is a notoriously famous country. Although it seemed to be in our newspapers
every single day around the time they were testing missiles, nobody really seemed
to know anything about the country besides the fact that it is communistic and
is lead by Kim Jong-un.
Exactly this secrecy and the crass contrast to Western values made travelling to North Korea an irresistible temptation for me and Martina.
“Are you crazy” and “why the heck would I want to go to a country like that” were two questions I was asked many times before we went. Mostly because of the recent event of an American student’s trip ending in his somewhat suspicious death after being arrested.
Well, I was sure that I wasn’t crazy for wanting to visit North Korea, but I always answered the question by saying that I would only know after having come back.
And now I can say: No, I was not crazy and it’s an amazing place to visit. But explaining why it’s worth a visit is no short deal. I will do my best to summarize the experience in this post.
It is important to understand that I will try to stay politically neutral in this article. I am not a reporter trying to uncover human rights problems. My goal is to show you how to see the world – even the part our media paints black.
It is very important to understand that I cannot write everything I saw and certainly not every impression I had. This article was cross checked by the travel agency . This article is a little bit more like a Wikipedia article than my otherwise adventurous trips – sorry about that. Most of the impressions you will take home from North Korea come from small details you see or feel.
Let’s start with a little FAQ
Can you travel freely in North Korea?
No. You must have a guide and you will be accompanied every second you are outside the hotel.
Can Americans travel to North Korea (at the time of writing)?
No. And this is NOT Korean law, but American law. The USA forbids the use of US passports at North Korean borders. (status February 2019). Why a country should be able to forbid its citizens from travelling to another country is simply beyond me. There are workarounds for Americans that I do not want to write here. If you cannot find any online get in contact with me.
Are the people poor?
Yes, when compared to most western countries. Particularly the villagers on the country side are poor. But to be honest I have been to plenty of capitalist regions where the people seem similarly poor like parts of Armenia or Indonesia. If a country as prosperous as Switzerland were put under the sanctions that North Korea has been dealing with, I am sure we would be much worse off. Communism is not the reason North Korea is poor. The sanctions are. For many years, while the Soviet Union traded with them, North Korea had the same GDP as South Korea. A fact that western media has totally ignored.
Are the soldiers and police unfriendly?
All the soldiers – including the ones working as border guards – were very kind to us. To be honest, as long as we played along, they were some of the friendliest I have met to date. But they can get really sour quickly, but more on that later 🙂
How do you enter North Korea?
The administrational stuff is at the end of this article.
Officially North Korea is called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – the DPRK. Tourists are discouraged from using the term North Korea as they consider the South to be their lands occupied by the Americans. I will call the country North Korea, simply because it is the term people use when they search for it which means my articles will be ranked higher on google.
So, after a long intro the actual trip!!
Entering from China
We arrived in Dandong, China on a night train from Beijing. Then everything happened very quickly. We met up with a member of our travel company and got all the paperwork done. Then she showed us to the train to North Korea and off we went. We crossed the Sino-Korean Friendship bridge and then came to a complete still stand Then many soldiers in Soviet-style uniforms boarded the train.
Everything slowed down drastically. The soldiers checked our paperwork and gave us some more to fill in. We had to make a list of all items we were bringing in to North Korea along with a list of all the cash in different currencies we had on us (there are no ATMs in North Korea). Then they checked our bags for books. Many books – especially English ones – are banned. This led to them flipping through every single page of my almost empty journal. They also checked Martina’s camera for GPS capabilities, which is forbidden even though smartphones are allowed. Chances are you will be asked to unlock your smartphones on the way in and out. Certain pictures, especially those of military personnel or infrastructure, will be deleted.
So, while the whole border crossing procedure is a bit nerve-wrecking, just play along.
While I did mention above that the soldiers were very friendly to us, they sure changed their mood quickly when a Chinese tourist didn’t have his paperwork. He got yelled at and pressured for quite some time. The young Chinese tourist looked absolutely horrified while he searched frantically for the paperwork. He was eventually handed new empty papers to fill in.
The whole process of immigration took two full hours Then the train rolled on nice and slowly towards Pyongyang.
