North Korea… 2013Back to Forum
Anonymous28 Jul 2013
North Korea is getting some exposure on Sky News over the past few days. Researching the BT Forum mention of North Korea has only been on this thread:
..not much else.
Has anyone been to North Korea (not just the DMZ) – would be very interested to hear about it – I guess there are no main magazine trip reports!!
How hard is it to get a visa to visit?
All the reports say its a very strange country to visit, which is probably the reason I would love to – surely there must be someone on the Forum that has visited (in the past say 10 – 15 years)……28 Jul 2013
Try this website of a British guy, Nick Bonner, running a travel organisation from Beijing and specialising in trips to North Korea.
They can arrange everything for you from participating in a group tour to individual arrangements. They also assist you in obtaining a visa.
Their website contains very useful and interesting information. Check their FAQ section.
If you dare: be prepared for the travel experience of a lifetime. If you are quite picky on food: stay away, there are no Michelin star restaurants there.28 Jul 2013
I visited North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK) in October 2006. It was a seven day vacation trip organised by Koryo Tours which as Edski says is based in Beijing. Nick Bonner accompanied our group of about ten for the duration of the trip. I can highly recommend Koryo which is a very professional outfit. They are the leaders in travel to DPRK. Nick is a great guy, is extremely knowledgable about the country and is good company.
Koryo will organise your visa in advance. It’s a group visa so disappointingly there is no evidence of your visa in your passport. Neither did they stamp our passports on arrival or departure.
North Korea is not as bizarre as you might expect. The people whom you have a chance to encounter are very friendly. For example on our first day in Pyongyang we visited a park where wedding couples were posing for photographs. Our group was invited to join in one photograph.
The roads are pretty empty especially the highways between cities. Pyongyang is quite eerie at night – dim street lighting and public announcements made over loudspeakers on street poles. The hotels are enormous but with few guests. Visiting the mausoleum of Kim il Sung is unlike anything else. To reach the room where his embalmed body lies, you travel on a very long moving walkway on which you have to remain stationary. At intervals you pass through a machine which blows dust off you! Upon reaching the room where his body lies, you take it in turns to stand and bow before the “Eternal President”.
I can’t remember its name but the area near the palace filled with gifts given to Kim il Sung and Kim Jong il is quite beautiful. In October the forest was filled with autumnal colours.
We flew on Air Koryo from Beijing to Pyongyang on board an ageing Ilyushin 62. You are unlikely to have flown on anything like it. There were announcements praising Kim Jong il and they hand out magazines praising the achievements of the DPRK. The carpeting on board looks like something that has come from Allied Carpets circa 1975.
On the return we took the train from Pyongyang to Beijing via Dandong in the PRC where we had an overnight stay.
I didn’t find the food to be my favourite but they do offer you authentic Korean cuisine and you won’t go short of food. Heineken beer is widely available or at least in hotels open to foreigners.
You will be accompanied at all times by two guides from the official DPRK tourist agency. Our two guides spoke excellent English, were charming, humorous and understated. There’s no attempt to proselytise. They will video your tour and at the end you can buy a DVD of your tour. We never had any difficulty taking photographs but it’s wise to check always before doing so.
One week is about the right length for a visit in my view. You need to treat the experience as a big adventure and adjust your expectations accordingly. In the course of one week it is possible to learn something of Korean culture and you will certainly learn much about Korean contemporary history – at the very least from the DPRK perspective. Be prepared to accept that any opportunity to meet ordinary citizens will be limited but not impossible as our wedding photo experience demonstrates.
By the way BT did do an article some years ago about travel to the DPRK but I can’t remember when. There’s a very good Bradt guide to North Korea too.
I’ve omitted quite a lot but I hope that gives you some flavour, Martyn. I’d encourage you to go. You will be talking about it for a long while after.28 Jul 2013
I must say I’ve always been fascinated by the prospect of a trip to North Korea. I know these days Air Koryo flies the TU204 between Beijing and Pyongyang. There is also the option of taking an Air China 737 for those who are less adventurous but I don’t think there are too many other opportunities to fly the TU204.28 Jul 2013
SenatorGold – many thanks for sharing your experience. North Korea is certainly on my to do list along with climbing Everest (not sure how much of it).
I remember when Albania was closed to all (except Norman Wisdom) and that always held an interest – until the mystery went, once it opened up….
Is North Korea truly the last closed/isolated country …. and I am not looking for a list of Islands stuck in the middle of an ocean :)))??29 Jul 2013
Glad to have been of help, Martyn.
How about Turkmenistan as another (comparatively) isolated country? It’s not quite in the in the same league as North Korea on account of the oil industry, it’s easier to reach (Lufthansa and Turkish fly there) and hotels available, but it is different to say the least.
Koryo Tours also do trips there.29 Jul 2013
I spent a week in the DPRK, with a tour organised by Regent Holidays, which has apparently been organising such tours for over 20 years. Having studied the place at university and done a Masters thesis on it, I was particularly keen on going and it was a remarkable experience.
