Since I returned from the trip to North Korea, I have been bombarded with questions.
Colleagues I had no idea existed have been buying me coffee in exchange for Q&A sessions about my trip. Facebook “friends” I no longer even remembered suddenly rose from the virtual dead to question me some more. My visit to North Korea is likely to become one of those trips that get discussed for years to come – similar to my visits to the flared-up Syria in 2011 and the distant, wild Greenland in 2012.
From all the questions asked I have inferred that people are mostly interested in basic everyday things about North Korea. Not so much history or climate – anyone can look those up easily online – but simple facts about everyday life in what is a rather closed country. And nobody really travels to North Korea for its ancient history or climatic peculiarities, anyway.
I have compiled your most frequently asked questions and did my best to provide answers to each. Since a photo is often worth more than a thousand words, I have peppered the post with as much illustration as possible. Remember, my full Flickr photo set for North Korea is available here.
I am by no means an expert on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and do not aspire to win the title. My knowledge (if I can even call it that) stems entirely from spending one week in the country in September 2013, as well as reading several books on North Korea. If you have any other questions or, better still, corrections or additions to my answers, I will be very happy to receive them. Feel free to leave a comment to this post or send me a message.
I have divided my report on North Korea into three parts, loosely grouped under three broad topics:
(i) Tourism (THIS part) – the reality of travelling to North Korea as a tourist;
(ii) Local people – my (undoubtedly narrow-minded) impression of North Koreans;
(iii) Economy and politics – topics ranging from agriculture to foreign relations in North Korea.
READ ALSO: TRAVELLING TO NORTH KOREA: THE HIGHLIGHTS
Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il surrounded by children: this idyllic image decorates kindergartens in North Korea
1. Why did you go?
I have been thinking of going to North Korea for several years. The original trigger escapes me, but I most likely got inspired by one of the many travel bloggers I follow. One of them wrote about North Korea as if life there was perfectly normal – perhaps short-sighted, this post made me want to see, with my own eyes, how “normal” it actually was. I ended up getting very interested in North Korea, and have since had a few years to read up on the country and consolidate my thoughts on the controversial subjects before going.
Besides, I quite like destinations which aren’t frequented by tourists. Along with North Korea, Greenland and Svalbard are my only examples to date, but I am very much trying to fit the likes of Turkmenistan and Bhutan into my future travel plans.
2. Can anyone actually travel to North Korea?
Travelling to North Korea is easier than most people think (if only pricey). Citizens of every country except South Korea can visit North Korea.
The overwhelming majority get into the country as part of an organised tour – there are numerous travel companies all over the world offering tours to North Korea with the largest ones based in Beijing. I also travelled to North Korea through Beijing. My travel company was Koryo Tours – this British owned, Beijing based company was established in 1993 and now handles around half of all visitors to North Korea. Koryo Tours very obviously enjoys a remarkable relationship with the Korea International Travel Company (KITC, an official state travel agent of North Korea – similar to the USSR’s Intourist), and a number of spots opened to visits by foreigners in North Korea are the result of Koryo Tours’ proactive efforts. While the company’s tours tend to be somewhat more expensive than the competitors’, to me it was a no-brainer. I would highly recommend Koryo Tours if you are travelling to North Korea.
3. How did you get a visa?
Despite the universal belief that I personally headed to the DPRK embassy in London (casually risking my life in the process, of course), Koryo Tours actually applied for the visa on my behalf. They used the DPRK embassy in Beijing (which I accidentally bumped into myself: the embassy is in fact a complex of several buildings – best described as bunkers – behind barbed wire. But I digress). I did not part with my passport at any time during the application process – all I had to provide was a scanned colour copy of my passport and a scanned photograph. Tourist visas apparently take 4-6 weeks to process.
I did not see my actual visa until the day of departure from Beijing. The visa was a small blue book containing my photograph, personal details and text in Korean I did not understand. After frantically photographing my visa at Beijing airport and on the Air Koryo plane, everyone had their visas taken off them at passport control (along with the passports) upon arrival in Pyongyang. We did not see our visas or passports for the entire week we were in North Korea. Both were returned to us on the day of departure. The passport was unstamped but the visa featured three stamps – one at arrival, one for entering into custody of whatever authority was holding it and one at release. There must have been a fourth stamp (for exit) which we did not see – all visas were collected for good before we re-entered China. I felt grateful they let us keep our passports, though.
