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I've just returned from visiting North Korea for 7 days. AMA.

Aug 18th 2014 by wimpykid • 62 Questions • 592 Points

I know there was recently an AMA from a tourist who had also been to the DPRK but I figured some people may be interested in a second.

Here's a photo album as proof http://imgur.com/a/nP9Jy#0 but I can send my visa to the mods if necessary.

Edit: Here's a photo with my username and the date. http://i.imgur.com/1Djbs07.jpg

Q:

Would you go again?

A:

Probably not, after 7 days it began to feel a bit oppressive and to be honest, I got really sick/bored of hearing about the Kim family every 10 minutes.


Q:

How dare you tire of glorious leader.

Do you reckon it was worth going there once though, would you recommend it?

A:

It was probably the most exciting thing I've done in my life so far. If you're even the slightest bit interested and have the opportunity to go I would take it!


Q:

Did you get a chance to stay in North Korea's only Hotel? If so how was it? Empty I'm assuming.

A:

Almost every place we went to was completely empty. The hotel was full of other Western and Chinese tourists.


Q:

Have you been to South Korea? If so, what are the most notable differences?

A:

I haven't been to South Korea but would love to go someday.


Q:

What surprised you the most during your visit?

A:

I wasn't expecting to visit the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and actually see their preserved corpses. Upon walking out of the rooms, some of the Koreans were visibly upset and crying, it seemed pretty sincere.


Q:

Did you get any pictures of the glorious leaders' remains?

A:

No, we had to hand in our cameras and were searched thoroughly before entering, several metal detectors upon approaching the rooms where they were held.

It's the first time I've ever seen a dead body in real life and it creeped me the fuck out big style.

Also, if you've ever experienced intrusive thoughts were you think "Just jump" when standing on a tall building/ledge you'll understand how I found myself thinking "Imagine if you just spat at or threw something at the bodies right now".


Q:

What is the weirdest seeming food item you saw? And did you try it?

A:

Dog meat, couldn't try it, I love my own dogs too much and I wondered what kind of personality the dog had that was now swimming in the soup.


Q:

Were you able to interact with any non tour guide citizens? If so, did their responses seem scripted?

A:

The only small time we were able to interact with citizens was during a walk in a large park in Pyongyang. The entire thing seemed orchestrated from the beginning, the whole scene reminded me of something out of "The Truman Show", seriously bizarre.


Q:

Were you allowed to hold conversations with the citizens during that walk or were you shooed along?

A:

Shooed along.


Q:

Because other angles are interesting: From the limited perspective that you had in a week...what was the most positive/pleasant thing you experienced there?

A:

I'm actually queer and sort of accidentally alluded to the fact when my tour guide asked if I had a partner/wife. She said "I think it's good you have a best friend, I think it's even better you have a best friend for life". It was really sweet I thought, considering they don't have much in the way of LGBT rights over there.


Q:

How/why were you allowed in? Did you have a chaperone the whole time? Was it creepy?

A:

I applied for a visa a few months before visiting, basically had to prove that I wasn't a journalist. We were not allowed to leave our guides the entire time we were in the country and they seemed to keep a close eye on who we interacted with.

The creepiest thing I experienced were the loud speakers in the city of Kaesong, when we asked our guides to translate what it was saying, they explained that the speaker was talking about the life of Kim Il Sung and the great revolutionary struggle. It was like something straight out of an Orwell novel!


Q:

I didn't have to do anything like that when I applied. I simply filled out a basic application form and sent over a scan of my passport and photo. I'm actually heading over on September 5th. It's my first time going into North Korea. Is there anything that you didn't bring along that you wish you had? I think I've got my grounds covered but I don't want to miss anything out just in case. Also, which tour company did you use for the tour?

A:

It's my first time going into North Korea. Is there anything that you didn't bring along that you wish you had?

Bring clothes that wash easily and are quick to dry, think light cotton trousers. The weather was hot and sticky and I only had one opportunity to do laundry. I ended up wearing the same shorts for 3 days because they were the only pair I had and everything else was stinking.

I'd also recommend taking something for the guides as a gift that they can use practically. My wind up torches were received very well.

If you are particularly picky with food, take something like cereal bars or protein shake to keep you going during the day because at times I was unable to stomach the food (although other members of the tour group were entirely satisfied with what was provided).


Q:

How was the food?

A:

Absolutely terrible, couldn't eat it for 3 days, made me very sick. I ended up losing about 10kg because I also got quite ill the first couple of days (brushed my teeth with the water accidentally).


