more NO!…NO’s!… ways to look behind the curtain of DPRK

live PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

...only a few running cars

Highways like frontline airstrips

Highway roadside traffic

The NO!…NO’S! of our two guides are an everyday occurrence. I don’t work with hidden movie or photo cameras, my shooting activity is open but my focus I keep obscured by not looking through the finder.

Shooting from the hip

Since the guides don’t allow stops on the highway or in cities without prior permission from the central travel office in Pyongyang I shoot from the hip.

Army road block

I take photos or movie from all types of angles. My “luck“ is that roads and highways are often in poor condition and we roll by comfortably at 40-60 km, perfect to take snapshots.

Highway bikers - much more common than cars

Just as regular as pedestrians and bikes are oxen carts on the highway.

Man and ox - regular highway traffic

Broken down trucks on the roadside I see sometimes more often than cars driving.

Head transport on the highway

Driving overland on the highway from Pyongyang to Wonsan on the East coast, a distance of about 200 km, I count 25 oncoming cars while on our side I see 11 vehicles in need of repair.

The most modern trucks I have seen in North Korea

A NO! NO! shot. North Korean soldiers wait for the blow-out to be fixed

Hitch-hikers in the tunnels are a special experience.

Hitch-hikers are extremely rare

The NO!…NO’S! are an attempt to hide the harsh living conditions of the North Koreans and erase them from the travelers eye.

Crossing the railway tracks, our driver has to slow down... - In the background behind the biker people are walking on the tracks. This is very common specially in the morning and evening hours. Rail tracks offer the shortest link to the next destination. Trains ran not very often and when they approach the people on the tracks they honk early.

Our guides allowed the driver to make an unplanned stop only in a very remote area but even there Tung Hui followed me, stood in front of my camera to prevent me from taking pictures.

Woman transporting coal to the city

As a western tour operator, stationed in Beijing and in the North Korean tourist business for over 10 years, said to me: “We all know that the view KIM JONG IL’S dictatorship imposes on us does not reflect everyday life in DPRK.”

But there are ways…  …to look behind the curtain.

A moment to himself

Pushing uphill

Pulling wood along the highway

North Korea is indeed FRAGILE

Loggers loading stems on carburator truck

“deja vu“ PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

Childhood memories appear from behind the couch. Korea takes me back to the 1950s. While for me it evokes nostalgic feelings, for North Koreans it represents decades of retardation ending in horrific poverty of today. To them it is a real tragedy.

The military has wooden carburator trucks too

It was in the spring of 1950 – I spent so many months of my childhood in the hills of South Germany that I became almost a native, speaking the local dialect – I was kneeling beside Franz who was fixing the wooden carburator of his tractor at the farmhouse, waiting to go to the forest with him and his brother Hans… .

Sixty-one years later in April 2011, hiking in the woods of Mt Myohyang 150 km

Loggers in Mt Myohyang

north of Pyongyang, I was taking photos of “deja vu“, six forest workers, uploading stems when back in 1950, there were two men who did the job and an infant watching… .

I came across many wood carburators on the highways we traveled, giving weight to my observation that North Korea suffers a severe transportation problem and energy shortage. The “Holzvergaser“ trucks

A mysterious fragrance contrasted by a dreadful reality

dating to the 1950s and 1960s of the former USSR often broke down on the highway.

I did not see gas stations in the cities nor on the highways. When our driver got gasoline, he dropped us together with one guide on the roadside and left for 15 minutes to fill up his tank. We were not allowed to be present at government gas stations, neither in Pyongyang nor in any other city.

“Holzvergaser“ truck on a side road we have no access

Gasoline shortage was clearly evident where ever we traveled on the East and West Coast. Transportation means for the lower level of the population are in a precarious state, 1950s UDSSR-made vehicles.

Wooden carburator, military truck

The SNAKE in the GRASS

tricky PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

KIM IL SUNG at the Grand People's Study House

It’s NOT a lie! No, I don’t say they lie at me. It is a different frame of mind, sometimes it is an anxious state of mind that dictates them and their actions, other times it looks like utter confusion or just paranoia in hiding.

It is the dictum of “The Eternal President“ KIM IL SUNG – the only statesman on earth who remains President even  after his death in 1994 that is of utmost importance.

