Why go to North Korea?
When I told people that we were going to North Korea, or the DPRK as they prefer us to call it, I got one of three reactions. From our traveller friends, ‘wow, that will be interesting’. From others, either ‘why on earth would anyone want to go there?’ or ‘gosh, you’re brave – hope you come home again!’ (Spoiler – we did!)
So why did we go? For several reasons – because it would be different from anywhere we’d been before; because a friend had been and posted enthusiastic blogs about it (thanks Albert); because it’s one of those places people say you should see before it changes (although having been, I’m not sure that I see it changing much any time soon).
And while there I discovered other reasons to visit: the people are welcoming; the countryside is beautiful; Pyongyang is a city like no other, with bizarre modern architecture and a treasure-trove of the socialist-realist monuments I find so fascinating; there is more history than you might imagine, and so much to see and do.
Where else will you find yourself visiting a war museum, a kindergarten, a mushroom-production plant, a goat farm, a water-park, an apple farm, a children’s holiday camp, numerous monuments, a mausoleum, a school, a ‘secret camp’, a sacred mountain, several waterfalls, a shooting range, an out-of-service ferry, a ski resort … and bowing deeply in front of huge statues (‘paying your respects’) in every city you visit.
Where else can you watch an opera set in an ironworks, dance in the streets with locals and fly in what was once the private plane of the founder of a nation (Kim Il Sung)?
And what did I learn?
Well, for one thing, I learned that, if you’re prepared to follow their rules (and if you aren’t you shouldn’t visit), it is, contrary to those ‘hope you come home again’ comments, one of the safest of travel destinations. Why? Because you are treated as a guest, not a tourist, and looked after as such. Maybe having to be with a guide at all times (actually two guides, because they are monitoring each other!) can be constricting, but it also means that you can be confident about your safety everywhere and have someone to ask if you feel the need for guidance on appropriate behaviour.
Yes, in contrast to what some believe, visiting the DPRK is completely safe, as long as you’re happy to respect their rules. Think of it like visiting a place of worship for a religion you don’t follow or believe in; while you are in that building you will behave appropriately, I am sure. You will remove your shoes if requested, cover your head and/or shoulders, keep your voice low and only take photos if permitted. Think of a trip to North Korea as an extended visit to such a building and you won’t go far wrong!
I also learned that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the people there are not so very different from us. They may live under an oppressive regime (which only a minority of them understand as being oppressive because of the myths that the Kim dynasty have created around themselves and the country’s position in the world), but they still want the same things as people everywhere. To feel safe; to have a roof over their heads; to be able to build a good life for their children and see them do better than they have themselves; to have enough to eat and access to healthcare when needed. And like all of us they enjoy spending time with friends, they love music and dancing, and many are curious to meet visitors if given the opportunity.
I discovered that I didn’t believe the oft-quoted myth that all the locals I saw were actors, playing out a role for the benefit of our small group of tourists. It struck me as highly improbable that every traveller on the Pyongyang Metro was there only to play out a role as some people claim. Nor did it seem likely that every dancer in the park or the city squares on the national holiday was doing so because they were forced to, when their enjoyment was clear to see.
Admittedly for the most part those locals we had any dialogue with were certainly carefully selected – the secondary school pupils whose English class we went to in Chongjin, the kindergarten teachers in the same city, the children at a summer camp in Wonsan, the captain of the ferry. But they weren’t actors.
But there were occasional impromptu meetings too – the family of our young guide who had joined him one evening in our Pyongyang hotel, an elderly walker my husband met and photographed at Mount Myohyang.
Finally, and most importantly perhaps, I was reminded that there are two sides to every story and that it is only by engaging with others that we start to understand, even if we don’t agree with, their point of view. I saw for myself some of the places behind the news stories – the grand monuments and empty streets, the guards at the Demilitarised Zone, the collective farms and old-fashioned farming techniques. And I began to understand that the reasons why North Korea is as it is are more complex than most of us in the West tend to assume.
