A North Korean odyssey

A young Castlegregory man’s experiences from a visit to the world’s most secretive nation

Rory Cheevers with a North Korean guard at the DMZ on the border with South Korea
Rory Cheevers with a North Korean guard at the DMZ on the border with South Korea
The 22-year-old from Castlegregory stands on an empty road, with the Arch of Reunification in the background
Rory Cheevers looks out at the skyline of Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital

Tadhg Evans

It's one thing to visit the most secretive, and arguably most controversial, country in the world, and many simply assume that it can't be done.

But it's another thing entirely to visit the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - better known as North Korea - the day after it had drawn international ire by launching a missile over Japan.

To a 22-year-old Kerry man with an insatiable appetite for adventure, however, the lure of this mysterious strip between China and South Korea was irresistible.

Rory Cheevers from Castlegregory is back in his current residence of Melbourne this week after a five-day visit to the pariah state and, like many, he was unaware up until a short time ago that travelling to North Korea was even possible. But once he knew he had a chance of setting foot on a country that has always fascinated him, he wasn't for taking a backward step.

"I always had an interest in the history of the region and the attention it gets in the media, so when I found out that it was possible to go, I jumped at it," Rory told The Kerryman. "I booked up, and within a day I received confirmation of my North Korean visa. I googled the web and found a lot of companies offering the trip, and after weighing up all the options and dates, I found the perfect group to travel with. By going with an established tour group, they see to everything for you, and I found the whole process effortless. In fact, I found it harder to get my Chinese visa."

After first travelling to Beijing for the many briefings that precede a visit to North Korea, Rory boarded a plane bound for the capital, Pyongyang. Far from being afraid, he felt only pure excitement, and his only fear was that the trip would be cancelled.

"The night before my visit, they fired a missile over Japanese airspace. But I love travelling, and I was too intrigued to step away," he said. "Landing there was an almost alien feeling. There's always a culture shock in another country, but this was different - I knew I didn't belong.

"The first step was going through customs. They don't mind cameras, books, iPads or phones, but bringing religious or journalistic material on the regime is obviously a massive no-no.

"While customs was a breeze for the most part, they ripped open my backpack and checked everything, and I thought to myself: 'I'm in North Korea. I'm actually in North Korea.'"

Rory was part of a 13-member group, mainly consisting of Europeans aged from 18 to 30, that toured Pyongyang and nearby Pyongsong, and Kaesong, which is near the South Korean border. While in the country, the Castlegregory man visited monuments, cities and villages, and he nurtured a connection with the North Korean people.

"The North Koreans couldn't help but notice me, a young white western with tattoos. Tattoos aren't a part of their culture, and a lot of the time they would come up to grab my arm just to have a look," he said.

"I would smile and wave at them, and the majority of the time their faces would break into a massive smile and they would wave back. They enjoyed the interaction.

"Pyongyang, Pyongson and the areas around the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on the border with South Korea all had a cold, Soviet feel about them. Many of the buildings had a tacky 1970s-style décor, with maybe a single splash of paint to cover the grey concrete look. Pink and light green seemed to be the main colours on much of the country's architecture.

"It was sad, to be honest, walking around there because there's always this greyness. All the men and women had the same look going, and when I tried to look into their eyes and connect with their body language, all you could get was glumness. There was an innocence to the people, and I found it difficult to swallow."

While in the country, Rory didn't shy away from asking his tour guides, who he found to be very likeable, some tough questions. The guides told Rory that they like American people, but detest the American government, and that they think of South Korea as America's puppets. But when asked anything too sensitive, the guides simply pretended that they did not understand Rory's queries.

"We built up a very good rapport with our guides, and by the end they would allow us a few hundred metres from them to roam Pyongyang a little," he explained. "At no point did I feel in any danger.

"Going to the monuments and the burial palace containing Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, we all had to wear shirts and ties and pay our respects by bowing. I had to swallow my pride knowing these men were terrible, oppressive dictators.

"I feel as though it will be difficult for me to see stories about North Korea without thinking of the names, faces and conversations I had with them. I don't agree with the country's regime in any way, but I feel for its people. The country is one of the world's most talked about topics at the moment, but not all sources can be depended on 100 per cent.

"I think compassion is lacking for North Korea's 25 million innocent people. In all the chaos surrounding the country at the moment, it's easy not to think of them.

"As for travelling again, an American travel ban commenced on September 1, and both the UK and Ireland advise against non-essential travel - but I thoroughly enjoyed my experience, and I will return to the region."