Archive | October, 2011
October 31, 2011

Driving through Kaesong, North Korea

I’ve finally finished uploading the last of my North Korea footage to YouTube. Why has it taken me over two years? No idea. Pure laziness, I suppose. Anyway, here is the footage of our drive through Kaesong, the southernmost city in North Korea. And yes, our bus driver really, really liked using the horn.

October 24, 2011

FAQ: I want to visit North Korea. How do I go there without being arrested?

Since returning from a trip to North Korea (DPRK) in September 2009, I’ve received a substantial amount of e-mail from people who are interested in traveling there themselves. Since many of the questions posed by these travelers are quite similar, and this information might be useful to those planning a trip, I’m putting together a FAQ similar to the one I prepared for visiting Chernobyl. Of course, if you have questions about traveling to North Korea and it is not answered below, shoot me an e-mail and I will do my best to answer it in a timely fashion.

(Note that this FAQ only applies to tours legally sanctioned by the North Korean government. If you illegally cross the border into North Korea, you are in for a world of hurt.)

How did you get into North Korea?
Visiting North Korea isn’t like traveling to most destinations; you can’t simply book a flight and hotel on Expedia and arrive in Pyongyang. Instead, you have to book a guided tour. The company you book with will arrange your visa, flight (or train) from China to the DPRK, hotel, meals, itinerary, and guides. I went with Koryo Tours, a British-owned, Beijing-based tour company that has organized tours to North Korea since 1993. Price-wise, I think they are a bit more expensive than some of the other companies that are based in Beijing, but when it comes to North Korea, Koryo Tours is the leader – they’ve been there longer than any other tour company and have developed an excellent relationship with the Korea International Travel Company (the DPRK’s state-owned travel company that is responsible for tourism operations in North Korea), thereby gaining exclusive access to certain locations and events. There are several other tour companies that lead groups to North Korea, such as Young Pioneers, but since I haven’t been on one of their tours, I can’t comment on their quality. I will say, though, that I was very pleased with Koryo’s operations. Their pre-tour briefing, which occurs in Beijing the day prior to leaving for Pyongyang, is excellent and thorough, covering everything from photography restrictions to proper etiquette while in the DPRK. I would not hesitate to go with them again.

How much was the tour?
North Korea was definitely the most expensive trip I have been on so far. You cannot do the usual cost-cutting that you are able to do in other destinations, such as staying in a hostel or preparing some meals yourself. I went on the standard 4 night/5 day tour, which at that time cost €1590 (plus a single supplement of €160, which is optional). So, for just the tour, the cost was $2,443. This covers your roundtrip flight Beijing to Pyongyang, hotel, meals, transportation, and guides. Note that this does not include tips for your guides, tickets to the Arirang Festival Mass Games and other incidentals (i.e., rides if you visit the amusement park or if your purchase flowers for the Mansudae monument to Kim Il-Sung). Of course, you’ll also acquire expenses in Beijing. First, you’ll need a double entry visa for China (cost $130 in 2009), a roundtrip flight to Beijing from the US (or Europe, if that is where you live) and several nights at a hotel/hostel, depending on how much time you will spend in Beijing prior to and after your tour of North Korea. A travel insurance policy is also required, and I purchased mine from Travel Guard for $150. Thankfully, I was able to book my flight to Beijing using frequent flyer miles so avoided that expense. If I didn’t have adequate miles, the flight from Washington, DC to Beijing would have cost $1200 – $1400. Overall, the trip cost me $4,200. This amount includes the DPRK tour, four hotel nights in China, Chinese visa, any spending in country, pre-tour medical expenses, travel insurance and, well, basically any spending associated with the trip.

How were you able to obtain a visa? I do know it is very hard for an American to get one.
Koryo Tours took care of all the visa paperwork. It was actually quite easy on my end, as I just had to send them a copy of my passport and photo.

Did you go to the DPRK alone, or with friend(s)/relative(s)?
I went alone. I have a lot of friends who are hardcore travelers, but even they thought I was crazy for going to North Korea, especially in 2009, when North Korea-U.S. relations were at a low point due to the detention of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee and the DPRK’s conducting of several missile tests. I just couldn’t convince anyone to come along! It wasn’t a big deal, though, because you meet some great people on your tour group.