I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang on an Air Koryo TU-204 and spent a week with two guides and a spook (posing as a guide, but with very little English and easily double their ages). We got to see what I expected to see – a lot of Pyongyang, a trip to the DMZ, overnight stays in two locations outside Pyongyang, and I left by rail all the way to Moscow (once a week a pair of rail carriages got shunted onto the Pyongyang-Beijing train and joined the Trans-Manchurian – this service has apparently been redirected another way).
We gained the trust of our guides, and ended up adding the Art Gallery and the military circus to the itinerary. What I found most fascinating were the conversations with the guides, including guides at the various sites who spoke English. People are more candid one on one when they are outside earshot of others.
The DMZ was a bizarre experience, being very relaxed and laid back, with the ability to take photos and wander around with some ease- completely unlike visiting it from the UN/ROK side. We also visited an orphanage, which was heart-breakingly awful, seeing infants singing and dancing paeans to Kim Jong Il and being told how triplets are taken from their parents to be “especially looked after” by the state. We had the privilege of being walked around the provincial city of Sariwon where thousands of adults and children were practicing for the next ceremony/parade (the calendar is filled with days for the Kims, the military, victories, the party etc etc).
Pyongyang was largely tatty, with roads outside the main showcase streets being severely potholed, and plenty of buildings down side streets crumbling. Power cuts were regular outside Pyongyang. Sanitation was fine, but food was austere although generous. Certainly the National Restaurant in Pyongyang was quite good, but get used to losing weight – you will walk around a lot, and not get high calorie food.
The people who present at various museums and other sites tend to be immaculately presented, predominantly stunning young women who have been impeccably groomed to present the best possible image of the place.
Some of the memories I took away were:
– Museum filled with poorly faked images of Kim Il Sung at various points in early DPRK history where it is claimed he led massive demonstrations (he didn’t);
– The Symphony Orchestra, which was quite magnificent, playing both the eerie manufactured music of the regime, but also popular classics of Mozart, Beethoven and Tschaikovsky;
– Rather good beer brewed at the Yanggakdo Hotel;
– The barely secret brothel in the basement of the Yanggakdo Hotel frequented by car loads of VIPs in black limousines;
– Chinese tourists who told me they came to show the children what life was like when they were children in Maoist China;
– English language students at the Grand People’s Study House who we were asked to talk to, furtively looking around and asking me about south Korea and the outside world;
– One of the guides expressing his ambition to tour various other countries just about making me weep with the sadness of hearing a bright, articulate, intelligent way seek to go out into the world, but trapped in a prison state;
– Arirang mass games in torrential rain, a spectacle that was unmatched in terms of orchestrating tens of thousands of individuals in a single cause of propaganda.
There are more cars in Pyongyang than many say, there is more awareness in Pyongyang than might be talked of and there is much media hype about elements of the place that is unjustified, and too little about other factors.
However, it IS a good thing to go there, for more aliens to be friendly, open and to answer their questions about the rest of the world. I was asked many questions and gave honest answers, and although I didn’t trust the phones (I had a couple of phone calls to the hotel which were always cut off after 1 minute) or to not be listened into in the Yanggakdo hotel (the 5th floor doesn’t appear on the lifts and when accessed by foot has furtive rooms with lots of electronic equipment), I didn’t feel threatened – except when leaving at the border.
That is when there is a chance to go through your photos, but that didn’t happen – what did happen was that my customs declaration form and passport were taken off for processing, and a second official came on board and demanded the same – in Korean. As he got agitated with me (I was alone in the cabin on the train) I was “rescued” by a north Korean “trader” with fluent English and a young Chinese woman who likewise was fluent in Korean and English and literally shouted at the Korean border guard.
He departed, I thanked her and she smiled and said “don’t worry, you get some like that, I’m from the Chinese government” and she looked like she was about 18 in jeans and tshirt.
Once we crossed the Yalu/Amnok River, we got off at Dandong (the stop in China) and I remember saying “I never ever thought I’d say I feel so free arriving in the People’s Republic of China”.
One bit of advice – go to South Korea first, so you can tell those who ask about it. It is the one thing they want to know the most. Take lots of chocolate and small gifts and other items to give to your guides and the guides at various sites you visit.29 Jul 2013
Yes, thank you, Scott. The best travel report I have read in avery long time.
Have any of you read the Inspector O novels by James Church? Church is a pseudonym for a former Western intelligence officer who, presumably, worked in the DPRK. Hidden Moon is the first in the series.
Inspector O is a North Korean police inspector who investigates murder, robberies and other “normal” crimes — except, of course, they are not normal because they’re in North Korea. I’m just finishing the last one (“The Man With The Baltic Stare”) which imagines the dying days of the regime. The books are an acquired taste: Inspector O doesn’t usually know what he’s investigating so there’s never a solution in the usual sense.29 Jul 2013