A Tourist in Pyongyang: My First Impressions on Visiting North Korea

In many ways, North Korea wasn’t what I expected at all… and in other ways it was stranger still than the most sensationalising news stories could ever have prepared me for. I saw a lot during my short time in the country. Much of it aligned precisely with what they wanted me to see, as one might imagine. But over the course of that week I also saw cracks in the facade – and got to glimpse a few things that didn’t quite fit the image of the polished socialist state which Pyongyang attempts to present to its guests, and thereby, to the world.

I have written about some of those experiences in other articles on this website and elsewhere, but this post deals with my first impressions of the place; arriving in Pyongyang as a tourist, and with absolutely no idea what to expect.


Mansudae and the Ryugyong Hotel.
Above: View of Mansudae, with the Ryugyong Hotel behind. Below: Detail of the Juche Tower.


Tourism in North Korea

Pyongyang Tourism-North Korea-19The self-styled ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ (DPRK) is perhaps best described as a military theocracy. The armed forces enter into all walks of life here – from traffic control to construction – and the power of North Korea’s military is absolute. The country features so frequently in Western news headlines, that it’s easy to build a mental picture of this place as a bizarre, time-locked land of poverty, hunger and militaristic oppression… and while I’m not for a moment suggesting that those things don’t also exist, there’s a huge amount more to the place than what we’re used to seeing on the news. As I’d find out, the truth of North Korea is often stranger than the fiction.

Tourism to North Korea is only possible by approval of the Korean International Travel Company (KITC). A number of foreign travel agencies run short tours of the country under the KITC’s approval, and each group is appointed a pair of North Korean guides. My own visit to the DPRK was arranged through Young Pioneer Tours – an English-speaking company based in China – and the whole process of getting into the country was as easy as any visa I’ve ever applied for.

Having read stories about bugged hotel rooms, rigorous background checks and even entrapment by undercover government agents, however, I was somewhat apprehensive. Journalists have been imprisoned in the past, for attempting to report on the country without the state’s approval. On my visa application form I called myself an ‘SEO consultant’ – but a quick online search would soon reveal examples of my written work. I wondered how easily it could have been mistaken for ‘journalism,’ and whether such a conclusion may have put me in potential trouble.

In reality though, I was overthinking it by far. Korean culture prides itself on hospitality, and our group of nine were treated like honoured guests throughout our stay – from deluxe hotel suites to private performances of song and dance by children at the local school.

Monument to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
Monument to North Korea’s former leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

Pyongyang Tourism-North Korea-3One of the most pleasant surprises about the DPRK is the refreshing absence of advertisements. Billboards in Pyongyang tend to display gaudy socialist-realist designs of happy workers and smiling children, accompanied by morale-building slogans. Yes, it’s communist propaganda. In its purest form. But personally, I much preferred these simple, feel-good posters to the manipulative advertising which tends to litter Western cities, usually with the sole aim of getting people to spend more money.

Another of the more commonly perpetuated stereotypes of the North Korean people is their blind devotion to the country’s leaders; from founder Kim Il-sung through his successor Kim Jong-il, and now the young heir Kim Jong-un.

Well, reality would appear to corroborate this. Each classroom in Pyongyang’s main school bears the twin portraits of ‘Eternal President’ Kim Il-sung and the posthumously promoted Generalissimo Kim Jong-Il. The same likenesses are present in every train carriage on the Pyongyang Metro, and resplendent on the walls of every dwelling – although the latter I was unable to see, as it still remains illegal for a citizen of North Korea to entertain foreigners in their home.

The Grand People's Study House
Above: The Grand People’s Study House. Below: Classrooms and computer terminals inside the Study House.

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Hospitals, universities and streets are named after the country’s leaders, and in the heart of the city, their likenesses appear as twin bronze effigies towering over Mansu Hill. On visiting the statues our group was asked to observe the traditional formalities – forming a solemn line at the bottom step, before advancing the long walk up to the monument as one, and bowing low at the metal feet of these dictators.

