Trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the official name for a country commonly known as North Korea, was so far the most unique trip of my life. I have always been curious about DPRK, but I never realised that one can go there as a tourist, until a friend did. People usually think it’s difficult or dangerous to go to DPRK, but that wasn’t my experience at all.
If you want to visit DPRK, you can’t just take you back-pack and go, but you need to book through an agency that organises everything for you. They also organise the visa for you, which comes printed on a separate piece of paper (not stamped into your passport). For the visa you only need to send a scanned version of your passport to the agency and that’s it… easy right!
We used Koryo Tours and I have to say they provided a really top notch service. Koryo tours is a Western-owned agency based in Beijing, so they need to arrange the tour via a DPRK based tour agency, called KITC, which is basically a state sponsored travel agency that make sure you visit what the government allows you to see.
Koryo tours offer many different tours of various lengths. We took the 5-day (short) “Liberation Day” tour in August 2015. This tour is special, because you are there for the 15 August liberation day (from the Japanese) celebration. This is one of the most important dates in the Korean calendar and they usually organise street parades. In 2015 is was also the 70th anniversary of the end of the Japanese occupation and the DPRK government decided to introduce their own timezone – Pyongyang time… quite cool to witness that.
Survival in DPRK
There are a set of rules that you need to respect when visiting DPRK and our agency organised a special pre-departure briefing in Beijing. The basic rules are:
- You shouldn’t be a journalist or a professional photographer entering as a tourist. The guides are especially attentive for that and you also need to sign a declaration with the agency before departure. So for the record, this is a personal travel blog, and I have no affiliation with any media. Amateur (hobby) photographers are OK, but if you have a big camera they will be more vigilant.
- You cannot bring with you any religious material (they don’t want you to proselytise) or any material about the recent history, the division of the Korean peninsula, or any other material in the Korean language. They check at the airport!
- You are not in a land of free while you are in DPRK. You will be hurdled around where they want you to go and see what they want you to see. At all times you have to be accompanied by local guides. You are not allowed to wonder around by yourself or even take pictures of what you want.
- Don’t insult or say anything against their leaders!!! They highly respect their leaders.
MOST IMPORTANTLY: By going to DPRK you need to be aware you will not be able to say what you think and do what you want. They will be very persistent with their version of history and beliefs, which none of us really agreed with and at times it felt like brain-washing. However, for them that is the only truth they were ever told and they firmly believe in it. It would also be counter-productive and meaningless for you to try changing the mind of the guides or try turning them against their regime.
However, if you respect these rules and behave nicely to them, they will be happy you came to visit their country. The Koreans I met and spoke to (mostly the guides) were very nice and friendly. They do not seem to understand the life outside and are happy with theirs. However, they are also keen to hear your stories and where how you live etc.
Interesting fact: You are not allowed to fold the newspaper directly over the picture of the Kims. Pretty much every edition of newspaper has their picture on the front cover and they come folded in all sort of shapes making sure that the picture remains uncreased.
Every foreigner needs to be in a company of at least two professional tourist guides in DPRK. Even if you’re on an individual tour (it is possible to go on individual tours via Koryo tours) you will have two local guides with you, which becomes rather awkward if you’re a solo traveller. It is quite clear though that the guides are not only tourist guides, but are also there to make sure you don’t do something against the rules.
We had 3 guides, one of them was doing most of the tourist explanation, the other was helping her and the third one didn’t even speak much English (he was also the highest rank in the party). Maybe, he was there to control the other two. While we were being driven around town the guides went to talk personally to each one of us. They asked a lot of personal questions and also a lot of questions about your home, family, job etc. At times it was not completely clear whether they were asking those questions out of curiosity or they were trying to profile you and test whether you were a journalist or a spy undercover.
Apart from the guides we also had a driver and a cameraman that was producing a video of the trip (you can see it on YouTube). In addition, Koryo tours provided a foreign guide as well. So basically you’re really well taken care of… or in other words a group of 20 foreigners is being watched by 5 locals. It almost feels like you’re on the big brother.