4. How did you get there?
I entered the country by plane and exited by train. These are the only two ways to enter or exit North Korea (bar the visit of an isolated mountainous territory in the north of the country on a guided tour from China). I would definitely recommend experiencing both – US citizens are not allowed to take the train (and, as of 1 September 2017, visit North Korea altogether), but flying was until recently accessible to everybody.
5. Were the airplanes really old?
I am quite scared of travelling by air (as unbelievable as it sounds), especially by older make Russian/Soviet planes – so I was prepared for the worst. Quite surprisingly though, the DPRK’s national carrier Air Koryo seems to have upgraded its fleet and now operates two newer Tupolev planes, Tu-204 – one of which I was lucky to be on. It looked modern enough and even had LCD screens installed. The Tu-204 are the only two planes Air Koryo is allowed to fly into the European airspace, the other ones having been banned as insufficiently safe. We saw some of those older models (Tupolevs and Antonovs) on the runway in Pyongyang airport.
Regardless of the planes, flying with Air Koryo was an experience. We boarded to the sound of military march-type music, which swiftly changed to the screening of a ladies’ military band performance on the said LCD screens. Sporting miniskirts and shiny instruments, those virtual ladies were our first introduction to the surreal world that is North Korea.
Compared to the entertainment though, the food was rather dull (though not bad for a 2-hour journey) – we were served a burger sandwich and a choice of water and beer. The stewardesses all looked stunningly alike in their red-and-white uniforms (naturally complete with Kim badges), identical haircuts and heavy make-up. Finally, the newspapers we were distributed – The Pyongyang Times and Korea Today – could well go into history as classics. Two months later, I still re-read them regularly, wiping the tears off my face. As a little taster, two of my favourite headlines are “US and south Korea [sic] warned to behave themselves” and “Let Us Add Eternal Brilliance to Comrade Kim Jong-Il’s Great Idea and Achievements of the Songun Revolution”. Timeless.
6. Were you searched at entry/exit?
I had been warned about very thorough searches when both entering and exiting the country. I had also heard, however, that most things that can be brought to other countries can be brought into North Korea. Despite the widespread confusion, things like alcohol, jeans, Bibles, photo cameras and computers would all make for legitimate items in your luggage. Moreover, since January 2013, foreigners can also bring mobile telephones into North Korea. Those will be looked at by the border guards at entry to confirm they do not work – and, sure enough, they will not.
The only obvious taboo items I can think of are materials on the US and South Korea (guide books are permitted though) and satellite phones. I was carrying neither and flew through security in literally seconds. My luggage was not searched at Pyongyang airport (only scanned) and I was not questioned by anyone. My bags were not even opened (at least not in front of me!).
Exiting by train was a much longer experience. Border guards at the Sinuiju-Dandong crossing do not have any scanning equipment and are required to search every luggage item by hand. Quite understandably, this often leads to painfully long border crossings. I had been warned of possible paging through books, deleting photos and going through laundry. Indeed, like anyone else, the guards can simply be having a bad day and end up doing exactly that. Some tour leaders will in fact recommend you putting a chocolate bar on top of your bag to soften the process.
I had hoped for a swift customs check but what actually happened fell completely beyond my grasp. Two North Korean customs officers entered our compartment, sat down on the lower berths and asked if any of us had an iPad – which was immediately unearthed by two of our British tour leaders. In semi-excited disbelief I watched how the officers first used the iPad to play some disco music. Then some rock music. Then some hip hop music. The tour leaders then took pictures of each other using an iPad app to make themselves look fat on the images, every one of which was welcomed with an explosion of laughter from the customs officers. After about 10 minutes in our compartment, they saluted us and left. One of the tour leaders then looked up to my top berth (from where I was speechlessly observing everything) and said, “The most thorough search. Ever. “
7. How much did you pay for the trip?
North Korea is definitely not a destination for a budget traveller. All prices are listed on the Koryo Tours’ website. I took part in the National Day Long Tour (Option A) 2013, which included seven nights in North Korea and one on the train heading out. I paid just over two thousand euros for the privilege but could have saved about 10% of that had I opted to share a room with a fellow traveller (not really an option I took seriously). Note though that the prices covered all hotels, three meals a day, all transportation to, from and within the country and all daytime tours and guiding. Also note that the return airfare from your home city to Beijing was not included.