There didn’t seem to be any pressure to comply. It wasn’t, as some journalists suggest, a case of foreigners being forced to bow before these figures. Rather, it just felt like the appropriate thing to do and no one in our group was looking to cause offence. I bowed to these statues in the same way that I would take my shoes off when visiting a mosque; a token gesture of respect to someone else’s belief system.

The Mansu Hill (Mansudae) Grand Monument
Above: The Mansu Hill Grand Monument. Below left: Bust of Kim Jong-suk, the mother of Kim Jong-il. Below right: The Socialist Revolution Monument.

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Despite their public displays of devotion however, it can sometimes be hard to tell how deep these sentiments run for the people of North Korea.

Founding father Kim Il-sung, without a doubt, is deeply loved by his people. In his youth Il-sung was a high-ranking officer in the revolutionary army, at a time when the Korean peninsula was suffering under oppressive Japanese rule in the wake of WWII. Once the country was liberated he went on to become president of the newly-founded DPRK… leaving his mark on the fledgling nation with a legacy of schools, hospitals and universities, a metro system and film studios. He ran the country like a military brigade, and did not tolerate dissent; but it’s entirely possible that he did it all with the best intentions.

His son and successor Kim Jong-il, however, is best remembered for the Great Famine (in the local rhetoric, the ‘Arduous March’) and for involving North Korea in state terrorism. The praise I heard for him sounded ever-so-slightly automatic.

Painting of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in a Pyongyang school.
Above: Painting of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hanging in a Pyongyang school. Below: A dance performance by local school children.

Pyongyang Tourism-North Korea-13As for the youngest Kim, it was difficult to gauge exactly how the public felt… beyond the standard, predictable responses, that is.

Late one evening though I got into conversation with another employee of the KITC, who was off-duty and drinking in the hotel bar. After a few beers I broached the topic of politics and asked what he thought of the country’s newest leader, Kim Jong-un.

“Our Dear Leader has only been in power for a few months,” he told me with a sly grin, “we haven’t been told what we think yet.”


Exploring Pyongyang

The tour itself proved to be exhausting.

We would wake up early each morning, grab a quick breakfast in our hotel, then pile onto a tour bus with our guides. After each long day of museums and monuments, studios and schools, we’d try out a range of Korean delicacies – ice cold noodles, barbecued duck, kimchi and even dog soup – before retreating to a bar somewhere to wind down with one of the fine local brews.

The Yanggakdo International Hotel
The Yanggakdo International Hotel on its island in the Taedong River.
Monumental fountain near the People's Study House, Pyongyang.
Above: A monumental fountain near the People’s Study House. Below: The dry pool beneath suggesting infrequent use.

Pyongyang Tourism-North Korea-7Our accommodation, the Yanggakdo Hotel, was situated on a small island in the middle of the Taedong River that divides Pyongyang in two. A suitably inaccessible location, considering foreigners are allowed nowhere in the DPRK without their approved escorts.

For all the rules however, I was pleasantly surprised by the laxity and informal approach of our guides. While on duty they would invariably give us the Party line – their account of the Korean War differed significantly from the version of history I had studied in school, for example. Despite this they were both warm and approachable though, and as the week went on they opened up more and more about their own thoughts and feelings.

Still, I often found myself wondering how much was being kept from us. On Victory Day, for example, as we were being shown an attractive marble statue set in the centre of a water feature, our guide informed us that we had just missed the fountains – which would be coming on again later in the day. The dry and dusty basin around the figures seemed to tell another story, though.

Later on we paid a visit to the Grand People’s Study House – a vast pagoda-styled building which houses an extensive library of books in addition to classrooms, study halls and lecture theatres.

The Grand People's Study House, Pyongyang, DPRK.
The Grand People’s Study House seen from the adjacent park.

These facilities are provided free of charge to any citizen who wants to put the time into improving their education – we were told – and the building was undeniably very impressive. As we came to leave however, passing by the large marble statue of Kim Il-sung sat in the building’s opulent foyer, the lights cut out. Our guide cursed and shouted an order, the lights flickering back on a moment later. I was left wondering if the lavish lighting displays were perhaps reserved only for the benefit of visitors.