My tour group

How many people were in your tour group and how many days did your tour last?
When I went, there were 16 people in my group and we were there for 5 days (at the time that was the maximum number of days that Americans could be in the country).

How safe/unsafe did you feel the Air Koryo flight(s) were? As you know, they don’t have a great safety record, but then again, they don’t have a record of many incidents/fatalities. It seems most of the tours use the Air Koryo flights from Beijing to Pyongyang as the entry/exit point for their tours. I am interested in flying Air Koryo as part of the experience, but not so excited about the idea of flying on an airline that is banned in the EU.
As far as Air Koryo, I thought it was fine. They have had a few incidents, but there hasn’t been anything big. The planes are old (I felt like I was in the 1970s) but they run fine…then again, I am not a pilot 😉 But the Koryo Tours guys don’t seem bothered by them at all, and they have flown on Air Koryo hundreds of times. So yeah, no big deal. It’s actually quite an interesting experience flying on Air Koryo, especially when they flight attendant starts praising Kim Jong-Il before takeoff!

So when you arrived to the airport, did the KPA soldiers asked you many questions when they checked your passport? Did they speak English well?
When we arrived in Pyongyang, the officers did not ask us any questions. Since we were with a group, they spoke to our tour guides, and then just glanced at our passports. I am not sure if they spoke any English.

Did you take a laptop with you?
I did not take my laptop (I don’t usually travel with one) but I have heard that it is no problem if you do. Also, the customs officers did not check any of our belongings when we left the country. I think these procedures vary depending on what border crossing you are at, and which officers are manning the post.

Yanggakdo Hotel

Did you try to “walk around”? I know they do not allow to make a step without a guide. What I want to do while there is ask the guide to accompany me and to walk at least around the island where Yanggakdo Hotel is located.
I did not try to walk around, but I think if your guide is one of the nicer ones, they would be willing to accompany you – it is just really dependent on their personalities. We were told that you could walk (or jog, if so inclined) by yourself, though, as long as you stayed on the island where the hotel is located and did not attempt to cross the bridge into the city. Honestly, the itinerary is so jam-packed, though, that you have very little time to walk around by yourself. After a long day of touring, everyone usually retreated to the bar or their hotel rooms.

How did the citizens react seeing Americans? Did they give you mean or strange looks?
I think sometimes the citizens were a bit surprised to see us, but I never felt any animosity. I think they were just really curious as to why we were there.

Does the U.S. Government allows Americans to visit North Korea?
The US Government has not placed any restrictions on Americans traveling to North Korea. It is not like travel to Cuba, which you can be fined for. I had no problems from U.S. Customs when I re-entered the US. The officer didn’t ask me any questions whatsoever, just stamped my passport and sent me on my way.

How did you feel on the tour as an American citizen? Did you feel threatened or unsafe at any time? If I read correctly you went on a tour with all U.S. citizens and I think things may be different now since U.S. citizens can go any time of year, but I’m still curious as to how you felt you were treated by the guides/authorities as an American tourist in the DPRK.
I felt safe there. In fact, I felt much safer in North Korea than I did in, say, Egypt, where my friend and I had to constantly deal with sketchy men following us. You are in a very controlled environment, so you will not encounter theft, random assault, etc. As long as you follow the rules (and Koryo Tours will cover all of this before you leave Beijing) and don’t insult Kim Jong-Il/say anything dumb/try to run across the DMZ you will be fine. We did not get any grief from our guides or other North Koreans due to us being American. There is the typical “American Imperialists invaded us, blah blah” propaganda, but that is directed towards the U.S. Government, not you personally. The guides and other North Koreans we met were all very pleasant and friendly, so don’t worry about that at all.

Did you have to get any vaccinations in order to travel to China or North Korea?
I got a tetanus booster, but that was it as far as shots went. My doctor also gave me a prescription for Cipro in case I got some nasty stomach bug, but thankfully I never had to use it.

