Ever since I saw my first documentary on North Korea in college, the country has fascinated me. It seemed to be such a completely different place than anywhere else in the world; it captivated my imagination. I wanted to know how people lived, worked, and played there. I wanted to know what they thought and how they acted. I never thought that I’d have the chance to go, nor did I think it would even be safe to visit such a place. However, a few months ago, I was chatting with someone at IDA Labs in Singapore, and she had told me that she went to North Korea recently on a tour. I was immediately captivated and dug deeper.
Entrance into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) is actually not too complicated, and almost anyone (except South Korean citizens) can do it. Yes, that means even Americans can go. In order to enter the country, you must go in with a registered tour group. There are many to choose from, but I went with Juche Travel Services and I highly recommend them. There are very few differences between all the different tour groups, since all the tours inside the country are operated and guided by the Korea International Travel Company (KITC), however some groups have access to better guides than others, apparently.
In order to get into North Korea, you have to first get to China. Most tours fly to Pyongyang (the capital) from Beijing, but there are also some flights from Shanghai and Shenyang. There is also an optional overnight train that can be taken, but I generally don’t like the idea of being stuck on a train for half a day. Tourists entering China need to either get a multiple entry visa beforehand or they can use the 72-hour transit visa-on-arrival as long as they bring proof that they have already booked their flight out of China within the 72-hour window. If you are going to do the visa-on-arrival, please be sure to book your flight out of China before arriving in North Korea, as there is no internet access in the entire country.
The night before the trip, Juche Travel organized a group dinner at a North Korean restaurant in Beijing, and it was nice to meet everyone and have some familiar faces for the flight the next day. The dinner consisted of a bunch of Korean and Chinese food, as well as musical performances by some Korean ladies (we didn’t ask if they were from the North or not).
The next day, we headed to Beijing Capital Airport to board our 2-hour-long Air Koryo—the only airline in the world with a 1-star rating—flight to North Korea. The plane was mostly full of Chinese tourists, but there were a few other English speakers that were in other tour groups as well. I sat next to the window over the rear part of the right wing. Looking out the window, I saw Russian words stamped in the metal near the wing flaps. Looks like we weren’t flying in a Boeing or Airbus…
During the entire flight, the TV screens onboard showed videos of North Korean singers performing songs that all sounded very similar. Most of the songs we heard on the plane (and throughout the rest of the trip) all had the same sound as a national anthem—full of pride and gusto—with a little bit of military march thrown in. The flight attendants handed each of us a strange “hamburger” after the plane got to cruising altitude. It did not taste like meat, and was mushy and soggy but edible. One of the people in our group tour asked the flight attendant what the meat inside the burger was, and she told him that it was beef. Later, we found out that another tour group had asked a different flight attendant about the burger and the response that they got was that it was chicken.
As the plane was landing, I could see thousands of workers on the area next to the runway watering the ground, digging, or just standing around. I’d never seen anything like it in my entire life. I’m not sure what they were doing, but apparently the airport is pretty new and they were completing what will probably be the grass area around the runway. However, upon seeing this, the feeling that I was in a truly different place started to sink in.
Going through security definitely took longer than most countries, and it didn’t help that the flight was nearly full. However, overall it took a little over one hour for everyone to get through customs and security. David, the organizer from Juche Travel who had been coming to the country for three years now said it was the fastest he’d ever been through security before. I was able to take in my Macbook, Kindle, camera (point & shoot w/ GPS), iPhone, and battery packs without any issues. They did check the photos on my camera at the security checkpoint, however. Other people brought in iPads and SLR cameras without any issues as well. Religious books are not allowed in the country, and DPRK Travel Guides with photos of the country’s leaders should be kept in very good condition or they would be confiscated.
After getting through airport security, we were standing with our group and our guides came up to us and led us to our bus. It seems that they had already memorized our faces and some of our names. The bus was a standard motor coach with blue cloth seats and large non-tinted windows. We’d be with these guides on this bus for the next 5 days. Since there were only about 20 of us in the group, most of us had space to spread out and take up two seats each.
While leaving the airport and driving down the road towards the capital city of Pyongyang, our main guide Ms. Pang explained to us what we could and could not take photos of. Surprisingly, they were very lax about photography. She said that we could take pictures of anything we wanted except soldiers and we could not cut off or block photos of the Dear Leaders. Additionally, we would not be able to walk around unaccompanied by the guides.
The city of Pyongyang seemed relatively nice and clean, with wide boulevards, lots of trees, parks, lakes, and apartments. Most people were either biking, walking, or on a bus/tram. There were very few cars on the road.
We were first taken to Kim Il-Sung Square to view the preparations for the Mass Dance celebration the next day. When we arrived, the square was full of people in traditional outfits dancing to the beat of traditional North Korean music. It was really a sight to behold, with so many people in different colors moving in unison to the music.
After that, we walked a few blocks over to another building where the bus was waiting for us. During the walk, I noticed a stark lack of advertising that you see in many other cities. Instead, there were a few propaganda posters or slogans up. In fact, during the entire stay, we only noticed one billboard, which was for a local car brand.
We boarded the bus, hungry and weary from travel, and sped off towards the hotel. I couldn’t help but notice that most people in the city are extremely curious about foreigners and will stare at us inside and outside of the bus. When we waved and smiled at them, we’d generally elicit three responses: they’d wave and smile back, continue staring at us, or turn away.
Our dinner at the hotel restaurant consisted of a few different plates: beef and vegetables, sliced lettuce, sliced potatoes, fried fish, and a pork cutlet. Overall, the food was nothing to write home about, but it was fun to chat with the others in the group about how they’d decided to come to North Korea. After dinner ended, we were advised to go to sleep, since we would need a lot of energy for the next day.
I found the decorations in my hotel room to be a blast from the past. It’s as if the 1970’s decided that it was in style again and came to North Korea. Dark, dreary floral shag spread across the floor, while the dark mahogany closets stood in stark contrast to the yellowish-painted walls.
Between the two beds stood a strange radio-looking device. It took me a number of minutes of fumbling around in the dark to realize that they were the lamp switches. It was probably also a listening device.
Since we were not allowed outside of the hotel, I opened the window of my room to take a look outside. The city was quiet, and much of it (except the monuments) dark. The photo below was taken around 10:00pm.
With the long day ahead of me, I decided to head to bed early.