In October 2015 I visited North Korea (AKA Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) for the first time. It was a surprising, exciting, sometimes saddening but mostly positive visit. I wrote four articles about it for my blog and shared several photos from the trip. But not everything I wanted to say about it fit well into the articles. Plus, sometimes people ask me questions about the trip which don’t fit either. So, this post is a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page about the trip (based on questions people normally ask when I said I’ve visited) as well as some other miscellaneous information. I hope it’s helpful or interesting.
First, though, I’d like to say that I am absolutely not an expert on the subject of North Korea. I’ve read a few books and I follow specialist news sources about the country. That and my trip might mean I’ve been exposed to more information than the average person, but I am in no way more qualified. Furthermore, there are several people who are experts on this subject who visit the country frequently, as well as thousands of North Korean defectors, many of whom have written memoirs or accounts of their experiences. If you want accurate, up-to-date and professionally written information about the country, the experts are who you should listen to. Here’s a list of things I’d recommend. FYI, the links are Amazon affiliate links because I’m an evil capitalistic opportunist.
- North Korea Confidental: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors by James Pearson, Daniel Tudor - the most up-to-date book I could find about the North Korean economy at the time of writing, though quite definitely aimed at the layman. Will give you a more positive view of the country than most other books, focuses on things which often the media chooses to ignore about a country slowly moving towards capitalism.
- In Order To Live by Park Yeonmi - Story of recent defector who has since become somewhat of a celebrity in South Korea. Very detailed, very moving, includes true tales of human trafficking. Sometimes quite disturbing, especially highlights the problems facing women who escape. Goes a little into economic matters, too.
- Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung - A serious story about life in the Pyongyang elite, and defection to South Korea, written by defector Jang Jin-sung. A good account of what it’s like to be a man leaving North Korea, and how difficult it can be to adapt to life outside.
- Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick - Demick, a journalist, gives a comprehensive account of the lives of many different defectors from all walks of life in North Korea. If you’d like to get a real idea of the effects of the mid-90s famine, this is a good book to read. Actually quite harrowing.
- The Aquariams of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-hwan - another Defector’s tale, this one is set largely in a labour camp, AKA gulag. Also an horrific tale, it exposes possibly the darkest side of a country where light is not so easy to find.
Websites & Twitter accounts
- NK Economy Watch - Stories about North Korea’s economy. Many sources including Korean and Chinese newspapers and websites, as well as analysis. Much more raw source of information than mainstream media, so it’s sometimes a little dry - but much more accurate.
- NK Leadership Watch - Same as above, but focuses on North Korea’s leadership including Kim Jong-un and high-ranking government officials.
- NKNews - a fairly level-headed source of news about North Korea compared to a lot of the mainstream media.
- Ask a North Korean - A series on NKNews.org where readers can send questions in to be answered anonymously by a North Korean defector.
- Daniel Tudor’s Twitter - Tudor has written a few books about Korea and is co-author of North Korea Confidental.
- James Pearson’s Twitter - Pearson is co-author with Tudor and reports on North Korea for Reuters.
- Geoffrey Cain’s Twitter - Visits and reports from Pyongyang from time to time.
- Koryo Tours’s Twitter - This is the company I went with. Really great for photos from the DPRK, although their Instagram is even better for this.
- /r/northkoreanews is hit-and-miss. A big story will always hit here quickly, but it also receives a lot of sensationalist clickbait.
- The ethics of North Korean Tourism in the Guardian
Nevertheless, I feel the account of my trip is still worth something, and might be interesting to anybody who wants a book-smart tourist’s view of the country. So without further ado, here’s my FAQ and tidbits.
How did you get into North Korea?
It’s actually very easy, but it’s a little more expensive than most 4-day holidays in Asia. You need to get in touch with a company such as Koryo or Young Pioneers, and sign up for one of their group tours. They’ll handle the rest of it, except for your ticket to Beijing. You just need to make sure you’re in Beijing at the right time, and they can advise on getting a Chinese visa.
Trips start at around €600, but Koryo’s cheapest is somewhere around €900. I couldn’t tell you what the main difference between Koryo’s service is and cheaper companies like Young Pioneers. But I can tell you that on the more “standard” tours like the one I did, you’ll be going to largely the same places. Having said that, I didn’t see the Young Pioneers at the Football Match! Koryo seems to offer the largest range of tours, though. Some of their destinations are far more exotic than Pyongyang, and that’s where I’m hoping to go next time.
I’m American, they hate Americans! They’ll never let me in.
They don’t hate Americans, and they will let you in.
I’m a journalist!
Okay you may have trouble.
