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I went to North Korea as a tourist - AMA!

May 25th 2014 by Zombie46 • 58 Questions • 1722 Points

Last september I made a trip to North Korea as a tourist. As of this AskReddit post and the discussion about the Vice documentary I was asked to do an AMA! Going to North Korea isn't as hard as it seems anymore. We (my mother and I) booked the trip via a travel agency for trips to NK located in Beijing (I should really get paid by them for advertising! :P) We just contacted them and told them how long we wanted our trip to be and then they proposed a tour. We could request changes regarding what we wanted to see.

So, we went there for 5 nights, 3 of them were in Pyongyang, one in Kaesong and one in the north in Myohyang (famous for the friendship exhibiton where you can see a ton of presents that were given to the three leaders). We got to see the DMZ from the north, the library in Pyongyang, the Juche tower, the friendship exhibiton, the mass games and a lot more!

During the day, we were always together with our two guides (one male in his 50s and a female in her early 30s) as well as our driver. Inside museums there usually was just one of them with us. As we are Swiss, they both spoke German. The driver only spoke Korean. In the hotels we had nice rooms (occasional lack of warm water) and our guides were always staying in the hotel with us (in was less nice rooms and usually with at least 4 people per room as we learned)

So, I want to keep this into rather short because I don't know what you guys are interested in. I took a shitload of pictures (the only rule was no construction, no military and not inside museums) so maybe if you want to see something specific, I can see what I got.

I don't know how much insight I can give on the whole political side of NK and all the answers will be just the way I experienced! So please, AMA!

My Proof:Re-uploaded the picture in front of the mausoleum without the guides (I know, too late)

Visa (blacked out name, birthday, passportnumber) (if more proof is required, let me know!)

E: Ok guys, I need to take a break and do some other stuff. I try to get back to a few more questions later!

E: wow, this blew up way more than I expected! I will try and answer more questions. the question about price and what to eat was answered in here. also I might upload more pictures but I want to make sure I'm the only person in them. is imgur the best place to upload them to?

Q:

Do they ask you about the 'exterior world'? I wonder if they are curious at all, even though it might be forbidden..

A:

The people we got to talk to usually were curious but also very cautious in what to ask. They just asked about our lifes, nothing political or anything.


Q:

What was the weirdest thing you saw?

A:

They had coal powered trucks! They took out the engine in the front and built a steam engine on the back and there was always one guy shoveling coal. Petrol is hard to come by without money and they have trees to produce their own charcoal. But that definitely was the weirdest thing in my eyes.

The mass games were kind of weird but in a "better" way.


Q:

Did you see a lot of people and did they look well fed/happy?

A:

We saw many people in the streets (everyone was walking!). They didn't seem happy, no. And they were all skinny but at least in the cities not to a starving degree. And everyone is super short which is a clear sign for malnutrition.


Q:

It was probably not a steam engine but wood gas.

A:

cool, I was wondering how they worked exactly! thanks!


Q:

Are they happy?

A:

No, they don't seem happy. Of course, they have their happy moments with family or at events but generally, no.


Q:

Do you think someone should free this country through a war?

A:

Thinking about how bad the life is for people, not even starting with the ones in the camps: probably. Not an easy yes/no question because china wouldn't just sit there and do nothing. I think north korea will collapse sooner or later and even that won't be an easy thing to handle


Q:

North Korea is a really shitty situation. It seems like it they rely on aid to keep themselves going. Kill the aid, the regime falls apart. But this is a terrible solution considering that people will starve and die. War is the same way. The country is already in terrible shape; anything catastrophic is going to take a huge toll on the population.

The only way to go forward is to start developing the economy and slowly doing away the dictatorship. Considering how comfortable the leadership is basking in gold while the population barely gets by makes me think that the ruling family is not willing to risk losing power. Not considering that any economic progress possibly undermines the elite.

A:

that's why I don't think there's any way to avoid some kind of catastrophic change. but I have no way of knowing.


Q:

Did you actually have to bow down to statues?

