I’m the GM of Koryo Tours. The leading North Korea travel company. In this capacity I have been to the country 118 times thus far. Glad to answer any questions about what it’s like to visit North Korea.
Simon from Koryo Tours at the Mt. Myohyangsan Friendship Exhibition – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
I have pulled the best questions and answers from the session:
Please note that the grammar and punctuation reflect the nature of the real time Q&A format.
Do you know why Americans (and only Americans) are not allowed to leave the country by train? (Assuming that rule is still in force.)
That rule is still in force and honestly I have no idea why. After all many Americans have a second passport and can just use that for travel. When you travel in or out by train you don’t see anything particularly sensitive anyway. I would expect this rule to change before long (but I have been expecting that for some time!).
What would you say is the oddest custom they have?
Finding something odd is subjective of course. A lot of the traditional rituals that Korea has would be perfectly familiar to people in South Korea but very alien to anyone who hadn’t been to either place (or to East Asia). Surely though the most quintessentially North Korean rituals are mass rallies. While we don’t attend these you do see them happening n the TV and while passing by. These are often not even broadcast very extensively as they happen so frequently. These are a part of life for everyone in North Korea but something that most people outside of the country have never taken part in. I’d distinguish between these and political rallies in western countries as the latter are of course voluntary. North Koreans don’t really choose whether to attend their rallies or not
Have any of your clients gotten themselves in trouble while visiting?
No, the people we take in are well prepared and know the rules, regulations, etc. Nobody wants to get in trouble in North Korea, no to get anyone else in trouble there so people do tend to be fairly well behaved.
What are some precautionary measures that you or your company would advise tourists to take before visiting (ie don’t wear THIS, don’t bring a camera HERE). Is there a particular season or time of year that you find a big spike in the number of tourists visiting? And sub question: what is the place like ‘off-season’?
Low season is winter; its very cold and the days are short. In fact tourists are not permitted to go there between Dec 15 – Jan 15 usually. High season is when there are a run of national holidays and big events. For the Mass Games which takes place every year recently between Aug – Oct the largest numbers of tourists visit. Many Chinese go at this time too so there are times when it seems the place is overrun with foreign visitors. in terms of what can be taken into the country it was always mobile phones that were not allowed. This has now changed and you can take them in, you need to buy a local SIM (50 EUR) though and the cost of international calls is very very high. But it is possible to take in overseas phones now. Cameras etc are fine too, there is a rule against lenses over 150mm but it has been years since I’ve seen that enforced. Computers are fine but there is no internet available for tourists. While the locals dress conservatively it is fine for tourists to dress as they like, but at the most significant places such as the Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il it is expected that tourists will make a bit of an effort – long trousers, no flip-flops, shirt, that kind of thing. Also visitors are advised not to give anything to locals which could be compromising for them – religious texts, western CDs, that kind of thing (although they can be taken into the country). As is well known this can cause some problems for people who aren’t supposed to have such things.
Have you noticed any major changes in the country since Kim Jong Il died? Do you think the country will ever open up to the outside world without foreign intervention?
I haven’t noticed any major changes since Ki Jong Il died. Some surface changes are clearly visible (obvious stuff like more statues of Kim Jong Il, that kind of thing) and more mobile phones in the general population, more building work going on (almost all in Pyongyang), but this may well have happened regardless of his death. So we wait with hope of more substantive change that has been widely predicted, but thus far not materialized. As for opening up the country I honestly don’t know. People there deserve better lives, even the people with relatively comfortable lives, but how and when it will happen is beyond my knowledge. A lot has been predicted by various experts but it remains unclear. We live in hope though, fingers crossed for substantive and beneficial change before too long.
You mentioned people are interested in the outside world. How much do you tell them? What are their responses?
As the people we deal with are adults I feel that if they ask a question they should get an honest reply. People don’t really ask if other countries are better than theirs though, they usually ask about what kind of houses people live in, what jobs people have. What films are popular, what people abroad think of North Korea? I’m of the opinion that answering honestly is best, they wouldn’t ask if they didn’t want to know after all!
Do you think the North Koreans actually believe all the propaganda their government produces, or do they realize that the government is their enemy?
