At the beach in Koh Nang Yuan, Thailand

By Norbert Figueroa, an experienced architect, travel writer, long-term budget traveler, and photographer with over 13 years of travel experience in over 139 countries and counting. @globotreks

GloboTreks is reader-supported through affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support! – Norbert

The Hermit Kingdom of North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or DPRK), is one of the most secretive and mysterious countries in the world.

But, the mystery is not the only thing that makes North Korea such an interesting and different destination; it is also one of the few countries in the world still under a nominally communist rule and one of the least visited by westerners, with only 6,000 visitors per year. It’s almost the forbidden fruit of travel.

North Korea has been on my list of places to visit for a while since it is part of my goal to visit all of the U.N. recognized countries.

But, beyond that goal, I was intrigued to see first-hand the life and culture that is mostly kept behind a veil of secrecy and doubt.

People's Study Hall in Pyongyang, North Korea
The People’s Study Hall in Pyongyang, North Korea

I was planning on visiting North Korea in a year or so, but when Trump announced this past July his “fire and fury” travel ban, forbidding Americans from entering the DPRK starting September 1st, 2017, I knew I had to act now or wait indefinitely until the ban is lifted.

The pressure was on.

I also have a Dominican passport I acquired strategically (via the sanguineous relationship) for situations like these or to visit countries where the US passport is not ideal.

But, after much deliberation, I decided that logistically, it would be much easier to travel to North Korea with my American passport, even if rushed.

Planning my way to North Korea

North Korea can only be visited with a group tour or private tour. Koryo Tours, which is the most reputable company leading tours to North Korea, announced that they were leading their very last tour to the DPRK where Americans would be allowed in.

It would run from August 26th to the 29th, just a few days short of hitting the travel ban. This is, officially, the last tour for Americans!

I admit I hesitated to join their tour due to the heated talks and threats that flew from both sides during the early weeks of August. North Korea had just threatened to strike Guam with their missiles, and Trump promised them “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

This was not the best time to go to North Korea. AT ALL! But I was in.

I purchased my last-minute flights from Puerto Rico to New York City to Beijing. New York was not only the cheapest route I found, but it was also a logistical layover to leave some of my electronics behind with a friend (laptop, camera lens over 150mm, external hard drives, and such).

With my passport, visa and boarding pass to North Korea
With my visa, passport, and boarding pass. About to leave Beijing Airport to North Korea.

North Korea has a strict rule over what type of information and technology can enter the country.

Among the things forbidden to take are any newspapers, books, or publications (print or digital) about North Korea, religious texts or items, American or South Korean flags, pornography, and more.

While I knew my electronics were compliant with their rules, I just wanted to limit their chances of finding anything unsuitable (I’m sure I must have a picture of an American flag somewhere on my laptop).

So, I just left them behind in New York and flew to Beijing with only my iPhone and camera.

In Beijing, I met the other travelers making their way to North Korea during the pre-tour briefing to talk about safety, etiquette, and everything we needed to know before setting foot in the hermit kingdom.

We were seven Americans, two British, and two French travelers. The curious thing is that all seven Americans signed up after the travel ban was announced. Normally, Americans make about 10% of travelers to North Korea, but this trip was an exception.

Arriving in North Korea

Even before leaving Beijing, we knew this would be a unique and exciting trip. Being the last trip for Americans, the international media gained interest in us and interviewed a few travelers in my group to get our feelings about the upcoming trip.

Check in for our flight to North Korea
Checking in…
Air Koryo flight in North Korea
Our Air Koryo plane

During our two-hour flight to Pyongyang, we were not allowed to take any pictures. At first, I was not aware of this, so I took my camera out and took a few pictures out the window.

Just as I put my camera away, a flight attendant came to me and asked me to delete all the pictures I had taken. She stood there, like a hawk, making sure each picture was deleted.

She caught my camera, but not my phone!

Flying to North Korea

After that, I noticed how the flight attendants and even some guys with pins portraying the faces of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il were walking up and down the aisle looking intently at everyone, making sure no one took any pictures.

Or maybe I was just feeding myself with some paranoia based on everything I heard about the country and how vigilante they are of pretty much everyone.

I’d say that out of everything, entering and exiting the country was the thing that worried me the most. I imagined it like this strict regime that would check the most minute details of everything in my bag, my camera, phone, and whatnot.

Once off the plane, I walked straight to immigration. I handed my health form to an officer (stating that I’m not carrying any disease), followed by my passport, entry form, and visa to another immigration officer at a booth.

North Korean visa
My DPRK visa

Our names in the visa are written phonetically with Korean characters, so you must say your name out loud when they ask you to so they can understand it and match it to your passport.

“Your name?”

“Norberto Figueroa Quezada.”

