I’m back home after my trip to China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, AKA DPRK or North Korea if you prefer that. I’ve been completely offline for nine or so days, but was able to post updates to my Twitter account with text messages. If you want to keep a closer eye on my adventures in the future, feel free to follow me. Maybe you’re in for a few surprises.
But back to my Asian adventures. You might be expecting a long and detailed post about the trip and what we did, but I’m not going to write one1.
Due to the way trips to North Korea are organized and how everything works there, I’m actually running the risk of telling you something I shouldn’t tell and that will in turn fall back on our guides, who are, at the end of the day, responsible for whatever we did when inside of the DPRK. Not that we did anything that should turn out to be a problem, but sometimes it’s better not to kiss and tell, in this case because I don’t really know what might turn out to be a problem – what might seem like an irrelevant little thing to me might be a very important detail to others.
There’s probably a reason why it took a month to get my DPRK visa and I would be very surprised if some DPRK official is not checking up on public sources like this web site to see what we are writing after the trip. Yes, the things I’ve seen and the things I’ve read have made me somewhat paranoid concerning this.
What I can do, however, is to give you some basic information and advice on travelling in the DPRK. As for pictures, I’ll post some later if I found any good ones in my collection.
Let’s just continue on the subject of pictures. Inside the DPRK, you’re allowed to take pictures, but you have to be careful in terms of what you are taking pictures of and how you compose the shot. First of all, if you want to take pictures of local people or soldiers, be polite and ask them first. If they say “no”, respect that. In the capital Pyongyang, some locals won’t mind and some will even casually approach you to have their picture taken with you. But if you venture outside of the capital, be very careful when taking pictures so that you don’t capture any locals or soldiers in your frame. If you shooting digitally, you might be required to deleted the picture.
You’re allowed to take pictures of monuments, statues, paintings, posters and similar objects, but if they are of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, make sure you capture them from head to toe and don’t cut anything off in your shot as this is considered an insult. Also, try to keep the size of your zoom lens below 150mm as everyone there tends to become really suspicious if you take too many photos with anything larger.
Make sure you bring enough cash as credit cards are totally are useless inside of the DPRK – even though the beer is very, very cheap, you’ll use more money than you think. You’re not allowed to use the local currency, won, but it’s possible to pay with Chinese yuan, American dollars, and euro. You’ll get change, but not necessarily in the same currency as you used to pay with.
There is really not need to bring a cell phone as it won’t work inside the DPRK. And if it did work, that wouldn’t matter much, because it will be confiscated on the border anyway. Make sure that your guides help you out so that you get it back when you leave the country. The same goes for any GPS equipment. You are, however, allowed to bring laptops, MP3 players and similar gadgets.
Bring some small gifts with you. Most North Korean men smoke, the women are grateful for some makeup, everyone enjoys chocolate and the kids are crazy about pens and stuff like that.
During your stay you will be accompanied by two English speaking guides and a driver whose English is most likely limited to “hello”. It’s important that you respect your guides and what they tell you to do or – more importantly – not to do. This will make sure your stay will be a good one, and a happy guide that trusts you is a friendly guide.
Despite of – or maybe because of – all these things, I’m highly recommending a trip to the DPRK. It’s a very different place, and a trip you will without doubt remember for the rest of your life. It’ll also be the safest trip you’ll ever take. I really don’t think Pyongyang has a bad neighbourhood, but if it has, you’ll never, ever accidentally walk into it. If you plan to go alone; don’t. Instead, convince some friends to join you or find some adventures people on the interweb that want to go with you. We met a few people travelling alone, and it really didn’t look like they had any fun with their guides and the driver. We were eight travellers and that turned out to be a more or less perfect size.
I would also recommend that you read up on North Korean history before you go as everything you see and hear will make a lot more sense than it will do if you have no prior knowledge about the country and its past.
If you want to go to the DPRK, you have to arrange everything with the help of a travel agency that is approved by DPRK officials. We used Korea Konsult, a Swedish travel agency. Very helpful and professional people.
So, off you go.