In June 2016 I visited North Korea with Koryo Tours. Though I generally do very little preparation when preparing to visit a new country since I’ve traveled so much, North Korea was the exception. I read as much as I could about others’ experiences, contemplating whether it was too risky for me to go. It seems like relations between the US and North Korea are never good, and one’s imagination can run wild with hypotheticals.
I’m writing this article because a lot of what I read was wrong. I don’t know if people inflate or distort their experiences to boost their ego, or if they genuinely remember things wrong. Either way, there are a lot of exaggerated claims on the internet by others who have gone to North Korea. Based on my experiences, here is what it is really like to travel to North Korea.
Do they take away your phone or inspect your belongings at the airport?
Upon arrival, I was asked if I had a phone while going through customs at the airport and a customs officer took it along with a couple others. I have no idea what he did with it. It was gone for a minute or two and I had a lock screen enabled, so they did not go through it or anything. Apparently they record the number of phones going into the country, and what brand each is. They did take my camera and a booklet my tour company provided. They looked through a couple pictures on my camera and that was it.
One guy in my group had his computer inspected and they looked at some of his video files, including Tom and Jerry videos. They are looking for any anti-North Korea materials you may have. The tour companies do a great job of explaining the rules way before you go, at least mine did. Your phone will not get a signal in North Korea, but sim cards can be bought. There are packages available, one with data and one without data. The sim card with data costs about $200, whereas the one without data is more affordable. Calling the US cost something like $6/minute. If you do get a sim card, you’ll be on a network separate from the one North Koreans use. You can call other foreigners in North Korea and you can call abroad, but you can’t call North Koreans.
On the way out of North Korea, the procedure was exactly the same as in any other airport. They didn’t inspect any of my belongings. I’m sure experiences vary with how things go on the way out.
Are there restrictions on what I can photograph?
Yes. But assertions that every photograph needs to be approved by the guides is way overblown. At the Mansu Hill Grand Monument, we were instructed to make sure that we captured the full bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in our pictures. At the war museum, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the museum.
In Pyongyang we were told not to take pictures of buildings under construction. Apparently, it’s a cultural thing. They don’t like something unfinished to be photographed, and military members are often part of the construction crew which is an issue as you’ll see in a second. Similarly, we were told not to take close-up pictures of local people. While everything about daily life in North Korea is interesting, few Westerners would like a camera to be put in their face while riding public transportation or while shopping at a grocery store. They want the same courtesy any of us would want in our daily lives at home.
The biggest restriction on photography was that under no circumstances were we allowed to take pictures of military things, which is par for the course in most countries around the world, or of people in the military. The exception to this is the Demilitarized Zone, where I did ask for permission to take pictures of the soldier taking us around. Otherwise, I took hundreds of pictures and never had to ask permission.
In the metro we were told not to take pictures of the tunnels the trains travel through. The metro stations double as bomb shelters, so although we could take pictures in the stations we had to avoid taking pictures of the tunnels. Plus, it’s probably not safe for the drivers of these mostly ancient trains to emerge from a dark tunnel and enter a station amidst a barrage of flash photography.
What are the guides like? Are you being followed or under surveillance?
It’s easy to build up North Korea in your mind as a crazy place before you go, and then you can’t help but look for things that don’t exist. In short, I can’t say for sure that my group wasn’t followed by secret agents or something like that, just as I can’t say for sure there weren’t Martians there watching all of us. That said, no, we weren’t followed and I highly doubt that my hotel room in the Yanggakdo International Hotel was bugged as some say.
Our guides led us around the city and country. While it’s true that we could not deviate from the group or explore things on our own, everyone knew that this is how it would be going in. You have to be with the guides at all times. This does not mean that guides follow you into the bathroom, and if they do it’s because they have bladders too! At most of the places we went, we could roam freely. We just couldn’t walk outside and decide to go somewhere else by ourselves.
The guides were incredibly nice, curious, and funny. The atmosphere was not tense at all, and I can’t imagine anyone on my tour leaving with anything less than a stellar impression of our guides. They were very open and answered our questions earnestly, even the ones you might think would make them feel uncomfortable. They’ve heard it all before. Just be respectful and understanding. You aren’t there to correct them or change their mind about issues you disagree about.
Before going, this was the hardest thing for me to believe. Some asserted that scenes in public were one big charade put on for a handful of tourists. I can’t imagine that is true. Nothing seemed staged and our itinerary changed on the fly several times as well, making staging difficult if not impossible. There are too few tourists to North Korea to justify putting on a show for them!
Can you access the Internet?
No. Very few North Koreans have access to the internet as we know it. What is available is an intranet featuring what is estimated to be around 5000 websites. This is accessible and we saw people at Grand People’s Study House (national library) and the new science museum using it. I only checked a few times, but never did my phone detect a wifi signal during my time there.
At the Yanggakdo International Hotel I was able to send an email to my mom to let her know everything was going well and allay her fears. It cost $3, it was sent from the hotel’s email address, and she couldn’t reply. But she appreciated receiving it nevertheless.
What was the food like? Is beer available and do North Koreans drink?
