On A Train To Pyongyang: What A Writer Discovered Inside North Korea

Monisha Rajesh in her book ‘Around the World in 80 Trains’ writes that while the dictators take great pains to keep up their image, fewer people were buying into state propaganda.

Fumbling for my watch, I rolled over and squinted at the window wondering why we had stopped. I propped myself up on my elbow and listened. The air was sour with the smell of the guards’ old Marlboro Reds so I buried my nose in my scarf, waiting for the jolts and wobbles from engine changes or the reassuring clump of boots from guards pottering around.


For a few minutes I lay staring at the mound that was Jem, willing him to be awake, but his breath whistled into the blankets, suggesting otherwise, and there was no sound of movement from our companions in the adjacent compartments. Roald Dahl had called this “the witching hour” – a special moment in the middle of the night when every child and every grown-up is in a deep, deep sleep and all the dark things come out from hiding and have the world to themselves. Gathering the bulk of faux-fur blankets around my shoulders I shuffled up to the end of the berth and peered around the edge of the curtain, which was damp with cold. Blackness greeted me. We had stopped in the middle of an empty expanse. There were no lampposts, houses or other trains in sight; no torches bobbing along to suggest human activity. We hadn’t even stopped at a platform.

So far, I had taken the trip in my stride, but I was aware now of a quiet hysteria building in my gut. Had we been reported again? Had Pyotr been hanging from the windows and taking photos? Or maybe it was me? I usually slipped away to make notes on the sly, but for all I knew I had been watched and was now going to be arrested by the authorities. They’d force me to write an apology and read it at a press conference, or make me serve fifteen years of hard labour. It had finally happened. The paranoia had sunk in its claws and I was convinced I would never be able to leave the country. Shivering, I crawled back up the berth and lay down, turning foetal with anxiety when the train started to glide away from its spot and a blade of white light cut through the curtain. I saw that we were rolling into a station. And there, side by side, high up on the station wall, were the two illuminated faces of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, beaming down. They were the picture of jollity: paternal and kind, watching over the fatherland. Without stopping, the train began to pick up pace and their light was soon shrinking into the distance. It was just a temporary stop outside a station. Pacified, I lay down, took out my phone and began to watch videos of the kindergarten children as the train swept down the coast to the port city of Wonsan.

* * *

Loudspeakers played a crackling piece of dated music. It was early evening, and we had gathered at the edges of the main square in Wonsan to watch more than a thousand Korean students take part in a mass dance in preparation for the upcoming 70th anniversary celebrations. The women were dressed in colourful chima jogori, and the men were wearing white shirts and red ties. It looked much like a barn dance; linking arms and dancing do-si-do in circles, they appeared to be enjoying themselves and the guides clapped and cheered in support. Mr Song grabbed us one by one and told us we could join in. Uncomfortable at the thought of interrupting them, we hovered at the edge waiting for someone else to go first. It was like being back at school again. Geoff ventured forward and Mr Song appeared from nowhere, grabbed my hand and thrust it into the palm of a tall man who let go of his partner and led me as though it were the most normal thing in the world. Too embarrassed to make eye contact, I noticed that Jem was dancing with the girl who had been thrust aside to make way for me and she was struggling to keep him within the formation, but laughing and patiently guiding him. This was what I had longed for all week. As we held hands and twirled, we became nothing but an unbroken chain of young people having fun. There was nothing between me and the North Korean with warm hands but music and energy. A surge of heat flushed under my skin and I could feel tears at the corners of my eyes. They weren’t out of sadness, sympathy or pity, but a sense of nostalgia, for when we were small kids unburdened by prejudice – when we played with everyone without caring who they were or where they came from.

“For the first time since we had arrived, we were allowed to walk back to our hotel unchaperoned and it felt like we had just been given permission to strip naked and do somersaults.”

