A Canadian couple that has visited over 100 countries during their lifetime say their time in North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, has been the most unforgettable.
Justin and Anna Williams traveled to North Korea in 2012 and spent about a week or so in the country. The two planned their 2012 trip via a travel operator that had contact with the state-owned Korean International Tourist Company. Their travels and encounters are documented in a series of photographs that the couple snapped while in the country. Justin Williams told Business Insider about his experience in North Korea:
“It’s like traveling to a different world.”
Before flying to North Korea, the couple were required to attend a briefing session in Beijing, China. They were informed of the stringent rules that forbid photographing military entities and statues of Kim Jong II, unless the entirety of the statue is captured.
Justin and Anna boarded a Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-204 plane with in-flight videos showing North Korean soldiers defeating American troops during the Korean War.
Their flight destination was Pyongyang, the capital city of the Republic with a population of around 3 million people. As soon as they landed, the couple’s phones were scanned for GPS capability. Their passports were also confiscated by authorities and held until their departing flight.
Anna Williams told Business Insider:
“The scariest part of the trip was knowing that no matter what, it was simply impossible at that point to get out of the country, even if we wanted to.”
Tourists are placed under strict supervision while in the country. The couple was led by government minders, who are government-employed guides whose jobs are to ensure visitors comply with regulations. The Williams were also assigned a driver who stayed with them for the entire duration of their trip.
The well-traveled couple were shocked by some of the residents’ limited knowledge of the world outside of North Korea. They were incredulous that their minders had never heard of pizza.
The streets of central Pyongyang were empty without vehicles, which could be due to the high poverty rate in the country.
It is mandatory for foreigners in the country to stay on the 25th floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel on Pyongyang Island. A curfew was enforced and visitors were unable to leave the hotel until they were picked up by their drivers the next morning.
Giant monuments and military personnel were a common sight during the couple’s visit.
Anna Williams poses with the Arch of Triumph in central Pyongyang that inaugurated the 70th birthday of Kim II Sung in 1982. The Arch is made of 25,000 blocks of granite that symbolize each day of the former Supreme Leader’s life up to his birthday.
The two paid homage to the Dear Leader and Great Leader statues of Kim Jong II and his father, Kim II Sung. They were instructed to bow down and lay flowers before the monuments.
They also snapped a picture of the Monument to the Party Founding that commemorated the establishing of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 1946.
The couple took a four-hour road trip to the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea. The road they took was dotted with tanks and troop convoys. No civilian vehicles were in sight.
The border that separates North and South Korea begins at the concrete line between the blue buildings. It is considered to be the most heavily militarized border in the world. Former US President Bill Clinton once remarked that the zone was the “scariest place on Earth.”
The Williams recalled that they were the only Westerners on the North Korean side of the border and that the atmosphere was “extremely tense.” They were led through the area by senior military personnel. Their guides also commented that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was prepared to “unleash total nuclear war on the Japanese and American imperialists” if they needed to.
Somehow, Justin was able to convince the patrol guards to let them inside the blue building and snap some photos. South Korea begins right behind the two guards behind Justin in the photo.
Anna and Justin attended a “Fun Fair” that included typical amusement park rides such as roller coasters and bumper cars. The fair is usually open exclusively to the “elites,” but the couple earned entrance and were followed by a dozen guards and minders.
Anna got a picture with a handful of female military personnel at the “Fun Fair” before their platoon leader caught them.
The pair continued their fun activities and were chaperoned to the Golden Lane Bowling Alley.
They noticed that the pins on men’s shirts had a picture of the Dear Leader’s face on it and were called “loyalty badges.” The badges are required to be worn by every North Korean adult.
“Propaganda infused almost every element of life there,” the couple recalled of the bowling alley filled with red flags.
Propaganda posters were all hand-drawn and painted. The couple managed to ship one home from a connection they had in China.
Justin Williams celebrated his birthday at Chongryu Hotspot Restaurant with government minders as his party guests.
The Williams were able to visit a local school that was described as a “world-class” institution of higher education.
While at the school, the Williams witnessed a dance recital that was put on especially for them. The whole school shut down for this performance.
A billboard of Kim II Sung, the country’s former supreme leader, hung in a classroom of the school.
The couple were in the country during a significant holiday and experienced the street celebration of “Party Foundation Day.” The event takes place annually on Oct. 10 and honors the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Justin’s favorite part of the trip was visiting the Grand People’s Study House, which houses 30 million books. A majority of the books were about Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
Justin said: “It was surreal to be there and to be taken back to all of the news clips you see about the country.”