I was one a thousand Western visitors to North Korea. This article is written after I returned safe and sound from a six-day visit to one of the most isolated countries in the world, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or simply North Korea. Everything went as planned, there were no hassles and I received a polite welcome wherever I went.
About this article
The article will outline the itinerary of my visit in North Korea and shortly what I did prior to and after the visit. In short I went to Beijing and Seoul. I will start with a synthesis of how we in the West generally view the DPRK.
The aggressive country
The outside world have over the decades grown accustomed to news stories from this communist and totalitarian country, how it represses its population, sends thousands to forced labour camps, and how it nourishes a personality cult around the supreme leaders almost unprecedented in human history. The DPRK is part of what the West sometimes calls the Axil of Evil. Its military sector is regarded as completely out of proportion with its population and economy.
It has ever since its establishment after WWII been very aggressive towards the rest of the world in general and South Korea in particular. In recent years it has even developed a nuclear capacity and a ballistic missile system capable of delivering nuclear warheads all over East Asia as well as to North America. This fact has provoked serious verbal reactions from the world community, and in particular from the United States. The country and its leadership has a reputation of being impulsive and unpredictable in its behaviour. Impulsiveness and nuclear warheads is obviously not a good combination.
In addition, individual visitors to the country have been reported to face long prison sentences for minor offences (in our view), torture and even killings. The story of the late American student Otto Warmbier is a particularly disturbing case.
The isolated country
North Korea sees itself as surrounded by enemies and under a constant threat from the United States in particular. It has been living with trade sanctions, boycotts, embargoes and the like since the end of the Korean War (1950-1953). It used to have relations with the rest of what we used to call “communist” countries. However, there are very few of them left, and the country, sometimes labelled the Hermit Kingdom, now enjoys support only from Russia and in particular the People’s Republic of China.
There is apparently a strong sentiment towards making Korea great again, to what it used to be before the Japanese colonisation from 1910-1945. The idea of re-unification is shared by South Korea, at least officially. DPRK’s Juche ideology, put forward by the founding father, Kim Il Sung, stresses that independence is favoured. And so is the construction of a strong national economy and a strong military. It is thus seemingly not an ideology that invites the world in, or supports the country’s citizens in reaching out.
The dream of a unified Korea
Are the Koreans willing to take the consequences of building a unified Korea? North Korea has a population of less than 25 million, South Korea more than 50 million. According to the North Koreans there are also 10 million Koreans living in other countries (Japan and the US in particular). They will also want to be part of a unified Korea, according to the North Koreans.
Since the Second World War Korea has been divided between north and south, roughly along the 38th parallel. Each side is protected and supported by a superpower, each is following different lines of economic development and political systems. One might be tempted to use the two Koreas as prime cases in a discussion of which political and economic systems are most favourable to economic growth and prosperity among the country’s inhabitants. The answer seems apparent. The GDP per capita in North Korea is $1,800, in South Korea it is $32,766.
Who would seriously believe that the population in the south, enjoying a tremendous success after decades of hard work, would be willing to pay for a unified Korea?
It will most certainly set them back perhaps as much as half a century. Germany is an example of the difficulties facing unification processes, but on a much smaller scale. Eastern Europe and Russia are full of examples of the obstacles the population face when they make a shift to a market economy.
Have time simply run out for a unified Korea? On what basis should a unified country operate: Free economy or not? Do the superpowers really support a unified Korea?
Why would I go there?
All of the above would seemingly discourage any sane person from travelling voluntarily to North Korea. At the same time, these are some of the reasons I actually went there. I wanted to see with my own eyes what this was about, and perhaps learn something that might enhance my understanding of the country. Besides, seeing foreigners will most certainly raise the awareness among ordinary North Koreans that there is a world outside, and that foreigners are not dangerous, they may even smile and laugh and show other positive characteristics of normal human behaviour.
In North Korea I learned that in 2018 there were only 1,000 Western visitors (I suppose that number included all non-Chinese visitors), and roughly 180,000 Chinese. Chinese authorities have over the last year or so encouraged its citizens to travel to North Korea, in what I would guess is a hand-shake to the North Korean economy.
Planning my visit
Blogs, photos and more, for inspiration
There are many ways to get acquainted with a country, like that of reading books, reports, and encyclopedias. In the beginning I was mostly interested in the practical aspects of a visit. I had for some time bookmarked articles by other travellers and managed to keep a small handful of them. Here are some of my sources of preliminary knowledge and inspiration:
- Travel blogs: One, Two, Three, Four, and Five.
- The really adventurous way into the country, by train. (This too about trains)
- Lots of photos.
- Travel guides, like Wikitravel.
These and other resources will tell you that travelling freely around North Korea is not possible, and definitely not on your own. You are compelled to use one of the state owned travel companies in North Korea. They will provide you with an all-inclusive package: Accommodation, meals, transportation and not least two guides. The travel companies within North Korea cooperate with specialised booking agents abroad. Most of them seem to operate from China.
