Every now and again there is someone in my life asking for some information about how to go to North Korea. I am glad there are more people interested in visiting a more exotic place than Miami on Black Friday, but I am tired of copying and pasting from the same serious emails.
There is a possibility of doing things in a much more schizophrenic, weird and explanatory way.
These are some of the most common questions people have made me. And some others that I would make to myself.
How to travel to North Korea?
Usually by plane. But seriously, you can only get there through a governmental authorised travel agency. I used Koryo, which is the most traditional and the one with better references. There are others, but I can’t comment on them since, obviously, I didn’t use them.
Ok, Let’s explain it better.
There are many ways to get to North Korea, but the most common way is departing from Pequim. Especially, because the travel agency is probably located in there and you have to collect your visa in person.
The first option is to go by plane. You can either fly with Air China, which is obviously Chinese, or with Air Koryo, the North Korean company which by the way is considered the worst in the world.
By the way, I found Air Koryo better than TAM. Even because stubbing your little toe on the seat is more pleasant than travel with TAM.
But this is another story.
The second option is to go by train, leaving from Pequim and going to Dandong, still in China. From there, you cross the border.
I went by plane and don’t regret. But next time I will go by train just for the adventure. And only if I had someone to come with me as I would not get into this insanity alone. Even I have some limits.
Good luck with that. Unless you are a head of state or have suicidal instincts.
What do you mean?
This is the most militarized border in the world and no one can cross it. To try to cross it without permission will certainly result in being arrested or killed, because someone will surely see it. And about being a head of State, it is worth talking to your chancellery, but it will be a long and complex conversation.
I know. Just take the plane and it will be a nice story to tell anyway. Who do you know that has flown an Ilyushin Il-62 from the 60’s?
Bulshit, you know me. And you are even interviewing me.
And we are the same people, don’t forget about it.
Alright, we have lost focus in here. How much does it cost to go to North Korea?
In a very simple and direct answer: expensive. My five days trip on a private tour cost me around €2000. Lucky me in 2012 the Euro was much cheaper (comparing to Brazilian Reais).
It was everything included, including the flight to and from Pequim (apart from tips I gave to the guides, some extra meals and the beers at the hotel).
Regarding the ticket to Asia, it cost me a quite old and dodge Opala 83 (referring to a car) half in pieces that I sold. And for the rest of the trip, I never calculated because it would make me depressed.
How does it work though?
I was on a very high level tour. I had two guides for only myself. There are two guides because in theory, one has to keep an eye on the other, but in reality this doesn’t happen. At least, I didn’t see it happening. Tourists usually go on a group trip as it is cheaper. I thought about going on my own would give me more freedom and, back at that time, I didn’t pay rent so I indulged myself. Today, I would certainly go with a group.
What about the hotel?
I stayed at the Yanggakdo, considered the best hotel in the country. It’s a decadent luxury, quite similar to the Maksoud Plaza, in Sao Paulo. It was built in the 90’s, around 1995 and it has everything a normal hotel has: restaurants, gym, shops, a tailor, a beauty salon and, the most important, a bar.
There was also a casino (which I did go) and a massage house (which I did not go).
Regardless of what I expected, there was electricity and hot water throughout the time. Some people say the drinking water over there is very dirty and it made me a bit nervous.
I didn’t try the service room, but the food in the restaurant was very decent.
The other option for tourists more on a budget is the Koryo, which is located just next to the station, but I can’t comment on that.
The Yanggado is located on an island, but I guess I have already spoken about it before. And on top of it there is a rotating restaurant.
Wait a moment… a rotating restaurant?
Yep, a rotating restaurant.
Basically, it is a panoramic restaurant that is constantly rotating to give you a 360º of the city.
This doesn’t make sense at all.
No, I know, but this is something the North Koreans are very proud of and they considered the ultimate luxury.
Don’t you feel nausea?
No, the restaurant rotates very slowly. It almost looks like it is still.
What language do they speak?
The locals speak Korean.
As for the guides, they speak English, Korean and usually another language. Miss Choe would also speak Spanish as she lived in Cuba and had lots of stories to tell. Kim would also speak Portuguese with a very bizarre accent, but he was fluent though. He was still at Uni and had never spoken with any Portuguese speaker before. It was cool.
As for the driver, he would only speak Korean, but we got along anyway. An amazing guy. Shame on me I can’t recall his name.
Do I have to take money to North Korea?
North Korea is not related to any of the international banking system so take ALL the money you will need. The only other way to get money once you are there, is in the casinos.
What about transportation?
I had a private car. A Toyota SUB, very comfortable. Bizarrely, with a UN sticker on the door. I prefer not to think about the reason.
When you are part of a bigger tour, you go around on a bus or a van. The van is made in North Korea. I wanted to ride on it but, unfortunately, it didn’t happen.
