If I was going to win, I needed to knock down at least five pins. I grabbed the least heavy of the concrete-like balls, all of which weighed more than any other I’ve ever used, stuck my fingers into the misaligned holes and stood up straight, taking as deep a breath as I could. I moved forward with a few short steps, extended my arm and released the ball, just watching it roll away, completely blocking out the noise of the dozens of other bowling balls rolling down the lanes all around me. And I nailed it, scoring an eight, enough to give me the victory over the two Danish guys and one American that I had been playing against.
I turned around and pumped my fist high in the air in celebration and then I glanced to the left and to the right, taking in the scene around me. Never in my life would I have thought I’d be bowling at a jam-packed bowling center called the Gold Lanes, in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea.
I never really had an interest in visiting North Korea. Knowing full well about their repressive regime, as well as the fact that travelers must join an organized tour group in order to visit, simply led me to believe that such a trip was not for me. And then, back in June, just a couple of short months ago, I met two travelers who had been on one of those tours and who recommended that I reconsider. They told me that such a trip would not be what I expected and that going there had much more value than I ever imagined, both for the traveler and for the local people.
So I did some more research on the ethical considerations about such a trip, which I’ll write more about soon, found some time in my schedule and decided I was going to North Korea.
Seven weeks later I flew to Beijing, attended the tour orientation at the Koryo Tours office and met the group of thirty or so fellow travelers from around the world who I would be traveling with. The next morning we all boarded Air Koryo flight JS322 for our journey to Pyongyang.
(After extensive research, I decided to contact Koryo Tours, which is the largest of the tour companies that offer trips to North Korea. Their reputation was excellent and after a lengthy Skype conversation with their General Manager, I was confident this was the company I should work with.)
Not At All What I Expected
Those two travelers I met in June were absolutely correct. It’s not what you expect when you travel to North Korea.
I’ll tell you now that you’ll be quite disappointed if you believe that everyone you’ll meet in the country is a government-appointed actor playing the role of a ‘normal person’ or that you won’t be able to talk to anyone apart from your government-appointed guides or that you won’t be able to take photographs or that all of your belongings will be thoroughly searched when you enter and exit the country or that you’ll have no freedom of movement whatsoever. You’ll also be disappointed if you think that all North Koreans have no idea of what is happening in the outside world.
None of that is the case.
In fact, apart from a standard x-ray screening of your luggage upon arrival at the Pyongyang Airport, the authorities there don’t care what you bring in. You can bring your mobile phone (and can even buy a local SIM card to call friends and family back home), laptop, iPad, iPod, Kindle or anything else you wish. Nobody goes through your stuff when you arrive.
As for there being actors in the streets, well, that’s not true either and for those who think you won’t be able to interact with everyday people during the trip, let me tell you that you can interact with and talk to whoever you want and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so. You can go up to anyone on the street, in the parks, on the metro, at the hotel, in the restaurants, at the bars (yes, you do visit some bars during the trip), in the main squares, at the monuments or anywhere else you happen to be and you can ask any questions you want. Sure, the level of English is not very high among the majority of the people and the answers you’ll often receive are a product of the endless propaganda that North Koreans are fed, but regardless, you’ll end up communicating and laughing and joking around with more people than you would think. Nobody, not even your guide, will restrict you from talking to anyone you come across.
And do you know what I discovered? North Koreans know who Adam Sandler is, they know who David Beckham is, they watch BBC and American movies and they know about the situation in Egypt and they know what life is like in the US and Europe. Not all North Koreans have access to this information of course, but before my trip I was under the impression that none of them had such access. One evening, our bus turned a corner in central Pyongyang and there was a massive television screen in a public square showing a European football (soccer) match, with hundreds of people sitting around enjoying the game. While in the Grand People’s Study House, an educational center of sorts, Beatles songs could be heard playing on the stereo in one of the classes. Access to the outside world might be limited but these days, it’s impossible to restrict it completely, and in some cases, it’s openly allowed.
As our guide said, this is not the 1930s anymore. North Koreans don’t believe that life inside their country is paradise and that the rest of the world lives in misery. They know that life is different outside.
And in terms of photographs, I took over 1800 photos during my five days in the country. You can basically take photographs/video of anything you want. There were a couple of places, such as the mausoleum of the late Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, where you are not allowed to bring your camera, but there are certain places in every country where that’s the case. Whether you’re wandering around Pyongyang or at the DMZ, the demilitarized zone at the border with South Korea (see the second photo below), or at that bowling center or fun fair or on the metro or strolling through the parks or even while riding through the countryside or visiting towns such as Kaeson, you can snap photos of everything you want for the most part, with the main exception being checkpoints and soldiers on duty (although several soldiers did pose for photos).
Also, contrary to popular belief, your photos are not checked when you leave the country either. Nobody goes through your memory card to make sure that you only took photos of things you are allowed to take photos of, probably because, again, you are generally allowed to take photos of almost anything.
While it is true that you must follow the itinerary set up by the state-controlled tourism agency, Korea International Travel Company, when you travel to North Korea, it is not as if you must march around the country in a single file line all the time, without any freedom of movement whatsoever. You may roam off on your own at times (you can’t disappear for long periods of time but you can definitely stray from the group) and nobody is going to follow, or arrest, you.
At the Moranbong Park, which we visited on Liberation Day, a national holiday that celebrates North Korea’s liberation from the Japanese, I wandered off at one point and ended up meeting dozens of locals who were cooking food, drinking beer and dancing together. There were families and groups of friends everywhere and we exchanged handshakes, some basic conversation and plenty of smiles. I also wandered off at the ‘Fun Fair’ amusement park to go search for some ice cream and I was allowed to walk around the entire place on my own and interact with anyone. Even in central Pyongyang, nobody was going to tackle me when I walked alone to the far corner of Kim Il-sung Square, about 500 meters away from the group or when I left one of the restaurants after lunch and walked up and down the streets outside for twenty minutes. I even managed to walk down a random street by myself and snap a photograph of the Romanian Embassy and at one point, I wandered away from the Monument to Party Founding (see below) and went down the road a bit without anyone noticing at all.
Before the trip, I was under the impression that I would be watched everywhere I went, but as proved to be true on so many occasions, that was not the reality in the end.
I Am No Fool
While all of the above is what I experienced, and my experiences were so very different to what I had expected, let me state that I am in no way naïve. I am aware that what I saw of North Korea was a tiny, tiny slice of that country and what I learned was also only a tiny, tiny piece of the truth. I didn’t get taken to the remote, and poorest areas of the country, and I certainly was not invited to visit a prison camp either. I did not, in any way whatsoever, receive a full picture of what life is like in this country. That I understand.
I know full well that North Koreans suffer tremendously under a repressive regime, that prison camps do exist, that the living conditions in the countryside are far worse than what I can imagine, that brutal police checks, lack of permission to move around, shockingly low salaries, electricity cuts, non-existent healthcare and so much more is what so many North Koreans must deal with on a daily basis. I know all of that.
And I saw hints of it as well.
Despite what I’ve written so far, something definitely still felt odd while in this country. Something just didn’t seem right no matter where we went. Yes, North Koreans were bowling and dancing and working and laughing and talking to us foreigners and all that, but I can’t deny that almost everyone I did encounter, to some extent, seemed to clearly know their place in the system. Nobody spoke against the regime of course, although some locals did laugh or shrug their shoulders in a ‘what can I say, that’s what we learn’ kind of manner when confronted with an inconsistency between the propaganda and reality of the world outside, and there was a definite lack of free thought or creativity in daily life. Everyone’s movements seemed too orderly, too conservative, too much like the movements of people who had no choice but to accept their situation and who feared the consequences of trying to change it.
Back to the propaganda for a moment. It pervades almost every aspect of life in this country and the amount of it, whether on display on large signs throughout Pyongyang, in North Korean films, on television, as part of everyone’s education, in theater performances and cultural events, books, newspapers, music and more, is unreal. The propaganda tends to focus on anti-US (the Imperialist Aggressors) and anti-Japanese themes, on racial pride, the importance of the military and the need to show devotion towards the state. We would often listen to our guides talk about the North Korean version of the Korean War (which is the only version for them) and about the brilliant ideas and philosophy of the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung and “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il every single day, which showed how deeply this propaganda machine works.
There is plenty of inconsistency in all the propaganda of course but it all goes completely unnoticed, or at least that’s how it appears. The tales of their leaders often involve such ideal stories, such as the belief that Kim Jong-il was born in a house on the most sacred of mountains, Mount Baekdu, when official records (not the ‘official records’ later created) show he was born in Russia. The museums and monuments that are constantly being built or renovated are so elaborate and cost so much money yet everyone is so very proud of them all, despite the fact that the money could have been used for better purposes, such as providing food to the poverty-stricken majority. That’s just a small sample and I’ll talk more about the propaganda in future posts, but let’s just say that there was plenty of head scratching on this trip by us foreigners.