Basically, I only needed to pay for several extras offered in the evenings – such as a local football game, a circus performance, a clam barbecue and – last but not least – the stunning Arirang Mass Games. All extras were optional but, since foreigners are not allowed to walk around on their own (or do much else, for that matter), the only alternatives would be to stay on the bus or in the hotel. Most of us just ended up doing every extra activity possible.
8. Were there any other tourists there?
One would be surprised how many people actually visit North Korea. The statistical total is not large though: perhaps 3-4 thousand Western visitors visit the country every year, making North Korea one of the least visited countries in the world. Add to that 10-15 thousand Chinese people per year; the Chinese used to travel to North Korea before August 2013 when all tours from China were suspended. This was in fact extremely lucky as I had heard sights in and around Pyongyang could get rather crowded at peak visiting times. Our tour being during the National Day celebrations, there were still plenty of visitors around – but nothing remotely unmanageable.
9. How were the other people in your tourist group?
Admittedly, I was a little worried as this was my first ever organised tour (I have only joined groups on daytrips before) and I knew our group would be spending a lot of time together during the week. My fears were amiss though – I met a few fantastic, interesting people. It is safe to say that North Korea is rarely the first trip abroad for anyone, so everyone in the group was well travelled and fun to talk to. One person had done a rail journey through Africa, another had only just recovered from a life-threatening fall while hiking in Nepal, and a third was heading to Vietnam for a 40-day cycling trip – I honestly felt I had barely scratched the surface of the earth in comparison. But then again, I am only 30.
10. Could you walk around freely?
I will not be telling secrets to anyone – walking around freely in North Korea is not something foreign tourists are allowed to do. We were at all times accompanied by three Koreans: official tour guide from the KITC and two students on training (I hear though that usually it is two qualified tour guides and one student – so that everyone could watch each other). No-one was allowed to leave the sites we visited (places like hotels, museums, schools, shops, etc) alone. Our group’s tour itinerary had been pre-agreed and deviations decided on by the foreign tour leader and the Korean guides. Independent tours can be more flexible as the traveller gets to choose the places to visit – those, too, however are selected from an approved list of places accessible to foreigners. Deciding to visit something off that list is simply not an option.
Everything described above applies to foreign guests arriving on organised tours. I have heard that private visitors of foreigners residing in North Korea have more freedom to walk around on their own. I am not sure though if such private visitors are allowed into the country more than only in theory – and, even if yes, how accurate this information is.
11. Were your tour guides military/police-like?
The Korean tour guides are not employed directly by the government – they are employees of the KITC which, albeit state owned, is nevertheless a company. Therefore those guides do not technically represent the military or the police.
On the contrary, I found our guide, Mr Ju, to be rather “normal” in many ways. His wife was on the verge of giving birth and he seemed more concerned about that going well, rather than, say, a nuclear test. By the end of a full week together, most of us had relaxed enough to start making jokes about the ubiquitous propaganda (the passion with which the “US imperialists” are constantly denounced by North Koreans is best taken humorously) and even snigger at yet another extremely one-sided “documentary” video – which Mr Ju definitely did not rush to report to the authorities.
12. Was it safe to walk around?
Unexpectedly, North Korea is possibly one of the safest places one will ever visit. Organised crime towards foreign tourists is unheard of. Needless to say that one will never be expected to walk around alone. I worry about getting mugged far more in London than I did in Pyongyang! That said, petty crime such as theft is not absent from the North Korean society and seems to be caused by continued shortages of vital items like food.
13. Could you use public transport?
Foreign visitors to North Korea mainly stick to a pre-agreed all-inclusive itinerary and aren’t free to wander around. This limitation includes public transport, but with some exceptions. First, foreigners are allowed to take the Pyongyang metro between Puhung and Kaeson stations (six stations in total). Second, foreign tourists are allowed to take two scheduled trains in North Korea, including the Pyongyang-Beijing international route and the Pyongyang-Chongjin domestic route (even before the US government ban on US citizens visiting North Korea, the former line was not accessible to US citizens).
Unfortunately, those nostalgy-inducing Soviet-looking public trams, trolleybuses and buses in Pyongyang have so far remained off limits for foreigners. I hear though that Koryo Tours are changing this and will be offering tram and trolleybus rides in Pyongyang from mid-2014 – watch this space.
