Travelling to North Korea – 4 days in one of the most isolated nations on earth

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It’s 3am, I’ve just arrived back from four days in the notorious Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and all I want to do is crash into my bed in Bangkok. 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 memory alone.

So, let’s get into the nitty gritty and stop messing about. I’ll try my best to explain the whats, the whys, the hows and the logistics of visiting North Korea.

Is it ethical to visit North Korea?

The gigantic elephant in the room. My personal theory, as it stands, is that a lot of nations around the world have shady skeletons in their closets and are guilty of unbelievable acts of cruelty, so it gets tricky for me when it comes to boycotting a country based upon insidious behaviour from some of its people, military or government.

Hard-working immigrants who prop up the economies of oil-rich nations in the Middle East, for example, are treated like absolute garbage.

My home Thailand has an unknown seafood slavery business and Russia’s comfortably racist.

I haven’t written ‘my top 20 favourite countries’ list yet, but I suspect that, when I do, a big chunk of it will include Muslim nations, even though I abhor the gay ‘rights’ stance under Islam.

All of the above are countries and regions of the world that I absolutely love visiting, but admittedly that’s a straw man argument to the question at hand. The enjoyment of doing something does not suddenly make the act ethical.

I can play mental gymnastics with the nauseous art form of what-about-ism all day and tie myself up in knots, but the honest truth is, I don’t know the answer.

I don’t know what the right or wrong thing to do is when it comes to snubbing a whole nation and cutting off any kind of potential connection with another human being that I would never get from my TV set.

I do boycott some industries and companies, so I understand the need to act in line with one’s personal moral compass, but I don’t see myself boycotting or excluding myself from any nations anytime soon.

North Korea is a unique beast of course, and the main argument here against going is that any money that doesn’t go to your tour company will go directly to the tyrannical Kim dynasty.

If you want a more nuanced answer to this question, Wandering Earl wrote a brilliant piece on this subject.

Why I went to North Korea

I want to go everywhere, and I will visit every country in the world before I’m 40. I’m incredibly lucky to get the opportunity to make human connections and get an alternative view when I travel from that which we get from the mainstream media narrative, and I grab that opportunity with both hands.

I’m not stupid though, and I knew from the get-go that most things that I would see in DPRK would be cherry-picked by the regime.

Based on reports from former political prisoners, classed as dissidents, some institutions have claimed that the country has an estimated 2.6 million people imprisoned in one of 200,000 active concentration camps. And those who aren’t exisiting in those extreme cases are far from free, but are ruled by the iron fist of a totalitarian dictatorship.

I hate cultural relativism and I know some online travel folk have the tendency to play down sensitive situations across the globe, such as the famous YouTube vlogger funforlouis, who received criticism for his overly-positive North Korea content during his visit in 2016.

A lot of the damning assessments were warranted but I did, admittedly, feel some sympathy for the lad. I’ve never met him but he’s clearly an idealist hippy. His intentions were pure at heart and well-meaning, and he strikes me as a lad who just wants to see more love in the world.

I’m not an idealist, but I do share his curiosity and I have felt uncomfortable for some time about how smug some people in the west can be about the citizens of North Korea.

It’s easy to have a cheap laugh at them for being ‘brainwashed,’ but do you really think that you’d be that much different if you were in their situation, with no access to the outside world whilst constantly being fed propaganda?

I wanted to at least get my feet on North Korean soil and have an open mind, but not so open that my brain fell out.

Can Americans visit North Korea?

Yes and no. Since the death of American citizen Otto Warmbier during his imprisonment between 2016 and 2017, the Secretary of State authorised his department to block Americans from travelling to North Korea.

However, there is another option. Americans usually have the opportunity of a second passport due to the heritage of their parents/grandparents (I can’t fathom why so many that can, don’t take advantage of this opportunity).

So, for example, let’s say your dad is Irish, and you have dual American and Irish citizenship, you will be able to enter North Korea on your Irish passport.

North Korea hasn’t banned Americans, but the USA doesn’t want its citizens visiting due to security concerns and to avoid another international diplomatic disaster.

I was surprised to find out that South Koreans of dual nationality can do the same thing as Americans with dual citizenship; the guides confirmed that a handful of Americans and South Koreans have visited DPRK lately, but I completely understand if those who have the opportunity to do this would rather remain cautious.