A:

Well, you're very very very much encouraged to do so. I think you can refuse to do so but they will hate you and make your trip a lot more complicated.


Q:

How strict were they in what photos you were allowed to take, as I've heard differing reports?

A:

Surprisingly liberal! We were taking pictures all the time, in the cities it was no problem at all. While driving we probably were a bit lucky as I took pictures out of the windows of the countryside and the more run down houses. But only once during a break on a longer ride in the middle of the street, the male guide asked us to stop taking pictures because there might be military personal around.


Q:

So basically the laziness of your tour guides let you get away with things :) is there anything you shouldn't have got a picture of, but did anyway?

A:

They both did great ;). I didn't get pictures of anything specatular other than run down buildings. I got to drive our car for some time tho!


Q:

Do you worry that talking about them and showing their faces will put them in danger?

A:

I didn't before, I do a little now to be honest.


Q:

Why'd you How did you get the opportunity to drive the car?

Edit: I didn't mean this comment in the way it's written... Here's how I meant to put it "How did you get the oppurtunity to drive the car"

A:

Because you dont often get the chance to drive on roads like this!


Q:

What did you eat?

A:

Food1 Food2 Food3 Food4

The food was... mediocre. There always was plenty and usually we got rice or something with eggs that was good and lots of vegetables. There was also meat but usually extremely fatty and I didn't really like that. They put so much on our tables that we never were able to finish which is a terrible thing in a country where people are starving. But of course they wanted to make the impression that they have plenty of food.


Q:

Pretty much looks like the food I get in my dormitory cafeteria in South Korea right now, although I can`t see any kimchi (some spicy cabbage) or rice. Both are standard in SK, kimchi is even free in restaurants... Good SK-food obviously has more to offer.

Edit: the rice is below the yellow food on the 2nd photo.

A:

Yeah if you like food from SK you're probably fine with the food there but it sure lacks variety! We got rice most of the time.


Q:

After watching Vice documentaries of North Korea on YouTube, it felt like everything was an act. Did you experience the same effect? E.g. Only person at dinner

A:

Well we didn't experience the "bringing food to empty tables" thing. But yeah, we usually were the only people in a big room. And a lot feels like an act but not everything. When going to the north of the country we couldn't take the usual route because a bridge was damaged and we drove through smaller towns. There were also occasional checkpoints from the military where our guides had to show their IDs and a special permission for us to be there. Those things didn't seem staged at all.

They probably just try to keep as much as possible under control.


Q:

Now that's crazy. It seems from everything I've read very few people get to deviate off of the typical paths. Do you feel like the smaller towns you drove through on this detour provided a different view of the DRPK?

A:

yeah, the official route doesn't lead through smaller towns so you don't get to see them with the run down houses and everything.


Q:

Is it true that propaganda is blaring 24/7 throughout Pyongyang?

A:

No, it's remarkably quiet because there's so few cars. There's a ton of propaganda posters and stuff but nothing coming out of speakers or the like.


Q:

They do blare in the morning in Kaesong for factory workers, and even in Pyongyang. I was there for couple of days too, it doesn't blare 24/7 but it does early in the morning.

The propaganda mostly are on banners saying things like "long live the spirit of Juche" in lots of buildings in Pyongyang.

A:

Didn't hear that at either of the two places (Kaesong was closed down while I was there). We probably just were too late to hear it!


Q:

Do you have any photos of the posters?

A:

Here


Q:

Did some north Korean ask you questions about where you are from and what did they ask you?

A:

The general population isn't allowed to talk to foreigners. But usually at the tourist attractions, there was a local guide who would show us around together with the female guide and sometimes they asked where we're from and a bit about our lives. And if we travel a lot, what countries we have visited. That always blew their mind.

At the library we had the chance to join a group of north korean doctors that were learning German (and were really good at it too!) so they had a chance to practice. They also asked a bit about our lives, what I want to do when I'm done studying, why we chose to come to north korea. Speaking about politics was a taboo tho.


Q:

What was your answer when they asked you why you chose north Korea?

