A Few Days in North Korea

For some north korea sounds like the last place on earth to go on holiday, not for jeremiah jenne

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“On this trip, you will not be able to photograph military installations.”

Makes sense.

“Or government buildings unless specifically told you can.”

No problem.

“Or construction sites. Or the inside of a grocery store. Or a bookshop. Or any person if they are not smiling or enjoying their happy life.”

Um…okay.

It was clear that this would be no ordinary trip, but then a week in Pyongyang is no ordinary spring break.

Beijing-based Koryo Tours has been leading trips to North Korea for over two decades. Founded by Nick Bonner and Josh Green in 1993, the company now has over 15 employees from around the world who specialize in developing some of the world’s least likely holiday destinations. Their team are experts on guiding foreign visitors through North Korea, and their expertise was needed even by our group of experienced travelers. The pitfalls and restrictions are real and the consequences, especially for US passport holders, can be quite severe.

Traveling to North Korea in 2016 is not unlike visiting China circa 1972. There are clearly stated rules about where we could go and what we were allowed to do.

Traveling to North Korea in 2016 is not unlike visiting China circa 1972. There are clearly stated rules about where we could go and what we were allowed to do. (If Rule 1 was “Ask before taking pictures,” Rule 1A was to not leave the hotel without a guide.) We were taken along pre-ordained routes to pre-selected locations. And like visitors to the China of a few decades ago, one often wonders how many of the scenes we were allowed to see were done solely for our benefit.

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During our stay in Pyongyang, University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier was finding out the hard way what happens when the North Korean government decides you’ve stepped too far off the reservation. For several evenings, the TV news at the hotel featured young Mr Warmbier tearfully apologizing for stealing a propaganda sign from his hotel. Later that week, Mr Wambier appeared once again on our TVs, this time as he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

The fate of Mr Warmbier and others raises the question of whether or not it is ethical to travel to North Korea. Critics claim that visitors are simply exchanging much needed hard currency to the government of Kim Jong Un for the privilege of acting as human props in a state-sponsored tableaux entitled “All is Well in Pyongyang. Look, the Foreigners love us too!”

I asked this question to our Koryo tour leader, who is from the UK, and she answered that the opportunity for ordinary North Koreans to meet and engage with foreign travelers was important.

Repeatedly, she encouraged us to engage with our local guides and those North Koreans we were allowed to meet.

0516_travel4“Almost no non-North Koreans have ever met a North Korean, and almost no North Koreans have ever met a foreigner, the images in the mind on either side are relentlessly negative and this is the kind of thing that can only be combatted by actual face-to-face contact and engagement,” says Simon Cockerel, the Beijing-based General Manager of Koryo Tours. “It is true that on a tourist visit all contact is fleeting, ephemeral, and often insubstantial, but for most North Koreans the only information they get about other countries and their people is stories in the media of social problems, evil-doing, and so on. To simply see, wave to, speak to, kick a football with, a foreigner helps, incrementally, to show that there can be common ground and commonality, even if for a moment.”

And there were more opportunities for engagement than I would have anticipated. Wandering around a supermarket in Pyongyang, my limitations were mostly linguistic. But what few words I did know garnered a response, sometimes even a smile or returned pleasantry. It’s hard to know how “ordinary” the shoppers were. The shelves were well-stocked with international brands, almost all of which had been imported via China.

There is one sure way to bridge cultural divides and overcome linguistic barriers: Liquid Berlitz. Apply copious amounts of alcohol. Rinse. Repeat.

Ordinarily “Budget Tour of North Korea” would seem to be a candidate for worst branding ever right after “Discount Sushi” but the quality of lodging and accommodation were the same, if not better, than might be found on a similar trip in the PRC.

I have celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in numerous countries, cities, and towns around the world including outdoors on the Appalachian Trail, on the Tibetan Plateau, and one semi-memorable night in which I turned into Shiva Destroyer of Worlds while celebrating at a Holiday Inn in White Plains New York. I thought I was safe celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in the one capital city in the world without an Irish Pub.