Interesting fact: There is a general programme for your tour. However, the daily programme is constantly amended by the local guides and every morning you don’t even know where you will be taken to. They decide where you go on a particular day and coordinate with the other groups. So even if there were several tour groups in the country that week, we barely coincided outside the hotel.
Money in DPRK
In DPRK they don’t accept credit cards so you need to bring cash. Most useful are euros and Chinese yuans. US dollars will be (somewhat reluctantly) accepted but they will “punish” you with a very bad exchange rate. Make sure to bring lots of small change, for example, 1 and 2 euro coins and 1 and 5 yuan bills.
The best thing is that most expenses are included in your trip and you will only need money for drinks in the evening and the tips for the guides (and some extra shows). However, watch out on international calls. We had an Australian couple on the tour and they made a couple of calls from their hotel to let their family know they were OK. They charged them several hundred euros for those short calls. The problem was that they didn’t have that much money to pay for it, and clearly there are no ATM machines either…
The tour actually starts the day before, when we went for a briefing at Koryo tours in Beijing, where they explained all the rules and gave us our visas and instructions for getting to the airport. They even organised busses to the airport the next morning, which we didn’t use.
Entering the DPRK
In the morning we gathered at Beijing airport and checked in for the Air Koryo JS222 flight to Pyongyang. The DPRK experience starts with an old Russian built Tupolev aircraft, flight attendants wearing white gloves and Korean music blasting from the sound system. The plane was spotless and upon entering we were handed the DPRK daily newspaper in English. Upon take-off they served a not very appetising burger and when we crossed into the DPRK airspace they proudly announced that.
Immigration was quite straight forward, but customs were tougher. They wanted to check every book we carried to make sure they’re not bibles or promotional material and went through your phone and tablet contents, they opened all the video apps. They also registered our phones and other electronic devices (not sure what for). Interestingly enough, the customs were very well aware of Apple iWatch even if you can’t actually buy one in DPRK.
After formalities we met with our 3 local guides. Our main guide was Miss Pak and she was really sweet and very welcoming. They took our passports and kept them until the day of departure, which was a bit scary but it’s standard procedure. We were bussed to city and on the way to our hotel we stopped at the Arch of Triumph. It is pretty much like the famous Paris monument, but much bigger. It commemorates the Korean resistance to Japan.
Interesting fact: One thing you quickly notice is that all Koreans wear a pin of their leaders on their chest. The guides explained that when they join the party they receive the pin and they wear it with honour. They say it’s not mandatory to wear it, but I wonder how come everyone (really everyone) wears it then. Interestingly, the DPRK nationals on the plane put their pins on just before landing.
After checking-in at the Yanggakdo hotel we had a late lunch in the revolving restaurant on the 47 floor. The hotel is on an island on the Taedong River and as we checked in the guides were very clear that you cannot leave the hotel premises alone! Fortunately, the hotel has all facilities you can think of: something like 5 restaurants, several bars, a night club, a casino, bowling lanes, swimming pool, etc.
A first walk through the city
We were taken for a first walk through the centre. It started at the National Theatre and then we were hurdled to the Kim Il Sung square (the main square you can usually see on TV). It was interesting as many local kids were practising for some sort of parade. After that we visited the foreign languages bookshop, where we could buy local books in English language. Most of the books they have are either tourist books about DPRK or political books, mostly written by the leaders, about their system.
The roads are in general quite wide but with very few cars. The traffic is directed by policewomen that perform the functions of a traffic light with an astonishing precision. It was very interesting to watch their “traffic” choreography. The pavements are also quite wide and full of people walking to places. It seems that most inhabitants move around by foot.
Pyongkyang fun fare
Before dinner we visited the Pyongyang fun fare (!!!) I would have never thought to go on a roller-coaster in DPRK, but we did, and it was fun as anywhere else in the world. You pay per ride with yuans or euros. The rides looked quite new and well maintained.