14. Was there food? Was it decent?
Foreign tourists are definitely not starved in North Korea. Depending on the place, our food varied from a little dull (but plentiful) to seriously tasty (and just as plentiful). While breakfasts were rather simple and mostly consisted of toast, cheese and eggs, the rest of the meals always featured meat, fish and all sorts of vegetables – everything served in numerous portions and apparently having been paid for. The highlights I personally recall were the “mixed seafood pancake” (Korean name escapes me), duck barbecue, beef hot pot, Chinese shrimps and, naturally, kimchee. I even managed to try precisely one spoonful of dog meat, but worry not – dog meat being a delicacy on the Korean peninsula, it is unlikely to slip into your cuisine unnoticed unless you specifically ask (and pay) for it.
The only two items that clearly weren’t in great supply even to us were fresh fruit and milk. Our most typical “dessert” consisted of a couple of sliced apples – for a table seating several people – while milk for your coffee (or tea, in my weird English case) was at best offered in powder form. When our Korean guide saw me eating an apple on the bus, he immediately asked where I ever found one. I had to admit I had imported a kilo from China. I later saw fruit being rationed out to the locals in the streets of Pyongyang through the well-known public distribution system prevalent in North Korea. Our guide explained the long queue by “local people buying snacks” but I did catch a stack of apples behind the counter and made my own conclusions.
15. Could you take photos?
I personally took over four thousand! One would be surprised how many things in North Korea one is actually allowed to photograph. The list includes people, revolutionary slogans, vehicles and random countryside from a moving bus. The clear taboo things are members of the military (North Korea having the largest military per capita in the world, those turned out to be exceptionally difficult to avoid though) and any sign of poverty. That said, it seemed to be generally fine to photograph the military in the DMZ. The basic rule is to ask the guide or the person in question – smiling as you do it!
16. Was anything choreographed?
I did not notice any obvious set-ups. However, a few of us debated for a while about the walk we had in Moranbong Park where several groups of locals seemed just a little too friendly. A group of middle-aged women and young school children ended up engaging us in an impromptu dance and karaoke – while another group of locals started singing and clapping as soon as they saw us approaching. Most locals elsewhere typically observed us with polite caution which, in case of children, was sometimes mixed with poorly suppressed excitement – as we were likely among the first foreigners those children were seeing. Some older ladies showed obvious kindness to us (one took my hand and covered me with an umbrella when a few drops of rain fell). Nobody outside the Moranbong Park was overtly friendly though, which likely means that some element of show was indeed involved – if only to make the walk more interesting for us.
17. Could you go outside Pyongyang?
Yes, most itineraries longer than a few days feature one or more excursions outside Pyongyang. Numerous sights outside the capital are on the “approved” government list of places accessible to foreigners. I personally visited the cities of Nampo, Sariwon, Pyongsong and Kaesong, as well as several sites within an easy drive of Pyongyang such as a co-operative farm, a kindergarten and a film studio. Other tours venture even further afield, including Mt. Myohyang (160 km from Pyongyang), Wonsan (200 km), Hamhung (300 km), Mt. Paekdu (680 km), Chongjin (725 km) and Rason (850 km), among others.
18. Was the hotel shabby?
We mostly stayed at the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang, the largest operating hotel in North Korea and the second tallest building. The hotel is lovingly known to some foreigners as the “Alcatraz”, thanks to its isolated location on an island in the middle of the Taedong river, making any sort of an “escape” at best tricky.
“Shabby” is certainly not how I would describe the Yanggakdo Hotel though. It is indeed among the best North Korea can offer and rooms are clearly kept to a very high standard. That said, some furniture looked a little tired and old-fashioned. I regret not taking the picture of a truly ancient telephone in my room! And I did find the fact that I could open my window on the 34th floor a little eerie – though, given the stunning views over Pyongyang, I would have been the last to complain.
The other two hotels we stayed in (Dragon River Hot Spa Hotel in Nampo and Jangsusan Hotel in Pyongsong) were true vintage in comparison with the Yanggakdo. Interior reminded me of the Soviet Union, while, unlike at the Yanggakdo, hot water came at pre-announced hour-long intervals twice a day. Again though, I would not call any of the hotels shabby. The rooms even featured free travel-size toiletries with Korean signage!
