Jess Travels to North Korea

Visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was one of the most fascinating travel experiences of my life so far. Sometimes their culture can be seen as a joke to us here in the western world and I have to admit, there are a few things you see that are so ridiculous it’s comical. But of course, the reality of life in North Korea is no joke.

If you haven’t already read it- I’d like to direct you to my other blog that explains my reasons for visiting North Korea. I do not think this is a destination for everyone and this blog isn’t meant to encourage everyone to go.

I do not agree with most of what is going on in DPRK but I wanted to gain an understanding from their perspective rather than just believe everything I read in the media. I always understood that I was never going to get the whole truth but I think that being inside the country still gives you a better understanding.

Although on the surface there seems to be some positives to living in North Korea- everyone is given an apartment by the government and education and healthcare is free. But the bottom line is the people have NO FREEDOM. Plus these benefits are only felt by those who are often referred to as the ‘elite’. Only selected people are allowed to live in Pyongyang and even if you wish to travel to another part of the country you need permission. People can only go abroad for work (and not very many get this opportunity) and then even if you are living outside of North Korea – you are still closely monitored. It made me feel very lucky to have been born in the UK where I have the simple freedom of being able to travel as and when I please. I try to never take this privilege for granted.

koreacover
Monument to the Korean Workers Party

Some things to know about North Korea and this blog before reading:

North Korea is a difficult country to write about and over the last couple of years I have made numerous additions to my blog. I wanted the blog to be more about my experience in the country and not a history essay but for anyone who doesn’t know anything about Korea’s recent history here is a short overview.

Some history and facts:

-When World War II ended in 1945, Japan lost control of Korea to Allied forces. Similar to how Germany was split after the war, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel, with the Soviet Union administering the northern half and the United States administering the southern half.

-The split was only meant to be temporary but by the end of 1948, two new nations had been established with Kim Il Sung ruling the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (with the help of Russia and China) and The Republic of Korea led by the democratically elected President Syngman Rhee.

-Tensions between the two governments erupted into war in 1950, when Soviet-backed North Korean troops invaded the South. The Korean War cost at least 2.5 million lives.

-Although the Korean War ended in July 1953, North and South Korea are still divided and there is a demilitarized zone extending two kilometers in both directions. But there have been exremely high tensions ever since.

-North Korea has always been ruled by the Kim family. It is a harsh dictatorship that governs all aspects of the North Korean people’s lives. Although elections are held – they have no choice but to vote for Kim Jong Un since he is the only person you can vote for!

-North Korea has rigidly maintained isolation from the rest of the world and has repeatedly been accused of human rights abuses.

-Although North Korea is a threat to the World its biggest threat is to its own people. The average North Korean child is 5 inches shorter than the average South Korean child. Why? Because of malnourishment and lack of nutrition.

-It has been proven that there are labour camps in North Korea and if you are declared an enemy of the state, you could be put in into one of these camps along with your whole family. This evil, controlling treatment of its own people is why so many are terrified to step out of line.

-Despite the fact that North Korea is generally a poor and isolated nation, it has been pursuing nuclear research for decades. If you read the news you will have seen a lot of headlines over the last few years claiming that North Korea has executed another missile test.

About my visit:

-When visiting North Korea you MUST have a guide and although we had some choice in our itinerary, we had to choose locations from a list of pre approved tourist sites. I was always aware that what we saw was not necesarily the ‘real’ North Korea but simply what they considered the best bits of the country.

-We were in the country for 9 days. That is fairly long compared to some tourists who just take a tour of Pyongyang and maybe the DMZ. I’m not saying this makes me an expert or better than anyone else but I think a few people have assumed that  I only saw the capital city. I do feel I got a slightly more prolonged glimpse at North Korea but on the whole I only just scratched the surface of this country.

-Apart from day one, our tour was just us with our two Korean guides and Korean driver. We had no western guide with us from Young Pioneer Tours during the rest of the time – they just arranged all the organisational side of our trip.