Interesting fact: The separation of Koreas is inconceivable for them and they would really like to see the two countries unite. On most maps they actually show the whole of the Korean peninsular. They even have a large unity monument on the highway towards the south.
This was the day to visit the border area between the two Koreas, or as it’s usually referred to the DMZ – demilitarised zone, and Panmunjom – the village in the North. The bus took us south on the highway towards Kaesong, the last big city before the border. It took about 2h and the road was wide and extremely empty. Maybe half way down we stopped at a rest station for WC and refreshments. Until this rest-stop we were allowed to take pictures, but from there on it was strictly forbidden until we reached the DMZ.
At the entrance to the DMZ we were first given an explanation by a soldier and then taken down the 2km road to the JSA – Joint Security Area. On the way we were also showed the building where they signed the armistice treaty where the original versions are displayed.
JSA is where the blue UN houses are and where negotiations take place. We went up to the balcony of the main (north side) building, from where we had a nice view of the blue huts and the south side of the border. We were free to take pictures of whatever we wanted and speak to the soldiers. Very different experience compared to a visit from the south. On the southern side you can hardly take any pictures and one feels very restricted.
Interesting fact: The guides repeat it several times that DPRK army defeated the Japanese in WWII (I guess they never heard of the atomic bomb) and the US in the Korean wars. We all knew that is completely outrageous, but for them that is they only story they’ve ever heard. As one of the rules does, don’t try to change their minds, we all listened politely and said nothing.
After the DMZ we went to Kaesong, where we had lunch. It was a pansanggi meal – something like Korean tapas consisting of many small dishes in brass bowls. This lunch was the most critical on the tour, at least half of fellow passengers got sick and many had problems on the bus ride to Pyongyang (some even threw up on the bus). After lunch we visited the Kaesong Koryo Museum and Tomb of King Kongmin.
Upon returning to Pyongyang and before dinner we were taken to an art warehouse outlet, where we could buy paintings, craft and other art. It was in this university complex I believe and outside there were enormous statues of the two Kims on horses.
Food in DPRK
The food in both of the Koreas is very similar. The meals in DPRK consisted of a large number of side dishes, a bowl of white rice and the obligatory kimchi. We were also given some well known Korean dishes, like the bibimbap or bulgogi, as well as some western food, i.e. pizza. However, the food in the northern part of the peninsula is less flavoursome and less spiced. I was told that it is due to historical differences rather than political ones.
In general, the food we had on our trip was not memorable. I have had a lot of delicious Korean food in the past, but the food on the trip was (in general) quite bland. One of the main problems was that in many places the food was pre-prepared and was cold by the time it was served to us.
The biggest challenge, however, was the breakfast. We had a buffet of quite a strange food selection. Most of the food was really bad and it was floating in oil. The only edible thing was bread and fried eggs (very oily again). The worse thing was the instant coffee, so basically we ended up without any coffee for the whole week as there is no Starbucks in DPRK 🙂
The best thing we did, though, was that we brought peanut butter and snacks with us… all fellow travellers were really jealous and happy we shared.
Interesting fact: In the evenings we had beers in the hotel’s own micro-brewery with other fellow travellers. It’s quite a social trip and all people on the tour were quite interesting. The days were packed and every morning we started at 8am, so everyone was generally quite tired.
New time zone – Pyongyang time
We witnessed the establishment of a new time zone. The authorities in DPRK decided to set-back clocks by 30 min to set themselves apart from (as they say) imperial time imposed by Japan. Both of the Koreas were in the same time zone as Japan, which is 1h ahead of the time in China. So now DPRK is right in between the time in Tokyo and Beijing. The new time zone was established very timely, as the next day Koreans set to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation from Japan, a celebrations shared across the whole Korean peninsula.
Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun
The day started with one of the most important deeds of our trip – visit to the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. We were specifically told to bring formal clothes for this occasion (i.e. shirt & tie for men and a dress for women). The mausoleum is a huge building called the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun.