But again, you would think that all this anti-US talk and other propaganda would lead to some unfriendly people who did not welcome foreigners into their country. Heck, you would think that if the US is actually the evil Imperial Aggressor, they wouldn’t let Americans travel to North Korea at all.
However, we are welcome, as is just about every other nationality, and almost everyone I met on the streets was more than friendly even after learning where I was from. Even many of the soldiers we encountered would smile and wave to us and shake our hands. Only one man, while in the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, hissed at us group of foreigners as he passed by. He literally made a face like a cat hissing and hissed loudly at us. That was the only negative reaction I noticed during my time in North Korea though, which was surprising considering their beliefs.
Leaving With More Questions Than When I Arrived
In the end, I traveled to a country that I believed would be much different than what I witnessed. This is still not a free country by any definition of that word, not even close, but I certainly didn’t expect to be shaking hands with soldiers, riding on the metro and joking around with schoolchildren, taking photographs of anything I wanted, dancing with locals in a park, drinking beer with North Koreans at a micro-brewery or joining in the celebrations when the girl in the next lane over bowled a strike for the first time.
Yes, you could argue that I ‘didn’t really see North Korea’, which I’m sure some of you will, but at the same time, what I saw, even if I was only allowed to see certain, controlled parts, was indeed North Korea.
And the above is my interpretation of what I experienced during my five-day trip to this mysterious country that only receives approximately 6,000 foreign visitors per year.
On the final morning of the tour, our bus pulled out of the hotel parking lot at 5:30am and headed off towards the airport, just as the first rays of light rose above Pyongyang. And as I stared out the window at the buildings and the empty streets, at the monuments and the city squares, at the massive statues and paintings of their leaders, I soon realized that I had come to North Korea with a handful of questions but was leaving the country with more questions than I could even count.
As a result, I’ll admit that what I’ve said above may very well be so far from the truth that this post is the biggest piece of rubbish I’ve ever written. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever know.
**The tour cost for my trip to North Korea was covered by Koryo Tours. However, I never accept such a deal if I am required, in any way, to write positively about any company, organization or experience. I will only take such a trip if I am free to write honestly and openly based on the actual experiences that I have. And I can honestly say that my experience with Koryo Tours was indeed a positive one, from the organization of the trip itself to every staff member I came across, and as a result, I don’t hesitate to recommend this company for anyone considering a visit to North Korea.
Any questions about North Korea? Anyone else interested in visiting?
Maybe you should go there yourself and get facts. Your feelings are natural given the extreme separation between your cultures. But judge nothing till you have a solid grounded truth. You won’t find enough to pass judgement in an article.
Yes NK has actual prison camps and there are terrible things being done to people by the guards. But are they really so much worsethan the acts commited on prisoners by other prisoners in the American ( and other European) penal systems. Gang homosexual rape of minor offenders, murder, daily beatings, Nazi race propoganda being force fed to other people, and much, much more.
I’m sure the crime rate in NK is very low given the extreme force and power of the NK system.
Just as the crime rate in America is absurdly high due to the lack of power granted to the civilian protection forces and courts in the American system.
I’m sorry but evil and poverty exist in every country. The truth is, most people hate North Korea because the government and the media told them too.
Have a long and hard think about this next statement and ask yourself if it’s true.
America needs a country to turn its hate to so it doesn’t turn on itself.
I am sorry, but to compare North Korean prison camps to abuses that take place in America’s prison system is ridiculous and absurd. I agree that America is far, far from perfect, and has a high level of crime and violence etc. There are all sorts of issues plaguing American society. But at least in America, people’s basic human rights are respected. Are you aware that in North Korea, up to three generations of a family are sent to hard labor camps, often for years, for the “crimes” of one family member? Its called guilt by association, and its perfectly legal in North Korea. Are you also aware that when a baby is born in a labor prison camp to the parents of “criminals”, that child I automatically condemned as a criminal and suffers the same fate as the parents? This essentially means the child grows up in the prison camp and never sees the outside world, unless the family is released. How can you even begin to compare?
I totally agree that many Americans are brainwashed to hate and fear others. Many are also ignorant of the outside world and you are completely correct, they need to have an enemy. But I guess the critical difference is many Americans are brainwashed because they choose to be. In America, people are still free to access information and knowledge and to get the correct “facts”. They are also free to travel abroad. In North Korea, these options do not exist because there is not access to internet and information is severely restricted. North Koreans are also not even free to travel within their own country without permission, let alone travel abroad.
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I have been researching North Korea for awhile now and wanting to visit. Being in the military currently *probably not such a good idea* but my hope is to one day visit to learn more about this mysterious country. Thanks for sharing your experience!
What a lovely commentary on a strange and mysterious land – thank you very much.
My tuppenny’s worth below isn’t a criticism of what you wrote – merely an indication that … things aren’t perhaps so different and that people are subtly directed to point fingers at NK “atrocity” for reasons outside the atrocity itself….
“I know full well that North Koreans suffer tremendously under a repressive regime, that prison camps do exist, that the living conditions in the countryside are far worse than what I can imagine, that brutal police checks, lack of permission to move around, shockingly low salaries, electricity cuts, non-existent healthcare and so much more is what so many North Koreans must deal with on a daily basis. I know all of that.”
The US has the highest per capita prison population in the world – they use words like “correctional facility” not “prison camps” to describe.
Countryside living conditions in many countries across the world are often worse or no better to those in N/K — think Somalia? I could go on – a man has just had a police baton shoved up his backside in France (unintentionally of course) and electricity cuts and existent healthcare even in my own country leave a lot to be desired.
I think what I’m trying to say is – those problems aren’t unique to N/K – NK doesn’t have the worst examples of them – yet no-one visits the US for example, and mentions the prison population, Gitmo, poor-folk repression, the cops shooting black folk and the courts letting them walk away, the weekly drone-bombing of civilians in foreign countries…. etc.
…How DO you shove a baton up a man’s arsé – unintentionally?
One hand pulled his trousers down unintentionally and the other rammed the baton home unintentionally while the other hands of other cops bent him over and held him down unintentionally – and no left hands knew what all right hands were doing? This gets me, it gets me more that “unintentionally” was offered as excuse – but most of all, that “unintentionally” is accepted, glossed over by the media, and then spoonfed to us the people. Perhaps we should look to our own acceptance of our own propaganda before – or while – we point fingers at North Korea’s?
Shahna, while I understand your sentiment, comparing North Korea and US prison systems like that doesn’t make sense, and borders on false analogy fallacy. Yes, US incarceration rates are astronomical, as are NK’s. However, North Korea prisons are essentially concentration camps. There are memoirs written by escaped prisoners that are brutal to read and the unspeakable horrors that occur there are well known. The goal is torture and death. If you commit a ‘crime’ (that’s an entire other subject to get into), and they often punish three generations. Stories of long lost cousins getting hauled off to the camps because of something a relative they didn’t even know existed did isn’t unheard of either.
“Perhaps we should look to our own acceptance of our own propaganda before – or while – we point fingers at North Korea’s?”
??? You can be outraged at law enforcement and prisons in other countries while still openly discussing North Korea’s vile human rights abuses.
Thank you. Excellent reply.
North Korea is an older PhD experiment in social science. You are seeing the result of a certain communistic type model. In Denmark one recent study done by crime statisticians found one migrant family, one extended family, was responsible for 83% of the local crimes, this type of info has been known a long time but is not politically popular to publish broadly outside of academia. Korean social engineers arrested families of criminals based on these types of old well known social biological engineering reports and studies. Biology is a taboo in capitalistic countries due to eugenics concerns, legal, moral and ethics concerns. Nurture vs. nature is the issue, the debate, with each being 50% of the whole. One day people will be objective and non hysterical in their perceptions and the truth will unfold itself. Truth is not a matter of perspective; opinion is perspective: Truth is bare facts. Religion asserts the realm of the unseen for due consideration, hence the need for communism to void religion; and the reason religion erects certain taboos, like cannibalism for example. Truth is a hard reality with religion, communism, socialism, capitalism, etc., hence the reason for variables.
Great article. I recently returned from my trip to Pyongyang/Kaesong after Skype consultation with Earl. Thanks so much for all your help!
A few things I’ll add to respond to other points on this thread:
-While Earl (and I as well) both did the shortest available tour, which centered in Pyongyang and was a bit more “touristy”, there are substantially longer tours available. In total, you can essentially access every major city in North Korea if you go on a longer trip. No doubt you will be somewhat restricted anywhere you go, but it’s erroneous to say that foreigners are only granted access to Pyongyang. Things are gradually opening up over time.
-I didn’t particularly feel like the poverty side of things was hidden. They aren’t broadcasting the worst of the worst, that’s for sure, but you see crippled people, poor people, homeless people, soldiers working in the fields, etc. If everyone was an actor, you wouldn’t see this.
-The guides speak surprisingly openly about topics that you’d think would be taboo. Ours spoke about the famine, nukes, questions about America/capitalism, and we had a great time exchanging music on iPods. Not quite as controlled as I would have thought.