– I may be a travel bloggger, but I started my website after I returned from North Korea. This trip was not sponsored- I paid for it out of my own pocket. All opinions in this blog are my own.

Is it right to travel to North Korea?

I believe that the small amount of tourism in North Korea does more good than harm but I do not think it is a destination for everyone. It will remain a very niche tourist destintion and until things start to change, that may be for the best. Although I stand by my reasons for going it would not be a good thing for the tourist numbers to increase too greatly or the government really will start to make bigger profits from the tourist industry (at the moment tourism is so minimal that it simply cannot prop up the regime).

I realised I had quite a lot to say on this subject so I decided to put it into a separate blog- please see here for more about why I chose to visit.

 

image
Me & Josh with our guides

How do you get into North Korea?

Contrary to popular belief, it is easy to enter North Korea- you just cannot go without a guide/tour company. You can enter by overnight train or you take a short flight from Beijing.

north korea korean train dandong pyongyang
The North Korean train you take from Dandong to Pyongyang

The Train Journey

Since we didn’t have a huge budget we opted for the train journey. We got the 17:25 train from Beijing Railway Station that arrives in Dandong the following morning.

Terrible Chinese pop music woke us up that morning- it wasn’t a pleasant journey but could have been worse. I just hate that people are allowed to smoke in between the carriages- I felt like I had smoked a pack of cigarettes myself the following day!

We have an hour in Dandong before we board the Korean train. We travel for around 10-20min before stopping at the border crossing. The Korean guards board the train and check our cameras, phones, laptops etc. and some people’s bags are checked but it appears to be random who they choose to search. After checking our passports and visas the train continues to Pyongyang.

north korea korean train cabin sleeper train to pyongyang
The cramped North Korean train cabin

How I got my North Korean visa

Like I said before, you need a tour company to get into North Korea. They will also sort out your visa- most people get a blue paper visa but this is taken off you as you depart North Korea. I like having visas stamped in my passport so I enquired to see if this would be possible. Turns out it is possible if you have a North Korean embassy in your country. My tour company notified the London embassy first and then I took my passport down there one day and my visa was sorted in 20 minutes. I briefly spoke to the man living at the embassy in London at the gate-he was in fact the first North Korean I met! It was quite an odd experience as I passed my documents through a gap in the gate- it felt like a dodgy drug deal! But I got my passport stamp as a permanent momento of the trip. You can see what the stamp looks like in the picture below.

north korea visa passport stamp
My passport stamps for North Korea

My tour

Apart from the first day, which was a group tour, we opted for an independent tour for the rest of the days so it was just me, Josh, two Korean tour guides and one Korean driver. This was a little more expensive but a great way to get to know our Korean guides better and when we visited places it always felt more intimate. We also had more freedom to look around because we weren’t in a big group. Young Pioneer Tours had the best prices I could find for an independent tour and I had no issues with them during my trip.

**UPDATE** (2nd September 2017)

After the tragic death of Otto Warmbier- who was detained in North Korea for 15 months after being accused of stealing a poster from a hotel- (read more about him here) many tour companies stopped taking US citizens as a precaution. Tensions have heightened between the US and North Korea over the last few months and a travel ban is now in place. This means that for the time being- US citizens can NOT travel to North Korea. 

 

Here’s a summary of my North Korea itinerary:

 

Day 1- Pyongyang: 

We arrive around 17:30 by train. As we arrive there’s a power cut at the station (power cuts are pretty common here especially in winter) so it’s really dark and we all use our phones flashlights to see where we are going!

The Yanggakdo Hotel

This is the hotel we stay in for all but one of our nights in Pyongyang- the capital city. As soon as you walk in you spot the TV playing North Korean propaganda. It looks and feels quite grand in the lobby however the rooms are much more plain. Our room had a TV which had a few channels including the propaganda channel (which we would watch every night) and much to my surprise- BBC News ! Obviously this channel was only for hotel guests and not widely available in DPRK. The basment of the Yanggakdo Hotel was the entertainment area but I found the layout of this part of the building so unusual I took a short video- which you can watch below.