Some of the routes could have been made by plane or train, but I didn’t have to. Maybe on a next opportunity 🙂
I see. How free are you in there?
Honestly? Very little. At least for the modern backpackers’ standards.
The itinerary is all pre-established from the moment you book your trip, but some small changes are made along the way because, thankfully, North Koreans are unpredictable. The guides will accompany you at all times, during all tours and you don’t have the freedom to leave the hotel alone (inside the hotel you can do whatever you want).
In practice, it didn’t bother me. The country has no tourist structure and almost no one in there speaks another language other than Korean. Let alone the fact the guides are very cool and they don’t stop you to talk with people on the streets and they are all the time putting things into context for you.
It is better to think that you will be spoiled and won’t have to think about anything about your trip. I found it quite cool, but I don’t know for how long I would be able to handle that.
I even managed to convince them to visit two places that were not in the script. A statue and a bar. Shame the bar was closed.
But they don’t want you to see the real country! No one will show you poverty, starvation, chaos and suffering.
Of course not. As a Brazilian, would you take someone in Jardim Ângela or in the northeast desert during the drought to see poverty, starvation, chaos and suffering? They are very good hosts and they want you to have the best experience possible. And this involves showing the best the country has to offer.
Ok, fair enough. What about the visa to North Korea? I imagine it is very hard to get it. After all it is a super closed country with very little information.
I sent 50 Euros and a passport picture via email to a travel agency and it was all sorted out. Now, try to go and get a visa to the Assassin Imperialists (any of them) and see how complicated it can be.
You can also get the visa from their Embassy in Brasilia (if you are Brazil). The advantage of it is that you get the visa on a separated sheet of your passport. But it is more hassle. Just send the 50 Euros and wait to be happy.
Will you have problems to enter other countries after visiting North Korea?
I didn’t try to get in the USA yet. But I heard it is fine. As for South Korea, it was super easy, even though I shitting myself because I was full of communist posters and stuff in my bag (which is a crime over there). But nothing happened.
And why did you go?
Because Kim Jong-il died and I thought the country as we know would be soon finished. Seriously, I decided to go when I heard on TV about his death.
Life is too short.
As you all know, the country didn’t finish. But you can’t predict for how long it will last. After studying a lot about the subject, now I can see the situation is much more complicated than it seems. I have no idea what is going to happen.
On the other hand, it is a remnant from the Cold War and a place with very little information available. It seemed to me like an adventure. And it was.
What about the ethical dilemma of giving money to an authoritarian regime which is extremely cruel with its citizens?
No one has an ethical dilemma about visiting the USA, have they? To give money to a country that profits from wars, kills innocents with drones in foreign countries, traded cocaine by war machines during the Iran-Iraq war and which has financed all the dictatorships in Latin America is fine, I suppose.
Ethical dilemma to buy an iPhone, whose employees are treated in an almost slavery way and which are made of minerals that causes instabilities in many African countries no one has, right?
Leave me alone.
But they are communists.
Communists are cool.
All North Koreans I interacted with were nice and gentle. They are extremely curious about foreigners, especially when they find out a white person is not American. They had a fairly good knowledge of Brazil, much better than many average tourists around there. One of my guides has seen ESCRAVA ISAURA (a very famous soap opera) and the other supported Flamengo team.
In South Korea, on the other hand, people were very rude to me. Who knows why.
Did things seem fake to foreigners in North Korea?
I find it a very stupid statement. Tourists are not that important to any government.
Is it safe to go to North Korea?
I ask myself this question every time before travelling to an unknown destination. Then I remember I live in Sao Paulo. But anyway, violence in North Korea is extremely low and the guides will always be looking after you. So don’t worry about the average crimes such as robbery and murdering.
Of course there are, but you are definitely not seeing it.
What about being arrested. Or war?
Well, technically, the country is still at war with South Korea and the DMZ is the most militarized area in the world. It is a very scary place indeed. But think about it: if a war breaks down the chances of a tourist being killed is fairly small and Brazil has an embassy there (for the Brazilians). Probably, it will just end up being a cool story to tell afterwards.
Now, tell me what do you expect to do to be arrested in another country?
I don’t know, maybe I criticize the regime and piss them off somehow.
It is easier if you just don’t criticize the regime.
They believe in the Juche Philosophy and the Kimnism is almost a religion for them. Let them be happy and enjoy the place because this is almost an open air museum. If you fuck things up, your guides will get screwed. And they are nice people. Think about them.
Foreigners who end up being arrested are because they made some direct offence to the government or because they interacted with the locals in a “not allowed way” or because they tried to enter the country illegally. These don’t seem to me like a reasonable idea of a trip.
But they have some weird laws.
Yes, that’s true.