Q:

We read all about these stories of torture camps in North Korea.

1- Was anything ever mentioned about these camps.

2-Did you feel at any point that your guides or the police/guards were acting up as well in fear of their lives?

A:
  1. Nope, the camps and famine were never talked about.

  2. The guides were pretty chill with us and didn't seem worried or scared about anything (except for getting a bad review from us when we left).


Q:

What's the biggest misinformation regarding the West that you witnessed?

A:

Who started the "Father Land Liberation War" (Korean War).


Q:

What was something the people said or did that shocked you the most?

A:

One of our guides in the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il got very upset and started crying when talking about the life of Kim Il Sung, it was awkward and I almost got the giggles.


Q:

I almost got the giggles.

Helluva way to die.

A:

It was awful, I wanted to burst out laughing but at the same time I didn't want to spend another 15 years in the country. It's not the first time that kind of thing has happened to me at the worst possible opportunity (I'm sure there's a term for it).


Q:

Were there any other tourists with you?

A:

Yep, I was in a group with 7 other men. 5 from England, one Irishman, one guy from Texas.


Q:

What type of programming was on their telescreens-- I mean televisions? Was it all related to how North Korea is amazing and such?

A:

I'm a software developer myself and was interested what they taught at their universities. I was told Kim Jong Un had visited the uni once and advised on "Visual Basic".


Q:

Do the people there have any idea how life really is outside of NK?

A:

Our tour guides seemed to but I can't imagine anyone else did. As I understand it, North Koreans must request and receive permission even if they want to move around within their own country. Our guide explained that there are some people in the small villages we passed that had lived there their entire lives and had never left. It blew my mind a bit, couldn't imagine what that would be like.


Q:

As I understand it, North Koreans must request and receive permission even if they want to move around within their own country.

China was and is like this, by the way.

A:

Wow I wasn't aware of this. Is this actually still the case in China?


Q:

Where did you stay during your time there?

A:

A few different places, Pyongyang, Kaesong, Nampo and Myohyangsang.

http://i.imgur.com/M18o0WX.png


Q:

If during the visit you told them you were going to do an AMA after returning, what do you think their reaction should be? Do you think they would try harder to give you a good time? Would they just truncate the visit or go as far to detain you?

A:

I'm not sure if I would have received a visa.


Q:

Is the propaganda as silly as it is made out to be. Does anyone believe in any of it?

A:

I'm not sure if anyone actually believes the propaganda. It was pretty full on in the towns and cities we visited, with revolutionary slogans also posted on the motorways and roads we travelled on. I did ask my guide if Kim Jong Il really potted 8 "hole in 1"s on his first ever attempt at playing golf. He said that's exactly what happened with a pretty serious/sincere look on his face.


Q:

When you looked those people in the eyes, did it feel different? Knowing that even though you might be allowed to leave, that they were sadly trapped there for the rest of their lives?

A:

When visiting the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, we encountered some Koreans who lived far out in the countryside, they were clearly thinner and smaller then the people in Pyongyang and stared (almost scowled) at us as we queued up. They didn't speak a word even amongst themselves. Our guide explained that they were likely staring at us/transfixed because they had never seen a Caucasian person before. Their expression were deadpan and sullen but it's difficult to say exactly what they were thinking.


Q:

Have you read Guy Delisle's Pyongyang? Was your experience similar?

A:

I wasn't actually aware of that comic, thank you so much for posting about it, do you know where I can buy a copy?


Q:

Were you at any point afraid for your life?

A:

I've only ever been close to guns a few times in my life and I'm always extremely anxious around them, I can't say I feared for my life but I was definitely on edge around those weapons.


Q:

What would you say is the most peculiar custom you noticed while you were there?

A:

I had a pretty upset stomach so had to end up using a public toilet. They are all squat toilets (similar to Beijing) and there is zero privacy, it was pretty awkward and I was unsteady on my feet having never used one before but it certainly beat shitting my pants.

Not sure if that's really a custom but I could never imagine such an experience in the west.


Q:

would you agree that north korea is best korea?

A:

Can't say I do.


Q:

You have been banned from /r/pyongyang

A:

I actually asked our guide if he knew anything about that subreddit. He never really answered the question, didn't confirm or deny anything ;)


Q:

Wait, so he knew about reddit?

A:

Nahh, he didn't have a clue what I was babbling on about when I asked, I was just been daft.


Q:

How strict were the "guides" on photography and filming? Could you bring your cellphone, and if so, did you get reception or internet on it?