 

 

Day 2- Pyongyang:

Our second day is pretty jam packed but it doesn’t feel too rushed as a lot of the things we see you don’t need to spend hours looking at – statues and monuments for example. 

Mansu Hill Grand Monument

Before we reach the monument we have the option to buy flowers to lay at the statues feet. We then stand in a line and bow in unison. It’s a bizarre experience and my first time ever bowing at a statue! the statues depict Kim il Sung and Kim Jong Il (the two previous leaders from the Kim family before Kim Jong Un). The statues themselves are humongous! It made me think of a weird dystopian future where the world worships two guys – except that is basically the reality for North Koreans. Our guide explains to us how the Kim Jong Il was built in only 3 months (unsure whether or not this is true). They are not solid bronze- just the outside is coated in bronze.

image
Kim Il Sung (left) and Kim Jong Il (right) the background mosaic depicts Mount Paektu
Mansu Hill Statue depicts the working Korean people in front of the flag and symbol of the political party North Korea
Mansu Hill Statue depicts the working Korean people in front of the flag and symbol of the political party

Grand People’s Study House

This is Pyongyang’s huge public library. Lectures on a variety of subjects take place here. It was similar to the hotel where the main entrance and hall felt very grand- glitzy chandeliers, marble pillars, floors and a huge mosaic and statue of Kim Il Sung. However, the corridors and lecture rooms felt quite drab and plain.  The computers were very dated as well as was a lot of the equipment. In my pictures of the music studies room you can see the huge boombox style CD and tape players they use. The building from the outside was designed in the traditional Korean style.

image
The view of Kim Il Sung Square and the Juche Tower from the top of the Study House

Kim Il Sung Square 

This is the famous square that you may have seen on the news as it’s where they hold their military parades. When we visited it was fairly quiet and instead of soldiers and tanks we saw lots of teenagers roller skating.

image
Two young girls who kindly let me take a photo of them in their skates
image
Kim Il Sung Square
image
Kim Il Sung Square

Juche Tower

This tower was built to commemorate the president Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday and it represents the Juche Idea which is the North Korean people’s political idealology. Like so many of the buildings and monuments in the country every detail was well thought out. The tower is made up of 25,550 granite blocks – one for every day of Kim’s life until his 70th birthday.

image
Juche Tower
image
Juche Tower

Monument to the Korean Workers Party

By now, I’ve realised that the Korean government LOVE to build a monument. This one commemorates the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Worker’s Party in North Korea and it depicts the hammer, sickle and brush that are the symbol of the party.

Pyongyang’s Architecture

Pyongyang was built up from practically nothing after the Korean War with the help of the Soviets (no suprises there that these buildings have Soviet influences!). There is definitely something quite opressive about them. They’re not pretty- they are bold, harsh designs and many of them so unnecessarily big. I find this type of architecture and design fascinating and I cannot deny that some of them are rather impressive but would I want them right outside my apartment? No. These monuments are a constant reminder of the governments might and power of the people. All of them are propaganda in themselves and these buildings reinforce the regime. The grand monuments and statues are meant to project wealth and make the people think they are living in the most wonderful city on Earth. They are also meant to fool visitors into thinking things aren’t so bad here- but we only needed to take a look around at some of the shabby apartments to know that this is not the case.

Hammer, Sickle & Brush – Monument to the Korean Workers Party North Korea
Hammer, Sickle & Brush – Monument to the Korean Workers Party
image
Monument to the Korean Workers Party
image
Monument to the Korean Workers Party

The Bookshop

Although there are a few places you can buy books and souvenirs around Pyongyang there is one main bookstore for tourists in Pyongyang. There are numerous shelves of books, almost all of them have plain covers, about the life of the 3 leaders. They are split into sections by leader. Some books are biographies and others are based around their political policies and speeches. All the books were very affordable – some as little as 1 Euro each.

