telling people that I was going to North Korea brought up interesting reactions (I won’t say your names, so relax for now):
Someone: “What?! North Korea?! Why on Earth would you go there?!”
Someone else: “North Korea…? … Is it really possible to go there?”
Somebody else: “They have nuclear weapons, are you crazy?!”
And also: “You have a crush on Kim Jong-un! There’s no other explanation for it”
My answer to these reactions has been: “Because it’s simply unique there’s no other country like it, so why not going there!”
For these people above is why I wrote the following piece, so that the image of North Korea can be a little bit more than just bombs, crazy propaganda, etc.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, is anything but an ordinary touristic destination.
There is a government that is famous for keeping at bay international influence and its people almost entirely isolated from whatever source of information leads to international context and events. And if that wasn’t enough, the constant tensions in the peninsula have strongly discouraged tourism.
However, North Korea turned out to be the most interesting and unique place I’ve seen so far
I personally liked the impressive lack of tourism: for once I didn’t have to fight through hordes of people like in China or Italy and things seemed unspoiled… for now. Because of the oppression they live in, North Koreans keep a post-war style in many aspect of their lives: clothing, transport, food and language (language is still the same that you find in South Korea, only without the introduction of foreign words and the use of Hanjacharacters). Lots of anti-Americanism and anti-Japanism propaganda, lots of image cult, a socialist totalitarian dictatorship based upon the principles of Juche (there will be a post entirely dedicated to this concept), we assume that only a few people (the “elite”) are able to access information on the international events, while most people live either in the shadow of the oppressing propaganda imposed and based on the fantasies of Kim Il Sung & Sons or in the fear of the risks one might take in case they dare to express subversive opinions (reason why you are not allowed to bring with you any sort of religious texts).
Since the beginning we knew our tour would be different from any other tour we could imagine, going to North Korea is not like visiting a regular country but rather like visiting somebody’s home, you enter showing respect for their style and beliefs. Our program with YPT might have been limited to the places approved by the authorities, but even so I can say that North Korea has still got a lot to offer: beautiful mountains, rivers everywhere, people walking and washing their clothes in the countryside streams, green fields, waterfalls, beaches, lovely people that will invite you to dance and eat with them right in the middle of the street or at the beach, on the notes of their folklore music and the genuine kindness of everyone you meet. Seriously, the kindness and devotion you perceive are quite rare to find elsewhere.
Something else that I only found in North Korea, dear reader, is that questions like “Where are we having dinner tonight?” or “Where are we going later on?” will not be useful.
Once we arrived in Pyongyang you will realize that entry is very limited to the few pre-approved tours with very clear rules and guidelines, so the traveler will have no freedom to roam around on his/her own. Therefore, dear reader, realize that most guides and books you will find about North Korea will not give you travel advice and tips to go around, but rather descriptions of places and restrictions over time (some things do change in time, like 3G, when I went there we had no signal, but apparently right now you can find 3G connection, only that no one knows for how long…).
In spite of these intriguing precepts, things turned out to be very interesting and inspiring: I could speak to locals, take photos of them even in remote places, I danced with them and even tried their food. Probably a year or two ago, this wouldn’t have been possible.
Our guides took us to the beach one day in Nampho, awesome idea given the torrid heat of those days. Beach volley, beers, and water was too muddy for my taste, but the others seemed to enjoy it very much So instead with two friends we decided to sneak away and explore the shore (sorry Chris!). We might have gone a bit far as we witnessed a lot, we danced with people, we took photos and almost ended up in a fight, accidentally of course.
Little North Korean family drama aside, we reached the top of the cape after dancing chit-chatting to most we encountered.
Even though we behaved quite well and showed complete obedience towards our guide, my friends and I found numerous occasions to slip away and go on an adventure (the beach episode already counts as one!) and to the discovery of mysterious exciting places, starting with… our hotel!