On 8 December 2012 the Daily Mail published a story by reporter Simon Parry.
The story is about a recent trip taken by Parry to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The headline was enough to set off alarm bells about the veracity of the article, in which the Daily Mail claims that he “risked his life to be the first foreigner inside Ryungyong [sic] Hotel”.
The Ryugyong Hotel is located in Pyongyang, the capital of the DPRK. It is arguably one of the most famous sights in the city. Koryo Tours, who have been taking visitors to the country since 1993, made a splash in the realm of North Korea watching when they published pictures of the inside of the hotel taken during a visit in September 2012. This put paid to Parry’s contention that he was “the first foreigner” inside the Hotel. Parry himself prompts the thought that he isn’t “the first foreigner” to have visited the site. The installation of the façade of the hotel was completed in 2011 as part of a deal with the Egyptian Orascom Group. “Orascom installed the dazzling glass panels along with telecom antennae”, he said. The BBC reported back in October 2009 that “dozens of Egyptian engineers” were working on the site.
Parry entered the DPRK posing as a tourist in a group visiting from Dandong, which borders the DPRK on the Chinese side of the Yalu River. He asked his tour guide if it was possible to visit the Ryugyong Hotel. “It’s not on the official tourist itinerary” said his Korean tour guide, a response which Parry says is the result of the hotel’s “embarrassing history” as a long unfinished state project. This conclusion contrasts sharply with that which would be accepted in any other country on earth: the hotel is a construction site. It isn’t open for guests or visitors. Or sticky-beaked tourists.
On the second last day of his trip, Parry proudly tells us, his “nagging and cajoling paid off” and his tour group was taken to a spot near the Ryugyong so that they could take some pictures up close and personal. “It hadn’t lasted long but we were still the first foreign tour party to include the Ryugyong Hotel on its itinerary. And it truly is remarkable – an immense presence five times the size of anything in view.” I agree, it is a truly remarkable view. My nineteen tour companions also noted the remarkableness of the view when we had the opportunity to stop next to the hotel to take pictures of the site in August. I am basing my assumption that our visit pre-dates Parry’s because he talks about “an icy winter’s morning” and the story was published in early December. This suggests that his visit was within the last couple of months.
Unsatisfied with being restricted to taking a few pictures from near the hotel, Parry plans a break in. He says that at “5.45am on an icy winter’s morning” he found himself “jogging through the pitch-black, potholed streets of one of the strangest and most sinister cities in the world. I’m shivering but I can’t tell if it’s from cold or fear. Or both.” Heading off from the Yanggakdo Hotel (a “heavily guarded tourist hotel nicknamed Alcatraz”), Parry says that he jogged the six kilometres through the early morning streets of Pyongyang to the Ryugyong.
Parry at last sneaks into the belly of the beast, only to find himself standing in the massive foyer of the Ryugyong Hotel in the company of a “North Korean soldier. He carries a Kalashnikov slung across one shoulder. Standing just 15ft in front of me, he squints across the darkness and glares at me in what looks like startled disbelief. I smile nervously, and raise a hand in greeting as he fingers his rifle, then turn, climb back through the scaffolding, stumbling twice, and run as fast as I can back out into the icy darkness.” And like that, he’s gone back into the night. No shots fired. No chase given. He wasn’t even stopped as he hustled back to his hotel by the “30 armed soldiers march[ing] directly towards me in shabby formation,” who instead chose to “gaze blankly at me and continue past without a word.”
He says that the reason why he was “never once challenged as I made my way illegally to and from my hotel” despite the fact that he “might have been a spy for the imperialist United States of America” was because “they were frightened: not of me but of the deluge of questions and suspicion that would have engulfed them had they reported a runaway foreigner.” It was not because he looked like a lone tourist off on a spot of unscheduled sight seeing that they left him alone. It was because Parry is not only an urban explorer: he is a man who can make 30 of the DPRK’s finest quake in their boots.
