Travelling to North Korea – Where Preconceptions and Reality Collide

It’s been a month since I returned from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and I’ve just about got to a point where I feel I can write about it, or at least try to share the experience in some coherent form. Travelling to North Korea for seven days threw my heart and mind into overdrive. I was overwhelmed, confused, upset, surprised and generally lost for words – so much so that I haven’t been able to get them out for such a long time.

To say my perceptions were challenged is an understatement. Living in the western world means that I have always been exposed to a one-sided and exaggerated view point of what goes on there; a biased view that never mentions anything positive and which masks any forms of progress that might just pave the way for a better future, even if it does evolve slowly from an extreme belief system. It’s a country held high as the ultimate war trophy, whose extreme ideological policies (which I in no way condone) are mocked and seen as evil, rather than put into context and explained. Afterall, the more we learn, the less inclined we are to make assumptions – I too had made many prior to my visit.

Getting to North Korea

You can’t travel in North Korea unless you are in a guided tour group. It’s very restricted and you almost feel as though you live on the tour bus as you can’t wander around freely – you have two guides who chaperone you every step of the way. It’s a completely different way of travelling, and as held back as you feel, the local people simply are not used to western faces and so this form of control allows them a slow introduction.

I went with Koryo Tours, given their great reputation. Not only is it very expensive to go to North Korea, it’s also somewhere that I can’t just frequent regularly or easily, and so I wanted my trip to be the best it could possibly be. With the tour starting and ending in Beijing, and all your visa requirements taken care of, the whole process was hassle free.

The night before I remember sitting with a guy in my Beijing hostel, who was also going, and getting giddy at the thought of going to a country that not many people visit, or even know you can get to. In the morning, we were like two children on Christmas Day: “We are going to North Korea! I can’t believe it! I am so excited!” which was quickly followed by “I’m scared”. Really scared of the million rules and regulations we had to adhere by, scared of what we might see, doing something wrong and being in trouble… and scared of what I would end up feeling.

In the departure lounge, nervousness and excitement was expressed through a mutual exchange of our knowledge and opinions as well as immature humour. We thought it best to get the jokes out of the way before landing in Pyongyang – the mimicking of the Team America “I’m so wonley” film scenes, pondering over whether we would get to eat hamburgers invented by Kim Jong Il and so on. Better to get everything out of our system before we were exposed to the exaggeration, propaganda and overshadowed facts for real where we would have to keep a straight face.

North Korea – Where Your Initial Perceptions are Challenged

Pyongyang, where tour is mostly be based, isn’t a grim and frightening ghost town. Looking out from the top of the hotel, you are afforded with a view just like any other big city, including skyscrapers, factories, monuments and mass housing. And before you scream “It’s all fake and set up”, you really can’t create fake on that scale. I thought Pyongyang would be a small concrete city housing the country’s most elite people, hidden from view. Instead it sprawls for miles and miles and looks just like any other city, except it’s scattered with propaganda posters, mosaics and bronze sculptures of the Kims.

There is no denying that some of it is for show. The city gleamed with new and pristine buildings, built in the grand imposing communist style façade of dominance, modern progression and increasing wealth; statues so immense that their towering presence automatically created an air of intensity, artistic propaganda posters you can’t miss and shop fronts we too often take for granted when at home but which were, in fact, empty.

Aside from that, it was a functioning city full of local people going about their daily lives. Whether that was the queue for a building we could only assume is a ration station (hence the lack of need for shops?), the pockets of people disappearing underground to use the Metro station or walking en masse to the office, or the mothers out with their children, we got a glimpse of daily life.

Daily life that is in some parts similar but also very different to our own, but nonetheless, not a giant hell hole of extreme poverty, malnourished unhappy people and mass electricity blackouts. I’m not denying the existence of this, but I do truly believe that it is not on the scale we are told about. A city with absolutely no electricity and a mass of starved, brainwashed people makes for a great news article, doesn’t it? Although this does exist throughout the country, as footage shows.

When we drove out of the city we did pass shanty type towns with run-down buildings. It wasn’t pretty and people looked less affluent. This was a real glimpse into how some of the population live outside of the capital. Construction was taking place everywhere, yet we still wondered why many people were wandering around aimlessly, or living in semi-completed buildings. However, I’ve also seen similar neighbourhoods in China and other parts of Asia, where buildings are left to rot rather than being maintained and where wealth distribution is unbalanced. I wouldn’t say this housing is unique to North Korea.

