A little over a year ago, I went on one of the most unique trips I’ve ever been on – a visit to North Korea, Asia. I am aware that a visit to this country can be quite controversial, but please know that I did not take this trip lightly. It wasn’t simply to tick an item off a bucket list or go for the thrill of it.
I always try to be very mindful of researching where I travel. And I always aim to understand the current situation and history of the country, as well as the impact my visit could have before I select a destination. North Korea slowly opens up to tourist. I see the effort being made to make a visit easier as a sign of change. They allow people to start sharing slowly, from both sides. Yes, North Korea tours definitely contain a lot of propaganda. But there are real people behind them and true, powerful moments.
An Intense Experience
It it is often pretty hard to describe a trip like the one I took. Such an intense experience is often full of complex feelings that I cannot necessarily put into words. However, I will definitely strive to describe as closely as possible to address the things I faced personally while in North Korea. I wish I could add more of my thoughts and what I experienced. But I think the post would be VERY long if I did! You can also find all of the details of how I planned and booked my trip at the end of this post.
Our group entered the DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, by train from the Chinese border. This train brings mostly tourists, but also a few workers, to the capital of Pyongyang every day.
Upon entry to the country we went through a check. They took our passports. We would not see our documents until the end of our stay in North Korea. Our tour guides kept them, so “we didn’t lose them.” We also received a paper visa to enter the country, but no stamp. To our surprise, the rest of the checks didn’t seem as strict as we had expected! They asked us to hand over our phones, cameras, and any books we may have brought. But they handed them back fairly quickly with visibly no check. However, we had to wipe them of sensitive content – political, religious, or pornographic – before we could continue to our train.
We met up with our two guides, who led us through the capital and countryside for the duration of our stay. One guide had a lot of experience, while one did not. They told us we could take photos of anything we wanted during the duration of our stay with 3 exceptions. The military, building sites (as the builders are military), and photos of the leaders that were cropped or from any angle but the front (for statues).
Don’t Ask, Just Follow
Although our train was supposed to take off from the border to the capital around midday, we didn’t end up leaving until 7 pm. The delay taught me my first lesson of the trip: you don’t ask why, you just follow. It gave us the opportunity to get to know our guides better. The guide with less experience didn’t speak much. But the other guide was deeply believed in propaganda. For example, her phone (identical to one of our Samsungs) comes from the famous Pyongyang brand, and she strongly insists that it is superior.
Train Ride to Pyongyang
A long (and very, very cold) train ride brought us in to Pyongyang around 1 am. But then a huge Korean meal with dumplings, kimchi, rice, cold noodles, and radishes in vinegar (to name a few) welcomed us. As we checked in to the hotel, we were reminded not to wander around by ourselves and meet the guides in the morning. The guides insisted that this was because nobody would be able to help us if we got lost. Most North Koreans do not speak English.
Phrases I will never Forget
I will add *some phrases I will never forget…* at the end of each day. These are important for me to share. And I think they best transfer the feeling I am trying to convey. Please keep in mind that most of these were said with absolute sincerity. It was noticeable when people said things they did not mean, and I have not added those sayings to these sections. A lot of the phrases I’m choosing to share are things truly believed by the North Korean population.
“Nuclear engineering? No no, I never heard that at Kim Il Sung University.” Kim Il Sung University is the most prestigious in the country. This phrase came from a former student at the university.
“I saw my wife on the tour of the museum I was guiding and found her very pretty. I asked all my friends to find out everything they knew about her and they organized a blind date. We became friends, got to know each other, and finally I kissed her.” (what a beautiful scenario for a film!?)
“To ask someone to marry, the expression is ‘do you want to share my bowl of noodles?’ It represents the end of a wedding ceremony.”
“My favorite sport is basketball. It’s Kim Jong Un’s favorite. It’s a sport that makes us taller.”
The Korean War Museum
First stop: The Korean War Museum, or rather, “The War of the Liberation of the Party / Fatherland Liberation War.” North Korea details everything in their own way. We were lead by a military guide. He gave us a new perspective on the war. There were the weapons of enemies captured like tanks from the “US Aggressive Army,” English submarines and planes, a US spy boat kept as a trophy with a crew of 83, (who we were told North Korea treated well and then released after lengthy negotiations), and, finally, a room describing the “atrocities committed by the Americans.”