In your opinion, was 5 days enough time in North Korea or would you have liked to stay longer if it had been possible? A lot of the tours seem to be 5 days/4 nights and while that seems good to me, I figure I’ll probably only end up going to the DPRK once, so I want to make sure I make the most of it and select the right tour!
I definitely would have stayed longer if I were allowed to, because then I wouldn’t be thinking about a second trip there! 😉 The five days feels like a lot when you are actually there…for whatever reason, I felt like I had been there for a month. But, I would have liked to see some other areas of the country as well (Mt. Paektu, for instance, or the port cities) just because I always like to see areas other than the capital city. A week and a half probably would have been sufficient.

What was your opinion on the Arirang mass games festival? It looks pretty spectacular to me and I’d love to go, but that’s not until August and I’m not sure if I want to wait that long (plus tours during that period of time are considerably more expensive!). I know when you went Americans were only allowed into the DPRK during the festival, so you didn’t have much of a choice, but would you say it would be worth it to wait for the festival, or to just go whenever?
This is a tough question, as the Arirang Mass Games were indeed very fascinating. If I had the choice, I probably would go during the Games. With the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, North Korea is the only country that still holds such performances, so as someone who spent most of college studying Cold War history, they were very intriguing. If you choose not to go during the Games, though, I would recommend that you at least go during a holiday celebration so that you can see some of the associated pageantry. I went during their independence day, so in addition to the games we also viewed several mass dances and visited with locals on one of their few days off. I know they have a ton of holidays (Kim Il-Sung’s birthday, etc) so it shouldn’t be tough to plan a trip around one of them.

I read they have different categories of seating for the mass games. Did you buy the standard tickets or the VIP? Are you just sitting with other tourists no matter which tickets you buy?
For the Mass Games I went for the cheapest third-class tickets (80 euros). The North Koreans will definitely try and push you to purchase the most expensive tickets, but the truth is, every seat, including the cheap third-class seats, have an excellent view (here are my photos in case you want to see what the view is like). You aren’t sitting next to the Koreans, though (or at least we weren’t). We were with a bunch of Chinese tourists, and the Koreans were seated in a different section 10 rows up.

I am considering a trip to North Korea, the only thing holding me up is the decision if I want to give a lot of money to the government. Maybe you can give me a perspective on this? If the stories of torture, secret police, etc. are true, then by paying a lot of money to go there would seem to be paying for these things to happen via salaries, etc. So by giving North Korea money, would one not be contributing to a society that is really unhealthy and bad for people? I get my news from the US, so maybe it is exaggerated, I don’t know.
First, practically everything you have heard about the North Korean government is true. For some excellent books on life in the DPRK, I would recommend “Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick, “Aquariums of Pyongyang” by Kang Chol-Hwan, and “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader” by Bradley Martin.

Most of the money you pay for your tour goes straight to the North Korean government’s coffers (your tour company gets a cut, of course) so yes, it is like handing over money to Kim Jong-il. As far as the ethics of visiting North Korea, this is something you will have to give much thought to yourself in regards to reconciling this with your personal morals and beliefs. I know that many people who visit the DPRK believe that they will have some sort of positive effect by showing the North Koreans that Americans are not how the North Korean government portrays them, but personally I am a bit of a pessimist and do not think this has much validity, as the vast majority of North Koreans you meet are from the elite and usually know that their government isn’t being entirely truthful about the outside world (but of course, they wouldn’t admit this, because they don’t want to lose their privileged status).

As for me, I previously worked in the oil industry, so lost any claim to ethics or morals while I was in my mid-20s. 😉

Since I know they don’t accept credit cards, how much cash would you recommend taking into North Korea for souvenirs, etc.? Did you have any chance to buy souvenirs when you were over there?
I took around 600-700 euros and had plenty leftover (better safe than sorry). Keep in mind you will have to pay for a mass games ticket if you go during the Games, and these can range from 80 – 300 euros depending on where you would like to sit. You will also have to tip your guides (30 euros or so) and cover drinks in the evening (beer is really cheap there). Also, postcard postage can be a bit pricey…I think I spent 30 euros sending postcards to friends! I say just take a bit more than you think you will need – you can always change it back into USD when you return to the States.

