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Why go to North Korea?

DPRK (and Beijing) intro


View DPRK 2019 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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In front of the Grand People's Study House, Pyongyang

Why go to North Korea?

When I told people we were going to North Korea, or the DPRK as they prefer us to call it, I got one of three reactions. From our traveller friends, ‘wow, that will be interesting’. From others, either ‘why on earth would anyone want to go there?’ or ‘gosh, you’re brave – hope you come home again!’

So why were we going? For several reasons – because it would be different from anywhere we’d been before; because a friend had been and posted enthusiastic blogs about it (thanks Albert); because it’s one of those places people say you should see before it changes (although having been, I can’t see it changing much any time soon).

And while there I discovered other reasons to visit: the people are welcoming; the countryside is beautiful; Pyongyang is a city like no other, with bizarre modern architecture and a treasure-trove of the socialist-realist monuments I find so fascinating; there is more history than you might imagine, and so much to see and do. Where else will you find yourself visiting a war museum, a kindergarten, a mushroom-production plant, a goat farm, a water-park, an apple farm, a children’s holiday camp, numerous monuments, a mausoleum, a school, a ‘secret camp’, a sacred mountain, a supreme court, several waterfalls, a shooting range, an out-of-service ferry, a ski resort … and bowing deeply in front of huge statues (‘paying your respects’) in every city you visit. Where else can you watch an opera based in an ironworks, dance in the streets with locals and fly in what was once the private plane of the founder of a nation (Kim Il Sung)?

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Mass dancing in Pyongyang on National Day

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North Korean countryside

As to the ‘hope you come home again’ comment, well, clearly we did or I would not be writing this! Contrary to what some believe, visiting the DPRK is completely safe, so long as you’re happy to respect (that word again!) their rules. Think of it like visiting a place of worship for a religion you don’t follow or believe in; while you are in that building you will behave appropriately, I am sure. You will remove your shoes if requested, cover your head and/or shoulders, keep your voice low and only take photos if permitted. Think of a trip to North Korea as an extended visit to such a building and you won’t go far wrong!

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Monument at the Juche Tower, and at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

Planning our trip

There are of course some challenges in planning a trip to North Korea – you can’t just hop on a plane and go. Firstly, even if you usually prefer to travel independently, that isn’t an option here. You are required to have two Korean guides with you at all times – and I mean all. You won’t even be able to take a stroll around the block without being accompanied. We were told by our guide that this is for our own safety, as we don’t understand the language or culture there. But of course that is true of many other places we all travel to. The real reason is to ensure that you don’t have any inappropriate contact with locals: engaging them in conversation about the outside world, challenging their culture or politics, giving them ‘propaganda’ such as religious texts or books with a very different slant on history etc.

So forget any ideas about travelling around and exploring alone. You need either to join a group tour or plan to spend a lot of money on private guides, bearing in mind that you will need two of them plus a driver and will need to pay all their expenses. That would be fine perhaps for a short break in Pyongyang, the capital, but would be exorbitant for a lengthy tour involving flights, additional city guides, many nights in hotels and so on. We wanted to really see the country – take a deep dive, not just dip our toes in the water. After all, we knew we would be unlikely to return there, and I also knew from my research that Pyongyang is not typical of the rest of the DPRK. So a tour it had to be.

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Our group at the DMZ

Furthermore, it seemed to me that it would be a huge benefit to travel with the additional support of a UK tour leader, who would understand our perspective on the challenges we might face and would be able to help us should we experience any problems. In choosing a tour with Regent Holidays we were able to benefit from the support, both before the trip and during it, of one of our country’s experts on travel to the DPRK, Carl Meadows. No doubt I will have more to say about him as I start to describe our adventures, but for now I will just say that our decision to travel with him was absolutely the right one for us. He was a fantastic tour leader, looking after us all very well and explaining a lot about the country as we went, as well as being super helpful at the planning stage.

Our choice of tour

The tour we chose was Regent’s Pioneering Group tour, the longest they offer, as that met our wishes to go further afield and see as much of the country as we could. The planned itinerary (at the time of booking) was:

Pyongyang, the capital
Kaesong and the DMZ (the border area with South Korea)
Mount Myohyang
Nampo and the West Sea Barrage
Mount Paektu, the nation’s most sacred mountain
Chongjin, an industrial city only just opening up to tourism
Hamhung and Wonsan, on the east coast
Masikryong (a ski resort)
And back to Pyongyang

By the time of departure, the order had changed somewhat, and it changed again several times while we were there, for various reasons, but we did visit all these places. Changes of plans are the norm in the DPRK, but Carl and our lead Korean guide worked hard to ensure that we saw all the main sights planned and much more besides.