The immigration officer looks at me with wide eyes and throws a controlled giggle while saying, “wow, long name.” Seeing her giggling and smirking made me relax a bit, so I replied, “Yeah, we Latinos tend to have long names. And lucky me that I don’t have a second name.”

I don’t think she understood me completely, but at least the situation was a bit relaxed. She then followed by asking me where I’m from.

“Puerto Rico, United States.”

She looked at me with the most puzzled face, so I repeated my answer. I knew the visa said I’m American, so I thought maybe she expected to hear a state along with my United States answer.

Well, Puerto Rico is not a state, so I explained to her that it is a tiny island that is part of the US. I even made hand gestures with my explanation to see if that helped, but she kept looking at me like “I’m not getting you.”

But, after about two minutes of weird looks and strange explanations, she stamped my visa and let me in. No passport stamp, though. Wah, wah…

But wait, I wasn’t done yet. Then came customs and what I dreaded the most – the search. I handed my customs form to the officer, detailing every single electronic equipment I had with me. He immediately asked if I have a phone, to which I replied, “yes.”

He told me to hand it over and took it along with my passport. He stepped back to a table with a book, and in it, he registered the phone along with my passport. He handed it back without doing any content search. Nothing.

All my belongings passed through an x-ray machine, and my electronics were briefly examined by hand. Finally, I was asked if I had any newspapers or publications with me, to which I replied, “Only The Pyongyang Times I got on the plane.”

The Pyongyang Times is a local propaganda newspaper written in English, so I knew that would be okay.

I “passed with flying colors” and was finally in North Korea!

At the DMZ with my tour group
Our tour group at the DMZ

I passed through easily, and so did everyone in my group. Surprisingly the process, as scary as it sounds, was much smoother and less intrusive than I expected.

Maybe we were lucky, or maybe North Korea is a bit more relaxed now? But, I have to say that I saw a few laptops being checked extensively, as well as a few other electronics and publications other travelers brought.

Once the trip was done, exiting the country turned out to be just as painless as entering.

DPRK: Challenging Expectations and Ideas

I’ll be honest by saying that I wasn’t sure what my expectations were about North Korea.

I was aware there are several human rights issues there, but I knew there was no way I would see any of it or even the slightest hint of anything that could create a negative image of the country.

This tour, like any other tour in the country, was planned and curated to the most minute detail to only show the highlights and positive side of Pyongyang, Kaesong, and the DMZ. It’s just the way the government allows tourism there.

Traffic lady in Pyongyang, North Korea

Want to stop at that cool market you saw on the street? Want to ride an extra stop in the metro? Nope. You can’t.

The government needs to give your tour company permission for that, and most probably, it will be denied. Also, the tour was scheduled like clockwork, so our days were pretty busy already.

Small shop in Pyongyang, North Korea
A cute kiosk for locals. We couldn’t buy anything there.

Knowing that my experience there would mostly be a “look-how-great-we-are propaganda,” I decided to just make the best of it and to at least get an idea of how people live there based on what I saw on the street, the metro stations, the store, etc; and not necessarily by what I was told.

North Korea is well known for hiding or lying about anything that doesn’t go with their narrative, image, and ideals, so I knew I had to question everything I was told there, even if just to question it to myself.

As I learned along the way, local guides are excellent at deflecting questions that could potentially prompt an unfavorable answer.

And hey, I didn’t even touch subjects like religion, politics, their leaders, or anything “taboo” we were previously recommended to stay off.

The first sign of this disparity came just as we made our way to Pyongyang from the airport. One of our local tour guides was giving us some statistics about the country, and then he mentioned the population was 80 million (the other guide said 70 million).

I raised an eyebrow at this number. It seemed a bit high. But, having no internet connection there, I had no way to fact-check it.

As I learned there, North Korea –which likes to be called the DPRK or just Korea– sees the “DPRK” as the whole Korean Peninsula, a unified country, and not just their current territorial extent.

They even sell maps of the DPRK showing the entire peninsula as one country. As beautiful and utopic as this might sound (though a current political and economic nightmare, to say the least), this is simply inaccurate. North Korea is one country, and South Korea is another.

According to World Bank, in 2016, North Korea had a population of 25.3 million and South Korea of 51.2 million. If we add up, we are much closer to the 70-80 million mentioned.

North Korea news
The news showing the weather forecast. Look how North Korea takes the whole peninsula.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed traveling with my local guides. They were a lot of fun to go drinking with and to get ample knowledge about Korea, but it sucks when you can’t consider your guides as unbiased, reputable sources of information about the country.

This applies to all local Korean guides, not just mine. I think it’s not their fault. It’s just the narrative they are given, I guess.