Another awkward moment came during a visit to the Juche Tower; at 170m in height this iconic structure is ranked as the tallest stone tower in the world, and its design supposedly embodies the ‘Juche Idea’: Kim Il-sung’s post-Marxist ideology based on the principals of independence and self-reliance.

Passing by half a dozen numbered floors as we took the elevator to the observation deck at the top of the monument, one member of our group asked what the other floors were used for. The question was met by an uncomfortable silence from our guide, followed by a swift change of subject. Later, as we were being talked through the landmarks on Pyongyang’s skyline, somebody asked the guide if they could point out the home of Kim Jong-un. Again, silence.

The Korean Central History Museum, Pyongyang.
Above: The Korean Central History Museum. Below: Two views of the Juche Tower.

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It is strange how a country can provoke such a sense of paranoid suspicion; North Korea’s avoidance of certain topics – and its citizens’ general wariness of foreigners – cannot help but arouse interest in the curious visitor. As the week went on I found myself questioning more and more about our surroundings… wondering what was real, and how much was a charade put on for our benefit.

As we strolled through Moranbong Park later that day though, we passed family groups gathered around barbecues, some drinking, others shamelessly serenading one another on cheap microphones plugged into cheaper karaoke machines. At a pagoda located in the centre of the park, dozens of couples were dancing to lively Korean folk songs, while crowds cheered and clapped. Our party was soon enveloped in a throng of middle-aged women eager for foreign dancing partners.

Socialist-realist monuments in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Socialist-realist monuments near the Juche Tower.
Parade rehearsals on the bank of the Taedong River, Pyongyang.
Parade rehearsals on the bank of the Taedong River.

There are some things which just can’t be faked, which have too much substance to be illusion; and the sense of community and festivity in the park that day was tangibly real. But then, to assume that life in North Korea is nothing but endless suffering would be naive. People are people everywhere – they drink and dance and do their best to make the most of their situation.


Propaganda, Distraction & Denial

As the week went on our guides took us for a ride on the Pyongyang Metro, down to Kaesong and the Korean Demilitarised Zone in the south; and to a war cemetery where each grave bore a painstakingly detailed bust of the deceased. We visited a theme park too, during our stay – the third of its kind to be built in Pyongyang. The city’s fourth theme park, meanwhile, had enjoyed an inspection from Kim Jong-un only a week previously.

The National Martyrs Cemetery, Pyongyang, North Korea.
Above: The National Martyrs Cemetery, Pyongyang. Below: Statue of Kim Il-sung inside the People’s Study House.

Pyongyang Tourism-North Korea-28It seems as though the new leader spends a reasonable amount of his time testing rollercoasters and water rides. At present, he is overseeing the construction of North Korea’s first dolphinarium. Considering many of these attractions are offered with no entry charge to the general public, it certainly makes for a generous gesture of comradeship… though from what I’d seen (and particularly outside of the capital) I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps the country would be better served by that same money invested into agricultural machinery or healthcare.

The DPRK seems to be very keen to show off the facilities in its capital city – and rightly so, as Pyongyang is a truly impressive capital – but while state services such as healthcare and education are provided without charge throughout the country, it is difficult to get an idea of how far these resources stretch. Questions about production levels, health or educational resources, for example, are generally met with responses along the lines of:

“Why would you want to know that? That’s not interesting,” often immediately followed by,

“Look at this beautiful monument,” or —

“Would you like to have a go on the bumper cars?”

The Monument to Party Founding, Pyongyang.
The Monument to Party Founding, Pyongyang.
The Monument to Party Founding, Pyongyang, DPRK.
Decorative banner inside the Monument to Party Founding.

It was clear that there are some things they simply don’t want us to know about the DPRK.

Our holiday in Pyongyang culminated with a trip to the city’s only nightclub, the ‘Diplomatic Club’. It was hard to gauge what the venue would have been like on a normal night, as we were the only people in attendance on this occasion – although one of our guides assured us that she had frequented the club often with friends, during her student years. The club was pleasant enough, featuring several sofas and a bar, a small dance floor and a modern karaoke machine. The list of songs on offer seemed extensive; though many of the more unexpected entries (Megadeth, Slipknot, Nine Inch Nails) turned out to be ‘temporarily unavailable.’ Instead we listened to our guides sing traditional Korean songs, while the staff brought round after round of strong, local beers to our table.

