I have been to the DPRK before, in September 2007, almost exactly ten years ago. A lot has changed during these ten years, from the immediately obvious to the subtle.
I guess you still can’t describe North Korea as a country that appeals to the taste of the masses, but in 2007 our group of 15 intrepid travellers with Koryo Tours were the only western tourists at that time in the DPRK and there were only a handful of Chinese tourists. The restaurants were empty and so were most of the hotel rooms.
In 2017 Kim Jong Un hasn’t quite reached his target of 2 million tourist annually to North Korea, but it sometimes felt very close to it. The 999 rooms of our hotel seemed almost completely booked out, the parking lot in front of it was full of tour buses and we met fellow tourists everywhere we went.
The Traffic Ladies in Pyongyang are supposedly the most beautiful women in the whole of Korea. Outside of the capital they are mostly older Traffic Gentlemen. Even in 2007 their presence didn’t make much sense as cars were very scarce back then. But even though there were already traffic lights, they weren’t switched on. The Traffic Ladies stood in the middle of each intersection and contributed their funny little moves to a collision free flow of Pyongyang traffic.
In 2017 there is much more traffic (say Clapham at 3am) and the traffic lights are switched on. The Traffic Ladies stand at the side of each intersection still doing their funny little moves and occasionally saluting a car with high ranking members of the politburo. But they are obsolete now.
Palace of the Sun, aka the Dead Kims
Back then we were the only foreigners paying our respects to the late Kim. Obviously there was only one dead Kim to pay respects to. We were given earphones to guide us around and found ourselves amongst ordinary Koreans, many of whom had tears in their eyes as they approached the corpse of the Great Leader. After the event one of us had to write in their book of condolences, which we all weren’t very keen on.
Nowadays there are two days explicitly reserved for foreigners. There are two dead leaders now, so the logistics are a bit more involved, and they added all the awards and honours each of them has received. But the principle remains the same, albeit a bit diluted, and they got rid of that dreaded book of condolences.
In 2007 the museums looked all a bit rough around the edges and not quite ready for business (with the notable exception of the International Friendship Exhibition).
By 2017 all museums that we saw/had to endure received a major overhaul. They were slick with a unified corporate identity (although there were hardly any English translations for anything), and as everything in this country way too big for their purpose. There was also at least one gift shop at every museum.
Back in 2007 there was no private enterprise whatsoever.
In 2017 there are a lot of little kiosks that sell primarily alcoholic drinks and unhealthy snacks, usually in right in front of normal shops. This is the forefront of capitalism in the DPRK. Although everything is still formally state owned, the manager of such a stall has a lot of freedom about business decisions such as what range of products to offer, where to source them and what prices to charge. If they are running their small business successfully, the government won’t interfere and will just collect a portion of their profits. Tax or shareholders dividends if you wish. If they fail, the government installs new management. So the government acts in a way as the board of directors.
In 2017 there are a lot of solar panels people have on the balconies of their flats. They use them to charge batteries during the day and run appliances off them at night. The solar panels come in various shapes and sizes and can be bought in department stores throughout the country. I think they have a lot more to do with the patchy electricity supply than with environmentalism being popular in North Korea.
During my first visit our mobile phones were collected at the airport, and we weren’t allowed to carry video cameras or lenses with a focal length of more than 150mm with us. Furthermore, we weren’t allowed to take photos out of the bus, or of anything we weren’t explicitly told we could take photos of. And we didn’t get in contact with any ‘normal’ Koreans.
Ten years later the situation was quite different, everything could be brought into the country, even mobile phones (although they can’t be used to make phone call unless you have a North Korean SIM card), and you could take photos of everything except the military. And construction sites, as there are soldiers working on them.
We also had plenty on opportunity to see normal North Koreans doing normal things in department stores, the water park, the circus…