The most reclusive nation on the face of the Earth, North Korea is an enigma wrapped in a riddle and shrouded by mystery. With the intensely secretive military regime shutting out practically all communication with the outside world, and enforcing it with its armed might and a secret police force that would make Stalin blush, North Korea is a country frozen in time, dating back to when the Korean conflict was halted in a stalemate back in 1953.
Officially, one does not simply walk into Mordo … I mean, North Korea, but through official channels, using approved tour companies based in Beijing. After going through an intensive vetting process (which may include a telephone interview with the closest North Korean embassy to you), you will be issued your North Korean tourist visa through the tour agency you are working through. No journalists are permitted, and a recent arrest of an elderly American man due to his past service in the military during the Korean war should give you pause if you have any affiliation with any nation’s armed forces, whether they participated in the Korean War or not.
Also, be mindful of your actions and words here, because people ARE minding you. You may be asked to delete photos that show the regime in a bad light, and you are expected to comply. You must do so if prompted to, as anything remotely critical of the Kim regime could result in your indefinite detention in North Korea, as it did with an American tourist last year, who was recently sentenced to fifteen years hard labour for critical comments that he allegedly made concerning the government. Those prepared to do nothing but shower unadulterated praise on the government of the DPRK and be polite at every turn will likely experience no problems, though it is worth noting at this writing that the Canadian and American authorities are currently warning against ALL travel to North Korea, in relation to the two cases mentioned just previously.
With this in mind, prepare to experience one of the most peculiar nations existing on planet Earth at this point in human history!
Currency: North Korean Won
What To Do
Bearing in mind that everything you will likely see will be pre-arranged by your government escorts, here are some of the sights you probably will get a chance to experience during your time in North Korea. The city of Pyongyang by itself is a unique tourist attraction, given its Soviet-influenced and ego-driven architecture (with respect to the ruling regime). Dominating features in Pyongyang’s skyline include the Ryugyong Hotel, towering over the rest of the city at 330 metres high. The tower had been a laughingstock for the international community when the money to construct the skyscraper ran out in 1992, but construction resumed in 2008, with completion anticipated relatively soon.
The bronze monument to the Dear Leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, and his son Kim Jong Il at Mansudae will also likely be on your itinerary. Here, stand in awe of the two luminous former rulers as you cower in the shadow of their 20 metre high stature. Close by, your guides will also take you to the 170 metre tall Juche Tower, where a commanding view of the capital city can be had at the top of the structure.
If you can, plan your visit for the time when the Arirang Mass Games are being held, usually between August and October. Your minders will almost certainly implore you to attend, as it is truly a mind-bending display of artistic choreography that needs to be seen to be believed. Over 100,000 performers create murals of art through placards, movements and gymnastic acts, making it one of the most breathtaking spectacles on the planet.
When the time comes to depart the capital, you will be brought to the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Besides getting the North Korean version of events during and after the war, you will also have a chance to see the Panmomjum peace village, where the world’s third largest flag pole is located.
What To Eat
North Korean cuisine is quite similar to the foods enjoyed in the South, with some minor regional differences. In North Korea, there is a great amount of love for Naengmyeon, which is a buckwheat noodle dish served with cold boiled beef, sliced cooked egg, sweet potato, often on a bed of ice.
Onban is a soup that is also popular in North Korea, consisting of hot beef or chicken broth, rice, mushrooms and glass potato noodles. Perfect for the long cold winters up North, it has become a cherished favourite among many in this country.
Finally, special occasions call for a spread of Pansanggi, which is a smorgasbord of North Korean dishes served in little brass bowls, contained various takes on fish, vegetables, kimchi, rice, etc. The tradition started in the olden days of the Joseon Dynasty, but remains a key favourite among North Koreans celebrating a special event.