Hi guys, I’m Elliott.
I visited North Korea on one of the longest itineraries ever allowed to a foreigner, it spanned all corners of the country – I saw and experienced a lot. http://i.imgur.com/G2Gk5nA.jpg
It was basically 8am-8pm each day, sometimes more. We travelled by bus between every location, outside Pyongyang you get a real glimpse at the real North Korea. Aside from the obvious itinerary selections, this included Golf at Pyongyang Golf Course, DMZ from the North Korean side, Hiking, Masik Pass Ski Resort, Unseen cities/towns, the entire Pyongyang subway system, Celebrating my birthday in Pyongyang, Swimming on the East Coast, the American War Atrocities Museum, Woodland forests in the north…and a visit into one of their main supermarkets (lol).
There’s always a fair bit of interest in North Korea on Reddit, and every time it makes front page, the misconceptions are quite staggering. Even as a tourist. I’d love to clear up some questions based on my personal experience.
I’ve included a photo essay of over 100 photos from my trip. Yes, I too hate giant image dumps. However, I feel that North Korea is an outlier, I couldn’t do it justice otherwise. I’ve captioned them too, enjoy.
I’ll be posting more North Korea related material, if you’re interested; like me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/earthnutshell
So Reddit, anything you’d like to know?
What part of your time in North Korea felt the most “real”? As in not fake for the sake of making North Korea look better for tourists.
Pyongyang isn’t North Korea, it’s like a different country. It’s beautiful, manicured and ‘rich’. It’s a total political smokescreen, the cogs that keep the propaganda churning. I knew this before I arrived, and it’s confirmed when your there – it’s sterile, and simply not ‘real’ to true North Korea life for their majority.
Everything is real to a point. To those saying, ‘why go, it’s just a facade anyway!’ don’t realise. Yes, they show you their attractions, the ones they are very proud of. All of them. They try to give you a re-education in it – however, we travel between places via bus, North Korea doesn’t exactly have the luxury in choosing between roads between locations other than in Pyongyang. You see daily life go by as normal, the farming, the villages, the people walking between them carrying water buckets over their heads akin to Africa and people cycling 50km in silk suit jackets with no shirts. You see the apartment blocks, the desolate lonely towns that have no infrastructure. It’s all there.
Some things are facades. For example, the orphanage, or anything involving children. This is not an accurate representation of the countries orphanages, it has very healthy children that have been trained, indoctrinated to perform militaristic style dances for foreigners. I really hated this, and everything it represented.
We got taken into a ‘local’ house in the villages – it really wasnt that great. In fact, they had a car battery powering their radio next to their bed. This was the place they decided to show us. You can imagine what the rest are like.
Your role as a tourist is differentiating the propaganda from reality, it’s not some big choreographed facade where you don’t see real life at all.
Do you get the impression that they know their country is being censored?
Absolutely. The people in Pyongyang know, mainly about China – which I guess isn’t exactly the peak of being uncensored, but there is direct interaction in Pyongyang with Chinese products and market. Cars, televisions, air conditioners – their supermarkets are stocked with Chinese goods. On the plane going into the country, and heading out on train – there are quite a number of DPRK nationals, they are entrusted to leave Pyongyang into China and come back. Even one of my guides had been to Beijing before, but he was watched and controlled as we were in North Korea. People in Pyongyang live a reasonably good life considering. They obviously don’t get any television other than state-controlled channels, or radio – of course, their idea of censorship might be markedly contrasting to yours, but they know it’s different outside.
There is also a huge blackmarket all through North Korea in foreign goods, especially South Korean media.
In the countryside? In smaller towns, cities? Absolutely not. I am convinced the average civilian is detached from the outside world as remote civilisations of the past. They can’t even go to Pyongyang. There are military checkpoints all through the country preventing locals from even traversing between provinces, it’s mental. You need a special ID card with stripes to get into Pyongyang, is this reminding you of an event in our past history?
What does your 2nd sentence mean? They know about China, as in they know…what? That China exists?
Sorry I should have expanded. People in Pyongyang know the outside is markedly different particularly due to China. This was my understanding. The cars they see are from China, the air conditioning units, televisions and other out of reach luxuries are from China, the products they buy in supermarkets are from China – there is direct interaction in Pyongyang with the Chinese products and market. People in Pyongyang are relatively speaking; privileged and educated – I mentioned in another post, even foreign movies such as Monsters Inc are used to teach tour guides English.
In Sinuiju, you can even see all the advertising and commercialism in China from North Korea itself. I’m sure that’s quite the hint as to North Korea being different.
How did you exit North Korea, considering your obvious photo gallery, what was the process?
Getting out was insane. It’s usually not as bad as what I experienced, apparently but I copped it. I was the only white foreigner, there was 2 other Japanese nationals and that was it apart from DPRK nationals.
I decided to leave by train (pre-arranged) instead of flying. You leave from Pyongyang, it takes 5 hours to get to Sinuiju, North Korea – the northern border with Dandong, China.
Inbetween sits the ‘Friendship bridge’, it’s not very far across either. You can see everything in China, even advertising billboards.
The train stops, less than 1km from freedom to do exit immigration. The train is swarmed by KPA, the general carrying all the medals roosts the Japanese and I out from our cabin and brings us in one by one.
The KPA general hit the Japanese tourist with a metal detector, like a father would hit his disobedient son because he took too long to open his bag. The search got to me, and I was brought in, they sat down on the bed and got me to open the bags – it was fine, and the general loved my DPRK ginseng Whiskey I was taking as a souvenir for my father. He tapped my backpack to open it.
-Sigh- Because well, I had a Gopro, Camera, Phone, Tablet and Laptop.
When they saw it, it was like Christmas and in came about 5 other KPA, they took all my gear out and forced me to unpassword my laptop, tablet, everything and proceeded to go through my gear across the train. My laptop and cameras were purposely dead on battery to prevent them – but…to my amazement, in comes the resident DPRK IT expert with a 15″ 10 year old Lenovo laptop running Windows XP and an external card reader.
They sat there going through 64GB of GoPro videos, while my other stuff was being searched for close to 3 hours until it was time to go.
When finished, sitting inside the carriage, the general leaned into myself and the Japanese bloke and offered us cigarettes. We don’t smoke, we decline. He grunted, got angry and leaned into us and basically forced us to take one, so well, I did, and he tried to light mine first.
Well, it’s clearly a non-smoking carriage. So I didn’t know what to do, but decided in the moment to light it up. Luckily this wasn’t some entrapment technique, and myself and the Japanese tourists sat there charing a couple cigarettes down, stone cold with this intimidating KPA general we couldn’t converse with. The time finished up, all the KPA exited the train at the same time as if it was scheduled and on we clicked across into China.
I was shaken, and very pleased. It was like a movie, unbelievable.
How was the golf?
Great, the course is the only place in the entire country that didn’t have any propaganda. It was on my second last day, so it couldn’t have come soon enough.
I asked the caddy if she knew any professional golfers, she laughed and said of course and started ringing off names, all Korean names, all North Korean golfers.
I interjected, and said “Tiger Woods?”
She looked at me, and then my translator in bewilderment and had no idea who I was talking about.
There are no North Korean ‘professional’ golfers in the golfing world as we know it, and there’s an estimated 45 golf players in North Korea total they said.
Would you want to return to NK or do you feel you managed to see what you wanted to during the one trip?
