Little under a week ago I shared a post on Instagram asking my followers what they would like to know about traveling in the world’s most mysterious state, something I did a little over a year ago. Below are my answers which I hope will shed some light on what it’s like to travel in North Korea. Feel free to comment in the box below if there’s anything else you’d like to know about my experience.
What motivated me to go?
Unsurprisingly, North Korea isn’t at the top of many people’s travel bucket lists, but being a strong believer in establishing my own personal impression of things, as opposed to consuming other people’s subjective opinions as objective facts it is something I had wanted to do for quite a long time.
At the time that I discovered the opportunity to visit North Korea, I was studying at the University of Hong Kong and spotted a poster on campus advertising a 7-day trip. As it was student targeted I figured that this was probably the cheapest and potentially only opportunity I would have to go there.
Did I go alone?
No, during my time in North Korea, I was accompanied by around 11 other students as well as 3 organizers from the Hong Kong-based tour group Eastern Vision. It is possible to go alone and without a tour group, however, you will still need to be accompanied by a North Korean guide.
What was it like crossing the border?
You can enter the country by plane via Pyongyang Airport, or by train, I did the latter, boarding in Dandong, China. Before boarding the train you are subject to security checks that are typical of any border-crossing (baggage and body scanning) as well as visa checks. It takes about 4 hours to arrive in Pyongyang from China by train, but the crossing into North Korea itself doesn’t take more than 1o minutes as the train just needs to cross over the 940m Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge.
Once in North Korea, the country’s own security personnel do their own checks, ensuring the passports and visas carried by passengers line up with those listed as being on board. For me, this was quite an intense moment as not only was it my first interaction with North Korean people but it was also with those who had the power to deport you or worse. I had a slight panic attack when I couldn’t remember where I had placed my passport when it was time for it to be checked, but luckily the guard inspecting it was patient.
During the train ride, the security personnel also inspect the contents of our baggage, phones, cameras and laptops in order to ensure we are not bringing any potentially damning material/western propaganda into the country. The check is fairly quick, but there are much more thorough checks when leaving.
Where did I stay?
With my tour group, I stayed in the Yanggakdo Hotel which is located in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. The 47-storey hotel has an underground bowling alley, games room, and aquarium. I stayed in a shared room with a friend who also came on the trip (you can visit her blog here). I will share more information about our stay in another post.
We also stayed at the smaller Minsok Folk Hotel in Kaesong City.
What were the tourist attractions like?
Again, I will go into more detail about this in a pending post, but the ‘attractions’ we went to included: the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the Children’s Palace, and the Demilitarized Zone on the border of South Korea.
How did I communicate with the tour guides?
During our stay, my group was led by two tour guides introduced to us as ‘Mr. and Mrs. Kim’ as well as a younger guide who was still training for the role. All of the guides had near-perfect English so communication was not a problem.
Did I have a chance to talk to the locals?
As a tour group, we were given many opportunities to speak with local North Korean citizens however, those we spoke to were those we were given access to. For example, during the visit, we toured an elementary school where we could talk, ask and answer questions to students, and we also visited the Grand People’s Study House which allowed us to have discussions with academics and students. Two of the young women I spoke to were taking evening classes in English at the Study House and were reading Jane Eyre. The conversations we had with these locals were fairly free-flowing, however, as in any foreign country, it was important to maintain cultural awareness and respect when choosing our words and topics for discussion.
We also had daily contact with store, hotel and waiting staff, however, interactions with them did not usually extend beyond the service they were providing.
A lot of the locals we interacted with (bearing in mind they were those enrolled in education or in professions that put them in touch with international visitors) knew a lot more about the outside world than what I expected them to. One University lecturer had an incredible knowledge of European philosophy while another had left the country for professional reasons with permission from the government.
Is there any religion in North Korea?
Even though the official constitution states that it is allowed, religious practice in North Korea is highly persecuted as is seen as a threat to the regime. Nonetheless, some do practice it in secret and shamanism also has notable popularity.
