32 astonishing things you never knew about North Korea
Going on holiday to North Korea
North Korea is one of the most widely spoken about, secretive countries on Earth – but that doesn't mean it’s impossible to visit. We spoke to a handful of intrepid travellers who have made the trip to find out what it's really like to travel to North Korea.
You’ll need to book onto a tour
If you wish to visit North Korea, the best way to travel is through an organised tour company. Though it’s possible to go without one, you’ll still need to be accompanied by a pair of guides, so a fully independent trip is impossible. Hilary Bradt, founder of Bradt travel guides, also tells The Rough Guide to Everywhere podcast that a guided tour is the most cost effective option.
It’s easier to get a visa than you might think
Given the mystery shrouding North Korea, you might assume obtaining a visa would be near impossible – but, in fact, that’s generally not the case. “Contrary to popular belief, the process of obtaining tourist visas for North Korea is actually very simple,” Dylan Harris of tour company Lupine Travel tells The Telegraph. “The only requirement is that you are booked on a pre-planned tour with two North Korean guides for company.”
You may need to leave your phone at the airport
You should be careful when taking photographs
While taking photos is not wholly forbidden in North Korea, you should exercise caution. Your guides will tell you when you can get your camera out, and it’s wise to heed their instructions. Bradt tells Rough Guides how her tour group was reprimanded for getting snap happy: “Our English leader said: ‘it has been reported that some of you were taking photos. Any citizen can report a tourist taking photos. I will ask you now to delete those photos from your camera.’”
There are statues of North Korea’s leaders everywhere
You’ll never be too far from a statue depicting a North Korean leader – in fact, there are upwards of 30,000 statues of the late Kim Il-sung alone. As a visitor, you’re expected to bow to the statues as the locals do. Bradt tells Rough Guides that she did this 22 times during her trip: “It wasn’t just the statues, it was a mosaic, it was any depiction of them. We would buy flowers and take it in turns to put the flowers on the steps.”
There’s a huge festival dedicated to art and gymnastics
The Arirang Mass Games are a big deal here. Once an annual event, the games are an extravagant show of patriotism, involving thousands of performers and participants. They have been met with condemnation from around the world due to their exorbitant celebration of the North Korean regime, and were halted for unknown reasons in 2013. But the Mass Games are rumoured to be returning in 2018. The May Day stadium – the largest in the world – has been the historic home of the event.
Pyongyang has a surprising microbrewery scene
Pyongyang might not be the first place you expect to find great beer culture – but the city hasn’t escaped the global obsession with the craft brew. The top three breweries are Taedonggang National Brewery, Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery and The Paradise Microbrewery. Advertising worker Josh Thomas, who visited all three in 2013, told Wired: “The North Koreans are incredibly clever at making do with very little, and they honestly are able to make more interesting beers than most other countries."
There are several large theme parks
The country also boasts a handful of large theme parks, most of which are clustered around the capital. They do, however, come with mixed reviews. The Washington Post describes Munsu Water Park, completed in 2013, as “the creepiest water park you’ve ever seen,” while Vice says Mangyongdae Funfair (pictured) is “the world’s most depressing quasi-theme park”. But theme-park lover Stefan Zwanzger, who visited in 2010, told CNN: "There's no other occasion that you can get so close to locals."
North Korea’s metro stations rival Russia’s
Russia’s metro stations are world famous for their gilded ceilings and glistening chandeliers. But visitors may be surprised to find equal beauty in the designs of Pyongyang’s subway stations. Photographer Elaine Li, who visited in 2017, told CNN: “The stations are very dimly lit and the interiors are very fancy. You see chandeliers on the ceilings, marble pillars and paintings of Kim Jong Il.”
Cannabis is legal
US states such as Colorado and Nevada hit the headlines when they legalised recreational marijuana use – but, reportedly, weed has long been permitted in North Korea. According to The Telegraph, restricting its use is not a government priority. Sokeel Park, a director of non-profit organisation Liberty in North Korea told the publication: “Cannabis grows wildly in North Korea and has even been sold abroad by government agencies as a way to earn foreign currency.”
