North Korea is an odd place. The best way I’ve found to describe it, is that it is like being in an elaborate piece of performance art. Everything is controlled – the last time I was so restricted, I was at boarding school. The guide tells stories about a strong, prosperous, lucky people for days, and at the end of the trip walks away with a tip totalling more than half the GDP per capita. I was in one of the most fancy buildings I’ve ever been in, upsetting three people by trying to leave my change (as they didn’t have any to give me) – totalling maybe a dollar. It’s fine, and then it’s jarring. Those moments were jarring.
It is fascinating though. I realised and appreciated whilst I was there that there are three stories that are told about North Korea – the one they tell internally, the one they tell externally, and the one the West tells – there is little relationship between them. This is the way to hear the one told internally. It’s a long way from the Western one, mostly defined by the US.
The US is a capitalist society, but as a European I have more of an appreciation for Socialism. North Korea claims a better maternity leave policy than the US, for example. There are many problems with the actual system in place, but the claimed goals, of healthcare, and education, for all – those I cannot argue with.
It’s not an easy trip. The “luxury” hotel is, well let’s say, not my idea of luxury. The standards of cleanliness, especially around food preparation, can be damaging to your health. The hectic schedule and the constraints about what you can and cannot do – with no understanding that would be a challenge for a liberated Westerner left me stressed and exhausted. But there are things – like the mass games – you’ll never see anywhere else, and watching the military go by after the “Victory Day” parade was a window onto another era, where wars were fought using machine power, and not by unmanned aircraft.
There is also something to be said for the break from decisions, as a cure for decision fatigue. And it’s definitely a way to get perspective on first world problems – these are not problems in North Korea.
You can find my extensive notes and picture collections for each day:
My friends and I went with Young Pioneer Tours, which I think from Narelle’s research was one of the cheapest options – there is no point paying more, as you stay in the same place and see the same things anyway! You get a Western guide as well as the two Korean guides, which we thought would be helpful, but I’m not sure what he did, really, so I can’t advocate for it making a big difference.
Tips for Travelling for North Korea
- Take plenty of money! There are no ATMs, and credit cards aren’t accepted. I saw only one credit card machine the entire trip, and it wouldn’t work. Things like good seats for the mass games, and NK Android tablets (man, I wish I had got one of these) add up, and it would suck to miss out on anything – it’s not like it’s easy to pop back! You also have to keep some currency to tip the guide – about 5 euro per day is recommended.
- Small denominations of RMB (Chinese currency) are best for drinks etc, but Euros are good for bigger things. USD is acceptable.
- Pack some hand-sanitizer, and sanitising wipes, as many places do not have soap (ick).
- Also, tissues, as many places lack toilet paper.
- The usual gastro supplies are a good thing to pack, I had a packet of pills for stomach cramps that were a hot commodity after we were all poisoned (as NK is not a popular destination, ask for what the doctor or pharmacist would recommend for a trip to India).
- Granola and protein bars! I wish I had packed some food. Allows for skipping breakfast (extra sleep – significant when the elevator could take 20 minutes, and people were missing breakfast because they were waiting for it), and to eat instead of any cold (uncooked, or just air-cooled) food on offer.
- Gift for guides, but western commodities are hot everywhere. We saw some super adorable school-girls on the train who gave up their seats to us, I wish I’d packed mini-lipglosses and the like to give away in those situations. Note – the guide will probably sell your gift on the black market anyway, so don’t feel you have to put too much thought into it.
- Comfortable walking shoes.
- The “smart” clothes for the mausoleum don’t need to be that smart – I wore a dress over leggings with Toms, which was fine. It’s likely you’ll spend all day in it, and the schedule gets changed around so multiple acceptable outfits that are also comfortable is a good idea.
- If visiting during the summer, hat and sunscreen. Sunscreen to carry with you. Thin, long-sleeved tops. All the usual things you need for harsh sunlight, with the added aspect of having zero control over your schedule (we were outside waiting for the parade for ages, and even with sunscreen my fair skin was not happy).
- Warm sweater for the bus and other indoor places, which are often over-air-conditioned and quite cold.
- Plain moisturiser, I like Aveeno (Amazon). The combination of heat, sun, dirt, air conditioner, and possibly the soap had mine, and other’s skin irritated.
- Audio-books for long bus journeys – it was so bouncy that neither my Kindle nor iPad were an option. It’s 2.5 hours each way to the DMZ, and there are other lengthy drives.
- Pack clothes that you don’t expect to wear more than once, because it’s pretty dirty. I found leggings and a thin dress were better than shorts or jeans.