It’s 3 am, I’ve just arrived back over the border in China after four days in notorious North Korea, also known as DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), and all I want to do is crash into my bed.
But I’m trying to get into the habit of writing travel posts when my emotions are raw and real, as we often have the ability to romanticise or exaggerate when relying upon long-term memory alone.
I certainly can’t think of a more important time than now to write openly and honestly about a destination that I have visited – especially when the destination is one of the most infamous in the world, led by a ruthless dictatorship that likes to propagandise tourists who curiously visit the hermit kingdom.
So, let’s get into the nitty-gritty and stop messing about, as I bear all about my 4 days in North Korea.
2023 edit: I visited North Korea pre-Covid, and it is looking like DPRK and China are currently in a two-horse race to be the last country to open back up for tourism. I will edit this article accordingly, however, this post is still relevant as it’s largely based on my 4 days in North Korea itinerary.
Why Would Anyone Go To North Korea?
I want to visit every country in the world and North Korea is no exception to this goal of mine, well at least in terms of numbers.
However, it certainly is a different beast in many ways. You really can’t expect people to have the same reaction to you gallivanting around the lovely Norwegian fjords vs saying you’re going to visit North Korea, the most isolated country on earth.
Since travelling the world I have watched mainstream news less and less and made my mind up about countries and their people via real-life experience. I’ve lost count of how many times my encounters have been different to common rhetoric and I have changed my mind on things that I never believed I would in a million years.
…this isn’t the part of the North Korea travel blog where I drown in a sea of cultural relativism and blame Western media for painting the country in an unnecessarily dismal light.
North Korea is a brutal totalitarian regime, run by evil megalomaniacs with human rights abuses that wouldn’t look out of place in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’
My reasons for wanting to visit North Korea were largely selfish, but my intentions were not sinister. I wanted to witness it with my own eyes and hopefully share even the most subtle of human connections in one of the most isolated and secretive countries on planet Earth.
Is it Unethical To Visit North Korea?
I’m going to be candid here. I do get a little defensive when I visit complicated countries and receive condemnation from people who go for low-hanging fruit, or whatever is fashionable at the moment to be mad about.
I also don’t love the term ‘dark tourism,’ but there is no getting away from the fact that visiting North Korea and other incredibly sad places that I have visited would come under that umbrella.
Maybe the negative feelings possibly stem from the veiled accusations that I must get some perverse sense of joy from living beings suffering, which is very far from the truth.
Visceral reactions and my delicate ego aside, there is certainly less of an argument in my favour here considering that every single penny spent goes to the North Korean government. I have been to a lot of nations with corrupt governments in all corners of the world (including the West) and also countries that have been ravaged by war and I won’t be stopping that any time in the near future.
The counteracting argument has always been that the people are separate from the government and that they have every bit of right to make money from tourism as anyone else in the rest of the world (or arguably even more so if they are in dire straits). The problem here is that the people of North Korea do not get to keep that money in this transaction.
Pretty much every bit of the reported $30-40 million from tourism will go directly to the regime and let’s face it, there is no distribution of the wealth going on here, it will be held ever so tightly in the iron fist of DPRK’s “Dear Leader.”
As with anything you spend money on, it’s best to make the decision whether you are happy with what you are funding. Visiting North Korea once is enough for me, but I understand and appreciate the criticisms of this particular topic.
Arriving in Dandong, China (The Day Before North Korea)
Dandong, the Chinese city gateway to accessing North Korea has an airport – sweet!
Well, yes, it would be… if it was actually open for business. Sky Scanner and Momondo still showed it as an option, but this was a glitch in the system as Dandong airport was closed (it is now open after renovations).
I flew to Shenyang and took a (very efficient and comfortable) bullet train to Dandong. It took an hour and a half to get there. If you do have to take the train to Dandong, you need to order the ticket online first at ctrip.com and collect it at the station in Shenyang.
The purchase of the ticket is simple but give yourself a lot of time to get to Shenyang train station. The traffic from Shenyang Airport can be unpredictable and once you get to Shenyang train station, nothing is in English so you’ll have to engage your best improvisation skills to work out which counter you’ll need to go to so that you can receive your ticket.
Oh, and you’ll need the booking code along with the passport number that you registered upon buying your ticket on ctrip.com.