image
An example of just a few of the books you can buy in the store

 Pyongyang Metro

The Pyongyang Metro was so much nicer than I expected. The platforms especially were really beautiful with high ceilings, pillars and mosaic on the walls. Not all of the stations are open to tourists so I am assuming they only let you see the nicest ones. The trains were much more bland on the inside and decorated with dark wood so it felt a little gloomy but I have heard that since my visit they have started putting in new trains. Much like my home city, London, during rush hour the trains get very busy so for a few stops we were squished into a corner. After a couple stops there was a power cut (standard North Korea) and the train gradually slowed down to a stop and the lights went off. This would horrify most Londoners if it happened on the Tube but the Koreans on the train didn’t seem phased. After about 10 minutes the train was running again.

2015-12-25 15.27.20
Pyongyang Metro Station

 

Arch of Triumph

Built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945 this Arch is really big (bigger than the one in Paris).

2015-12-25 16.05.20
Arch of Triumph, Pyongyang

 

War Museum

Also called the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. It has to be the most grandiose museum I’ve ever been to. Outside there is a huge area dedicated to memorial statues. To the right hand side is a display of captured American weaponry, tanks, planes etc. and to the left hand side is Korean weapons (interestingly, they only showed us the captured American weapons). They are so proud of everything they captured and alongside some of the planes/helicopters there are awful photographs of the American soldiers surrendering and those who had been killed either during the capture or for not surrendering.

We also had a look around the USS Pueblo which is an American spy ship that was captured by North Korean forces in 1968. They still have it on display like a trophy. Bullet holes have been circled to prove that they attacked the ship and on board you watch a short documentary film about its capture which makes the American out to be fools.

When you enter the museum itself you feel like you’ve just entered a really fancy 5* hotel. Marble floors and huge pillars everywhere and a massive grand staircase in the middle. At the top of the staircase is a massive wax statue of a young Kim Il Sung in military uniform (which we bow to, of course).

The museum was so massive it’d take a few days to see it all properly. No captions were in English so we had a museum tour guide who explained things to us (all one sided I’m sure). What is very clear is the hatred towards the USA and the blame they place on them for starting the war. Parts of the museum are a little gruesome- one display included a wax model of an American soldier surrendering and he is surrounded by his dead comrades. One of the bodies has guts spilling out and crows are eating his flesh. What made this section even more creepy was that there was a power cut so we were wandering around this huge museum in the dark with only torches to see!

Another disturbing part of the museum was a chart which explained how many US soldiers were killed by various types of weapons e.g. sniper, grenades and so on – almost like a kill breakdown you might get at the end of a computer game.

 

2015-12-25 16.24.31
The view as you come through the main gate to the museum

 Ryugyong Hotel

Obviously, we didn’t get to stay at or go inside this hotel since it’s been unfinished for years. I couldn’t believe just how tall it was! It towers over the rest of Pyongyang and it’s unusual shape really makes it stand out. There’s something quite mysterious about it as nobody has really confirmed why it has not been completed yet. I heard a rumour that there is a problem with one of the lift shafts that is unfixable so it may never open! I could tell our tour guides didn’t want to talk in too much detail about it as they probably didn’t know themselves why it was unfinished.

2015-12-25 16.34.27 HDR
Ryugyong Hotel

 

Day 3- Mount Myohyang

Mount Myohyang Area

The area surrounding Mount Myohyang was so stunning that my photos don’t really do it justice! We don’t often think about the natural beauty of North Korea since so many other terrible things spring to mind when we think of the country. I don’t think we’ll be going on camping holidays here anytime soon but perhaps in the future if the situation ever improves.

Pohyonsa Buddhist Temple

We were pretty surprised when we found out that we were visiting a Buddhist Temple considering practicing a religion seems to be banned in DPRK. Our guide told us that there are still Monks there and a few people who still practice Buddhism (we didn’t see any Monks and I am pretty sure the people cannot practice Buddhism). This temple has been here since the 11th Century (the Koryo Dynasty) however, half of the buildings were destroyed during the Korean War in 1951. Even so, the buildings that remained looked really pretty and the surrounding mountain scenery was beautiful. It was also the first time I’d seen a temple in the snow!