The train rides in North Korea
We were on the train without a guide. The Chinese travel agent stayed in Dandong and we met our two Korean guides in Pyongyang.
During the train ride we rolled past many small villages. Some buildings were in old fashion Korean style while others were typically socialist style. They were all run down to say the least, but quite charming none the less.
The trains are ridiculously comfortable. There are no seats but instead bunk beds three stories high. If you are lucky enough to get the middle bunk, you can watch the landscape rolling by while you lie comfortably in your bed.
We were in North Korea in winter which means temperatures rarely went above freezing but surprisingly, it almost never snows outside the mountainous areas. Which means all the fields are yellow as if they had been scorched by the sun in a very hot summer, yet all the rivers were frozen solid. It is an amazing sight!
Many locals had broken holes through the ice to try to catch fish or collect water. This obviously meant they did not have running water at home – at least not in winter. Surprisingly this would be the case in many places in Pyongyang as well.
Very often we saw groups of people on the ice who had gathered there for no apparent reason. If you take a closer look you can see two people on the ice on the picture above. We even saw people riding their bicycles on the ice – a quite impressive skill if you ask me.
In the meantime, many farmers were digging holes in their frozen fields either to plant trees or for reasons I could simply not determine.
On the streets there were basically no cars. Most people were on bicycles or carts pulled by bulls. No joke. Not cows. Not horses. Bulls!
The capital however was quite a different world. Approximately 20 million people live here and there are many tall, colorful buildings. The older ones are very colorful and in typical socialist style and the new ones are a style of their own. I’ll go ahead and call it neo-socialist. Pyongyang really doesn’t look half as doom and gloom as it looks when it is shown on western news.
We visited the deepest metro system in the world with its beautiful stations (a typical mark of socialist countries) and were taken to many souvenir shops where they sell “propaganda” art work like posters and stamps. And these are legal to export – no matter what rumors are on the internet. They even sell books with the North Korean bank bills inside them, which you may not otherwise export. In North Korea tourists use Chinese Yuan, Euros or US Dollars.
While we were walking around in Pyongyang sometimes completely forgot why there is so much tension between North Korea and the West. Everyday life seems absolutely normal and safe after a while. I even got used to all the war monuments and pictures of the past leaders of North Korea. By the way, monuments and pictures of the previous two leaders are everywhere, but there is no picture of Kim Jong-un anywhere to be found. Interestingly the leaders of this country only really become cult after their death.
After having gotten used to the atmosphere, we entered the war museum. And all the sudden we realized again in what part of the world we were.
I find the following part to be the most important in my understanding of North Korea. It explains the different versions of the Korean war, which is a present memory to North Koreans. If you get bored by details, just skip the cursive part.
The Western version
Korea was occupied by imperial Japan until 1945. Then America won the war against Japan. Korea was split between the US and the Soviet Union. The USA occupied the South and the Soviet Union occupied the North. In 1950 North Korea attacked the South and advanced rapidly. Then the UN made a mandate and the USA lead a counter-offensive pushing North Korean forces almost all the way back to China. Then China entered the war on the side of North Korea contributing approximately one million soldiers. This changed everything and they pushed the UN troops back to the original border between North and South Korea. Here a ceasefire agreement was signed.
The North Korean version
The North Korean guerillas drove out the Japanese and Kim Il-sung personally killed the Japanese leader. Then America occupied the South and brutally suppressed the locals. Then the USA attacked the North Korea. North Korea under the wise leadership of Kim Il-sung then launched a counter-offensive liberating 95% of the Korean peninsula from the American occupation. The USA – near defeat – then drew forces from 15 of their satellite-states. At this point Kim Il-sung ordered a tactical retreat all the way back north giving up almost all of Korea. They regrouped and attacked again winning back all lands until the original border. The USA – again near defeat – then asked for a ceasefire. They then cowardly signed the papers with the flag of the UN at the table instead of the flag of the USA.
What you think of the varying history I will leave to you. It is worth mentioning that during our time in North Korea there was never a mention of a Soviet occupation, of Chinese support in the war or of a UN mandate.
There are many interesting things to see in the museum (cameras not allowed) like the USS Pueblo – the only American military boat in captivity in the whole world. Or the many tanks and airplanes captured during the war or the helicopter shot down over the DMZ since the war. No matter what your political opinion may be, the collection is quite impressive.
