North Korea: What’s it like to go on a tour to North Korea?
North Korea is not for everyone.
Before going to North Korea, you will need to ask yourself what do you want out of it. If you want to go there to protest against the government, you might as well not go. If there are signs that you are a trouble-maker, the system will efficiently get you on the first plane back to China. (Unless you do something really crazy, like kill someone or start giving away bibles, they will not bother with arresting you. It’s much easier to just deport you.) But if you go there to try to build your own idea of what life in North Korea is like for a majority of the population, and to show the North Koreans that foreigners actually are nice people with superior technology to what they have, you have good reasons to go.
Now, you’ll probably enter North Korea by air, on a flight from Beijing. You will be flying with Air Koryo on an old Russian plane. You might worry a little about that, but you’ll be fine. Trust me, been there, done that, survived.
They’ll even give you a hamburger or something like that to eat on the flight over. The flight attendants won’t allow you to take too many photographs of themselves. Instead, they’ll ask you a few friendly questions to engage you in a small conversasion, where they’ll most probably end up telling you how nice life in North Korea is, and what a great leader they have. Also, enjoy the karaoke video running on the screens onboard, showing beautiful images of North Korea accompanied by most patriotic music.
Arriving at the brand new airport outside Pyongyang, you’ll efficiently be taken past immigration and customs. There’s surprisingly little inspection or fuss about anything. You will have been thoroughly checked before being issued a visa (none needed for Malaysians), and they trust you won’t bring anything stupid into the country, so there’s no need to check you too closely. But they WILL take your passport, and you won’t see it again until it’s time to leave the country. Don’t worry. There’s no way they will lose it.
Possibly somewhat surprising to you, you can bring pretty much any electronic device into North Korea. (Mind you, it’s not North Korea from here. It’s all the DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, they don’t like being called North Korea) Yes, you can bring your iPad, your cell phone, your laptop, your SLR camera, and so on. The only thing you can’t bring is a GPS. It’s a bit strange, as your cell phone and possibly even your camera probably also is a GPS, but that’s the rule. No GPS. It will be convenient if any GPS logo is carefully removed from any device that may have it.
When you’re through the checks, you’ll meet your Korean tour leaders. You’re typically part of a group of 10-20 people from all over the world, except from South Korea. Yes, Americans are welcome to enter the DPRK, as long as they are not currently serving in the military.
To accompany your group for the duration of your trip, you will have one tour leader, a tour assistant and maybe yet another tour assistant if there are Americans in your group. There will also be a driver of the bus that takes you around, and most likely there will be a camera man, filming all the exciting activities your group will partake in. The video will be for sale as a DVD at a decent price at the end of the trip.
During the drive into Pyongyang, you will receive a lot of information about what you can and cannot do while visiting. This will include:
You can take as many photos as you like, except when they tell you not to take any. That’s generally only when there are lots of military around. They also ask you not to take photos of people unless you politely ask first.
When photographing statues of the Kims, make sure you photograph the entire statue, and not zoom in on just the head or any other detail.
If you buy a newspaper, be careful not to fold it so that a photo of any Kim becomes folded or crumpled.
Do not wander off on your own at any time. If you want to, you can ask to be accompanied on walks more or less freely. This is only a theoretical option, though. Your days will be filled by the main itinerary from early in the morning, so when evening comes, you will want to relax or sleep at your hotel.
You’ll be taken to various sightseeing stops throughout Pyongyang. At each of them you will be given lengthy explanations about the meaning of what you see, and you will most often also be told how many times one or more of the Kims visited that particular spot and/or how they guided the workers during the construction of the place. It’s not necessarily very interesting, but you can look around and observe everyday life take place while you semi-listen to the narration.
Your hotel may or may not be really good. The beds are likely to be very hard, and in many hotels the floor is incredibly hot. Do not leave items that can melt on the floor. This includes everything from chocolate to shoes with rubber soles. It’s just a thing there. Apart from that, and the gift shop in the lobby selling all the literary works of the Kims, it’s much like any other hotel. There is NOT a secret floor where the spies monitor the going-on in all rooms at the hotel. The electricity will probably leave the building more often than you do.