For example, it is forbidden to bring pornography into the country. But I had on my laptop (don’t look at me like that, don’t be a hypocrite) and no one inspected me. On the other hand, there are no laws about marijuana there. I am not saying it is legal, it is just that is not regulated. So it is fine.
But don’t be stupid to try to get in the North Korea with drugs and blame me after that. Apparently, the tip is to give a Brandy bottle to your guide to get some since they smoke this herb that grows on the motorway as it is cheaper than cigarettes.
Yes, that is what people say. But I didn’t see it because I read about it when I was back from my trip. Do it on your own risk, and tell me if that work. I have always been curious about it.
What do you eat in North Korea?
Foreigners eat well. The locals, not so much. For example, my guide has never tried many of the things that I ate in there. To put into context, the guides also eat with you and it was Kim’s first time working with foreigners. It was cool and he was very happy about it.
I ate from pizza to dog, from cold lamen to a terrible hamburger in the plane. I read lots of people saying the food there was terrible, but I guess I am not that fussy about it.
Dog. Ewww. Seriously?
Seriously. And it’s delicious, it tastes like lamb.
I bet I screwed your appetite for lamb forever now..
Technically not, because the “interviewer me” and the “interviewee me” are the same person. And these “me’s”, in fact are actually “you”. But I will play your game.
What about communicating with the external world?
Back at my time things were more complicated. The only options were international calls or to send an email, only from the hotel and both were extremely expensive. Your mobile phone is confiscated at the entrance, at the airport.
Nowadays you can enter with your phone and buy a SIM card with 3G. You can use Whatsapp and can make Snapchat for the whole trip. But this is a very stupid way of registering a trip, since you won’t have pictures for a long time.
I also agree that Snapchat doesn’t make sense at all.
I am glad we agree on that.
By the way, what about photos? Do you have restrictions to take pictures in North Korea?
In theory my guides asked me not to take pictures of anyone without asking or the army. And also not from the motorway.
In practice, I took pictures of almost everything I wanted to. I don’t know if they were being naive or if they just didn’t care. There was only one occasion that Kim asked me to be reasonable. And when I was leaving, at the airport, I took a picture of the boarding gate and the police saw me and demanded me to erase that.
But no one checked my pictures to see if my photos were ok.
What camera did you take?
What a nerdy question.
I took an Olympus E-P3, with a 12mm 2.0, a 20mm 1.7 and a 50mm 1.8 lenses. I also took many memory cards and extra batteries because I was afraid I would not have constant electricity.
Just for the record, there was electricity everywhere I went to. But I used more than a battery a day anyway.
Are people crazy about the Kims?
They respect them. But I could tell the elderly are more relaxed about it. The youngsters are dazzled, like anywhere in the world. I won’t get into details because I won’t jeopardize anyone, but that was it.
And what do they know about the external world?
More than I thought.
They have a fairly good knowledge of pop music from the 80’s. They love Madonna and Michael Jackson. But on the other hand, they thought Michael Jackson has changed his colour SIX TIMES and that he was still alive.
I might have told some people that he is actually dead.
They also know a little bit of football. They knew, for example, who ADRIANO IMPERADOR was. But they had no idea about his connection with drugs and the traffic. I also had to explain to Kim what was drug trafficking and the Vila Kennedy (I prefer to think he knew what a hooker was).
Kim, my guide, also liked cars and knew what a Ferrari and Porsche were, for example. An average post-teenager like anywhere in the world.
Did you see many tourists in North Korea?
Yes, quite a lot. Especially because I was in the hotel.
There were many Chinese that went there for the gambling. And a group of Brits who were there for a golf tournament.
But the ones I got closer with were a Canadian family, a couple from Belgium and a Dutch who had a very similar itinerary than mine. Cool people. I also met a couple of Americans who had visited more than 100 countries.
Wait a minute. Americans in North Korea?
Yes, they can visit the country as anyone else. And they told me they were being warmly welcomed.
Not at all. Actually North Koreans know to see people, government and army as different things.
What a life changing lesson.
Yes, I think that too.
Are there things to buy there?
There are lots of stuff to buy there.
From what I remember: beers (which were great, by the way), hand made posters, stamps, postcards, many types of handcrafts, cigarettes, spirits, suits, haircut and massage.
Now, if you are a tyrant, you can order a megalomaniac personalised statue of yourself. But I don’t know how much that would cost. I don’t think it will be cheap anyway.
What did you like the most about North Korea?
The cultural difference, as I explained in other posts. Go there and read it because I am too lazy to explain it all over again.
And what did you like the least?
The fact they are amazing people, but ultimately they are all fucked. The country is extremely poor, these Kims are crazy and in the case of a war, they will suffer a lot.
After all, do you recommend the trip?
Very much. But only for those who have an open heart for a new culture and those who won’t be indoctrinating people.