Far away from Pyongyang and in the mountains, there is an enormous museum, in which the gifts are presented, that were given to the leaders of North Korea. The interior of the building is mostly beautiful marble and main doors are made of copper and weigh 40 tons. To show us just how heavy these doors are, they let us try to open them ourselves.
Unfortunately, no cameras were allowed inside the museum, so I’ll d my best to describe how foreign the concept of this place is for the eyes of a Westerner.
The first thing that we saw after entering the museum was a very large map of the world with one LED stuck in every country. When the LED was light, it meant a gift had been given by this country to the leader of North Korea. Next to the map there were two counters. The guides explained the meaning of the numbers shown to us. One of the counters showed the amount of countries that had given gifts and a one for how many gifts there were in the collection.
I have to admit, the museum was quite amazing. There was a business jet from Russia, a train from Stalin, multiple Soviet cars and thousands of fine works of art that could easily earn a place in the Louvre.
A good part of the gifts from Europe were from communist and socialist parties or from companies that had done business with North Korea long ago. Most of the gifts shown in this museum had been given to Kim Il-sung.
My very favorite gift, however, came from Switzerland (my home country).
It was a rock shaped a like the Matterhorn (a famous Mountain in Switzerland). It stood next to diploma of a Matterhorn ascent. On this paper was a mix of computer and hand writing dedicating the ascent to the great leader Kim Jong-un. It also testified that this Rock had been found on the mountain itself.
To me seeing this gift was quite a lot like reading about a new medical invention: the creativity of human kind will never stop to bewilder me 🙂
And by the way the style of German in which this Document was written leaves absolutely no doubt to its authenticity.
The DMZ is the “demilitarized zone” between North and South Korea. Visiting this place is certainly in every travel itinerary for tours of North Korea. Not much needs to be said though. It is as sad as it is impressive. Just a few meters separate people who want to be united and yet these few meters separate two worlds, that frankly could not be more different.
The blue houses of the DMZ cross the border between North and South Korea. This is where discussions are held between the countries leaders.
In North Korea taking pictures of soldiers is generally forbidden. But if you ask, they might just let you.
Some closing statements
One thing that is brutally clear to me after having visited North Korea is that although we think we got a feel for everyday life, we only saw what we were meant to see.
In their decades of sanctions North Korea has learned to produce everything themselves. And I mean everything. From smartphones, motorcycles, televisions to submarines. It is amazingly impressive.
When I was in Azerbaijan, I had the great fortune of speaking to an older man who had experienced the socialist times. When I asked him which period her preferred better – Socialist or Capitalist – he answered: “Back in Soviet Union we had nothing” , then he added: “But we had peace here and peace here” as he pointed to his head and to his heart. Only now, after having visited North Korea do I think I understand what he told me than. The trick is in one very powerful word that we often heard:
The government provides healthcare… education is provided by the government… a daily ration of eggs and rice is provided…a job is provided
The fact that the basic things are provided can put peoples minds to ease more than any western person would ever dare expect. We cherish freedom and self-determination above all things.
Be sure to buy the artwork of this country in a souvenir shop. Some of these posters are really handmade and look exactly like the big billboards hanging all over Pyongyang. No matter what the rumors are on the internet: This is legal. Border officials saw these in my bag on the way out.
We also sent some postcards home from North Korea. They took forever to reach Switzerland and all landed at one of the addresses instead of reaching all the people we had written to. in one bundle 🙂
To sum it up
At the top of the article I mentioned that travelling through North Korea felt like a walk down somebody else’s nostalgic memory lane. I hope you understand what I meant.
How to enter North Korea
It’s actually quite straight forward. Find a tour company. I can highly recommend lupinetravel. We took a private tour with them. The tour company will get you your visas, as you cannot apply for them personally. You basically have the choice of flying into Pyongyang or taking the train from Beijing. I would highly recommend the train at least one direction, because you experience a lot on the way – things you otherwise would not see.
And for all those people who like to collect passport stamps: Sorry, North Korea will not stamp your passport and will not even let you keep your visa paper after leaving the country.
If anything remains unclear feel free to write a comment!