One or several times during your stay, you will be taken places where giant statues need to be bowed before. This is something you will just have to do to please your tour leader, the same way you take off your shoes before entering a mosque or remove your hat when going inside a church. It feels weird, but it’s just a bow.
Driving through Pyongyang, you will notice that it seems awfully empty for such a populous city. It’s really not that strange. There’s not really a rush hour where people all mill about. Few people have cars, so the streets look empty just because of that. Imagine your own city without 95 % of the cars there. Neither are there shopping centers that people “need” to move to and from in crowds. But you will see people walking swiftly to wherever they need to be, just in smaller numbers than in cities that you know elsewhere.
The air is rather smoggy. This is clearly not because of the heavy traffic. Neither is there much industry, apart from a few chain-smoking coal power plants. The main source of the smog are the many fireplaces in people’s homes. Due to the lack of reliable electricity and no gas pipelines, people heat both their homes and their food by burning whatever they can, mostly coal. A few million people doing this quickly adds up. It’s nowhere near as bad as in many Chinese cities, including Beijing, but it can be pretty bad on cold days.
Having seen the landmarks in Pyongyang, you will most likely be taken to see the border between the two halves of Korea, at the DMZ (de-militarized zone) at Panmunjom. It can be quite entertaining, albeit with a tragic historical background. The North Koreans make fun of the South Koreans and their American soldiers that help them guard the border. While it clearly looks like very strict and strained conditions on the southern side of the border, the mood on the northern side is relaxed. Even here you can take photos of anything you want to.
You may also be taken on a tour of nearby Kaesong, a beautiful old Korean city that has been kept in its old style with architecture and temples. There are Kims standing around and hanging on walls here as well, but the old town is the main sight here.
Some tours will take you two many other parts of the country. You can go skiing or snowboarding in Masikryong, where you’re likely to have the slopes much to yourself. Mind you, the ski lift to the top takes a good 40 minutes to complete, and you’re subject to patriotic music from hidden loudspeakers the entire way up.
Other options are hiking tours of mountains around the country, you can do a tour by train, there are bicycling tours and various tours that emphasize architecture or culture of various kinds.
The food is not likely to be the highlight of your trip. You may see some chicken, but little meat apart from that. My best meal was this feast of pork:
I am NOT complaining about this, of course. I’m just preparing you, so that you won’t be disappointed. You will also have the option of eating dog once or twice, but there’s no particular reason to go for that option. Whatever they put in their food, nothing makes it stand out as memorable.
Towards the end of your tour, you will probably have come on good terms with your tour leader and his assistants. If you want to, you can give them gifts. I brought picture books from my home country, and after inspecting them for the presence of any hidden political or religious message, they accepted the gift with great enthusiasm. They also like chocolate, cigarettes and Baileys Irish Cream.
They will ask you a lot of questions about life in your country, eager to learn what the world is like. They will not stray from the official story about life in the DPRK, but you will be able to sense that there is more to it than that. The tour guides are incredibly diplomatic about anything.
When you leave the country, you may have the option to do so by train. This is not an option for Americans, who will have to get on the plane back to Beijing. But do choose the train if you can. Like on the rest of your trip, a lot of the most interesting parts are not the stops, but the things you can see from the windows of the vehicle you travel in. This is even more true from the train than from the bus.
You literally pass through people’s backyards, and you can see the exact conditions people live under. You will notice that while much of it undeniable indicates poverty, it is still nowhere near as bad as what you can see while traveling in countries like Kenya, India or Bolivia. You will obviously not see signs of concentration camps or things like that, but you will see a lot of what most people in the country counts as their life.
Eventually you will reach the border to China. The border check can be quite thorough, they are more interested in seeing what you bring out of the country than what you took in. Just be prepared for that, in any way you deem necessary.
It’s strange to sit on a train rolling into China while you’re drawing a sigh of relief of being back in a free country again.
I hope this gave you an idea of what a visit to the DPRK can be like. If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below and I will do my best to answer them.