2015-12-26 14.21.44 HDR
Pohyonsa
2015-12-26 14.23.51
Pohyonsa
2015-12-26 14.30.27
Pohyonsa
2015-12-26 14.35.59
Pohyonsa

Dinner at Pyongyang Pizza Restaurant

Thought I’d just share this photo of the pizza I had at one of the few places in DPRK that serves western food. Can regular locals come here? I’m not sure. The only other people there at the time of my visit were other tour guides and a western guide from Young Pioneer tours. It wasn’t the best pizza ever but I wouldn’t expect it to be! It was a very good effort though. It kind of tasted like a frozen pizza you might buy in a supermarket!

In the restaurant we were entertained by a talented Korean lady playing the piano and singing- her setlist included the Disney classic, ‘Beauty and the Beast’.

2015-12-26 19.10.49
My Pyongyang Pizza

Day 4- Pyongyang:

Kamsusan Palace of the Sun

The most bizarre morning of my life.

This is the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. We spent a couple of hours looking around and we had to bow to the bodies of the leaders in their glass coffins. It is strictly prohibited to take photos inside so I just have this one from the outside. Please see my separate blog for more details on this experience.

2015-12-27 10.55.04
Outside Kamsusan Palace of the Sun

Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery 

This is a large memorial for soldiers who fought against the Japanese in the struggle for independence. Each grave has a bust with the persons name, date of birth, date they fought in the army and date they died. We bowed in front of the statue of Kim Jong Suk- who was the wife of Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong Il. She is also remembered for her heroic actions during the anti Japanese war. What was most upsetting was seeing that so many died very young- but this is often the case in wars throughout history.

2015-12-27 11.30.08
Kim Jong Suk in the middle
2015-12-27 11.16.29
Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery
2015-12-27 11.26.10
Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery
2015-12-27 11.29.53
Kim Jong Suk Memorial

Day 5- Wonsan:

Songdowon International Children’s Camp

In the morning we visited a children’s summer camp that had been renovated in 2014. We were informed by our guides that Korean children from all backgrounds were able to visit the camp free of charge. When I questioned this further  we were told that it’s not the same children visiting every year and it rotates which schools are invited to make it fair. So I imagine that for most Korean children visiting this camp is a one off. I do think there must be many children that miss out since there are only so many places per year. Children from other countries are also welcome but obviously not free of charge. We were not told how much it costs for foreign children.

This is an example of a place that is used to show off and to make the country look good. I have no doubt the camp is actually used- but only by the children of the elite. I was not fooled into thinking every child in North Korea gets to stay here.

The facilities at the camp were extensive. It included:

  • Swimming pool
  • Large football pitch + seating
  • Athletics track
  • Basketball / Badminton / Volleyball Court
  • Water park + slides
  • Aquarium
  • Aviary
  • Theatre

 

Wonsan Orphanage

This was one of the most interesting parts of the enitre trip. So much so that I’ve decided to write a separate blog post in more detail about it. So for more on the orphanage please see here.

2015-12-28 11.45.24
Me & Josh with some of the 5-7 year old pupils
2015-12-28 12.16.37
Lunch time for the younger pupils (I think most here are about 4 years old)

Day 6- DMZ/Sariwon:

The DMZ

The Demilitarized Zone is the border area between North and South Korea. It was created by agreement between North Korea, China and the United Nations in 1953. The DMZ is 250 kilometres (160 miles) long, and about 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) wide. It was fascinating to see it but it was really hard to get your head around the enormity of the tense situation here.  It’s also the only place you can get a photo with a soldier and the one in our photo was very friendly – I think this also toned down the tense situation.

Many people have asked me- was it scary? And I have to say no, it wasn’t. I am not denying the fact that the situation between North and South Korea is very serious but being here with a few other tourists and friendly guides made it seem like everything is okay and the troubles are now in the past! (Of course I know it’s not all okay ). I think this is what they were going for- they wanted to play down this problem and act like it’s all sorted now- and that’s quite worrying.  Being there made you realise just how crazy the whole situation is and how ridiculous it is that a country can be quite literally split in two.