However, what shocked me the most was the beautiful countryside in Nampo and around – rolling hills of green and yellow crop plantations, trees and orchards. In a land that has around 70% mountainous terrain, it looked pretty impressive. Our British guide told us that North Korea had admitted to bad farming practice and that it lacked knowledge about beneficial methods, but it looked as though things are improving. I’m no farmer, but I wasn’t expecting to see so much green and grain. Whilst this may not produce a plentiful supply for the entire population, there is food, although I have no doubt that it’s far from enough or distributed properly (hence the need for international aid). Still, our visit to an apple factory with its investment of millions of pounds worth of equipment looks as though a slow growth of manufacture and export is on the cards.

Are People Brainwashed?

Absolutely, but when you look into it a bit more deeply, we all are cut from an ideology of the society we are brought up in, except that in North Korea it is on a very extreme scale to what we will ever know. From what I observed, the North Korean people know of nothing else and by having no comparison from which to become despondent (except the few who obtain information and later defect), it appears they live in a world they assume is normal and from that have a genuine love for the Kims – nearly everybody wears a pin badge bearing one or both of them and many bow to the statues before work in the morning. They believe in everything they have been told as they have never known the full facts, or been given the means to find out or make a personal judgement. If you knew of NOTHING else, what would you do?

My point is that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge a nation of people without looking at their ideology in context. It upsets me that people have to live in such isolation in this day and age. We, in the western world, are lucky to live in societies where we have freedom of speech, freedom of expression, access to information and means from which to realise our aspirations and make informed choices, but we shouldn’t be so quick to brand a nation of people as odd, weird or crazy when they have no clue and are just going about their normal lives – the normal they know. It’s the regime we should be judging, but judging it in scale to our own.

Yes, nearly all of it is wrong, but it also doesn’t mean that the western world is perfect in comparison. Some argue that by visiting North Korea you are helping to fund the regime or government’s objectives, but remember this applies to many countries open to tourism. Think of the corrupt governments that still exist in Asia and the Middle East, but you still don’t think twice about heading there.

In fact, North Koreans are some of the kindest people I have ever met. Our guides were easy-going, approachable, witty and caring. Of course you couldn’t talk to them about half the stuff you would gossip about at home, or try and inform them of the facts behind the Korean War. This would be imposing and they wouldn’t believe you, and when it comes to be known it would have to be fed to them very slowly. Could you imagine how much of a shock that would be? Still, beyond the historical ‘facts’ they had to tell and the rules they had to impose (since they would be in serious trouble over any of our irresponsible actions) they weren’t lifeless robots. They became our friends, just like any other person.

On National Day we walked through a park where hundreds of locals were celebrating with their families, laying out a huge picnic, firing up the barbeques, playing music and dancing. While some were unsure of us, giving a stare that suggested a slight fear of the unknown and given what they have probably been told about the western world and its people, the majority were welcoming, offering food and pulling us into their dancing circles. Holding hands and smiling, it was the only reassurance we could provide that we are not all bad, and I feel that is a positive start to what is slow but positive change in this country.

What Do You Get to See in North Korea?

A trip to North Korea is not complete without the sites they want you to see – the show pieces of the regime, the points of hero worship – such as Kim Il Sung Square and the statue we had to bow to, the Tower of Juche Idea, the Founding Party Monument, the captured US spy ship USS Pueblo, Kim Il Sung’s native home etc.

Would you believe me if I told you that we also went to a fairground and bowling alley, places built for the locals and not just for western entertainment? Local hang outs, where people actually have fun? Of course, when imposing such a strong ideology on people, you have to keep them happy and occupied – distraction keeping the ideological machine in motion. At least they have something aside from the propaganda ridden TV channels. They are great at karaoke though, an Asian passion which hasn’t died here.

The main downside to what you see is the imposed order and structure as well as the exaggerated explanation, yet this is what you expect before you come on the trip. Some things you visit, such as a farm collective, appear a little too set up with the people ‘placed’ there, which didn’t feel right or real. But you only had to look into the distance to get a better picture, without taking an actual photograph. Most things you experience in North Korea can only stay in your mind.

Propaganda literature and videos give an extremely one-sided argument to the history of the Korean War (which is frustrating but you have to grin and bear it), everything is built in what they call ‘chollima time’ (“This would normally take five years to build, but we built it in three!”), local guides gush about Kim Il Sung more than you would declare the love you feel for your parents (he is often referred to as  ‘my father’), films detailing milestones of the country such as the building of the West Sea Barrage dam are long, tedious and full of descriptions of the ‘revolutionary spirit’ behind its construction (although they do warrant a quiet giggle amongst your group), and every place of high importance bears a plaque of when one or both of the Kims made a visit, alongside a giant painting of them just to put the cherry on top. This can become very tiring but does give a solid insight into the way the minds of the people have been moulded and the lessons to be learnt from that.

