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.
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 extremely 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 necessarily 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 (me and Josh) 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 destination 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.
How do you get a North Korean tourist 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 and £20 for each visa through a gap in the gate- it felt like a dodgy drug deal! But I got my passport stamp as a permanent memento of the trip. You can see what the stamp looks like in the picture below.
How do you enter 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.
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.
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 basement 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 on end 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. These humongous statues depict Kim il Sung and Kim Jong Il (the two previous leaders from the Kim family before Kim Jong Un). 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.
Grand People’s Study House
This is Pyongyang’s huge public library where lectures on a variety of subjects take place. 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. There was a balcony on the top floor which gave us some fantastic panoramic views of Pyongyang.
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.
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 ideology. 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.
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 was built up from practically nothing after the Korean War with the help of the Soviets (no surprises there that these buildings have Soviet influences!). There is definitely something quite oppressive 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.
Although there are a few places you can buy books and souvenirs around Pyongyang there is one main bookstore for tourists. There are numerous shelves of books, almost all of them have plain covers, about the life of the 3 leaders. Everything is neatly arranged 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.
The Pyongyang Metro was so much nicer than I expected. The platforms 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.
This was a great spot to see some locals going about their daily lives- a quick glimpse into the lives of the residents of Pyongyang.
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).
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). 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.
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! This unusual shape towers over Pyongyang like a space ship that has just landed. 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 not fixable 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. Most likely reason is that the government doesn’t have enough funds.
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 that 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!
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 but I do think some are able to. 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.
In the restaurant we were entertained by a talented Korean lady playing the piano and singing- her set list included the Disney classic, ‘Beauty and the Beast’.
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.
Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery
This is a large memorial for soldiers who fought against the Japanese in the struggle for independence. Each bust is engraved 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.
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.
Songdowon camp is definitely used as a tool to ‘wow’ tourists like us- and in many ways it worked! I was very impressed with the place but I was certainly not fooled into thinking every single child in North Korea gets the privilege of visiting.
The facilities at the camp were extensive. It included:
- Swimming pool
- Large football pitch + seating
- Athletics track
- Basketball / Badminton / Volleyball Court
- Water park + slides
This was one of my favourite parts of the trip. I’ve decided to write a separate blog post in more detail about the orphanage- please see here.
Day 6- DMZ/Sariwon:
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.
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.
Sariwon Folk Street
Sariwon was another town we got to briefly visit. Set on a pretty lake with some traditional Korean architecture, it must be one of the prettier towns in North Korea. Our guide showed us some mosaics that depicted the history of Korea – even way back before the Kim family were in charge.
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:
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:
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. 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.
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). This supermarket in Pyongyang was more like a department store as it sold everything – food, clothes, toiletries, furniture and it had a food court.
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 !
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.
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!
I have more blogs about my trip to North Korea. You can read them here.