This is definitely a ”first” for many and, for most, a last as well. It is not that North Korea is not an interesting country, in its own way, or that it is not worth going to, but its remoteness, its lack of contacts with the outside world (there are only a couple of direct flights from the Sunan International Airport that operate on a daily basis, mostly to China and Russia) and the constant feeling of being watched and carefully supervised make it a place I would not want to go back to. So, bottom line, if you are willing to accept restrictions on your freedoms and travel back to Stalinist times, this is definitely an adventure not to be missed. You will be one of only 2,000 annual foreign visitors in the country.
Since we are talking limitations on travel, your flight will likely come in from Beijing. You do need a tourist visa to get into North Korea, but usually this is not a problem (unless you are a journalist, which would kick the ball into a completely different dimension and make this a double-adventure issue) and is usually handled by one of the travel agents that will take care of your trip (no, this is not one of those trips where you buy your flight tickets on Expedia and send an email to your chosen hotel – you’ll need a professional agent). If you have trouble getting a visa (residents of some countries do) then consider signing up for a teaching job teaching English, the employer will take care of the legalities of entry into the country.
The first thing that will shock you in the airport is that your passport is retained “for security issues”. It is never very clear whether it is your security they are worried about or the security of the country itself (you dangerous traveler you) or that of the Kim triad (to which we will refer later in this article).
The most revered Kim is Kim Il Sun, Eternal Leader, which translates into his picture being posted through the city (and country). You will be amazed to see he has not aged a bit, despite being dead since 1994. Kim Il Jung, Dear Leader, joined him recently, to the dismay and sadness of the entire nation. His successor, Kim Jong Un, is yet to be named, although Great Successor seems to be the word of choice. As a good word of advice, restrain yourself from saying anything bad about all these leaders and their policies, no matter how absurd you feel they are (and they are, they really are): you are likely to be under some sort of surveillance throughout your trip. Your tour will cover at least one or two of Kim Il Sun’s statues and you will be asked to lay a wreath of flowers at his mausoleum (you would be wise to comply with this request).Much of the architecture you will see around the capital is a combination of Stalinist architecture (read “monstrous buildings”) and veneration of the three Kims that have led the country since its independence and appearance as a nation in 1948. Some of the interesting architectural points on your tour will be the Juche Tower, the Palace of Culture and the Arch of Triumph (not quite the same as Napoleon’s).
If you do get a chance to go outside of the capital, you will likely be surprised by the wide highways with almost no cars on them, as well as, in general, the strangeness of activities such as cutting the grass by hand or cleaning the pavement by hand. You will become used to the guide telling you about the “greatest” this and the “largest” that – some of these are even true: the largest hotel in the world was started in Pyongyang, but construction was stopped because of a lack of funds. There remains a gruesome silhouette that dominates the city.
FUN FACTS ABOUT NORTH KOREA
- The work day in North Korea has a three hour rest period in the afternoon. Kind of Mediterranean, isn’t it?
- Many buildings have no elevators because of uneven intervals between the floors.
- North Koreans must abide by state mandated rules about their clothing and hairstyles, so everyone looks more or less the same.
- Kim Jong Il’s biography states that he was born under a double rainbow.
- Traffic lights have an additional, fourth light (blue), signaling when the car can turn right. This is when they work…
NOT SO FUN FACTS ABOUT NORTH KOREA
- North Korea has the fifth largest military in the world, with 20 % of the population aged 17 to 54 in the army
- Military spending is around 25 % of the North Korean GDP
- It is believed that North Korea has at least 6 nuclear weapons.
- 60% of North Korean children suffer from malnutrition, with most of the food going to the military
Before you go (or instead of) watch the Dutch documentary “Welcome to North Korea”, which won an Emmy award for best documentary in 2001 (yes, it will still be relevant today).
This is really an adventure trip, because, wherever you are coming from, it is likely you have only experienced this if you lived in Stalinist Soviet Union in the 1930s or in some of the former Communist states in Europe. It is an experience worth undertaking, if only to understand what happens when there are no checks and balances, when groups of individuals are allowed limitless power and when they decide to run social experiments on the population they are supposed to be serving. On the adventure side, have no fear: stick with the rules, respect what your guide says, don’t speak badly of the Leaders and you will be all right to tell the story.