The People´s Paradise
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  • Post published:13/05/2021
  • Post last modified:13/05/2021

May 2014 marked the second time that I have glimpsed people, and areas, which are rarely seen on television and even more unlikely ever to meet in person. I´m talking about the world´s most isolated country, which for the last 78 years has been governed by one dynasty, The Democratic Republic of Korea, aka North Korea.

Travels to and from the DPRK are normally possible only via China by plane or train (except for Americans who must fly in and out of the country).  On occasion, there are overland trips via Yandi in North-eastern China to the Northeast of the country crossing the Truman River. The visa application process is surprisingly easy and there are numerous travel agencies offering everything from standard trips to tailor-made adventures throughout the country.  Beijing-based Koryo Tours is on the top of the list when it comes to tour operators working in this hermit kingdom.

Picture of a woman taken at a public square in Hongwon © Emanuel Luttersdorfer

Picture of a woman taken at a public square in Hongwon © Emanuel Luttersdorfer

The experience when entering North Korea is a bit like passing through the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. In April 2012 an unusually high number of tourists came to watch the celebrations held to commemorate Kim Il Sung´s 100th birthday giving the normally quiet Sunan International Airport a busy appearance.  Just boarding an Air Koryo Tupolev or Ilyushin plane on which are you being offered either to watch one of their inflight movies from Kim Jong Il´s personal selection or to read the latest issue of the Pyongyang Times make you feel as if you´ve just entered another world.

The East Asian country with it´s 24 million inhabitants borders to China and Russia to the North and South Korea roughly below the 38 parallel.  Pyongyang, the capital, is the country´s largest city, home to almost one-fifth of the total population. It’s a surreal place. Don´t be surprised when the lights of an entire city are being switched off when a fireworks spectacle gets presented. A dichotomy lies between what you see and what you´re told you will see. While Pyongyang is always being groomed to impress it´s visitors, things in the countryside look very different. A flashback – maybe a 100 years back in time – with peasants trying their best using their oxen, if they have them, to make the soil fertile. There is a huge amount of agricultural areas which makes you think the country tries to avoid another period of famine like the one it experienced in the 1990s – at all costs.

Passing a Train Station © Emanuel Luttersdorfer

Passing a Train Station © Emanuel Luttersdorfer

Standard itineraries usually include visits to the DMZ near Kaesong, Mt. Myohyang which has two giant halls for the display of the nearby International Friendship exhibition, and in Pyongyang, the mausoleum housing the mortal remains of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, two former leaders of the country,  and numerous museums and war memorials reminding the people of its recent violent past.

One million people of the population bear arms which make it Asia´s second largest army after the Chinese.  Since men and women in uniform are the predominant sight on Pyongyang’s streets, one might think that the conflict with foreign forces has never really come to an end. And in reality it hasn’t. The 1953 Armistice stopped the fighting but did not officially end the war.

Attempting to leave your pre-existing opinions about the North Korea at home and trying, for at least a short time, to see the North Korean people and their country from their own perspective and interacting with them without prejudice will result in a unique, educational and exotic experience. The kind, helpful and friendly travel guides and all the people you meet along the way tend to make for nice memories as well.

Performance given at a North Korean school in Chongjin © Emanuel Luttersdorfer

Performance given at a North Korean school in Chongjin © Emanuel Luttersdorfer

Photo Credits

All Photographs Are © Emanuel Luttersdorfer


Emanuel Luttersdorfer Photographer Bio

biopic-003 Picture of a woman Emanuel LuttersdorferAustrian-born Emanuel Luttersdorfer is a medical doctor based in Beijing working with the international community. His interest in foreign cultures and places led him to study Tropical Medicine in Thailand which was the starting point for a life as an expat in Asia. After studying photography with internationally acclaimed travel-photographer Mark Edward Harris, the camera became an essential tool for his life abroad, always on the lookout for special places and moments to record.

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