Arch of Reunification (Monument to the Three-Point Charter for National Reunification), Pyongyang.
The Arch of Reunification, officially titled the ‘Monument to the Three-Point Charter for National Reunification.’

The following morning our lead guide made a farewell speech, as we stood dazed and hungover beneath Pyongyang’s Arch of Reunification. This symmetrical statue bridges the city’s southern highway, and represents the national dream of a co-operative government ruling over one single Korea.

“We hope you have enjoyed your time in the DPRK, and we apologise if for any reason it has not been up to your expectations,” she said. “We have done our best to show you hospitality, so when you go home, please, speak kindly of us.” Or words to that effect, at least.

Propaganda in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Above: Propaganda in the capital. Below left: The streets of Pyongyang. Below right: The selected works of Kim Jong-il at a Pyongyang bookshop.

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I left with a sense of North Korea as a country that is very much aware of its world reputation; the majority of Koreans I met came across as intelligent and cultured, and I’m sure those working for the tourism industry won’t have misunderstood the voyeuristic appeal that draws so many visitors to their country. Nevertheless, the people show a genuine hospitality towards visitors, while Pyongyang itself is a truly appealing city (and particularly for anyone who shares my love of grand, monumental architecture).

Many of the preconceptions I took with me into North Korea turned out to be entirely unfounded. This is simply not the same place that features in the Western news media – whose over-played footage of grey military parades gives no idea whatsoever as to the reality of day-to-day life here. While much of the tourism experience feels contrived and illusionary, what stuck with me most was the small revelation of meeting North Koreans who really seemed to be living happy and fulfilled lives.

Pyongyang seen from the top of the Juche Tower.
Above: Pyongyang seen from the top of the Juche Tower. Below: Looking across the river at the Grand People’s Study Hall.

Pyongyang Tourism-North Korea-15And there is a certain charm to North Korea’s Juche philosophy; the admirable naivety, the old-timey innocence of its (militarily enforced) culture. I found myself trying to explain Search Engine Optimisation to a guide one day – she grasped the idea quickly, summarising it: “Companies pay you money to make them seem more important than they really are, so that they can find more people to get money from.”

Later, we talked about popular video games (another forbidden pleasure in the DPRK), and I had to explain the purpose of the music simulation game Guitar Hero. “Why don’t people spend their time getting good at a real instrument instead?” she asked. Sometimes answers like these left me questioning my own culture rather than hers.

North Korean communism, Juche, is a beautiful idea on paper. Well, some of it is. Our guides – as representatives of the state – described their country in a way that really sold it. Equality, community, tradition; free healthcare, housing and education for all. For people happy to work a mundane job for six days a week, never travel, never have a say in the political discussion, never question authority but spend every Sunday getting drunk with friends and family… Pyongyang seems like it definitely wouldn’t be the worst place to live.

But that’s just the capital. The one percent, the North Korean elite. The way these tours are structured, we only saw selected parts of the country; the things they wanted us to see. We stayed in the areas equipped with mains electricity, running water, medical and educational facilities. I simply can’t comment on the standard of life outside of a few tourism-approved destinations in North Korea (there are few who can), as I wasn’t allowed to see them. It does make me wonder what they’re hiding.


Parade rehearsals in Kim Il-sung Square, Pyongyang, DPRK.
Parade rehearsals in Kim Il-sung Square – seen from a balcony of the Grand People’s Study House.


Comments are closed.

  1. Sounds like an interesting place to visit. It’s amazing how many crazy stories are made up about North Korea. I found this video pretty enlightening “The Loyal Citizens of Pyongyang in Seoul” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktE_3PrJZO0

  2. With all due respect, though, people do tend to find positive sides even when there are none of. Hence the people who seemed to enjoy the weekends truly.
    As to the guides, I assume you realise that every single one of them was a special service (aka KGB) agent. There is not a slightest doubt about that. The practice to use KGB agents as the guides was invented and followed all the time in the much freer, more democratic and technically developed Soviet Union. Obviously it may seem far fetched to you, but when you thought they were open with you, they in fact most probably just switched to another mode of inculcating the government approved, more sophisticated agenda. That said, it doesn’t mean that those guides are sided with the government. Most probably they understand very well what lies they’re bound to tell, and hence suffer morally much more than the ordinary people who, at least, don’t have to say anything. For the special service agents in counties like this are far from being some kind of James Bonds, most of them are being recruited via some compromising material, threats etc. This information again is from the comparison to the much more democratic and almost “western”(relatively to the North Korea) Soviet Union where all this was the case.
    As to being the devil’s advocate, still I miss your point. Hardly the fact that it’s not North Korean people who created such a sadistic entity but that it’s their government’s fault elicits any doubts among anybody except very shortsighted people. The man above said that after seeing and experiencing the war which unfolded after the disintegration of Jugoslavia, he’d prefer any kind of totalitarian regime lest there was any military clashes. I was lucky enough to never experience the war, yet, while I may agree that this would be applicable to Nazi Germany, Pinochet’s Chillie or Stalin’s Soviet Union, in this particular case I’d venture to say that even war would feel better then the life they have. After all this very same man said that there is enough of generous laughter even during the wartime. Think of it as of the Cambodia which wasn’t invaded by Vietnam. Clearly both wouldn’t exist a decade without China backing them, yet there is almost no doubts that Vietnam invading Cambodia and ousting the Khmer Rouge was beneficial for the Cambodian population. The same case may be with the North Korea. But then again, I myself was lucky enough to never experience the war and it’s deprivations, neither have I ever been to the North Korea or even the Soviet Union, so I can’t judge it with the entire certainty.

  3. Your extremely naïve if you believe anyone in North Korea, even Pyongyang, is “happy” and “fulfilled”. You admit that much of your trip was just for show, so why would you believe the smiles and so-called happiness was genuine? These people are TOLD how to act and what to say, especially around foreigners. North Korea is run on complete tyranny and every aspect of their lives is micromanaged by the State. Read ANY North Korean defector’s story, even from the families of high-ranking officials and they will tell you that they knew their country was in a horrendous state (especially now with all the smuggled in dvds from China, America and South Korea) and that they had NO freedoms, but due to all the public executions (bet you didn’t see any of those on your wonderful trip, eh?) and other things the regime does to keep them obedient, there is an air of fear and they KNOW if they don’t smile, praise the dear leader or say the right thing, they’re dead or in a prison camp. Every single North Korean defector admits this. They also admit that 75-80% (maybe even more) of North Korea is starving to death and that many have resorted to cannibalism. Not only that, but when Kim Jong Un’s father (or grandfather-can’t remember which) died, the government was watching to make sure the people were showing enough grief or it was off to the gulags for them! How can anyone possibly be happy living in a god-forsaken place like that, where your made to bow to statues, wear pins of the “dear leaders” on your clothing, and are killed if you don’t cry enough for a man that denies you basic freedoms and rights? Everything you saw was just for show. I’ve seen many, many documentaries on NK and on one by the BBC, they had a woman in a hospital obviously pretending to be sick to make it appear as if the hospital was actually functioning and helped people. The reporter John Sweeney even told his guide, “we’re not fooled by this. Where are all the people”? There were none. There was another one where a bunch of students were seated in front of computers but they had no clue how to use them. All for show. There’s one with Lisa Ling where she goes with a doctor to do eye surgery on some blind people (hand picked by the government, of course) and after the surgery, they didn’t thank the doctor at all-nope, they were crying and bowing down to pictures of the dear leaders and thanking them! These people are living in fear and know damn well how they have to act to stay in the regime’s good graces! The hardest documentary I’ve ever watched is called “Heartbroken; North Korea’s abandoned children” or something like that. You wanna know the life of the average North Korean? Watch that. The footage is shot by an actual North Korean who risks his life to show how dire the situation is and has many stories from defectors about how miserable life truly is there. It also shows how, just like yourself, when a journalist friend of the North Korean guy went to Pyongyang, only beautiful buildings and well-dressed, happy and healthy looking children were presented to them, a far cry from the squalor and emaciated children who were literally a week or 2 away from death you see in the undercover footage. I also remember another documentary or video from a tourist I watched on YouTube where right in Pyongyang, they were serving deep fried LEAVES! These people are not happy, and I suggest you watch some of the YouTube documentaries to see what you obviously didn’t see-how people REALLY live in North Korea!

    • Thanks Johnathon.

      Completely agree with your points – there’s nothing wrong with a country being a bit ‘different’, but there are a few human rights (and nuclear) issues that need addressing in the short term. I’d love to see the DPRK evolve into a functional, responsible, and globally accepted entity. I hope it happens in my lifetime.

  4. I find the subject as a whole- so-called ‘Dark Tourism’, places shrouded in mystery- interesting and was really fascinated by your account of your tour through Pyongyang. It was thought provoking to say the least.

    • Thank you for commenting Mary, I’m glad you found this thought-provoking.

      This report has had mixed responses, but I really wanted to share the experience of taking a tour through the city – by giving a sense of the way Pyongyang is presented by its residents, rather than the more prevalent perspectives which dominate Western media.

      And yes, Dark Tourism, as a field of study, is a truly fascinating concept.

  5. Interesting article, I’d love to be able to visit that city, but unfortunately I can’t tolerate to be driven around by escorts like a sort of alien to baby-sit/brainwash and fill with propaganda (which, in my humble opinion, is as disgusting as advertising, and it certainly caused more deaths than the latter throughout the centuries)… Just one thought… Can you provide an example of a country where Communism actually worked, and where people have/had freedom of speech? 🙂

    • It certainly is an interesting city… though if you can’t tolerate being treated with suspicion and fake hospitality, then it’s not for you. That’s not to say the people are inhospitable – just that the whole nature of the tour feels rather fake.

      It’s difficult to offer an example of communism actually *working* – and I’m by no means in favour of communism. However, one of the problems in comparing it to democracy is that communism sets out to do the best for everyone (an impossible, doomed task).

      As democracy only aims to please a voting majority, it’s always going to look more successful on paper – as its aims are actually achievable.

      I don’t believe communism has ever truly worked, though there are times when it has looked like coming close. Read up on the Spanish communist regime, for example – it was one of the more successful attempts.

  6. It is a beautiful description of pyonyong. I feel it is really a good city to visit and wish to go there, though clouds of despair and war are shrouding over it since long….. War is no solution of anything, they should sit on the tables to decide issues peacefully and let the city visited by tourists 🙂

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Huzaifa. It really is a wonderful city to visit – both the architecture and the culture are fascinating, even without taking the dubious politics into account.

      Like you, I hope that some day things improve there, and that tourists are given greater freedom to visit this amazing city.

  7. Might also be hard to “sing and dance” when there’s nothing to eat. Just came across this horror story:


    • Here, I’ll turn it into a proper link:

      North Korean cannibalism fears amid claims starving people forced to desperate measures

      In the post above I briefly mentioned the stories of cannibalism that were reported in some provinces of the DPRK during the 1990s – but it’s alarming to think that something like this could still be occurring today. It’s hard to imagine the hunger and desperation which would push someone to such an act.

      Thank you for sharing this.

  8. What a myopic view on North Korea.

    …”happy, fulfilled communists “, “Communism, on the other hand, is a beautiful idea; and when it works, it really works.”

    Wow. These a brilliant.

    Personally, I tend to think this would paint a more realistic picture of the situation:


    • Thanks Zakhar, I’m glad you agree. The official tour of Pyongyang is one of the most myopic experiences to be had!

  9. I like your approach of playing “against the man” (describing Korea in a way most people don’t, but I think there is some flaw in it, and you know it too.

    Of course for tourist they make the place look lavish and excellent, and you mention how you think Pyongyang would be a great place to live if you don’t mind working 6 days a week and had educational areas, lights, etc, and for a moment I thought “yeah that isn’t too bad!”

    But lets be realistic here. There is a reason your tour is restricted and they’re dodging questions. You mention it because you know it, I know better than to lecture you on this. Do we REALLY know what kind of lives the people outside of the tourist zones live?

