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 were at the hotel on the island. I was there in September and did the jog as well do NOT get free jogging privileges anywhere in North Korea by yourself .
    They know a lot more about western society than you think,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?

    • I know I’m late to the party by a couple years (hah!) but just came across your site. Had to re-read Lee’s comment above a couple times- seems like he has a real “bee in his bonnet”.

      Lee, you say if you “land [in a country], pee in the terminal and then take off to another country” you cannot count that as having been in that country. By no means can claim you have truly “experienced” the area in a situation like that, however it most certainly DOES count as having “been” to that place in the world. There’s really no arguing that. If you committed a crime while using the restroom you would be detained and subject to that country’s laws and judicial system. I think that proves you are “IN” that country!

      If I was in San Diego and walked across the border into Tijuana I would be in Mexico. While you may feel a journalist shouldn’t write about their experiences in a situation like that (which Gunnar does NOT), you are still technically in a different country- whether you walked 3 steps or 3 miles.

      I’m not sure how you can doubt that Gunnar has been to North Korea when he has hundreds of photos and is a TRAVEL WRITER. You’re basing that on his jogging story? No two experiences in North Korea are ever the same and it is heavily dependent on the guides you are assigned and your relationship with them as to what you can/cannot do. I know people who have gone to NK and were allowed to do very little. I know people who have gone to NK and have done things I never thought would be allowed in that country because they developed a friendship/camaraderie with their handlers. Gunnar NEVER said he was allowed to “jog around the whole country”, just the city he was in. Not sure where you’re getting that??

      I could turn this around and tell you I doubt YOU have been to NK based on your comment “…NK citizens know a lot of about Western culture and are all educated”. Seriously?! The vast…and I do mean VAST…majority of North Koreans don’t even have a TV or electricity, never mind access to higher education or Hollywood films! The people you see in Pyongyang that interact with tourists are the select minority, usually coming from wealthy politically families. They are carefully chosen, educated and trained to represent their country and manifest the facade. If you interact with Westerner’s all day every day of course you know about Western culture, as you are exposed to it. But venture outside the city into the farming towns where the REAL North Koreans live and it will be a whole different world…though this is a part of NK Westerners will never be allowed to see.

      Pyongyang is like the Disney World of Asia- everything is carefully crafted, staged, and catered to tourists; trying to convey an image of the happiest place on earth when in reality millions of their citizens are starving to death and imprisoned in modern day concentration camps. I would absolutely love to visit North Korea, but just can’t morally justify contributing to the economy of country who commit such nightmare atrocities and (literally) torture their citizens.

    • 25Dunno if those are the soldiers this quote is for but I’ll throw it in aaywny “The Devils in Skirts nickname was supposed to have been given to the soldiersof the 51st Highland Division during the Battle of Ancre in 1916 where they had to cross a battlefield littered with the fallen from a previous assault andenter a deep depression, called the Y ravine, to reach enemy positions. But the brave men stormed the German troops with such determination, thousands of prisoners were taken and by 1918, the 51st Highland Division was known as the best fighting division in France, despite grave losses”

  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.

      • … “I know the Korean attitude twroad whites and blacks. It’s very sophisticated.”Indeed.I’ve learned a lot of general rules about a certain subset of white guy on this site, and one of them is this:White guys who are generally awkward and unsuccessful with women, AND arrogant and feel a sense of loss at not being able to live in Norman Rockwell America (I would say a fair number of Steve’s readers) spend a lot of time looking for a magical Shangri-La somewhere in which the local, non white, non-black beauty queens, fall all over white guys in the street, and are totally disgusted by black guys. I say good luck finding that because I don’t believe it exists; at least no where I’ve been. Yes, and I have learned that there is a certain subset of Black and Brown (Hacienda?) guys who post on this site who fantasize that if they just went to some Yellow land populated by Asian beauties and not populated by Whitey, all the women will come flocking, none of the women’s parents will object, and their career will have no impediments because of their race (because evil Whitey is not around and therefore evil racism doesn’t exist it only exists in the U.S., not in Asia).Sorry, I’ve got news for you. Such a place doesn’t exist. There are racists in Asia too. (okay maybe Thailand, but I have never been there so I can’t say for sure).Sorry to bust your bubble. Hacienda said… Handsome Accomplished White Guy, It’s not about my self-esteem. It’s about the universal desire to knock and cocky, pretender of his perch.First, no truly accomplished male brags about scoring with Asian women. So you must by your own accounting be handsome. And what loser insinuates that he is handsome on a semi-intellectual blog like this? An ESL teacher, maybe? Hmmmm? Is that how you’re really scoring? Wow, Dude I really struck a nerve with you. You need help really. Or you need to get out more. I mean you can’t accept the fact that women, all over the world, prefer handsome intelligent high achieving guys over those who are not? I was merely making observation which I thought was a universally recognized truth. The point being if you are a loser in the eyes of a woman (fat, bald, poor, out of shape, poorly educated, socially inept, etc .. take your pick) don’t expect the same treatment over there or anywhere. I had no idea it was going to upset you so. However, the fact that you are so bothered by it tells me you must be a Beta or seriously repressed, because the idea of some guy with swagger who enjoys life and women somehow really bothers you. Sorry, I use to think that stuff was B.S. but only a Beta (or a Puritan) could get unraveled by the idea that someone somewhere was having more fun than him. I’ve got a news flash for you (because apparently you missed the 20th century) not all women are innocent damsels in distress who need protection from big bad wolves. They also enjoy sex and they have a mind of their own. I am pretty sure at least one Feminist professor told me that in a class once when I was an undergrad. Imagine that. Once you realize this you will have a lot more fun and probably do a lot better with women. And no, enjoying the company of women doesn’t mean you have to be a complete sybarite, but foregoing their company means missing out on a large part of what makes live worth living. And no, it was not as an ESL teacher but someone from elite schools with two advanced degrees Sorry to bust your little fantasy . Now get back to your Dungeons and Dragons games or however it is you to amuse yourself.

    • 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….

Leave a Comment

Like what you're reading?
Terminal U

Help spread the word.