Since our return from North Korea, we’ve been swamped by questions from readers who are all curious about the Hermit Kingdom. Rightfully so, since DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is one of the most isolated nations in the world, having tucked itself into secrecy since its division with South Korea. International media coverage tends to obscure North Korea’s wider picture, resulting in us forming opinions based on what we see on television or read in the newspapers – but is it all true? Or are our visions being skewed?
To satiate our curiosity, we went there to find out for ourselves. We’ve written about our first impressions and are now back to answer all your questions about the country. If you have any questions about North Korea that we didn’t cover, please leave a comment and we’ll be sure to answer them.
Can anyone go to North Korea including Americans?
Yes! North Korea accepts tourists of all nationalities, including Americans. However, at present (June 2012) there is still a policy in North Korea restricting US citizens from taking the train from Beijing to Pyongyang and vice versa. They are only allowed to fly in and out of Pyongyang (we did ask why but none of the guides knew the reason for this). Keep in mind that North Koreans strongly believe that the US was the sole culprit behind the division of the country, so be prepared to hear anti-American sentiments throughout the trip.
One important point to note is that North Korea is not for everyone. Those who visit should come with an open mind, and acknowledge the other point of view (even if you disagree). Prior to our trip, we were briefed by our tour company, “North Koreans are aware and can accept that foreigners hold different opinions, but they do not wish to be ‘taught’ or ‘saved’ by their guests.” We found that our North Korean guides were more than happy to talk to us about politics and the Korean war. As long as we accepted/respected their opinions and showed a genuine interest in their country, they were willing to open up more and discuss things with us.
Can you travel independently in North Korea?
All visitors have to travel with two or more tour guides at all times. You can however choose to travel in a group or individually with the guides. Several companies organize trips to North Korea although all of them partner with the state-run KITC (Korea International Tourism Company).
We traveled with Koryo Tours and highly recommend them. They are a well-established company that has been promoting DPRK tourism through documentaries, art exhibitions and tours since 1993. Our Spring/Dragon Boat Festival Tour brought us through most of the main sights of Pyongyang, the country’s capital, and out to the DMZ (demilitarized zone that divides Korea into two) and nearby Kaesong city.
We were accompanied by two local guides and a tour leader: Mr Oh, a native who’s worked in tourism for 20 years and lived abroad in Seychelles; Miss Pak, a young, well-spoken North Korean lady always ready to answer questions; and Simon Cockerell, a knowledgeable British expert who’s been to North Korea over 112 times. The tour was well-organized and professionally put-together, our guides obviously have years of experience and it way exceeded my expectations. Our group was made up of travelers of different age group and background – from a 26-year-old lawyer to a Stanford University professor in his fifties and a German couple pursuing their PhD.
Tours are not cheap, with group tour prices starting from €790. Trips range from two days to two weeks. A typical tour consist of between 8 and 18 tourists. Koryo Tours’ group tours are set on dates to coincide with a major holiday or event in the DPRK – we were there during the children’s union founding day and saw a special performance at the children’s palace.
Is it safe to visit North Korea?
If you abide by the rules, yes! We definitely felt safe throughout the whole trip and nobody in the group had any problem with the military either. Our guide Simon said that none of the groups he’s led had been in danger of any form in his 10 years of leading tours to North Korea. Koryo Tours, as a specialist in North Korea tourism, wrote on their website, “The DPRK does not appear on any lists of countries where it is dangerous to visit and is probably one of the safest countries in the world you can visit. In over fifteen years’ experience and nearly 1000 tours we have never felt that our groups were in any danger. We have never had any problems with the Korean authorities, experienced any thefts or felt in any way threatened. All of Europe (apart from France) and countries such as Canada, Australia etc. have diplomatic relations with North Korea and they support tourism. We are always welcomed by the Korean people and are seen as guests in their country. Certainly, if you are willing to smile and be courteous you will receive a very positive response.”
Are you supporting the government in any way by visiting North Korea?
Some people are strongly against tourism in North Korea as they believe it’s a form of encouraging the regime, one that’s been portrayed as an extremely evil dictatorship by the international media. While we do not support or agree with North Korea’s ‘military first’ regime and Juche ideology, we believe that not everything reported in the news is true. The North Koreans are led to believe certain things (some would say ‘brainwashed’) by government propaganda, but so are we. We are often led to believe things that the media wants us to – and for a country that is so inaccessible and isolated, there is no other way to find out the truth but to visit and see it for yourself.