Manicuring what’s Already a Curated Image

Before arriving, Koryo gave us a few “photography tips” on how to photograph statues of their leaders and what we couldn’t photograph. Statues and photos of their leaders were to be photographed fully.

We couldn’t crop any parts of the statue, and if there were two leaders, both of them had to be (fully) in the picture. No photographing of their backs, either.

Me at Mansudae Grand Monument in Pyongyang, North Korea
At the Mansudae Grand Monument

As expected, nothing military can be photographed, and to me, that was understandable and didn’t bother me. But damn, there’s military E-VERY-WHERE in that country (4th largest military in the world), and many of them looked like a good Instagram shot.

Military men in Pyongyang, North Korea
Even though not allowed, now and then some military just happened to “sneak” into a picture… They are everywhere!

Another no-photo-of-this were constructions, as they send a bad image. What?! As an architect, I see them as something good! Development!

Anything that shows poverty was also a big no-no, as well as shots of the metro tunnels (the stations were fine).

Metro Station in Pyongyang, North Korea
Female train conductor in Pyongyang Metro, North Korea

And I guess any up-close shot of local commercial activity is also discouraged. This last one wasn’t told to us by Koryo, but we weren’t allowed to take pictures in the only store we could go to where locals actually bought their groceries, clothes, and household items.

I guess this “capitalism” goes against their socialist/communist image.

Lady selling on the street, North Korea
A lady selling souvenirs and snacks on the street. This is set up just for tourists, at a rest stop on our way to the DMZ.

Still, I managed to take tons of pictures and videos everywhere without many restrictions, and whenever a guide told me “cameras down” or “no photos here,” I respected it.

Another thing I noticed at that local store is how vigilant they are with us, and everyone, in general.

This didn’t happen to me, but one of the travelers in my group went to the supermarket area of the store and saw a kid’s notebook with a cartoon of a child and a missile.

He thought it was curious and picked it up to buy it. Within ten seconds a lady came to him, took the notebook out of his hands, and told him he couldn’t buy that. I guess we are not as free to pick and buy anything we want there.

I heard before how certain things and people can be staged to impress tourists and show normalcy. I wouldn’t be surprised if we got to see that, but I can’t say with factual evidence that it happened to us. But again, while in North Korea, I questioned everything.

Bowling in Pyongyang, North Korea
We went bowling one night. Only two lanes were being used by locals. Normal?

The Mundane Matters Even More in North Korea

Since I was in a country not known for stunning sights, relaxing beaches, outdoor sports, and all the other travel-related highlights most countries capitalize on, I knew that the local’s daily life would be the most interesting thing I’d see.

And I’m not saying this in a way to downplay it. To the contrary, the mundane and the daily life in North Korea is mostly unknown to most westerners, so I wanted to dig in a bit deeper on that (as far as allowed, even if not much).

Reading the newspaper at the metro platform in Pyongyang, North Korea
Locals reading the newspaper in the metro station.

My first “cultural shock” (if I can call it that) was seeing locals standing on the metro platform while reading the “Rodong Sinmun” on display, the official newspaper of the Workers Party.

I guess some of them might be able to buy a copy at a local newsstand, but several people seemed to use these newspaper displays as their source of printed local news.

All news media in North Korea (including TV) is tightly controlled and censored by the government. Internet access is restricted to most of the population, so whatever news they get, it’s only the news the government wants them to read.

Even The Pyongyang Times (for us tourists) was all positive propaganda about the DPRK, how the US is “evil,” and how their military is the greatest.

At the bars, we mostly stayed to ourselves either due to lack of locals around or merely because they were quite shy by nature or because of the language barrier.

But, there were moments, like at the hotel bar, where even with the language barrier, we were able to interact in a very playful way with the bartenders through body language, famous catchphrases, and random laughs.

Me drinking beer in Pyongyang
The Taedong Gang beer is actually quite good!

Another nice interaction that I know was genuine was with my dancing partner at the Mass Dance. She was a girl randomly picked from a sea of people dancing together.

I had never seen their traditional dance, so I was utterly lost. But she patiently guided me until I got the steps while she giggled at me and laughed at the whole thing. We didn’t talk much due to the lack of a common language, but we had a good time.

Mass Dance in Pyongyang, North Korea
Mass Dance… under the rain!
Dancing at the Mass Dance in Pyongyang, North Korea

Other than the newspaper reading and Mass Dance, the rest of the daily routines I saw there were just as normal as what you and I do in the western world.

People shop just the same, play in the park with their friends, walk their puppies, eat at restaurants, hang out, and so on. At least, this is the perspective I got. Still, it was fun seeing it.

Propaganda is E-VERY-WHERE in North Korea

While ads are almost nowhere to be seen –none on the metro and virtually none on the streets– one thing you can’t avoid seeing is propaganda posters all around the city.