I’m South Korean!
If you can get citizenship for some other country somehow, you’ll be fine. But sorry, you can’t typically enter North Korea on a South Korean passport.
Why did you go to North Korea?
Ever since I first visited South Korea in 2010 I’ve been interested in the country. I learned a lot through accounts by defectors and journalists and decided that I wanted to see for myself what it’s like.
But you’re seeing only what they want you to see!
I’m well aware of that, but they can only orchestrate so many things. It’s not hard to look behind the curtain a little bit, and if you can get to talking to some people it won’t take long to appreciate the individuality of the people you’re meeting. Furthermore, the chaos with which my trip sometimes seemed to be run meant that a lot of the intinerary was very fluid.
Don’t you feel bad for pumping money into the brutal North Korean regime?
No. Tourism is a great way for North Koreans to understand foreigners. Although I doubt most Koreans believe what they’re taught in school about the horrible capitalist world outside, seeing for themselves that people from other countries are just like them is probably a validating experience.
On the flipside, for the foreigners visiting North Korea seeing for ourselves that North Koreans are just like us is also validating and helps to dispel the myth that they’re all just a bunch of mindless robots.
Finally, some of the money I spent there will go straight into the pockets of the people I gave it to, and they can use that to improve their lives and the lives of their families. North Korea is just waking up to capitalism, and tourism is actually a very small part of it.
Did you have guides?
Yes. We had two types of guide: the first was the guides from Koryo Tours. The second was a guide from Korea International Tourism Company, the state-run tourism company, and the only official tour company in the country.
How many guides did each person have?
Less than one. There were 20 people in my group, and we had one Koryo guide as well as two from KITC. However, one of the KITC guides (Mr. Baek) was there merely to sort of “shadow” the first (Ms. Li) who was in charge.
I heard that guides are actually more like minders. Is this true?
This couldn’t be further from the truth. While it’s pretty much mandatory to have a Korean guide, they won’t be constantly on your tail and watching your every move for illegal activity or dodgy photos.
If anything, they’re quite relaxed about many things that are frowned upon, and tend to say “I think it’ll be okay” in response to questions about acceptable behaviour more often than you might expect. But like with anything it varies from person to person.
KITC guides undoubtedly have the trust of the regime if they’re acting as ambassadors for their country, but they aren’t just bible-bashers for Kim Il-sung’s books on Juche.
They also work tirelessly to help their clients get into the places they want to go. More than once I watched a tour guide either negotate or argue with someone charged with letting people in and out of some building or attraction.
They’re also really good at English, so they’re probably the easiest Koreans to get on with in the country for the average tourist. Make the most of the opportunity!
Did you see Kim Jong-un?
Did you see Kim Jong-il or Kim Il-sung?
Yes. Read about my visit to Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung’s mausoleum here.
Did you see the Moranbong band?
No, but I saw the new Chongbong band. You can read about that in part 4.
Did you eat dog?
No, but we were offered dog soup. I declined.
Did you try North Korean soju?
Yes! I tried two brands: the first one, Pyongyang Soju, was very pleasant. It cost about 300 Chinese Yuan. The second I don’t remember the name of, but it cost only 80 Chinese Yuan and it tasted like paint thinner.
Did you try North Korean beer?
Yes! I had some Taedong beer - they had a light variety and a dark variety. I preferred the dark, but both were very pleasant.
Did you make any North Korean friends?
I like to think so, but it’s very possible that my friend will forget me as he probably meets many tourists - but I don’t mind!
What language do they speak in North Korea?
They speak Korean. But it’s a slightly different dialect from what is spoken in the South. It’s not hard to switch between the two, but many words don’t officially exist in the North. Nevertheless, lots of people are familiar with Southern words because it’s quite usual to consume South Korean media.
For the uninitiated, Korean is not “like Chinese” as many seem to assume. While they do have some Chinese words in there, and it’s not unheard of to use Chinese characters to write it, the Korean language is pretty unique, and the alphabet (known in South Korea as Hangul) is completely standalone.
It’s also a very easy language to get started with. Many get to grips with the basics of the written language in a week-long holiday in Korea, and once you’ve done that, learning to speak it is much easier.
What type of English do they learn in North Korea?
Those privileged enough to be taught English will learn British English, so they use words like “queue” instead of line, and “lift” instead of “elevator”. I asked my guide, Ms. Li, and I was very happy to learn this fact.
Were you brainwashed?
No, I wasn’t brainwashed. As far as I know.
Do they have the Internet in North Korea?