Upon my arrival in Dandong, I got my first taste of large bronze communist effigies as I was met by a gigantic statue of Chairman Mao with his arm raised aloft.
I was soon to find out that this would be a common theme in neighbouring North Korea but on a much larger scale.
It was bloody freezing. Seriously, don’t underestimate this part of the world during winter. Permanent nipple-on awaits you, wrap up well when visiting East Asia when it’s cold.
After a rough couple of transits, I was delighted to see that my hotel was only a three-minute walk away from the station.
I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn. It was incredibly good value for money at $50 USD per night and so I stayed for two nights – choosing to be risk-averse in case I had any issues with the connections and taking advantage of the delicious DIY Chinese hotpot options at dinner.
After a day of catching up with work and hammering the hotel treadmill, I woke up and it was happening… I was officially going to North Korea.
North Korea Day 1: Train To Pyongyang, Korean Food
As instructed via email from my tour company Young Pioneer Tours, I went to Dandong train station at 8 am to meet the group. They were easy to spot; Dandong wasn’t exactly flush with non-Chinese people for the two days that I was in town and Rowan, our Aussie guide (an absolute legend of a bloke too), was towering above everyone at around 6 foot 7!
We made the usual, awkwardly polite introductions and received our briefing, which was quite relaxed, and off we toddled to the train.
Everyone had a sleeper berth on the train, but I don’t think anyone actually used it as nervous energy was running rife.
We met our first North Korean at the border, we stayed on the train as instructed, the gentleman had a list of our names and he took our passports, registered our cameras and checked our luggage.
The man was incredibly amiable and smiley, dressed in full military gear with a pinned badge that showed the current leader, Kim Jong-un and his father Kim Jong-il, with the North Korean flag in the background.
We were allowed off at one stop before getting off at Pyongyang where we stocked up on beers from Korean ladies at a small stall, photos were not allowed to be taken here, but they were allowed at a later stop.
After seeing about eight hours of snowy, rural landscapes and several locals riding their bicycles, the train parked up and we were in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang.
We jumped on our tour bus and met our two Korean guides, a man and a woman with perfect English who seemed genuinely happy to see us, before grabbing a quick Korean dinner and getting to our hotel – Hotel Sosan.
North Korea Day 2: Cult of Kims, Metro Station & Kwanbok Mall
The most interesting day of the trip for me as I got to sink my teeth into the level of weirdness that fuelled my part of my curiosity to visit North Korea by visiting the capital city, Pyongyang.
Today was Kim Jong-il’s birthday (the Team America one) and celebrations were in full swing across the capital, however, we were not able to see the embalmed bodies of the former leaders of North Korea in Kumsusan Palace, possibly due to today’s big day.
I seem to have somewhat of a course on me when it comes to seeing embalmed communists as Ho Chi Minh’s body was getting work done during my Vietnam road trip and Vladimir Lenin’s was unavailable when I was in Moscow.
I think the closest that I ever got was visiting Che Guevara’s mausoleum in the middle of my Cuba itinerary.
I sucked up my disappointment as we visited Kim Il-sung Square, which is the famous place you will see on TV when thousands of soldiers are aggressively goosestepping for their Dear Leader.
It was a pretty uneventful and mundane affair until we visited the Mansudea Monument where we were met with two jaw-dropping, colossal, bronze statues of the current leader’s father Kim jong-il and also the first leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung (the photo in my featured image at the top of this article).
Hundreds of locals gathered and queued up in an orderly fashion to lay flowers at the feet of their past and present leaders with a slow bow in unison.
We had to do the same. You can opt to stay on the bus or hang back if you’re against this act, no one forces you to take part.
The rules are pretty odd for taking photos of this statue. You cannot crop the photo – it must show the full size of the leaders – you can’t mimic their poses, and you are not permitted to zoom into their faces.
I couldn’t help but (internally) laugh at the irony of the rules enforced by a regime which is fiercely against religious freedom, as they embodied a very old-school religious way of thinking; the worshipping of a deity, which you are forced to respect, regardless of how you are treated and the biggest sin is to question it.
After the giant Kim pics, we went to visit the Pyongyang Metro Station, one of the deepest metros in the world and I was surprised when we took a ride on the underground before some other photo ops of the station’s Kim art. I tried to lock eyes with locals coming up the other side of the escalator as we were going down.