You will have plenty of opportunities to buy souvenirs, but the selection is a bit lacking. They have some beautiful hand painted propaganda posters that run 30 euros and some great stamps (I really have no interest in stamps whatsoever, but I couldn’t help spending quite a few euros there because the DPRK stuff is just incredible). The most popular stamp among Americans is of Richard Nixon being stabbed with several pens. There are also a few gift shops in your hotel where you can find plenty of books, postcards, traditional dress (a tailor at the hotel will even make a custom Kim Jong-Il suit for you, but I think it takes a few days), pins, DVDs, etc. If a DPRK cameraman is following your group around they will offer to sell a custom DVD of your tour. Buy it – it is hilariously worth it.

I remember reading somewhere that the U.S. government recommended that you register your trip with the State Department and also notify the U.S. embassy in Beijing and the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang if you plan to travel to North Korea. Just wondering if you bothered doing any or all of those things.
No, I didn’t register with the embassies. I know I was supposed to, but I just forgot to do it.

I know you have to purchase some kind of insurance to cover medical expenses/evacuation (through Koryo or elsewhere) but I was also wondering if you purchased any trip cancellation insurance for your NK trip. With the situation over there being volatile I am trying to plan carefully. While I would love to take a long, in depth trip to China one day, I would be slightly upset if the tour had to be canceled or postponed due to a political/international situation and I was stuck with a non-refundable ticket to Beijing and no tour to North Korea! While the contact I have been speaking to at Koryo says they have only had to cancel or postpone tours during one incident (during the SARS outbreak in China), I’m thinking I may want to play it safe just in case. Just wondering what you did, since there was no shortage of NK related controversy when you went in 2009.
That was actually one of my big concerns with the trip – the chance that it might be cancelled. I bought a TravelGuard policy and in addition to the medical coverage, there was a clause for trip disruptions/cancellations. I would call one of their representatives and ask, though. While I never had to use the policy for North Korea, I did get the chance to try TravelGuard when my trip to Costa Rica had problems (flight was cancelled and rebooked requiring an overnight stay…they reimbursed me for the hotel, food, and the non-refundable portion of the lodging/trips in CR…so I got over $500 back!) So II would highly recommend TravelGuard!

So were your guides pretty strict about when you could take pictures? Did the border guards delete any of your pictures when you left? I’ve heard that they usually delete pictures of locals, and anything military, and other random stuff (i.e. the fun fair), so I’m thinking of bringing a few memory cards and switching them around to avoid having any of my photos deleted.
As for the guides, it really depends. Ours were somewhat older and seemed incredibly lax. For instance, we were told at the Koryo pre-tour meeting that we couldn’t take photos from the bus, but when we were driving from the airport to the hotel our guide pointed out one of the traffic ladies and said “You should take a photo!” The first two days we kept asking him if it was ok to take photos of street scenes, etc., and at one point he said “I don’t understand why you keep asking me if you can take photos from the bus! You just can’t take photos of the military!” So basically, we took photos of whatever we wanted, except during the few times at the DMZ when they told us not to. One of the other tour groups, however, had a much younger guide who would not let them take photos from the bus and seemed pretty strict. So I guess it is just the luck of the draw…

The border guards didn’t check our cameras, either. From what I have heard, that usually happens when you are taking the train back to China and have a 4 hour stopover for customs. The departure from the airport is very frantic (we got there 30 minutes before our flight left) and it seemed that the guards were more concerned with getting everyone out of the country.

I’m going on a “private” tour (one on one, with state-appointed guide of course) – did you do that, or go with a group? Am I putting myself at more risk on the one-on-one without all the witnesses?
I went with a group. I wouldn’t worry at all about being at risk in a one-to-one situation. In fact, I think it might actually be a bit more interesting. You’ll have the chance to (hopefully) develop a good rapport with your guide and driver and if they feel like they can trust you, they might be more willing to relax restrictions on photography or divert from the itinerary. It all just depends on the guide, though. Make a good impression, show a lot of interest in their lives and country, and bring gifts! Cartons of Marlboros for the male guides and drivers (you can pick them up at duty free at the Beijing airport before you fly to Pyongyang). Candy or lotion if you happen to get a female guide. Also, when you are back at the hotel for the night, invite them to hang out at the bar and buy them a few beers, or ask if they would like to go bowling.

