What is it really like to visit North Korea? This curious Australian tourist found out
Most of us have a few ‘see before you die’ places — New York, Rome, London, to name some popular choices. Then there’s Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.
- A curious Australian tourist shares his experiences from a trip to Pyongyang
- Dennis Henschke visited last year, bringing back plenty of photos and vision
- An expert says it gives a fascinating insight into life in North Korea
The secretive state wouldn’t top many people’s bucket lists, but that’s the very reason it appealed to retired Adelaide school inspector Dennis Henschke.
“Why, is a question many people ask,” Mr Henschke said.
“It was curiosity. I enjoy visiting places that are a bit off the beaten track.
Dennis Henschke was allowed to take plenty of photos while visiting Pyongyang. (Supplied: Dennis Henschke)
“I like seeing different cultures and different ways of doing things… the unexpected.”
Now 86, Mr Henschke has always been a habitual traveller, seeing the world with his wife Kath, before she died in 2017.
North Korea was the first overseas trip he took following her death.
It took 18 months of organisation, but in September Mr Henschke set off with a group of other Australians as part of an organised tour licenced by the North Korean Government.
Mr Henschke had been warned by the tour company to expect thorough searches. North Korean officials would likely forbid him to bring his particular model of camera.
The first surprise came crossing the border between China and North Korea, when none of that happened.
“They didn’t check our cameras, they didn’t check them on the way out either,” Mr Henschke said.
“They didn’t even take the extensive forms they’d made us fill out on the train at the border.
“When the guards came around, they were really only interested in whether we had Bibles with us… I guess the Government don’t want alternative views of who the supreme authority might be.”
Capturing daily life in North Korea
Being allowed to keep his camera meant Mr Henschke returned to Australia with a trove of vision, showing daily life in the capital and surrounding countryside.
For La Trobe University North Korea expert Euan Graham, it offered a fascinating insight because the North Korean Government is renowned for its tight grip on information.
“It’s been 10 years since I was in North Korea and so the shots of Pyongyang seem on the surface transformed,” Dr Graham said.
“There’s a lot more high-rises, a lot more colour, it used to be shades of grey… what I get is that North Korea increasingly has the feel and appearance of an ordinary Asian capital.”
However, Dr Graham said Pyongyang only had that feel and appearance for a select few North Koreans.
“It’s a showpiece capital, a Potemkin capital,” Dr Graham said.
A North Korea expert said the vision proved that the city had grown a lot in the past 10 years. (Supplied: Oliver Wainwright)
“So a lot of the resources that do funnel their way into the country are concentrated there. That’s where the elite live. Ordinary North Koreans can’t choose to live in Pyongyang.”
The contrast between rural areas and the capital was striking.
“There were miles of rice paddies being harvested by people with sickles in their hands,” Mr Henschke said.
“I think we saw three tractors… most of the work was done with ox carts… there was very little evidence of electricity.”
Music, gymnastics and propaganda on show
Mr Henschke said there were many talented child performers in North Korea. (Supplied: Dennis Henschke)
Mr Henschke spent 10 days seeing Government-approved sites like the birthplace of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un.
There was the huge children’s palace, featuring virtuoso child artists, drilled for months on end to offer flawless violin and dance performances.
But the highlight was the Arirang Mass Games, a highly-choreographed display of music, gymnastics and propaganda pieces.
“It went an hour-and-a-half and this stadium with more than double the capacity of the MCG, was just a sea of people,” Mr Henschke said.
“The North Koreans told us there were 120,000 performers and not one of them appeared on stage twice.”
For Dr Graham, watching the vision back in Australia, the spectacle gave clues to the political story the Kim regime is currently weaving.
North Koreans perform during a segment of the Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang. (Reuters: Reinhard Krause)
“It was very interesting to me, having seen more than one Arirang performance, that this one had a new message,” he said.
“You saw footage of the two Korean leaders together [Mr Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in] and it was there for the North Korean audience to also take in.
“This thaw is after a long period of antagonistic relations between the two countries. Of course it’s being presented as an accomplishment achieved by North Korea… there’s no mention of the sanctions that have brought them to the table.
“The bottom line is that everything in North Korea has to reaffirm the legitimacy of the Kim regime.”
Tour groups are strictly managed
There’s an inherent contradiction in a closed society like North Korea allowing outsiders in — travel opens the mind. But tourists open their wallets, and Dr Graham said that’s the overarching allure for the regime.
“North Korea depends on income and earnings of hard currency are a valuable resource… and tour groups are strictly managed,” he said.
Mr Henschke said his group was constantly accompanied by North Korean security, with no exceptions.
“One of us picked up a stomach bug and had to stay in the hotel for the day. One of the security guards had to stay back with him,” he said.
“It is a very unusual place, but I’ve got to say, I really enjoyed the experience.”
There are other places on the adventurer’s bucket list, but Mr Henschke said he would happily visit North Korea again — if he could convince his adult children to let him go.
“My daughter in particular feels that one day I’ll come to my end, leaning over a cliff trying to take the photograph of all time… but in the end, they’re happy if I’m happy.”