Therefore I went searching for travel agents offering trips to the DPRK. Here is a list of some travel agents abroad (China) which I consulted:
They all provide group tours at fixed dates throughout the year. I wanted greater flexibility as to when I would go and for how long. In addition I always favour small groups or even a group with only one member, myself. KTG proved to be the most flexible for my needs and budget, their website was good and they seemed like a professional and serious company. At the end of the day, they did a great job.
What did my travel (booking) agent do?
Travelling in and out of North Korea is either via Russia (cumbersome) or China (very easy and the default option). My agency (KTG) suggested that I could fly in from Beijing and take the train out – and I settled for this. In cooperation with their North Korean partner (North Korea Travel Company, KITC) we settled on a program that would leave me with a five night stay in North Korea.
I would travel solo, with two guides and a driver. They would stay with me at all times.
In addition to all the information presented on their website, KTG sent me even more to read up on prior to my visit. I filled out a form applying for a North Korean visa and they fixed that part, in addition to my train ticket in China. That train ran from the border city of Dandong to Beijing. I applied myself for the visa to China and booked plane tickets in and out of Beijing, as well as hotel in Beijing.
I met up with a representative from KTG in my hotel in Beijing the evening before travelling to Pyongyang (the capital of the DPRK). She handed over my visa and the train ticket. The DPRK visa is an official piece of paper with stamps and everything. There will be no passport stamps from a visit to the DPRK.
I will need to stress this: Read everything your agent sends you, in particular the do’s and don’ts regarding your behaviour in North Korea. If you do what you’re told, there will be no harm. For instance you should not bring anything on paper about North Korea (like guidebooks), and no religious or political publications. You are expected to bow in front of statues of the beloved leaders.
Behave as you would be visiting your parents-in-law for the first time.
My itinerary in the DPRK
My itinerary was originally proposed by KTG (in collaboration with KITC). It is a classic DPRK itinerary. I added a visit to the Mass games in Pyongyang one evening. I stayed all five nights in the same hotel in Pyongyang. This is the course of action that I undertook while in the DPRK (with my comments in parentheses):
Day 1, Arrival
- Flight from Beijing to Pyongyang
- Arrival Pyongyang (Pick-up by two guides)
- Arch of Triumph (Bigger than the one in Paris, and that’s the point of it)
- Hotel check-in: Hotel Sosan (Budget type, my choice, but completely alright)
Day 2, South
- Drive to Kaesong city
- Checkpoint, DMZ
- North Korea Peace Museum. (Two buildings: One where the peace talks were held, the other (largest) where the armistice agreement was signed.)
- Joint Security Area (a.k.a. Panmunjom or the DMZ) (The world’s most famous border, and we stand only a few metres away from the actual dividing line)
- In Kaesong city: Koryo Museum / Koryo Songgyungwan university (UNESCO World Heritage Site, 1000-years old university)
- Stamp shop (Send postcards home, takes about three weeks)
- Drive to Sariwon city
- Folk Street (Strange mosaic, nothing to boast about)
- Mt. Kyongnam pavilion (Good climb up a hill for a great view of the town)
- Return to Pyongyang
- Re-Unification Monument (The two women symbolising the North and South of Korea stretches their hands towards each other across the road)
Day 3, North
- Drive to Mt. Myohyang
- International Friendship Exhibition Centre (Incredible museum containing all kinds of gifts from abroad to the Kims)
- Pohyon Temple (Lovely Buddhist temple)
- Return to Pyongyang
- Grand People’s Study House (The national library, interesting of sorts and a magnificent view from the terrace)
- Mass Games in the evening (Extra. A spectacular performance in the world’s largest stadium)
Day 4, Pyongyang
- Kumsusan Memorial Palace (Huge palace containing the mummies of the two previous Kims)
- Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery (It is what it says)
- Fountain Park (Nice park with fountains)
- Mansudae Grand Monuments (Another holy place with the huge statues of the two previous Kims)
- Kim Il Sung Square (Huge square used for military parades and the like)
- Metro ride (Should have seen more of this, extravagant decorations)
- Juche Tower (With a flame on top, take the elevator for the best view in town)
- Party Foundation Monument (Power to the people)
Day 5, West
- Drive to Nampo city
- West Sea Barrage (Gigantic engineering achievement on the seafront)
- Cooperative farm (A look into how they organise their farm life)
- Return to Pyongyang
- War Museum & USS Pueblo (Monumental museum, and very good. The Pueblo was a US spy ship captured in 1968)
- Mansudae Art Studio (Not so interesting collection of artworks of various kinds)
- Kwangbok Supermarket (Department store with more or less everything you would need)
Day 6, Pyongyang to China by train
- Morning train to the Chinese border city of Dandong
- Afternoon train to Beijing (Overnight, arriving in Beijing early next morning)
My itinerary before and after the DPRK
I spent two nights in Beijing before flying to Pyongyang, and a night after returning.
After this I went for a three-night stay in Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). That visit included three World Heritage Sites as well as impressions from the southern side of the DMZ and the modern aspects of Seoul.
My travel map
Here are some of the places I went, with emphasis on North Korea.
All in all I spent two weeks on this vacation. I visited three countries and six World Heritage Sites. Stories from the latter will be published shortly and travelogues from my visits will follow when I get the time to write them. Read all articles from North Korea, South Korea and China.