North Koreans are very reserved and shy, but there were moments when an elderly lady would smile or a kid would wave, and it lit up my heart whilst a million and one questions bounced around my mind.
What did they make of us being there? Do they know how unique their situation is in the world? Most importantly, were they happy?
The metro train was bought second-hand from Berlin after the fall of the wall with German graffiti still engraved in the windows and on the ceiling, giving it an extra edge as we travelled to our final stop.
From here the weirdness level was cranked up a notch as we visited a flower festival. Not just any flower festival, but one wholly devoted to Kim Jong-un, affectionately named; The Kimjongilia Flower Festival!
We watched locals queue up to have their photo taken behind a large image of the current leader and behind beautiful red flowers before moving on to a dance ceremony.
The two hours of dancing were completely mesmerising. Each dance consisted of men and women holding hands, lined up in a man/woman formation, taking a couple of steps before clapping in unison and bellowing out a sound/word. Check out my Instagram video below for a better idea of what it looked like.
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I’ve just come back from 4 days in North Korea. Blog post is written, just need to edit some photos before that’s published. __ People have been asking me what it was like. It’s not one of those questions that you can answer with a few sentences. __ This was a massive celebration for Kim Jong-il (the guy from ‘Team America’) as it was was his birthday. *Play sound* if you want to hear the Korean music. __ In Nepal now, that trip took a lot out of me, but the show must go on. Hoping that the words will do justice to what I felt in my heart.🇰🇵 __ #pyongyang #northkorea #offthegrid #solotraveler #lifewelltraveled #lovetraveling #abroad #sharetravelpics #traveljunkie #traveljunkies #wheretonext #trippics #bestdiscovery #globe_travel_ #wanderlusters #travelinspiration #bestintravel #forbestravelguide #travelandleisure #travel_captures #travelinspiration #traveltime #greatesttravels #nomadlife #justgo #travelguide #tripstagram #travellovers #ilovetraveling #ilovetravelling
Then the questions started bouncing around my internal dialogue; do the people enjoy doing this or have they been made to do it? Many of them were kids, not adults. Kids like to dance and play, but how much of this was free will and how much of it was simply doing as they are told?
We finished in the early evening at Kwanbok Mall, the most popular in Pyongyang, where locals like to hang out for a chat and to eat together. This was the only place where we were allowed to exchange our currency for North Korean Won. I used Chinese Yuan although other tourists used Euros and Dollars in exchange for local currency.
We were told to try and make sure that we spent most or all of it as we would not be able to spend it anywhere else in the whole of North Korea and that we would be searched to make sure we didn’t take it out of the country.
Photos were restricted throughout the whole of this mall, we did not ask why. I bought snacks for the next day’s bus ride to the DMZ and some food from the top floor as I locked eyes with an elderly man, who I exchanged a warm smile with.
North Korea Day 3: DMZ, Hiking & Girl Band
Sometimes I look back on an old blog post or photos of past travels when I was emotionally immature and uneducated about parts of the world and think to myself, with my head in my hands; “what an absolute knob.”
And the one that really hurts is a photo taken of me from the other side of the DMZ in South Korea. It’s the only photo that I have of me at the DMZ, but I will never publish it.
I’m smiling in it with arms slightly aloft, a little falsely, with a veneer of boisterousness and you can see the ignorance shining on my face – that I clearly didn’t understand the profound significance or history of the sensitive place that I was in.
Thankfully, I was painfully aware this time around, from the north of the DMZ border and I breathed in every part of what I could comprehend during my time there.
The DMZ, which stands for the demilitarised zone, marks the end of the Korean War in 1953 when an armistice was agreed upon between both militaries and their allies, and a line was drawn via a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula to serve as a buffer zone between North Korea and South Korea.
I listened closely as the North Korean soldier spoke passionately about the events which led to the DMZ’s creation, translated fluently by our Korean guide, Hong.
It was remotely a lot more relaxed than it was five years ago on the South Korean side. From my time at the DMZ and the Morton Museum, I was taken aback by mainly two things:
- North Koreans refer to the Korean War as the “war with the USA.” The USA was, of course, instrumental in the Korean War, but I found it interesting that South Korea never got a mention.