I would say that by and large most people take most news they are given at face value. There is only one official news source and this is not a new system, the vast vast majority of people there have never known anything else. However people talk to ach other, and a fair number of North Koreans have been abroad (mostly to China) and know certain things that run counter to some things they are told. So its a combination. Much of the propaganda people are told is about how Koreans are best (rather than that they have more stuff I mean) and this is a powerful message for people wanting something to make them feel better about their situation. Being able to even slightly credibly blame the outside world (usually it is the US) for their predicament makes people feel that they are toughing life out all-in-this-together a kind of blitz spirit. This is outlined very well in this book
by the way.
I caught the tail end of a show on NPR regarding the environment in NK. I recall that one of the things the guest noticed was the absence of small animals (squirrels, birds, etc). I think they were making the possible connection between that and food shortages, but since I missed most of the show, I could be wrong. Have you noticed anything similar?
Hard to be sure to be honest. You don’t see that many birds around although you do see them. Squirrels and other wildlife too. It may well be that they have been caught, etc I couldn’t say for sure. This would be more likely in the worst-hit areas of the country, the places with the biggest problems due to lack of food, however these places tourists can’t go to so I can’t say for sure
Thank you for doing this AMA as well as producing documentaries. When asked, I always suggest that everyone watch State of Mind. I’ve been saving up to do one of your tours for about 3 years now but I’ve been struggling with my curiosity to see it first hand, but also my morale outrage that I’d be lining the pockets of “The Kims”. If I took one of your tours, can you please tell the break-down of where my money would go? Again, I’m extremely interested in experiencing N. Korea first hand, but the thought that I’d be helping the State say, buy more weapons to “guard” and oppress more people in Yodok keeps me up at night.
Thanks for the comment. I answered this a bit in another reply but its a valid concern and a common one. We believe that engagement and humanization is a valid thing to be involved in, we also try to direct those interested in humanitarian issues to the right organizations and have a handful of small projects that we fund ourselves. As for the breakdown of where payment goes to explain this would require me to know the exact source cost of everything to be able to work out profit levels from things such as plane tickets, hotel bills, etc to be able to work out what tax is paid to the state by the organizations that we pay for goods and services. Sorry but I simply don’t know these numbers. Apologies for this.
Does the VICE-documentary about North Korea give a good insight of what going to North Korea looks like? It’s on youtube if you have not heard of it.
The Vice guide is interesting for sure. It’s a wildly sensational piece though shot on what is a pretty normal tourist trip. Obviously the magic of editing/camera angles/editorial/etc can be used to make anything appear in any way but I would say it is worth watching with a slightly skeptical eye. It’s entertaining though obviously.
The Chollima Steelworks, a North Korean showcase heavy industry site located outside the west coast city of Nampo, was recently opened for tourism and we were among the lucky few to make a first visit.
Painting of the Chollima Steelworks – all photos on the post by Joseph A Ferris III
A historically important site, Kim II Sung and Kim Jong-il made many visits, the Chollima Steelworks is an impressive complex with wide boulevards, rail infrastructure, grand propaganda murals, and imposing buildings. Being amongst the first western visitors, instead of the ubiquitous local guide, we were greeted by a large group of officials and representatives of the steelworks who shuttled around the complex in large black luxury sedans. Of course they showed us the local museum dedicated to the visits and on the spot guidance of Kim Il sung and Kim Jong-il, but the highlight of our tour was our access into the steelworks itself with a close up inspection of a functioning electric arc furnace on the production floor.
This visit to the Chollima Steelworks was part of the new Heavy Metal Tour add-on package offered by Koryo Tours. Also included in this tour was our visits to the Nampo glass factory and the Hamhung fertilizer plant. We had unrestricted photography access to each site, other groups had their visits restricted to a bus ride through the parking lot with no photos allowed. These groups had shadowed us at times and were continuously in trouble with their guides for breaking photography regulations – for the best access it pays to follow the rules set by your guide!
Entrance to Chollima Steelworks.
Our guide Ms Han and the local guide in front the Chollima Steelwork’s Kim II Sung mosaic.
Chollima Steelworks representative.
Chollima Steelworks representative and worker.
As we did not venture too far onto the factory floor hard hats and safety gear were not provided for us. On close inspection you can see only about 50% of the workers have hard hats on.
Chollima Steelworks production floor.
Chollima Steelworks production floor.
Close up of the electric arc furnace.
Electric arc furnace in wide angle.
Chollima Steelworks production floor in wide angle.
Propaganda on the production floor.
Entrance to Chollima Steelworks.
Entrance to Chollima Steelworks.
Entrance to Chollima Steelworks.
Achievement banners at the steelwork’s museum.