Lunches and dinners were traditionally Korean fare. Breakfasts were a buffet of Western dishes like eggs and bread with Korean dishes like noodles and kimchi. They can cater to vegetarians and yes, there was an opportunity to eat dog meat at one of the restaurants. I should point out that dog meat is eaten in other Asian countries and is not unique to North Korea. And it’s not a normal meal for them either.
In the hotel and at many of the souvenir shops there are drinks imported from what seemed to be Singapore. There were Pokka drinks and coffee latte drinks, for example. Bottled water was very cheap ($0.25) and available everywhere.
One beer or juice was free with every meal. I don’t drink, but everyone seemed pleasantly surprised with the quality of the North Korean beer. On our last night we stopped by a local watering hole and yes, there were plenty of North Koreans there. There were seven different local beers to pick from. Two were dark beers and the other five were beers with varying amounts of rice and barley, with the most expensive and from what I could gather best tasting ones having no rice. Rice wine was included with our last meal as well. Recently, Pyongyang even held its first beer festival.
Are there souvenirs to buy?
Yes, by the end of your first day you’ll realize that there are souvenir shops at every tourist site and they generally sell the same things. Pins, dolls, ginseng, propaganda books, postcards, posters, etc. You can send postcards from the hotel and with patience your recipients will receive them in a month or two.
What is the hotel like?
The Yanggakdo International Hotel is located on an island in the Taedong River. While it would not get any five star ratings in other countries, I found it perfectly adequate. The room has two beds, there was good water pressure, there is a rotating restaurant on the top floor, and the basement has a bowling alley, a massage parlor, ping pong tables, etc. In the room there were two channels in English: Al Jazeera English and a movie channel. Ironically, the first time I turned on the TV the movie The Patriot starring Mel Gibson was on. There are channels in other languages as well.
No, I didn’t visit the 5th floor and I have no information about it. Despite the rumors, we were told it’s where the hotel offices are.
There are other hotels that can be used by foreigners in Pyongyang, and depending on where else you go there are hotels in other cities.
Do locals really revere the leaders?
This is hard to say because on the surface everyone will toe the line. So I don’t know. We were told in our pre-tour briefing to be very careful with how we handle printed material featuring a picture of one of the leaders. You are not to fold a newspaper, for example, such that a picture of the leader is folded. All images of him were above the fold, so that made it easy. But folding it in half the other way shouldn’t be done.
Did you feel safe?
In terms of personal safety and crime, I couldn’t have felt safer.
It’s easy to get comforted into a sense of security there. You build up an image in your mind before you go that makes you feel incredibly paranoid. Then you get there and are lulled into a sense of security. You always have to remember that you are in North Korea and you have to operate by a different set of rules, but for 99.9% of people this is not a problem. I followed the rules and never felt worried about my safety.
If you are concerned about whether going is a bad idea for you given your particular circumstances, I can’t recommend highly enough that you reach out to the tour companies. They’ve already heard every question you can imagine, and they are happy to help you.
Is it ethical to visit North Korea?
This is a hard question to answer, and it’s one that several of us debated on our last night. Renowned traveler Bruce Kirkby was on my tour, and he presented an interesting contrast. During the military regime in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi advised foreigners to stay away so as not to show any support to the regime. The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, encouraged tourism in Tibet so the outside world could see the cultural destruction of Tibet. Two Nobel Peace Prize winners, two opposite opinions. I’m of the philosophy that traveling connects people and increases empathy. By no means do I condone the human rights abuses committed by the North Korean government, and I sincerely hope that things change there. But people are generally the same everywhere, and my interactions with the North Korean people were all wonderful.
One other note on this point is how little money would actually go to the regime. Given what I paid, which included a roundtrip Beijing-Pyongyang-Beijing plane ticket, all transportation and meals in country, a British guide, two North Korean guides, a bus driver, entry to just about every site we went to, and a profit for the tour company and all the service providers, the corporate tax these service providers pay to the government due to my visit is a pittance.
In the end, North Korea is an insular society. Part of the reason they are so poorly understood, or misunderstood, is their own fault. They don’t allow foreign journalists, and when they do the journalists often make the story about them and the lack of freedom they have while reporting there.
While I was there I heard fascinating stories about how news broke in the West about some aspects of North Korea, like the fact that South Korea’s intelligence service predicted that Kim Jong Un’s wife was pregnant before she was showing as a result of her switch to flat shoes instead of heels. In the end, they were right, but a lot of news is gathered in this way and a lot of it ends up being wrong. I remember coming across stories about how men can only pick from two or seven haircuts there, for example. Then you step onboard the Air Koryo flight in Beijing, you look at all the North Koreans easily identifiable by the pin above their heart featuring Kim Jong Un or the previous two leaders, and you realize immediately that the “news” article you read was hogwash.
Obviously, as part of a group tour to North Korea’s best places, I’m fully aware of the fact that I didn’t see “the other side” and few if any tourists do get a chance to see that other side. North Korea is a place you can visit and feel like you understand less about it after you leave. You go in with ten questions and leave with 100. Even more so than other places, North Korea is an onion and a visit like mine barely peels back the first layer.