It’s certainly a restricted trip, but an extremely educational one given the complete lack of information out there. Even seeing how the government chooses to present itself (the things that are true, the things that are false, the things that aren’t said at all) reveal something about the country. It’s not for the average traveller, but a highly rewarding experience for those who are willing to come in with an open mind.
Regardless of how much less horrific the trip ended up being, by the end of the article, and by looking at the strange pictures of people out in the open, my take away is still: incredibly scary Orwellian place.
I am not sure what the point of the glowing beginning picture you paint was? I mean, clearly it is a repressive country with a dictatorial regime and a frightened people. So some people can go bowling because they are from a privileged group? Who would think otherwise. The ruling class is the ruling class.
I really enjoyed your article. I have always had a fascination with North Korea and what life there is like. I am sure that in many ways, North Koreans go about there daily lives just like anywhere else in the world, and many times we in the west are fed inaccurate depictions about life in other parts of the world. Having said that, it is also good you recognize that what you saw is just a small portion of what life in North Korea is like. I have done extensive research on NK system of labor camps, and it is absolutely horrific. Entire families are sent to labor camps, forced to work 12-15 hours a day and given starvation rations, just because one individual said or did something perceived as offensive to the government. The concept of “guilt by association” appears to be alive and well in NK. While I would like to visit someday to see what is like, the repressiveness of the regime towards its citizens certainly puts me of.
First off, I want to offer you my praise for having the curiosity to travel to NK. I’m glad you had a great experience. However, I’d like to point out a few issues of reality that you seem to have wither glossed over or mis-judged.
Yes, “interaction” with locals is a lot easier now than it once was, but the people you interacted with are not everyday North Koreans. How can I explain? NK society is strictly managed. At the very top, of course, is Kim Jong-Un. Similar to people like Saddam Hussein and Mafia Godfathers, he has to protect his position. This is done by allocating favors to those a level or two down. What we therefore get is continuations of this, where levels provide favors to lower levels. Basically, the entire population of Pyongyang is made up of what is effectively, North Korea’s middle class. These people enjoy fairly comfortable lifestyles by NK standards, and they would never do anything stupid enough to jeopardize what they have in the form of good jobs and housing. So when you get smiles and hellos from these people, like you did, they are very aware that their foreigner interactions are being watched by everyone.
The vast majority of North Koreans aren’t even allowed to enter Pyongyang. These people struggle to survive on farms, where work is expected of them every day and all day. Why don’t they simply refuse to work so hard? That would be an instant move even further down, along with all their relatives, to one of NK’s massive prison camps.
As for allowing tourists in? This is ONLY done for badly needed foreign exchange, as well as a little stage-managed propaganda.
Like I said, I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but the impression you give of the place is one of a giant misunderstanding held by outsiders. I work in the region and I’m not getting my insight from western news.
NK is basically one big organized crime family, masquerading as a country. The Kim family enjoys a fabulous life, and they will kill and reward whoever they need to maintain the status quo.
Wow you summed NK up so well Declan.
Great account of your time in Pyongyang. I was up further north for a day, in a small town called Sinujiu. My experience there was a little different in that I did have a couple of my pictures deleted after handing back my camera (both of me standing next to a painting of Kim Il-Sung). The teachers at the local kindergarten were fine with posing for photographs, but clearly afraid to say anything to me, even hello. I think its only the tour guides and souvenir shop employees who are allowed talk.
In general, I found the locals to be very friendly, totally different from the picture painted by Western media. The soldiers smiled and waved at me, and the waitresses at the restaurant we ate in did likewise. We were looked after really well. Like you, we also didn’t see any ‘actors’ in the street, just ordinary folk going about their daily lives. What really stood out for me was how quiet everything was, no cars anywhere, and very people around until after 4.00pm. Also how clean the streets are, no garbage lying around anywhere, completely spotless.
Again though, we knew it was a small part of the town we were looking at, and only shows a tiny snapshot of North Korea, there’s much more to it than meets the eye.
After leaving North Korea I looked for some videos on sites like tudou and youku, about people who’ve been to North Korea too, and what really annoyed me is how negative and sarcastic they are about everything they saw and experienced. Why go all that way if you’re not going to enjoy it?
I’m also going to give a big shout out to Koryo Tours as well, as they organised my day trip. Very well organised, hugely enjoyable, reasonably priced, and lots of great memories. One day I hope to do the 5 day trip to Pyongyang like you did.
I’ve been in North Korea this August and I can confirm your impressions. Only, I didn’t see neither poor nor “sad” or “suffering” people: on the contrary, I saw happy and carefree people of all ages (children, adults, senior citizen etc.) everywhere. Also in Nampo the general situation is quite good. The countrysides are undoubtely riches: there were very high ears of corn and rice, and also a lot of corn cobs massed on the road for about 1 meter and a half every few meters. I saw also some houses a little ruined, but in some of them there were workers which were restorating them. I saw Pyongyang as a city continuously evolving, with a modern look and a true social equality. About prison camps, when you go to the USA nobody brings you to see their prisons, the electrical chairs or the place where people are shot (like in Utah), and the reasons (I think) are quite obvious…let’s finally take into account that North Korea is technically a country at war, you can’t have so much freedom to go around for reasons of force majeure.
Greetings to everybody from Italy 🙂
[…] What It’s Like To Travel To North Korea – Wandering Earl. […]
Nice story, I can you are trying to offer an objective perspective. But my question to you, you went to the state-run travel agency to ask for a free trip to offer them publicity. Did they treat you like an ordinary tourist, or did you have more leeway? You knew you had more leeway to test the limits (and wouldn’t get shot dead like the South Korean tourist who wandered off into a restricted area) Good read, but just saying..
I definitely didn’t have any extra leeway. I was with the rest of my group the entire time and whatever I did, they could do too, and they did. It’s not as if they let me wander around the city for hours on my own or go to restricted areas. Everyone on the tour was able to do the exact same things.
Thank you so much for the report. I visited North Korea in 2010 and really loved it. My group played volley-ball in a park on a sunday with the locals after having enjoyed a picknick in the same park and we went to the beach to relax. Even the DMZ was not too tense. Our guides were really relaxed and knew a great deal about our part of the world. But it’s hard to explain to people the country is not as bad as they are told. It hurts me when I notice people prefer to stick to the cliches.
Hey Anne – I understand what you are saying. I do think the country is as bad as we hear though, it’s just the experience that travelers have shows the country in a different light. The travel experience isn’t as bad as we’re told and we don’t see any of the negative stuff we hear about the country, so the result is quite a pleasant trip. But I’m sure there is plenty behind the scenes that would be quite disturbing to have seen or learn about.
“But it’s hard to explain to people the country is not as bad as they are told. It hurts me when I notice people prefer to stick to the cliches.”
I totally agree with Earl’s comment below: ” I do think the country is as bad as we hear though, it’s just the experience that travelers have shows the country in a different light.”
Anne, You got the Disney Land version of North Korea. They want people to visit and leave with the exact mindset you have. “It’s not the terrible place it’s made out to be”. But it is. A tourist will never see what really goes on behind the scenes. You’ll never see what the majority of people live like, you will never get near the concentration camps they call reeducation prisons. You will never be able to freely and openly hear what an NK citizen’s life is like. From what former NK-born individuals who escaped say, they really can’t even talk to their neighbors or friends about how they feel about many things for fear of being turned in. It’s kind of like if someone from another country went to visit, say, Chicago and stuck to the Pier and fun tourist beaches. They might have the mindset “Chicago is supposed to be so dangerous and supposedly has one of the highest crime/murder rates in the country. I didn’t feel fearful once! It was really nice!”..when in reality they weren’t in the South Side streets or anywhere of the beaten tourist path.
Hi Earl..Your report is very eye-opening and interesting.I strongly believe that people should go and visit a country rather than believing what they see and hear in FOX NEWS and biased newspaper articles.I’m an Iranian and I’m totally aware of what dark and horrifying things western media says about my country to European and American people,however when tourists come and visit Iran (despite all warnings and propaganda) they find Iran one of the most amazing tourist destinations, and they notice that all those scary images of Iran they were shown before,were absurd .By reading your post, I have a feeling that people should stop judging North Korea without going and visiting the country.
hi, earl! amazing report and great pictures! i am thinking of visiting north korea, too. how long did you stay there? how many days would you recommend? which of the different koryo tours did you join?
thank you, mia
Your account of DPRK is very interesting. I was wondering how you got to travel with Koryo Tours for free?
Hey Kirsten – I was invited to join their tour because of this blog. There were no requirements but of course, they were hoping that I would enjoy the tour experience and as a result, recommend Koryo to other travelers thinking of visiting this country.
[…] What It's Like To Travel To North Korea – Wandering Earl https://www.wanderingearl.com/what-its-like-to-travel-to-north-korea/ Aug 19, 2013 … It's not what you expect when you travel to North Korea. … able to talk to anyone apart from your government-appointed guides or that you won't … […]
Great read! I’ve been fascinated with
the country for years. I’ve read a lot about it. Could you give me a ballpark b figure of
how much you spent on your trip? USD
Hey James – The tour itself runs around 1500 Euros and then I spent about $200 USD or so extra while there.
