How to Visit North Korea

I thought this post is a bit overdue, but better late than never!

To be honest, I was astonished when I received so many questions on how to visit North Korea after writing about the things to do in Pyongyang some months back. I certainly never expected there to be many people interested to visit this notorious place. When I was planning for the trip, many of my friends rejected me outright when I invited them. Are you crazy? – was the most usual response I got. But fortunately, two friends went with me in the end, so I didn’t have to experience the many “pleasures” of the DPRK by my lonesome!

our small tour group plus our guide

Visiting North Korea is not as straightforward as visiting other countries. But let me clear up some myths here – it’s not an overly complicated process. Most of the arranging is actually done by the travel agency so one can just sit back and relax for the most part.

If you have intentions of visiting this mysterious country, here are some things to take note of.

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A Peek at the North Korean Countryside

A lot has been said about the quality of life in North Korea’s rural areas that it’s initially hard to tell which is real and which is fake. For sure, some of them seem too far-fetched to be true – or are they? During those rare times when we got to venture out of Pyongyang, I couldn’t help but look out of the bus window at every chance I got. Would I be able to see any evidence of the starvation, the prison camps, the nuclear facilities? Judging by what we saw by the road side, it was evident that things operated at a different rhythm here.

They say that a good way to gauge a country’s level of development is to take quick glance at its rural areas. The countryside of North Korea did afford us a few observations. For one, there were no animals to be seen. We did not see a single chicken, pig, goat or cow outside toiling the fields. Moreover, everything was done with human hand. There were barely any machines seen that could harvest the many road side plantations (likely to have been deliberately placed to show the country as self-sustaining) we saw along the way.

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The Greatest Show on Earth – Arirang Mass Games in North Korea

the amazing show!

Imagine 50,000 performers in a stadium. They jump, dance and march with sheer synchronicity. Apart from this, they’re backed by another group of 50,000 performers whose job is to flash flip card propaganda mosaics using human hands. If there is ever a highlight to a trip to North Korea, the Arirang Mass Games has to be it. I go one step further and dare say that this is probably the most spectacular thing to see in the entire Korean peninsula. Watching these “games” alone already justifies a trip to the Hermit Kingdom. It has to be seen to be believed.

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Visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) From North Korea

As if a trip to North Korea wasn’t surreal enough, a standard part of every respectable “revolutionary tour” of the DPRK includes a trip down the so-called Reunification Highway for a quick visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This very fact was all the more unreal to me, having had the chance to see the same heavily fortified DMZ, albeit from another side, some 4 years back from the south. It deeply intrigued me then. Said to be one of the most dangerous borders in the world, I saw it then as a gateway into a hermit-like nation that few people knew much about aside from its notorious reputation. Now that I was in the country with the notorious reputation, the trip down the DMZ now kind of became like a sort of irony. Instead of the DMZ serving as a gateway to the unknown, it now became that small hole into the so-called free world that I’ve been living in all my life. It was hard to believe that only some 100 kilometers away from that point where people worshipped Kim Jong Il even in his death, the streets of Gangnam in Seoul would be buzzing with Psy lookalikes and well-heeled South Koreans with the latest gadgets from Samsung.

Here’s looking at you, kid!

Rather than spend my time listening intently to the soldier talking about another one of Kim Il Sung’s heroic exploits, I spent my time making several feeble attempts at getting reception while at the DMZ (there is no roaming service at all in North Korea, and forget about the internet). And suprisingly, I did manage to get it… for a split second! So anyway, back I went to listening about the Korean War. I couldn’t help but notice how different some parts of it were to the version I heard during the DMZ Tour from the South, where an American soldier was giving an account of the same war. In the North Korean version of the story, it was the US-backed south that triggered the war by attacking first, while the western version involved Kim Il Sung making a first and bold move to recapture the entire peninsula by launching an attack. So what really happened? It’s anyone’s guess. But 60 years later, the war officially hasn’t ended yet. Only a truce was signed in 1953 and tensions have been on and off since then.

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9 Things to See in Pyongyang – North Korea

Having just arrived in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, we were met by two serious-looking “mandatory” guides who wore business suits more suitable for the secret police rather than for holiday planners. And to perhaps bring the seriousness of our trip to North Korea home, they started by giving us three rules – #1: You cannot go out without your guide; #2: You cannot fold, distort, deface or throw away any paraphernalia that contain the images of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il and #3: You cannot take pictures of the military. And with that, our holiday to North Korea officially began.

the grand people’s study house, one of the most elaborately constructed buildings in pyongyang

The thing about visiting North Korea is that it’s not an usual destination by any sense of the word. Everything is strictly controlled. Visitors are expected to pay their respects to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il by bowing several times before their statues or embalmed bodies. Even the hotel rooms are most likely bugged. Then again, a trip to North Korea offers one a rare peek into the world’s last true communist state. It’s a country that got swept into the Cold War and never managed to get out, thanks to the country’s inflexible government.

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