You know, when I left I thought – that was unbelievable to see, but I am glad I am leaving. It hasn’t sunk in. I know that sounds lame, but the longer I’ve let it sink in, the more I’ve been affected by that country. There is nowhere else in the world like it, its simply inconceivable and quite scary, you have to pinch yourself as a reminder that North Korea is parallel to our freedom, in real time. It’s not a zoo, it’s real life. My reality is just a plane ride away. Not for them, that’s their reality. The people there are just normal people, totally shielded by a political storm and I desperately hope they get a chance of freedom one day. I’d love to be involved in the reunification between those countries in some way, I don’t know how yet.
I don’t know whether returning to NK would benefit anybody. From a selfish point of view, I’d like to see Mt. Paekdu in the North. From a moral point of view, I’ve seen enough to know about the real North Korea.
What was the strangest thing that you experienced in North Korea?
The way that Kim Jong Il is on state controlled media looking at things as if it’s a current event. The television and newspaper articles from todays date are filled with them..
The metro museum. It’s an entire museum dedicated to the creation of the Pyongyang metro, it has chairs that Kim Jong Il sat on encased in glass, life-size recreations of the top of the escalators installed. Recreations of the tunnels used for manual labour to walk through, its unbelievable.
The International Friendship Exhibition. Where all the leaders gifts are, there was gifts from EVERY democratic country on earth. There were ‘gifts’ (I’d say bribes) from private organisations, including mining companies in Australia I will not divulge. Amazing.
Alarm systems on the stairs to go up to some monuments
Our english speaking North Korean guides try to filter the hatred and ‘imperialist American’ propaganda laced wording of every description at all tour sights.
The concrete wall that doesn’t actually exist – I wrote the story here in another post, find it, it’s strange.
The underground tunnel that reminded me of Goldeneye 64 to get into a cave system north of Pyongyang.
Arriving to Beijing airport and seeing North Korean nationals with their badges on taking up every checkin counter with 10 times more air conditioners than people, and some flat screen TV’s. The elite go to Beijing and use commercial flights to get luxuries back into North Korea.
The Mausoleum. Theres just something weird about not only seeing the bodies, but the entire process – the travellators to get in are like 1 kilometre, going at a SNAILS PACE and lined wall to wall with photos of Kim Jong Il and world leaders to look at. It’s just unreal.
Children doing militaristic parade dancing at the orphanage, with salutes and gun references. They were like 5.
About 2 hours before getting out across the border in Sinuiju, I tried to be sneaky and wear my battery down on my laptop, and camera so they couldn’t see some photos. 10 minutes later, a bloke rolls into the train with a 15″, 10 year old Lenovo laptop running XP and an external card reader. I actually laughed I was so shocked.
What was their reaction to seeing your photos?
I was only with the one of the KPA blokes as the others were off looking at the rest of my media, but he forced me to charge my camera and was looking through them. I have a bit of a problem, one where I take a number of photos of the same thing just in case one is slightly out of focus – so each photo he found that he didn’t like, and scoffed at – he had to delete maybe twice….maybe three times….maybe four and well, that got old pretty quick and he was jibbering to himself in Korean and shoving the camera in my face as it to be shocked I would even take a photo of ‘that’. The ones of certain murals, villages, transport options (people being carried in the back of trucks) and general poverty did not go down well and were deleted.
Was there much in the way of vehicle traffic in Pyongyang? How was the atmosphere of the city, typical large city noises or eerily quiet?
It’s desolate. You’ve heard it before, but it needs to be said. It’s so quiet. Kim Il-Sung Square, the main central Pyongyang square is empty, no hot dog stands here guys. The streets have some people, and the bus stops especially and the metro are crowded, bus stops had 50 metre lines of people because buses aren’t scheduled regularly enough. There are some cars, they are imported from China and are reserved for the rich and elite only. In Kaesong, there was propaganda loudspeakers breaking the silence blasting nationalistic music and speech.
Honestly mate, I’m still at a loss as to where the >3 million Pyongyang residents are and what they’re doing. I have no answer.
How was the food? Any particular meals that stood out?
A standout meal? We had raw fish in Wonsan. As in, so raw, the fish was moving on the plate. Scared the hell out of a guy at our table as he went to dig in he almost fell off his chair and thought he’d seen a ghost. But, my goodness I am glad you mentioned the food. It was so bad, I can’t describe it. Actually, I can. In the Vice documentary on North Korea, the guy describes it as ‘matter’. This is the best description. It was the worst food I’ve ever had in my life. Everyone felt sick from the food at some point during the trip, half the time you had no idea what you were eating, and they bring out a ton of it.
Huge selections come out on plates, mostly it was cold and nothing tasted fresh. Because it probably wasn’t.
Some food was ok. We had pizza in the only pizza restaurant in North Korea, where they sent the chefs to Italy to learn how to make them. It was ok. Kimchi was with every meal, so was tofu. We had sushi one day which was odd. We had Korean BBQ which was good, that was on my birthday. Bibimbap we had twice which was good, too. I passed on the dog meat soup. ‘French fries’ were mangle pieces of potato, as in, bigger than your hand – a giant piece of crisp potato, took us a while to figure that out. We drunk a lot of Soju.
The waitresses flounder around the table watching you eat, as you get even close to finishing a plate of food – it’s replenished instantly. The food portions for foreigners are so insane it’s hard not to believe it’s a way to show it off, at the very least…going above and beyond for the guest.
How many holes in one did you get? I heard the average is 11 per round.
Haha, was waiting for this. Yep, can confirm I didn’t beat the man himself. He’s a true master of the game, his round was 25 strokes lower than the best PGA score ever recorded – incredible right?
I asked the caddy about this at the course, and she said she remembers it, but wasn’t here that day. She said other caddies either knew about, or witnessed the feat, though. She seemingly 100% believed it, even as a golf caddy knowing its impossible.
Did you ever see any signs or murmurings from civilians of discontent with the government or the way their country operates?
Not at all, which is a testament to the stranglehold they have on that country. It is so sterile, and any of the propaganda is so meticulously cleaned and beautiful it doesn’t seem real.
In 2011, somebody tried their luck and put anti-Kim Jong Il graffiti on the wall of a college, and the government put the entire city of Pyongyang into lock down to hunt the culprit. They got ‘him’.
The punishment is so bad for anything against the country, even saying a passing comment denoting the leadership would be classed as treason. People don’t try their luck, that was evident.
What was the most head scratching thing you encountered in North Korea?
There are so many, but this one stuck with me: About an hour east of the JSA at the DMZ, through villages there is what is known in propaganda as “The Concrete Wall”. You arrive to a military outpost with KPA, machine guns visible etc. and walk up a bunker to the top. Inside you are greeted by a general, he has a lot of medals and he proceeds to tell you all about how South Korea and America built a concrete wall from coast to coast (America/ROK denies it completely), but theres a kicker – you can’t see it from the South side. He says it provides proof to the aggression towards the North, and they hide tanks and infantry behind it ready to pounce and he’s pointing to a map before finally getting us to come outside to see it for ourselves.
We go outside, gaze across the DMZ into South Korea, there are binoculars etc, and he urges you to take a look. It was a perfect day, we all take a look, look at eachother with that ‘errr do you see it?’ look, nobody sees it. But the general is there with that ‘I told you so, see!’ look on his face. We take further looks, and just kind of…accept that theres a wall.
