On the Road in North Korea

Photos by David Guttenfelder

When North Korea opens its doors, it does so for a reason. So it was when the authoritarian government granted permission for a road trip so extensive that few North Koreans — let alone a pair of American journalists — could imagine taking it.

We drove 2,150 kilometers (1,336 miles) in a country that has barely 25,000 kilometers of road, and only 724 kilometers of those paved. By the time we returned to the capital a week later, our Chinese-made Great Wall SUV had a few new scratches and one less hubcap.

Our official destination was majestic Mount Paektu, with its jagged peaks surrounding a crystal-blue crater lake. North Korea is pursuing a plan to create dozens of special foreign investment and tourism zones, and this is one of the places it most wants to promote.

The easiest way to get there is to fly, but we had been granted permission to drive. This, we were told, would mean traveling through places that no foreign journalists had been allowed to see before.

Still, the trip was on North Korea’s terms.

Even on the loneliest of lonely highways, we would never be without a “minder,” whose job was to monitor and supervise our activities. We were not to take photographs of any checkpoints or military installations, or talk to people we happened to see along the way. For the most part, we were not to detour from our pre-approved route, which, to no one’s surprise, didn’t include nuclear facilities or prison camps.

Though we would not get to know the people along the way, the country itself had a great deal to say. And no place is more symbolic of the North Korean psyche than Mount Paektu.

North Koreans venerate it for its natural beauty, but more importantly because it is considered the home of the North Korean revolution. It is dotted by reconstructions of “secret camps,” where guides dressed in period costume recount the legends of Kim Il Sung’s battles against Japanese imperialists.

Before we left Pyongyang, the capital, we were warned, half-jokingly, not to get lost. Mount Paektu straddles North Korea’s border with China.

“If you wander off into China,” we were told, “you will be shot.”

Something similar had, in fact, happened many years ago. No borders were involved, but a South Korean housewife who strayed off the accepted path at a tourist site was fatally shot in the back by a North Korean guard.

Nothing so dramatic had happened as we made our way across the country to the mountain.

Wrested out of our beds for our ascent up to the summit after four days on the road, we fumbled without lights to pack our equipment, made our way down our hotel’s candlelit staircase and climbed into our car in the pouring-down rain. With no signs to guide him, our driver steered silently into the night.

Many people have been amazed by nighttime satellite images that show North Korea as dark as the ocean, set against a northeast Asia brimming with light. There is nothing in the world like experiencing that darkness on the ground over long stretches of the North Korean back country. Possibly more than any other populated place on the globe, North Korea is terra incognita.

As we drove toward the dawn, two armed soldiers emerged from the darkness, signaled for us to stop and for our minder to get out. The rain was coming down harder as they stood in the blurry pool of our headlights.

One peered in at us through the rain-dotted window. There was a good deal of gesticulating. Then some head nodding. Our minder got back in the car.

We had gotten lost, but we weren’t in China. We were going the wrong way down a one-lane, one-way road.

The soldiers waved us on. With North Korean tourism still in its infancy, we were safe. We wouldn’t see another car until we reached the snowy, wind-whipped parking lot below the crater, where two small vans full of shivering Chinese waited for a guard to wake up and lead them to Lake Chon.

Click on any image to launch the On the Road in North Korea gallery. 


License these photos 


Text from the AP news story, AP Exclusive: Driving up revered N. Korea mountain, by Eric Talmadge. 


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