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