Except, there is no wall.
How does political hostility towards certain countries affect tourists visiting the country? You mentioned in another answer that Americans are excluded from visiting certain areas due to their nationality. As an Australian, did they treat you more welcomingly than they would an American national? Did you develop any sense of how they feel about the United Kingdom? As a UK-national, it has always intrigued me whether the anti-US propaganda would indirectly also apply to their perception of UK nationals (and other US-allied countries), or whether NK is so ‘cut off’ from the world that they don’t really have the capacity to make such observations and judgements.
Tourists are sheltered, political discussions are basically banned with the guides. Or with anyone. If not, you will risk upsetting your guides and making everything quite awkward. If you come out with anything crazy, such as mentioning you are a Korean war veteran, or a closely related to one it will be reported by the guides to the government. This resulted in an American being held for 40 days in 2013 for example.
They treated Americans with utmost respect, all things considered. Even in Sinchon at the American War Atrocities Museum. If they hate us, Australians/British – they certainly don’t show it. They view us as very lucky people. They may not understand our luxuries, but we have travelled to North Korea, on a plane – that’s reserved for the elite in North Korea. You are elite. I spent half a day transit showing my guides photos and they loved every bit of it, asking a ton of questions. I taught one that Australia is in fact, an island. At the end of the day, they are absolutely fascinated by Americans in particular. Australians and the UK don’t have the same ring to it as the ‘Americans’ they have learnt to be so terrible over the years. We had two on our tour – one really pushed the boundaries, and ended up speaking to many about world politics. Local guides in Pyongyang know all about current world crisis, he had a discussion about Ukraine and was knowledgeable.
Americans were not allowed in Haeju though, and some other smaller attractions. Haeju is a small town that usually go unseen, it has some very intimidating propaganda (such as a giant stone AK47 and bayonet). We could not stop to even photograph the main square here as it was illegal with Americans on board.
It is also illegal for Americans to get the train out of the country, they must fly.
Were you afraid of riding on the only 1-star airline company in the world?
I think it was just par for the course in going to North Korea. I had my reservations, especially after hearing horror stories where the planes don’t undergo maintenance and simply get patched up and glossed over.
Overall, it wasn’t too bad – other than the landing.
it seems too poetic to be true, but it truly was the worst landing I’ve ever experienced. Maybe I had just been lucky previously. It was a perfect day, but the landing was one of those which isn’t totally straight and silences the passengers momentarily; before looking at each other and cracking huge grins of relief when all wheels are planted and we are grinding to a halt.
It didn’t help that the entire runway is layer of uneven, inconsistent cement blocks. Didn’t sound, or feel like a landing I’ve ever experienced. The roads in North Korea outside Pyongyang were made of the same thing, I felt like I needed a hospital visit to check for broken bones after driving long distances some days.
No doubt pilot flight hours would fall short of Emirates veterans too, if we’re honest.
The food was bad. We each got a Pyongyang Times newspaper to read and were told to be careful not to fold it in half, as it may crease Kim Jong Un’s head on the front. I got in trouble too after just 5 minutes into entering DPRK airspace because I got caught taking photos of the immigration forms by a DPRK official standing at the back of the plane watching.
How much does it cost to be a tourist in NK, compared to other countries? How are you paying for goods? Does it look safe for westerners or do you feel like the inhabitants are hating you?
- It’s really expensive for Asia, but it includes flights. I went with Koryo Tours as do most other western foreigners, it’s cheaper to go with a number of Chinese companies. It was close to 4000 Euros, so 250 euros a day. but absolutely everything is included except for snacks, and anything else you want to purchase like souvenirs (yes they have them).
- You aren’t allowed to handle local currency, North Korean Won. It’s illegal. You have to (ironically) use USD most of the time, and can pay in Euros and Chinese RMB. You almost never get change, if you do – it’ll be a mix of currencies, and I even got a can of Sprite and bubble gum as change multiple times. I also paid $10 USD for a beer when my change never came back. The price is a total lucky dip, they use this huge big buttoned calculator to come up with a seemingly arbitrary figure – two of us that bought the same items paid over 20 USD difference in the same place, 1 minute apart.
- North Korea is exceptionally safe for tourists as long as you play by the rules. If you don’t you’ll have a very bad time. Chance of robbery, violent crime etc. is absolutely non-existant.
- In some areas outside of Pyongyang, there appears to be a universal shunning of foreigners, inside Pyongyang it isn’t as obvious, if true at all.
Did you see any significant figures in NK, who were they and what were they doing?
Unfortunately not, but the political centre of Pyongyang is small, it’s certain we passed people high up in the country. It’s very uncommon for a foreigner to see anyone, especially talk to anyone like this. Dennis Rodman is the ultimate exception. Everything is done by proxy.
What kind of wildlife/insects are there? Is it a problem?
Interesting question, I looked out for this because I have a wildlife background in Tasmania and I knew it’d interest my mother more than anyone.
The first day in Pyongyang I spotted some evidence of wildlife – some squirrels. In Pyongyang, there are some well placed green areas, the trees remain and paths have been built between them up to certain monuments and murals. This was around the Mansudae Grand Monument, so heading up the hill overlooking Pyongyang. Unfortunately, it was just a squirrel. An ordinary squirrel. Nothing exciting such as a cyborg squirrel cooked up by North Koreas unprecedented technological advancement.
On a more serious note though, I asked one of my guides. Apparently, most wildlife is hunted and eaten. Delicacy, or necessity? Unsure. Some dogs I hope were pets; but likely weren’t due to the prevalence of dog meat in this country were seen in some rural villages. None in, or around Pyongyang. Not that I saw anyway. Interestingly, there seemed to be no presence of birds either, a number of us commented on that during our stay. Even up in the woodlands of the north, I really don’t remember seeing anything.
Did you feel like North Korean people were truly indoctrinated or did you feel like they were mostly acting because they didn’t have a choice? I mean, when you talk to someone who doesn’t genuinely believe what they are saying but they’re just saying it because they are obligated to do so, you can sort of feel it in the way they speak and look [or fail to look properly] at you. I’m wondering if you saw that in them or they actually seemed to just be content with the propaganda. I would expect that they seemed curious and they probably wanted to open themselves to the outside world, but just couldn’t but it would be nice to have your insight on that.
You’re right. They have no choice, and I think this has led to indoctrination over their life. In my opinion, in general, they are truly indoctrinated. By fear and endearment equally. Even the rich and elite. They just know more, and get further relative luxury. It was clear the leaders are truly demi-gods, and a fundamental part of every persons life – it’s illegal not to have their photos in their apartment, it’s checked by the state. It was also clear they would die for their leaders as the highest medal of patriotism. The propaganda is everywhere, even all over the metro system as they sit heading to work. If you saw that every day, and know of nothing outside North Korea, and have not been educated to question anything in your life – would you think different?
As we grow up, we believe everything our parents say as fact – we get educated and learn our own freedoms, discover critical thinking and question outside the box before it hits us: ‘hang on, they weren’t always right’. I just can’t see North Korea as an environment where this could ever happen, except for the extremities (Kim Jong Il does have a butthole…!).
Especially when they don’t want to believe to the latter either, don’t bite the hand that feeds you. They just don’t realise how little this hand is feeding them. Or, actually they probably do, that was a terrible example sorry.
The guide in #50 was wearing a Rolex?