[…] What It's Like To Travel To North Korea – Wandering Earl https://www.wanderingearl.com/what-its-like-to-travel-to-north-korea/ Aug 19, 2013 … It's not what you expect when you travel to North Korea. … Nobody, not even your guide, will restrict you from talking to anyone you come across … […]
Hi, You blog is very interesting. I’m planning to go NK with one of friend. We are both french students. Which tour did you subscribe?
Hey Mehdi – I went with Koryo Tours.
Earl, thanks for sharing this great posting. You have a well-balanced and educated opinion on North Korea. It is really like to get puzzle pieces together to see a whole picture of North Korea.
Agreed- it was such a wonderful read. Thank you so much, Earl!
Obviously you would expect these tours to go to the same areas every visit. I am just interested to hear whether you think it is possible that these areas are given more ‘outside world’ opportunities and experiences? Perhaps the rest of the country (that you didn’t see) is more like what we expect it to be? Honest response will really help me with deciding whether to travel and not be a part of a tour. Thank you!
Hey Mitchell – That’s hard for me to say as the places we visited still didn’t exactly have much exposure to the outside world but I’m sure that the places we didn’t visit have even less. The places I saw were like what I expected but you just don’t see the reality…you can feel it though. I’m sure in the other areas life will look even harsher for those living there if we were allowed to see it (which of course is why we’re not).
Thanks for the reply. Yes perception is an interesting thing! Either way I am sure that travelling North Korea would be an experience like no other. Glad you enjoyed your trip and I look forward to making it there myself sometime 🙂
[…] search for “North Korea Trip Reports” to see what I can find. This search returns some absolutely fascinating stories that are very helpful when thinking about planning my own trip in the […]
Shucks, I was about to go to North Korea, but now you’ve reminded me how cliche this notion is. Do you know any other languages besides English? I can imagine how annoying it must be for the ‘locals’ to witness the constant parade of spoiled tourists go by. You were there speaking English with native Korean speakers who have little exposure to the ‘outside’ (hardcore consumerists who enter on lavvy tourist packages)? Nice of you to reinforce for those who are allowed to be near the gawkers that nobody in the outside world speaks Korean… I can’t wait to go and punch people in the face when they approach me in English! Hello! Hello, foreigner!, based on my skin color. You think you’re pretty tough going in on a guided tour. “Oh, guys! You want to hear a cool story? I’ll tell you about the time I infiltrated North Korea on a cookie cutter tourist package!” “Wow, Wandering Earl! You really wandered around North Korea, didn’tcha!” You’re so ignorant, and you don’t even know it: causality will catch you on your ‘wanders’…
Earl: I’m shocked you didn’t censor my comment. I guess by letting it slide you got me. If you had censored it, I would have been mad; but as it is, I feel bad. Nice thinking! I’m sorry for being pretty harsh; I’ll tell you what went into that: I live in Seoul. I regard myself as ‘Korean’ for two reasons: I’ve lived here for ten years, and I speak Korean; consequently I know about the South Korean culture. Because I’m white, though, and a non-native-Korean speaker, in combination with South Korea’s, (and all of East Asia that I’ve seen), prominent ‘homogeneous ethnoracial nation’ ideology, and because almost no native English speakers are fluent in Korean, most native Korean speakers have come to assume that anyone who is, first, a non-East Asian, and second, a non-native-Korean speaker, is a ‘foreigner’. This is ethnoracism at its worst. This hurts because being treated as an outsider after ten years really prevents me from acquiring a sense of group membership. This is why I’m mad about tourists going into North Korea, too, not speaking any Korean, and helping to realize a similar version of the aforementioned ideolgy, prejudice, and discrimination. It really does suck what the West has either intentionally or unconsciously done to the East through imperialism, colonialism, and now neocolonialism (English+’globalization’). I was a big traveler like yourself, but from my experience in South Korea, I’ve come to vow that I won’t travel in a country where I don’t speak the dominant language of the land.
Hey Che – You’re more than entitled to your opinion but making such angry statements without actually knowing me is a little ignorant as well. Discussion is always better than accusations.
I guess I always wanted to visit countries, that have an element of danger to them. Eg. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, North Korea etc. Hopefully, someday I will be able to afford such tours.
thanks for your article, my parents actually got invited there for a meeting, and i am worried sick, i guess it cant be help there is no wifi there , there have been no updates for 2 days, but i guess they are fine, NK aren’t that scary of a place i guess…
I really enjoyed this blog entry.. I got into a discussion with my boyfriend this morning about North Korea, and how it’s probably impossible to travel there. So I googled blogs to see WHO has actually done it, and found yours. This is definitely opposite than what I had in my head – rows of people in single file lines prepared for the worst if they step out of line.. I was curious, do you think your experience would have been different if you were say, an attractive blonde female American? Do you think that would play a role in how safe it is to travel to the country?
Hey Angie – Considering that all travelers to North Korea must go on an organized tour, it will be the same experience for everyone. If you travel there, you’ll follow mostly the same itinerary that I followed and everything will be quite similar, regardless of where you’re from or what you look like. It’s perfectly safe if you go on the organized tour and follow the rules they explain to you at the start.
Found your post helpful and consistent with reports from other relatively recent visitors to the DPRK. I live and teach in South Korea and have plans to visit North Korea with Koryo Tours in June. My wife and I are split on this: I want to see North Korea with my own eyes to form my own opinion of the place, while she does not want to give the regime there one red cent. I hope my ability to speak some Korean and my respect for the Korean people provide me with some access to the “real North Korea.” Like you, I also remain aware and sensitive to the tragedies of life there, from the prison camps, to the rampant rural poverty and hunger.
Hey Stephen – In the end, there really isn’t a ‘right’ answer about visiting the country. It’s one of those things where, whether you choose to go or you don’t, you just accept the decision, take what you can from it and that’s about it. Let us know if you do go though.
Thanks for the great travel account.
I would like to suggest this reading.
Pyongyang lessons: North Korea from inside the classroom by Stewart Lone
[…] What It’s Like To Travel To North Korea by Wandering Earl: Very interesting post about the experiences of Earl during his travels to North Korea, one of the lessest known countries in the world […]
Your photographs are absolutely fantastic! What kind of camera did you use? Was it SLR or point and shoot? I will be going there in September and I am nervous about what I will be allowed to take pictures of discretely…
Hey Neil – I just use my simply Panasonic Lumix ZS20 point and shoot! As for photos, I wouldn’t try to take photos of anything you’re not allowed to take photos of, however, you will be allowed to take more photos than you probably think.
I am much more inclined to visit NK. Out of sheer interest alone, visiting NK out of all the other possible countries to you could visit is unimaginable! Very interesting post, well written and certainly a necessary read for all interest with global governance and different regimes.
Very engaging post! It’s great that you were able to wander off like that. During my trip to North Korea, our guide specifically told us not to wander off on our own and was constantly making sure we don’t stray off.
On taking photos, my experience was also a bit different from yours. While we were free to take photos of most stuff, we were not allowed to take photos of poor people or unpleasant scenes or any establishment that looked like markets or small privately-owned shops.
[…] go into Pyongyang, stay in a hotel, drink some beers, look at some propaganda on the buildings. Earl did it, so did Andrew. Granted, you have to go with an organized tour, enter through China, and you […]
North Korea, from an academic standpoint, fascinates me. However, knowing what I know about the political milieu of this country, I would never bring myself to visit it. The portraits of arbitrary rape, torture and execution told by defectors and ex-prisoners are sickening. I’d never spend money in a country where a truly despotic regime subjugates its own people with such systematic efficiency and disgustingly perverse capriciousness. It will be a great day when the Kims and their cronies are removed from power.
Thank you for an intriguing post. I was googling ‘what is north korea like’ and this was the first result. Would you ever consider visiting again later in life? Maybe to see if there are anymore changes in a few more years.
Hey Amanda – Depending on the situation, yes, I would consider going later on in life for another look.
Hi! I love the blog, it’s very honest and direct which is great! I aim to visit Pyongyang in the near future but wondered if there are any blogging restrictions or is it best to keep quiet about what your intentions are? I’m also a travel blogger, so I have an desire to visit places that are controversial.
Joseph Harrison – Desperately Seeking Adventure
Hey Joseph – It’s definitely not a good idea to mention your blog or blogging intentions before or during your trip there.
So interesting. Now i want to go.
first go to china , then go to the N.K embassy and apply for visa , then fly to N.K .
is this the right way to do it ?
which currency should i keep with me ?
Hey Ashish – No, that won’t work. You need to book a trip through an agency such as Koryo Tours as they will get the visa for you. You are not able to get the visa on your own.
[…] What It’s Like To Travel To North Korea from Wandering Earl […]
[…] the must-go places in my life. And this guy shares the same thoughts as me. You can read about his trip and why he chose to visit this place even with people around him constantly convincing him that […]
Interesting post! Thank you for giving the two different glimpses into North Korea, I’m definitely more intrigued than ever. Been reading a bit of the comments and the fact that there have been positive changes (not allowed to talk to locals and banning of cell phones before) gives me hope. Definitely on my to-visit list!
