Seven Japanese became late last month the first foreigners allowed to take a bicycle tour of the North Korean countryside and get a glimpse of the rustic people, who often seemed shocked to see them.

The group originally planned to spend three days cycling some 200 km of expressway from Pyongyang to the port of Wonsan facing the Sea of Japan.

But some officials, including provincial authorities, were reluctant to let them pass through their regions, so the outward ride was cut to one day.

On the return trip, government officials permitted the group to go to Nampo, west of the capital, and southward to Sinchon via Kuwolsan.

In some places, they were not allowed to take pictures. They also had to ride their support bus on certain segments of the trip.

The entire route covered 176 km.

The bicyclists left the capital in late October, accompanied by a North Korean guide, three students and the support bus with a media contingent, to get a glimpse of what they thought would be the true face of North Korea.

Authorities appeared cautious but flexible in accepting them, according to the group. It appeared as though North Korea was showing signs of opening up in line with the improvement in Japanese-North Korean relations, they said.

The cycling route took in the southern farming region, where the annual rice harvest had already been completed by the time the group set out. Villagers were busy gathering Chinese cabbages and daikon to make kimchi, as the mercury at times fell below freezing in the flatlands.

The bicyclists said they did not witness any sign of famine in the villages, noting people in southern North Korea seem to live comfortable lives, whereas their counterparts in the northern provinces are reportedly in the throes of a famine.

The party came across few motor vehicles or other bikes on the rural roads, figuring the malnourished oxen they saw pulling carts provided the major mode of transportation.

Nevertheless, the cyclists saw numerous hitchhikers.

As the riders passed them, the hitchhikers stood stock still, appearing puzzled. But then one of the Japanese greeted them in Korean, breaking the ice and drawing waves and smiles.

At one hotel where the worn-out bicyclists stayed, there was no heat and they were unable to take a hot shower because of a power outage. The visitors said they spent the freezing night thinking about the difficulties North Koreans must face on a daily basis.

Their jaunt was marred by an incident at their hotel in Kaesong at the end of their tour while the party was dining. When one of the cyclists returned to his room, he confronted an intruder carrying a spare key who had pocketed 20,000 yen.

After discussing the matter with law enforcement officers, the intruder, who had managed to slip away, was found hiding in the hotel compound and taken into custody.

The cyclists said they did not know if the crime was an indication of a general deterioration in the country’s security. But they gave high marks to the law enforcement officers, who had expressed their desire to improve relations between Japan and North Korea, for sincerely dealing with the incident.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.