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Lake Chon, Mount Paektu

Preparations

At the time of our travel the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against ‘all but essential travel to North Korea (DPRK)’ on the grounds that:

‘Offences that would be considered trivial in other countries can incur very severe penalties in North Korea, particularly actions the authorities deem to be disrespectful towards the North Korean leadership or government … Some foreign nationals have not been granted access to consular support when detained in North Korea.’

And:

‘While daily life in the capital city Pyongyang may appear calm, the security situation in North Korea can change with little notice and with no advance warning of possible actions by the North Korean authorities. This poses significant risks to British visitors and residents.’

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Children at the Songdowon International Schoolchildren’s Camp, Wonsan

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Young drummer, kindergarten performance, Chongjin

Nothing we read about travel there (the experiences of my friend Albert who had been, twice; advice from Regent and other tour companies) gave us real cause for concern, however. We were confident that if we travelled with a reputable company and were prepared to follow the rules, we would be safe. But we did need to take out additional specialist travel insurance, just in case, as our regular annual cover exempts travel to any country which the FCO advise you not to visit.

Getting a visa

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DPRK visa

Regent include organising the visa in the cost of their tours but as we live very close to the embassy we decided to go and get our own to avoid having to trust our passports to the post. Chris rather liked the idea of being able to say he had been the first to set foot on North Korean soil, but as it turned out he was left standing on the pavement outside for 20 minutes (in last August’s blistering 37 degree heat!) while the paperwork was completed inside. And of course we did have to pay the £20 fee twice, although we saved a bit on postage!

As I understood it from Regent, if getting the visa at home before you leave it is always the in-passport type, whereas getting it in Beijing it is the separate card type. This does mean of course that the visa is now in my passport for all to see, and no doubt it could raise questions at border control on future trips. But the passport expires soon, and whether the visa is visible or not, I will need to declare my DPRK trip when applying for the US visa I will need next year (an ESTA is no longer an option for anyone who has travelled there since 2011). In any case, we were advised that it would be better to get our visas in advance to save having to do so in Beijing, which made sense to us.

Visa in hand, and insurance cover organised just in case, we were ready to go. But you can’t fly directly to Pyongyang from London (or indeed from many other places) so firstly we had to get ourselves to Beijing, where the tour arrangements would start. So that will be the location for my next few posts…

I travelled to North Korea with Regent Holidays on their Pioneering Group tour, which takes visitors to the parts that most other tours don’t reach!

Note: when you visit North Korea you do so at the invitation of the DPRK government, and the itinerary you follow is approved by them, as are the sights you see and the information you are given. That information often differs from that disseminated outside the country - there are, as always, two (or more) sides to every story.

This blog should not be seen as a fully balanced picture of the country as it will focus primarily on what I personally saw and heard while there. I will do my best to reflect the experiences I had as presented to me by our Korean guides, although I may touch from time to time on other perspectives. In writing it I hope always to remain respectful of my hosts, and to tempt my readers not to take my word for anything, but to visit and make up their minds for themselves.

Having said that, all views expressed above and in the following entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.

Posted by ToonSarah 11:25 Archived in North Korea Tagged people tour visa north_korea dprk

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Comments

Not planning to go back? My first visit was so fascinating that I returned the following year. Your comment about “respecting” the local rules is true. North Korea is one of the safest tourist destinations in the world - provided you accept the rules and restrictions. There are, of course, subtle ways of commenting on what you see. On a visit to a pig farm the guide proudly announced that the farm now had goats. I said to her: “Oh, so now it’s an animal farm.” The guide, of course, knew nothing about George Orwell but the rest of the group laughed.

by CliffClaven

I have been waiting to read about this trip! I definitely fall in the first category (that will be so interesting) ;)

by hennaonthetrek

I am so looking forward to reading this blog and see your perspective on the country. And I agree with you and Cliff - providing you follow their rules and RESPECT their culture, it is totally safe.

by Grete Howard

I was also one who said that will be so interesting. But I also will admit I was a bit concerned for you when I first heard your plans.