KIM IL SUNG at the Grand People's Study House

KIM IL SUNG – The Eternal President

He and his son KIM JONG IL, called “My Dear Leader“, are telling Right from Wrong, Good from Bad. They decide what is real and what has to be banned, who is sent to the university or to the work camp, to the labor camp or to the gulag. KIM IL SUNG and KIM JONG IL have a six-decade grip on power.

KIM IL SUNG with local guide in the entrance of the Grand People's Study House

All in the Family - KIM IL SUNG “The Eternal President" and his son KIM YONG IL, called “My Dear Leader"

Our two “permanent“ guides work under the spell of this government-mind-set, they tell me that the local shops are closed when they are open, that people don’t like to make contact with a foreigner when in fact they wish just that. They change our itinerary every day but if we want to make an additional stop, it’s impossible.

This gentle local guide liked my questions, Agricultural University, Wonsan area

They make me feel like a disobedient child who doesn’t quite get it when I keep asking questions or like a snake in the grass when I make photos of simple life events.

Fear is guiding the system. The world of DPRK is under a delusion.

The hinge joint is the personality cult.

My guess is that “Big Brother“ will tell them. China holds the key to the future of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.


Our local guide and receptionist at a formerly Soviet spa

FANGO-PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

At lovely lake Si Jung, the sanatorium is tucked away...

We are located in a old Soviet-type sanatorium at lake Si Jung outside Wonsan which was built  in the early 1960s, when North Korea grew rapidly. During that time a chain of resorts were built all over the Soviet Empire for the Communist Partys’ leading members to visit and consult each other, relax and go hunting.

Built on an artificial lake, the sanatorium is tucked away behind the road but close enough to the sea with a view to the mountains we had just passed. It offered privacy to the communist party members of the Soviet Empire from Georgia to Kazakhstan, from Moscow to Kyrgyzstan. Tourists nowadays pay for their upkeep (since almost no communist party boss is left over “from the good old times“ and those from China and North Korea most likely prefer more comfort.).

From "Russia" to "Kyrgyzstan."

From the "Georgia" to "KAZAKHSTAN"

We stay at this famous spa with electricity for 3 hours in the evening, almost no running water and a special fango-pack  treatment that was cold because of a power cut.

We are the only guests and retire early to do some talking and writing. Unexpectedly at 10pm, the light goes off and we sit in the dark not quite remembering where the toilet was… .

From nowhere we jump awake at 5am next morning realising that we forgot to switch off the light… . Suddenly the electricity was back on… .

Waitress at the bar

Breakfast is at 8am. We are very well received by our waitress behind the bar which serves us a full meal under a big painting of a mountain scene close to the Chinese-North Korean border.

Oh! KIM IL SUNG!!... Oh! KIM JONG IL!!... Oh! Communist Party!

sudden snow in DPRK mountains

white PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

Ominous silence

SUDDENLY THERE was an eerie silence in our car, nobody talked any more, not even breathing I heard.

eerie silence

On our way to Wonsan on the East Coast of North Korea, we had run into a snowstorm and within 5 minutes everything had turned white.

The driver, glued to the steering wheel, changed gears driving more slowly but to me it felt much more like swimming. I had checked the tyres before we had left Pyongyang, they had no tread.

There was no oncoming traffic.

Broken down truck

Only a broken down truck was blocking the opposite lane in the tunnel. No emergency road box, no road service either. If we would get stuck we would be stuck till the weather would change. After we had put on our coats, the car heating was barely sufficient. I figured out that 5 more minutes of heavy snowfall and we would be mired in layers of sludge and ice.


sudden snow

Seeking shelter in the tunnel

It was a good time to make some photos, our two guides were tuned out there for a moment.

People were heading to the tunnel not to take cover but to cross to the other side. The tunnel on the photo was 4km long. It had light – the only one of the many tunnels we passed through – but only for 2 or 3 minutes then there was a power cut. The people walking in the tunnel were difficult to detect, some had stopped in the middle of the road… .

People heading for the tunnel

FAST HAIRCUT in a Cooperative Farm

The tools: 1 comb and 1 scissors


My hairdresser at the Cooperative Model-Farm

A visit at a hairdresser is a travel experience to me I’m always looking forward to. I enjoy the special attention that comes with a hair cut or a shaving. There is also a difference in style from country to country.