North Korean guide Ms Han and a Chollima Steelworks painting.
2011 Arirang Mass Games – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
From my contacts at Koryo Tours: Word from our sources in Pyongyang is that the Arirang Mass Games of 2012 will be the last – so we suggest you sign up now to ensure that you can see this remarkable event while it is still running.
While mass games have been performed since the 1940s in the DPRK the Arirang show is the largest and most impressive they have ever produced. Born in 2002, since 2007 it has been an annual event, but 2012 will be Arirang’s 10th anniversary, and it seems the powers that be have decided to close the curtain. As for the reason, our Korean partners suggest that the narrative needs to change with the times. Combining dance, gymnastics, propaganda, politics, music, and even unicycling, this spectacular performance chronicles the struggles of the Korean people suffering under Japanese occupation, moving into the independent era and building a modern country – basically the period linked to the first 100 years since the birth of North Korea’s Eternal President Kim Il Sung.
However, since 2013 marks the 65th anniversary of the foundation of the republic (Sept 9th) as well as the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War (July 27th), organizers are reportedly planning a whole new performance for next year.
So if you haven’t seen Arirang yet, or if you want to see it one last time, this is your chance. Don’t miss out on the biggest performance in the world – an event that makes any Olympic opening ceremony look like a school play! Staged at the massive May Day stadium in Pyongyang, Arirang is running from August 1st to September 9th, 2012, but as with the last few years we do expect an extension, perhaps as far as the middle of October (usually it finally ends around Oct 17th).
Don’t miss the Arirang Mass Games! Tell us a little about yourself, and I will hook you up with a great DPRK travel deal for visiting!
2011 Arirang Mass Games – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
From my contacts at Koryo Tours: We have just been informed that North Korea’s spectacular Arirang Mass Games will be taking place once again this year. The officially confirmed dates so far are from August 1st – September 9th (Sept 9th is DPRK’s National Day, a major holiday in North Korea) but we do expect the dates to be extended as it is normal for the initial confirmed run of the Mass Games to be this long, the event often finishes as late as mid-October, we will of course keep you updated!
If you’ve ever wanted to see 100,000 performers in a 90 minute spectacular combination of gymnastics, propaganda, dance, music, and of course unicycling all with the backdrop of the world’s largest screen – one made up of 20,000 schoolchildren flipping coloured cards to create an ever-shifting display unrivaled anywhere else in the world – then this is the event for you. Truly unforgettable and awe-inspiring, book now for something that will not be easily forgotten!
All tours that take place in this period can see the Mass Games, the event takes place in the evening and so is easily fitted to any tour schedule. The Mass games will run 5 times a week (on Mon, Wed, Thurs, Fri, Sat) so plenty of opportunities for you to attend, you can even go more than once on a tour if you so desire!
Going to North Korea? Below are some hints and advise on what to bring:
Camera equipment – photography enthusiasts should bring the best equipment they can get their hands on, along with extra batteries, and plenty of extra flash card memory. Official rules state that 200mm is the maximum size lens allowed, but Koryo Tours says you can bring anything in as long as it does not scream that you are a professional. I brought in a 300mm lens with no problem. What is a problem is if your camera has GPS hardware. Get an eraser and try to scrub the GPS label off, if found North Korean customs officials will hold your camera at the airport. I brought about 80 gigs in flash card memory and actually ran out of space by the end of the trip – I shoot in RAW and my camera shoots at 12 shot per second, I had a LOT of pics!
A flashlight – outside Pyongyang there is no guarantee your hotel will have power at night.
Laptop – this is allowed but do you really need one there?
Ipad and/or Ipod – Allowed! Load them up with games and foreign movies and let your guides play with them. Our guides went absolutely bonkers for our hand held Apple products, confiscating them to watch Dumb and Dumber and to play games.
Cellphone/Iphone – no foreign cell phones are allowed in North Korea. You can bring your cell phone but it WILL be collected, held for you, and given back on your departure.
Kindle – not sure about this, I didn’t bring mine. I brought a single paperback but was so busy I never cracked it. But if you do bring reading material obviously do not bring books that are critical of the North Korean government, read those before you come.
Books – see above.
Dress code – its very hot and muggy in North Korea in the summer, and while I wanted to dress smart in slacks, I gave up on it and fell back to wearing my shorts. At our Koryo Tours orientation meeting in Beijing we were told that “North Koreans already think foreigners are strange, so might as well play it up and be comfortable in your shorts”. You will need at least one set of dress cloths, including a tie for men, for the visit to the mausoleum to pay respects to Kim ll-sung.
