At the Pyongyang circus, an acrobat readies himself for a stunt.
Perched atop a metal scaffold, he glances at the see-saw below, where he will jump and land briefly before somersaulting onto a human tower, three men already stacked on one another’s shoulders.
It is a difficult stunt, but I am confident he will execute it perfectly. After all, we are in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), known for performers, even children, delivering technically perfect, if eerily robotic, performances. Every feat, up to this point, has been executed flawlessly.
He does not nail the landing.
Instead he falls, bouncing unhurt onto a landing pad, springing back to his feet with a sheepish smile for a second attempt at the stunt. This time the man soars, landing securely on the shoulders of his teammates and as soon as he is steady, he pumps both fists hard in the air, a display of showmanship as much as personal triumph. Even from my seat, high up in the tiered arena, his grin radiates satisfaction and relief.
It is an unexpected display of imperfection, of human emotion, and instantly, I like the DPRK better for it.
It is July 27, better known as Victory Day in the DPRK, or the anniversary of the signing of the Korean War Armistice. My partner and I are in Pyongyang on a five-day tour planned around the occasion, which marked the truce at the end of the 1950 to 1953 Korean War.
In a country known for its reticence and isolation, that is frequently described by outsiders as the Hermit Kingdom, I arrive with little expectation of seeing the “real” North Korea.
There will be no wandering off the proverbial beaten path, no stumbling upon any authentic North Korean street food or spontaneous conversations with the locals.
Accounts from friends who have visited and travelogues I have read describe wide, empty streets devoid of life and being shuttled between propagandistic attractions that glorify the Kim empire.
The latter is true. But between pit stops at attractions such as the Juche Tower, which is named after the juche or self-reliance ideology, and the colossal twin statues of the former presidents Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, all coldly impressive in their own right, glimpses of daily life in the North Korean capital prove far more interesting.
Climbing up Moran Hill, which is also known as the “garden of the capital”, I encounter groups of older folk gathering to picnic, dance and play badminton on this national holiday.
Our North Korean minders – three of them assigned to our group of 13 – ask if we can play too. A Polish traveller and I take on two older women, approximately in their 50s, who are surprisingly adept at the game.
Back along the main road, trams and buses pass busy stops with regular frequency. During the peak hours of dawn and dusk, they are crammed with locals, fanning themselves during a humid July summer.
On an equally crowded subway ride, I stand shoulder to shoulder with two teenage boys engrossed in a game on their smartphone. Above them, the twin portraits of the late presidents beam avuncular smiles.
From the window of our tour bus, a young girl at a zebra crossing, hand in hand with an older woman, catches my eye. She holds my gaze and offers a smile as our bus slows and for a moment, I am perched almost directly over her.
We pull away, turn into the next street, where a lorry full of female soldiers wave enthusiastically at our bus and we wave back until they are out of sight.
This is the way Pyongyang unfolds – in fits and starts, offering glimpses of a city that feels, despite its reputation, startlingly normal.
On national holidays such as Victory Day, university students perform mass dances at Pyongyang monuments such as the Arch de Triumph (built 10m taller than the Paris original) and Kim Il Sung Square.
At the square, hundreds of young men and women dance to strident patriotic tunes, colourful concentric circles twirling in unison.
I learn from our minder Han that all university students are obliged to rehearse and perform these dances on national holidays, which take place approximately once a month. Some indeed look bored and tired, while others a little more cheerful, but all of them execute the steps flawlessly.
As they dance, an intrigued audience of tourists converge. Eager minders usher us into the crowd, pairing foreigners with students who graciously oblige our two left feet.
The women wear traditional costumes called chima-jeogori, better known as hanbok in South Korea. A rose by any other name would be characterised by the same heavy long-sleeved, ankle-length fabric.
Weaving amid the dancing circles, I am acutely aware that my own cotton shirt is clinging wetly to my back and remember my own student days participating in mandatory mass dances or the annual Great Singapore Workout.
When the music slows between songs, a doe-eyed young woman dabs at her nose with a handkerchief, her heeled and stockinged feet savouring a few moments of respite.
Then I turn my back briefly and she disappears, a single speck in an ocean of colour and movement as the women twirl, the circles spin and the music picks up again.
We pass Kwangbok supermarket many times en route to other destinations and our hour-long stop at the North Korean shopping mall is one of my favourite parts of the trip.
Kwangbok supermarket, a joint venture between the DPRK and China, opened in 2012 and is the only supermarket in the country where both citizens and tourists can shop side by side. It is one of the few times our minders let us roam freely, though they linger at the entrance to ensure that none of us leave the supermarket.
Before shopping, we exchange our yuan, euros and US dollars for North Korean won at a rate of about 8,000 won to a euro, the only place we have been allowed to thus far. The notes I receive, crisp and virtually new, would make great souvenirs, although it is technically illegal to take North Korean won out of the country. I stash one in my journal; my partner hides a stack in the pocket of his jeans.
The mall’s decor is austere, with whitewashed walls and linoleum floors, but its three storeys, which include a food court, offer a respectable consumer experience.
The first floor houses an array of fresh produce and packaged food; the second has clothes, toys and household goods. The items are a mix of local products and imported goods from Japan and China, and there are brands I recognise, such as Lee Kum Kee sesame oil and Nissin instant noodles.
But I am more interested in North Korean products and zero in on their version of soju, a harsher and more industrial take on the South Korean variety of distilled rice liquor. Makgeolli, a rice wine which is light, sweet and slightly fizzy, tastes much better.
As I fill my basket, I steal surreptitious glances at what the locals are putting into theirs. There are mothers with young children perched in trolleys and women buying groceries alone, selecting boxes of biscuits, colourful bottles of syrupy drinks, plastic bowls with tiny pink flowers on them.
I pick one up and it bears a Made in China sticker, just like in every other part of the world.
Looking at the South
One of the last few items on the itinerary is a half-day trip to the Demilitarised Zone in Kaesong, which borders South Korea.
There, a young male soldier gives a perfunctory DPRK-centric explanation of the Korean War, while an earnest female guide translates his Korean account into English.
It includes an anecdote of American soldiers leaving behind a United Nations flag as they beat a hasty, embarrassed retreat.
“If the US were to break out another war against the DPRK, we will smash all of them so that there will not be anyone left even to surrender,” he says. As his female counterpart repeats it, she ducks her head briefly, seemingly abashed at the baldness of his statement.
It is an unexpected display of imperfection, of humility, and I will remember the DPRK more fondly for it.
I fly to Beijing on Malaysian Airlines, then take a 24-hour sleeper train from Beijing to the Sino-North Korean border at Dandong before carrying on to the capital Pyongyang.
Foreigners must join a tour to enter the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as no independent travel is allowed. I pay €1,045 (S$1,600) for a five-day tour with Young Pioneer Tours, which includes visa, round-trip train tickets to Pyongyang and all meals and accommodation there. Also included is a half-day trip to Kaesong, where the demilitarised zone is located. Koryo Tours is another popular agency.
Photography, including street photography, is generally allowed. Exceptions include the military, construction sites and inside certain buildings such as Kwangbok Supermarket.
While interaction with locals is limited, travellers can learn a great deal about daily life from the guides. Be friendly and open-minded, and avoid debating fractious topics such as politics or the Korean War.
Opportunities to exchange North Korean won, if any, are rare and foreigners mostly transact in euros, yuan or US dollars. Take along small denominations as shops may not have change for denominations larger than 100 yuan (S$20) or €50.
Electronic devices such as mobile phones, cameras, laptops and tablets are allowed into the country, although their contents will be checked by border guards for religious texts, books about the country and pornographic material, which cannot be brought in.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.
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