Arc de Triomphe
After the museum, we made our way to the Arc de Triomphe of Pyongyang. It had been built for the 70th birthday of President Kim Il Sung. I asked our guide if it was inspired by the one in Paris and am told the North Korean version is 11m higher, a point of pride it seems.
Our afternoon began with a visit to the Mansudae monument. It consists of two huge stone statues of the two previous leaders. We must remain silent, avoid to seem happy (as we are to mourn their death), and, above all, bow to each statue and present flowers at their feet. We asked why Kim Jong Un is not yet part of this monument, and the guide said it is because “he is humble, and does not yet consider himself worthy of such recognition.”
Visiting a Local School
My favorite part of the day was the visit to a local school. I had the opportunity to speak to two absolutely adorable 16 year-old girls. They were curious and made great efforts to communicate despite the language barriers. We really chatted and laugh a lot, and they loved the pictures of my boyfriend. They blushed when I asked if they had one, and said maybe next year or when they are in university.
The Local Health Center
Our day ended with a visit to the local health center, which is “very popular.” We could ask for haircuts, massages or a variety of other treatments. Some of the boys got a shave, and one got a haircut, which he chose from a list provided by the center. Our guide also showed us which haircut he had. He chose it because of its name – “the firework.”
We again had a very delicious dinner that evening. It consisted of a Korean hotpot. I could not help thinking at each meal that although this is the “traditional food,” it’s likely not how many North Koreans really eat. Before our trip we learned that the majority of the population relies completely on rations of kimchi and rice. They eat virtually nothing else. In times of family, even these small things are not available. The guides, however, told us about the country’s “almost” moneyless system and how much they enjoy it. Everyone works for the government. They receive food and housing. And everyone can earn small amounts to buy extra luxuries. They were shocked when I told them how much I pay for rent each month.
We ended our night at a full, loud bar (which really looked like a pub!) to taste national beer. Their national (and only) brand has 7 types, Beers 1-7. I went with the rice beer, which tasted pretty good!
More Phrases I’ll Never Forget
*Some phrases I will never forget…*
“Master Kim Jong Un.”
“Is there a similar monument [to our Arc de Triomphe] in France? I’ve never heard of it … What is it for? When was it built? For who?”
“We love Kim Jong Un! He gave us everything: the desks, the chairs, the TV, the blackboard, our homes, our jackets.” This was said in much better English than anything else I’d heard, and all synchronised.
“Sometimes tourists ask me to come to their country, but why should I abandon my homeland, which gives me everything? My parents, my friends, all are here and have a good life. We are given everything and it is easy, and I have served for my homeland – I love it.”
“Man is a selfish being … and that is why I like our system. Everything is equal.”
Kumsusan Sun Palace
We knew in advance to bring our best clothes, and put them on that morning. Today we visited the most sacred monument in the country. The Kumsusan Sun Palace. The two bodies of previous leaders are preserved at the palace. We had to leave all our electronic devices and jackets at the entrance. Our pockets needed to be empty of trash that could fall out and dirty this sacred place.
While North Korea is in a permanent economic crisis, i.e. cruelly lacks resources (be it natural or otherwise), the palace costs around $3,000,000 USD each year to maintain. It is covered with chandeliers, marble, and, of course, built with the Communist aesthetic we got used to seeing while wandering around Pyongyang.
We had to bow a total of 7 times inside the Kumsusan Sun Palace. Once in front of the statues of the two Kims, and three times in front of each preserved body. The atmosphere was very calm. We had to look sad about the deaths of these two leaders. The guards everywhere watched us without blinking an eye.
We passed two rooms dedicated to the medals of the previous leaders. Those had been donated by the country, but also by foreign countries like Russia, Peru, Poland, Italy, France, and Germany. Surprisingly, the Chinese did not make a donation, despite the fact that they are North Korea’s greatest ally. The visit to the Kumsusan Sun Palace stuck with me most. It truly illustrated the extent of the North Korean regime.
Visit to a Protestant Church
After the monuments, we visited a Protestant Church. It had a flock of 300, out of a total of 13,000 Christians in the country. Religion, although accepted, is not encouraged. Priests answered our questions very quickly and shortly. Strangely, the church was empty, even though it was Sunday.
