Touching down in North Korea: one of the world’s most secretive nations

Our writer, Gunnar Garfors visits North Korea as a camera-toting tourist and finds the experience eye-opening.

Leave your guide book at home: Government-approved local guides restrict foreign visitors to designated tourist areas. Source: Gunnar Garfors

It may seem like an unlikely tourist destination, but North Korea has become increasingly accessible to foreign visitors.

The majority of tourists are Chinese, but a few thousand Westerners visit North Korea every year. Most foreign visitors fly into Sunan International Airport (FNJ) outside the capital, Pyongyang.

I found getting a visa to visit North Korea surprisingly easy and the country has also eased travel restrictions on US tourists.

However tourism is tightly controlled. Travellers must be on official guided tours and follow a prearranged itinerary.

North Korea’s metro stations are decorated with huge pieces of propaganda art and murals of former leader, Kim Il-Sung are commonplace.

Surrender your phones

Visitors have to surrender their mobile phones to customs at the airport and can collect them at the end of their stay. This seems to be a pretty useless exercise as they wouldn’t work anyway. North Korea’s mobile network provider doesn’t exactly open up for roaming services!

Most people in North Korea don’t have Internet access, unless you happen to be North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un or part of his inner circle. However a nationwide intranet has been set up for local news, weather and even dating services.

Foreign radio stations and TV channels are banned, and even on radios purchased in North Korea you can only access predefined frequencies.

As a tourist, almost everything you see in North Korea will be orchestrated to a smaller or larger degree. You will only get to see certain sights and eat in certain restaurants.

I was lucky enough to be allowed to jog around the capital, without a guide. This is rare. Otherwise, expect to be accompanied by two guides at all times on your visit.

Guides are there to watch you every step of the way. But there will always be a few minutes when one of the minders needs to use the restroom and you may get to exchange some unofficial information, if you get on well.

Propaganda is everywhere and no one will speak to you (aside from your guide) unless allowed to by someone higher up in the hierarchy.

Attractive girls in uniform keep traffic lights out of business.

‘Attractively’ dressed women direct the traffic at intersections in Pyongyang.

The country is very poor, but no one wants you as a foreigner to see this. Pyongyang is much better off than any other part of the country: something you may sense if venturing outside the capital.

What does North Korea have to offer tourists?

Despite its tight restrictions on travel, North Korea has plenty to offer the tourist, including a number of traditional sights.

Pyongyang is home to two giant bronze statues of former North Korea leaders, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il, and North Korea’s own version of the ‘Arch of Triumph’.

The Mausoleum of President Kim Il-song is a must-see. Locals have to stand in long lines to get in, although you will get to pass them as a special foreign guest.

An excursion to the War Museum and USS Pueblo – the U.S navy ship captured by North Korea more than 40 years ago – is worth ticking off your list. You will rarely get to see propaganda done more explicitly.

Other places worth visiting:

Murals of North Korea’s former leaders are commonplace - including at the airport.

The town of Kaesong, which borders South Korea has ‘special status’ as some South Korean companies have businesses here.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is just outside Kaesong. You will be shown around by military personnel and may have your photo taken with them – against the backdrop of South Korea. Some small cabins are placed on the border itself with half the cabin lying in each country. Negotiations have taken place here and you may be allowed to enter one of the cabins and actually physically enter South Korea.

The West Sea Barrage and the Museum of Dam Construction in Nampo, about 40 miles west of Pyongyang, is also well worth a visit.

Wish you were here?

Don’t forget to send a postcard back home. North Korea’s postcards are pieces of art. Propaganda art. Just remember to stick the postage stamp on with the image of North Korea’s leader facing the right way up.

If the image of Kim Jong-Un’s face is upside down or sideways, the stamp will be turned around by the North Korean postal service before it reaches you a month later.

The machine

As a foreign tourist, you will be used as part of the propaganda. The locals will be told that you are a very important individual from your country and have come to North Korea to study the best country in the world to get inspiration to help improve your own country back home.