The ruling principles of North Korea are based on Juche ideology that puts emphasis on ‘self-reliance’ and the idea that individuals master their own destiny.
I feel quite confident in saying that many of the North Korean people that I interacted with acted as if they worshiped Kim Jong Un, by frequently singing his praises (I say act because I do not know if it was genuine or not), and you could go far as to say that North Korean propaganda is a religion in itself. There’s an interesting article about this here.
What was the food like?
Great. Honestly, the food was really good. We had the opportunity to eat at numerous restaurants throughout our visit and to taste authentic Korean cuisine. This included Korean BBQ, Kaesong Chicken, a noodle soup traditionally eaten by locals on special occasions such as weddings, and pizza (topped with kimchee of course) prepared by chefs who had been trained in Italy. Unfortunately, I don’t know the names of the exact places but due to the nature of travel in North Korea, where you eat will likely be negotiated by your guides and/or the tourist agency you travel with.
While I have only good things to say about the flavor of the food, for me personally, the experience of eating it was never one without guilt. While we were being served abundant portions of delicious meat and vegetables, it was with the knowledge that those serving us did not, and likely would never experience meals of the same grandeur. When we ate, our guides never ate with us, and our organizers also shared that any food leftover would be thrown away as the locals who prepared it were forbidden from what was left over.
What restrictions are placed on you as a tourist?
The main restrictions as a tourist involve always being accompanied by a guide and not taking photographs of that which you do not have permission to (e.g. military personnel or the interior of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun).
How closely did I feel monitored while there?
Interestingly, while I was conscious of the restrictions put in place, I did not feel as if I was constantly being monitored. While I did have some paranoia about the fact that there may be listening devices in my hotel room, I soon got over that. I did what I would call self-monitoring which involved not having my camera out of its bag when I was in a place that I knew I shouldn’t be taking photos, or when I did take photos when I shouldn’t have, I did it in an extremely discreet fashion. In terms of communicating with people, well I think this is merely a matter of manners – while you may not agree with North Korea’s political system, the people who live there don’t have much control over it, so interrogating them or asking them questions that would make them feel uncomfortable or offended is more rude than productive.
Is there anything to be aware of?
If you are planning on traveling to North Korea I feel confident that the agency you arrange the trip with will tell you about vital do’s and don’t’s. For me personally, traveling safely in North Korea simply requires following the rules set out to you and being respectful.
Americans need to pay extra attention to their behavior, as I will admit, there is some tension in the attitudes of some North Korean’s toward them, but those who are respectful will have no problems.
I would also say it is important to remember that what you see is what North Korean officials want you to see. Everything is carefully orchestrated so that you see the best of what the country has to offer, and also so that what the country has to offer appears to be better than what it actually is. I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the set of a grand production for much of the time I was there (which isn’t helped by the 1950s mise-en-scene). Further, Pyongyang, in particular, is occupied by the ‘elite’ of the country, so the clean streets, towering buildings (some of which as actually empty), universities, and stores are really for a select few of the North Korean population. Many North Koreans live in much more rural conditions.
There is no public internet in North Korea, so, unfortunately, you will not be able to use Snapchat, Facebook Live or update your Instagram feed or story while you are there.
Also, by visiting North Korea and spending money in the country you are also funding the regime, as one North Korean defector told me when I asked him what he thinks about North Korea tourism: ‘you are funding their nuclear programs’.
What was my experience like and what was my impression of North Korea after my visit?
Overall, I would say that I found my visit to North Korea very rewarding as it allowed me to experience a part of the world that very few people do, and allowed me to create my own opinions of it. I went into the country with an open-mind, I was and still am aware of the atrocities committed by its government, but for me, this is in no way any indicator of the nature of the country’s people who were incredibly welcoming and polite.
The trip is something that I will certainly never forget and while I remain aware of the what I mentioned above regarding the fact that I only experienced what the North Korean government wanted me to experience, the ability to apply my own critique to that what I did see is, to me, amazing in itself.
Returning from my visit, I had developed a much greater appreciation for the freedom of speech, movement, and access to information that I have.