Hair Salon, Cooperative Farm, Wonsan area, North Korea.

AFTER SEVERAL UNSUCCESSFUL attempts to get a haircut in Pyongyang, I got one at a Cooperative Model-Farm in the Wonsan area on the East Coast of North Korea.

Tong Hui, our female guide told me I could get a haircut at the hotel in Pyongyang but I wanted one in the City, a local one. She refused. Due to the fact that I could not leave the hotel in Pyongyang (nor in any other City we stayed overnight) and was not allowed to go for a walk on my own I saw no possibility to find a local hairdresser.

I told Tong Hui that I could move freely in China and could go to the hairdresser as I wished. She was sort of surprised. She wore Chinese cloths and had a Chinese handbag but could not grasp how worlds apart China and North Korea are. I don’t know if my China-remark helped.

North Korea exists like a hermit. In our interconnected world it looks like a proto-hermit country, totally sealed up to the outside world and tightly controlled within.

But where there are people there is flexibility! Two days later, my guide Tong Hui surprised me with a haircut offer in a very special location!

Haircut in progress

She was elated when she received the Go-ahead! from the woman in charge at the Cooperative Farm and even made some photos in the salon herself.

She was in charge of the hairdressing salon at the Cooperative Farm in the Wonsan area

It was the first haircut  she had organized for a foreigner 250km outside of the hotel in Pyongyang. She took good care, asked me if I felt satisfied and instructed the hairdresser girl. Yes, I had not expected that!

On the way out, the hair salon had a romantic bar

The salon had a romantic bar with liquor, beer, candies and dried fruit from the Cooperative Farm. Ursula bought some dried fruit, they tasted delicious.

One of my "permanent" guides together with the local guide are waiting at the bar. Who has an eye on whom? The Guides on me or the guides on each other?

NO!…NO’s!… recorded!


Every day it happened several times that I was reprimanded or hindered in taking photos or shooting a video. Sometimes it was physically made impossible by our guides to take pictures  or – when they did not succeed – they tried to interfere, stood in my way and blocked my view.

To shoot a farmworker woman in Mount Kuwol area - "No! No! It is NOT allowed!"

To get me in line, they also threatened me openly that everything would be confiscated at the airport on my departure. I knew that this could be the case since it had happened to another traveler at Pyongyang railway station upon his arrival by train from Beijing. He had taken photos in the train and somebody had informed against him. All his shots were deleted by a security official when he passed the exit checkpoint at the railway station in Pyongyang. I felt inevitably reminded of the former Sovietunion where we had traveled in the 1960s extensively by car and two times with the Trans-Siberian-Railway, once on our way to Japan in 1969 and the second time in 1987 from Zurich through the Sovietunion, Mongolia to China till Hongkong. Photos of the locomotive with the red star of the Trans-Sib-Train, shots of the typically wooden houses and their backyards, of people and countryside, just about everything got me in trouble in Russia at that time. Time has not only not changed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Actually it is worse than I initially thought. Controls were tight and severe restrictions were imposed. I could not leave the Hotel in Pyongyang on my own and not in any other City we traveled to. I could never freely walk the streets of Pyongyang, Sariwon, Kaesong, Wonsan or any other place we visited. In Sariwon, two girls dancing to the singing and clapping of their parents were told to stop when the local guide noticed that I was filming. In Pyongyang we tried to go by tram or bus, but though we insisted, we couldn’t even get close to public transport.

Public transport like tram or bus in Pyongyang was out of reach for us.

Friendshipstores were the only shops foreigners could enter and buy goods –  with one exception. In Wonsan City, though my guide tried to hinder me I went in a local cloth shop and bought some tights for my wife. Unofficial contact with people in the street or countryside was cut immediatly. Only with a good portion of “Zivilcourage” I could get my way… sometimes.

Drinkingwater turned into a state secret

But often I could not like this picture shows in the streets of Pyongyang at a little kiosk where I wanted to buy a cup of drinking water like everybody else. Most trivial undertakings turned suddenly into state secrets.


SOUR PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

FAR MORE I resented the political system of the KIMS for having effectively established a paranoid, all encompassing power structure with the purpose  to dehumanise contact and treat emotional exchange and empathy as forbidden acts. This state of mind obliged our guides to twist contact making and enforce restrictions on us.