2015-12-29 11.55.32
Getting a photo with a soldier
2015-12-29 11.49.52
The large silver building is the South Korean side. The blue buildings are part of the joint security area.

 Korean Pansangi

Pansangi is a Korean dish that we got to try whilst in Kaesong City (not far from the DMZ). It is served in bronze bowls and traditionally it was a dish served to very rich people or royalty. I enjoyed most of the dishes except the squid and a strange jelly-like noodle dish. Other bowls included, boiled egg, cucumber, kimchi, rice, soup, potatoes, marinated pork, cabbage and some sort of spicy sprout/root dish.

2015-12-29 13.30.03
Pansangi
2015-12-29 13.32.13
Pansangi

 

Sariwon Folk Street

Sariwon was another town we got to visit. There was a pretty lake but it’s otherwise filled with the somewhat gloomy apartment blocks. We were shown a wall of mosaics that depicted the history of Korea – even way back before the Kim family were in charge.

2015-12-29 16.33.46
Sariwon
2015-12-29 16.41.23 HDR
Sariwon
2015-12-29 16.37.32
Guy on his phone whilst riding his bike

Day 7- Pyongyang:

3 Revolution Exhibition

In the morning we visit the 3 Revolution Museum which, even now, I am not entirely sure why this museum is necessary. It seems to be just another opportunity to create some elaborate buildings that show off the work and ideas of Kim Il Sung. I did not get any photos so if you are interested in seeing more have a look on the Wikipedia page. There were a few different museum buildings but we only entered one of them- this one was all about farming and agriculture and we were the only people in there when we visited so it felt a little eerie. We walked around with a local guide who talked us through all the different kinds and farming methods in the country. I remember that this guide was very curious about English culture- she asked us if the story of King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone was real. She also asked us where William Shakespeare was born- she told us she had read some Shakespeare at the public library.

Mansude Art Studio

Next stop was the Mansude Art Studio. This is where many of the mosaics and bronze statues that you see everywhere in DPRK are made. I was hoping we might get to see the bronze statue room but sadly not. Instead we had a look around a few large rooms full of paintings and some sculptures. Most of which were for sale. I couldn’t afford any of it. I didn’t get any photos here so if you are interested to find out more I discovered that the studio has its own website.

Korean Film Studio

I was really happy to have the chance to look around the Korean film studio. Most of what we saw was the large outdoor sets. They have built various street sets that are used in many of the movies made here. There was a traditional style Korean street, a 1950s Korean street, a Chinese, Japanese and European street. I got the impression that most North Korean movies are about the wars and struggles for independence. Although I never watched one from start to finish, every time I saw one on TV it seemed to be about war.

Day 8- Nampo/Pyongyang:

West Sea Barrage

The Korean people are SO proud of the West Sea Barrage (a huge 8 kilometre long dam) that separates the Taedong River from the Yellow Sea. You can actually drive along the dam which we did before visiting the museum. Here, you watch a video about the building of the dam (the narrator in the video is VERY passionate about it). The best photo I could get was this one, taken from just outside the museum which is at the top of  hill overlooking the dam:

image
West Sea Barrage

Mineral Water Factory

Yes, that’s right, we visited a water bottle factory! They produce it at a factory here in Nampo and they are really proud of how popular it is. The factory wasn’t full of people working the day we went since it was new years eve it was a public holiday. The pictures aren’t too exciting but here’s one:

image
Mineral Water Factory

Chongsan Co Operative Farm

Even this farm had a monument and a bronze statue of Kim Il Sung! Chongsan farm near Nampo produces crops, vegetables and fruits including rice, corn and bean. We only got to see a few of the greenhouses because we were there in the winter season. It appeared to be running well- they wouldn’t have brought us there if it wasn’t. I am sure there are many farmers still struggling in the even more rural areas of the country that we did not get to see.

image
Bronze statue at Chongsan Co Operative Farm

The Supermarket 

This was actually one of my favourite parts of the trip! No matter what country I’m in I am the kind of person that enjoys wandering around a supermarket to look at the different kinds of food the locals buy. But this was particularly interesting as it was a chance to see the Korean people going about their everyday lives. Our guides even left us ALONE for an hour ! (although i’m sure they were secretly watching from a distance, no doubt). This supermarket in Pyongyang was more like a department store as it sold everything – food, clothes, toiletries, furniture and it had a food court.

