North Korea is one of the most widely spoken-about, secretive countries on Earth – but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to visit. We spoke to a handful of intrepid travelers who have made the trip to find out what it’s really like to visit North Korea.
Going on holiday to North Korea
What surprised you?
Denis Sharpe visited North Korea in 2017 and was surprised by the special treatment given to tourists: “It is a very authoritarian state, however tourists get a reasonable amount of leeway in terms of what you can do, and some ‘preferential’ treatment inevitably takes place. Though you are still expected to show respect to various monuments and images of their leaders whenever it was deemed necessary.”
“One thing I found surprising was the amount of technology and consumer goods that were in the country. There is actually a department store full of consumer goods that you would find in a market-led economy. As I was there for New Year, we were taken to Kim Il Sung Square, where there was a fireworks display at midnight – complete with many North Koreans filming on mobile phones.”
They have pizza & fried chicken
“Korean-style food was very much on order most days, so kimchi, hot pot, even one serving of dog soup. The new regime has made efforts to offer more cosmopolitan cuisines in Pyongyang though. For example, we were taken to a fried chicken restaurant, and had a pizza on the tour bus one day (complete with Pizza Hut packaging).”
Did you encounter a lot of propaganda?
“Propaganda in relation to the Korean War is all over. At the Korean War Museum You’re shown various American tanks and planes and firearms captured by the Korean army, and then shown a video about North Korea’s version of events. It’s often best to nod along in agreement and not challenge the information presented to you, who knows what would happen if you disagreed too vehemently?”
It’s actually fairly safe if you play by the rules
Tom McShane, operations director of adventure travel company Secret Compass, went to North Korea in 2016: “North Korea is actually very safe to travel as a tourist, and the guides are very charming and hospitable. There is practically zero crime, and we were briefed up by the guides about the rules. We were aware of the implications if you flout those rules, such as what happened to Otto Wambier, but as long as you are sensible it is all mostly common sense.”
It’s a beautiful country
“I think the biggest surprise though was just the sheer beauty of the landscapes we were traveling in,” says Tom. “The mountains were beautiful, and as we were trekking in autumn all of the trees displayed amazing colors of reds, and orange.”
The food can be pretty good
“We mostly ate at the hotels when away from Pyongyang, but when we were in the city we got an opportunity to visit some of the restaurants. One of the big highlights of this trip was the variety and quality of the food. I was surprised just how good it was. It was mostly Korean style, but also had some North Korean specialities such as cold noodle soup, which is traditionally served at wedding banquets. We also visited a restaurant in Wonsan for lunch which served amazing fresh fish.”
The people are lovely
“Most of the people we encountered were going about their normal lives, whether it was commuting in the cities, or working in the farms in the countryside. Most people we did engage with were obviously working in the service industry. Everyone was incredibly courteous, polite and well mannered. The guides were exceptional, with incredible English, senses of humor and knowledge.”
The hotels are decent and varied
“We got to stay in a big tower based on an island in Pyongyang. It has a bowling alley and karaoke bar, and effectively contains the tourists on the island. We stayed in a guesthouse in Myohyhang which felt a little Chinese in style, and we got to stay in a hotel at the new ski resort, which was of a very high standard.”
There’s an International Friendship Museum
“The International Friendship Museum has over 100,000 gifts presented to the Great Leaders. There is a taxidermied crocodile from Nicaragua, a bulletproof car from Stalin, and a train from Chairman Mao, which is all situated deep within a mountain. It was truly bonkers!”
You can visit no man’s land
Freelance travel writer Lucy Corne took a trip to North Korea in 2008 and got to see the demilitarized zone (DMZ) – a buffer zone between the neighboring countries – from both the north and south sides. “It was very interesting to visit the demilitarized zone tour from the north as we had also done it from the south. We discovered that both sides feed propaganda: for example in the south they tell you there are no trees in the north and that the building at the DMZ is just a facade with nothing behind it, which is not actually true.”
What surprised you?
Freelance journalist Tamara Hinson visited in 2011 and said: “The scale of everything really surprised me: the size of the monuments, the amount of people at the mass games. Also, I was surprised by how far we could get out of Pyongyang.”
“We were allowed to meet ‘locals’ on set occasions (co-op farms, a school and so on) and it was probably all staged. I found it weird thinking that often just out of sight there could be a prison camp: some are the size of entire counties and close to Pyongyang but when you’re in a tour group you follow a very set route. When you’re in hotels at night you’re not allowed to leave.”
Did you feel safe?
“There were three minders on our tour, as there is with most groups of tourists. There are three so they can keep an eye on each other. The British leader of my group told me how years ago someone on one of his groups had been caught wearing glasses with a hidden camera, which is the most stupid thing to do. The North Korean guide was very upset because it all blew up, everyone knew and word could have potentially got back that this had happened on her watch and she’d be punished.”
You aren’t just responsible for your own safety
“Our British tour leader told us that sometimes he’ll come back to the country to do a tour and ask about a guide he’s been allocated on previous occasions, and has been told that he’s “been sent to the countryside”, which essentially means he’s been sent to a prison camp. So you know that if you do something wrong you aren’t just risking your own safety but also the safety of the North Koreans accompanying you.”
Could you ask questions?
“You’re told very clearly as part of the briefing not to ask too many questions. For example, I asked our British guide where Kim Jong Il lived (I went just before he died) and he told me to be quiet, as many North Koreans view him as a demi-god who doesn’t do normal things like use the toilet and live in a house.”
What were the rules like?
“There are loads of rules: don’t fold anything with any of the Kims’ faces on the cover so the crease goes across his face, which applies to things like the copy of the Pyongyang Times you’re given on the flight over there. The minders tell you off if you take a picture of a statue of the Kims which cuts off their feet or arms.”
Would you go back?
“You don’t really spend much money while you’re there as there’s not much to spend it on: everything is pretty much included in tours, but you do go to the odd shop. North Korea desperately wants cash to fund dodgy smuggling and other enterprises, such as money laundering. Plus, tourists visiting gives money to the regime through paying for the hotels, meals and more.”
“It’s such a crazy, awful place and there’s nowhere like it in the world, but I also think people underestimate how awful the stuff is that you don’t see. After my trip, I met Shin Don Hyuk, a former prisoner who escaped a North Korean prison camp and is now a human rights activist, and read about other defectors’ stories. Shin is in his late forties but was born in a prison camp and as a child was forced to watch his mother be executed for plotting an escape.”
There’s not such thing as dinner & a view
North Korea tour company manager Simon Cockerell has been to North Korea 159 times since 2002. Dining out, he says, is very much the domain of the wealthy in North Korea, but it’s not about showing off: most restaurants have boarded up windows. “Some of the restaurants have incredible views, but nobody can see them,” he explains. “It’s pretty gross to be stuffing your face in the window of a restaurant in Pyongyang, so they don’t have outdoor seating either – it’s not considered a classy thing to do.”
There’s plenty of food on offer
Due to past famines in North Korea, explains Simon, many tourists go with the expectation that there will not be enough food for everyone to eat. “I have been on tours when some people have brought in with them vast amounts of food, to the point where if they were given nothing to eat on the trip they would still have more than enough just from what was in their case.”