Our tour guides the tour promised pizza that morning, and this is what we got. The meal, our guides said, showed the “strong alliance between the East and West,”. Again, it proved an unforgettable experience, purely because of the symbolism it held in their program for us.
Tower of the Juche Idea
We continued on to the Tower of the Juche Idea. Kim Il Sung created it, for the principle of a self-sufficient country. There we had a beautiful view of the city. We saw a nice assortment of colored buildings, but as we looked farther, the buildings became grey. From the ground on the two streets that we surveyed from our arrival to this point we did not see this.
Square of the Korean Worker’s Party
Our guides then lead us to the square of the Korean Workers’ Party, the main party. A large monument stands in the middle, with a hammer, a sickle, and a writing brush. It represents the 3 pillars of society: the worker, the farmer, and the intellectual. The guides mentioned that there are 3 parties in total, but quickly glossed over it. We asked if they could choose, which, of course, the guides said they can. So how did they choose the main party? Parents, friends, everyone does that. You are expected to, as it is the party best for the people.
Our ride back to the model went via Scientist’s street, a brightly lit street lined with tall buildings housing the more than 3000 scientists of Pyongyang. The interior of the apartments seemed plunged into darkness in order to save energy, of which the country crucially lacks. This impressed me more than the lights.
*Some phrases I will never forget…*
“I was in the public library when Kim Jong Il died (2011)… I cried a lot, I was heartbroken. I went directly to the great monument of Kim Il Sung, and everyone went there.”
“I’ve never seen lesbians or homosexuals here … I just think Korean women like men, and Korean men like women. “
We left Pyongyang to go to the border with South Korea and visit the demilitarized zone (DMZ). It is one of the rare cities of the DPRK which keeps remains of ancient Korea, since during the war it was under southern occupation, and therefore was not bombed like the rest of the country.
The Demilitarized Zone
We started with the DMZ, which is impressive from the moment you arrive. The guides said that we should not run the risk of putting even a little toe out of line, or run the risk of being stopped for several hours, or worse. Our guides then showed us the main locations of the North / South meetings, as well as the table where the armistice was signed. Although at war with the UN, the guide repeated that the “US imperialists” alone caused the war.
We strolled through the UNESCO monuments of the city closest to the border, protected since they date from the 1000s. The whole complex is very traditional and not really different from the temples that we see so often around Asia. Then, we sat down to enjoy a traditional meal of the kings of ancient times with ten dishes such as kimchi, egg rolls, and marinated meat with ginseng chicken soup. We even ate on tatami mats.
Journey to Kaesong
I love looking out of the window when I travel. But the 168km journeys from Pyongyang to Kaesong and back were perhaps the ones that will stay with me the most. This is the only time that what we see cannot be controlled or orchestrated. We got, in fact, a tiny glimpse of the true daily life of the population in the farming communities. Many are working with old-fashioned techniques and no machines, not even something bigger than a sickle.
Back in Pyongyang
Back in Pyongyang, we first visited the city’s large library. It also organizes some amphitheater lessons for the public. We even found a few books that we recognized. Harry Potter, for example. They also have access to the country’s intranet here, which has a total of 21 websites people can access. The guide I had grown close to asks me if I found the librarian “cute,” and then confessed that while she is pretty, his wife is beautiful to him.
*Some phrases I will never forget…*
“You are sitting in the same chair as US Army chief for the East when he signed the Armistice.”
“This is my fatherland and I want to stay. The people who desert are garbage because their whole family and country are here. “
Planning a Trip to North Korea
Eastern Vision, based in Hong Kong, organized the trip. I felt fortunate to live in Hong Kong for a year. This company plans less expensive trips to the DPRK, in English, for students every semester.
Thanks to my HK visa, and the fact that the company had been working with the travel company based in the DPRK for a long time, the paperwork proved a lot less than I expected. I had to fill in one form and they did the rest. The only thing I had to take care of was the Chinese visa, and this ended up being a lot more complicated!
A truly unique Experience
Avid traveller, aspiring statistician and absolute foodie. I am always searching for new and unique experiences around the world, and love to take the path less traveled !