That is one of the minders that looked after Dennis Rodman on his visit, can’t comment on whether it was a real or fake watch – but, on that; we visited a Buddhist temple far into the sticks at Mt. Kuwol – the local guide there was wearing a genuine gold rolex, which was supposedly given to him as a gift from Kim Jong-Il himself, he told us that when we asked and we all got a close-up of it, and to the (admittedly) untrained eye, it could have certainly been genuine.
So, not unlikely.
How closely were you trailed by the North Korean military/agents during your time there?
The guides are tour guides. They are not military, or agents, and simply work for the government by proxy and have to report EVERYTHING back to the government, especially anything bad that happens on the tour. But otherwise, it’s really hard to tell. They know everything, though. You know where your going and at what time you’ll arrive, everything is organised including meals just for you. We were told with an element of certainty that we were being watched. I saw no hard evidence, but in Pyongyang, surveillance is easy. It could be anyone. In the countryside, it’s much harder – I did notice outside large stone walls with small letterbox peak holes at the end of them to keep an eye on things though.
Were you ever threatened by guards/tour guides not to make mistakes (other than ones by the border)? Ever meet or even see Kim Jong Un II?
Never. Nothing hostile or threatening in my entire stay other than at the border. There were some angry and upset Koreans when one of my fellow tourists wandered off out of sight back to the bus without telling anyone when celebrating National Day in the park, it was very stressful for them and one snapped in particular. Otherwise, some of the local guides can come across quite passionate about the subject matter which could be perceived as hostile by some, most likely Americans. As long as you don’t try to disprove their point of view with your American imperialist ‘facts’ (No matter how correct you are…) there will be no fighting match. They really do a good job in lulling you into a false sense of security. In reality, as you can imagine the stakes are quite high in the event something does go down.
Where are you from, Elliot?
I am from Tasmania, Australia. Yay Tasmanian Devils…
Do they view Australia as “Western Culture” or have you guys been exempt? Great photos, by the way, very interesting.
Even one of my educated North Korean guides didn’t know Australia was an island…
What was your favorite part on the trip & how did you enter the country?
I entered the country through Beijing, China – I went with a British company based in Beijing and they fly you into Pyongyang on Koryo Air, the only one star airline in the world. The food is so bad. Their idea of a “vegetarian burger” is two pieces of bun, and some lettuce in it.
What do you have to do to be able to tour North Korea?
Koryo Tours, organise in advance and get to Beijing for a briefing the day before departure. There is some paperwork to get through, and everything has to be approved – even minor amendments, that can stretch out the planning for a while. Even if you are an American you can go. If you leave Pyongyang, you can’t stop in certain towns and can’t see some select attractions. Reason? American.
What were the people that you had a chance to communicate like? The picture of you with your guide is really human.
Thanks for the comment, I’m glad you noticed this because that’s why I included it. I covered it in another post, but this aspect really struck a nerve with me, in a good way. The guides were incredibly personable, down to earth and normal – I originally expected quite a detached, methodical experience to the tour, where it was all business and fun was best left until departure. Perhaps I was naiive.
It’s easy from the outside to look at North Korean people as being different. I’m guilty too. But no amount of isolation, no amount of fear, and no amount of propaganda can prevent the people there from being human.
This was very clear to me from the moment I arrived.
What did it smell like?Fresh air? Pollution? Dirty? Clean?
I found it fresh, even in Pyongyang where there is industry. However, I don’t know whether this means it was clean, or it was just A LOT better than Beijing. I had just come from Beijing, which has a lot to answer for in regards to air quality. I felt like a 20 year smoker. Disgusting.
You certainly don’t want to swim in the Taedong river running through Pyongyang though, and off the West Sea Barrage past Nampo where there was industry – that wasn’t great either. In the mountains and on the east coast of North Korea, the air quality was great – didn’t even think about it.
How did you get invited to golf in North Korea? Also what music did they have in the “music appreciation room?”
I love golf, I like to do it in every country I visit. I had heard about the 11 hole in one rumour about North Korea, so decided to Google more about it and found that is supposedly happened at Pyongyang Golf Course. Which…seemingly existed. I couldn’t actually find any solid information – online sources placed it anywhere between 15 to 32km outside of Pyongyang, with photos ranging from coastal beach views to an overview of a landlocked course design. So I shot off an email to Koryo Tours to see if I could add it to my itinerary in North Korea, about a week later and I had it an approved extension with a tee-off time!
There was no music playing in the music appreciation room, we were whisked through to see how great it was and were moved onto the another room, which had old CRT looking televisions sitting right to the edge of the desks from the early 90’s. It was setup in the same fashion, as if people could watch television like that right next to eachother. So odd.
What are some of the most important Do’s and Don’t’s for a foreigner in NK? Essentially, what would land you in prison that you’d get away with in the US?
Basically anything you can get away with in the US, you can’t get away with here. You have no freedom, at all. The guides are with you all day, no exceptions (until you get back to the hotel, then you can’t even leave the hotel!)
Do what your told, always. And when you do, you may still land yourself in trouble.
EVERYTHING you take into the country, must be taken out. You MUST bow when required. If they find anything on you that you shouldn’t have, such as South Korean pop music…you’ll have a bad time.
I almost got myself into big trouble on National Day (founding of DPRK), I bought a small DPRK flag for some psuedo-nationalism. At the end of the day, we got back to the hotel and I left the flag on the bus (the bus we used every single day). My guide rushed all through the Yanggakdo Hotel to find me in a huff, and asked me if I left the flag on the bus. I said yes….along with some of my other things. She said the bus driver found it, and was incredibly offended – he thought I was trying to get rid of the flag, that I didn’t ‘want’ it anymore and had reported it to the guides. So, I had to explain myself and say sorry about that otherwise it would have escalated.
So how do they keep you at the hotel? Armed guards at the door?
In Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang, it’s on an island. That’s a good start.
Everywhere else, it’s a trust thing. You don’t find yourself in North Korea, not understanding the extremity of wandering off alone. You WILL be arrested, held, and deported at a minimum. The reception staff keep an eye on you, and one night when I was….admittedly a little intoxicated myself and another tourist decided to ask the receptionist in Wonsan if we could go outside to ‘get some fresh air’ to test our luck.
Needless to say, it was met with a “Are you being serious?” look, and her waving her arms about saying “no no no no”.
So, we went to bed.
So we’re talking you can’t step outside and stand in front of the hotel for a smoke?
Yes. But you can smoke outside your hotel window. The Yanggakdo allows you to ‘freeroam’ around the island, smoke away.
Some ‘hotels’ we stayed in, such as the Minsok Folk Hotel in Kaesong, and Masik Pass Ski Resort allowed you to leave the room and wander around within the hotel grounds. So fresh air isn’t a problem. Some of them are just hotels though, lobby is the boundary.
I saw that room with all the boom boxes. What would happen if you played a recording of Gangnam Style on it?
I think the question should read; “What would happen if you had played Gangnam Style full stop?” Teheh.
But, on that note – Gangnam Style was so bloody popular that even the North Korean guides knew about it, how they knew? Almost certainly through foreigners.
Do the guides seem like they believe the propaganda, or are they just afraid to act otherwise?
The really crazy ‘facts’ from North Korea , such as the whole butthole thing parodied in ‘The Interview’ and the other supernatural powers are believed the same way we believe in Santa Claus. They grow out of it. They understand some things aren’t possible.
