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.
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 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).
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 to their rules, I just wanted to limit the chances of them finding anything unsuitable (I’m sure I must have a picture of an American flag somewhere in 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 was going to 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.
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!
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 what not.
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.
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.
“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 went on to explain 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!
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.
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.
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 to 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 not accurate. 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.
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.
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.
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).
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 in where locals actually bought their groceries, clothes, and household items. I guess this “capitalism” goes against their socialist/communist image.
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 vigilante 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.
The Mundane Matters Even More
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, 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 down play 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).
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 and 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.
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 completely 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 lack of a common language, but we had a good time.
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
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.
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 night gowns, 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.
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.
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, this current presidency is 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? Would Trump do something impulsive and stupid (like he usually does) to aggravate the situation even more?
Honestly, I didn’t feel insecure or afraid of being in North Korea or of the North Koreans. I felt more scared of Trump’s stupidity. Before leaving, I joked with my nephews that if he saw any news regarding North Korea and Trump, he had the task of tweeting Trump immediately, telling him that he has small hands, and ugly wig, or whatever that could keep him entertained and distracted from aggravating more serious situations. Thankfully it didn’t happen!
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 completely 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 only 10% of westerners traveling to North Korea, so while they might feel a slight economic pinch, they might not notice so much our absence.
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, they all treated us as if nothing foul was happening between both nations.
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.
She was standing at the top to 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. At 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.
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, is not a smart thing to do.
But, to finish this (already long) post, whether you believe in what North Korea stands for or not, I’d still recommend to visit it to see their 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. It is temporary, pending renewal, so fingers crossed that we will again have the freedom to visit it.