These are revolutionary style posters that inspire people to support the Workers Party, to work together to improve the country and its industrial production, and to support the military.

While not commonly found on the streets, saw several anti-US propaganda posters with the military blowing a battleship, a missile exploding the Capitol Building, and Korean soldiers killing American soldiers. As tourists, we could buy these for souvenirs.

Propaganda posters in Pyongyang, North Korea

But the propaganda wasn’t limited to posters. The most curious ones were the ones displayed in videos at each bar and store.

Each has a TV on the wall where they either show the local news (highly censored), or a recorded video of a gala concert, kids dancing, or military parades.

One I saw repeatedly was the gala concert, where these ladies, dressed in nightgowns, sang to a crowd composed mostly of the military.

Behind them was a huge backdrop screen displaying the North Korean flag, imposing monuments, and last but not least, missiles flying over the sky and blowing mountains.

Gala concert on the plane to Pyongyang
The gala video… we even got to see it on our flight!

The first time I saw that video I was dumbfounded. But we saw this “missile launch” theme was a recurrent thing in most videos.

There was one with kids dancing innocently, and as soon as they finish their routine, a missile launches as if it had anything to do with those kids. At the live circus performance, we noticed how the whole theme was their military prowess.

As the acrobats flew over the air with military print catsuits, we were delivered propaganda with rockets, bombs, monuments, and flags on the backdrop screen.

Circus in Pyongyang, North Korea
Circus propaganda with missiles in the backdrop!

They are VERY proud of their military might, especially the success of their nuclear program and missiles.

As I saw this constant propaganda feed, I couldn’t help but ask myself, does this happen in the US too? The answer is yes. There is a lot of propaganda in the US, but it is subtle, so many of us don’t even realize it.

In fact, at a bar, I joked with the two British guys on the tour about the amount of propaganda delivered by countries. North Korea came first (by a long stretch), then came the US, followed by the UK. It was a joke, but there’s some truth behind it.

In my opinion, our former Trump presidency was based on the “fake news” and exclusionary/nationalism propaganda (among other things) that has deeply hurt and divided the country.

I wonder if Trump wishes to have the same demi-god cult from Americans as Kim Jong-Un has from the Koreans. Hmmm.

The Effects of the Ban on My Trips and any Dangers There

My concern (and the handful of people who knew about my trip to North Korea) was how dangerous could it be to be there during these heated times of nuclear talks, threats, and impending ban.

Would North Korea retaliate against the US by taking action against the last few Americans in their territory? Who knows…

At the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang, North Korea
With the museum guide at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

Honestly, I didn’t feel unsafe or afraid of being in North Korea or of the North Koreans, but then again, I was in a disconnected bubble while I was there.

Actually, to my (slight) surprise, North Korea fired a missile over Japan while I was there. The general population, my travel companions, and I were completely unaware of it, and it wasn’t until after we left the country that we learned about it.

We were completely offline, so whatever news we could have gotten there would have been the propaganda version of the story.

But, just like I was unaware of the missile, locals there are entirely unaware of the American travel ban. I asked my guides about it, and while they were aware of it, they both said that locals have no idea about it.

Americans make made only 10% of Westerners traveling to North Korea, so while they might feel a slight economic pinch, they might not notice our absence so much.

Riding the tram in Pyongyang, North Korea

Even though this was my first time in the country, I don’t think the ban changed much of my experience there, other than Koryo doing their best to make us see the most in what was already a short tour. And they succeeded at it.

But the locals all treated us as if nothing foul was happening between both nations.

Bowing at Mansudae Grand Monument in Pyongyang, North Korea
Locals bowing in front of the statues of Kim Il-Sung and Jim Jong-Il

In the End, It’s About The People

It is worth saying, too, that North Korea, nor its people, have anything against Americans visiting them. In fact, they were all welcoming and friendly (to whatever extent they felt comfortable with foreigners).

Aside from my Mass Dance partner, probably the other friendly interaction I remember vividly was this woman working at the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang.

Lady at Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang, North Korea
The nice lady

She was standing at the top of the arch and was very approachable to us. She let us take pictures of her and with her, and then showed us around the Arch.

In the end, after we finished our visit and were already walking past the square to reach our bus, she hurried down and out to say goodbye to us with the biggest smile you could find.

She was genuinely happy to have us around. It was a sweet moment to share with her.

Even though limited, I could see how both tourists and locals like to share and learn about each other. There is this healthy curiosity about the other that if explored further, can slowly help bridge that gap that has isolated this country for so long.

Propaganda in Pyongyang, North Korea
Propaganda with the image of Kim Il-Sung, the “father” North Korea, “eternal” president, “dear leader,” and proposer of the Juche ideology. People are paying respect to him.