Otherwise, I don’t think it’s a case of ‘believing’ it, but that is their way of life. They have grown since birth only knowing about the great leader, seeing his face every day, they WEAR their faces every day by law with a pin on their chest, above their heart. The food on their plate was given by him. Everything in the country was given by him. Even the educated guides that deal with foreigners absolutely adore the leaders. The whole propaganda isn’t demoralising to them – it’s absolutely uplifting, he is the provider of what they DO have. When a whole country believes this, and is affected by it, and it’s illegal to believe otherwise – it’s hard for anyone not to become brainwashed.
On the last day, I wanted to take a last photo with my guide. I went to take the selfie with us, and she backtracked with “no no, we cannot”. I asked why, and she pointed behind us, and there were two photos of the great leaders of course I didn’t see in the frame. You aren’t allowed to take photos where the great leaders weren’t the forefront of the photo, and I may have cut some of their frame off – and she was upset at the prospect so we had to move.
There’s an instilment of respect, endearment and fear equally, I’d say.
How’s your short game?
I scored terribly, my caddy made an effort to tell me I was the best player she had ever seen though. Of course, that’d hard to believe with a carded 97.
Not to be so “vulgar”, but what were the women like? were they attracted to you, you being a “outsider” and all that? Were they distant towards you and didn’t make any eye contact? Not sure what your relationship status is but just wondering if there was any flirtations or anything.
First off, the guides would surprise you. They deal with foreigners a lot, the one’s that handle western foreigners speak great english and are personable people who are laid back, willing to have a joke and give you a fun tour like anywhere in the world.
The women are beautiful, ESPECIALLY the guides. All of them. The female guides that deal with foreigners are all young and stunning, I don’t think that’s a coincidence. They certainly are flirtatious, and I would say that’s part of their job description. Apparently, it’s very common for foreigners to ‘fall in love’ with them over there, the allure of being that restricted works both ways. I wasn’t allowed to chat or have beers alone (in the hotel) with any of the female tour guides, because I think they realise this.
So, you didn’t invite any of them up to your room for a look at your, uh, western perspective?
Related story: When we visited the International Friendship Exhibition, we have to check in all of our belongings. They had a simple metal detector and about six ladies on the other side dressed lovely (their uniforms are stunning, let’s be honest), they were holding hand held detectors to shake us down in case something beeped.
Similar to airline security I thought, no problem, I’ll just check-in my camera and phone, and I kept my wallet. I put on the foot mittens and shuffle through the metal detector, it sets off immediately. Try again, same thing.
That’s weird, I thought; as the hand held detector ran past my pocket to some further beeps.
I reached in for my wallet, they took it from me and opened it themselves, pulling out my very amateur mistake and holding it up in the air for all to see.
Two shiny, forgotten Glyde condoms. What can I say, I like to be prepared for any situation – regardless of how unlikely it may be.
Anyhow, none of the six DPRK ladies actually had a single clue as to what they were, and were fumbling over them trying to determine whether they were a threat or not. I had to call over one of our DPRK guides, none other than ‘Crazy O’, one of Dennis Rodmans’ minders, and he thought it was one of the funniest things in the world. He had to explain to the ladies what these strange, square shaped packagings were and that I wasn’t hiding any explosives or alien-technology cameras within them – which was then met with blushed faces, shy snickering and laughs all around. I thought it was hilarious, but was advised to maybe keep those hidden somewhere else in the future. Point taken.
But for today…my condoms and I ventured into the gift halls together.
It is always mentioned that certain drugs (marijuana and meth in most threads) are legal in NK, did you happen to ask about them?
It’s hard to know with certainty – it’s a popular myth that has spiralled thanks to some big (unnamed) news sites. In Rason, in the North of the country bordering China, marajuana is seemingly legal and sold on the street markets. This has been confirmed many times. This is also basically NOT North Korea, Rason is a very special region that has Chinese investment, it’s basically a special economic zone. The very fact there is markets there means it’s not comparable to the rest of the country. I heard nothing about meth, but if there’s a place that it would be popular, or legal – North Korea wouldn’t surprise me, due to manual labour benefits.
Wild hemp is everywhere in the country, and a number of us thought we saw weed multiple times.
Did people there look generally happy and healthy? I know every city has its fair share of homeless or sick but was their anything that stood out to you concerning the civilians there?
There are no homeless. That’s the official story. Of course, that’s not true, but in their reality it is – because being homeless is illegal, and if you are wandering the streets making the country look like a fool, you may find yourself with a roof over your head somewhere you may not want to be (I’ll leave that up to you)
I’ll never forget on my last day, in Pyongyang they organised an itineraried walk for me, it’s out of the norm (but I had done everything else government approved) but we were walking in a very sterile, beautiful area of Pyongyang – an old man, alone was carrying a water bucket with a crippled leg and was dragging himself along the ground, moaning. Like a zombie. I hate saying that, but man, it was intense. He was moving like a metre a minute. My guides whisked me past quickly, and nothing was said.
Healthy overall though? No. This is a simple answer. Even in Pyongyang, you can reguarly see the malnutrition on peoples faces, their cheek bones are quite prominent especially. Outside Pyongyang? That’s the norm.
Even the exemplary KPA guards we see at one of the most important propaganda filled areas, the De-militarised Zone, at the JSA (where they have those blue buildings half in each country), the KPA clearly are quite skinny. The fact they all wear oversized clothing doesn’t help their cause, either.
In the subway, everyone sits on the carriages and doesn’t speak. They don’t smile, they don’t do anything. The wedding we came across, nobody smiled. The guides smile, and laugh, all the time. The guys at the DMZ smiled. Everywhere else? Not so much. This could just be cultural, though. Happiness is relative. I don’t know what constitutes happiness in that country.
I will be travelling to DPRK next year as an American citizen. I am concerned that because our phones are all connected to the cloud, I might end up having some unflattering pictures that I might bring in with me on my phone. Should I prepare a brand new phone with no pictures to bring into the DPRK? Will they look through your phone and all your photos when you go into the DPRK?
I definitely think you should wipe your phone before visiting. Technically you need to declare any foreign media you are bringing in, this includes….any foreign media. But, of course it’s hard to enforce and It’s very unlikely it’d cause an issue. As I mentioned though – mine was gone through as I left the country. It was likely out of the norm, but it can clearly happen. Luckily I had nothing too ‘interesting’ on there. I wiped my Kpop off before I entered, which was a great decision in the end.
How was the American War Atrocities Museum? As an American, I’m very interested in the feelings that the N. Korean general public has toward us.
Thanks for your comment, I hadn’t covered it so I will for you. The American Atrocities Museum is a bit out of the way – it’s the only reason we made a stop in Sinchon. This is the mural upon entering, giving you a pretty good idea about what this little town/village is about. We were pre-warned that it would be hard hitting, and honestly it was.
The museum is nothing special aesthetically a giant slab of concrete, an old gutted multi-floor building that has had it’s walls lined with the atrocities committed during the alleged massacre here in the Korean war. Photos are uncensored and depict decapitated men, women and children, mass graves, burnt corpses and mauled skulls; some with nails dug into the cranium. There are lots of illustrations, paintings done clearly by the same artist that depict Americans beating North Korean people; always with smiles on their faces. They depict women being tied to livestock, having their breasts cut off, torture and executions – all are very gruesome. It also progressively goes into further detail of the war itself, showing numbers, and a finale mosaic of the ‘American Imperialists’ surrendering to the great Korean people. This is a recurring theme.
