There are a handful of nations that, when you tell your friends you want to visit, they look at you like you’ve lost your marbles. The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) is one of them.
A charter member of George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil, North Korea may not be a popular tourist destination, but it is a tourist destination. This despite the fact that it still technically at war with South Korea. With a little effort and a fair amount of money, almost anyone can visit The Hermit Kingdom.
There are lots of things to see in North Korea, but all activity is prearranged and watched closely by government minders. Your movements are restricted and you can’t just go poking around by yourself. Most tours centre around the capital, Pyongyang, although it is possible to visit other parts of the country.
Pyongyang boasts massive statues of leaders and ideas. There’s the 115-floor pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel that’s been under construction since 1987. The Juche Tower, a 170 metre monument to the idea of self-reliance. Grand buildings line huge boulevards that are remarkably free of traffic. The portraits of former leaders Kim Il-sung (Great Leader) and his son Kim Jong-il (Dear Leader) stare at you from almost every room. Following the death of Kim Jong-il, the Kim dynasty continued with his son Kim Jong-un taking the reins as Supreme Leader.
The biggest entertainment draw is the Arirang Festival or Mass Games, which Koryo Tours describes as “a synchronized socialist-realist spectacular, featuring over 100,000 participants in a 90 minute display of gymnastics, dance, acrobatics, and dramatic performance, accompanied by music and other effects, all wrapped in a highly politicized package. Literally no other place on Earth has anything comparable.”
Let’s not forget the people of North Korea who are closed off from the rest of the world, suffering from food shortages, lack of freedom, and the restrictions of living in a totalitarian state. For many, this is enough to deter them from ever visiting. It’s an old argument: is it better to boycott “rogue” nations or is it better to visit them and see the reality – even just a sliver – for ourselves?
I’ve talked with many people who have wanted to go to North Korea, but until recently, I’ve never known anyone who actually had. Trish Van Veen and Karl Holzwarth are a Canadian couple who just got back from the DPRK. I spoke with Karl about their trip.
Why did you go to North Korea?
Why not? Curiosity. It’s the last truly socialist place on the planet and the feeling is that it won’t be for long. Everything we’ve read is so harsh and evil. We were wondering if it’s true or not.
How did you get there?
We flew in from Beijing. That and the train from Dandong, China are the only points of entry for tourists. Americans must fly as they cannot take the train.
How much did it cost?
What was it like?
It was very different than what we had read. There were cars on the street, lights in the buildings at night and even in the countryside where we were asked not to take pictures the people looked healthy. Our schedule was tightly controlled and we definitely only saw what they wanted us to see.
What did you do?
We did mostly the basic stuff. We visited monuments to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, temples and things like that. We also visited the amusement park in Pyongyang, a water park, a hot spring hotel and a giant dam complex. The highlight was the Arirang Festival at the May Day Stadium. The Children’s Palace was pretty impressive too. We also went to a circus, saw the USS Pueblo (an intelligence ship that North Korea captured from the US in 1968) and we visited the DMZ (the Demilitarized Zone and de facto border between North and South Korea). We did a clam bake with our guides. They drench the clams in gasoline and light them on fire.
Did it make you think?
Yes, it did. We still need some time to process it all. The propaganda is definitely over the top but it also points out some big holes in what we have been fed by our media and government reports. It makes it easier to understand why the vast majority of North Koreans truly believe they are living a Utopian life.
Would you recommend a North Korea holiday to others?
It depends on the person. That was actually one of the most interesting things about the trip – the other members of our group. I guess it wasn’t what you would expect. There was a mother and her daughter from Vancouver, originally from Hong Kong. We had no idea what they were doing there. It’s not a luxury vacation. It’s not fun either. At some points it gets a little boring and repetitive. But we’re still glad we went.
If you’d like to take a trip to North Korea, you can find a lot more information online. The two tour companies listed above are good starting points.
For more background and context on North Korea and its people, I recommend the book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.