Bowling

Pyongyang’s main bowling alley is called Pyongyang Gold Lane- we played a couple of games here with our tour guide, Kang. (I lost). In true DPRK fashion, there was a powercut halfway through our game ! Again, this is an example of a small glimpse we got of the ‘elite’ of Pyongyang going about daily life.

image
Pyongyang Gold Lane

New Years Eve in Kim Il Sung Square

It was really interesting to see the locals gathered in Kim Il Sung Square for NYE. Most of them were young adults and teenagers. Our guide told us that New Years Eve is usually spent with family at home. I’m not sure where they got them from but so many people had balloons and we joined in with a few games of ‘keep the balloon from falling’ (or whatever it’s called!). There is usually some fireworks in the square for NYE however it was so foggy that night that the fireworks were cancelled. As you can see from my pictures the visibility was really poor so we wouldn’t have been able to see the fireworks even if they weren’t cancelled.

image
Kim Il Sung Square on foggy NYE
image
Kim Il Sung Square on foggy NYE

I also managed to get some footage of people playing in the square on NYE:

Day 9 – Pyongyang:

Today we said farewell to our Korean guides and driver and get the train back to China!

image
Left to right: Kang (lovely guy just not so keen on smiling), Josh, Me & Ms Ha
2015-12-31 20.36.26.jpg
Group photo including our driver, Yu

I have more blogs about my trip to North Korea. You can read them here.

 

A travel blog about what it's like to travel to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - or North Korea for short. It is also an example of a travel itinerary for a trip to North Korea. There's details about: Pyongyang, Wonsan, the DMZ, Mount Myohyang, Sariwon and Nampo. I also talk about the leaders Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. Click through to read more ...
Jess Harling

Creator of Jess Travels

14 thoughts on “Jess Travels to North Korea”

  1. This is so interesting! I never knew you can actually enter North Korea via Beijing via TRAIN. Also it’s a good window to the ever elusive North Korea…thanks for the write up!

  2. You weren’t kidding, they really love their monuments! I don’t know what I was expecting to see in North Korea, but I’m surprised how modern all the buildings are! Though I’m guessing they only take tourists to the nicest areas?

  3. Great post! A couple of months ago I was considering going to North Korea, but then I decided to wait probably until it’s more open to the world and be able to actually interact with the locals… It’s very interesting to rad about it though. Thanks for sharing it

    1. You do get to interact with locals but mainly those working within the tourist industry – hotel staff, my guides (obviously), museum staff and restaurant staff. So I did talk to a lot of locals it’s just you can’t really wander around and strike up conversations with people in the street or in bars which is a shame. I did get to briefly interact with locals in the supermarket when our guide let us wander alone ! I think she was keeping an eye on us from a distance though!

  4. wow fascinating… I am always intrigued by articles like this on North Korea. Really interesting that you went and saw it, although I’m always really skeptical of what the guides show tourists in North Korea. Anyway, great that you share this! I’m sure I will never visit so I like getting a glimpse!

  5. I’m visiting SoKor in Sept and this post makes me wanna visit North Korea after that. Just a quick question though, cos I read an article that taking photos/videos isn’t allowed. Are there just spots where you can bring your camera and take photos? Or it’s okay as long as your guide is with? How does it work? 🙂

    1. I really need to go to South Korea!
      Photos and videos are allowed. As you can see from my blogs- I have a whole bunch of photos and videos! The rules are – no photos of army/military or people working, when takng a photo of the leaders (statues/photos/etc) make sure you dont cut off any part (dont try and zoom in and just take photos of their head). Otherwise I found I could quite easily take lots of photos.