The DPRK is already a hermit kingdom thanks to its own Juche, or “self-reliance,” ideology. It’s a utopic idea that I don’t think they’ll ever achieve, but it’s the ethos that drives the fervent devotion towards Kim Il-Sung (who initially proposed it), Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un as if they were all-knowing demi-gods.

They’ve already done an excellent job alienating themselves from the world, and now the US is pushing even further with this alienation, which in my opinion, might not be the best thing to do.

Ladies at Mansudae Grand Monument in North Korea
Ladies bringing flowers to pay respect to their leaders.

But, to finish this (already long) post, whether you believe in what North Korea stands for or not, I’d still recommend visiting it to see its human side. I’m talking about the human side of the people, not the institution behind them.

The people who love, feel, and suffer just like you and me. The people who, in the end, look forward to having a good life, like the rest of us. Some people are against visiting since they don’t want to support the North Korean regime economically.

I think this is an entirely valid point, but even if you don’t visit them, at least read and educate yourself about their life and way of being to at least understand a fraction of who they really are. Humans, just like you and me.

And to any fellow American who wishes to visit North Korea in the future, hopefully, this ban will only last a year (nope… still active after several years). But, it is temporary, pending renewal, so fingers crossed that we will again have the freedom to visit it.

P.S. Here’s a quick video I made during my time in North Korea.

YouTube video

I'm one of the last Americans to visit North Korea. This is my experience.
Adventure Awaits


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      1. Norbert,

        I wanted to reach out to you about a DPRK trip of my own. I’m dual citizen: American and Lithuanian. Consequently, I have two passports.

        I really would like to visit North Korea, but am a bit hesitant as you were. Do you recommend Koryo? What other things to
        Watch out for? I’d love to connect and hear more:

        1. Hi Lukas,

          Yes! I recommend Koryo as I think they are the best and most experienced company for the DPRK. Have in mind, though, that no matter with which company you travel to the DPRK, they are only a foreign third-party to the official tourism company of the DPRK, which is the one that will officially guide the tour. So, in the end, the experience is not so much dictated by the tour company you contact but by the government’s tour agency. Still, an experience worth having if you’re interested in the country!

  1. Fantastic write up and I hope the ban gets lifted soon. Its one of my dream destinations to visit before one day Communism will collapse (it will happen, it has happened to every country which had this). So I wanna see it. But loved reading your experience here and so glad you got a chance to visit.

    1. Thanks, Danik! Yes, I too believe that Communism will fall at some point, but don’t know when. This is one of the last “true” communist places still in full force, so it is definitely an interesting experience to see it.

  2. This was really a great read, especially because they are closing the borders for US citizien soon. Can European people for example still enter?

    1. Lena, I completely understand. Not everyone agrees on visiting it. At least I wanted to share what I saw and how it felt to be there.

  3. Very interesting read… Just like most, I am also very curious of North Korea and your post gave me an idea of what it is like to be a tourist there. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Marvi! It’s like no other place I’ve seen so far. It’s interesting and sad at the same time, because you know there’s so much more happening behind the scenes that you will never be able to do anything about while there.

  4. Interesting read. I want to visit every country in the world but I wouldn’t visit North Korea even though I can. I couldn’t go knowing my money would be funding a horrific government who work their people in concentration camps, rape and murder them etc. There wouldn’t be any point going anyway because of all the propaganda and restricted travel too. I don’t see the point in feeding more money into this country with tourism when that indirectly supports an unjust ruler. Just my opinion…

    1. Thanks, Chloe! Yes, that is totally understandable. I knew beforehand that what I would see would be what they wanted me to see, which in a way is what makes North Korea such a unique place and experience already. There’s a lot more I’d love to see there, but for now, until this regime dies somehow, it will be very limited. But yes, your opinion is completely valid and I share it to some extent.

    2. i know this is late but you do know every place has done bad things do you forget that not long ago the U.S did some fucked up things. Lets see from lynching African Americans, beating Mexicans because they spoke their native language and holding Japanese in concentration camps. Also lets not forget almost exterminating Native Americans. To my knowledge your probably white so to you America is a paradise but it also has its dark side. I’m not excusing North Korea its a horrible situation but you can’t act like other places don’t have flaws.

      1. Native Americans were butchering and pillaging each other long before Americans arrived. Blacks sold their own and enslaved white people, which people like you ignore. Sure, the internment situation of WWII was shameful but we also ultimately ended the conflict. It helps that Asian-Americans actually take accountability and don’t wallow in victim mentality over something that happened long before. The Japanese are our biggest allies of today. They succeed because they don’t blame ‘white privilege’ for their shortcomings. They just outwork everyone.