A:

We were allowed to bring a cell phone but no lenses over a certain size/length. After each stop, our guides were quick to collect our phones and delete pictures. Some of the tour group took pictures of some kids at a steel factory who were thin and unkempt (unwashed and their clothes were a bit tatty), he was upset with us for those pictures and explained that there'd recently been a couple of tourists who'd come and taken pictures and "wrote bad things about our country".

I think he was referring to these pictures http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2624164/North-Korea-Starving-people-child-labourers-dilapidated-homes-appear-harrowing-new-images-taken-inside-rogue-state.html (sorry for the Daily Mail link).


Q:

Did anyone refuse to hand over their phone?

A:

Yes, the American we were with got very offended and refused at first, it was pretty awkward but was resolved in the end when he eventually agreed.


Q:

Very interesting pictures. I noticed the two women holding hands in the subway. Is that common for people who are friends in North or South Korea (assuming they are not a couple).

A:

Yes, it seemed to be common in North Korea and in China.


Q:

How is the "normal life" there as you experienced? Did you have a schedule when visiting or were you able to just go walk around spontaneously?

Did you perceive any dominant brands there? Were these brands any you and me would recognize?

A:

How is the "normal life" there as you experienced? Did you have a schedule when visiting or were you able to just go walk around spontaneously?

Well, it's difficult to really say, I wasn't able to communicate with the average citizen but there seemed to be quite a bit to do in Pyongyang. However, further out in to the country side there seemed to be a lot of people just sitting round doing nothing besides talking to themselves.

While travelling on the roads, the locals seemed to love swimming/playing in the lakes. Which looked like a lot of fun considering how hot it was.

Did you perceive any dominant brands there? Were these brands any you and me would recognize?

Absolutely no advertising anywhere, it was really weird not seeing Coca-cola and Starbucks logos plastered everywhere in a major city. In the hotels they had imported beers and soft drink brands that I recognised. No energy drinks though, which I really struggled with.


Q:

were you able to visit the Ryugyong Hotel? if so what was it like?

A:

We weren't allowed to visit it and only ever saw it from the side that wasn't under construction. It was admittedly a very impressive site.


Q:

How much did the trip roughly cost you?

A:

Between £3-4k, but that included everything (food, accommodation, souvenirs, nights in Beijing).


Q:

Was there any nightlife? Aside from just touring, were you able to check out any bars? I hear they make some pretty interesting beer

A:

Spent sometime in the hotel bar and stayed up pretty late. We ended up dancing with some guests of the hotel (but I figured they were in on the tour sort of thin). I could upload a video if anyone is interested. It was kind of awkward because I had no clue what I was doing.


Q:

You are, by far, the most awkward.

A:

Agreed!


Q:

How developed you would say is NK compared to poor countries?

A:

This is the first developing country I have visited so I can't really offer an opinion, however it did make me feel very lucky to be able to live where I do.


Q:

I had watched a documentary (shot very discreetly) of a humanitarian visit to North Korea. The scenes, the people, and the government all reminded me very much of Orwell's 1984; the whole Big Brother feel. What was the way of life like there? Also, were you even slightly afraid that they might not allow you to return, for whatever flimsy reason?

A:

were you even slightly afraid that they might not allow you to return

Yes, the thought of not been able to leave the country did enter my head several times before and during the trip. They took our passports off us during the entire trip and we only got them back upon leaving at the airport which was particularly unnerving.


Q:

What was the best/worst thing you ate while there?

A:

The best thing I ate was this egg omelette thing with spring onions, it was simple and easy to eat. Can't say I actually tried anything that was particularly bad, I avoided anything that smelled terrible.


Q:

When you decided to not eat, did your tour guides express any sort of emotion along the lines of "Why the fuck is this dude not eating precious food?"

A:

I think they understood I was unwell. When my appetite finally did return I think I surprised them by how much I was able to put away.


Q:

I have to imagine it feels as though you're playing out some sort of script while you're over there.

Were the locals welcoming at all, or did you get weird looks the whole time you were there?

A:

The people who were actually responsible for interacting with us were incredibly polite, friendly and accommodating. As for the general public, they tried their best to avoid and not interact with us, if we waved, they immediately broke eye contact and walked away quickly. I tried to speak to a guy carrying his bicycle near us (Korean greeting for nice to meet you) but he just put his head down and quickly moved on.


Q:

What were your flight/travel arrangements like? Did you have to fly to China first?

