Travel to North Korea

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.

Bowling at Pyongyang Gold Lanes, 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.

Rebirth Metro Station, Pyongyang, North Korea

Riding the metro in Pyongyang

Koreans at the Fun Fair, Pyongyang, North Korea

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).

Statues of North Korean Leaders, Pyongyang

DMZ - Border between South & North Korea

View of Countryside, North Korea

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.

Mansudae Art Theater, Pyongyang, North Korea

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.

Monument to Founding of Party, Pyongyang

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.

Kaeson, North Korea

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.

Leaders of North Korea, Pyongyang

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.

Propaganda in Pyongyang

Propaganda in Pyongyang 2

Metro station propaganda in Pyongyang

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.

Beer at Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar, Pyongyang

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?