        Deflecting North Korea’s atrocities with your whataboutism ain’t it, G. Only a moron tankie would even insinuate USA is on the same level in terms of abusing human rights.

  5. What an interesting trip. It’s nice to know that their people are just as hospitable as the rest of the world. I commend you for having the courage and will to visit North Korea despite all the tensions hovering between them and U.S.

    1. Thanks, Ricci! Yes, one of the things I’ve noticed is that even in the most oppressed countries, you find some of the most hospitable people. A government doesn’t dictate the human nature of its inhabitants. Just like all of us, “free folks,” they care about relationships, friendship, being happy, etc.

  6. What an interesting and thorough story from your trip! It was intriguing to say the least! Must have been cool and scary to be the last American to get to visit! Having a family heritage from Iran, I know what you mean about how the people of a country aren’t usually the ones agains the US. I also agree that there is certainly propaganda everywhere and N.Korea seems to have a very extreme version of it. I couldn’t believe the tourist wasn’t allowed to buy the notebook at the store and how they make special tourist souvenir stands. Cool that you had a fun dance!

    1. Thanks, Taiss! I’m sure you must have seen firsthand the influence of propaganda/news on how people in the US react against Iran or Iranians. It’s sad that happens. I haven’t been to Iran, yet, but from friends who’ve visited they tell me Iranians have been some of the friendliest people they’ve come across and that traveling in Iran was not only really safe but also one of their best experiences. Hopefully, I’ll have a similar experience in the future.

  7. Quite interesting. However, most of your well-orchestrated trip seemed to me like a TV show where every bit of it is directed and made up. That is not how I would like to see the country. But, the experience definitely seems different and one of its kind.

    1. Oh, it’s like a Truman Show in real life. Of course, it’s not the way I’d like to see a country either, but I have no choice here. It’s either that or nothing, unfortunately. And still, I’m happy with the experience I had, even if curated, because I got to see first hand a bit about the country and the people.

  8. I’ll admit I was a bit turned off at the title of the post, as it sounded a bit like bragging when you’re going to a country that has done so many horrible things to their citizens. But to each their own.

    1. Well, it is a fact that I was one of the last Americans there, so I don’t see anything wrong with saying that. It’s part of the story and overall experience as it influenced how we all felt while there. But of course, to each their own.

  9. I must say this a great read and very interesting. Because the place what you have covered has overall very less coverage in travel world. I like the way you have presented your overall journey and situations you had came across. Ranging it from the camera one during your flight to interaction with immigration officer to news paper reading at metro station etc. Absolutely loved this article.

  10. Good that you come back safe! Personally I would not go to N. Korea and fund an oppressive and authoritarian government with tourist money, and risk my own safety. But that’s just me.

    1. Thanks, Eve! I’m glad I came back myself! Of course, your stand is very valid and I respect that too. Going there is not for everyone, but at least I wanted to share my experience and limited interaction with people there.

  11. Really interesting read. Like many who have commented above me, I would not consider being a tourist in N. Korea. I agree that travel is truly about the people and how they live. I cant help but wonder how authentic your trip actually was, simply because of how restricted the tour was. I’m sure the government only showed you what they wanted you to see.

    1. Thanks, Kate! Just like you wonder about the authenticity, I still wonder about that too for some parts of my trip. The government does a really good job of “hiding and preteninding” so everything can be questionable.

  12. This was a fascinating and insightful read until you bashed the president. It was not necessary at all, whether it’s Trump, Obama, etc.

    1. Thanks for your feedback. I felt like it was relevant to the moment and my experience there, plus, I’m definitely not a fan of 45.

      1. Although I agree with Jack’s statement, at least we have the freedom of these opinions. Anyhow, this was a late read and I enjoyed your perspective and insight as well. Not sure if you have done other write-ups of places you have visited but if so I’d love to know where to find them. The best part of going to other countries or even other states for that matter is observing the locals and the culture. Anyhow great job Norbert!

        1. Thanks, Cameron! I’ve done some other pieces on the blog and other sites about other controversial countries like Brunei. And yes, I totally agree that observing and interacting with locals and their culture is a better way to learn and appreciate their country and way of life.

  13. This is a late read but an interesting one nonetheless, we know what North Korea stands for in the darker side, as mentioned by many in that context in comments above, but from a perspective of a curiousity I believe it would be worth the peek, not that we would see through the well choreographed locals into the reality but it actually help us realise and value our freedom and that there are places in this world where people don’t know what freedom means and definitely help us enlighten us to the idea that we shouldn’t be taking freedom for granted. Many countries and their citizenry in this worldhas obtained through countless sacrifices and struggles. It would always be a glaring reminder for the masses before we think of taking anything granted in our life.