As I’m sure you can appreciate, to a feeble young brainwashed mind – their American perception may be quite negative towards you, having just left their indoctrination tour here. This is a town where Americans are certainly not welcome, but – sheltered by the tour, in the confines of the building and the professional tour guides, none of this is exposed and we continue with our day outside to the bunker, the memorials where we purchase and lay flowers and then, afterwards we are spoken to by a real, local survivor from the nursery massacre.
It makes for a sombre afternoon.
So how well preserved are the dear leaders? What was it like seeing these dead people who are the centre of this mythos in NK?
Worryingly well preserved. However, only the heads were visible. You could see the top of Kim Jong Il’s signature green/olive suit he’s dressed in, the same gettup he’s always pictured wearing. They were draped in a Korean Workers Party flags. I remember making the comment to another tourist that it looked almost too good to be true, similar to wax statues in Madame Tussauds. I’d be shocked if it wasn’t really them though.
You said your camera was searched but you had backups. How did you smuggle the backups out?
The night before, I had a laptop. It was searched as well, but not thoroughly – it wasn’t intrusive. I simply placed backups a few directory levels deep on my C: drive and named them incredibly useless things such as BootConfig and DriversRoot. Genius!
What’s the general atmosphere there, how are the people on the streets? Are they as happy/talkative as in the West? Are the people walking around families or colleagues or are there many friends like anywhere else?
It’s strange, no doubt. People don’t seem to talk to each other much in public. Riding the Pyongyang metro is deathly silent, even when you’re elbow to elbow with other commuters going in, and out of the station – there is no chatter and there are certainly no smiles. Walking the streets, the people visible seemingly have somewhere to be. I witnessed school groups interacting with each other, younger children and college age students and also families embracing normality. There are so little people it’s hard to get a good representation, even in Pyongyang. One thing I did notice in Pyongyang, was that there is nobody at all that were just…’wandering’, they were either heading to work or they were being educated. The area around Kim Il-Sung Square overlooking the Taedong River is beautiful on a nice day, but you won’t witness a soul hanging around enjoying a walk in the sunlight without intention.
This is easily one of the best AMAs I’ve read, and your photoblog has been fascinating to look through. I particularly enjoyed the shot of the North Korean guide learning golf. It’s weirdly humanizing. Do you have any way to gauge whether North Koreans seem, well, happy? I know your trip was strictly controlled so you may not have gotten a good candid impression, but we’re so used to thinking that they must be miserable given their oppressive situation…I’m curious to know whether that’s actually the case.
Thanks for the kind words, its great you enjoyed it.
I love that shot too, he was genuinely intrigued by golf, he told me me was a big fan of sports that required good control. After his first shots (and failing) he started running after the ball that went about 10 metres, and tried it time and time again to improve. It was quite heartbreaking hearing him tell me at the end of the day how much fun he had, how he would enjoy playing again.
He likely won’t though, it’s a very rare activity to undertake on a trip there.
I answered this across many posts, and I forgive you in not spending the time to read my walls of text! Basically, I found happiness is relative. It’s very hard to gauge as you mentioned. I certainly felt people were ‘happier’ in Pyongyang than outside. Life is much more of a struggle outside this centrepiece of luxury. Pyongyang residents may not be necessarily rich, but they are likely more educated, privileged and enjoy simple luxuries such as job security working something they enjoy, rather than struggling the elements hand-tending to crops on farmland, or spending time with their family in a warm apartment. They may even have a television, it’ll only show one channel – but that’s better than well…nothing, right? They haven’t had anything else to compare it to, so that may be incredible and bring happiness to the entire household. To someone who doesn’t know anything but Pyongyang, they would be content with the world – especially when they may well know just how great they have it compared to others in the country. They may consider themselves eternally lucky. What a contrast, huh?
Just some food for thought.
What are some misconceptions about North Korea that you would like to clear up?
So sorry mate! You got in early and I skipped over it early and never got back. I think answers in some other posts cover a lot, however:
You CAN talk to locals. If you can communicate of course. If not, you can get your guide to translate for you and they happily will.
You CAN take a lot of photos. I covered this in detail in another post, but you can bring in cameras, even DSLR’s as long as the lens isn’t above 200mm!
You can bring in your phone, and there is a 3G network. But, you can’t access it. Only the elite, and foreign trusted tour guides such as from Koryo Tours have access. It’s also very limited.
North Koreans use mobile phones, almost everyone has one in the main cities.
The tour guides are not secret agents, they are tour guides. They must report back to the government, and carry out the government approved itineraries, nothing more.
There are no statues of Kim Jong-un, because he’s alive.
Alcohol is not only legal, but at every meal in Pyongyang. North Korean beers and Soju. Dodgy rice wine is very common outside Pyongyang too.
If you make a mistake as a tourist, you don’t suddenly get dragged off, never to be seen again. Your guides take the fall for you, unless it is incredibly serious.
All of the photos you’ve seen about Pyongyang, and all of the locations in the Vice documentary are the most beautiful parts of Pyongyang, and it’s in a tiny area. Link – This for example, you can see the ‘not so pretty’ Pyongyang in the distance, and it only gets worse the further you go.
All of the democratic countries have given gifts to North Korea, they are on display in the friendship exhibition. Not just the Russia’s and China’s.
The DMZ is really relaxed on the North Korean side, on the south – it’s really intimidating and played up. Not what I expected at all.
The subway system is not a facade, fake or choreographed. We went to every station, spending the entire morning there – they finally allowed foreigners access to all stations and both lines.
Pyongyang is basically another world to the rest of North Korea.
Their computers don’t really do anything. I had a run through one running Windows XP in the Grand Peoples Study House while everyone was getting a propaganda indoctrination in the ‘Television’ room, and everything is restricted and there’s nothing on them.
The rooms in the Yanggakdo are almost certainly not bugged.
There is solar power, even in the middle of nowhere.
Your pictures are beautiful and admittedly you were unable to photograph a large portion of the country which might show a more complete picture, are you concerned this might misrepresent the country you visited? With the hunger and starvation did you feel guilty that copious amounts of food were placed in front of you? Are you concerned you pictures and trip report might be used as propaganda? What are your takes on the human rights violations of the country you just visited?
Thanks for the comment! I am very pleased with how the photos came out, my RX100 was the perfect camera for that trip.
I tried my best to take photos of things I shouldn’t have. I know that sounds immature, but that’s a huge spectrum of photographs and inclusive of the real North Korea. I didn’t go to see Pyongyang. You’ve seen Pyongyang, everyone has. I was more interested in seeing further – and they really don’t want you taking photos outside of Pyongyang between your destinations, regardless. It’s a story that begins in poverty and ends in poverty, there’s no skirting around it. If I asked the guides every time I was to take a photo out the window, not only do I look like an idiot but I would almost certainly have been told not to.
From the photos I have taken, mainly villages and towns outside Pyongyang – I think you can get an (unfortunately) sad and heartbreaking idea to fill the blanks as to the reality there.
Photosets of Pyongyang misinterpret North Korea as a whole by glossing over the poverty, no doubt. But, the ideals that shine through and the tone of propaganda you get from Pyongyang has to be experienced to be believed. Inside the war museum in Pyongyang, they had an entire room recreating the demise of American soldiers in the war with life-like wax statues in death poses being picked at by crows. It’s in your face – Pyongyang is the propaganda capital of North Korea, you can’t miss it to get the whole picture.