A:

We said that only very little is known about the NK in the west and the media only says bad stuff so we wanted to see what the real deal is. Plus we like to travel!


Q:

So do you think that the Western media is mostly correct about NK?

A:

I think it's a bit in the middle. It doesn't give the good things enough credit but I think the bad things aren't really accuarte either because especially in the camps it must be unimaginable


Q:

Do you know what the process is of North Koreans that want to travel?

Are even the elite allowed to leave with special permission?

A:

I think actual travelling is impossible for almost anyone. you only get to sent somewhere for a special purpose and not leisure. unless you're in the kim-family kind of elite.


Q:

Did you get access to the internet in NK?

A:

We didn't, no. I think there's like on hotel that has a computer with internet access for tourists. Plus you can buy sim cards as a tourist which allows you to use internet. But we didn't get any of that.


Q:

They have 3G there. It's called KoryoLink and it's for foreigners and the elite. So you could probably have gotten internet if you asked.

A:

We knew that there was some possibility for foreigners but it's also kind of nice to not look at your phone for a few days and not feel bad about it ;) but thanks for the info!


Q:

What close calls did you have there (like almost being arrested)

A:

When we went into the mausoleum where the two dead leaders are, we were asked to take everything out of our pockets. I was feeling a little dizzy in the morning so I had some kind of gum with me that helps in those situations. I didn't really want to give that up so I kept it. When we went through the metal detector it gave a signal and the guy patted me down and apparently the warpper of the gum had some kind of aluminum layer or something. The guard got super angry that I wanted to take that with me and our guide had to calm him down.

Other than that I think we were pretty easy to handle tourists!


Q:

Jesus Christ, if a north Korean guard at the tomb of two previous dear leaders tells you to empty your pockets, you empty your pockets. Were you trying to get sent to the Gulag?!

A:

I just figured fainting or throwing up would be even worse :D


Q:

typical swiss ignorance.

A:

sorry. can I make it up with some chocolate?


Q:

how was the DMZ? did you feel a tension between the 2 countries??

A:

Good question because it was very odd! It didn't feel dangerous at all for a weird reason: I'm not entierly sure if we were at the actual border. We saw those blue houses and everything and there were north korean guards on our side but when looking on the southern side, there was not a single person visible. No tourist, no military, nothing! That was one of those moments that felt extremely staged.

We did get to see to the south with binoculars at a different place and there you could see big castle-like military posts and that's where you realize that the tension is very real. There was also some kind of explosion on the southern side which we could see but people didn't really react so it might have been for construction or a test or something.


Q:

If you went with Koryo it was definitely the border, but the guards are mostly inside the blue houses. I was there last year and saw a handful of American soldiers walking around on the other side. Mostly though, both sides tend to pick their strongest-looking and handsomest of their soldiers to guard the DMZ border line, to give off an impression of how great everything is on their side of the border.

A:

Thank you for this! Makes me feel a lot better actually


Q:

What was the atmosphere like? Did you get like an empty creepy vibe?

A:

It was really odd. You always feel somewhat out of place. Outside of Pyongyang everyone is just walking. No cars. And you feel like nothing is happening in the country except for the tourist things. We always felt 100% safe. But yeah, kind of like you're in a dream.


Q:

That's how I imagined it to be! Would you recommend going there?

A:

Definitely a very unique experience. I'm really glad we went there but I was also glad when we left. In general, yes. But you have to be prepared mentally. It's probably not a good idea for an extremely inexperienced traveller because you can't just ask whatever you feel like and you have to respect the people you interact with, no matter how horrible the things are that happen "behind the curtains"


Q:

Why are you wearing sneakers with your nice shirt and pants? Were you pulling some kind of psy-ops on them, making them think that's how people on the outside dress?

A:

Hahaha isn't that how cool people dress nowadays? I only took that shirt and pants with me because we were asked to dress nicely when going to the mausoleum and seeing Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. I didn't want to take extra shoes with me as well just for that occasion.