Be Open-Minded

North Korea strikes me as the kind of place that paints of picture of what China must have been like in its early days of revolution – ox and cart farming, collectives and a desperate thirst for industrialism. While places of communist past have or are slowly moving on, becoming ‘socialist’ and slightly more progressive, North Korea lags behind by still keeping an ultimate grip on its people, yet struggling with the realisation that it needs to develop, trade and open up with the rest of the world in order to sustain itself in the modern age.

A country still at war, striking fear into the heart of its people is the only way it maintains control. This is something my generation in particular doesn’t understand as many of us have never had to live in a country in serious conflict with another. Whilst we would all love to see a united Korea, it wouldn’t be that easy. Think of the differences between East and West Berliners when the wall came down. Two ideologies and different ways of life colliding; two economic and education systems trying to integrate. I couldn’t imagine this would be an easy process of bringing immediate peace, but hopefully I will see some movement towards this in my lifetime.

Over 1,500 tourists visit North Korea annually. That’s 1,500 more than we ever thought possible. From what we were told from the Koryo Tours representative with us, the more time goes by, the more tourists are allowed to see and do – a two-way trust process that slowly grows, where we can show the North Koreans a positive side to the Western world and its people and where we can try and understand them.

There are two sides to every story, and while there is a lot wrong with this country, there’s a lot that’s positive. You just have to see for yourself and pass it on. Maybe one day the people will harness the power for change or the ideological system will change, much like China. Only then can we be friends without restriction. 

Comments

  1. says

    Great post about something we rarely hear! It’s funny, I went on a tour of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea a few years ago, and was rolling my eyes at the lines we were fed by our guides; the South Koreans call their village on one side of the border ‘Freedom Village’ whilst the one on the other side is called ‘Propaganda Village’. Depends who’s telling you the story, hey.

  2. says

    Great post! I love reading about another side of traveling, especially to a place so controversial and so few people have been to.

  3. says

    Fascinating Becki… I have wanted to do this tour since reading Michael Turtle’s experiences and your account has only reinforced my intrigue… one day maybe. Pushing aside all the mixed feelings you must have felt and still feel, it’s an experience and a half! Frankie x

  4. says

    Interesting post. I consider myself to be somewhat of a North Korea-phile and have flirted with the idea of visiting. I really enjoyed reading your observations, but still wonder how much is shown to tourists to make them believe just this. I have no doubt that North Korean people are kind and great people, just as their countrymen to the south, but the tour is organized and approved by the government, which is the problem. Have you read any books by defectors? I’m not saying any of their stories are the norm, but it paints a scary picture as to how many North Koreans live and the horrors that the government (which, unlike the people of DPRK, deserves to be judged) commits.

    Really great post and photos, though! I enjoyed it a lot, even if it seems like I didn’t :)

    • says

      No, I totally agree with you. The tour is approved by the government, of course. It is very controlled and you can’t walk off freely, although to be fair the local people are not used to westerners so I wouldn’t even want to walk off until the country is a bit more open and the local people are more used to interaction and don’t feel so scared of us! I just feel that my most insightful observations were those when we were travelling for hours and just staring out the bus window, or on National Day when we could not be controlled around hundreds of locals. That was a pretty special time and the government couldn’t control any of that. Hence the confusion in what to feel about the place… I guess that feeling will never go away!

  5. says

    Becki, great post! Really fascinating. I live in South Korea, just 40kms from the border and I’ve always imagined what Pyeongyang and tours to the North involve. Well written and I’m looking forward to reading about the rest of your travels!

      • Oscar says

        I’m heading off to North Korea this friday with Koryo Tours this friday for a week, and reading about your post makes me feel more mentally prepared. :D
        However though, it would be impossible for Shauna to visit the DPRK, as South Koreans and South Korean passport holders are banned from entering the country.

        • says

          Oscar, nowhere in Shauna’s post did she say that she is South Korean, only that she lives there. It’s perfectly permissible for foreign residents in South Korea to visit the North. There are also a few resorts in North Korea that cater to South Korean tourists, as well as industrial zones that have South Korean employees.

