North Korea Unveiled: Your Curiosities Answered

Posted on June 21, 2012 by

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.

Propaganda art on mosaic wall

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.

Group photo

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.”

Inside the Pyongyang subway

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.

 Children performing in the Children Palace

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.

Streets of Kaesong City

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.

Rooftops in Kaesong

Did we forget something? 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. 

About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

31 Responses to “North Korea Unveiled: Your Curiosities Answered”

  1. Maria Rompf June 21, 2012 4:46 am #

    This is a great article. I will share the link because we are also asked many questions after the tour and do not always have such well-spoken answers.

    • Nellie June 22, 2012 11:07 pm #

      Good to see you here Maria! Thanks for sharing the post and hope it answers questions from your friends and family.

  2. islandmomma June 21, 2012 3:53 pm #

    One of the things about getting older is that you become aware of being a witness to history, and reading your article it makes me think of how we used to view Vietnam, Russia or China some years back. I'm sure that tourism will help to foster better understanding on both sides. I remember going to what was Yugoslavia in the 70s, where we had much more freedom than you had in North Korea, but where discussion of anything vaguely political was frowned on. From what you say, it looks like being a very slow process, but then, who would have thought we'd be seeing tourism and political changes of the nature of those which have occurred in Burma even in the last couple of years? Kudos for going. Not sure if I could keep my mouth shut in the way required!

    • Nellie June 22, 2012 11:24 pm #

      Thanks for your insights! It is very interesting to hear how you relate to Vietnam, Burma and especially Yugoslavia in the 70s. During the trip, this topic of discussion came up several times: whether North Korea would ever open up to the world. Our tour leader gave us his honest thoughts about it – he said that it may be possible, but it will be a long and slow process. I find it encouraging to hear what you said about Yugoslavia – having visited a few ex-Yugoslavian countries myself, I can see that they have definitely moved past the war and are opening up to the world – so hopefully the same happens in North Korea, whether it takes a few decades or more.

  3. A Montrealer Abroad June 21, 2012 6:25 pm #

    Fascinating series on such an unknown country. Very informative and well written!

  4. Encarna June 22, 2012 5:00 am #

    La verdad es que tenía mis dudas cuando planteasteis este viaje, pero creo que ha sido positiva vuestra estancia allí, bonitas fotos, todo muy ordenado.

  5. cruiser June 24, 2012 6:39 pm #

    Great article. Thx!

  6. BackpackerBecki June 29, 2012 12:58 am #

    Fantastic round-up…. people are so unsure about what to do. I going to North Korea in September. I can't wait but this insight is really useful!

  7. Emily in Chile July 2, 2012 6:59 am #

    Such an interesting look at a place I really know nothing about. Can't wait for part 2!

  8. gravityshmavity August 20, 2012 2:06 am #

    This is a brilliant post! I've been wanting to read something like this for a long time. It's so hard to read about North Korea in the news, as hardly any news ever makes it out. I want to be a journalist one day, and visiting NK would be a really interesting opportunity… now I think I will!
    I know I'm late to the party… but I noticed part 2 is not here yet, so if there's still time – my question would be what is the domestic opinion average North Korean's hold of Kim Jong-il and of Kim Jong-un? Most news coverage reported that people were upset about the former's death, but much of it also implied it was staged. Was their any kind of general feeling you were able to perceive about it all?

  9. cheapcarrentals September 10, 2012 2:01 am #

    I always had this unknown fear of visiting Korea. But this gives a new outlook. Thanks for this informative post. :)

  10. icosnap September 25, 2012 1:47 pm #

    Great article! I have always wondered what it was like inside North Korea – I've seen a couple of documentaries but none from a blogger (you're the first blog I've read). You should definitely consider becoming a journalist :)

    • Nellie September 26, 2012 6:48 am #

      Thanks for the kind remark! I am a travel writer after all, and I kinda make a living out of my love for words. I really appreciate what you said and hope you will hang around a bit!

  11. Diana October 11, 2012 7:35 am #

    Wow! I think traveling to North Korea is quite an experience! Thank you for this post.

  12. Jamie L November 2, 2012 10:28 am #

    Have you read any books about North Korea? If you have read "Nothing to Envy" it will give you insight that Pyongyang is a washed down version representing North Korea. So because you report that it wasn't that bad, or you wouldn't even have time to explore other places depletes the idea of going there and actually report something. Of course they will have guides that are educated and great at their job. Actually the best at their job, and are completely loyal.

    Why can't you visit a place like Chongin? Tourism in DPRK isn't there for you. It's there for DRPK to give the illusion that they aren't the most repressive regime on this planet. For people to "report" back with what life is like in North Korea is a sham. It's not possible for you to go on a paid guided tour, and only visit Pyongyang and have a real opinion.

    • @WildJunket December 29, 2012 10:02 am #

      We didn't visit Chongin, but we did go to Kaesong, which was rather shabby and nothing like Pyongyang. I don't think that going to Pyongyang alone gives a clear idea of how DPRK is really like, but I expressed my opinions based on my experience – not just from what I saw, but from my interactions with the guides and locals on the subway, museums and squares. Certain things just can't be disguised or hidden.

  13. tyflas March 22, 2013 5:06 pm #

    Great article! We are linking to this great content on our site. Keep up the great writing.| tyflas

  14. Jasa Beli Barang March 23, 2013 2:28 am #

    I don’t know whether it’s just me or if perhaps everybody else encountering problems with your blog. It appears as if some of the text on your content are running off the screen. Can somebody else please comment and let me know if this is happening to them too? This could be a issue with my web browser because I’ve had this happen before. Many thanks| Jasa Beli Barang

  15. John Conway May 13, 2013 10:05 pm #

    This is great information and such a huge help. I'm really proud of people who are willing to go and experience things first hand – especially when it means showing each other that we are not products of our governments. Really great read and cool pictures too. Thanks so much for sharing. I will certainly be going myself!

  16. Mobile dvr June 10, 2013 8:48 am #

    Wonderful and significant out sight in South Korea! I,m inspiring to make a comfortable traveling in South Korea but now also there have probable risk too so I want safety mod and security. I think using strong force and installing CCTV camera are efficient to assault crime. Thanks a lot for nice sharing!

  17. ip camera June 30, 2013 4:28 pm #

    Good Stuff Nellie

  18. big korean drama July 18, 2013 1:53 am #

    Fascinating! Would want to visit the country one day.

  19. Duke Stewart August 28, 2015 6:50 am #

    You really chose a difficult one to write on, Nellie, but certainly brought up a lot of questions and thoughts after reading about your time in NK. I lived in the ROK for the past 4 years and can say I know very little about the place beyond it’s borders to the north. The people who say you could’ve visited other places are probably clueless about how these places actually work. Thanks for writing about North Korea in a way that I’d want to write about it. This was a wonderful post full of insight and thoughtfulness. Thanks for sharing, Nellie. It was well worth the read.

    • Nellie Huang September 15, 2015 7:55 am #

      Thanks so much for the very kind words, much appreciated. North Korea is definitely a difficult subject to approach and I tried my best to give it a balanced point of view.

  20. Rick Stevens September 17, 2016 12:30 pm #

    The only requirement is that you are booked on a pre-planned tour with two North Korean guides for company.


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