North Korea is open for tourism

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.

Mural of Jim II-Sung and adoring followers, Pyongyang DPRK

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.

Our Group and Guides at the Yanggakdo International Hotel Bar
Our local guide Han taught me a local Korean dance while I taught her to waltz. She was great value, handling my jokes like a diplomat

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.

Manpower – Most work appeared to be done by hand

ox and cart, DPRK

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.

North Korean Traffic Warden

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.

Electric Bus, Pyongyang, DPRK
Street Scene, North Korea

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)

Young Pioneers in Kim II-Sung Square

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)

Jazzhands at Mansudae Fountain Park, Pyongyang, DPRK North Korea

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.

Statue in Pyongyang, DPRK
The Sound Library at the Grand People’s Library in Pyongyang, DPRK. Every tour group gets played the same CD, Madonna singing ‘American Pie’!

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.

Kaesong, ancient capital of Korea during Koryo Dynasty
The Koryo Museum in the Songgyungwan complex of buildings

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.

DMZ Soldier, North Korea
‘And the rains came tumbling down. DPRK Guard, DMZ, North Korea

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.

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13 thoughts on “North Korea is open for tourism

  1. I am awestruck…i was really worried bout ur safety going into China let alone Nth Korea..but ur story has indicated that Nth Korea is open to a little progress whenit comes to tourism..good for them..and thank you for some great insight.

  2. Hello,

    Very nice report and photos on North Korea! Have you seen any documentaries on North Korea? I’m curious if you think that some of the lush landscape you see is concentrated where tourists will pass through. In other words, I wonder what the terrain is like if you go fifty miles off the beaten path. Regardless, great photos and insight! Thanks for sharing!

  3. A great piece of writing about a fascinating place.. Thankyou..

  4. It looked like a good season, but like South Korea, a majority of the landscape is mountainous

  5. Wow, Mark…..what a fantastic job. Another homerun as usual. I may never get the chance to go to the beautiful places that you visit, but thanks to the job you do on your videos, as well as your writing, and it’s like I’m right there with you. You’re magic at what you do my friend. Okay, before I go I’ve got to wish you an early,
    Yeah, I know it’s not until the 21st…but what the heck. Be safe and may the weather be beautiful the rest of the way for you. One more thing…Go The Pies!!

  6. Cheers Dan, hope all is well in your part of the pond

  7. How fast is the rate of change? How long do you think it will be until every backpacker and his dog has North Korea on their circuit? I see this happening with Burma at the moment, wondering if North Korea is next?

  8. BTW Mark…when are u able to post some great stories on you tube?..can u only do this when ur out of China/Nth Korea..?..These stories will be incredibly interesting..P.S.Another year gone by since uve left home..Happy birthday for teh 21st Mark..I didnt forget either..:)..:)

  9. A lot of Chinese are visiting North Korea, the price for Westerners (about 200 euro a day) will keep it exclusive for a while. I wonder how long it will take before items like the sound room in the Grand People’s Library will be taken off the tour. Still a very fledgling market, still must travel with a group so this will keep numbers down

  10. I liked how you felt the responsibility as a tourist to their country to not ruin DPRK tourism by overly criticizing their political regime, in order for them to confidentially keep their country open for tourism and loose the grip on their people.

    I wish if I can go there once, although, as a Saudi, their stamp on my passport will probably make me blacklisted in the US. So I might go there when I no longer want to visit the US =D

  11. you dont get a stamp, you get a separate visa

  12. Kaesong, The Capital City Of Goryeo Dynasty

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