0516_travel5On the contrary, the cafe at our hotel the night of March 17 was blessed with a friendly and capable bartender and the Koryo staff showed their travel savvy by producing a bottle of Jameson procured at the Duty Free in Beijing for just such an occasion. Our guides joined us for a freewheeling – more or less, even with more than a few drinks under their belt, the guides showed impressive message discipline – conversation about their lives and families.

Koryo Tours has also branched out beyond tourism, financing and producing several films and documentaries about North Korea, including the award winning film about North Korean football, The Game of Their Lives. The company sponsors art exhibits, school exchanges, film festivals, and other cultural exchange programs. It is also clear that the Koryo trip leaders have a good working relationship with their North Korean counterparts. It cannot be easy leading large groups of independent-minded travelers through one of the world’s most restrictive countries, Koryo’s track record is indicative of both their experience and expertise.

0516_travel7According to Koryo Tour’s Cockerell, “In all the work we do; tourism, film work, school trips, media work, we try to expose the maximum number of people on both sides to the maximum number of people on the other, in the most substantial ways possible. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn’t, but the people of North Korea have limited access to outsiders and we believe that this is a situation that shouldn’t be this way, and we work to create interaction in as many ways as possible, and to share experience and understanding. This is no silver bullet for the problems faced by the people of the country, but neither is it blocked by the same macro-issues that frustrate political initiatives.”

The program I traveled with was a five-day trip, branded as the Kimchi Tour. This is Koryo’s shortest and least expensive itinerary. Ordinarily “Budget Tour of North Korea” would seem to be a candidate for worst branding ever right after “Discount Sushi” but the quality of lodging and accommodation were the same, if not better, than might be found on a similar trip in the PRC.

One traveler on the tour commented that the length itinerary was perfect for “getting a taste of North Korea without needing to commit a lot of time or money.” Another said that five days was “just about the perfect amount of time.”

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The trip included visits to the major sites of Pyongyang including the bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il atop Mansu Hill, the Arch of Triumph (any resemblance to the one in Paris, purely coincidental), Tower of Juche, the DMZ, and the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. There is also of course the mausoleum housing the embalmed bodies of the two Kims along with showrooms featuring their yachts, cars, and golf carts/Kim-Mobiles. Yes, it all comes with a heavy dose of state propaganda but that is, after all, one of the attractions. In addition to the supermarket, our group also visited a school and was able to sit in on some of the classes. It was clear that this was a special day at a very special school, but many of our group made use of even this limited access to interact with the children and the teachers during the short time we were there.

0516_travel1The North Korean guides have little enthusiasm or tolerance for anything which might seem disrespectful toward the leadership or the party. Even a photograph of a group of tourists jumping in front of the Arch of Triumph was quickly aborted and our guide gently confiscated a can of Coca-Cola, purchased in Pyongyang, from a member of our group before he took pictures in Kim Il Sung Square.

Why North Korea? There is obviously a bucket list quality to traveling to Pyongyang. In a world where we take for granted, even in the PRC, at least basic access to information and the global marketplace, there’s something very heavy about visiting one of the few countries that remains resolutely, even tragically, off the grid.

0516_travel2“Thousands of North Koreans are employed in the tourism industry and related fields (support, restaurants, etc.) with many dependents below them, these people deserve a shot, deserve to have a chance to do well in their industry and deserve to have as much contact as possible. Just as the outside world deserves contact with North Koreans,” says Cockerel.

This kind of travel is not for everyone, it does take a very open mind and a willingness to abide by rules which range on a spectrum between nonsensical to indefensible, but North Korea is a very special place worth making the effort to visit.

Koryo Tours operates a variety of group and private tours throughout the year, including architectural, cycling, ski, and marathon programs departing from Beijing. Most group itineraries are between 5-7 days, and start at around 1350 Euro. Their ebsite is http://www.koryogroup.com/ and they can be reached by email at info@koryogroup.com.

Category Travel