    1. This is also a very late read. Thanks for sharing your feedback about your trip to North Korea. One thing that struck me (that I don’t think you mentioned specifically) was any fears you may have had concerning being detained by the North Korean authorities upon your exit, during the stay, or exit? Obviously, you didn’t feel that was a “likely” scenario or you never would’ve gone to North Korea with your tour group. However, I would suspect that “many” Americans” could be potentially “highly” stressed about any prospect (even if low) about being arrested while in the country? Perhaps, not likely, but still a chance based on a tourist accidentally doing something against their laws, etc.? Many of us in the US cannot help remembering the tragic events that took place with “Otto Warmbier,” the young American tourist, who was detained in North Korea and ultimately died due to all the trauma he faced after the arrest. So I can’t help thinking how much this entered your mind before you planned this trip? On the “curiosity” side of things, I can see how you were intrigued to visit this hermit kingdom – even though you were certainly very restricted by your tour group during your brief stay.

      1. That’s pretty much the reasoning behind my concerns when entering and leaving the country; the fear of being detained for no particular reason or for having done something unintentional that they could have deemed illegal or disrespectful. Otto Warmbier is the perfect personification of this fear.

        That fear did influence my planning and the way I prepared things before flying into NK. For example, this was the first trip where I didn’t carry my laptop to work, where I wiped my phone clean of most photos and unnecessary apps that I knew I wouldn’t use in NK, and where I even prepared an “emergency” pack and letter where my close family members could have access to my accounts and other personal info/docs should I find myself “trapped” there. Thankfully, everything went smooth and no one on the trip had any issues.

  14. This is also a very late read. Thanks for sharing your feedback about your trip to North Korea.

    One thing that struck me was any fears you may have had concerning being detained by the North Korean authorities upon your entry, during your stay, or upon leaving the country? Perhaps by accidentally doing something that the authorities took offense to?

    I supposed you weren’t too concerned or you would not have booked the tour. However, I would suspect that most Americans would be highly stressed about “any” prospect of being detained or arrested? Many of us cannot help remembering the tragic events that took place with “Otto Warmbier,” the young American tourist, who was arrested in North Korea in 2016 after allegedly removing a poster from his hotel in Pyongyang, and ultimately ending up dead from the trauma he experienced after his arrest. And he was certainly not the first American tourist to be detained in North Korea. It appears that simply being an American in North Korea can sometimes lead to big trouble. It makes me wonder why our government has ever allowed travel to North Korea while travel to Cuba was forbidden for so long?

    On a different level, I find Korean history very interesting. It’s tragic about how the peninsula was partitioned after the Korean War in the 1950’s. There’s so many “what ifs” if the Japanese had never occupied Korea during WWII and the “what if” the Korean War never happened, which ended in the partitioning of the peninsula. And fast forwarding over 65 years to the present, we have two entirely separate Korean counties. A North Korea sometimes known as the “basket case” that has placed all its resources in its military. And then a South Korea, sometimes known as the “economic miracle” with one of the most advanced economies in the world.

    Thanks again for sharing your experience with your trip to North Korea. I would also be interested in getting a personal perspective by making such a trip. But for safety reasons, I could not ever imagine going! If I were ever able to travel to Southeast Asia, South Korea is the closest country I could go.

    1. To follow up on your other comment, yes, NK has such a rich history that unfortunately has been clouded by their post-WWII dictatorship. As you asked yourself, what if the Korean War never happened, or if the split between north and south never happened either? For sure the story would be completely different, but no one will know if for the better or worse.

      The closest you could get to NK is by visiting the DMZ from the South Korean side. Even from there, you’ll learn a lot about the country.

  15. Very interesting read, thank you for sharing this! I feel I gained a better understand of North Korea thanks to your post… it’s easy to paint this picture in your head of what a country is like, especially one that is constantly referenced so negatively (& I know there’s good reason for that, but I appreciate seeing a different perspective). I find world travel and the exploration of culture fascinating, especially when it comes to less accessible counties such as North Korea. I too like to focus on individuals, their hearts, their experiences, struggles, joys, etc when I travel (& when I’m stationary of course), I think that’s the best way to truly understand any group of people. Not all the mumbo jumbo we’re constantly fed by the news/media… it happens everywhere you go to varying degrees. I would be a little scared to visit, and as others have said am not a huge fan of contributing to a regime such as in place in N Korea, however I wouldn’t rule out a visit once in my life… if it becomes an option again one day of course. I have to respectfully disagree with your theory about #45. While I know he did everything BUT unite us unfortunately, from a policy perspective I believe the end goal was most often focused on putting more power into the hands of the individual and less power into the hands of the government, a starch contrast to the policies of a country such as n Korea. That’s not to say he wasn’t a pompous, rude, and inconsiderate individual much of the time… but that’s all beside the point, just wanted to throw in some “food for thought” ! I know everyone forms their opinion based on their own life’s experiences. & that’s one thing we can appreciate as Americans… we get to choose how we feel about our “leaders” & criticize or praise as much as we’d like!
    Ok now I’m done haha. I look forward to reading about more of your journeys ! & I truly appreciate your open-minded view.