Did your guides take you to or show you any churches? Did they say anything about religious freedom?
No, we didn’t see any churches and we never discussed anything related to religion. You could always ask your guide those questions when the day is over and you are all hanging out at the bar, but that is one of those topics you should be very careful about. I don’t think you are even supposed to bring religious texts into the country. I do remember reading somewhere on the internet about people being able to visit a church (Catholic maybe?) in Pyongyang. You wouldn’t be able to do that on a group tour due to the strict itinerary, but perhaps it could be arranged if you are doing a private tour (that route is much more expensive, though).

Did you have many opportunities to interact with the natives? Were they friendly or were they afraid to be seen interacting with westerners? I saw your pics from the fun fair and it looks like you got to mingle with the locals a little bit there. Did you get to go to the park when you were there?
We did go for a stroll through the park and had an hour or so to interact with the locals. It was their national holiday, so there were a lot of people there having a picnic. They would invite you to sit down and have a drink and snack with them…and then it turned into an impromptu dance party. It was quite hilarious. Really friendly people. I was kinda surprised we had the opportunity to do that. The park, fun fair, and mass dance at the Juche Tower were really the only places where we had the opportunity to “mix” with the locals who weren’t guides or hotel and restaurant staff.

Since I know the North Korea tours all leave from China, I was wondering how long you stayed in China and if you have any tips or recommendations of things to see while in Beijing. Also, let me know if you went on a tour while in China or just explored on your own, etc. I’m trying to decide how much time I should allocate to spend in China before/after the tour of the DPRK (or if I should try to visit another nearby country instead of spending any extra time in China), so let me know how much you did/didn’t enjoy your time in Beijing.
I was in Beijing for about three days prior to leaving North Korea. I would have spent more time there but my vacation days were limited. Beijing was interesting, but three days definitely wasn’t enough. I hit most of the major spots but would have liked to spend more time in the countryside.

I booked a Great Wall/Shooting range tour and had a lot of fun (I’m somewhat of a firearms enthusiast, so couldn’t pass on the opportunity to try out some Chinese army firearms, but they do have other options).

If you only have a few days in Beijing, I would definitely visit the following attractions: Great Wall (a bit outside the city), Tienanmen Square, Forbidden City, Mao’s mausoleum, Temple of Heaven

Pick up the Lonely Planet guide for China and you should be set. I found the city to be quite walkable, and stayed at a hotel not too far from Tienanmen Square, which was nice. I definitely plan on going back to China someday, though.

In addition to my answers to the above questions, I also offer the following advice to those who are traveling to the DPRK:

Try and bring as many small bills as possible, because it is really hard for them to make change if you are just buying a beer or soda or whatever. Take euro coins if you can because they are very useful when purchasing small items. The North Koreans don’t like larger bills, especially if you are just buying a small item, because they often don’t have adequate change. If you do have to break a large bill, you’ll often receive your change in a bizarre mixture of euros, Chinese renminbi, and US Dollars.

Pyongyang microbrewery

If it is not already on your itinerary, ask your guides if they could take you to the Paradise Microbrewery. The beer is great, and how many people can say they have been to a microbrewery in Pyongyang?

Your guides can make or break your trip. Be nice and respectful, and bring gifts for your guides, driver, and other North Koreans you might meet. Bring cartons of Marlboro cigarettes for the male guides and drivers (you can pick them up at duty free at the Beijing airport before you fly to Pyongyang) and candy or lotion if you happen to get a female guide. Also, when you are back at the hotel for the night, invite them to hang out at the bar and buy them a few beers, or ask if they would like to go bowling.

Bring some snacks from home. Overall, I thought the food was pretty horrible so I was glad I had brought along some trail mix and candy bars to snack on.

At the statue of Kim Il-Sung, it’s appreciated if you buy flowers to lay at the statue (irregardless you have to bow). A lot of members from our group did and I think this made our guides really happy because they saw it as a huge sign of respect. If you end up with a nervous/strict guide, it might make them loosen up a bit.

October 19, 2011

POTD: The Brezhnev / Honecker kiss on the Berlin Wall

Brezhnev and Honecker kissing on the Berlin Wall

This one of the more amusing panels you will see at the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery. It is a reproduction of a Berlin Wall graffiti painting titled “My God, help me to survive this deadly love” that depicts an actual kiss that took place between Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker in 1979:

A quick peck on the cheek was a typical greeting among communist leaders in Eastern Europe, but Honecker apparently took it to extremes, provoking the ire of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last communist leader of Poland. In a 2005 interview, Jaruzelski claimed that one of the most unpleasant parts of his job was kissing Honecker, due to his “disgusting way of kissing”.