Tourists get special treatment
Denis Sharpe visited North Korea in 2017 and found that special treatment was given to tourists: “It's a very authoritarian state, however tourists get a reasonable amount of leeway in terms of what you can do and some 'preferential' treatment inevitably takes place. But you are still expected to show respect to various monuments and images of leaders whenever it was deemed necessary.”
They have modern technology
Sharpe says he was also surprised by the amount of technology and consumer goods you can find in the country. "There is actually a department store full of consumer goods that you would find in a market-led economy. As I was there for New Year, we were taken to Kim Il Sung Square, where there was a fireworks display at midnight – many North Koreans were filming on mobile phones."
They have pizza and fried chicken
Though traditional Korean food is, of course, ubiquitous, you can find fast-food treats such as pizza and fried chicken too. Sharpe says: "We had kimchi, hot pot and even one serving of dog soup. But the new regime has made efforts to offer more cosmopolitan cuisines in Pyongyang too. We had a pizza on the tour bus one day (complete with Pizza Hut packaging).”
Propaganda is everywhere
Sharpe also noticed a large amount of propaganda across the country, particularly in relation to the Korean War. "It’s often best to nod along in agreement and not challenge the information presented to you – who knows what would happen if you disagreed too vehemently?" he says.
It's actually fairly safe if you play by the rules
Tom McShane, operations director of adventure travel company Secret Compass, went to North Korea in 2016. According to McShane, the country is generally very safe for tourists and the guides you'll meet are charming and hospitable. "There is practically zero crime, and we were briefed by the guides about the rules," he says. "We were aware of the implications if you flout those rules, such as what happened to Otto Wambier – but as long as you are sensible, it is all mostly common sense."
It's a beautiful country
McShane found himself bowled over by the sheer beauty of North Korea's landscapes. "The mountains were incredible, and as we were trekking in autumn all of the trees displayed amazing colours of reds and orange," he remembers.
There are plans to build a major beach resort
Those who make it to North Korea often speak of the country’s natural beauty – and its sandy beaches are no exception. But strands such as Wonsan have often been used as sites for controversial missile testing – now, though, Reuters report that Kim Jong-un’s government plan to open a large beach resort here, in a bid to attract tourists. The future result remains to be seen.
The food is surprisingly good
Despite previous misgivings, McShane describes the food as a highlight of his trip – he was pleasantly suprised by the quality of the dishes presented and the variety on offer. He says: "It was mostly Korean style, but we also had some North Korean specialities such as cold noodle soup, which is traditionally served at wedding banquets. We visited a restaurant in Wonsan for lunch that served amazing fresh fish too."
The people are lovely
McShane was taken with the people of North Korea too. "Most of the people we saw were going about their normal lives, whether it was commuting in the cities, or working in the farms in the countryside," he says. "Most people we did engage with were obviously working in the service industry. Everyone was incredibly courteous, polite and well mannered. The guides were exceptional, with incredible English, senses of humour and knowledge."
The hotels are decent and varied
When it comes to accommodation, there's a decent amount of choice and many hotels have fantastic amenities. "We got to stay in a big tower based on an island in Pyongyang. It has a bowling alley and karaoke bar," McShane explains. "We also stayed in a guesthouse in Myohyangsan which felt a little Chinese in style, and we got to stay in a hotel at the new ski resort, which was of a very high standard."
There's an International Friendship Museum
Perhaps one of the most unique sights is the International Friendship Museum, which contains more than 10,000 gifts presented to North Korea's leaders. According to McShane: "There is a taxidermied crocodile from Nicaragua, a bulletproof car from Stalin, and a train from Chairman Mao, which is all situated deep within a mountain. It was truly bonkers!"