A:

Flew from Newcastle upon Tyne UK, then Amsterdam, then Beijing (where I spent 2 nights) and then Pyongyang. The flight to the DPRK was with the state owned Koryo Airlines, the air craft was basic but the "Koryo burger" was delicious (was some kind of veggie burger) and I actually asked if I could have my sleeping partner's on the way back.


Q:

Where did you return to? Is the United States reddits default country of residence in your opinion?

A:

Where did you return to?

England

Is the United States reddits default country of residence in your opinion?

Yeah, and everyone is a white guy in their 20s until I find out differently. It's not a concious decision.


Q:

Did you "see" Kim Jong Un, or do they have him in a sort of lockdown?

A:

We weren't even told where he resides while in Pyongyang.


Q:

Was it difficult to get your visa or could the average person obtain one if they wanted a unique trip? How much did it cost to go?

A:

Visa was included in the price of the trip. It wasn't difficult to get, just had to prove I wasn't a journalist. I believe anyone could get one.


Q:

Why did you choose to go to North Korea?

A:

I have read and love a lot of dystopian novels and I am fascinated with totalitarian states. From a young age I was interested in and have studied Nazi Germany and the old Soviet Union. I have read almost everything I can find about North Korea and when I eventually realised you could travel there, it's the first thing I wanted to do. It'll likely be the most expensive/weirdest trip I'll ever go on in my life.


Q:

Is it true marijuana is legal there?

A:

I'm pretty sure you could buy meth in one of the shops we visited but I'm not 100% sure (I believe it is legal there), they also sold syringes with a liquid in them (not sure what it was).


Q:

How tall guy?

A:

6'4", while visiting Beijing, I would stand for five minutes to get my bearings and then suddenly find myself stood between two kids who were posing for a photo with me by their parents. I guess it was a novelty for them to see someone so tall.

I met a couple of black girls from America who said they experienced people just taking pictures of them as they were walking down the street!


Q:

What's there any moment when you were all like "Oh shit, I'm about to be detained by One True Security Guard", and if so, what happened?

A:

I had to ask a member of the hotel staff to open my door as I was having trouble working the lock. When I handed her the key, I folded the newspaper I was holding over the photograph of Kim Jong Un's face and she got pretty pissed off with me. Didn't really feel like I was about to be carted away but I did panic a little.


Q:

What was your biggest concern before leaving?

A:

If we did/said anything that would later get our guides in trouble. They were both lovely people.


Q:

Did you have to pay for your guides time while you were there? Were they compensated at all? Is that their full time profession, or are they volunteers?

A:

It was their full time profession. It was suggested that we tip them each 30 Euros and provide them with a gift. I tipped them both and the driver and also gave them a wind up torch due to all the power cuts they experience. I wasn't sure whether the wind up torch would seem a bit condescending but they were both thrilled and said it would come in very useful while travelling (and save them money on batteries).


Q:

What was the scariest point of the 7 days you were there?

A:

I can't say I was ever in a position where I felt truly scared or in danger for my life/freedom. We did nearly hit a woman on a motorbike while travelling on the motorway and that was pretty terrifying.

Also, while travelling on the very long motorways where there was literally nothing for miles, it did cross my mind and concern me about what the hell we would do if the mini bus broke down. We were literally the only people on the road at times and I believe our guide did not have cell phone signal in those areas either.


Q:

How much of the country is build? e,g roads, buildings and stores

Also is there a fast food or something like it?

A:

There is a lot of buildings that are sort of half complete but just look abandoned (as I understand it, a lot of funding vanished after the collapse of the soviet union and all these projects just stopped). The roads into the city were fine but in the countryside they were very bumpy and sometimes incomplete. I've never been road sick in my life but was pretty badly on those roads!


Q:

Here's a photo album as proof http://imgur.com/a/nP9Jy#0 but I can send my visa to the mods if necessary.

The photo album would be fine if you can just take a photo of yourself now with a sign that says your username, so that we know that you really are the person in the pictures. Thanks!


Q:

How do you prove you are not a journalist?

A:

Had to provide details of my employer and information about my own career.


Q:

What passport did you travel on? I always assumed the West was banned.

A:

I travelled on a UK passport.


Q:

Did you see anything that was particularly surprising to you? eg. A DHL truck.

A:

They sold Coca-Cola in some of the shops and in a public toilet we visited the urinals had an "American Standard" logo on them.


Q:

Given the amount they hate America, you would think they would try their best to not use US products.

Did you tour the captured US boat?

A:

Yep, we went to the Pueblo and were given a good description of it's capture and a little history about what happened to the crew.