[…] once again — everyone is different. I have friends who have visited North Korea — Earl, Becki, and Nellie are a few of them — and I honestly don’t hold it against them in any […]
Great write up – and surprising, as my own expectations were much like yours before you went there.
I travelled to North Korea for 8 nights on a private tour back in 2009 and from what you have written above, things have changed since them. In 2009 phones were not allowed but laptops and cameras were. Restrictions on photography were heavier – I needed to ask permission before taking any photographs, and yes, my photos were checked at the border before departing. Speaking to anyone was not encouraged unless it was in an area such as the Fun Fair or Moranbong Park. I remember certain events (such as arriving in Pyongyang by train or the Mass Games) where we were deliberately moved quickly in order to separate us from local people.
Being within a group of only two meant the leash was tighter, however, it was possible to build the trust more quickly and those freedoms became greater as time progressed. I talked to others on the train out of North Korea and each of their experiences were different in terms of control – but overwhelmingly, the more respectful you are, the more liberties one had. There appear to be two guides with every group in North Korea, but one in reality is a government official, and it is this person who determined the freedoms that are granted.
Great post! I am considering visiting North Korea. I am interested in the freedom of movement aspect. Are you allowed to go out at night or can you only go to the bars that are chosen for the tour company and are part of the tour?
Hey Tammy – There aren’t an overwhelming number of bars so basically, you’re allowed to go to the bars in the hotel or the guides will take you to one of the few bars/micro-breweries in town. You can’t just walk down the street unfortunately but even if you did, there wouldn’t be many places to go at all at night.
[…] Several weeks ago we wondered aloud whether ethical considerations should factor into our travel decisions. That post prompted a lively debate that helped us refine our thinking on the subject. Since then, fellow travel blogger Wandering Earl has written several thought provoking articles leading up to, and including, his recent trip to North Korea. […]
[…] are not following you around all the time and keeping an eye on your every move. As I mentioned in my first post on North Korea, I was able to walk away from the group many times. Never was I chased after and told to turn […]
Hi Earl, is your recommendation for a traveler from the USA going to countries like North Korea and Afghanistan to be open about being from the USA or is it better to say you’re from a country like Canada?
Hey Michael – For North Korea, there’s no problem saying you’re from the USA. And when I was in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I usually said I was from the USA as well, except when in the tribal regions of Pakistan, when I said I was from New Zealand. It really depends on the situation you find yourself in and you need to judge each situation carefully, but for North Korea, there’s no reason to use a different country.
Thought this was an interesting follow up to your tour.
We met a couple of North Koreans living in Dandong, China. They were very negative about North Korea, though its a small sample group to draw any definite conclusions.
The official line in the museum seemed to be that NK and China were “brothers” so that is why they shared the same sentiments about the US – its all politics. Whether local people really think like that anymore, I’m doubtful.
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I can’t help but stop working and read the whole post. Since college I’ve been so curious about North Korea. Your experience is indeed contrary to what we all know about the country. Still, I would say, the tour agency which is controlled by the government has only showed the tourists what the government wanted the outside world to see. You may never have scratched the surface yet.
Wow. I can imagine that this trip was really one that blow open your expectations. I’ve been really curious about North Korea for a while now and fascinating to hear from someone who’s traveled to this country! Thanks for sharing!
I left the DPRK by train last Friday and you might like to know that the border crossing experience by train is quite different. Our bags were searched and our camera photos reviewed – photos of soldiers or transport infrastructure were deleted. They were also confiscating the handpainted propaganda posters, luckily we had forewarning of this and managed to hide them well.
Wow! Such an interesting post. Like you, I never thought tourists can do such activities in North Korea. Indeed, tourists perspective is different from that of media.
Obviously I’m one of the Danish guys you refer to at the beginning. Let me know next time you are in Shanghai and I will take my revenge.
Good blog and I’m agree with you in most of your points. Peter and I have already discussed that it could be interesting to return in 5-10 years time and explore all the differences which most likely will happen in the years to come.
Let us stay in touch – all the best…!
Hey Morten – I will absolutely let you know and I look forward to that rematch! We shall indeed keep in touch and it was great meeting both of you on the trip. Maybe we should have a NK reunion tour in 5 years?
Earl — thx for the honest post. I truly appreciate your open mindedness about what you saw. I applaud you for going the extra mile and traveling to a place where most dare not go — even if it were for nothing more than curiosity or to check off on the bucket list. Thx for acknowledging your suspicions — they will likely prove well founded. That said, i would like to see what you saw under a controlled environment; however, I would like to balance the experience out by living in a gulag even for a week or more. Hard to draw conclusions about an openly known secretive / repressive regime, while being herded to witness the “best” it has to offer (real or fabricated). In the end, until this regime opens its borders and joins the rest of the free world, I will continue to insist that those of us living in democracies allowed access to nK are nothing more than propaganda tools to tell the rest of the world that “it’s not all that bad”. Keep prying open doors. I enjoy reading your posts. // Bern
Hey Bern – I’d say it’s more than hard, it’s impossible to draw conclusions about such a place based on the environment that foreigners are allowed to be exposed to. With that said, it’s basically impossible to draw real conclusions about any destination in the world based upon our own, usually short and very limited experiences. And as for being used as propaganda tools, I certainly understand that argument but I’m not saying that the country/regime is ‘not all that bad’. It’s quite bad and I’ll touch on that in a post next week. But at the same time, I do believe the more that North Koreans see of the outside world, the better in my opinion.
Not surprised to hear about the massive amount of anti-American propaganda in NK regarding the Korean war. What did surprise me though was when we visited the Korea War Museum in Dandong, China (on the border with NK) and it is the same story, the amount of repetition along the lines of “American Imperialist aggressors”. The Chinese people in there still wanted their photo taken with us though. lol.
Hey Tom – That is surprising and I hadn’t heard about that. Maybe that’s because there are so many North Korean workers in the area?
Much has already been said about this piece and your experience but I can say one thing. Your writing has effectively portrayed your troubled, unsettled feelings about your trip as I now feel that way too. Looking forward to what else you have to say!
Hey Laura – Thanks for that and yes, I did not intend to imply that I was not troubled by what I saw. There was plenty that was indeed troubling but this post was just my overview of exactly what it felt like to be there. More to come!
What can I say Earl? This does remind me a lot of Orwell’s 1984 with the United States reminding me of the existential threat Emmanuel Goldstein and the North Korean man’s cat hissing reminding me of the “two minutes hate”. It is telling that you say that things seem to be normal on the surface yet underneath there is something that is definitely not right. That was the same experience of the main character in 1984. We all know that the propaganda coming out of the DPRK is blatant but us here in the West often ignore the fact that the capitalist system has less blatant propaganda of its own. It’s called the media and advertising. I think both systems – that of the DPRK and the capitalism of the West run on fear. That’s why nobody came up to you in the DPRK and spoke of the atrocities of the regime. That’s also why millions upon millions of people in the West wake up in the morning everyday and go to jobs they hate with minimal security and relatively low wages and benefits. In both cases the people are acculturated into it over years and years of conditioning and are fearful of the consequences of speaking up for themselves against a system that exploits them. Personally, and especially after the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, I regard the United States not as a democracy but as a softer form of dictatorship with North Korea being the harder, more blatant and obvious kind. Both forms of dictatorship are wrong and disregard the basic human rights and needs of their respective peoples. And both are cases of ruling elites exploiting their peoples for their own ends and enrichment using the media as a tool of repression.
Hey Matthew – Much is definitely based on fear, that’s for sure and it is a frightening, yet clearly effective, tool whether in NK or the West. Propaganda is certainly more widespread than many would like to believe and can, in some shape or form, be found in just about every corner of the globe. There are always people, companies and governments who want others to think one way for their own benefit and the result is exactly what you describe.
You just made my head explode! Indeed you’ve contradicted most all things I expected a trip to North Korea might be like. Your disclaimer at the end that you might have been deceived might almost make me believe that you were fabricating all that – but you have the photos! (Or so I think…)
Seeing the South Korean side of the DMZ made my head explode and I’m so crazy jealous to go to this trip. Amazing, Earl. Thanks for sharing!
Hey Bessie – I definitely wasn’t making it all up but of course, I am aware that so much more is happening in that country than any visitor will ever have a chance to catch a glimpse of. But at the same time, it is still a travel experience that I feel is beneficial for both travelers and North Koreans.
[…] On a different note, some people have written to ask me how on earth I managed to go to North Korea in the first place. So I just wanted to say that just about anyone is welcome to visit this country but you do have to go as part of an organized group through an agency that specializes in North Korea tours. The agency takes care of your visa and it’s much, much easier than most would imagine. I went with Koryo Tours, who did cover the cost of my trip, which I briefly wrote about at the end of my previous post about North Korea. […]
All I can say is ” wow, you have been to North Korea”! Great, great post mate.