    1. Thank you so much, Bex! I agree with you about focusing on tthe people as individuals and their culture is a good way to get a better sense of a new destination we are experiencing for the first time. I prefer to form opinions about the country after going through those experiences than from the news we are being fed on a daily basis. As we know, biases can be created easily.

      I appreciate your comment and position about #45, and I respect it. As you gathered, I was never a fan of his, but I’m always oopen to other people’s opinions and stances. No one knows everything, so we can all learn something by applying some perspective to it.

  16. Thank you for posting your experience! I have always been curious about what travel would be like to North Korea. Now I have a glimpse into what it would be like to travel there.

  17. The town in the picture you took from the airplane is Unjeon (var. Unjon) – coordinates: 39.665839 N, 125.513134 E – North Pyongan Province. You were a north and east of town. Pretty neat.

  18. Look! Not a single negative comment. Perfectly curated propagada even Kim Jong-un would be proud of. What a powder puff piece of rubbish.

    1. Your statement is incorrect, but I’d be happy to exchange thoughts about our experiences and ideas the moment you return from your own trip to North Korea.

      1. I admire your sense of adventure, but North Korea is an awful choice. The risks are way too high for any American, or a Westerner in general. A silly poster cost Otto Warmbier his life, and in similar circumstances NK asks for exorbitant exchanges to return imprisoned tourists.

  19. I have a question for you since you mentioned laptops being scrutinized. I am hoping to go on a trip that encompasses China, NK, SK and Japan. In terms of electronics I want to bring my phone, tablet and camera. I am a prolific reader and have tons of free kindle books from various sites that offer them. By tons–over a 1000. I slog my way through them when I have nothing else to read. My question is–how closely do they look at books/magazines on the tablet? Most of the books I have downloaded are mysteries (like John Sandford, Preston/Child), cozy mysteries and syfy/paranormals. Occasionally one is very racy or contains a lot of swearing. Should I delete most of them (and I would of course delete all my social media and anything else that might get me jailed for life)? Do I need to delete games also (I play home decorating games, puzzle games and word games)? I want to be respectful to the culture, but also would like to read during downtimes or play a game that doesn’t need internet. Thanks for any insight!

    1. Hi Deborah – That sounds like a fun trip! Regarding the Kindle and NK, I don’t think they will go too in-depth during their search, but I highly recommend playing it safe. But, from what you mentioned, it sounds fine.

      Make sure no book mentions North Korea, no pornographic material, and ideally, no US iconography. I don’t think games should be an issue. I had a few games on my phone (make sure you don’t need internet to play them). I think they mostly want to ensure that you’re not bringing any disrespectful material or information that may “influence” locals, or taking out any imagery that “makes them look bad.”

      I highly recommend asking these questions to your tour guide before entering North Korea, as they are much more informed about the current regulations and censorship.

  20. If the Trump obsession was removed from this, it could be an incredible read. But came off more like a comic strip with the obsessive Trump derangement syndrome that lives rent free in the writers head making him sound like a triggered cult member

    1. Not an obsession, just an opinion that was relevant to my experience. But feel free to take it however you like.

  21. I was really enjoyng your article and it was a very interested read until you got political. That’s too bad.

  22. You are a foolish and ignorant person not only for going to North Korea, a country that’s leaders abuse and brainwash their people into hating the United States but for recommending others to go as well. You are a spoiled American visiting a country that’s people are suffering immensely. The tour takes you to the 1% of the country that you’re allowed to see for your stupid photo ops and blog. Shame on you for doing this and then raving about it. Trump was right in issuing the Travel ban. He wants to protect fools like you.

    1. I think that visiting or learning more about North Korea is the least ignorant thing you can do on that subject. As mentioned in the article, closing the culture gap by sharing experiences with tour guides and locals is essential to closing the gap between the United States and North Korea. Also, in the article, he mentioned how he also paid attention to trying to see the mundane everyday life of the people who live there. even if it’s the tiniest glimpse into the true lifestyle, it’s a glimpse nonetheless.

  23. This article is very insightful and changed my view on the country a lot. It’s a shame that (for the meantime) Americans aren’t allowed to tour North Korea as it’s been a big interest of mine for quite a while now. I’ve read articles and books and watched videos and documentaries but this is a unique perspective, thank you for sharing!

    I also just wanted to say good job for the video you made, it’s beautiful