The idea of recreational visits to The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), known internationally as North Korea, has gained some notoriety recently due to Dennis Rodmen’s well-covered trips to the hermit state. But most people may not realize there is a burgeoning tourism industry in the country, apparently growing 15% per annum. At least that’s what they told me when I visited for one week.
So how does one describe a weeklong trip to this rarely visited little enclave? Utterly bizarre, amazing, hilarious, depressing, thought-provoking, boring, and eye-opening. All these adjectives and it still comes nowhere near describing the experience. But one thing is for sure, it will be like no other holiday you ever take. It is also surprisingly easy to get there.
A couple of things to remember before I continue
Given how secretive the state is this is not a destination for independent travel. All Travel must be done through a number of state-approved agencies. The itinerary is completely at their discretion, you have almost no say in what happens. And from the moment you arrive until your departure you will be accompanied by two tour guides (this is supposedly to ensure neither one says anything out of line, like the truth for instance).
Also, leave your politics at home. There is no room for your opinions in North Korea-unless they happen to be complimentary. Or Anti-American. There is nothing they love more than bitching out the Yanks. One thing to remember about your holiday here is that what you’re witnessing is a fantasy; it’s the DPRK they want to convey to the outside world, not the North Korea we have all read about in the news, various books and online media. Once you accept this and take everything you see with a pinch of salt, it can be a worthwhile trip.
Who Can Go, and How?
Surprisingly, North Korea is open to most nationalities to visit. The only exception is South Koreans, who are outright banned from visiting. They will however turn you away if you are a journalist or political activist of any notoriety. The tour companies vet every applicant before accepting them, so if you have much of an online presence don’t be surprised if you get turned away.
As I said, every tour is conducted through a semi-independent tour operator. These are run out Beijing to avoid the sanctions imposed on North Korea. This means you will also be paying for everything in cash. When paying for my trip I was sent to a front restaurant in the middle of Beijing to meet a Mr. Kim, who would give me my visa (all organized before you arrive) in return for an envelope full of cash. There’s a bit of trust involved in a holiday like this.
A week in North Korea costs roughly $1,200 depending on the company you choose. Juche Travel Services are easily the best value and very well run. I traveled with them and we definitely got a more immersive experience than the other tours and were very helpful with any questions I had while preparing my trip.
And yes, American citizens are more than welcome. Just expect to be on the receiving end of a lot of extra propaganda.
Would you like to travel in a group to DPRK?
Young Pioneer Tours is a budget adventure travel company specialising in travel to North Korea. They take you to places your mother would rather you stay away from. They are renowned as one of the best tour operators to North Korea with our unparalleled experience, fun way of doing things, and most importantly, excellent relations in the country. Aside from the DPRK, they travel to a number of other destinations such as Iran, Cuba, China, Antarctica, Turkmenistan, South East Asia and other former Soviet countries. All the tours are founded on the YPT ethos of fun, thrill-seeking and adventure at a great price. All ages welcomed! Check out their Website, Facebook Twitter and Instagram here!
The Sights and Sounds of the DPRK
Sightseeing in North Korea is a mixed bag of military rhetoric, fabricated history, industrial prowess and massive Soviet architecture. These are just some of the highlights.
- The DMZ: The 38th parallel dividing North and South Koreas is the most militarized border in the world. It is also quite a fun day out. During the day visitors are lectured on how the North Korean army beat the American aggressors back to the border and made them sign the treaty that put a halt to fighting (the Korean peninsula is technically still at war). It’s a pretty fascinating place if you can ignore the propaganda, and is obviously a very important place in the country’s history and identity. Afterwards, you’re brought down the actual line between North and South, with a quick jump over the border for a photo op.
- The Friendship Museum: Easily the oddest of all North Korea’s attractions, the Friendship Museum is a massive collection of all the presents given to the three Kim’s over the years (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong Un). Basically, if you want to do business with North Korea, better bring them something nice. The displays are divided by country and trust me, EVERYONE is represented. The list is endless but two of the most notorious/funny are probably the signed Michael Jordan basketball (donated by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright) and the stuffed crocodile standing upright, serving a tray of cocktails, a present of the Sandinistas of Nicaragua. The Kim’s also seem to have a thing for Apple products.
- The Hotel of Doom: The most prominent building in Pyongyang’s skyline is easily the Ryugyong Hotel, more commonly known as the hotel of doom- a massive steel pyramid that looks like a bond villains lair. Started in 1987 exterior is complete but since falling on hard times, that’s about all they’ve managed. It is the pride of Northern Korean modernist architecture.
- A tour of Pyongyang: The capitol of North Korea, Pyongyang has some impressive building and statues dotted around the otherwise depressingly drab city. The Soviets were never big on subtlety and everything here is MASSIVE, from the abundant shrines to the first two Kim’s and the Party to the various government buildings and universities. Most tours will include a day or two within the city visiting these.
- Souvenir Shopping: Technically not sightseeing, but souvenir shopping is definitely a highlight of North Korea. Weather its Kim Chi cook books, the many volumes of Kim Jong IL political writings, some nice soviet party music (yes) or some amazing postcards, you’ll be amazed how much you’ll end up walking away with.
When to go
It’s hard to say when the best time to visit North Korea is. It is a very seasonal country. I’ve been told it is quite pleasant to visit in the summer. But I visited in the depths of winter, with -12 C temperatures and almost complete lack of heating. The whole country was blanketed in snow. In the countryside, this was quite beautiful. In the cities, it was pretty miserable. But you will soon get to visit their new ski resort in the winter when it opens to tourists.
What is more important are the events going on at the time of your visit. There is always some form of celebration in North Korea. Very strict, choreographed celebration, but celebration nonetheless. I turned up at a very important time in 2013. They had just launched their first satellite into space and three days before we arrived, tested a third nuclear bomb (you may remember reading about that one). It was also Kim Jong-Il’s birthday (the first since his death). This gave me the unique opportunity to bow down and pay respects to the preserved corpse of one of the most evil men in history, while people me around cried in despair and had to be carried out.
But if you want a spectacle, you should visit in late summer, early autumn. For four months at this time of year, the government holds the Arirang Mass Games each week. The mass games are a celebration of Korean history told through the medium of mass dance, music and pictures. They are held in the largest capacity stadium in the world, with 100,00+ performers taking part. It’s probably the biggest event of its kind in the world and is absolutely amazing. Completely messed up considering how poor North Korea is, but well, that’s the country you’ve chosen to visit.
Should you go?
This part is entirely up to you as an individual. Many people will question how one could visit a country with such a notorious government. But bear in mind, your money spent here is a tiny fracture of their revenue. That comes from much shadier sources.
It’s important to read some books about life in North Korea, and the daily horrors involved. Everyone should read Nothing to Envy period; it’s a compelling, terrifying account of life in the country. Over the years, I have also read all about North Korea on various media so I was well aware of the atrocities committed by the government.
However, I have always been fascinated by how this government has survived for so long, and if the people really do all believe in the great Kim Dynasty. So I decided to check it out for myself. And one thing is for sure, you will come away with a much greater appreciation for how messed up things are there, but also how they have used international politics to sustain power for so long. You can also have great fun doing it. People used to raise their eyebrows at the idea of a holiday in Burma. Now it’s the next big thing in South East Asia.
Written by: Conor Walsh. Conor writes about his adventures working and eating his way around the world, in search of great times, delicious food and the odd dip into the bizarre. Check out his website Escaping The Mainstream.
Further reading: Check out our writer’s tale of crossing the China – North Korea Border from Dandong.
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