  6. says

    Sorta amazed you bought any of the crap that the North Korean government tossed at you. That country is perhaps the saddest example of a repressive, xenophobic, cruel government still around today. Its citizens are paid to spy on each other. They are totally cut off from the outside world, so as to continue the internal myth that they are “the richest country in the world.” Reports indicate that hundreds of thousands — hundreds of thousands — North Koreans have died of starvation since the early 1980s. Medical reports indicate the average North Korean is 5+ inches shorter than the average South Korean, because of the lack of nutrition. Amnesty International reports that there are over 200,000 political prisoners (almost 1% of their total population) currently. Their economy is in shambles.

    Its a simple tragedy what the North Korean population has had to undergo under the dictators that have ruled with an iron fist for decades. The only thing in summary I can ask is that if things really didn’t seem that bad to you, could you imagine living there? For a year? For a month?

    • says

      I haven’t ‘bought’ into any government crap – I am more intelligent than that. I went there fully aware of these things. My point with this post is that I also saw things in the DPRK that appear to point to progress in a repressive regime, even if very little. The mere fact tourists are being let in and control of groups is becoming less is an example. I do not in anyway condone the kind of shit that goes on there, but I think it’s important to mark progress in the hope that this starts a cycle of change, even if it does take a very long time. And it’s also important to remember that people travel to many other countries where just as much evil takes place, not just here. We can’t change the world, but we can hope for change. Trying to see things and understand them is all we can do. That is all.

    • says

      I have. I am not saying that EVERYTHING about the DPRK is positive, just that when you go there you do see the other side of things as well, which is a form of progress in a very difficult and controlled place.

      • Alyssa says

        I have 6th grade student that just escaped from North Korea. He seems to have a different opinion than you. I’m sure he knows the “other side of things” a lot better than you since, after all, you were on a tour. A tour which only shows what they want people to see.

        • says

          I think you may have missed the point of my article, which has a focus on Western bias and the need to see more than one viewpoint. I do not condone the political and social actions of the North Korean government nor have I ever expressed to know more about the country than a North Korean. I have no doubt your student is much better off out of there and I wish him all the luck in his new life.

  7. says

    Wow, what a great post. So glad to have found it through a rt on Twitter! I studied abroad in South Korea in college and visited the DMZ which for me was a mind blowing experience considering the enormity of what it represented. And yet thanks to travelers like you, the world can see the other side-one free of biases and misrepresentations.

    • says

      Thank you. I am keen to get to South Korea, not just to see it but to also see their perspective on everything. I hear from people that they have just as much propaganda about the situation! I just believe in seeing a place for yourself before making an opinion – different forms of media are very one-sided, even though really bad things are going on there without a doubt. The DMZ is a very odd place, isn’t it?

  8. says

    Really interesting post – often I wonder when and how countries like North Korea, Iran and Pakistan will (re)open to tourism and what will be found. Very envious of your experience!

    • says

      Very true. I am keen to go to Iran and Pakistan but I know it’s difficult… Pakistan more so. But all in good time. It’s a shame as many of these places have very beautiful aspects top them.

  9. says

    This is a great piece becki! It’s great to see an actual honest look into North Korea, not the propaganda journalism you usually see. Thanks for sharing! I’m actually keen to going to both North and South Korea on my Asia travels, thanks so much for a really insightful blog post! New to your blog, but loving following your journey :) I’ve even started one too! http://sophieonawander.wordpress.com/ xx

  10. Habbit says

    I currently live in and work in Japan and would love to travel to North Korea! I’m also over the propaganda and brainwashing Western governments impose on its own people… for example, Japan is not the pristine and lovely this-is-what-happens-when-you-Westernize society the United States and Britain make it out to be. But Japan does (almost) whatever the West tells it to do, so it’s ok to ignore the
    backwards way of thinking that pervades the government here.

    Anyway, glad you had fun, I’m looking forward to my own trip there, though I hear its difficult to do if you’re an American.

    • says

      We have to remember that not everything in North Korea is perfect but that we must view it outside of the boundarties of our own westernised propaganda. No one is right. It is slightly harder for an American but not as difficult as it used to be. I had Americans on my tour and everything was fine – go for it!

  11. Abi says

    Becki,

    Thanks for writing a wonderful post. I was actually looking for some information about NK as a lone traveller and your post has given me sufficient info. I would like to able to travel to such difficult and challenging places. Lets see when can i find that opportunity.Thanks for your post.Look forward to more of it.

    • says

      It was very difficult to deal with, especially when you think what happens there that we don’t see. I only hope that the small things I saw that were positive lead to change…eventually. I’m glad you found the post useful!