We had to leave all electronic appliances (phones and cameras) at the entrance (or in the bus) and after security check we walked through extremely long corridors to reach the final resting place of the two Kims. There was revolutionary music playing on loudspeakers all along and the atmosphere was very sombre. There were plenty of ordinary Koreans coming to show respect to their leaders and they were all very sad and the ladies were in tears.
The Kims lay embalmed in a glass coffins each in his own huge huge room. At the body of each of the leader, we had to walk around and bow (show respect as they refer to it) at three sides (not being the head). After bowing we were taken through a room with a collection of objects they used to exercise their duties, including a room full of medals and titles bestowed by foreign leaders. There was even a whole train carriage Kim Jong Il used to travel around the country in with an Apple laptop on the desk – a bit strange considering how much they dislike the US. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take pictures inside.
Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery
After the mausoleum we were taken to visit the nearby Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery. A huge cemetery on the slope of a hill with a large collection of individually-crafted bronze busts of the country’s anti-Japanese heroes. It was a hot day and we were still wearing the formal dress, which became a bit uncomfortable at this point. At the cemetery we again needed to bow and lay flowers (be ready for a lot of bowing in DPRK).
The lunch on this day was at a karaoke restaurant. First two ladies sang and danced for us and then they even called us to dance with them. There are two songs they constantly play and sing to you in DPRK, the Arirang (a folk Korean song) and the Pangapsumnida (“nice to meet you” song). The karaoke lunch was a lot of fun and the two songs stuck with us long after returning home.
The funny thing was that just a couple of weeks after my trip to DPRK, a Slovenian band – Laibach – was the first western band that performed in DPRK, and they even performed their version of Arirang.
Tram and metro rides
In the afternoon we were taken for a tram ride… sounds like fun right. They organised a whole tram just for us to take us for a short ride. For most people riding on a tram is nothing special, since there are trams in many cities around the world. For me, however, it was interesting to see these particular trams. They were all made in old Czechoslovakia and they are the same as I remember them from Prague when I was a kid… quite a flash-back.
The tram ride ended at a arena complex with sports and performance halls, where we went for the acrobatics show (we had to pay EUR 20 extra for the show if we wanted to go). The show was very similar to a Chines acrobatics show you might see in Beijing. It was quite nicely produced and the athletes were very well trained. Unfortunately we couldn’t take any pictures inside.
After the show they took us for a ride on the Pyongyang metro. There is a map showing two lines on the system, but we were only taken 6 stations on one line. The metro was quite busy and it seems many people actually use the metro for commuting.
The stations are very very deep, which is similar to many (post)communist metros, e.g. Prague or Moscow, and the escalator ride takes a really long time. The trains are old, but the stations are really clean, beautifully decorated, and huge. There are a lot of pictures, burst or statues of their leaders (including each carriage has pictures of them). There are also newspaper displays where one can read the daily news.
After dinner we headed to the main square (Kim Il Sung square) since it was the liberation day celebration. As expected, they staged a mass dance in the square (there are no more mass games in DPRK since 2013). Music was blasting from loudspeakers and thousands (but really thousands) of people were dancing national dances.
First, we only observed the mass dance from the steps of the central library – the Grand People’s Study House (the famous grey building with the big pictures of the leaders), and it was quite a sight to see the whole square flooded with people perfectly synchronised, dancing in circles.
After a while the guides told us we could join in. WOW!!! Obviously, most of us went. Our guide was very happy to pair me up with a Korean lady who didn’t speak any English, but was very patient and happy to teach me the basic dance moves. The dance is very simple and very repetitive so it wasn’t a big deal. It was an amazing experience to actually dance in a mass dance in the centre of Pyongyang, which was even shown on many western news.
Getting lost in Pyongyang
While you’re in DPRK, the guides are responsible for you at all times. They are there to take you around, but also to make sure you don’t do anything against the rules. I’m not sure if they (or their families even) are personally responsible, but they definitely take their job very seriously.
