Or as they like to call themselves, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. But North Korea is neither democratic nor especially people friendly. The country is run by a despotic and paranoid regime, headed by Kim Jong Un, the third successor in the Kim dynasty of rulers who have created a personality cult where each Kim successor is said to be divine. The people are kept in line by a combination of fear, famine, disinformation and a perceived external threat in the form of the eternal archenemy “America” (especially the U.S.A.) as well as the harsh conditions in the many concentration camps.
As his reign began in 2011, Kim Jong Un’s direction is unpredictable as he has rid himself of all of the advisors passed down by his father, however, he continues verbal nuclear threats aimed at the West and in 2013 launched protest missiles. On the other hand, he seems to love American basketball as much as his father was known for loving Hollywood movies.
So what can you expect in North Korea? On the whole, most tours are propaganda excursions, taking you from one museum glorifying the Great Leader to the next glorifying the Great Leader. Expect to be bowing to various statues of the Great Leader. You will definitely visit the capital Pyongyang. You will probably see the Demilitarized Zone from the North Korean side. There will be trips to cultural sights like old Buddhist monasteries. The highlight for most visitors are the annual Arirang Games, a practice in synchronized gymnastics, though they have been cancelled the last couple of years and it is unsure if or when they will return.
Tourism is strictly regulated, and there is no freedom of movement. To enter you need to apply through a government approved tour agency, which will have a strict itinerary. As for cost, think in the region of 200 to 300 dollars a day at the time of this writing (2015). This includes everything, and as there is very little you can buy in the country you won’t need to take much money with you, except perhaps for the odd postcard. If you like bizarre, repressive regimes, or just want to go where few have ventured before, then definitely North Korea should be on your list.
Highlights from North Korea
Hints and Tips for North Korea
- You can’t travel North Korea independently, all tourists have to use a government approved tourist agency. The minimum price is 200 dollars a day for tour groups, but the prices will go up considerably if you want to have private tour.
- Travel around North Korea is restricted, even when you are on a tour. While you can tailor your itinerary, there are some places you just won’t be allowed to visit.
- You will always have a guide with you, to all intents and purposes this person is also your minder, and will make sure you don’t do things you are not allowed to do, and don’t go to places you are not allowed to go to. You might as well assume your room to be bugged as well.
- Do not criticize or insult Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il or Kim Jong Un, or any family member of the Kim clan. This also applies to the North Korean Workers Party, the Juche ideology, the North Korean citizens and country and the regime as a whole. It is best not to talk about these topics at all while visiting. Even (or perhaps especially) if somebody tries to get you to talk about any of these subjects, or asks you to speak your mind freely about them, don’t!
- Don’t laugh at the farcical stories you will be told about the country, its leaders, or the Korean War. Even if the stories are clearly untrue and even fantastical, pretend to take them seriously and restrain from anything that might offend.
- Photography is restricted and your camera will be checked before you exit the country to make sure you haven’t taken any illegal photos.
- Don’t try to sneak off as that can land you in severe trouble. At best you will be deported after spending some time in jail and being interrogated and, at worst, you will end up in a labour camp the rest of your life or possibly be shot!
- Whether or not you visit North Korea is up to you, but be aware that by going you are, in a small way, funding an extremely repressive regime. Tourism generates money for the government, which it can use to continue its brutal existence.
- Check your own country’s consulate to see if visiting North Korea is okay or not recommended for political or other reasons.