Toilets were solemn places...

Whenever this got to me and threatened my well-being and my mood turned dark, I asked for the toilet.

Toilet at Mount to myself...

Not so much because I wanted to vomit but for the sake of  having space to myself. Though the stench often was unbearable  the reality of the system was far worse.

...the reality outside was far worse...

Under circumstances like  these toilets were solemn places and offered a rest for my agitated and angry mind in turmoil.


RICH PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.-21. April 2011

At the ascent to Mount Kuwol...

AT THE ASCENT to Mount Kuwol we had to stop at a cordon of police

...cordon of police...

and our male guide

Our male guide shows his papers

had to show his travel permit from the central tourist office in Pyongyang to the woman police officer in charge. On the way up to the pass I managed briefly to sit beside the driver – there were no cars nor humans far and wide.

On our way to Kaeseong City...

Down the steep slopes on our way to Kaeseong City we entered a very beautiful garden like area that looked like the bottom of an ancient crater.

...we enter a garden like area.

Two Girls from a nearby cooperative carried buckets of water from a nearby draw well. An old woman, bowed down by age, was working bent forward in the field. Ursula made the driver stop and, for a moment unattended, we got out of the car to the dismay of our two guides.

I hasten to the field not knowing that my guide is hard on my heels

I hastened to the field to watch the woman. She was hacking and collecting some roots. I managed to take a shot or two but Yong Hui was already beside me.

My guide was exasperated: "You are not allowed to take photos of her.“

As I took a Schwenk she got between my Sony-video and the old farmworker lady and shouted: “You are not allowed to take fotos of her.“

In the meantime, Ursula had joined us. The old lady was laughing and talking to her, enjoying herself like a teenager though she was most likely in her early eighties. The old farmworker lady seemed perfectly happy with our company. She did not give the impression to be disturbed or feel dishonored by me.

"Look what I have in my bag!" - Her grace inspired me with awe

She radiated kindness and sympathy, strong life-impulses. Dead poor she was but close to the pulse of life. Her background and lifestyle were ages apart from that of our guides, she was collecting roots in the field to have something for supper.

She specially took her hat of: "Look how beautiful I am!"

While I had an argument with my guide the old woman offered Ursula  her bag, proudly showing her what she had collected. It inspired me with awe how this gentle woman could strike up a friendship with Ursula in a second talking to her like to an old friend. This made Yong Hui even more furious. She called for help from our second guide. As I tried to side step her, she was shifting desperately from one foot to the other to block me from taking a foto of the old lady.

I felt sorry for Yong Hui, she was a city girl and didn’t want to make her shoes dirty. She probably dreaded the countryside.


harsh PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.-21. April 2011

I ask our guide as often as possible about personal issues: When do you marry? We get married between 25 and 28 years. So you are 24? You will marry soon? Yes. Who will choose your husband, you or your parents? My mother knows best she will recommend the right partner to me.

You live with your parents? Yes, my mom is cooking for me. Will you move out when you get married? Maybe not, certainly not in the beginning. Is it difficult to find an apartment? No, not so difficult. I write to the district officer and he will allocate one to me. How much does it cost? Nothing. I repeat: “NOTHING“? Why do you ask? Apartments are free. So you cannot buy an apartment? Why should I buy one? This is not necessary! I only pay for electricity, water and heating. How much is that per month? In Euro it is 20 cents. Did I hear right?

My Dear Leader KIM JONG IL

Everything belongs to the government, we don’t have to worry. And what about healthcare? It is free. Sometimes the hospitals have too many patients and we have to wait to get treatment some weeks. So you have to pay the doctor extra money to get good treatment? She doesn’t understand. Extra money? No! We wait till it’s our turn.

I hear from another source that people in Pyongyang have to pay around 3 Euro/month for an apartment. My guide told me that he paid 7 Euro for his suit made by a tailor. He said it was expensive. As I calculate the numbers I collect, I figure out that monthly income in the capital Pyongyang is probably between 20-50 Euro. High earners make 200 to 300 Euro. In the countryside it’s ten times less if they get money at all, most likely they get food, a place to sleep and clothing.

It’s difficult to get real numbers and impossible to verify them. Job, income, living conditions – it all depends on communist party connections and on people with a link to the inner power circle of “My Dear Leader“ Kim Jong Il.