  12. Abbas says

    When I read your blog I said “YES” she is right. This is how it should be. Whenever I read about North Korea in western media, I would says things don’t add up. On one hand the picture given is abject poverty and on other hand you see photos of people well dressed with shining faces. Media gives a picture in black and white but reality is Grey.

    In a nutshell, it is only one side of story we always hear and that too in extreme.

    BTW, do not compare Pakistan with North Korea. Pakistan is a democratic country where people are free to speak their mind. Prime minister and President are ridiculed on TV 24 hours a day. However, now a days it is dangerous for tourist to visit but it is open for tourism and people do visit Pakistan, specially the northern part.

    • says

      That’s half the problem – the media. The other problem is the horrible stuff we will NEVER know about, compounded with the assumptions the western world makes. I’ve never been somewhere that has messed with my head so much.

      BTW, I never compared Pakistan to North Korea. If you re-read the comment it was in context of wanting to travel to places that are slightly difficult (in parts).

  13. says

    Great post Becki, it sounds like a very fair and reasonable description of how we get to see North Korea as Westerners. I’ve never been (just stepped one foot in at the DMZ!) but seriously considered it a few years ago but couldn’t afford it at the time! It really sounds fascinating though. I’m glad you got to experience it. Definitely visit South Korea, it’s fantastic, I loved it.

    • says

      I’m really keen to get to South Korea and hope to be there in the next few months. Will be good to also see their perception of things. I hope you get to visit North Korea – seems like you have been thinking about it for a long time!

  14. Heather J. says

    Hi Becki!

    I was reading your post about your visit to North Korea and it was inspiring. Thank you for including anecdotes from your trip, and the pictures to go along with were really valuable. I wanted to ask about the Koryo tours- I heard in order to pass the test to see if you can go on the tour of North Korea, you have to sing karaoke with the tour guides. Is this true? Did you have to be ‘approved’ to be accepted into the tour? I would like to go someday, but found it odd that one may have to sing karaoke to be approved.

    Thank you!

    Heather in California

  15. Brian says

    Heading there this Saturday with a school group organized by the same tour group. We get to do many of the things you mentioned in addition to visiting a secondary school with one-on-one conversations with their students and teachers. Excited. Thank you for your post.

    • says

      We went to the school too and I didn’t like the whole set up of it. It was too forced and the children were made to perform on stage – over and over again. I deliberately left that out of my overview. It was very hard to watch.

  16. says

    Becki you are very brave to do that travel because we always hear bad things about NK so it is very interesting see a new view’s point. , I have a question, is it true that you have to pay for your guide in the hotel, I mean if you are for example a week in the hotel your guide are in the same hotel and you pay their bill?thank you

    • says

      There is still a lot of bad things happening there that we do not see and which, sadly, we will never know. I just think we have to work harder to coax them into a better way forward.

      As mentioned in my post, the tour you go on includes everything, including the guides. You do not pay any extra on top as all of that is arranged for you. Hope that helps!

  17. Sophie says

    Just amazing. Such a fascinating country. I’ve wanted to visit China for a few years so what a perfect way to combine North Korea with China. Love it. NK is definitely on my list. Your blog writing is brilliant too!

  18. Tom Bradshaw says

    Great article Becki. Definitely gave me a different view on the country! You’re right that people are just people wherever you go and we’re all ‘victims’ of our own circumstance. Countries like this are so fascinating though, I’d like to see what Turkmenistan is really like too.

  19. Aldwin says

    Totally agree. April 2012, we were on a 10 day trip with Koryo Tours there. And it’s so difficult to explain this to people. Why did you go there? Why? … Because to see and feel it myself. To make up my own mind. Indeed, they don’t know themselves, so I see them happy in their own world. Are we more happy? I think I hear more complaining day in day out, morning till evening, on every blog, on every article, … fake smiles, hypocricy, acting, … than what is happening in the daily life of a DPRK citizen. My biggest shock was reaching Dangdong by train in the evening, out of the DPRK, and suddenly all the advertisment attacking me. I was 10 days of my life not influenced by advertisment, just had to follow the guide without thinking. Both is tiring, … Thank you for the article.

  20. says

    I have been wanting to go to the DRNK since I started traveling. It seems like such a interesting experience. I understand what you were trying to get at with this post and I’m sorry that some people took such offence to it. I LOVE IT! I loved that there were some positive aspects that you saw, even as little as they were. I will have to get in touch with you when I do head that way, because it’s going to happen…. just don’t tell my mother! Ha!

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