Listening to the news, watching hatchet job videos on youtube, anyone would believe North Korea was a dangerous place to visit. I myself as a travel video producer was a little concerned before entering, afraid my camera equipment would be confiscated at the border. Instead what I found was a country just starting to open to tourism. I was treated like royalty and allowed to pretty much film anything I wanted, other than groups of soldiers.
At the moment, to visit the DPRK one must go with a tour company. I myself went with Young Pioneer Tours who run small group tours for westerners at a budget price. The other options are going with a Chinese tour which are larger and, from what I saw, tend to rush groups through locations quicker. Young Pioneer Tours work in North Korea with two local guides. They have been running tours to North Korea since 2008, so they know how the DPRK works better than anyone. The tours are highly organised and, as tourism is a relatively new endeavour, tend to focus on viewing sites more than interacting with locals. For someone who makes travel videos focusing on meeting the locals, this was a new experience for me, but I still found there were plenty of chances to chat with our guides and various other guides throughout the tour.
The first thing that hits you when you travel by train into North Korea is how lush and green it is, every available space is used to grow food such as corn and rice. It looks like an agrarian wonderland, hills of rolling green dotted with small villages. On closer inspection, one notices the lack of machinery, the ox and cart, everything from cutting grass to ploughing fields, done by hand. The contrast with the enormity of China is startling.
I remember reading that Cuba was the only sustainable developed country in the world and that if we were serious about our Ecological Footprint, we would need adopt a lifestyle similar to that of Cubans. Of course the Cuban lifestyle has pretty much come about due to trade embargoes. In North Korea the self imposed ecological sustainability can be traced to the Juche idea developed by Kim II-Sung. This concept embraces the three tenants of Political independence, Economic self-sustenance and Self-reliance in defense.
Arriving in the capital Pyongyang, the next thing to hit you, is the lack of cars, no roadblocks, no bottlenecks, just wide open boulevards. The footpaths on the other hand are full of people, walking, riding bikes, always on the move. The public transport system includes electric buses and a two line subway system.
Our tour took in three main locations; sites around the capital – Pyongyang, Kaesong – the capital of Korea during the Koryo Dynasty and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
I’m not going to go into every detail of the tour, but there were many highlights. In each location we were given ample opportunity to take any photos we pleased (apart from photographing groups of military)
Highlights for me in Pyongyang included the amazing murals and statues. I particularly liked the quirky ‘music room’ full of boomboxes in the Grand People’s Study House.
Kaesong, the ancient capital of Korea, is like a tourism boom town waiting to happen. It did not escape me that we were the only group walking the quaint cobbled streets surrounded by traditional houses. Visiting the museum and learning of the history of the Koryo period, I thought to recent history, political movements, and how only sixty years have made the two Korea’s, North and South, so indistinguishable.
The demilitarised zone really took me by surprise. I was expecting stern faced soldiers ready for attack. Instead I discovered bus loads of Chinese tourists, snapping photos with obliging soldiers.
I’d read a fair bit about North Korea before I traveled there, I’m well aware of it’s problems. But I also believe tourism can have positive effects on a country. My videos and my posts will be very diplomatic in their opinions. What we are seeing in North Korea is a change, a change I believe will be for the better. I’m not going to be the dickhead who ruins it for everyone by spouting bullshit opinions about politics and regressive regimes. Doing this will only get people into trouble in the fledgling DPRK tourism industry.
There is a lot you won’t be able to talk about with your North Korean Guides on current tours and there is a lot of the country you won’t see. BUT if you want to see a country like nothing else on earth, at a fascinating stage in history, North Korea is well and truly open for tourism!
Be quick, the winds of change blow strong in the year of a Rising Dragon.
©ALL images copyright overlander.tv