The DPRK has, like any other country, been shaped by its history – but that is a topic for another day…
I travelled to the DPRK in 2019
Sarah, as a history lover, I find this fascinating. Of course you were taken only to where they wanted you to see. It was no different in China years ago, and to some extent even now. Have you read the China Mirage? https://tchistorygal.net/2017/02/09/china-mirage-tale-asian-intrigue/ It is fascinating to get to go, and you would experience some of what is really there, but they want to change the world view of their nation for obvious reasons. I talked to a German woman in the airport once who grew up in Nazi Germany. She raved about the schools and how perfect life was for her as a child. My friend who spent her young childhood (age 4-9) in the camps told a different story of living in Germany at the same time and at the same age. There are diverse dichotomies in every country in every period of time. In the United States, ours is on display for everyone to see. Some see that as a weakness, some a strength. Our history books tend to gloss over the horrors in our country with a mention, possibly, but not a detailed description. Those who were wounded by the US government at some period of history are greatly offended by this. Others are enraged that revisionists want to rewrite history and make our heroes out to be criminals. History is a fascinating subject, Sarah. Thanks for sharing this with me. 🙂
Thank you for this thoughtful response Marsha 🙂 Yes, they show you what they want you to see, but visiting (and writing it all up afterwards) gave me the impetus to do a bit more reading around the subject so I could get some balance. Also, we had a very good English guide along with us, an expert of North Korea (he’s been 20+ times) and he was able to provide some context 🙂
I’ll certainly read your post about that book on China too. We were there in 1994 and were back in Beijing again for a few days on the way to NK as all flights to Pyongyang currently leave from there. We saw an astounding difference in the culture – it appears to be a communist country that’s embraced capitalism!
And you’re so right about dichotomies everywhere. The divergence of opinions in somewhere like the US, where people are free to express their views, is much more obvious than in some other countries. It’s much harder to understand, from the outside, the extent to which North Koreans have concerns about their system. I really think most of them don’t – ironically I think most North Koreans are happier with their leaders than many in the West! After all, you don’t miss something that you don’t know exists, and even many who do would say that they would trade their security for our freedoms.
Our kind of government is messy to say the least. Our culture is diverse. It comes with the territory.
Reading your first post on your visit to North Korea (or then DPRK), just once again made me realise that we should visit a place ourselves before we can really deliver an honest opinion. Doesn’t agreeing with a regime/government, doesn’t make all its citizens bad people or its nature fake, does it?
I am looking forward seeing more of this country through your eyes …
Thanks Rusha, I’m pleased this post has helped explain something of how I felt about this trip. I’d always believed you shouldn’t judge a place (or a person) before getting personal experience, and this trip completely reinforced that belief! And yes of course, as a whole the people of North Korea aren’t ‘bad’, they just have the misfortune to live in a country with a questionable leadership regime – but that’s not their fault and they’re not unique in that.
Very interesting Sarah. I agree with your insights. It’s something I’ve recognised in my travels too. At an individual people are the same all over. When visiting a country, we can choose to see things through our own lens or we can take them off.
I love the last set of photos by the way. The women in the field and the girl with the instrument, wonderful.
Thanks so much Sandy 🙂 Yes, that’s a good point about taking our lens off. It’s a bit too easy to fall into the trap of interpreting what we see in the context of what we already know, rather than seeing it for what it is or might be. And I’m really pleased you like those photos. One day I’ll get around to sharing more about that children’s kindergarten show – it was quite astounding!
The intro was a bit Agatha Christie, or even Enid Blyton: “why on earth, wow, gosh!” My mates down the pub didn’t express their incredulity in quite the same prissy manner when I told them I was off to North Korea. And the language became quite inventive when I mentioned a year later that I was off for another visit. But thereafter it was a great read, Sarah, matching many of my experiences in the DPRK. It is of course a unique destination, but the dangers/hazards are exaggerated by the timorous and ignorant. I was never robbed (New York) or pickpocketed (Marseille and Palermo) in Pyongyang!
