When people ask me about my previous travels, there’s one destination that generates more interest than all the others: North Korea. I visited the country exactly one year ago, so now is a good time for me to look back and share my experiences.
“You’ve been to North Korea? Is that even possible?”
There are a lot of misconceptions about traveling to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea. For starters, a lot of people don’t even know that it’s possible. Sure, you can’t just walk across the border and find a local CouchSurfing host. You can, however, book a trip with a travel company surprisingly easily. The whole process – including filling a form for visa application – felt extremely simple when compared to, for example, applying for a visa to Russia.
Still, there are some limitations for traveling to North Korea. Especially South Koreans and journalists have harder time getting to the country, but even for them it’s not completely impossible. I know reporters who have gotten into the country on a tourist trip without problems by just naming some other profession in their application.
The same web of rumours and confusion applies to other impressions about DPRK. When we read about North Korea, we seem to be ready to uncritically believe almost anything that’s said about the country. A few years ago, a story about North Korea claiming their astronaut landed on the sun went viral. Another video showed North Korean TV news showing badly edited material of North Korea winning the football World Cup.
Many people believed these stories to show authentic pieces of North Korean propaganda. So, were they right? No, they were not! Both of the videos were parodies, but not many people realized that. Even appreciated media organizations fell for these scams and reported them as the real thing.
Surely, we wouldn’t believe weird things about North Korea if they didn’t somehow reflect reality. The claims and pretension of the North Korean government can seem almost as far-fetched as the mock-ups. Besides, the secrecy of the country isn’t really stopping the rumours form circling around.
So, what is it like to visit North Korea?
Amazing. Baffling. Mind-boggling. A bit stressful and paranoid.
Visiting North Korea for just four days was definitely the most powerful travel experience I’ve ever had – and will probably ever have. As our tour came to an end, I even felt a little bit of sadness as I thought that there weren’t any other places left in the world that could offer similar experiences.
The side of North Korea that’s shown to tourists has sometimes been described as the world’s largest puppet theatre. There’s a certain element of truth here, as the tours are strictly controlled and supervised. A lot of museums and services are only there for tourists, and some minor events – such as seeing the same man on a bicycle three or four times in different parts of Pyongyang during the same day – seem too bizarre to be coincidental.
There were a lot of moments when the act couldn’t withstand further inspection. If the The Grand People’s Study House has over 150,000 visitors every day, why are the front doors locked when we arrive? And why can we see only less than a hundred people in the building? The hotel officially has six elevators, but why no more than two of them seem to operate?
At the same time, the scale and “realness” of the North Korean society struck me. I don’t mean that I believe the claims of their propaganda, but within the borders are just authentic human beings living their daily lives. The people I met and saw had same kind of feelings and needs as everyone of us: they smiled, they told jokes and they looked tired if they had not slept enough (which happened very often). These small details brought the humane depth to the country. These people might live in a very strange system, but besides that, there’s nothing extraterrestrial or abnormal about them.
All the day tours were tightly controlled and our two guides followed us everywhere. Only in the hotel area were we free to roam around as we wanted. This environment of controlling and supervising felt burdening at times – for a week after leaving DPRK, I had recurring dreams about being observed by the North Korean authorities. It was always a relief to wake up and realize that I had already continued my tour of Asia to other destinations.
This environment also brought our traveling group very close together, as we could wonder together about all the strange peculiar things happening around us. I was also lucky to have a Finnish friend to travel with, so we could have private discussions in our own obscure language without anyone understanding what we were talking about. Had we only spoken English, I would have probably stressed a lot more about eavesdropping and hidden microphones.
…but should you do it?
North Korea is not like any other travel destination. This also means that there are some ethical considerations that you have to take into account if you consider traveling there.
When you travel to North Korea, the foreign currency you bring to the country is not divided evenly to all the citizens. Instead, you are financially supporting the central government of DPRK. My trip cost a bit less than 1,000 euros (including trains from/to Beijing and a day in Dandong, China). I don’t know how much my British travel company got from it, but I’ve probably contributed to the budget of the DPRK with at least a few hundred euros.
The supporters of tourism in North Korea say it increases interpersonal interaction with the locals and foreigners. This may help the citizens of North Korea learn more about the outside world and also help foreigners spread their knowledge about the country. It could also make North Korea slowly open up, as more services and locations are opened to tourists and other visitors.
It’s true that North Korea has recently made some progress in opening up to visitors. The country recently had it’s first exchange student from a country other than Russia or China and media companies have been given more access to the country. For example, the Finnish National Broadcasting company Yle made their first live broadcast from North Korea just a month ago. Photography restrictions have also sharply decreased in the last few years – the only thing we were not allowed to capture on camera during our visit last year were military targets and a burning building we accidentally encountered in central Pyongyang.
Still, the positive effects of tourism shouldn’t be exaggerated. The visitors only get to interact with privileged locals who are not allowed to speak too much about certain controversial topics. Thus, you won’t get a chance to hear critical opinions about the regime of Kim Jong-un or the various prison camps spread around the country. As tourism in North Korea is strictly supervised, travelers will only see what the governments wants them to see and the slow opening to visitors is also tightly controlled.
Should you travel to North Korea, then? I don’t know. The whole debate between engaging and isolating is not a clear debate between right and wrong opinions, as both sides have their points. The current engaging politics in Cuba are working quite well. I’d wish to see the same process slowly happen in North Korea, although I don’t know how realistic my dream is.
As a travel destination, North Korea is one of a kind. However, if you think about going there, you should ponder both the positive and negative outcomes of your visit. Is the ethical price you pay too high to satisfy your curiosity?