Wow, what a fascinating read. I’m very, very interested in visiting NK after reading your post. However I have to ask – is there any chance the tour guide knew your status as a prominent travel blogger and granted you extra leniency knowing full well you would publish your experience?
I sound so skeptical but the thought crossed my mind, your experience sounds so different to other first-hand accounts I’ve read!
Looking forward to your next posts.
Hey Jacqueline – I didn’t do anything that anyone else on our group tour didn’t or couldn’t do so I wasn’t granted any leniency at all. Nobody’s belongings were searched, we were all allowed to take photos/videos and we could all stray away from the group from time to time. And if you were to travel there now, you’d have the exact same experience.
Great post Earl. Most people have misconceptions about North Korea, its good to see from a first hand view!
Very balanced report on your trip to North Korea. I am surprised too by what I read. Look forward to reading more about the places you visited.
Thanks for the interesting post. The pictures talk for themselves too.
It looks like you if you used a time machine to go back in time to the soviet era.
Still it is a pity that you weren’t allowed to travel in big nature parks, which should be
much more beautiful then streets of Pyongyang .
This post was totally engaging. I am not interested in visit north korea any time soon, but i couldn’t help but read every single word of it. There was something in your words, i still can not put my finger on it. It was a lot like reading “1984” by Orwell. Everything seem “normal” but we all know it isnt. Honestly, if i were you , i would have doubted everything, every hand shake and smile. Its ridiculous i know, as i’m sure many of those smiles were real,even if they were confined in a “fake” environment. That’swhat a regimen does. It control its people’s minds but also affects the way a foreigner approaches to it of course. This post made me think a lot. I have quite a few questions about the propaganda but knowing that you are going to talk about it in other posts,i’ll wait for them.
Hey Kle – Absolutely. Of course there is plenty going on behind the scenes, that I’m perfectly aware of and I know that much of what we saw was organized for our own benefit. However, I also think that much of what we saw was not, at least not in the sense that ‘here come the foreigners, everyone into place, ACTION!’ as many people think is what happens over there.
Interesting post, and it’s good that you traveled to North Korea, or I’d never have found your website.
Hey Petra – Well, that is a good thing for sure!
I’ve been obsessed with North Korea for a while now, and none of the documentaries I’ve watched painted a picture like this. They all made it seem much more oppressive and like foreigners couldn’t take photos etc. Very interesting to see otherwise!
There’s a truly awesome documentary called Crossing the Line about an American soldier to defected to North Korea during the war. Maybe you’d find it interesting, especially now!
Hey Kristin – It’s definitely still an oppressive situation over there but some of those restrictions on foreigners, such as the photographs and cell phones, have been lifted for the most part this year. And I also think that some people do like to paint a harsher picture than what they saw simply because it matches their pre-conceived notions about a place. Again, this is as repressive a regime as it gets and they are shockingly cruel in their practices, but I’d guess that many documentaries do exaggerate a bit to make for a ‘better’ film.
This post was incredibly engaging and different than the accounts than I had heard and seen from two of my friends who had traveled to NK. After hearing their accounts honestly I had decided that I had no interest in going and I had crossed it off in my mind. After reading this post however my interest has peaked and now I am curious about traveling there myself. Great post!
Hey Chanel – With a trip like this, it can be interpreted in so many ways based on each of our experiences as well as what we had read beforehand and therefore expected. No interpretation is necessarily right or wrong of course, especially when it involves a visit to a country as mysterious and enigmatic as NK.
Well done Ol’ friend! Hope to see you some day in your travels!
Hey Eric – Good to hear from you my friend and it would be excellent to meet again somewhere! And thanks for reading, I had no idea 🙂
Amazing review of your trip my man. You got some of the best pics of NK as well, showing both sides of life. Rock on.
Great post!!! Going on Saturday and looking forward to the trip even more!
I’m delighted to have finally read a report of the DPRK that more or less matches my own experience. I went on a Koryo trip last autumn and was also pleasantly surprised by the level of “controlled freedom” we were afforded during the tours. No hissing-cat-men unfortunately, but plenty of smiles, waves and handshakes.
I feel things are slowly but surely opening up in the Hermit Kingdom, as highlighted by the different experiences mentioned as recently as 2011 in the comments above. I’m no apologist for the DPRK regime but the Western media’s overt and covert reporting over the last few years has come with such a cynical, pre-determinedly negative agenda that it’s no wonder the authorities are wary of journalists. Your report suggests to me that you got on the plane to Pyongyang with a relatively open mind and you left with a broadly positive experience and an appropriate degree of scepticism that you weren’t shown behind the curtain. That pretty much mirrors the experience of every person I know who’s visited the country.
As you rightly acknowledge, these tours only give a tiny glimpse of a deeply troubled country; however it’s my belief that only by engaging openly with the people will we be able to effect any positive change in the regime. To that end I hope as many curious travellers as possible read your report and decide for themselves what to make of the country rather than what we’re spoon-fed by the media – it’s difficult for the Government to keep up an invective of Westerners as imperialist aggressor pig-dogs when they’re handing out chocolates and sharing a joke with the locals.
Keep safe and enjoy your travels,
Thanks for that comment Mike and I do agree that any contact with the North Korean people is beneficial. I did find many local people who were more than eager to learn about the outside world and that can only be a good thing, regardless of whether they asked their questions freely or they were ordered to as part of information gathering.
I went with Koryo about a year ago and echo your thoughts on what a great company Koryo is and how priceless an experience it is to visit North Korea. But a few things were different on my trip. When I went, there were more restrictions on cameras (nothing with GPS allowed) andcell phones were not allowed either. And I did have a few photos forcibly deleted, as did others in my group..even though those photos did not seem in any way to break the rules that had been set forth. So while things are indeed becoming more open, the image of how restrictive it can be to travel there has some basis in fact.
I also share your experience about leaving with even more questions than I had upon arrival. I would go back in a heartbeat. I loved it.
Hey Heather – I’ve heard that from a few people as well who went last year. It appears, and this is what we were told from Koryo, that things have changed significantly in 2013 in terms of tourism. At least for now, phones are allowed, long camera lenses are fine and nobody checks your stuff. We’ll see if that stays in place!
Thanks “Wandering Earl” for your excellent article regarding your visit to North Korea. I am a travelholic and have long wanted to visit North Korea. Just yesterday, I submitted an application to Koryo to join their tour next August!! I am even more anxious to see NK thanks to your article.
Hey Gene – I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts once you take that trip!
I enjoyed that and will bookmark it for future reference. Nth Korea has been on the to do list for a while, though I don’t have a timeframe on it yet.
Wow, I found this so interesting. I lived in South Korea for two years, and even being that close I still assumed it would have been exactly how you previously thought (checking camera memory cards, watching you all the time etc). It is so interesting to think about what we hear in the media and what is really true.
I love and appreciate all the different ways you explained your time there also. It’s definitely opened my eyes to what it might be like to visit these days, rather than 60+ years ago. Sure there are many issues within the country, but maybe we still are painting North Korea in the past.
[…] Ok, you know how I feel about comped trips. You also know the absurd fascination I have had about North Korea. So, I debated with myself whether I should share this with my readers. I decided for it because, well, it is quite fascinating indeed! I had no idea Koryo Tours offers comped trips. If they offered me one, I would have to think long and hard whether to take it. If it was any other destination I probably would not think much about it and turn it down. So, read it knowing this please. Wandering Earl does North Korea. […]
Hey Earl, you once again covered a delicate situation with grace and honesty. Well done Sir!
Nice read Earl .
Not to buzzkill the thread vibe but I do however want to point out that what you saw of North Korea that being Pyongyang is the poor countryside peoples version of “The Emerald City” . Even then had you been able to visit there just before the turn of the millenium you would have found a complete opposite to what you’ve experienced and that even on guided tours you would have been restricted from photos, or even drawing pictures of the “touristy” areas of Pyongyang. Although what I’ve seen of NK was completely opposite to what you experienced and I do recall every one of the places by memory in your photos. I do not think my visit was a bad visit and I was also amazed at the culture and cleanliness of the city , even the loooooong escalator ride to the great wooden subway trains in the center was cool.
A little backround on my trip , I was there for business as a crew member on a merchant seaman on a tankship carrying much needed USA grain 60% of which we later found out instead of feeding the starving people in the countryside was used to barter arms deals with anyone willing to offer the arms to NK. We landed at the port of Nampo in the yellow sea entering the port through a lock similar to one in the panama canal.
After that we went round to the pacific side of NK and entered the port city of Hungnam for offload grain on that side of the country. Conditions in either of those cities were deplorable at the time. Pyongyang is like vegas, what happens in Pyongyang stays in Pyongyang. In the other less touristy cities 99% of the populace do not have a clue what the rest of the world is like even those that know a little only hear it from sailors if they live in a port city. And a few of the sailors I know took advantage of the typical workers beliefs and relayed fabulous tales and twisted the reality of the rest of the world to a slightly science fiction curve as some kind of stupid joke.