19. Were there cameras / bugs in the hotel rooms?
For the sake of any possible observers, I very much hope there weren’t – watching me in my hotel room would likely traumatise one for life! I did not see anything suspicious in the hotel rooms. There are known to be surveillance offices on the fifth floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel (which is why there isn’t the “5” option in any of the lifts) but I feel that they have better things to do than eavesdrop on a gang of naïve foreign tourists.
20. Did you get in trouble anywhere?
The only time I made a clearly wrong joke to a fellow tourist (something about being dragged away to a labour camp), our guide Mr Ju just put a finger to his lips meaningfully. I was obviously showing poor taste to joke about such things – even if everyone in the country knows labour camps exist – but not really doing anything warranting an immediate arrest.
Moreover, several tour leaders of Koryo Tours told me none of their tourists ever got into serious trouble. There were a few close calls though – apparently one or two tourists once drank themselves into near oblivion, went looking for the infamous “fifth floor” of the Yanggakdo Hotel and danced in front of the security cameras. Sounds scary, doesn’t it? It apparently cost the guides and the tour leader a few conversations the morning after, but even those tourists were allowed to stay on in North Korea.
21. Can you buy Western things?
There aren’t many Western things on sale in North Korea. According to the CIA World Factbook, imports from the EU to North Korea reached only 4% in 2011 (there isn’t any reported trade with the Americas). Very few things are however locally produced – backward technology and persistent power outages being just a few obstacles to this – so there is plenty of Chinese produce around. Local guides are unlikely to admit this: they are instructed to present everything as locally made even if it obviously isn’t – some metro cars have been shipped over from Berlin and still carry German graffiti, but even those are religiously “Made in the DPRK” according to the locals. Claiming otherwise would contradict North Korea’s unique idea of Juche, or self-reliance.
We were not taken into any local shops (part of the reason being that, as foreigners, we were not allowed to see the real prices and the actual, not state imposed, exchange rate of the won). I understand that Western produce is not on sale there though. We did see numerous shops targeting foreigners and selling local souvenirs and what looked like Chinese-made other everyday items. Indeed the only Western items I saw during the entire week were canned fizzy drinks like Fanta and Sprite; we ended up finding Coca Cola in precisely one location, too. The cans had clearly travelled over from Japan and carried Japanese signage on them. There is a copycat local brand trying to imitate the Coke though – called Cocoa!
22. What are the souvenirs like?
There are plenty of souvenirs available for purchase – and, needless to say, your most ordinary item becomes a souvenir in a place like North Korea. I brought back a doll couple in a national dress, a fridge magnet featuring a small version of the same (I was amazed enough to find any resemblance of a fridge magnet), two posters (one revolutionary, one civilian), a jade pig figure (I collect international pigs but many other jade items were available, similar to China), ginseng tea (insam cha – unforgettably, I bought it off a Chinese boat from a Korean smuggler who’d attached his boat to ours), propaganda postcards (one read “Let’s stamp down USA, a warmonger!”), lots of stamps (I am not a collector but anyone would go wild with excitement there), a t-shirt reading “Panmunjom” (border point with South Korea), a sweat shirt reading “See you in Pyongyang” in both Korean and English (wearing it in London is something I am still preparing myself for), a mini DPRK flag, a couple of CDs with revolutionary tunes, a handful of badges and an absolute plethora of reading materials. The latter deserve a blog post of their own, but my absolute favourites are “Anecdotes of Kim Il-Sung’s Life” (a collection of short stories about the Great Leader giving guidance on every aspect of life possible) and “The Great Man” (a book explaining why Kim Jong-Il is truly the greatest of the great individuals ever lived). Both should be made mandatory material for school children early on – the dangers of a dictatorship will never have been better illustrated.
Other souvenirs on sale were tailored suits a-la Kim Jong-Il, traditional ladies’ dresses in ice cream colours (choson-ot, or hanbok in South Korea), plastic toy figures, bookmarks, key rings, traditional and modern paintings (which I must say are excellent), ladies’ ginseng-based cosmetics, other ginseng products and traditional tea sets.
Despite the common perception, it is not possible to buy Kim badges worn by the majority of the population in North Korea. Being known to have sold one (or even “lost” one) is too much of a crime for North Koreans. With some luck, counterfeit Kim badges can be found across the border in China (Dandong, the border city, is a safe bet). These tend to cost just a few yuan and look real apart from the petty insignia I was not familiar with. I was told that an opportunity sometimes presents itself to buy an authentic Kim badge but such badges are extremely rare and tend to cost a hundred times more.