You can visit no man's land
Freelance travel writer Lucy Corne took a trip to North Korea in 2008 and got to see the demilitarized zone (DMZ) – a buffer zone between the neighbouring countries – from both the north and south sides. “It was very interesting to visit the demilitarized zone tour from the north as we had also done it from the south. We discovered that both sides feed propaganda: for example in the south they tell you there are no trees in the north and that the building at the DMZ is just a facade with nothing behind it, which is not actually true.”
Everything is big
Freelance journalist Tamara Hinson toured in 2011 and was taken aback by "the scale of everthing", from the monuments to the mountains to the sheer amount of people at Mass Games (an arts and gymnastics festival unique to North Korea).
You see a contrived version of the country
Beyond this, Hinson doubts that tourists see a full picture of the country. Meetings with locals are carefully orchestrated – Hinson visited co-op farms and a school during her stay – and tour groups are generally not allowed to leave their hotel once settled at night. "I found it weird thinking that often just out of sight there could be a prison camp: some are the size of entire counties and close to Pyongyang," Hinson says. "When you’re in a tour group you follow a very set route."
Government "minders" follow you everywhere
Hinson also describes how so-called "minders" accompany guests on tours – three such individuals accompanied Hinson's group. "The British leader of my group told me how years ago someone on one of his tours had been caught wearing glasses with a hidden camera, which is the most stupid thing to do," she reveals. "The North Korean guide was very upset because it all blew up. Everyone knew and word could have potentially got back that this had happened on her watch and she’d be punished."
You aren't just responsible for your own safety
Breaking rules can have consequences for those around you, as well as yourself. If you choose to disobey orders, it may be your guide who is punished. "Our British tour leader told us that sometimes he’ll come back to the country to do a tour and ask about a guide he’s been allocated on previous occasions, and has been told that he’s 'been sent to the countryside', which essentially means he’s been sent to a prison camp," Hinson says.
You can't ask too many questions
However curious you might be, it's best to avoid posing too many questions, Hinson says: "I asked our British guide where Kim Jong Il lived (I went just before he died) and he told me to be quiet. Many North Koreans view him as a demi-god who doesn't do normal things like use the toilet and live in a house."
There are some odd rules
Some of the many rules enforced may seem odd to visitors, and they can be difficult to get your head around. "Don’t fold anything with the Kims’ faces on the cover if the crease will go across the face. This applies to things like the copy of the Pyongyang Times you’re given on the flight over there," Hinson advises. "The minders also tell you off if you take a picture of a statue of the Kims which cuts off their feet or arms.”
Your money supports nefarious activities
Hinson explains that, since you'll travel on an inclusive tour, you'll not need much money while travelling in North Korea. But she purports that money you do spend could be put to problematic use. She claims: "North Korea desperately wants cash to fund dodgy smuggling and other enterprises, such as money laundering. Tourists give money to the regime by paying for the hotels, meals and more.”
There's a side to the country you'll never see
Many people underestimate the North Korean stories that remain hidden from view, Hinson believes. She reveals one she discovered after her trip: "I met Shin Dong-hyuk, a former prisoner who escaped a North Korean prison camp and is now a human rights activist. Shin is in his late forties, but was born in a prison camp. As a child, he was forced to watch his mother be executed for plotting an escape. I also read about other defectors’ stories."
There's no chance of dinner & a view
North Korea tour company manager Simon Cockerell has been to North Korea 159 times since 2002. Dining out, he says, is very much the domain of the wealthy in North Korea, but it's not about showing off: most restaurants have boarded up windows. “Some of the restaurants have incredible views, but nobody can see them,” he explains. “It’s pretty gross to be stuffing your face in the window of a restaurant in Pyongyang, so they don’t have outdoor seating either – it’s not considered a classy thing to do."
There's plenty of food for tourists
Due to past famine in North Korea, Cockerell explains, many tourists expect that there will not be enough food for everyone to eat. “I have been on tours when some people have brought vast amounts of food with them. If they were given nothing to eat on the trip they would still have had more than enough just from what was in their case.”