As far as sim card usage for phoning home outside of “The Emerald City” the only option was a rotary dial telephone routed through Bejing . And because I was outside the city of “The Great Leader” to talk with my pregnant wife at the time who I worried sick about. That one phonecall for 11 minutes to home to talk with her costs me $171.00 usd.
I kept a journal of my travels through a career as a seaman of 25 years and counting , I have land , and homes and apartments in the countries of Romania, Colombia, Brasil , Argentina , Indonesia and in the past I had property in a few other interesting countries. My favorite places are Romania and Colombia and all of Asia and South America, my best friends are Romanian, my wife Colombian and current primary home is in Colombia. All of my travels were mostly funded by myself or through the work on ships, everyone always asks me where I have seen , my response is usually that if a ship or barge can dock at a city port on the sea or in a river port city then ive probably been there 3x over . It would be interesting to compare notes sometime with you just to get a feel for the different perspectives.
Hey Patrick – It certainly would be interesting to compare notes and perhaps I’ll end up in Colombia at some point in the near future since I’ve always wanted to go but have yet to make it there! And I do think the situation has changed quite a lot over in NK although your points are correct about the countryside being a totally different situation. I certainly don’t deny that at all.
As for the SIM card, I believe it’s still just as expensive!
Really great post. I was just at the DMZ but from the South Korea side, so seeing your picture from the opposite side was a little unsettling! The guides kept warning us we could be “kidnapped” at any time, which is of course ridiculous. I’m not sure if they believed it or were just bored and trying to mess with the tour groups. I have an unusual question for you– I write about shopping in different countries– were you allowed to shop anywhere in North Korea? Was there even anything to buy (artisan crafts, etc)?
Hey Kiki – That’s an interesting question. There really aren’t many shops over there but of course, there are government-approved souvenir shops that foreigners are taken to where you can buy stuff. Although, there wasn’t much in terms of artisan crafts. Most of the stuff for sale was books written by their leaders, propaganda posters, dolls and random trinkets. Not a great shopping destination 🙂
This is great to see another perspective of North Korea. I’ll be honest, I’m crazy jealous you made this happen. I have been infatuated with North Korea since watching the first Vice documentary and it’s great to see your experience was very different than what they have portrayed but it makes me question a lot of their work now.
Looking forward to hearing more about your experiences there.
Hey Royce – Yeah, it was quite disappointing to hear about the Vice documentary and how it was basically sensationalism. It changed my opinion of them as well.
I got back from DPRK last week and still trying to process everything I’ve seen there. While I agree with you about very lax customs process and really approachable locals, I have to tell you that you got really lucky with your guides and that affected your experience.
In our case, we were constantly watched by our 3 guides (only 2 of which have actually been working, the third one was just there… smoking, drinking, hanging out with boys and sleeping on the bus, so no wonder we called him a “spy”). Every time I tried to take a picture of people, I was told not to. If I wanted some boring buildings – sure no problem. People? – not so much.
Every time one of us tried to have a conversation with a group of pioneers, we were rushed away. And overall, there was no time to walk around and wander away from the group – like I sad because we were constantly watched and rushed from one monument to the other.
Regardless, we had a ton of fun and visited some places that could give a clue about the real life in the country. So I loved the trip! But would I ever say I felt like a free person in there? I don’t think so.
Hey Irina – That’s really interesting to here because just about everyone I’ve talked to who has been on a tour this year has had a similar experience as I had. I’m not sure which company you went with but Koryo is quite well connected and perhaps the trust that has been built between them and the guides helped out a bit. I’m not too sure but we were definitely never rushed away from anywhere and really were free to talk to anyone. In fact, every time we would ask our guides if we could talk to someone, they would usually just look at us and say ‘Of course, why not?’ or something like that.
I can’t help noticing how spotless everything is…not a scrap of paper or bit of graffiti anywhere. Even the bowling alley is immaculate. Makes me wonder, how about you?
Hey Julie – That’s just how it is over there and there are employees everywhere cleaning the streets and squares and stuff like that. At the same time, Pyongyang is not like other cities. It is not full of people out and about all the time. For such a big city, there aren’t that many people in the streets at all.
Another great post earl.
One thing I really enjoy about your posts is the way you focus on more the social and political aspects of the country as oppose to the ‘things to do’ aspect.
Don’t get me wrong I really appreciate when people write up on these things but it’s good to have you addressing the other topics as well.
I would be interested to read anything you have on Central America? Have you done any articles about these countries?
Keep up the great work!
Hey Tom – While I’ve been to all of Central America, those travels all took place right before I started the blog. So I haven’t gotten around to writing about it all yet since I continue to travel and always have new experiences to talk about. But if you ever have any questions about that region of the world, please feel free to send me an email and I’ll help out as best I can!
I wondered what your trip would have been like – whether you were free to see and do what you pleased. As expected, the government dictated the itinerary but I do think it’s great that you were able to wander away from the group and talk to locals.
Still, as you say, we’ll probably never know the full truth about North Korea.
The honesty and insight that you provide in this post is exactly why I have become a regular reader of your blog. Thank you for sharing!
Hey Melissa – Thanks for that and you know, I just try to provide as rational an account of my travels as possible, knowing full well that no traveler can truly ‘discover’ any particular destination and understand fully what is going on there.
Great, honest post Earl. In describing your experiences you’ve certainly conveyed how this trip has left you with more questions than answers. How one could ever separate fact from fiction in a place like North Korea I’ll never know.
Hey Paul – I think we just have to accept that it’s not possible to separate it all. Much too complicated of a destination for that.
Even though I have a (loose) policy of not featuring comped trips, I am making an exception for this as I am a sucker for North Korea material.From other recent trip reports from others, it appears they are in fact loosening up a little over there?
If Koryo contacted me it will be so awfully hard to turn it down:-)
Well that was utterly refreshing. Thanks for bringing a seemingly agenderless account Earl.
Thanks so much for this article. It certainly does indeed ask for questions than it does answer. I was under the impression it was as you originally expected, many thanks to Shane Smith on Vice for that.
I hope to go some day too.
Thank You very much for letting us have a look in a country you”normally”wouldn’t go to..
unless you think out of the box..it also clearly shows that having precooked thoughts doesn’t help understanding the life around you and the countries you visit.
The more unusual things you do tend to be quite eye opening..
I enjoyed your post hugely and think of visiting North Korea too.
This is so interesting! I am fascinated by North Korea and have always wanted to go and visit and see the country for myself. A very honest and surprising read.
Well written Derek. Will be sharing that with friends who asked if I’ll be writing about it (because I’m that lazy!).
Hey Keith – Haha…if you ever do get around to writing about it, let me know as I’d love to read your thoughts too!
WOW…. Although I had never any interest in traveling to NK, growing up in 60’s and 70’s in Poland was probably somewhat similar, your reportage I find very, very interesting, as always, and so unexpected… Thank you for showing us a little different side of that country, than what we see in television news…
Really nice one. I am really interested in all North Korea articles 🙂
Were you allowed to take photographs at will or were you monitored?
Hey Pulin – As I said in the post, I could basically take photos of anything I wanted.
Earl, oh how you have confused me – but in a good way. I’m about to take off to travel the world on an endless adventure (lucky me!). My hubby and I just had the conversation about all the wonderful, fascinating places we want to see. Then concluded with only a few that were OFF the list, North Korea being near the top. After reading your very informative and clear description of all you saw and experienced, I am reconsidering. Thank you for letting me see another side of the story.
Hey Joanne – Sorry about that 🙂
Thank you for your very enlightening post on North Korea.
I lived in South Korea for five years while I was in grade school and high school, and I had the chance to visit the DMZ before we eventually left South Korea back in 1992. Since then I have always wondered what the reality on the ground is like for North Koreans. While the scope of your trip was necessarily limited, it was very intriguing and educational reading nonetheless. Thank you again for your candid comments. I hope to one day visit North Korea as well.
Hey Stefanie – You’ll certainly have a unique perspective if you do go and visit after spending so much time in South Korea.
You’re right, that tour doesn’t sound like what I’ve been led to believe North Korean tours are like. Do you think the average person should be nervous to book a trip with Koryo Tours? Part of me would like to see the country but the idea makes me apprehensive.
Hey Melissa – There is no reason at all for the average person to be nervous about booking such a trip. Nothing to worry about at all!
Great post Earl, definitely one of your best. Its great to get unbiased and thoughtful take on such a mysterious and place. Cant wait to read more!
Hey Matt – Thanks for that and plenty of more coming up!
Excellent blog post, Earl. I must say that I am very jealous! I did not get to go bowling, go to the fun fair, or go to the microbrewery when I was in Pyongyang in 2008. I guess things have been changing in the hermit kingdom. Also, at the time I went, Americans were required to be in “American only” groups. I’m glad you liked it there and glad you got to experience it with Koryo (their trips to Turkmenistan are also worthwhile, even if it involves that “horrible” thing of doing a group tour). There really is no place on earth like North Korea. Anyone who is interested in traveling to unusual places should not get ung up on the fact that you have to do a group tour and definitely go there. I’ve never met anyone that didn’t have a great time in the DPRK.