by littlesam1

Simply VERY well done !!!

by Michael Dempsey

An excellent start Sarah to what I anticipate being a series of great entries. Thank you for the reference and link to my own NK (enthusiastic!!!)blog .. I am very pleased I/it inspired you (at least in part) to visit NK and I am even more pleased that you enjoyed your trip. I can't wait for the detail .. and perhaps it will inspire me to write up the remainder of my second trip there !!

by Wabat

I have been looking forward to reading this. Like everyone else from your travel circle, I thought it would be very interesting. And I didn't have any doubt that you would come home being such a seasoned traveler

by Dabs

Brilliant! A great start - I'm looking forward to seeing posts about each place you visited. We are going next July from NZ, probably with Young Pioneer.

by Borisborough

Wow, thanks everyone for the lovely comments. Most came in overnight UK time, so I woke up to this very encouraging level of interest

Some responses:

'Cliff' - we tend not to go back to such far-flung countries but had we only done a short trip in N Korea I am sure we would be wanting to make an exception. As it is, I wouldn't rule out a return visit, but with so many other places to visit (and so little time) it remains unlikely I fear.

Albert, I do hope you get inspired to finish your second visit write-up ;) I'm looking forward to comparing notes bu am resisting the temptation to re-read your old entries until I've written my own!

Larry, as Grete says (and others who have been there will no doubt corroborate), there was never any reason to be concerned for us - but thank you :)

Kristi, our coming home safely was mainly down to the tour company, Regent, not being seasoned travellers :) Although I guess we have enough travel-sense to understand the importance of respecting other cultures and following the rules. However one seasoned (apparently) traveller in our group did push against them excessively, as you will read in future entries!

Steve, you're going to love the trip, I'm sure. If you haven't yet planned your visit (and it sounds as if you haven't) do consider one that takes in the north of the country if you can manage it, as that gives balance to what you see in the more visited south west corner.

And if I haven't mentioned you by name above, I am nevertheless equally appreciative of you reading and commenting on this, and hope to take you all on an interesting journey

by ToonSarah

Very interesting as we just saw Michael Palin's programme on his North Korea trip. ALso a friend of ours from China (Canadian) visited some years ago and showed me his photos. Waiting to hear the next part.!

by Ruth Sheffer

Thank you Ruth. Yes, we saw the Michael Palin programme too and it helped to remind us that we wanted to visit, although Albert was the main inspiration ;) I felt Palin didn't always strike the right note, unusually for him, and pressed his guides too much to talk about topics that should really be off-limits, but it was interesting nevertheless

by ToonSarah

I agree completely Sarah! I was so surprised in the last part how much he was grilling the poor girl who was obviously uncomfortable. I think that his curiosity got the better of him , as usually he is very respectful of other cultures. It is very hard sometimes not to foist one's political or cultural views on others.

by Ruth Sheffer

And I wonder whether he thought TV audiences would expect that of him? But not like him usually, I agree. I also think his usual wry and slightly sardonic tone works well for many destinations but not here

by ToonSarah

As Sarah knows, I agree with what Ruth says about Michael Palin - having been there I found it very uncomfortable watching.

by Grete Howard

Sarah, I gree with your comments on Michael Palin .. I felt that in the main he trotted out the usual text that everyone expects to here... Ruth I too think he overdid it .. While, on a few occasions, I delved into topics generally seen as taboo with (senior) guides I only did it after some time with them and then in private. While they gave little they showed a genuine interest in hearing about outside NK and asked me things they would not have asked in the open group. They know much more about what goes on outside than tourists think .. I assume they are given official briefings (with official explanations) so that they cannot be 'corrupted' by visitors.

by Wabat

Albert, I think it was definitely the case that our lead Korean guide knew a lot about the outside world and understood that we would have a different perspective on things (and also had a very fair understanding of the fact that we would find some of the rules a bit challenging). But our other guide was very young and inexperienced and seemed surprised, even shocked, about the few things we mentioned about 'life outside' - for instance, he refused to believe Chris's comment on one occasion that 'most Americans are nice people'!

by ToonSarah

Wow that itinerary looks great. It really covers the country, I can see why you chose it.

by Teoni

Yes Teoni, it really covered a lot of areas and was perfect for us :)

by ToonSarah

Appetite duly whetted..... ready for more.