No, not as we know it. They have an intranet, which has its own little Korea-wide web on it. I didn’t get to use it, but I asked a couple of people about it. There are messaging and photo sharing apps, as well as some proprietary websites for various departments to use, and they have their own email systems.
The vast majority of North Koreans do not get to use the world-wide Internet, but the foreign guides from Koryo (and probably from other overseas tour companies) were able to use a 3G network for a couple of hours each day which connected to the global Internet.
So, they have mobile phones?
Yes! Mobile phones and even smartphones are very popular in Pyongyang and increasingly popular outside of the capital. The most recent figure reports over 2.5 million subscriptions to the nationwide Koryolink network.
Can North Koreans travel abroad?
Some can, but most can’t. When I was in Beijing airport, there were a few waiting for the same plane as us. Usually only businesspeople, diplomats and high-ranking party officials or members of the Kim family can travel abroad. Sometimes entertainers, sportspeople and artists are also allowed. However, your average North Korean will probably not travel abroad any time soon.
Some, especially in the Northern provinces, will cross the Yalu river into China in order to smuggle in goods, which means they are going abroad and then returning.
Did you say businesspeople? But North Korea is a self-reliant communist state! Why would they have businesspeople?
Actually, North Korea isn’t strictly speaking communist. They have plenty of private businesses these days, some of which are actually legitimate. Others exist thanks to corruption and bribes, and some are private-public ventures. These are the ones which are more likely to have business overseas, mostly with China and Russia. There are other countries however: the Koryolink network, for instance, is 75% owned by an Egyptian telecoms operator OTMT, with 25% owned by the DPRK. In fact, you can buy shares in this company on the Egyptian stock exchange or the UK stock exchange. Don’t expect a huge return from North Korea though, as apparently they haven’t returned any of the hefty profits to Egyptian shareholders yet after 5 years.
The word “communist” isn’t even used in official rhetoric anymore. These days they use the word “socialist” and “Juche” (pronounced Joo-chay), which is the official ideology, a bastardised Marxism which few truly put at the top of their list of priorities these days.
Are North Korean people really as short and thin as we’re led to believe?
Sadly, most people in North Korea are considerably shorter and skinnier than their counterparts in South Korea, yes. I saw very few people close to being “overweight”. In the 1990s, North Korea had a terrible famine which wiped out a huge chunk of the population and inevitably stunted the growth of millions. These days, things are better but most people outside of Pyongyang and many inside still live hand-to-mouth. That doesn’t mean you should go around handing out baskets of rice when you visit, but make sure you’re grateful for the food that you’re given, and bringing some small food-based gifts along for your guides wouldn’t hurt either.
When you arrived, did they go through your computer?
A little. An immigration officer asked to see what movies I had on my laptop to make sure there wasn’t anything from South Korea. I just opened my Movies folder. He saw a copy of an old James Bond movie and exclaimed with delight, “Oh! James Bond!” That was all. I could’ve easily smuggled anything in on a MicroSD card if I’d wanted to.
Did they search your camera as you left? Or at all?
Not once was my camera confiscated or searched, and it was almost always with me. I also didn’t lose any photos.
Which has better food, South Korea or North Korea?
South Korea, hands down. It helps that they have more food than they need, though. I’m also not too familiar with the differences between North Korea and South Korea in terms of cuisine. I do, however, know that cold noodles (Naengmyeon) are a North Korean dish, and when I visited a North Korean restaurant in Seoul these Noodles were absolutely outstanding.
What was the weirdest thing you saw?
Probably the lifelike statues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. I’m not talking about the large bronze or gold ones, but actually the slightly-larger-than-real statues in full colour, which were creepily realistic.
What was the best thing you saw?
Rather than being something I saw, it was a moment I experience while bowling with one of the staff at the hotel. When we invited her to play she agreed, and shut the door. Then, during our game, she sheepishly used South Korean slang such as paiting/파이팅 (or “Fighting!”) to express excitement, and jinjja/진짜 (“really?!” - sort of like going “No way!”). Although I’m not entirely sure if jinjja is actually South Korean, but it certainly doesn’t fit with the kind of words I heard North Koreans speaking on the street.
It was a very encouraging moment to me, to meet someone whom I knew was quite aware of South Korean culture.
Was there propaganda everywhere?
There weren’t as many propaganda posters as I expected, but there were still plenty. In fact, what I saw more of was long signs, entirely text, saying things like “Let’s work harder for the good of the country” and “Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung is in our hearts forever” and stuff like that. Signs like this, stretching 30 metres but only 4 or 5 high, were all over the place.
Will you go back?
Yes, I do intend to return.
Can I ask you a question about your trip?
Sure, just email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heckle me on Twitter @basicallydan.