The music stopped and the group broke apart into applause and we bowed, thanked our partners and darted back to the side, exhilarated. As the others joined the next dance, I wandered over to Nick, who was enthralled by the scene. Leaning in, he said:

“Do you know, there’s nothing here – apart from violent oppression – that isn’t reminiscent of European society a hundred years ago, where everyone respected the heads of state, and for an event they would all come out onto the town square for a dance. If it’s all been propaganda then it’s been a triumph. I’ve bought it.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Oh, absolutely. I’d recommend most people come and see it for themselves and make up their own minds. I’ve seen worse in Glasgow and the north of England than here. Even their poor neighbourhoods are clean and painted and they have very neat-looking houses. The people don’t have an obesity crisis, they look healthy, it’s not all soviet grey. There’s a lot that’s really good about it and I think that people ought to get out here and see it.”

For the first time since we had arrived, we were allowed to walk back to our hotel unchaperoned and it felt like we had just been given permission to strip naked and do somersaults. The buzz of crowds coming down from a high reminded me of walking home from Hyde Park after a summer festival and yet there were no empty cans of Strongbow in the street, no pissed-up idiots collapsed under trees, no remnants of goat curry and wooden forks in the gutter. Everyone ambled along, elderly women swept up leaves in the road by torchlight and, although it was dark, tiny children walked home alone, so safe was it for them to do so unaccompanied. There was much to Nick’s observations that appeared true.

“The journey from Wonsan to Pyongyang would take just over eight hours and we had only one more day in Pyongyang before taking the train back to Beijing. Yet I was relieved.”

The following morning I was sitting on the coach and waiting for the others to emerge from the hotel. A couple of men were milling around, smoking and chatting to our driver, when a man on a bicycle sailed past them, slowing briefly to reach into his jacket and pull out a digital camera. In a flash, he passed it to one of the men, who pocketed it without saying a word and carried on smoking like nothing had happened. It all took place with such speed that I wondered if I had imagined it. Either I had just watched something underhand take place, or my paranoia had got the better of me. I resolved to bring it up with Geoff when I saw him.

As we boarded the train for the last time I was overcome with sadness that the trip was coming to an end. The journey from Wonsan to Pyongyang would take just over eight hours and we had only one more day in Pyongyang before taking the train back to Beijing. Yet I was relieved. It had been a long nine days and the strain of being polite and vigilant was taking its toll. Even Bob was subdued and had on his lap a brown envelope of family photographs to keep him going. He had spent the last couple of days trying to ring his wife, with no success. He passed the photographs to me and Jem and pointed out his grandchildren and Brenda, a smiling blonde with curly hair.

“Oh, I loves ’em,” said Bob. “She’s such a good woman. It was our 55th wedding anniversary a few days ago, but we’re going to celebrate together when I’m home.”

I was touched by how much Bob yearned for his family and hoped that I would be the same in 55 years, struggling to be without them for ten days.

In the autumnal light, Kangwon province throbbed with life and colour. Curving through the bottom of a canyon, the train raced against a river throwing itself around the bends and banks of green. The canyon appeared aflame with maple trees, draping a shawl of gold and red over the valleys, and once again the sky burned that beautiful blue. Lee was sitting in his compartment going through notes about the next day’s activities, so I stepped in to ask what we would see at the mausoleum. In addition to the embalmed bodies of the Kims, the mausoleum housed the private train carriages in which each leader had travelled and – in the case of Kim Jong Il – died. The official story was that he had been out in the countryside inspecting a dam and had succumbed to a heart attack having worked himself to death. His body was found in his train carriage. However, the story was quickly challenged by Won Sei-hoon, the then-director of the National Intelligence Service in Seoul, who declared that Kim’s train had remained stationary in Pyongyang at the time of his death and cited US satellite surveillance photos as proof. Like most stories, it was impossible to corroborate. Lee described how important the railways were to North Korean pride and identity before disappearing for another smoke. Geoff, who had been listening in the corridor, sat down with his bottle of soju, which was almost finished, and checked that everyone else was out of earshot before drawing the door closed.

