Chances are, if you’ve ever vocalised to someone else “I’m thinking of going to North Korea”, you’ve faced a barrage of “why the hell would you want to go there?” or “you’ll get kidnapped by Kim-Jong-Un!” and so on. You can hardly blame people for this – what little we do know about North Korea from western media portrays the country as a scary, brutal and forbidden place. My reason to go was quite simple – my degree is Japanese and Korean, and I was about to start my year abroad – first with a semester in Seoul, then a year in Tokyo. I had about a month of free time kicking around, so I thought I’d use that and some of my savings to travel both North and South Korea, and do both countries justice – after all, I study “Korean”, not just “South Korean.”
There’s a couple of things you have to bear in mind if you’re thinking of going. Firstly, you cannot travel independently in North Korea. Whilst it’s fun to book flight tickets and “just go” somewhere, you have to sign up to a group tour (or book your own private individual tour) a couple of months in advance. Contrary to popular belief, this can be done by practically anyone and very quickly and easily, online, over the phone, even at some travel agents. I used Koryo Tours – I’d like to give them a shout out as they were absolutely brilliant, and I’d thoroughly recommend them.
The cost for a 7 day trip, including Korean visa, return flights to Beijing, all accommodation and food was about €1300. You do have to transit in Beijing for at least a day, which you have to pay for yourself – so whilst it’s not going to cost you your soul slaving away at that sales assistant job you hate for years on end, you may need to save up a bit of money beforehand! Our group was about 20 people, split into two buses – which felt like just the right number, and I’m still in touch with most of them a year on as we all made fast friends with each other.
It's a little odd in the fact that you also can’t just “go for a walk”. If you want to visit somewhere, then you must go with your guides. Our guides were pretty relaxed and let us wander off in huge squares, just as long as we didn’t leave the squares. Your photography will also be restricted – again, our guides were really quite chilled and politely asked us to delete anything very sensitive like military checkpoints, but otherwise we were given a lot more freedom than I thought we’d be allowed. Finally, you must monitor your speech. Contrary to what I thought, we spent the evenings chatting with our guides about their kids and their hobbies rather than what the Kims have done for Korea, but under no circumstance must you criticise the Kim dynasty or attempt to assert that “your political system is better.” Not only is this insensitive to the guides (who are there to show you the country, not give you a politics class), but it could also get yourself and your group in some very deep trouble.
After flying “the world’s only one star airline”, Koryo Air (who, by the way, had far more professional service and cleaner planes than most of the international bigwigs that I’ve flown with before), we landed in Pyongyang. Our tour started here and criss-crossed throughout the country, so we kept going back to Pyongyang to do different bits and pieces of it, but the other places we visited were Kaesong (South Korean border city), Hamhung (industrial town), Wonsan (port town) and Keumgangsan (literally ‘The Diamond Mountains’).
Pyongyang is the most bizarre and fascinating city I’ve ever visited. If, like me, you prefer things like architecture and monuments to having friends and a social life, then Pyongyang has quite a unique charm to it. On the one hand, statues and pictures of the Kim dynasty are adorned all over the city (you have to pay homage to the big Mansudae monument as soon as you start your trip), but then on the other, there’s the 100m deep subway with awesome (in the original sense of the word) Soviet mosaics, a huge replica of the Arch de Triomphe, and plenty of colourful street scenes which can be viewed at ground level or atop the Juche Tower.
(Pyongyang Station - Party Foundation Monument - Pyongyang Cityscape from the Juche Tower)
Kaesong was the only major city to change hands as a result of the Korean War, changing hands from the South to the North. Now, it functions as a border town between the two cities. Very occasionally, crossings do happen between the North and the South. A joint North/South archaeological team, for example, recently crossed into the North to conduct research, and there are some South Korean enterprises here which employ North Korean workers, but otherwise, the border remains closed for everyone else.
I’ve visited the border from both sides, and interestingly, the North is far more relaxed about picture taking, questions and general freedom of movement at the border. There is also a sense of yearning for reunification at both border points. Whilst this is seemingly unlikely for the foreseeable future (people write PhDs on this topic so I won’t digress), I thought it might be more of a hostile approach before I went. Take for example, this poster:
North Korean and South Korean are technically the same language, but North Korean is far more formal and archaic than South Korean (and my Korean is only intermediate!), so my translation of this probably isn’t 100% accurate, but it says “let’s give our children a united Korean country”. I spoke in Korean to a couple of shopkeepers around this area on some fairly basic topics (hobbies, study, hometown etc). We understood each other with a bit of difficulty, but they were so amazed that an outsider was learning Korean, and I think it gave us an opportunity that neither party would normally be able to have.
