Visiting the Secret State – How to travel in North Korea
Note – This article was published in February 2013. Things may have changed since!
Can you visit?
In a nutshell, yes you can visit but travel in North Korea is not like it is anywhere else on the planet.
Unless you fancy illegally crossing at heavily patrolled borders where officers have shoot on sight instructions, independent travel in this highly secretive state is impossible. The only options are ‘guided’ tours where you will be supervised and monitored at all times by at least two ‘tour guides’. Their objective is to showcase the country in the best possible light and they will only take you to places they want you to see. Even if you opt for an individual tour as opposed to a group one you will still be allocated two guides and a driver.
From time to time the tours are stopped when tensions on the peninsular are particularly high. Tour companies, mostly based in China such as Koryo Tours run the trips and as of April 2013 contrary to media rumours they seem to still be running. Most cost in the region of 1000-1500 Euros with trips varying from 3 days to a couple of weeks or more. In recent times they have began to include previously off-limits areas of the country meaning visitors get to see more of the real North Korea.
Koryo Tours have an informative website and a large range of tour options for visiting North Korea
Young Pioneer Tours offer similar trips and are slightly cheaper.
Capital Pyongyang has been described as a thriving metropolis by the North Korean government. It is not. The streets are practically deserted and visiting the city is a quite bizarre experience. Only a select few North Koreans (those from a high class and deemed extremely loyal to the state) are allowed to live here and most others find it impossible to get a permit to visit. Even for North Koreans it is impossible to freely travel around their own country and many have barely moved more than 20km from their hometown
Pyongyang is a surreal place and in no way reflective of a typical North Korean city. The main sights are pretty much all related to Kim-Il Sung and Kim-Jong-Il with no doubt Kim-Jong Un statues and monuments coming soon. The giant 100-story Ryugyong Hotel dominates the skyline but when the economy crashed in 1992 so did the funding and it is still to be completed. The Arch of Triumph celebrates Korean liberation from Japan in 1945 and is a replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris only bigger.
Other sights include the North Korean Film Studio and rather oddly a funfair. For all it’s aggressive anti-imperialist rhetoric, the North Korean powers that be are desperate to put on a show for foreign visitors. Intricately planned shows often including thousands of performers are regularly put on for tourists and for the leaders of the Communist party. The Rungnado May Day Stadium hosts the performances (right) and is reportedly the largest in the world holding 150,000 spectators. It is also used for major sporting events with the odd execution thrown in for good measure.
The few westerners that do visit Pyongyang are normally put up in an otherwise empty hotel in the middle of a lake, to prevent anyone wandering off in attempt to freely explore the city. In any case unless you happen to look and dress North Korean, the sight of a foreigner wandering around alone is likely to quickly draw attention. The fact is you are likely to be caught and arrested potentially on espionage charges so it’s best to do as your guides say (as frustrating as that may be).
The country does however boast a few hidden gems and is probably more scenic than it’s southern neighbour. Depending on the current situation Kumgangsan is visitable on tours from South Korea. Literally it means Diamond Mountains and boasts many impressive peaks, lagoons and sizeable waterfalls.
The North Korean side of the DMZ (a 4km wide de-militarised zone that separates the two Koreans which technically remain at war) is another popular place to visit and a common inclusion in the official tours. The DMZ can be easily visited from the South but the perspective is very different when you approach from the North Korean side. The village of Panmunjeom which happened to lie on the front line when the truce was signed has been deserted ever since and serves as a bizarre reminder of the dark days of the Cold War. 1km east is a jointly policed zone which is the only thing that resembles an actual border point. For the most part South and North Korean soldiers stare at each other not daring to step foot over the line that separates the two countries. Soldiers on the two sides of the border used to communicate by phone but in March 2013 the DPRK cut off the lines effectively ending any formal contact between the two Koreas.
At the other end of the country close to the Chinese border is Mount Paektu, the tallest mountain on the Korean peninsular with a huge crater lake (below) at the top. It is supposedly the mythical birthplace of the Kims who have controlled the country since the Korean War. In a land where religion has no place, founding father Kim Il-sung is the closest thing North Koreans have to a God and the state media frequently speak of super-human achievements by him and his son, Kim Jong-Il.
Is it dangerous to visit?
Bizarrely North Korea is probably one of the safest countries in the world to visit. The risk of a traffic accident is low as the roads are deserted because virtually no-one owns a car. In a land where image is everything yet nothing is at seems, every effort is put on to ensure foreigners are treated well and stay safe on their visits to the country. Should anything happen to a tourist it would be a PR disaster for the government.
The other slight concern that you may have heard about is the possibility of nuclear war. North Korea has a huge military and a sizeable weapons collection but very few remaining allies. It would in all likelihood be totally annihilated should they decide to launch into any military action against South Korea, USA or Japan. Despite recent declarations of war and aggressive threats to its enemies, Kim Jong-Un and his cronies are surely aware of this and it seems probable that his bark is significantly louder than his bite.To cut a long story short, while the new leader appears to be something of a fruitcake, a war is still very unlikely to break out any time soon.
Should you travel to North Korea?
This is a difficult one. North Korea’s human rights record is frankly horrendous, people have been starving to death for almost two decades and yet in a ridiculous attempt to prove otherwise vast amounts of food are often put on for visitors while children living in the streets go hungry. Little is known about what goes on in North Korean prison and labour camps but whole families have been sent away to these Soviet styled gulags. North Korean defectors who make it South Korea do so with the knowledge that any family members left behind will probably be sent away to the camps and will potentially spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
Many people are passionate about the state of North Korea and some foreigners have visited on numerous occasions. They believe it is important to visit and the few journalists who have snuck their way in feel they are bringing greater attention the humanitarian situation inside the country. One of those is Barbara Demick who wrote the excellent ‘Nothing to Envy’ which follows the life stories of six North Korean defectors and is well worth a read to understand life in this most isolated of states.
Before choosing to visit it is worth learning a bit about what is probably the most difficult country in the world to understand. Although extremely secretive it is clear some terrible things have happened in the country and the Kim Dynasty are arguably the worst dictators in modern times.
That said atrocities are committed all over the world, many in countries that attract millions of tourists each year. It is ultimately a personal choice, but those who opt to visit North Korea are in for a truly unique and unforgettable experience.
pic of border by kalleboo on flickr
This article was published in February 2013.