I felt guilty in eating the food when it became clear that the waitresses and likely others were going to be eating the left overs we had. Likely an unpopular opinion; but I didn’t feel guilty in eating the food initially any more than I felt guilty in willingly signing up to visit a country that’s using my funds maliciously. I have covered my thoughts on this in more detail in another post, Control + F “2000 USD a year” and you’ll find the post.
My thoughts on alleged human rights violations in North Korea are similar to what I believe is that of a reasonable person – absolute condemnation. Without anyone going to North Korea and putting the puzzle together piece by piece, nothing will ever be done. Of course you won’t see evidence of direct human rights abuse, and North Korea aren’t going to show anyone the alleged concentration camps either – but, my ‘selfish’ tourism delving further into that country is another small piece of the North Korean puzzle. You wouldn’t be reading this right now otherwise, and life would go on.
And also, no issue, I apologise again for making you wait so long initially. If you are considering going yourself and need more detail or advice, or simply interested enough to know more I am more than happy in answering your questions in PM when it isn’t so crazy 😀
Why were all of the restaurants/waiting areas empty?
They take you to expensive restaurants that are off limits to the average citizen. Almost all of our meals were in the company of our own, however on my second last day I ate a meal in a new restaurant in Pyongyang, it was three guides and myself and there was a large group of middle-aged locals celebrating a birthday or similar on a long table over the side. I was told I could order anything I wanted off the menu, as I was a guest. Other than the Pizza restaurant, from memory this was the first time I could select the meal.
Did you go skiing?
No snow that time of year! So it just made it all the weirder. It was a stop-off on the way over to Wonsan. It was an incredibly lavish Ski resort that reminded me of inside of the Venetian in Las Vegas, especially the bathrooms. It sucked every bit of power for MILES, the only power we saw in so long, especially arriving centrally from the west and we were the only guests. Staff outnumbered the guests, (who knows what they were doing before we arrived or after we left) and the food just never seemed to stop coming out. It acted as a great bite of luxury to break up the trip a bit, the accommodation in North Korea outside Pyongyang was terrible at best, no running water even.
On one of the last pictures depicting China, couldn’t you just smuggle a boat and paddle to the other side? Or if guards are with you 24/7, guess that makes it impossible. Nonetheless, thank you for providing this. Read through it all – NK is somewhere I’d never travel to but the propaganda in itself is incredibly interesting.
From a foreigner point of view – yes it’s impossible, unless you ran the gauntlet in the middle of the night, and expected to be shot dead.
The China border is the leading area in defecting from the country. In the winter, that entire area in that photo is frozen over. There are certain areas where the distance is much shorter, even an area where its a step. These are heavily guarded for this reason, but people do slip through the cracks.
The biggest problem for many, is the logistics in GETTING there. Most of the inhabitants live in the southern region of North Korea – military checkpoints prevent citizens from even getting between some provinces, let alone that far North through thick woodlands in the north-east. You have no car, nor any means of transport. It’s a long way to go undiscovered, hundreds of kilometers. Leaving via the DMZ in the south is impossible as a normal citizen. There is a 4km buffer minefield with millions of mines and is eternally watched across the entire peninsula – not advisable. A soldier did it recently, but he had access to the DMZ already and picked a spot.
As not only an American, but a Korean-Chinese American, I don’t think I’ll ever see North Korea firsthand, even if I wanted to. What was the general population’s reactions to seeing you? Was it indifference? Hostility? Fake smiles?
They do huge background checks on you, the moment they see you have Korean relatives they won’t allow you in. They used to let South Koreans into the “Special tourism region” of Kumgang in the south-east before one was shot dead, so not anymore.
On the first day, I was wondering the same thing – how will they react? We arrive, it’s late afternoon and we go to the Arch of Triumph, the first section of the politically sterile and beautiful part of Pyongyang. We get out of the bus, and I’m thinking “Gosh, they must be shocked at these white people here” – but not many people looked, nor cared. Of course, some did, but in that central area of Pyongyang, where they are the privileged and it’s central to the basic tourism excursions into the country – we were largely ignored, because tourists are quite common in this area.
4-5 day stints in North Korea are essentially the same itinerary, there are places you have to go legally. Nobody will be shocked at your arrival here.
Outside Pyongyang? Everybody looked, we tried to force waves out of them – it was mainly the younger children, teenagers and young adults that waved back with ear to ear grins. It was not fake. It was a novelty to them.
There was no hostility at all that I noticed, which gave it a weird aura. Standing at the American War Atrocities Museum, the Korean guide would be telling us how babies were crushed under the feet of American soldiers, and it would be calm and collected in front of two american citizens they knew about. No scoffing, questions were answered reasonably and goodbyes and thank yous were given at the end.
One big thing I’ve heard is that, as an English speaker, you may only be able to communicate (sporadically) with your guide, as fellow travelers were from all over the world and likely weren’t English speakers. In your experience, what was your tour group like? Where were fellow travelers from, and were they there for the same reasons as you?
This is quite fascinating, but inside North Korea they teach foreign languages to the fortunate few that study at the Grand Peoples Study House. Some guides speak French, Danish, Chinese, English, Japanese, Russian…you name it, they have a translator that’s studied it. The sad part? They have never left North Korea – and never will. Nor have they even conversed with nationals from those countries to learn. They learn English for example primarily through western (approved) movies, a guide told me she had seen Finding Nemo, Forest Gump, Monster Inc and a few others.
With Koryo Tours, it’s mainly focussed on westerners. English is implied, however on my tour we had a young bloke from Romania and another from Rome – the guy from Rome spoke very little English, he didn’t get as much out of it as he could have.
If you decide to head to North Korea – Koryo Tours is easily the best option.
Also, if you speak any Korean, you will have the time of your life. Being able to understand what’s being said in front of you, knowing they don’t realise – and being able to read the signage would be amazing. A lot of what gets said, then translated into English for you is filtered to prevent upsetting people.
In which ways did your experience deviate from your expectations?
Here is just some; but there are a heap.
I expected it to be a lot more serious. This may sound weird, but I didn’t expect the guides in particular to be so…relatable? I expected a strictly business relationship, and ended up relaxing, enjoying fun nights drinking Soju and singing Karaoke.
Poverty was worse than I expected outside Pyongyang. That’s a bold statement; but when you can see the malnutrition in the faces of people living it rough in overgrown villages more akin to Laos or African settlements, you know things are bad. Especially when you consider their winters. Even in the ‘towns’ and ‘cities’ outside Pyongyang, many of the buildings are simply cold, empty shells. There are exceptions of course, but there is no doubt the vast majority of that country lives in extreme levels of poverty.
Stereotypes aren’t far from reality. I envisioned them being heavily exaggerated. Seeing ladies physically cry right in front of your eyes at the Mansudae Grand Monument while paying their respect really hits you Photo.
Some locals in parts of Pyongyang now don’t blink an eye to foreigners. Most points of interest in the basic Pyongyang tourism itinerary are within close proximity, tourists are not as rare as it’s perceived here.
The ironically uncensored extent to the propaganda, ranging from seeing depicted dead American in Pyongyang and Sinchon; and children used as propaganda tools through scripted militaristic dances using salutes and implied violence also the seemingly normal references to ‘Imperialist Americans’ I just didn’t think it’d be so in your face. Facts were also optional, no shame at all.
