North Korea seems to get the attention for all the wrong reasons every few weeks. And on each single media outing, it is portrayed as the true depiction of severely oppressed state that is run by an evil, narrow minded regime. Obviously, no one can debate over the fact that North Korea has a dictatorship and its citizens are oppressed compared to European, American and even citizens of Asian countries, but they are still far better off than most African countries and war engulfed middle eastern blocks.
In-spite of its aggressive military endeavors, very few media outlets have broken the news that they have loosened their visa policy to encourage tourism. They plan to attract 2 million tourists by 2020, considering the figure stood at rather impressive 100,000 tourists in 2014. Sure, their biggest calling card is what the western media has portrayed them to be, a mystery land with unknown perils and an isolated population that seems like frozen in time, and they seem to be capitalizing on that.
Expectations vs Reality
For people planning to explore this relatively unchartered part of our planet, they will be surprised that despite Otto Warmbier incident and media outcry over the regime, travelers have reported positive experiences. Yes, the range and breadth of their experiences mainly relied on their attitudes and expectations, but overall North Korea seems pretty nice to tourists. Putting aside the behaviors of officials and guides for instance, only one unpleasant interaction was reported by wanderingearl in his entire, highly encouraging trip. And the behavior of officials and guides remained professional and friendly, in their own way, throughout.
Realistically, you shouldn’t expect total freedom from a strict dictatorial regime with clear history of travel restrictions and bans due to various reasons, some of which are of trivial nature. But you have to acknowledge the fact that one must respect the norms, values and sentiments – political, personal or religious – of the country where they intend to visit. No, I am not supporting the regime, I am just putting forth the argument that one can have a truly nice, unique, once in a life time experience of witnessing a rather isolated society, quite safely if they heed to the instructions. Which brings us to the moment of absolute truth.
The Guided Tours
All tours to the country are guided, and tourists from most countries are welcomed except South Korea and USA. United States of America has implemented a travel ban to North Korea and has no diplomatic presence in the country. You can wave good bye to your hopes of visiting North Korea if you are a journalist. However, rest of the world can obtain a travel visa through their embassy and register for a guided tour from one of many state-owned tour companies.
All tourists are accompanied by 2,3 guides at all times. Interaction with locals is rather limited but possible. Tour sites and timings are pre-planned and only a small portion of the country is opened to travelers. There are also some restrictions regarding photography like no one can take a partial photo of leader’s statue, no snaps of surroundings and country site while traveling, and police and army check points or any specific building are also off limits. However, you can ask nicely and follow rules and you will be surprised by their hospitality. Guides may let you roam around, take snaps even with soldiers, and might not even go through your snapped album.
The Attractions and Living Accommodations
Well, the living accommodations are rather limited and the choices only shrink when you take into consideration that most international travelers can access the country either through Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, located in capital Pyongyang or via Wonsan Kalma International Airport, made operational for international flights in 2015, located in far east side of the country in Wonsan. Going to the capital first is not really a matter of your choice, since almost all international tourists are directed and organized via Pyongyang. Whichever accommodation facility and city you land in, you will get first hand introduction with total blackouts.
Taesongsan Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery
Coming to the attractions, there are many, but the most mesmerizing one, that is if you fancy history and war history to be specific, is Taesongsan Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery. What’s so enthralling about this cemetery is the fact that all of the martyr’s graves have their statues on them, each one with its own distinctive, immaculately detailed feature.
Built at top of Mount Taesong, the cemetery commemorates the sacrifices of soldiers during the independence war against Japan. A major portion was completed in 1975 and later it was further expanded and renovated. Now, it covers 30 hectares and also stands a burial ground for some famous personalities like first wife and mother of Kim II-sung.
The bronze bust statues of soldiers offer a gallant tribute to the departed souls, such a commendation and admiration is unheard of in the entire world.
Kumsusan Palace of The Sun
Kumsusan Palace of The Sun is another great attraction in Pyongyang. Previously, it was the official resident of North Korea’s supreme leader, but after KimII-sung’s death, it’s been converted into a mausoleum. Though it is open seven day a week, but is only accessible to tourists on Thursdays and Sundays. Also, the restrictions are strict in Palace of The Sun; don’t take photographs or record, don not eat, do not smoke and don’t even think of speaking.
Juche Tower, sitting on east bank of river Taedong, the tower commemorates 70th birthday of its first supreme leader, Kim II-sung. It also exemplifies the ideology of Juche, introduced and propagated by Kim II-sung. Accompanying the tower are three statues; each with a tool – a hammer, sickle and a brush – signifying North Korea’s Workers Party.
Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang is a majestic building that needs to be seen in all its glory, as it stands 330 meters tall. Construction started in 1987 and the work is still in progress, that’s the reason the hotel is not yet functional. This truly impressive pyramid shaped tower is also known as 105 Building, highlighting its number of floors. Over the years, this ambitious project has garnered massive criticism from western media, often dubbed as the Hotel of Doom, The Worst Building in The World and Phantom Hotel. Though in all honesty, Ryugyong Hotel building was not finished at the time of these negative reviews, and like any unfinished structure it lacked the aesthetics and grand presence it holds now. It is still not finished due to the constant economic crunch and international restrictions on the country.
The Notorious Countryside
Over the years, North Korea has been slowly opening up more of its doors to the outside world, adding more attractions to the guided tours. A limited number of sites and locations can also be visited outside the capital, but tourists must take special precautions, such as, not to take photographs while traveling, though this rule mostly relyies on your relationship with your guides, as they have the absolute authority in certain cases as to what can be recorded and what not. Also, don’t push your luck by asking interrogatory questions from citizens; this will only raise suspicion and probably will endanger their lives. And of course, taking snaps of military vehicles and check posts is off limits. This rule holds true with any other strategically located military unit, so you can’t really be mad at them for that.
Coming to the countryside view, well, nothing out of the ordinary except the whole aura of mysticism that revolves around North Korea, makes the lives of its citizens intriguing. The country is poor, thanks to multiple internal and external factors, but it still holds beauty both in urban and rural towns. The western had established the whole suffering citizens idea and concentration camps throughout the country, but chances of you finding one are slim to none, as if they do exist they are not in plain sight of tour routes.
Kim II-sung Life and Heritage
There are a whole bunch of tour locations added in the tour that emphasize somewhat propaganda-licious take on their eternal chairman Kim II-sung. These will include the mountain side home where he was born, though international authorities claim he was born in Russia, his murals in capital, Mansu Hill Grand Monument, which is a statue the like of which you have never seen, and no, the online pics don’t do this statue of Kim and his son any justice, and Socialist Revolution Monument.
Once there, you will see the huge influence of Kim II-sung as the father of the nation. It will appear that everything from scientific breakthroughs to their nuclear technology is a direct afterthought and creation of their supreme leader and his sons, so don’t be disrespectful toward this propaganda.
Somethings are better left untouched, and curiosity on certain matters will surely get the cat killed and you deported, so act wisely.