Belfast Telegraph

Co Tyrone dentist gets his teeth into North Korean life on 'surreal' holiday

North Korea - with its secretive and restrictive reputation and the rising tensions with the US - might not seem the first choice for a summer holiday, but 26-year-old Conor O'Hare couldn't think of a better place to spend his break.

The Belfast-based dentist, who had been on holiday in New Zealand, decided to explore one last region before coming home and booked a week in Pyongyang, capital of the communist dictatorship.

He stayed in the same hotel as Otto Warmbier, the American student sentenced to 15 years' hard labour for stealing a propaganda poster. Otto was released to the US after inexplicable brain damage and died in June.

Despite concerns for his own safety, Castlederg man Conor was determined to see the country for himself.

"It almost started as a joke. I was curious about North Korea after seeing it on the news," he explained.

"On the spur of the moment I applied for the visa and was surprised a few weeks later to get it.

"I took the train in from China on a tour with two North Korean government-appointed officials. When we crossed the border the North Korean army stopped the train, got all the bags off and went through them. Then I crossed into the unknown.

"We were very much brought where they wanted us to see. We were taken from the train on to a bus and straight to a hotel that is in the middle of an island on the river in Pyongyang.

"It was the same hotel that Otto Warmbier stayed in. The hotel had 48 floors, but the guides told us not to get out of the lift on floors five and six, as they were strictly for staff. That is apparently where Otto got out and took the poster.

"It was surreal. There was no internet or wi-fi. You could make a call but it was monitored and you couldn't leave the hotel without supervision."

On his week in and around Pyongyang, Conor was constantly accompanied by his guides. They took him to a museum, a public library, a school and a funfair, all of which Conor suspected were choreographed for visitors.

"Pyongyang is like a city from the 1950s. There are not too many cars and people are dressed in old clothes," he said. "We got to ride on the subway, which they had transported from East Germany.

"They took us to this school of music and art and they put on a 'live performance'. But the young people were all miming, it was just bizarre. Kim Jong-un is adored. In all the train stations and public buildings there are portraits of him. Everyone wears a badge with his face on it."

Conor's visit in May coincided with Kim Jong-un's successful test of a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. It was condemned by the UN, but there were celebrations in the streets of Pyongyang. "Our guides were asking us if we saw the missiles - they were so proud," he said. "I know they have a big army, but any soldiers I saw were scrawny or very young. They looked half-starved. There's no electricity in the countryside.

"Outside Pyongyang everywhere is poor. I don't think North Korea could ever pose a serious threat. It's like a Third World country. It was an experience, but I wouldn't go back. It really was like stepping back in time. It was a strange and secretive place, but it's a good story to tell the grandchildren."

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