Alcohol – North Korean beer is cheep and readily available but bring a bottle of wine or your favorite spirit if you so desire.
Gifts for children – you will not be able to give gifts directly to children.
Gifts for the guides – it is recommended you bring gifts for the guides. Beijing airport has a large duty free section and is a good place to stock up on a nice bottle of whiskey and a couple cartons of cigarettes. North Koreans like their cigarettes strong, full strength Camels or Marlboro Reds would be a good choice. A nice selection of makeup or skin creams would make a good gift for the female guides. Quality over quantity is suggested.
Coffee – bring your own supply of instant packages.
Up until the end of 2011 the closest a western tourist could get to North Korean heavy industry was to view the models and displays at the Three Revolutionary Ideas Exhibition. But for those interested, it has just been announced that a new option for tourists in 2012 will be tours of the Chollima Steelworks in Nampo on North Korea’s west coast, with additional stops at machine shop and glass works factories in the area. I plan to put this tour option into my 2012 trip – perhaps I will see you there!
Models of North Korean heavy industry on display at the Three Revolutionary Ideas Exhibition
A North Korea tourism podcast by Korean Kontext
Ever wondered why someone might be motivated to spend their summer vacation in the DPRK, or interested to learn about the guides that accompany visitors during a stay in North Korea? Perhaps you’d like to know more about the legalities of visiting Mount Kumgang, a resort originally developed by South Korea’s Hyundai Asan, expropriated by DPRK authorities earlier this year. If so, then this special-length podcast is definitely for you!
Young children wave hello from North Korea – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
Do any of posts and pictures make you want to plan your own trip to North Korea? Its not for everybody, but its a strange and unique travel and cultural experience unlike any other in the world. Get there now before it changes – it could open further or could suddenly close, who knows. Setting up a trip to the DPRK is actually quite easy, you will need a double entry Chinese visa and to get yourself to Beijing to make the orientation brief, from there my friends at Koryo Tours will do all the rest – make sure to ask for Hannah!
There is some fine print involved: Professional journalists and photographers will need to sign an agreement to not publish unauthorized news stories about the DPRK – posting to Flickr, Facebook, and to blogs by normal people is fine as long as they don’t go overboard with criticism. Americans can easily arrange a tour to North Kora at all times of the year but we are restricted to a stay of just 7days/6nights, and while other nationalities normally fly in and depart by train, we are required to fly both in and out.
The lovely Jr. guide Ms Kim would love to show you her country.
Planning a trip to North Korea? Your girlfriend will cry, your friends will ridicule you, your family will look up Bill Clinton’s number so they can spring you out of jail, and just about everyone else will think you are joking. I have been to over 80 countries but getting my family to accept the idea that I was truly going to the DPRK was a tough sell. By sharing the Koryo Tours website with my family I was finally able to convince my Dad to help arrange the money transfer to China to pay for the trip, and while everyone else had gross misconceptions of what the North Korean travel experience would be, everything turned out to go more or less as I expected – in general it was more of a blast than I ever thought it would be! The one wild card that neither my travel buddy Jordon Harbinger or myself were sure about was what our North Korean guides would be like. A few documentaries out there (while entertaining the Vice Guide to North Korea is bullshit) portray the North Korean guides as iron fisted minders, strait from the secret police academy, and ready to deport you on your first infraction of the rules. The truth is a little less severe – you wont get deported until your 3rd rule infraction!
Our guides truly were wonderful people. In North Korea, working as a guide for foreign tourists is an enviable job – good food, travel, foreign gifts, and regular access to hard currency, but with all this comes the risk of managing groups of unpredictable foreigners. As a foreign tourist you really cant get into too much trouble, but the trouble you make can get your guides into a lot of trouble. When they tell you not to take photos – don’t take photos. When you break the rules you put your guides at risk. There is a bit of trust to be developed at the start of the tour, be a good tourist, do what you are asked, and show a little respect (you are not expected to believe but just to be respectful to their official viewpoint) and by the end of the week everyone will be having a great time!
She doesn’t look that scary – our guide and minder in DPRK, North Korea, Ms. Yu.
Ms. Yu and myself hamming it up for the camera.
Our guide and minder in DPRK, North Korea, Ms. Yu wearing my bunny hat.
Miss Yu with sun umbrella.