Touching down in North Korea: one of the most secretive and reclusive nations

A lot of the propaganda is targeted directly at Americans.

Also bear in mind that North Korean’s have no idea what happens outside their own country. They will, for instance not have heard about any more recent state leaders than Mao, Stalin, Churchill and Lenin. They will not know the Beatles, Madonna, Gandhi or Angelina Jolie.

Flying into North Korea: Which airline to fly?

Flying to North Korea

Many tourists fly into North Korea on its national airline Air Koryo. Most of its Russian-made planes are banned from entering EU airspace because the airline does not meet a number of the EU’s safety standards.

Sunan International Airport is served by only two regular airlines: national airline, Air Koryo with its fleet of aging Soviet-era Antonov, Ilyushin and Tupolev planes and Air China.

Unless you have a strong stomach for flying (and the worst plane food you are likely to ever eat), I strongly recommend taking the Star Alliance option and flying with Air China from Beijing.

The airport offers basic services, including a duty free outlet, souvenir shop and a business lounge.

What others have said

  1. I think it must be a very interesting travel, leaving prejudices and stereotypes before going. We are constantly bombed by propaganda in the Western countries as well. Not so obvious, not so strong, but propaganda after all.

    For instance, I have never read an article or seen a documentary on TV that is not pretending to put a bad opinion of countries like N.Korea, Iran, Venezuela or Cuba on me. That’s brainwashing too, but it seem to us that we have free and objective information.

    I don’t think I would ever agree with what is happening in N.Korea, but I’d like to see it myself. If your only opinion from a country comes from their enemies, then you’ll have the same opinion that N.Koreans have of the States.

    I hope I can go someday!

  2. “D” is perfectly correct ..you were at the hotel on the island. I was there in September and did the jog as well ..you do NOT get free jogging privileges anywhere in North Korea by yourself .
    They know a lot more about western society than you think ..music,movies,
    history, etc …these people are educated ..I am beginning to wonder if you really were there sir as your information is very misinformed .
    Plus how can you claim to have visited all these countries if you just land ,pee in the terminal and then take off to another country ?? ..that does not count in my books ! You have to
    experience the country to say that you have visited it.You do not appear to be a very honest journalist .

    • Dear Lee,

      I did not stay in the hotel on the island (although I went there for drinks on one occasion), and I jogged around town without a guide two days in a row, the second day a longer and different route than the other.

      To count a visit to a country I need to have a story to tell, and it must be outside airports, trains, cars, etc. That’s just my rule, some people are happy as long as they stamp the passport even without leaving the airport. 187 countries now, 11 remaining.

      I don’t really know why you question my honesty, but feel free. With regards to my visit to North Korea, there are at least a hundred photos to prove it. Do let me know if you would want to see any of them.

      Most people in North Korea do not know much about the “outside world” despite some smuggled DVDs, etc. For instance, how many foreign people will the average North Korean be able to name?

  3. Do not forget that only weeks before our late glorious leader Kim Jong iI passed from this life, he ran the first sub-3 minute mile as part of his daily marathon. You may have jogged around our beautiful city westerner dog but Kim Jong il blazed a trail.

  4. The statement that North Koreans do not know the Beatles and other music is false. DVD shops have popped up around Pyongyang, and people do listen to different types of music (as we were shown at the Grand People’s Study Hall…complete with boomboxes from the 80s. Flashback time!).

    If you were allowed to jog around by yourself, you were likely at the Yanggakdo Hotel, which is on an island where all are allowed to do so. To suggest that you have that kind of freedom in the city is misleading.

    • Dearest D,

      With regards to the jogging, please see my answer to Lee above. I don’t think I would ever have been stupid enough to claim that I jogged around Pyongyang alone if I was stuck on that tiny island.

    • Hehe, very good point which is usually forgotten (especially by people from the US), but it odes clearly say USA on the helmet of the soldier, and he is being crushed on a map of the US of A….

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