  6. This is a really informative and interesting post, but visiting North Korea still does not sit right with me. I have considered it a few times, but I think ultimately I would rather not go. In fact, your post has actually confirmed many of my reasons for not going, but I don’t say that as a criticism of you or this post.

    Although the oversized monuments are impressive to look at, their fundamental role in oppressive regimes seems to be to intimidate by showing the immense strength of the leaders. To remind people how small they are and how easily squashed if/when they step out of place. I always think of the poem, ‘Ozymandias’ when I see them: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” I doubt that the Korean people actually love these monuments.

    Also, like you, I am highly sceptical that any North Korean is allowed to practise Buddhism. I suspect the temple is there so that tourists go back and say that freedom of religion is allowed in North Korea. I would also have a very big problem with being forced to bow to North Korea’s leaders, both living and dead. To me it seems that the places tourists visit in North Korea are simply a huge facade – part of the Kim propaganda machine. Call me a cynic, but I imagine the ‘normal people’ you interacted with on the subway etc… are families of elected officials and government-approved ‘actors’, not regular everyday people. I think of it a bit like the Truman show 🙂 Why else, are you only allowed to go to certain places?

    On top of everything else, there is now the case of Otto Warmbier back in the news again. How is is possible that he has been in a coma for over a year and that the US was not informed? Something is very wrong there.

    I get that there are many other countries in the world that violate the human rights of their people, and that as travellers we often go to these places without a second thought, but I think the cloak and dagger nature of North Korea is particularly sinister. I don’t criticise anybody else for travelling to North Korea, and like I said I found this post really interesting, but, until things change, I will not be visiting myself.

    1. Thank you for reading my post!

      That is fair enough and I do understand why you would not want to visit.

      I agree with you on the monuments and of course, the Buddhist Temple. I was sceptical of everything I saw whilst I was there and never took everything our guides said as absolute truth. Although this was part of the unusual nature of the trip- never before had I been somewhere where so many things are set up ONLY for tourists and you are constantly questioning the truth. I found that in itself, a fascinating aspect of the trip.

      But I do 100% believe I did witness glimpses of the real North Korea. We actually joked about the Truman Show theory ourselves but there’s no way the people we saw out and about in the city (and other towns we visited for that matter) were actors placed there by the government! That I am certain of. I could tell these were real North Koreans going about their daily lives. You don’t have to believe me but I just know what I saw was real – because I was there and you just know, you know? haha!

      In regards to bowing to the leaders- I really did not mind. To me bowing at a dead body or a statue doesn’t really mean anything. I did it out of respect for my guides and did not want to offend them.

      The case of Otto is very sad and quite alarming. I know I don’t have proof but I do think he did steal that poster. I did not get the impression at all that they would arrest tourists for no reason. But if you gave them a reason to- I knew the punishment would be harsh. Obviously, I dont agree with the severe punishment Otto got. And this coma situation is very bizarre and I think there’s something very sinister behind it. I feel for him and his family. We were actually in North Korea at the same time but I never met him where I wasn’t in his group tour.

      Anyway, thank you for your long comment on my blog! I like reading through other people’s opinions. Sorry about my super long reply !

  7. I have wanted to visit North Korea for quite a while, but keep reading about those missiles every other day in the news and not sure how safe it is… I recently watched two documentaries about North Korea, Under the Sun and Liberation Day, I think you would find them very interesting, since you have been to this country!

    1. I always felt safe there so long as I followed their rules and didn’t disrespect the leaders. What with Trump in power now I do worry things could escalate and get worse but if I had the chance to go back to DPRK tomorrow I would (just for a short trip). I think a full blown attack is highly unlikely and wouldn’t just come at random. I like to think so anyway but I understand your concerns. In terms of your safety from other things like robbery, assault etc. You a very safe since you’re always with a guide and no Koreans would dare attack you because it would draw such attention to them

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *