For the curious amongst us, a trip to North Korea may be one of the most remarkable destinations to find oneself in. Sure, there is always the thought that the trip would be a make-believe considering everything is choreographed to the last painful detail. That the only thing you would truly buy into is the air you breathe. But even that…
Then again, it continues to be a draw for many a traveller for a reason. It’s unique. Bizarre. There is no country quite like it.
In fact, Kim Jung-un (the so-called ‘The Marshall’ – his father was the Dear Leader, and his grandfather the Great Leader), is keen to boost foreign tourism to what was once a totally sequestered nation, aiming for one million visitors by 2017 and two million come 2020. Well, save for last year when he imposed a 6-month ban on all foreign visitors for fear they might carry the Ebola virus.
In its bid to meet the annual tourist target, the regime has relaxed entry laws and anyone is free to visit the country, provided you have a visa. Save, of course, for South Koreans.
The rules of entry are surprisingly simple: you just need to be booked on a pre-planned tour with two local guides (beautiful guides as a rule) for escort, appointed by the Ministry of Tourism and attached to any of the tour companies that operate under the Korean International Travel Company (KITC).
The regulations keep changing constantly so a specialist North Korean travel agency can help you clear any doubts or anything that may need clarification.
Observing the rulebook
If you are a stickler for rules, you shouldn’t find it hard observing the decorum expected in North Korea. Because the world’s most secretive country has plenty of ‘em.
Before you leave for your trip, it might be a good idea first to get accustomed to the name Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK in short). Because calling it North Korea might land you in hot soup. And not the tasty kind.
Tours are tightly controlled here, so if you are the traveller who appreciates their independent streak, this is not the place for you. The country may be more welcoming to outsiders, but it hasn’t lost its totalitarian lustre yet. Expect to be escorted by guides everywhere you go; not even a couple minutes breather outside alone is allowed. Seriously.
You have a pre-arranged tour to religiously stick to, and lots of areas are off-limits to visitors.
It’s also wise to fight the urge to snap at everything you come across. The state is keen to keep its internal affairs under wraps, so if you love your photography, may be the DPRK is not the place for you.
There is a long list of what you can and can’t photograph. You can’t do any scenes that depict poverty, should you happen to come across them by chance – because you only see the beautiful side of things. Construction sites too are a no-no, and so is taking photos of people without their permission – yes, even those walking down the street, unless they are in costume and in character.
Fail to abide by these rules and you might just find yourself being accused of espionage against the DPRK government.
You can photograph any of the statues of the Kim dynasty, provided you capture the entire statue – no face or bust close-ups. Or anything of that kind.
The Supreme Leaders
While in North Korea, you have to honour the supreme leaders and don’t be surprised if you’re urged to buy flowers and present to the statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il. The same goes to bowing when you approach them, and while this is not mandatory, it’s just a sign of respect (when in Rome…). There are an estimated 34,000 statues in the country of the once ‘Great Leader’ alone scattered across the country.
Expect to be sucked into the personality cult surrounding the three dictators, past and present. Avoid calling them by their real names; use their endearing terms instead.
By the way, if you feel like this is too much for you, perhaps it would be in your best interests (and those of your loved ones) if you didn’t visit North Korea at all. Disrespecting the government or subverting it has been known to land tourists in trouble, including being sentenced to hard labour. Now, soak that in for a few…
Health risks should be the least of your worries given the tight control imposed on your visit.
The one main exception seems to be malaria, although this is more prevalent in the south side of the country. Another common ailment, albeit mostly with locals, is probably Japanese encephalitis, a brain infection transmitted through mosquito bites.
There are water-borne diseases too, not to mention infectious diseases such as TB, measles and hepatitis.
Some of the vaccinations you need to consider when visiting North Korea include typhoid, hepatitis A and B, and Japanese Encephalitis.
Tourism in North Korea is unlike anywhere else in the world.
It totally lacks the freedom of movement you enjoy in any other country, with your every movement controlled, followed and carefully planned by the government. Everything is mapped out.
You’re not allowed to sample street food, but there are plenty of eateries in Pyongyang, the capital, where foreigners can dine.
In terms of attractions, there is plenty to see and do aside from the myriad statues of the departed leaders.
You can start off with a visit to the Kumsusan Palace (Palace of the Sun) where lies the two bodies of the embalmed leaders; catch a rare glimpse of ancient history at Taedongmun, an ancient gate dating back to 1635; explore the film studios of Pyongyang; peer across the border at Panmunjom where the peace deal for the two Koreas was brokered; or hit the slopes at Masikryong Ski Resort.
That’s right, there’s a ski resort in North Korea – a micro-brewery even, located in Kaesong, and if you feel like you can’t wait to get back home to hit the casino, worry not. There are a number of gambling spots in North Korea.
To a large part, you can’t fight the urge to wonder what it must be like for the locals, and how they have no option but to play along to the regime’s tune. The life here is like no other, and you can’t help but feel the people are – and not in a bad way – one of the main reasons you need to visit North Korea.
All these aside, there is something really exciting about visiting the world’s most mysterious country. Because there just isn’t any other like it.