- North Koreans as a collective allegedly want reunification with South Korea. This shouldn’t surprise me really, as the older generation will undoubtedly have family members and friends who they haven’t heard from, or even know if they’re alive, in several years. Very powerful to hear this from the lips of a North Korean soldier.
The North Korean utopian desire is apparently for one unified country, with the North staying socialist under their leader, Kim Jong-un and the South staying in a capitalist system with their own chief of command.
I’m no political analyst but I don’t see this working out.
We stopped off in the city of Sariwon on our way back to the hotel where we viewed the city from above on a mini 20-minute hike, to see the horizon of the city before heading back to a special dinner in Pyongyang. Sariwon is a common pit stop for tourists on the way back from the North Korean side of the DMZ.
People were even shyer in this city and I witnessed cute moments like a young, bashful man politely attempting to chat up a young woman in front of her friends and young children playing creative games with stones and chalk that they seem to enjoy thoroughly.
After the hike and subtle people-observing from myself, we moved on to a late lunch. I am suspicious of making any reference to the traditional grub as I knew that we dined in the more elite places, all in the name of the smokescreen of Operation DPRK Whitewash, but my guide assured me that at least 90% of the food that we had tried was bonafide.
North Korean food is unsurprisingly similar to South Korean food but with a slight twist. Kimchi was served at every meal, some of the smaller snacks were akin to dim sum thanks to Chinese influence I assume, and it was generally spicy, but not as spicy as South Korean food. Needless to say, as the stealth vegan of the group I said a polite “no thanks” to the offer of dog soup.
As we tucked into our grub, a curtain went up and a stage appeared with a gorgeous all-girl Korean band.
Some of the women changed their wardrobe more than Whitney in her prime diva days whilst six of the other women were pretty much rocking it for an hour straight.
My personal favourite was the violinist, I was drawn to her. She was a phenomenal talent and again I consciously caught myself thinking as I did back in the metro station the day before – does she want to be there? Does she even have an ounce of a choice? Should we be enjoying any part of this?
I’m not sure if it was because I caught her during a particularly sombre instrumental solo at the end, but I felt myself become a strong melancholic feeling.
Maybe I was overthinking, she could just be doing something that she loves and I’m ruminating over nothing (it wouldn’t be the first time), but it would be foolish to downplay the severity of the situation over there.
The people are not free and they probably never will be. At this point, I sensed a profound sadness in her eyes and I was officially North Korea’d out.
It felt a little like a human zoo to me; no fault of the tour operators, who spoke respectfully about sensitive topics, but I was just happy that this was the final night and I was ready to go.
Final Day in North Korea & Final Thoughts
The final day before heading back to Dandong was spent checking out some admittedly impressive popular North Korean landmarks such as the Arch of Reunification, Monument To The Korean Workers Party and North Korea’s very own Arch of Triumph; the second tallest triumphal arch in the world, dwarfed by Monumento a la Revolucion, one of the most famous landmarks in Mexico.
We said our final farewell to the DPRK via the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang, which had some interesting artworks and anti-American propaganda.
I don’t think the USA has exactly been an angel with foreign policy over the years, but I found the American hatred a little cringe and uncouth in parts, however, the monuments outside of the place were striking and impressive, which I have found true to form for countries with unapologetic communist-leanings.
The train back to China couldn’t have come fast enough for me. I was done. Many starry-eyed members of the tour were talking about returning one day, but I highly doubt that for myself. While I love watching dystopian movies and tv shows (my favourite genre), the experience of being so close to a real-life one was way too close to the bone for me.
Some moments in North Korea felt very sterile, but I’m still glad I went and didn’t regret it at all. Those fleeting moments of a smile with solid eye contact, a wave, and a kind gesture from a local are all worth it, and that’s what I went for.
But that’s as far as the romanticisation goes for me.
Finding ‘the truth’ over there is something of a wild goose chase and the capital city is a veneer of the harsh truth, used as a distraction from the human rights abuses perpetrated across the country.
My Korean guides were clearly smart and, relatively speaking, had more of an idea of the outside world than most of the folk living in rural areas, but I never wanted to compromise anyone’s safety by asking too serious of questions, as much as I wanted to.
I did the best that I could with my eyes and ears. I came, I saw and I kimchi’d. I felt a range of strong emotions that I kept to myself and upon departing I can only continue to reflect upon them and try to make sense of my experience in North Korea.