by Joanne Machers

Looks great, very good blog of your trip. Looks like a very interesting place to visit.

by Gareth

Thanks so much for visiting, Joanne and Gareth :)

by ToonSarah

A great start on your write-up of your visit to North Korea. I'm looking forward to reading the coming installments.

by Nemorino

Thank you Don, they are on their way - slowly ;)

by ToonSarah

A great start. Looking forward to the next episode. I love the vibrant colours of the dancers and the beautiful smiles of the boys.

by Natalie

Thanks Natalie :) Yes, the colours of the dresses are really vibrant and we saw a lot of women wearing them - not just on National Day but also visiting important sites etc.

by ToonSarah

I don't know that I would want to go to North Korea

Re: passports and visas. When my mother took my 12 year old daughter to China back in 1980 right after the US recognized China in 1979, they also went to Taiwan (and Japan and Hong Kong and Honolulu). They didn't want the immigration people in Taiwan to know that had been to Red China and v.v. So they got two passports. One for China and the other for Taiwan.

Incidentally this was one of the first trips by westerners to most of the places they went, and my daughter who was blond and had blue eyes, and my 71 year old mother had white hair and a Polaroid camera and candy. The children were not rude but they were very curious and wanted to touch my daughter's hair and skin (she was very pale skinned). And my mother would create a riot with the candy. So it was sometimes uncomfortable for my daughter.

by greatgrandmaR

Thanks for visiting Rosalie. I agree, North Korea isn't for everyone - we loved the experience, as did everyone in our group, but perhaps you're right that it wouldn't be for you.

As I said above, these days it doesn't matter if the visa is visible in your passport or not, as electronic records will show which countries you have visited. So no ESTA for me next year, unless the US changes its policy on N Korea again :(

Interesting to hear about your daughter's experience in China!

by ToonSarah

Such a great intro page to your North Korea trip Sarah! I really liked your comparisson with 'visiting a place of worship for a religion', as I totally get what you mean with that. I love that photo of the boys smiling, as it feels so real, and has a vibe that it is almost like being there at that moment myself.

by sim1travels

Thank you Simone :) Those boys had just arrived at the camp and were no doubt excited about their stay!

by ToonSarah

Thank you Sarah for your excellent introduction to visitors to North Korea.
I was completely fascinated by it and knowing that there is no likelihood that we will ever embark on such a trip- both of us now well into our 80's- I look forward to more travels there with you!

by B Snelling

Very interesting. It's not a place I'd want to visit, but it's great to hear your take on it. I'm looking forward to the rest of the blog. I honestly don't know anyone who has been to N. Korea.

Thanks for posting this.

by Beausoleil

Thank you for the lovely comments Sally and B (I'm sorry, I don't know your first name). No, N Korea isn't for everyone but I hope I can provide some interesting reading both for anyone considering a visit and for those who may never go themselves but are nevertheless curious to hear about the experience of travelling there :)

by ToonSarah

Apologies for the delay in reading about your trip Sarah. I'll endeavour to catch up as quickly as I can, but as I read your accounts from beginning to end, it may take me a little while :-)

by Easymalc

No worries about the delay Malcolm - I'd far rather you took your time and enjoyed what you read (and yes, I know my entries are long!) Besides, I will be adding to them quite slowly as our UK tour leader Carl is very kindly checking the drafts before I post so that I can be confident I'm not saying anything inappropriate :)

by ToonSarah

Hello Sarah.

Like many others, amongst whom are numerous names I recognise, I have been looking forward greatly to reading this but have only had the time now as I have been busy gigging in and around Newcastle which I know is dear to your heart.

This is a wonderful introductory page but I would expect nothing less of you. I had only ever had DPRK as a "maybe some day" option but the more I hear from people like yourself and Albert the more seriously I am considering it as I respect you both hugely as travellers and travel writers.

I cannot wait to read the rest of the entries now. Incidentally, given the nature of the country I think it is an excellent idea running your posts past Carl first.

Great stuff.

by Fergy

Hi Fergy, and thanks so much for those lovely comments I know you've been busy but it's great to have you stop by.

As long as you're happy to go with an open mind and a degree of respect, which I know you would be, I do really recommend a visit to the DPRK. I can tell you more about our trip when I see you next month, which I'm very much looking forward to!

by ToonSarah

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