After the mass dance there were many people on the square. Ordinary Koreans were dispersing and heading back to their homes and we were gathering to go to our busses, which were parked some 10 min away. Some of us were in the square, because we had joined the dance, some were still up on the steps of the library. As we were gathering in the square beneath the steps we couldn’t find one member of our group.
He was nowhere to be seen and the guides started to get nervous. They started to call the guides of other groups, but no-one has seen him. We anyway had to head back to the bus and we hoped that the lost person would find another group. I knew his sense of orientation is not very good and that he wouldn’t be able to find the bus on his own, so I was also worried, since I couldn’t just ring him up on his phone as anywhere else in the world.
When we arrived to the bus we were very delighted to find him there. Basically, as we were gathering in the square he couldn’t see our group, but he recognised some other travellers from another group so he joined them back to the busses. The guides looked very relieved that he only got lost and didn’t want to do anything silly. It was quite something to see one of the guides actually shaking on the way back to the bus.
Manusade Grand monument
We started the day with a must for every visitor to DPRK – paying respect to the huge bronze statues of the Kims on Manusade hill. There is a big esplanade in front of them, where we had to line up and one member of the group laid flowers to their feet as we all bowed.
Interesting fact: We had to be careful when taking pictures of their leaders. You are strictly forbidden to crop the statue, not even cutting out the feet for example. You MUST have the whole statute on the picture. Anyway, we did this group pic and I’m not sure if that’s OK either as we’re covering their feet.
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
We were taken for an exhaustive tour of the liberation war museum where they proudly explained how they defeated the Japanese in the WWII and the Americans in the Korean war of the 50s (¿?). They also proudly showed us the captured US war ship – USS pueblo. The visit to the museum could be difficult for any Americans or Japanese on the tour as they use some very tough language about those two countries.
Interesting fact: Well maybe not that interesting, but rather shocking. Our guides constantly referred to the US as ‘imperialist’ to the Japanese as ‘Japs’ and to the South Koreans as the ‘puppet state’. We all found that quite disturbing, but again it wouldn’t be wise to start arguing with them about it.
In DPRK people work 6 days a week and rest only on Sunday. Hence, Sunday is a big family and community celebration day we were told. People go out to the parks and to the river to have Korean style BBQ, play games and dance to music. Since it was Sunday, we were taken for a walk through Morabong park to see people enjoying their day off. The park was full of people and they seemed keen to see us. Actually, it was the only place were we could directly ‘interact’ with people, although a bit limited because of the language barrier.
At a park hut there was a group of people singing and dancing and when we arrived they stopped dancing with each other and started dancing with us. They were happy to teach us their dance and their songs, especially the ubiquitous Pangapsumnida song, which involves shaking hands with everyone (the song means ‘nice to meet you’). However, when we left the music stopped and they stopped dancing, which looked a bit strange.
Interesting fact: During our trip it wasn’t very clear which moments were part of genuine life of people in DPRK and which ones were ‘staged‘ for foreigners. There were several instances that made us think that. For example, in the park it looked like they were dancing only while we were there and shortly after we left the music stopped; in the supermarket people looked deeply engaged in their shopping, rather than naturally going around their daily activities; and at the acrobatic show, everyone (a full hall apart from some front rows reserved for us) was already quietly sitting on their places as we arrived. Maybe, we were just suspicious with these observations, but they indeed let us wonder if the local tour company didn’t try staging instances from the life in DPRK.
We had a (they say) unique possibility to go to a local supermarket. It actually reminded me a lot of my childhood and the supermarkets in (then) Czechoslovakia. On the ground floor there was the grocery section, where you had a large selection of mostly DPRK and Chinese (and some Russian) products. What was very characteristic was that there was only one version of each product, clearly no branding or marketing needed, but the shelves were full of products and it seemed they didn’t lack anything really.
The clothing section was on the first floor. There the selection was rather monotonous and dull. For example, men’s sections mostly had formal trousers and shirts and all in dark and dull colours. There was not much of casual wear to chose from. On the top (second) floor there was a food court, which was by far the most crowded section.