We also had a lot more camera freedom that I expected.
Did you think it’s morally permissible for you to directly finance a notoriously oppressive dictatorship in order to stoke your own amusement?
This is a fair question, and I absolutely get what you mean. I’m going to preface this with a little known fact. In North Korea, near Kaesong on the DMZ border there is a large area named the ‘Kaesong Industrial Region’. In this region, South Korea exploit North Korean labour for less than $2000 USD a year. Over 50,000 DPRK workers are employed by 120 ROK companies, on DPRK soil – ALL their wages go to the North Korean regime. That’s over $90 million USD in foreign currency.
Does tourism even dent this bucket? No. Could it? Yes. They are trying to make tourism more viable, foreign currency is important.
From my point of view, as a tourist it’s a grey area, and very borderline. All foreign money from tourism goes to the DPRK regime too. It’s important to realise how North Koreans see foreigners. White people are Americans. Americans are evil, and it’s that way in books, movies, performance skits, history books and every propaganda site. A foreigner presence in North Korea is so important to understanding we aren’t bad people, and that the world is different out there. Most don’t understand this.
I made an effort along with a couple others to wave at people everywhere outside Pyongyang. The older they were, the less they waved. The younger ones, though? They love it. They see us, they are fascinated. It’s the new generation.
Morally, it’s a balancing act. It’s wrong to a point, with many benefits to the country.
Did their attitudes towards you noticeably change when you explained you weren’t American, or did there seem to be a monolithic view of “Westerners?”
Nope! They show great respect to all, at least at face value. The only change I noticed, was possibly losing interest. They are primarily interested in Americans, they have grown up hearing only bad things…and to see one in their country, with manners and respect, smiling and waving…it’s clear there is an element of confusion and wonder.
How in the hell did they letchoo take all those photographs?
Sony RX100, it’s very small, compact and has pretty great zoom. Sneaky snaps were an art!
The biggest rule: Absolutely no photos of military. The only exception is the DMZ. When passing a train that had tanks on the back, clearly visible above a fence, the guides all turned to us in the bus and watched us meticulously to ensure there were no sneaky photos out the window.
Otherwise, you are allowed a surprising amount of camera freedom, but there are some locations and some subject matter which are simply completely off-limits and sometimes requires you to check-in all your electronics completely before entering; examples include the International Friendship Exhibition and the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (Mausoleum).
Some structures, statues and propaganda billboards (usually incorporating the leaders), you aren’t allowed to photograph. It was a total lucky dip. If you make a mistake, the guides will rush to tell you no photos but enforcement on deleting them seemed inconsistent at best. All photos depicting the leaders must include them in their entirety, no cropped heads or missing feet – this was important, and disrespectful otherwise. Photos of the rich, the poor and any photos depicting anything ‘bad’, are also technically not allowed, but realistically are too broad a rule to be enforced. Only the extremes are met – taking a photo of people cutting the grass with scissors in Pyongyang, or local teenagers doing weight training with sacks up and down the steep mountainside of Manpok Valley are good examples.
Wait how the hell is the snake still alive in the bottle of alcohol?
It’s not alive at that point, the poor bugger has long since suffocated. Their heads always end up resting to the top of the bottle, because they have been struggling for air during their last moments. Horrible.
Have you considered that one of your photos (photo #50) could result in a guide and his family being sent to a hard labor camp for the rest of his life? I’d guess that him reading a Lonely Planet guidebook could be a huge problem. Maybe you could black out his face? The photos are lovely by the way; thank you for sharing them.
The Lonely Planet guide wasn’t smuggled in, that and a number of other big name North Korean travel guides are pre-approved to be brought into the country as they are common amongst foreigners. I appreciate your concern, I have considered the ramifications of such in each one of my photos.
You have to declare it upon immigration. During our visit – our own ‘Koryo’ books given to us to aid our trip by the tour company, along with another guide book was (for some reason) deemed not to be allowed in and they ended up confiscating them all, giving them back at the end of our trip. No reason given.
Also thanks! Glad you enjoyed the photos.
Would a tourist get hassled for the clothes they wear or the way their hair/makeup is portrayed?
Tourists are not hassled in any form. The official face of North Korea is one that is not in need, and what you mentioned would be perceived as desperation and consequently shunned. Petty crime is non-existent, the punishment is a strong deterrent.
A related story; heading towards Hamhung on the east-coast, we stopped at (another) large monument of Kim Il-Sung, as we approached up the hill; many people from the road watched us, including a military drill of some kind.
As we were heading up, two of the tourists in our group ran into a group of excitable young kids, giddy at the prospect of seeing foreigners. The aforementioned tourists had a bag of lollys with them, and there were quite a few children and they wondered whether they could do a nice thing, and give them some sweets.
Well, they went about it in a way that may be perceived as quite rude in retrospect (by any culture) – and that was, basically lobbing a heap of these packaged streets at the children so that they were to scramble and grab them from the ground. This was a terrible sight for anyone in the vicinity.
Locals officially complained to the tour guides, they were very upset with our actions and said it was ultimately offensive to the Korean people.
On the bus afterwards, the mood was very serious and the tour guides proceeded to give us a big, stern talking to about how wrong it was, which was totally reasonable.
I felt that we as a group lost some of the mutual respect we had garnered over time from our guides due to this incident.
Do you speak any Korean and, if so, were the tour guides aware of this?
Unfortunately not, it would have made the experience all the more fantastic. Being able to eavesdrop, listen to the unfiltered speech from the local guides and read the signage would add an entire different element to the trip. One of the tourists in our group did speak some Korean, one of the guides found out and forced some Korean Karaoke out of him after some Soju one night during dinner. Fantastic.
Golf course employee here. How were the greens? Was pace of play slow? What kind of par were the courses?
Sorry, I did chuckle a little bit at the pace of play – mainly because I was the only one on the course from the moment I arrived, until when I left. Empty. When I arrived, there was a female golfer in the clubhouse; at a guess I’d wager certainly Chinese. She looked like any other normal golfer, she must have already completed the round. I don’t know any further detail.
The greens were spongy and reasonably slow, they were in great condition – far better than I envisioned but maybe needed a further cut.
They had sprinklers going like any other course as I neared the 18th green late in the day, you really could have forgotten you were in North Korea and instead at the local course having a leisurely Sunday afternoon hit.
The par was 72, there was 4 P5’s 10 P4’s, 4 P3’s. It was laid out reasonably, it had country club course written all over it.
Also, I am a lefty so I had to confirm before I arrived if they had golf clubs. They did, amazingly. That absolutely stunned me. They ended up being ancient clubs, in this ancient buggy. Did the job fantastic!
Are you allowed to bring your smartphone, and if so, is there cell service/internet?
You can get South Korean cell service and 3G as far back as the the beginning of the DMZ in North Korea. It’s good service at the JSA. I had some messages come through I didn’t even notice until I was leaving the DMZ when somebody else mentioned it.
As of 2013 you can take in your smartphone. They are iffy on “GPS” devices, as they put it but smartphones are accepted. I took two iPhones, a GoPro, a laptop, tablet and a camera and it was all fine as long as it’s declared upon entry. You can buy a simcard to make international calls, it costs A LOT and there is actually 3G within North Korea, but it’s only accessible by invite only which is simply the elites within Pyongyang and our western tour guide had access too.