Q:

There were some stories early this year that North Korea was almost completely dark at night as an indication of how resource poor they are. Did you notice this? Were there street lights or neon lights?

A:

In Pyongyang it was ok, they had street lights too! Just once when the power went out and we were in the hotel lobby, it was completely pitch dark.

When we arrived at the hotel in Kaesong, it was already dark. They didn't have any light whatsoever to get to our room so we had to take out our flashlights to find the way!


Q:

Have you seen any army troops walking around in the city? Maybe, military machines or something like that?

A:

Very little. In the city it was usually just single army members going somewhere. On the roud we once passed a camp of tents where maybe around 100 soldiers were hanging around and at a river we saw a few dozen army members cleaning their uniforms on the rocks. They probably were helping our with construction in the area there. But no marching batallions, tanks or anything like that.


Q:

How did it feel, seeing all the famous North Korean landmarks? What were the normal people's reactions when they saw you? How did people act?

A:

Actually those landmarks are really cool! As much as communism and the dictatorship there sucks, I think a big monument has it's appeal. They were fascinating!

Normal people avoided us, they didn't even look at us. As far as we know, they are even forbidden to talk to foreigners (and usually are unable to because of language barriers.)

Impressive landmark


Q:

It looks so empty and sad even though it's sunny. Gives me mixed feelings. How did it feel when you were there?

A:

It does feel very odd! You feel completely out of place there. You try to enjoy it but kind of want to leave at the same time


Q:

Thanks for the reply. I saw some of your answers saying that most of places are like this. Are there not many people around at any time or just certain periods?

A:

well there is a "rush hour" in pyongyang where you see more people in the streets and it feels less weird then.


Q:

Did you see any other tourist while you where out there, or was it just all north Koreans?

A:

We did see other tourists. Not many and we ran into the same tourists multiple times because there's only so much to see in NK and everyone goes to the same places.


Q:

Have you seen any of the VICE documentaries on NK? Do you think they portray NK in a realistic way? I feel like they are a bit exaggerated.

A:

I watched them before going there. Compared to my experience they are exaggerated, yes. However, they were shot a few years before I went there and Kim Jong-Un ordered the country to expand tourism so things definitely changed! But of course they had to do it in a manner that makes it more exciting to watch.


Q:

How hard is it for travelers from western cultures to get into NK and travel? Did you need permission from certain governments?

A:

It's actually rather easy! You just need to start organizing well in advance. The agency we travelled with just had us fill out a form the get the visa (stuff like name, birthday, job). And then you pay the fees. Of course in the background the NK government probably does a background check to find out who you are. So if you are a korean war veteran or something, I wouldn't recommend going there. But if you're just a "normal" person, it's not really much of a difference than going to other countries that require you to get a visa in advance like china or india. However, you only get the visa via the travel agencies because you're only allowed inside the country on a set tour!


Q:

Awesome thanks man, to clarify, you cannot wake up one day and say your going east, you have to follow a set path provided by the travel agency? Can you choose it if so?

A:

Exactly, the whole trip has to be set in advance. You know what day you will be at what place. You can choose/request to see certain things and they will plan accordingly! Howevery, there's some "must sees" that are actually musts. We didn't want to go to the military museum because we thought it's only propaganda so it was taken out of the plan but we went there anyways.

Plus, the tour might be set for you but they can change the sequence as in you might do something today that was meant to be done tomorrow. But you get to see everything that you agreed on in advance!


Q:

Do you have uploaded photos? I would like see more.

A:

Unfortunately, no. I took almost 700 pictures and I didn't really get around choosing the best to do that. Anything in particular you'd like to see?


Q:

I would be interested in seeing a picture or two of the more rural villages you drove by that you said were a bit more run down. :-)

Thanks for this AMA by the way it's fascinating!

A:

One Two

Here you go! And you're most welcome, glad people are interested!


Q:

How much did they talk about Korea's ancient history? Did they show you anything from precolonial times?

A:

They talked a lot about it and we got to see the tomb of one of the last (or the actual last) kings of the koryo dynasty. They do like to talk about that because it was one of the short times where there was actually a united korea.