Can you get WiFi or 4G in North Korea?

Ha!

Do you get a North Korea stamp on your passport?

Nope. Same deal as Israel; a temporary identity card and a tiny sticker on the back of your passport is all you get, although if you take the option of visiting North Korea via Dandong in China, it could raise eyebrows to privy American airport staff back in the USA who maybe have been told to look out for this entry and exit port, in order to highlight rebellious Americans.

Doubtful, but not beyond the realms of possibility.

Is it hard to get a visa for North Korea?

Not at all. I’m amazed by how many people constantly and confidently told me that, as a Brit, I “can’t go to North Korea”.

This is absolutely false. All countries around the world (with the exception of the two mentioned above) are eligible for a quick and painless tourist visa via a tour operator. It’s the double-entry Chinese visa that can be the pain in the balls. (More on that in the next few paragraphs.)

How much did it cost and which tour group did I go with?

I went with Young Pioneer Tours (YPT). I’ve also heard good things about Koryo Tours, but their dates didn’t match up with my plans.

A few of my friends had used YPT and given them the thumbs up. I had one hell of a stressful time with my double-entry Chinese visa; the North Korean visa was all taken care of by YPT.

The Chinese visa is a long story but I called a guy called John from the tour company who was always on hand to answer my questions and he was an absolute godsend. In my experience, China usually prefers you to get a double-entry visa in your own country, so I went with a visa agent in Bangkok (as that’s where I was living at the time) for a better chance and it all worked out well in the end.

I’d already paid the $1800 USD for the tour and flights and, with it being Chinese New Year, I had to wait until the final hour to find out whether I’d got the double-entry Chinese visa.

I never met John in North Korea but the two English-speaking (Australian and Canadian) tour guides and the two North Korean guides were all simply brilliant at their job, particularly the female Korean guide, Hong, who carried out most of the translations perfectly.

The tour, including a 3-night single supplement, the DPRK visa and insurance cost me $952 USD.

Which currency do you use in North Korea?

You can use Euros and Chinese Yen. North Korea has its own currency, but much like socialist Cuba, only locals can use it, with exception of one place in Pyongyang.

There were occasions later on when tour members subtly tried to pay for coffees and snacks in local currency. North Koreans never, ever took this and I suspect they’d be in a lot of trouble if they did.

Can you take photos in North Korea?

Yep. Some areas are restricted, and you’ll be informed when you are at those places. iPhones are allowed (that’s the only thing I took as a camera). You’d have to ask your tour company about any camera restrictions as I have no idea.

There are strict and weird guidelines for taking photos of any of the ‘hero’ statues of leaders past and present.

What can you not take to North Korea?

The following are forbidden:

. Religious scripture (no Bible, no Pali Canon, no Quran = no problem).

. Anything that is anti-North Korea or takes the piss out of it – and yes that includes Team America. 😉

. Pornographic material – including all those racy photos etc. that you so enthusiastically received over the years – you gotta wipe them before entering I’m afraid. But let’s not be hasty, keep a backup. No need to kill beautiful memories because of one little trip.

How do you get to North Korea?

All paths to North Korea are via China. There is an option to fly from Beijing to North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang with Air Koryo.

The other option is to take a train to Pyongyang from Beijing. I was short of time and options as I booked at the last minute, so I took the final (and most difficult option) of the three: I made my way to Dandong, which is on the China and North Korea border, and took a slow train to DPRK from there.

Regardless of what option you take to get to North Korea, you’ll need your tour company to book your transport to North Korea from China and don’t forget you’ll need a double-entry China visa in your passport.

Arriving in Dandong, China 

Dandong has an airport – sweet! Well, yes, it would be…if it was actually open for business. Sky Scanner and Momondo still show it as an option, but this is a glitch in the system as Dandong airport is currently closed.

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. 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 arriving, I was met by a gigantic statue of Chairman Mao with his arm raised.

Interesting.

It was bloody freezing. Seriously, don’t underestimate this part of the world during winter. Permanent nipple-on awaits you.

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.