Oh dear, I guess my friends are more ‘Christie/Blyton’-esque than yours, Michael 😆 But good to hear that our experiences were less dissimilar than our friends! And I agree, the dangers are much exaggerated.
Horses for courses, blokes for jokes.
I enjoyed reading your post and loved that you had an open mind about your visit and took full advantage of making the most of your visit. Isn’t that why we travel? To see something different? It was certainly different but also from the sounds of things also similar. We are all people, after all? Whether oppressed or free.
I did like the look of the unusual architecture in Scientist Street. I also wanted to visit different places like this, off the usual tourist track. My son has visited the DMZ from the South Korean side and he is not a thrill seeker by any means. He was interested in it for the same reasons as you. And he felt totally safe, although it was closed the day after he visited due to several defectors sneaking across. Were you able to talk to any of the Koreans, besides the tour guides?
Thank you for visiting and reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post and understood the points I was making 🙂 Yes, we talked to some of the North Koreans, but always carefully chosen and supervised, e.g. in the school. Probably the one we had the most open conversations with, however, was a our senior tour guide. She’d been doing the job long enough to be reasonably relaxed when chatting to us, although she was so lovely that none of us would have wanted to risk upsetting her by pushing the conversations too far into ‘forbidden’ territory!
A tenuous thread indeed. But so very interesting.
I was (and still am) in the group of “why would you want to visit there”. I enjoyed your travelogues of your visit, and do not have any quarrel with your conclusions – in fact what you say reinforces my idea that I definitely should not visit because I could not bear to follow the rules or show “respect” for the tyrant in charge.
I was unsurprised to learn that the people are like people everywhere, and I found it depressing to know that they do not know that they are oppressed. I was a little surprised not to see the poverty and lack of medical care and food that I had been told was the case there. Perhaps they hid that part of the country. I know that when my dad was in Moscow in 1960, they were very carefully chaperoned, but he got away from his handlers at one point and saw the poverty in the “real” Moscow.
Thanks for visiting Rosalie. I take your point about not wanting to show respect to any of the Kims, but if you think of it as showing respect for the people as your hosts, by going along with their protocols, I believe that makes it easier to accept?
There isn’t an issue as far as I know about access to medical care (arguably access is better than in the US as it’s free for everyone, although almost certainly of a more basic standard) and the food shortages are not what they were during the famines of the 1990s, but there is poverty. However as visitors you aren’t taken anywhere that you would see extreme poverty, and what you do see you aren’t allowed to photograph.
Very insightful Sarah I was fascinated. I like how you talk about engaging with people and making your own mind up about the complexity of a culture very different from our own. Was interesting the two tour guides were monitoring each other. Thus is the most positive and balanced review I’ve read about the country and it sounds like you got a lot out your time there. Whereas others tend to sneer or try to subvert the rules, you accepted them and reaped the benefits.
Thank you for these kind words Katie 🙂 Yes, I went prepared to see for myself and judge by what I found there. I came away not condoning the regime but understanding much more about the historical situation that gave rise to it and the complexities surrounding the world’s perception of the DPRK and its own perceptions of the world. As to the guides, it is paramount that they a) treat visitors as honoured guests, while b) saying nothing, and showing them nothing, that isn’t within the boundaries of the approved visitor experiences/contacts/sights etc. In our case, one was a very new guide (in fact a student on a sort of work experience) while the other was very experienced and excellent at her job. She carried most of the responsibility while the younger one was deputed most of the time to specifically keep an eye on the one ‘trouble-maker’ in our group!
A very thoughtful and inciteful summary, Sarah, beautifully written.
Thank you Albert, and thank you too for the inspiration to visit 🙂
I am so glad you went too.
An excellent introduction to somewhere that most people wouldn’t have visited, but might just be curious as to what it’s like, whether they want to visit or not.
Thanks so much Malcolm. I guess ‘curious as to what it’s like, whether they want to visit or not’, would be you?!
Not so long ago I would have been up for anything including including coming here, but that was then and this is now
A marvelous introduction to your North Korean travels!
Thank you Don, much appreciated 🙂