In fact, we think that visiting North Korea will actually help open up the country – at least, on a small scale. The United Nations, European Union and other agencies also see tourism to North Korea as a positive way of engagement. Koryo Tour says, “Any contact we have with the Korean people has to be beneficial in breaking down barriers, particularly as many people outside Pyongyang have not seen let alone interacted with foreigners.”
North Koreans are taught to think that anything foreign is a threat – but by interacting with them, we let them know that we are not all evil and that we are just like them. On our tour, we were surprised to find how North Koreans were just as curious about us as we were of them. On the subway, we interacted with people, showing them our photos and using sign language to communicate with them. We even had the chance to play with Korean children at a park, through charades and guessing games, everyone had so much fun just giggling and observing us. A big group of North Korean ladies who were playing drums and dancing at the park even asked us to join in their dance.
In the West, North Koreans are portrayed as a humorless and robotic people, but this stereotype was instantly broken when we were there, they are a very proud people and although their life is a struggle their humor and warmth is unsurpassed.
How restrictive is the tour?
Much of North Korea is off limits even to NGOs and diplomats, so there are obviously quite a lot of restrictions on the movements of travelers to DPRK. We were only allowed to visit certain parts of the country, that meant that we had to follow the group at all times (though it felt the same as traveling with any other group elsewhere) and we were not allowed to leave the hotel grounds (with the tight itinerary, we didn’t even feel like we had the time to explore on our own even if we wanted).
Photography is controlled to a certain level – and military/custom officers will definitely get you to delete photos that they don’t approve of. Photography of anyone military or strategic is not allowed. We were also advised not to take photos of people without their permission as many North Koreans do not like to be photographed – but surprisingly, we found that most of them, especially children, were more than happy to pose for photos with us (rather than being photographed alone).
There are a number of items that are not allowed into North Korea:
books about DPRK or the Korean situation (guide books are fine)
American or South Korean flags or clothes prominently showing these
books or magazines/newspapers from South Korea
clothes with political or obscene slogans
any GPS device – this includes cameras which have GPS (they will confiscate them at the customs)
mobile phone – which can be left at the customs and returned upon departure
That said, Koryo Tours briefed us well beforehand and got us mentally prepared for it – so much so that when we were in North Korea, we were surprised to find that it wasn’t as restrictive as expected. Prior to the trip, we were slightly worried about how we would feel being tied to a group and not being able to wander around. Instead, we felt rather comfortable once we were there, taking photos of just about everything we wanted to and following the group and guide but still being able to observe and take in everything around us.
Is everything you see choreographed?
Many online reports show that things are often falsified and orchestrated for the foreign visitor in North Korea. BBC correspondent Sue Lloyd Roberts wrote in an article, “A confused old woman pushing a shopping trolley along the road, a factory worker wearing an old jacket at work, and random street vendors were, all hastily removed from in front of the camera, lest they tarnish the sanitised version of their country that officials wanted us to film.”
True enough, we were brought around squares and boulevards that were massive, clean and impressive. We were chauffeured from one monument to another and lunched at nice tourist restaurants where waitresses smiled and curtsied. We met military guides who were well-spoken and passionate about their supreme leader and country. There were no beggars or crippled anywhere along the streets.
But at the same time, we also drove past shabby apartment buildings and parks where locals were seen scrubbing the floor with their bare hands. We took the subway along with hundreds of workers who were more than friendly towards us. We went up to the top of the 170m-high Juche Tower where the city of Pyongyang sprawled. From such a vantage point, we could see decrepit residential areas, dusty alleys and half-constructed buildings tucked within the more prominent high-rise buildings. Outside of the capital, we drove through lush green rice fields and saw farmers planting rice – many of them waving to us along the way. Even in the border town of Kaesong near DMZ, we could see the lack of infrastructure and maintenance – there were no street lights throughout the city (except at the statue of Kim Il Sung) and the roads were in need of reparation.
A Western businessman shared his images of daily life on BBC News and they were about the same as what we’d seen and snapped. He wrote in the article, “I am under no illusions about the nature of the state. What I saw was how North Koreans live and work.” We felt that we were shown a view of how normal North Koreans lived, and obviously he did too.
We will be writing a Part II to this post, be sure to leave your questions below and we will be more than happy to answer them. Meanwhile, to get a clearer view of what we saw, check out our photo gallery of North Korea.
Disclaimer: Our experience was made possible by Koryo Tours but all opinions expressed above are my own.