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Romford travel writer documents 'unsettling' experience visiting North Korea

PUBLISHED: 09:57 27 June 2018 | UPDATED: 10:03 27 June 2018

View of Pyongyang from the top of The Arch of Triumph. Picture: Lauren Pears

View of Pyongyang from the top of The Arch of Triumph. Picture: Lauren Pears

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A young Romford travel writer has created a documentary about her "unsettling" experience travelling through North Korea.

Lauren Pears’ tour to North Korea in August, 2017 saw her sightseeing in the capital city, Pyongyang, visiting the Demilitarised Zone on the border of South Korea and exploring the mountainous region in the North of the country.

The 23-year-old travel writer has now released a documentary about her experiences.

Lauren visited the country two months after Otto Warmbier died. He had been imprisoned in North Korea from January 2016 until he was returned the following year to the United States in a coma.

He died a few days later, with the coroner ruling the cause of death was lack of oxygen and blood to the brain.

Lauren told the Recorder: “It was surreal being in North Korea. I was quite nervous when we were crossing the border because the military came onto the train, locked the doors and thoroughly searched us.

“What happened to Otto was definitely at the front of my mind the whole time and I didn’t dare put a toe out of place.”

Lauren Pears documents her experiences travelling in North Korea in her travel blog at laurenstraveldiary.com. Picture: Lauren Pears.Lauren Pears documents her experiences travelling in North Korea in her travel blog at laurenstraveldiary.com. Picture: Lauren Pears.

North Korea is a country that sees little tourism, with only 5,000 to 6,000 tourists visiting per year.

Last year tourists were only allowed to visit the country with a guided tour accompanied by two government officials, and were forbidden from going anywhere unsupervised.

“One of the most astounding things I saw was an English language learning book in a library,” said Lauren.

“It had phrases such as ‘The US imperialists turned the cities and villages into ashes during the Fatherland Liberation War’ which I thought was barbaric to have in a book aimed to help people learn English.”

She also found that the citizens were very cold towards her tour group.

Attempts at smiling or interacting with the locals were often met with the cold shoulder or a quick turn of the head.

An example of the propaganda displayed on a screen behind a circus performance Lauren went to. Picture: Lauren PearsAn example of the propaganda displayed on a screen behind a circus performance Lauren went to. Picture: Lauren Pears

At the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, the tour’s guide would point at destroyed aircraft and make statements such as, “this is an aircraft we shot down in 1952. This killed six US military.”

When visiting the National Library Lauren was surprised to discover Harry Potter, Shakespeare’s works and Sherlock Holmes on the shelves.

She said: “One of our tour guides who had been really quite stilted and unwilling to talk about her personal interests throughout most of the trip started to open up when I asked her if she’d read Harry Potter.

“Her face lit up and she said ‘it’s my favourite!’

“From then on she was a lot more willing to answer my questions about life in North Korea - it seems that a good book brings people together everywhere in the world.”

On the same day, Lauren visited the local circus and was surprised to see anti-US propaganda playing in the background.

Lauren Pears documents her experiences travelling in North Korea in her travel blog at laurenstraveldiary.comPicture: Lauren PearsLauren Pears documents her experiences travelling in North Korea in her travel blog at laurenstraveldiary.comPicture: Lauren Pears

“The stunts and tricks they performed were absolutely mindblowing,” she said.

“However, while these incredible acts were going on, on a screen directly behind the stage, footage of war, anti-US propaganda and patriotic images were being displayed.

“Given that there were school kids here watching the circus, this was quite unsettling.”

On the day of her departure, Lauren reflected on how much she had really learnt about North Korea.

Lauren wrote in her travel diary: “I felt as though I had learned so much about this fascinating country, however, I also worry that I’ve been slightly brainwashed.

“If I knew nothing of North Korea before arriving there, I would have said ‘wow, this is a beautiful country. The citizens are given free education, healthcare and housing.’

“But, knowing what I know, I’m aware that a lot of what I witnessed and experienced was likely staged or just for show, and is not at all representative of most of the country.

“The issue is, it’s extremely difficult for me to untangle what’s real and what isn’t.

“I suppose that was probably their motive.”

Lauren says that despite the risks, she would visit the country again.

To read more about Lauren’s travel experiences and watch her documentary, visit laurenstraveldiary.com.

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