After Kaesong, we went back to Pyongyang for a bit, and then continued our onward journey to Hamhung. Hamhung is, despite being one of North Korea’s biggest cities, very rarely visited, so it was a really good chance for us to get out of the glitz of Pyongyang for a bit. We visited a chemical factory, an agricultural university and a communal farm – none of which I was able to take very good pictures of unfortunately, but we got to hear a lot of carefully-worded talks about communal life in North Korea in these places. I'm not sure that I’m about to give it all up and move to a North Korean farm, but it was interesting nonetheless. We also stopped off on the way to have a picnic at a waterfall, where we got lamented by the North Korean military for disrespecting a sacred site for the Kims. Luckily, our tour guide knew how not to mince her words, and basically told him to do one – how we weren’t in trouble for that I don’t know! We also made a campfire on the beach that night which was pretty magical, which helped to distract from the fact that our hotel had no running water and we all were in urgent need of a shower!
We then headed off in the direction of Wonsan, which has only been open to tourism for about 2 years. It used to have a ferry service to Niigata, Japan, before diplomatic relations broke down between the two countries. Wonsan is a port city, so there was plenty of beaches, seaside and seafood – it was very pretty, but again I wasn’t allowed to get many good pictures here because it’s quite a sensitive area. I’d write more about it, but I think its biggest merit is its natural beauty, which comes off far better in photos – so apologies about that, but I guess you’ll just have to go and see for yourselves!
(Scenery on Route to Hamhung - Wonsan Square - Views Out Over the Keumgang Mountains from My Balcony - Deserted Beach on the Way to Pyongyang)
The final place we visited was the Keumgang Mountains (which also are accessible from the Southern side – or used to be!). As a Brit I’m used to crap weather spoiling everything – which is exactly what happened to our proposed hike when the heavens opened. Instead of that however, we had some lunch in what clearly used to be a Family Mart convenience store (South Korea used to have some developments in this area but were ejected a few years ago), went to a sauna which was quite literally 100°C (I didn’t last too long!) and stayed in the most amazing mountain resort. When I say “most amazing”, it was probably a Western 3.5* hotel, but the fact that it had a working toilet and a bed which wasn’t a wooden board with a sheet over it made it sheer luxury to us!
We headed back to Pyongyang for our final night, and more emotional goodbyes than I ever imagined possible after just a week. The next day was a weird one for me – eating breakfast in Pyongyang, lunch in Beijing and dinner in Busan was certainly not how I spend most of my Saturdays, but it was a pretty unique experience anyway.
It was a very educational week to say the least. I refer to North Korea as “the best international trip that I’ve ever made” not for the photos or the food, but for shattering all of my preconceptions about what to expect. Firstly, instead of being a bland, grey, Soviet wasteland of a country, there was an incredible amount of diversity in everything we did and saw. Cities, forests, mountains, beaches – they all exist here, and due to the underdevelopment of the tourism sector, a lot of it is in pristine condition, not spoiled by selfie sticks and litter. We did an immense range of activities, which ranged from having lectures in the Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum, to getting drunk in a local bar and going bowling.
What really made me happy that I did this trip was the opportunity to meet North Korean people. Our tour guides were absolutely wonderful; they were knowledgeable, courteous, and forward thinking. I remember having one conversation about my homosexuality with one of my guides, and she said although it’s illegal to be gay in North Korea, she has never thought of it as problematic and invited me and my (future!) boyfriend to go and stay with her and her parents the next time I’m in North Korea. I miss her, and if I do end up going back, I’ll make every effort I can to meet up with her.
I think the chance for North Koreans and foreigners to interact is also very limited, so just by showing our faces and even doing something as simple as greeting people, it was an opportunity to prove that we’re human beings one and the same and there’s no need to fear one another. The group that I travelled with were also wonderful. None of us knew each other beforehand, but I think we all got on so well because we all had the connection of actually choosing to visit North Korea, which takes someone who’s, how can I put this diplomatically…a little bit ‘interesting’?!
So there’s just one more thing I’d like to say about North Korea. I’m not here to tell you whether it’s right or wrong to go, but I will say that it’s a perfectly safe country to visit. It’s not for everyone – the food and accommodation is, on the most part, survival only, and there is absolutely no internet, news from the outside world or any other mod-cons you might need. If you can’t go a week without checking Facebook, or you want a loo that flushes, then don’t go to North Korea, you’ll absolutely hate it (and indeed, some people in my group did end up hating it for those exact reasons).
If you can accept that your speech, actions, even thoughts, will be limited, and that you’ll be in what is to most a very odd country, and you have a curiosity to find out for yourself what North Korea is like rather than relying on media reports, I think that there’s the potential that you’ll really relish the trip. I’d love to go back again one day on a more specialist architectural tour, as I found that part particularly fascinating, but in the meanwhile, I hope North Korea continues to develop its tourism sector as part of its modernisation process.