“What Lee said isn’t untrue, but the railways are basically the product of Japanese militarism during World War II. They weren’t necessarily a communist or Stalinist creation. When Korea was a unified colony under Japanese rule, Japan built many of the current lines as part of its expansion across Asia.”

“They loved their railways,” I said, thinking of Sir Harold Atcherley.

“The Japanese loved infrastructure and railways. They even had their Korean military headquarters at the same place as the main US military base in South Korea now, in large part because of the major railway nearby. They could quickly sling their soldiers across the whole of Korea – as in what is now the North and the South. Long before the Korean division, a lot of battles between Russia, China and Japan were fought over the railway arteries.”

“I have a question: why do they not wear Kim Jong Un on their badges? And why does Miss Kim refer to Kim Il Sung in the present tense? Given that the current leader is so dictatorial I’m a bit surprised that he doesn’t enforce the wearing of his own badge.”

“Kim Il Sung rules from the grave. North Korea is a necrocracy, if you will.”
I had never heard the word before.

“And as for Kim Jong Un, let’s just say he hasn’t yet earned his colours.”

The more I learnt about the Kim dynasty and its relationship with the people, the more it made sense. North Koreans were sold a story from birth and grew up believing it to be true because they received little information to the contrary. It was no more ridiculous than any other world religion, in fact their belief system invited minimum mockery as they at least acknowledged the supremacy of a living, breathing human being, rather than an invisible entity. The Kims had taken pains to be viewed as an enigma by rarely speaking in public, having no known official residence and appearing around the country unannounced. Kim Jong Un first spoke in public on 15 April 2012 at his grandfather’s 100th birthday, ending a twenty-year period of silence from the family. North Koreans hadn’t heard any leader speak since Kim Jong Il had shouted “Glory to the heroic Korean People’s Army” in Kim Il Sung Square in 1992. Kim Jong Un was in his late twenties before anyone in the country had even heard of him, and it was only after the American basketball player Dennis Rodman had gone to film a documentary that it was revealed to the world that the leader had a baby daughter of whom his own people were still unaware.

Things were changing, though. Defectors to South Korea had begun to describe how fewer and fewer people bought into the state media propaganda machine and were growing more aware and more trusting of foreign media that had started to find its way into the country on USB sticks and DVDs. I realised then that I hadn’t imagined the camera that I had seen being passed from the cyclist to the man standing next to our bus. Memory cards and USB sticks were easy to hide in case authorities came searching. Cities on the borders of China and South Korea were often able to pick up foreign radio and TV signals, allowing North Koreans to tune into a new reality. South Korean soap operas and movies showed a different world, and it gave them a taste for more. That was not to say that everyone wanted to defect across the border; they just wanted to enjoy a few luxuries and some light entertainment, and those caught indulging were far more likely to be fined than imprisoned. The chance of an uprising was still remote, as the money and power lay with the upper echelons of society, who were quite happy to maintain the status quo so long as it worked in their favour.

That evening as we drew into Pyongyang, I cupped my hands to the window, unable to discern anything through the glass. Switching off the light in the compartment, I peered into the blackness, where there was little more than a spattering of light on the ground floors of the odd building. Contrary to the Western ideal of penthouses being the preserve of the wealthy, the elite lived on the ground floor in North Korea. With electricity being in short supply, having no lift to reach the top floor soon became a problem. In the absence of car headlights, streetlights and advertising hoardings, the city was all but invisible. The glare that usually heralded the arrival into a major hub was nowhere to be found. But as we gathered our things and disembarked, I sensed that the station was heaving with bodies. Two other trains had arrived and people were pouring out of the carriages which were dimly lit and poorly maintained. In the dark, I was just able to make out their loads of cardboard boxes, paper bags and children tied to their backs as the guides steered us through the crowds thronging towards the exit. Grappling for Jem’s hand, we felt our way out and were soon on the coach back to the loving arms of the Yanggakdo.

Excerpted with permission from Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh, Bloomsbury India.