    I have a deep interest in North Korea (watched and read as much as I could, hence why I’m here.). I feel like if you’re in the equivalent of the upper middle class in the USA, you would be the middle class in N. Korea. This means to me, that their middle class is most likely (none of us can prove it), living in conditions we’d consider bad or poor. That saddens me. I hope Unny can stir the nation in the right direction so people can live a better life style.

    I also find it interesting how the Koreans respond to Kim Jung Il in a more negative light than his father, I never thought about that. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    I also agree, the lack of ads would be amazing. I hate our consumer culture and how they type into people’s lustful desires. Absolutely hate K-Pop and the way it’s advertised.

    Cheers and great review.

    • Thanks for the feedback – it sounds like you see exactly where I’m coming from. It’s hard to find anything online which prepares you for the experience of actually visiting North Korea for yourself… and there are certainly moments during a tour when you find yourself thinking, as you say, “that isn’t too bad!”.

      Obviously most of us know better than to take such things without some degree of reasonable doubt, but that part is easy. I doubted most of what I saw and heard in the DPRK, and I would expect my readers to do the same; instead, I wanted to focus on chronicling the aspect which isn’t so readily available, which is the way in which North Koreans present themselves.

      In a way I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but I think it also raises a lot of interesting points. There is certainly a lot to like about Pyongyang, which, politics aside, has become one of my favourite cities in the world.

      In reality though, we know so little about this country. While this may seem immediately suspicious (and certainly should, in light of the famine, starvation and harsh judiciary system which have been documented there over the last few decades), there are also plausible motives for this secrecy – the very nature of the DPRK, as the last bastion of the communist dream, is likely to leave them feeling isolated from the rest of the world, and wary of foreign interest.

      I believe the truth of the matter is based on a little of each.

      Anyway, thanks again for the comment, and I’m really glad you found the report interesting.

  10. great article darmon.is anybody want to know more about DPRK read a mig-15 to freedom by Kum-Sok No.wartime north korean defector.This book describes much of the life in North korea

  11. Very nice article!

    • Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you liked it.

  12. Oh deary me Brendan, it’s fortunate for the rest of us that you have so clearly been to North Korea, and not only that, you are an expert too!
    I can only assume that to be the case, as you obviously know more about the place than Mr Richter. Despite his admission that he wasn’t allowed into areas the government didn’t want him to see, you appear to believe that he is part of their propaganda machine.
    The article does state that his travel was restricted, and I think he does a fine job of getting across the feeling of global isolation experienced by the general populous.
    As for preferring the propaganda posters to advert billboards, he did state this was a personal preference,
    I look forward to reading your (no doubt, more accurate) analysis

  13. We should have sympathy and understanding for the North Korean people, not the government that oppresses them.

    • I completely agree.

      But, this sympathy would be more useful if bolstered by an understanding of the socio-political factors which have led to the current situation… it needs to be accurate and supported by fact.

      What would you suggest we do, send in the US military?

      Personally, I feel that the solution will come through building greater understanding on both sides. I believe tourism is helpful, because the Koreans are constantly being brought into contact with foreigners who don’t seem to fit the stereotypes fed to them by government propaganda. Conversely, people like you need to stop getting all your ‘facts’ from VICE.

  14. And are you seriously arguing that government propaganda is more pleasant than advertising? I don’t think you’d feel that way if you were being starved by your government and were forced to see “Great Leader!!” signs everywhere.

    • Define ‘pleasant’.

      My actual words were: “Personally … I much prefer these simple, feel-good posters to the manipulative advertising which plasters Western cities…”

      It’s an aesthetic preference, which I acknowledge that I am lucky enough to be able to enjoy in complete naivety.

      How’s your Korean, Brendan? Because you realise that none of these signs actually say “Great Leader!” right? Aside from the portraits, the majority of slogans refer to the strength and purity of the Korean race. Motives aside, they’re aimed at making the people feel good about what they have.

  15. 3.5 million people starved by the North Korean military dictatorship, while they spent money erecting huge monuments for tourists such as yourself, importing more Henessey than any other nation, and bulking up their military to maintain control.

    • These are very real concerns, but you need to be more objective in your understanding of the facts.