October 17, 2011

North Korea: Children performing at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

Here are two videos I filmed featuring North Korean school children dancing and playing musical instruments at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace in Pyongyang:

October 12, 2011

POTD: Happy cow on California One

This fellow was standing in the middle of California State Route 1 while we were driving from San Francisco to Eureka, California last year as part of our 1,500+ mile road trip up the West Coast. While the vast majority of California State Route One is devoid of livestock, this particular portion wound its way through miles and miles of dairy farms. With its beautiful rolling hills and proximity to some of the best coastline in the country, it is no wonder that California is home to the happiest cows in the country.

Next to train travel, road trips are one of my favorite ways to travel. If embarking on your own road trip, always make sure that your motor insurance is valid and up-to-date (in many states, proof of insurance is required by law). A policy that includes car breakdown cover is also very worthwhile to have, as you may find yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere if your car encounters mechanical difficulties. Carrying one of these policies definitely ensures peace of mind.

October 12, 2011

North Korea: Performing in honor of the Dear Leader at Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

“The dexterity of these 8-year old kids is breathtaking. But behind their strained faces, you sense all the concentration that goes into playing the music and, especially, into trying to keep up those Miss World smiles. You can just imagine the training needed to achieve such robotic results…it’s all so cold…and sad. I could cry.” – Guy Delisle, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

When our bus arrived at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace, we were greeted by a group of exceedingly polite North Korean teenage girls, all sharply dressed in their school uniforms: pleated skirts, well-ironed white blouses, the obligatory red scarf of the Young Pioneer Corps, and a badge of Kim Il-Sung. As typical for North Korea, they welcomed us with a robotic speech referencing the Dear and Great Leaders, and as we followed them into the palace, I couldn’t help but think that these were the model students that my Catholic school wished they could have produced, rather than the slovenly middle-schoolers who left their polo shirts untucked and earned detentions for the crime of chewing gum.

Opened in 1989, the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace is an imposing, ugly building, (it appears to have a UFO on its roof) that contains over 1,108,000 square feet of classrooms, practice rooms, gymnasiums, and swimming pools. Ever day, some 10,000 schoolchildren pass through this facility, taking part in extracurricular music, art, sports, technology, and science classes. It’s like your local Boys & Girls Club or YMCA, on crack. I was a bit surprised that we visited the Palace, as I don’t recall it being on the original itinerary. But then again, on a tour of the DPRK, everything is fluid and you don’t ask questions.

Our teenage guide led us from room to room, all filled with children who were being instructed to perform for the large groups of foreigners entering their classrooms. Whether dancing, playing a musical instrument, or perfecting their calligraphy, these kids were all considerably talented. You could sense that the children, well, the older ones, at least, were annoyed that they were essentially on display for legions of camera toting-tourists, while the younger ones performed to perfection lest they experience the wrath of their instructor.

Of all the sites we visited on our tour of North Korea, the Children’s Palace was my least favorite. It’s not that I wasn’t impressed with the kids – as I said before, they were all very talented – but the whole thing was just very uncomfortable. The kids were performing constantly, with hardly any time to rest, as different groups of tourists (and there were a lot of them that day) went from room to room, shoving their huge cameras in the faces of the children. I would have much rather enjoyed watching a group of kids play a game of pick-up soccer than this charade.

The final stop on our tour of the Palace was a 2,000 seat auditorium, where we watched a large group of schoolchildren sing, dance, and play instruments. This final performance included everything from gymnastics to accordions to hula hoops. I was especially impressed by the fact that the performance included a full orchestra. A full orchestra! Kids performing complex musical instruments at an age when my classmates and I could barely hold on to the Baby Jesus doll in our school’s Christmas play without dropping it.

As we were leaving the Palace, one of our group’s members asked our tour guide, Mr. Lee, if his children came to this palace after their school day was over. He could barely suppress a smirk. “No, no,” he hesitated. “They go to…another one…in a different part of the city.”

The rest of the photos are here.