Hey Ryan – Definitely seems like things are different these days over there! And I do agree that there is no other place on the planet quite like North Korea.
I’m planning a trip there myself for later in the year. You’ve painted a good picture of Koryo Tours, mind telling us some of the negatives of their tours however, in the interest of impartiality? There must have been things they could improve on right? Would help some of us choose an agency to use when we visit.
Hey Ben – To be honest, there isn’t really anything negative to say. The entire trip was very organized, there weren’t any glitches in the program (beyond the changes that our North Korean guides made on some days) and their staff were extremely knowledgeable about this country, always ready to offer their insights about anything we asked. Maybe it would have been nice if a few extras where thrown in, such as free drinks here and there or some random local snack tasting or things like that during the trip, because there were many aspects of the tour that cost extra once we arrived. That would be the only thing I think they could improve.
Very interesting, I saw a doco filmed in 2009 which seemed to paint a harsher picture of North Korea than your experience but judging by the info on the Koryo website it seems North Korea is becoming more open to tourists. The doco was presented in a very humorous way it’s at vice.com/video
Looking forward to your future posts on North Korea.
Hey Leo – The country is definitely more open to tourists these days. As for the vice documentary, from what I learned, it was quite misleading because everything they did, or claimed to do, could be done by anyone on a standard North Korea tour. Even when they ‘escaped from the tour group’ they simply walked outside the hotel, which I did myself on several occasions because it was completely allowed.
Interesting post, and very honestly written. I have no urge to visit NK, and as you mention you saw only a tiny slice of what life is like there, but you reported it fairly and objectively…and that is the greatest thing about your blog….it’s fair and objective.
Much appreciated Scott. And I think it’s important, no matter where we travel, to understand that what each of us experiences is just a tiny sliver of life in that country. There’s no way anyone can become an expert about any place just from traveling there for a while!
Thank you Earl for this view of North Korea. I have for a long time been curious and have wanted to visit. Now I’m even more curious to visit and see for myself.
Hey Robert – It sure is an interesting destination and well worth visiting in my opinion.
This is very interesting. Maybe you could have some minutes alone with locals because you did not register as journalist for your travel.
Maybe because I visited communist countries before the collapse of the Soviet Union, though, Burma would be for me a priority over North Korea (but I’m not a professional traveler as you).
Thanks for this very interesting post, and I am waiting impatiently for the post where you will explain why this travel was ethical to Korean people and not only to the clique who cashes tourism revenues.
Hey Bertrand – It’s definitely not a good idea to inform them that you are a journalist of course but for anyone visiting this country on a normal tour, you’ll have plenty of chances to speak with locals.
Interesting trip Earl. It’s funny, most of the photos you took, and the general tour itinerary, was very similar to a friend’s experience. I’m assuming that is by design. Regardless, it’s great that you were able to see the country firsthand and break down some of the common misconceptions.
Hey Cam – The tour itineraries are quite standard for sure and in the end, when I wandered off on my own, I never really came upon anything worth taking a photo of I guess. But the main sights are typically the same for each tour.
While I have never had, and probably will never have (although “never say never”, right?), the intention of setting foot in North Korea, I think your blog post was very interesting and informative.
Ultimately, it didn’t change a bit the opinion I have on this country but I must say I was surprised that North Koreans know who David Beckham is and what is happening in Egypt.
I also like the fact that you go “on the road less traveled” because it’s very constructive for anyone who likes traveling and I always read your posts with pleasure.
Keep it up and stay safe!
well i was in north korea in 2011 and had a different experience.
not sure if post like this really help to understand a country because it “only one experience for a certain person at a certain time”. i totally recommend anyone to go there and to get an impression of the country. but in the end it is only an impression and not the explanation on “what it’s lke to travel to north korea”.
of course i interacted with people and danced with them in parks…in the end still it is up to you what to believe – are they just normal people like interacting with people on the streets in germany? or was it arranged to interact with people in order to get this impression? you will never know but this is the thrill about going there.
my photos were checked at the border, also i had to leave my phone with my guide. there is a hidden 5th floor in one of the pyongyang hotels and a metro line no one knows where it ends. that being said this article is still very good to read because it is written by someone who actually went to north korea unlike many journalists who apparently have no idea about the country.
Hey Toby – I guess the same can be said of a traveler’s experience in any country – it is always one person’s experience at one particular time. That’s just how it works. But the above is what it’s like to travel to North Korea right now. It’s not what life is like in North Korea, just about traveling there. Things have changed quite a bit since 2011 from what I’ve heard and many of the travel restrictions have been lifted and the rules are much more relaxed for foreign visitors. And I’m quite sure that the people we interacted with were not arranged or else the entire city would have had to be arranged all day, every day and that’s very unlikely. But I guess we’ll never know for sure in the end!
I am planning to do the Transsiberian Route in January next year. With extra days to spend either on the route ( Russia, Mongolia and China), after reading it, I might have changed my plans a bit. Sure its a bit expensive( around 1000 euro for the route I want) but for the experience will be an awesome and unique one!
So nice to read your opinions on North Korea! This is a country that’s definetly on my bucket list, maybe I’ll be able to visit next year and have a chance to see the Mass Games.
I’ve been doing some research on the country ever since I became obsessed with the idea of going there and came across two books: Nothing to Envy and Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader. I have already read the first one and liked it very much, as for the second, I’m not done with it yet.
Hey Angela – The Mass Games were quite impressive and I’ll be dedicating an entire post to my experience with that. Definitely worth seeing if you can.
Hey Earl. Nice insight into a country I’ve wanted to visit for a long time and one I can’t wait to see. Maybe It’s my fascination with communistic countries that draws me towards the DPRK. So they really had no issue with your camera? No restriction on lenses? I read on the DPRK tour website (Not Koryo tours) that no zoom lenses were permitted, which would make life tricky for me having to leave my zoom lens out of my camera bag 🙂
Hey Alex – I had heard that rule as well but there was a photographer on our trip who carried around a large bag of long zoom lenses for his several cameras and he never had a problem at all. They really don’t check anything too carefully when you enter.
North Korea sounds like a random adventure.. Only 6000 visitors each year? I’d say that many landed on Koh Tao today!
Hey Adam – Ha, I don’t doubt that!
Wow, this certainly changed some of the preconceived notions I had of North Korea! I too thought their lives were so censored that they had no glimpse of what life in the outside world was like. Also would have never imagined a micro-brewery there!
As for the man who hissed at you, I’m shocked that was the only negative reaction you encountered…you could come across at least one person hissing at you even in NYC, I sure have!
Great article Earl!
Hey Christina – Wait a minute, you have come across a person who hissed at you or you hissed at me once while I was in NYC? 🙂
Hi Earl. I am so excited that you went. It seems that North Korea has changed quite a bit from what was portrayed in 2009. I don’t know if you have seen this Dateline/National Geographic Documentary, “Inside North Korea,” but I highly recommend it, even though its very propaganda-ish. It was required watching when I was in the Army.
Hey Jen – I haven’t seen that one but I’ll check it out for sure. And from what I’ve heard, things are much different than even last year in terms of travel and even life in North Korea, let alone from 2009.
Great post, my friend. I’ve been thinking about taking a trip there as well. Thanks for sharing your perspective.
Wow Earl, I’ll be honest. Your post leaves me feeling very much the same.
It certainly is a place that I’m intrigued to see, and for some reason I have this romantic (possibly a poor choice of word there) that I’ll quickly be able to spot the cracks in their facade/charade that you missed (I’m sure that would not be the case).
Is Koryo Tours affiliated in any way with the airline? I know little of them, however they seem to have a reputation similar to that of Aeroflot…
Anyway, thanks for a glimpse of behind one of the worlds last iron curtains.
Hey Chris – They are not affiliated with the airline and after having flown both Air Koryo and Aeroflot in the past week, I can tell you that they are on different levels. Aeroflot was quite good in my opinion 🙂
Whoaaaa, your trip to this country was sponsored?? Nicee Earl!!
Your story makes wanna go to North Korea and see everything you described first-hand. I hope you keep posting more info about this country.
Hey Osvaldo – Yes, there will be plenty of more posts about this trip coming up!
I read countless travel blogs Earl. Sometimes too many. Yours is one that I genuinely take time to read every post, and this is one of your finest moments. Very descriptive, very honest and perhaps the best review I’ve seen so far of North Korea. Contrary to you, I’ve always wanted to go to North Korea however. I’ll be heading in a couple of weeks finally and can’t wait for it. Love the photo of you having a beer – a micro brewery in North Korea, 1o pin bowling and they’ve heard of David Beckham? Who’d have thought it! The rest of the world must be a fickle bunch. Hell, North Korea even made it to the last World Cup! Great overview, sounds like you had a great time. Safe travels, Jonny
Hey Jonny – Thanks for that, I really appreciate those words and believe me, you’ll enjoy your time in North Korea as well. And I shall look forward to reading your thoughts about your own trip too!