      * The 3.5 million is an estimate from outside sources, as the DPRK is unwilling to release actual figures. Whatever the number though, I agree that this is an atrocity.

      * The vast majority of monuments were built long before tourists were welcome into the country, so you are failing to grasp their true purpose and significance.

      * Kim Jong-il was the Hennessey drinker – and as you’ll note from my report above, I got the subtle impression that he is not remembered with the same deep love and respect that his father, the Eternal President Kim Il-sung is.

      * While the DPRK has one of the largest militaries in the world (particularly when considered per capita), you should be aware that it branches into all walks of life; and so these figures also include the military building corps who erect schools and hospitals, as well as the localised militia who police traffic.

      I genuinely sympathise with your concerns, and I’m only playing devil’s advocate here – but the point I’m making, is the importance of researching your claims more thoroughly in order to better understand the problem.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

    • It’s a shame you deleted this comment Brendan, as it was my favourite. Luckily though, I have managed to salvage it from the email notification…

      “You’re the kind of person who would’ve had a lavish dinner with Hitler, enjoyed some fine whiskey, and then declared that Germany was just misunderstood, and that the criticism is unwarranted. The Vice Guide to Travel took a very similar tour, and their outlook was totally different (and rational.)”


      Aside from my initial concern that you seem to believe WWII-era Germany, as a whole, could be understood simply by looking at Hitler, I feel this comment also highlights the root of your misinformation.

      VICE Magazine is not to be trusted.

      In their report on North Korea, they claim that entry to the DPRK is near impossible, and that it took them a year and a half of negotiations to get a visa. In reality, there are around half a dozen tour agencies who would have issued them a visa with no more than a one-month wait. Seeing as their tour sounds almost identical to mine, I think they may have been exaggerating somewhat.

      They also describe visiting a bar where every other patron was in the employ of the North Korean secret service, and put there to spy on them. Their evidence? A friend of a friend who works at the Financial Times told them so.

      VICE don’t concern themselves with reporting facts; they tell colourful, sensational stories, designed to shock and entertain. I believe the result to be dangerous, as it pushes people away from a true understanding of global problems; instead breeding fear and ignorance.

      It is certainly true that a lot of strange (and often unpleasant) things go on in the DPRK – but don’t forget that propaganda works both ways, and don’t believe every crazy, unsupported story you hear.

  17. nunca escuche que alguien haya ido a ese pais. buena informacion 🙂

  18. North Korea is one of a mere handful of nations in the world that are regularly hammered by western media & western politicians yet was largely unaffected by US export of tainted blood products that led to the AIDS infection becoming a world phenomenon.

  19. I have nominated you for the Liebster Blog Award.

    • Dale, I’m flattered. Thank you.

  20. It’s interesting stuff and very well presented by you, but it’s all somewhat inconclusive. You saw what they wanted you to see and didn’t show you what they didn’t want you to see. If things were all OK they probably shouldn’t have this problem with their own people crossing over to China, which is a a fellow Communist country. Thought provoking article. Well done.

    • …and isn’t that interesting in itself? This is the unfounded sense of paranoia I referred to in the article – you find yourself wondering how bad things could possibly be elsewhere, that they’re simply not prepared to let you see it.

      Or, perhaps it really isn’t as bad as all that. Even if there are people going hungry in more remote areas of North Korea, I doubt it could be as bad as the situation in some African nations; or that their weak infrastructure is any worse than those in countries such as, for example, India.

      It crossed my mind that perhaps North Korea feels as though what it shows to the world is taken not just as a statement about their own country, but will be used in forming a judgement on their whole political philosophy – and so they are desperate to make us see that such a system *could* work.

      I have no idea what the truth is though, and my whole visit was massively thought provoking – I’m really glad that you got the same thing from reading my report.

  21. Great article. Learned more about North Korea just now than I have ever thought to.

    • Thanks Christopher, that’s pretty much the highest praise I could have hoped to receive.

  22. As ever, an eye opening account. Since we can’t be with you on your travels, we can rely on your fabulous powers of description to take us there. One of your very best reports so far.

    • Very kind of you to say so, Dale! I hope I can maintain the standard…

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