On returning to the Yanggakdo “the only interrogation” Parry received was from his Korean tour guide who said “You were seen leaving the hotel this morning with camera”. Parry explained to his readers he had arranged to swap his camera with a fellow tourists so that none of the incriminating pictures he took during his excursion would be found by the guides on his return. This lead one to pose an interesting question: where are Parry’s pictures of the Ryugyong?
There are only two pictures of the Ryugyong in the article. The first was taken by Simon Cockerell when Koryo Tours visited the site in September 2012. The second is co-credited to Red Door News, a Hong Kong based news organisation of which Parry is a part. At a guess this picture was taken during his tour group’s brief photo-op stop near the hotel. And that’s it. If Parry took any pictures of the Ryugyong during his illicit visit, perhaps one that captured “the first shards of sunrise bouncing off the peak of its vast mirrored surface”, he has chosen not to publish them.
At the end of the article there is a video titled “A tour of the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang” however previous guests will recognise the austere hallways and severely decorated lobby as belonging to the Yanggakdo Hotel. A quick YouTube search shows that the video belongs to a user called ‘Nilov71’, who uploaded it in March 2012. If Parry has any video evidence of his sneak peak at the Ryugyong, he appears to have chosen to keep in a safe place along with his pictures.
In addition to his Ryugyong adventures, Parry goes for a ride on the Pyongyang subway. This is a common outing for tourists visiting the city. Parry questions the crowd his tour group finds in the city subway, saying that in “Pyongyang’s chandelier-laden metro system… it seems… only the best-dressed citizens are allowed.” He is not the first person to cast a doubtful eye over the crowd in the underground. In his book Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty author Bradley Martin recalls a visit to Pyongyang in April 1979:
In the deeply dug, sparkling-clean Pyongyang Metro, with its glittering chandeliers and its imposing murals honoring Kim Il-Sung, I saw “passengers” exit the station via the escalator and then turn around and go back in for another ride – their repetitive all-day assignment, I supposed.
The best he can offer as a “smoking gun” that “actors were performing as ordinary citizens” is described in a footnote, which says in 1994 the Seoul-based newsletter Korea Countdown reported that “its editors had found two places in Kim Il-Sung’s own writings where Kim complained, in so many words, that the “actresses” who lined Pyongyang streets to greet foreign VIPs were not giving a good enough impression.” Martin notes that “Alas, the newsletter did not cite the specific passages.” This newsletter, and the references to it in Martin’s well-publicised book, may be at the roots of the actor-passenger stories circulated about the Pyongyang Metro. (A quick Google search for ‘actor passenger Pyongyang Metro’ illustrates how common this myth appears to be.) And so on the back of two unknown examples of “in so many words” about VIP drive-bys long ago, a shadow of doubt is cast over so many Pyongyang subway experiences.
None of the above is meant to suggest that a trip to the DPRK is like a trip to a holiday spot like Bali. Tour guides from the Korean International Tourism Company, which is wholly owned by the DPRK Government, accompany you during each outing. You are taken to tourist sites approved by the state. You can’t keep your mobile phone with you; they are confiscated at Customs upon entry and returned to you when you leave (or sealed in bubble wrap and marked with a seal, with strict instructions that the seal must not be found broken by Customs when you leave the country).
Contrary to what Parry said he was told by his Chinese tour company (“We were ordered to leave our phones and laptops in China”) as of August 2012 our tour group was told that you can take a laptop into the DPRK as long as it doesn’t have an in-built GPS. Similarly, although he says that his tour group “were banned from taking photographs in the street” this was not my experience. The people in my tour group took photos from the bus windows as we drove through the city and when we stopped near the many museums, monuments, and shops that we visited during our stay in the DPRK.
By the end of the article, I found it impossible not to question all of the experiences Parry describes. Any value held in the attempts he makes to seriously describe the political and economic situation in the DPRK is overwhelmed by his fantastic story about breaking into the Ryugyong Hotel, a journalistic endeavour dangerously unsupported by evidence. The inaccuracies (“the first foreigner inside Ryungyong [sic]…” and hint of pedestrian rumour (“only the best-dressed citizens are allowed” on the subway) contribute to the sense of unease about the quality and veracity of this piece of journalism.