Q:

I'm planning on going at the end of this year. Any tips/things I should watch out for?

A:

Bring cookies both for you (like when your stomach gets upset) and for your guides. Always share in the car, they will love you! Plus bring small presents for them. Bring a flashlight in case the power goes out. Wet wipes. Big enough cards for your cameras. If you're going in the winter I guess warm clothes!

Oh, money! All cash, if you have the possibility to get Euro coins, do that! We brought a shit ton of coins with us to pay for stuff like water bottle in the hotel. They usuall cost like 1-2 euros and they can't even split a 20€ bill if you buy something for like 8€. Chinese money is fine as well. And bring enough money in general if you intend to buy souvenirs. They have stuff like propaganda posters for sale which are kinda cool but quickly cost 30€ and up. If I can think of more, I will let you know!


Q:

What other countries have you visited?

Was NK the strangest of them all?

At any point during your trip were you fearful for your safety?

Thanks for doing this AMA!

A:

I've been to the US a ton, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Greece, India, Dubai, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

Yes, NK was by far the strangest when it comes to atmosphere but since you're extremely taken care of it was very easy to be there. Countries like India need a lot "work" of your own.

No, safety was never a concern at all! You feel super safe. Probably because everyone that would try to harm you would get shot immediately including all of their family or something so people didn't even look at us.

You're most welcome!


Q:

Is it true that people were made to style their hair like Kim Jong-un ?

A:

There was extremely little variety in hairstyles. I think the "same as Kim Jong-Un" thing came up after we were there and is only for students so I can't say much about that. But yeah, they all looked more or less the same


Q:

Thanks for doing thid AMA. Fo you think is morally correct going as a tourist to NK? Obviously, part of the money goes to th elites pockets

A:

Good question and also a very difficult question! Yes, we were aware that we are financing the dictatorship. But with going there we also gave more people the chance to interact with a different culture and them opening up to tourists means allowing ideas from the outside into the country as well! So we just hope that the positive effect of money for the "normal" people and letting them see that there's a world outside of NK is more important than the money for the elite.


Q:

Did you see or hear any mentions of South Korea or America while you were there?

A:

Only in the sense that everywhere we went, we were told that the Americans are the devils of the world and imperialists and the government in south korea are just puppets of the americans. they did however say they wanted to reunite with the people in the south and that seemed really sincere!


Q:

Do you think that the tour guides actually believe they are getting away with only showing the "nice" sides of the country?

A:

You mean that we think that's how the whole country is? I don't think so, I think they just do what they are told to do.


Q:

how does the country smell? i asked this question several times in amas about north korea but so far nobody answered it. so please tell me about it.

A:

It didn't smell weird or anything, it smelled very neutral. the plumbing seems to work and they don't have any cars so the pollution is very low.


Q:

How much would it cost to go there from NAmerica?

A:

Depending on how long you want to go and how big your group is. For a few days (like 5) and on your own, probably 3000-3500$. From and to Beijing so +air fare from your place to China.


Q:

Why did you want to visit NK? What did you like from it?

A:

For one, it's the only country like it. And reading many news articles and watching documentaries, I just wanted to see it with my own eyes and not through the eyes of someone that needs to tell a story.

Well the country itself is actually very nice. And the historical heritage is huge.


Q:

Is it as haunting as the vice documentary as it makes it out to be? I seem to recall them going to some sort of visitors center and there is a woman who just lives there and is so delighted to see another human being. really creepy

A:

I think that changed a little as when they shot the documentary, there was even less tourism as there is now. We didn't really see people that were just happy to see another human being.


Q:

Are you being held captive against your will? Blink once for yes, twice for no.

A:

blink blink


Q:

Did N. Korea correspond to the impression we get through the media. I realise you were carefully chaperoned, but it is still possible to get a general sense of the place.

A:

Yeah, most documentaries show you the whole vibe you get in NK.


Q:

do they have fro-yo

A:

Haven't seen any, no!