildings other than the capital are small and only major highways are developed as a transportation system. The people are optimistic and seek the future of reunification with their brothers and sisters of the south. They have a firm conviction in their principles of their leaders being great, peace with the outside. Iimperialists should leave Korea to be a nation as a whole.

The de-militarized zone or DMZ carries the significant fallout of a beginning of friendship between two nations posed against each other in the ‘axis of evil.’ The DMZ is a stretch of land that has been demarcated by the U.N. as an area without heavy artillery that diagonally stretches two kilometers on each side of the 38th parallel which buffers the north from the south.

In the DMZ there is a number of significant buildings that were used by the North and South for negotiations which resulted in nothing. Also, buildings that were used for talks between the DPRK and the UN which resulted in a ceasefire and an end to military conflict but not an official peace treaty. The country is still formally at war. The boarder is a strip of concrete.

“You Are American”

Home in the North Korean countryside.
A Home in the North Korean countryside.

In these buildings an army official approaches the only two Americans and says, “I am a NK soldier, you are an American, my government doesn’t like yours nor yours mine, but we are people and I want to know the truth.” I moved conversation along but the commander persisted and followed us back into our van.

The car started and the soldier said wait. He looked back at Tom and I and said, “Tell me the truth.” UB was translating. I looked at Tom and Tom nodded his head to indicate that this is the time for our real opinions.

I asked spy number one if it was ok to speak freely. He said yes. I asked if my safety will be guaranteed and he said no problem. I began to explain what western media tells us about NK, that their leaders are hostile to the West at the expense of the people’s well-being. We heard talk of starvation and military buildup.

UB’s eyes began to well up with water and the van was totally silent. I looked at her sitting to my left and placed my hand on her knee as tears began to roll down her cheeks. They were all waiting for Traveling around the cities of North Korea.her to speak as my heart became heavy and dark.

My words began to come out of her mouth in Korean as tears flowed. I felt for her, the soldier turned white, the driver looked forward, the faces turned to ghosts and people began to reach for another.

A Bath in Our Room

The last night ended with UB taking a bath in our room as we sat outside in the two story cottage that was given to us for the evening. The three of us in a little home. UB didn’t have a bath or shower to use because she was placed in the maid’s quarters on the first floor. We, the first two foreigners she had met and after three days the traditional university student had no problem taking a hot mineral bath in our room.

NK is a traditional place that has not been spoiled by outside influence. It is open to every country in the world for tourism and increasingly business, even if it is during certain times for Americans, it is an accessible place. It is not closed. It is open, although organized.

The Culture

Our visas were processed in under four days. But the outside has yet to breach any of their culture and traditions and especially politics. UB told us that about 80% of female students wear their traditional clothing to class if the weather is suitable. Otherwise their clothing is simple and conservative and always decorated with a lapel pin of a leader. Boyfriends and girlfriends never hold hands in public. The environment is pristine and they respect their country. Being quiet and simple is still respected and homage is always paid to their leaders.

Lunch time

Up to this point we had only eaten one meal together. UB delivered us our meal in styrofoam boxes. As she said bye to eat her lunch I told her ‘no.’ I said that friends eat lunch together. She smiled and said she will talk to minder number one. She went back into the NK dining car and told Mr. Pok that she wanted to eat with her American friends. Mr. Pok also said he wanted to eat with his American friends. The others mentioned “if you really want to eat with your American friends then we do too.”

North Korean City center.
North Korean City center.

UB returned and said come eat with your NK friends. Tom and I were delighted to share a meal in the back of the train with 60 “guides”, telling stories, laughing, drinking and carrying on. There were no barriers. There were no walls, no censorship, no wiretaps, no secrets.

The food served to tourists in no doubt ably more nutritious and extravagant than their meals. Theirs consist mostly of a broth-like soup and rice. It’s all filling and provides sustenance. Even in the countryside people are a little plump and the soldiers are thinner than the farmers.

The peasants ride large blue Chinese trucks to their posts, ride bikes or walk in groups with smiles and friends. They freely wave and chuckle when they see foreigners. There is no fear and no worry of reprisal. Fat and happy!

The train arrived and Tom and I find one last souvenir shop. The processing took about two hours and consisted of the NK army boarding the train and searching our bags. The search is similar to the first search on arrival, not very thorough, although they do make me turn on my camera and show them four or five pictures.

Heading Home

The North Korean train stops at the border and upon arrival there is one final souvenir shop. Here Everyone disembarks and then gets on the Chinese train that will cross back into Dandong, Jilin China. But before you can get off, the train must be processed as vehicles and trains do passing borders anywhere in the world. The processing takes about two hours and consists of the NK army boarding the train and searching your bags.

The search is similar to the first search on arrival, not very thorough, although they do make me turn on my camera and show them four or five pictures. Then, out on the platform we waited. Others being searched, the Chinese train to arrive, paperwork… and during this time UB went off to add something personal to our journals.

She returned and would not relinquish our journals until it was time to board the Chinese train. She said, read it when you get back to China. As I boarded she shyly opened her own journal to the page of my message which I had written in her book and the little yellow flower I had given her from the pools of singing angels two days before was nicely pressed for preservation between the pages.

It was time to get on the final leg, the short 3 minute ride on the Chinese train out of North Korea and back into China. The train jerked and pulled away people held back tears. I waved out the window and our friends waved until there was nothing to see. I read what UB wrote in my book. I smiled with tears.


Branson Quenzer spent a last decade in East Asia using his background in economics to interact with his environment through a lens that saw the emergence and decay of traditions in a modernizing world.

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