We were allowed to buy things in the supermarket and in order to do that we needed to change our euros or yuans into won at a small booth next to the tills. However, we were not allowed to take home any of the wons. We were also not allowed to take any pictures 😦
Interesting fact: The local guides explained that for them having to much choice would be difficult. For example, having to choose between more than two same/similar products would be too demanding. They think our (western) life-styles must be very tough because of that. Oddly enough, I think they do have a point there (i.e. think of the selection of laundry detergents in a supermarket and the marketing associated with them); however, I still think that having too much choice is better than none.
Juche tower is an impressive monument on the other side of the river, directly opposite to the main Kim Il Sung square. The monument commemorated the Juche idea, which is the political and economic order of DPRK. It was developed by their first leader, Kim Il-Sung, and is loosely based on communism. The Juche is so important for them that they count years in Juche years, starting from the year of the Kim Il Sung’s birth in 1912. Hence the current year (2017) is Juche 106 in DPRK.
There is a lift to the top of the Juche tower (€5 not included in the tour). The views from the top are very nice over the river and the square on the other side. This day was also the first time they turned on the fountains / jets of water on the river (somewhat like the famous jet d’eau in Geneva).
On the way to the Juche tower we also drove past the Party Foundation Monument, and the iconic sculpture of hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush, which was constructed to celebrate 50 years of Workers’ Party rule.
Interesting fact: Guides on the tour are very keen on explaining the smallest details that you will obviously forget right away. For example, for every building/monument they tell you it’s measurements, how many stones it was built with, etc. Obviously there was a detailed explanation of the height and number of stones in the Juche tower, but I admit, I didn’t pay much attention to it anymore.
Local brewery and diplomats’ club
For once we didn’t have to rush around seeing more monuments or museums. We were taken to a local (German-style) brewery where we could try a large selection of locally produced beers. They were quite good and it was fun to get a bit tipsy with the other fellow travellers and the local guides. By now the guides also relaxed a bit and were more chatty and less questioning.
After dinner it was movies night. We were taken to the foreign diplomats’ club to see a DPRK movie called “oh youth”. The movie was quite bad actually and most of us couldn’t really stay throughout the whole movie. Luckily, they had a well stocked bar and pool tables, so we had fun.
It was time to say good bye to DPRK. On the drive to the airport we were (finally) given our passports back. We were told that the customs might go through our phones and cameras to see if we took any unauthorised pictures, but everything went very smoothly at the airport. In no time we were on board of our Air Koryo flight to Beijing.
Interesting fact: The guides are apparently very privileged to work with foreign tourists and earn tips in foreign currency from. It is highly encouraged to leave tip for the guides, and I have to say they deserved it. It is also nice to bring the guides a gift from your country. It can be something small, but as long as it’s nice and will make them happy.
Back in Beijing
The captain announced that we left the ‘airspace of the great leader of the fatherland’ upon leaving the DPRK airspace. You could feel that there was a large relief among the foreigners on-board. After landing at Beijing airport we all felt very free. It was an interesting sensation on various levels. Finally, we were not shepherded around anymore and could go wherever we wanted and buy whatever we wanted (even if we didn’t have any yuans left, credit cards are widely accepted in China).
Our phones suddenly woke up. After a week of complete isolation during which our phones were useless pieces of metal, they started to ping and buzz with messages and calls. There was internet (even if there is no Facebook in China) we could use whatsapp, get emails and Skype with our friends informing them we survived and had a great time.
My friend and I had an onward flight home to Bangkok (via Hong Kong). I clearly remember the moment after we boarded the Cathay Pacific flight and I realised I’m free again and on the way home. I went to the flight attendant and told her we just arrived from Pyongyang and that we really needed a cup of real coffee and a glass of champagne. She made us very happy!
To sum the trip up… it was an amazing experience!!!! This was (so far) the most unusual trip I made and at the same time a trip that made me think about many things in life. It was very interesting to see (at least a glimpse of) how people live in DPRK. I feel very privileged I experienced DPRK for myself.