Day 1 of 4 on the North Korea tour 

As instructed, I went to Dandong train station at 8am to meet the group. They weren’t particularly hard to spot; Dandong wasn’t exactly flush with non-Chinese for the two days that I was in town and Rowan, our Aussie guide (and absolute legend of a bloke too), was towering above everyone at around 6 foot 7!

We made the usual, awkwardly polite introductions (rite of passage on group tours), 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 he 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 we got to 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 snow-kissed, 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 lunch and getting to our hotel – Hotel Sosan.

Day 2 of 4 in North Korea 

The best day of the trip for me as I got to sink my teeth into the level of weirdness that fuels my curiosity.

Today was Kim Jong-il’s birthday (the Team America one) and celebrations were in full swing across the capital.

We visited the Kim Jong-il Sung Square, which was pretty uneventful, until we went to the Mansudea Monument where we were met with two jaw-dropping, colossal, bronze statues of the current leader, his father and also the first leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung.

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 hilarious 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 laugh at the irony of the rules enforced by a regime which is fiercely against religious freedom, as they embodied everything that makes religion bad: the worshipping of a deity, which you are forced to respect regardless of how you are treated and you’re unable to question it.

After this we went to visit the Pyongyang Metro Station – one of the deepest in the world – and take a ride on it. 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 have an idea of 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. German graffiti was 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 was 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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

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

A post shared by Traveller ✈️ Anthony Middleton (@manvclock) on

At times like this it’s hard not to ask yourself: do the people enjoy doing this or have they been made to do it? They were kids, not adults. Kids like to dance and play, but how much of this was free will and how much of it was do as I say?

We finished in the early evening in 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 Chinese money for North Korean 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 North Korea.

Photos were restricted in the whole of this mall.

I bought snacks for the next day’s bus ride to the DMZ and some food from the top floor.

Day 3 of 4 in North Korea

Sometimes I look back on an old blog post and photos of past travels and think about myself: “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.

I’m smiling in it with arms aloft, a little falsely, with a veneer of boisterousness and you can see the immaturity in my face – I clearly didn’t understand the significance of the sensitive place that I was in.

The DMZ, which stands for demilitarised zone, marks the end of the Korean War in 1953 when an armistice was agreed 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 was on my best behaviour this time, after receiving a second chance, and listened closely as the DMZ soldier spoke passionately about the events which led to the DMZ’s creation, translated fluently by our Korean guide, Hong.

It was 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 surprised mainly by two things:

1.) 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 the south never got a mention.

2.) North Koreans as a collective want a 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.

The desire is apparently for one country, with the north staying socialist with their leader and the south staying in a capitalist system with their own leader. I’m no political analyst but I don’t see this working out.

We stopped off in Sariwon on our way home where we viewed the city from above on a mini 20-minute hike before heading back to a special dinner in Pyongyang.

North Korean food is like South Korean food, but with a slight Chinese twist. Kimchi was served at every meal, some of the smaller snacks were akin to dim sum, and it was generally spicy. Needless to say, 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 girls 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. She was phenomenal and again I consciously caught myself thinking like I did back in the metro station the day before – does she want to be there? Does she have a choice?

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 little melancholic in all honesty.

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 and at this point 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.

Is Pyongyang all a big setup? 

Some of the group met for beers later that night in our hotel and there was a schism over this question. Whilst there was an overall agreement on the fact that what we had seen during those four days was certainly biased for us, a couple of the tour members doubted to what level you could fake day-to-day life in the capital city.

After agreeing to disagree, we took to karaoke and sang Africa, by Toto, in unison as a subconscious attempt to lighten the mood after what was an emotionally draining couple of days.

Final day of the North Korea tour and final thoughts 

We said farewell via the war museum which had some interesting artworks and anti-American propaganda.

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 under the current conditions.

Some moments in North Korea felt very sterile, but I’m still glad I went and don’t regret it at all. Those fleeting moments of a smile with solid eye contact, a wave, a kind gesture – they’re all worth it and that’s what I went for.

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 anything too serious.

I did the best that I could with my eyes and ears. I went, 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 my experience in North Korea.



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1 comment

  1. Mam Reply

    Just finished reading while adam is still scrolling, a very well written piece son but really really glad you’re home, son well for now. ❤️Love mam xx