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North Korea

NORTH KOREA  (조선민주주의인민공화국)

One of the last of the closed countries, although as this testifies, it's now easy to gain access to the country, unless you're a journalist looking to say nasty things about the place. Few countries can really compete with the rumours, myths, fact and fiction generated about it. The fact/fiction (you decide) includes South Korean film directors being kidnapped and kept in prison eating grass for years, Kim Il Jung's vast film library (favourites included Rambo, Friday the 13th and Godzilla) and private pizza restaurant, building and extensive deep level network of escape tunnels under Pyongyang, citizens made to cry for camera on the death of Kim Jong Il, a war museum that tells of how the American duped South Koreans started the Korean War and so on, and so on. The actuality is that North Korea (or as it's officially known The Democratic (?) Peoples Republic of Korea), is a crazy country. Visiting it is often dubbed the world's biggest theme park. Every citizen wears a small rectangular red badge, with the image of the Dear Leader (Kim Il Sung) on it.

The Dear Leader, who was made president for eternity after his death, has his photo everywhere, sometimes alongside his recently departed son, Kim Jong Il. The main religion/political thesis in the country is Juche, based around self reliance and the cult of Kim il Sung as a sort of deity. Juche is used to justify the autocratic nature of the country. North Korea has one of the largest standing armies in the world, something it's hard to miss when travelling around, as so many people are in the regulation brown army uniform.

In order to visit the country, one can sign up to a tour. The tour is conducted by locals, and usually involves being driven around and having an English or Chinese speaking guide. You will also have a back up 'guide' who follows the group at the back. They do this to ensure no one comes to any harm or something bad happening. Obviously, it's to make sure no one wanders off from the tour and starts to make their own opinion up about the place. Tourists are housed in one of two hotels in Pyongyang, and are fed well in the restaurants within the hotel. Most trips start and end at the hotel, the longest trip is the 200 or so round trip to the DMZ on the border with South Korea. Tourists travel everywhere by bus, and are instructed to not take photos out of the windows. When visiting a park in Pyongyang, there are lots of people sat happily around a picnic blanket, guzzling the local strong liquor and eating a variety of foods. You wonder whether they've been paid or encouraged to be there, or whether they are just there of their own choice. You wonder what's real and what's not, such are the rumours that pervade. Rumours centre on the fact that those who are true comrades and trusted, get to live in Pyongyang. Those not so, are left in the countryside. Conditions in the countryside are pretty primitive, we saw ox being used to pull ploughs, and people hand cutting a harvest. North Korea has nuclear weapons and a space programme! We saw some bizarre sites, from a large construction dump truck carrying people and soldiers through the countryside, to an officer berating peasants harvesting a field. The hotel we stayed in had a lift with the 5th floor missing from the lift panel, and on investigation, turned out to exist with anti-western and Japanese artwork. Along with rooms full of staff sleeping on the floor in rough rows.Contrary to popular belief, dog is not on the menu. In fact, it's considered a delicacy. We were offered it once in Kaesong, where I declined it, but heard it tasted like cheap stringy beef (see white bowl below).

The main reason I went to North Korea, was to see the Mass Games, or The Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang. These are performances involving 30,000 children holding up cards to form the backdrop (see pic below) and 10's of thousands of performers on the field in front. Nothing can really prepare you for the enormity of the event, it being in Korean only adds to the spectacle. The ceremony last about 2 hours, and deals with the history of North Korea, how Kim Il Sung made the country great, the war with the South, friendships with Russia and China etc etc. The attraction of going somewhere few have been was also there, but every year, North Korea allows more tourists in, generating much needed foreign income.

 

Essential Information

Language: Korean

Currency: Chosun Won (100 Chon) (Foreigners are not allowed to have the money, but it's possible to get it from hotel receptions). If found on you at the border, it will be confiscated.

Visa: Entry is only possible via a tour, a Visa contains all the people on your tour.

Plug: European 2 round prongs

GMT: GMT +9

GDP Ranking (IMF): Unknown

Communications: Country code is +850

Health: It's not advised to get sick in North Korea.

When to Visit: North Korea is in the Northern Hemisphere and has hot summers, and cold winters.

Personal Safety: North Korea is very safe, as long as you follow the rules given by local guides. Don't photograph military installations, metro tunnels, or attempt to wander off by yourself. North Korea is beyond the reach of international law, and can easily make you disappear. F&CO advice can be sought here.

Getting Around: You will be on a tour, so this will be by a two thirds length comfortable bus usually.

What to see/do: You will be told what you can and can't see. Highlights include The Mass Games (September), DMZ zone, Kaesŏng (where the restaurant you likely eat in, will offer you dog for €5), Hyonjongrung Royal Tomb,  the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Kaeson Funfair, and my personal highlight, a ride on the Pyongyang Metro.

Food & Drink: You will find restaurants in your hotel for main meals (usually Italian, Chinese and Korean). Other meals are had in pre-arranged restaurants in the towns and cities you visit. Pyongyang has it's own brewery, producing rather good lager. It bought a brewery in it's entirety from Britain, and shipped it all to Pyongyang. It now makes Taedonggang beer, and is rightly proud of it. North Korea's first ever commercial in 2009, was for Taedonggang beer. Most tours involve a trip to the brewery, where a few draught beers is recommended.

Other Notes: Getting there is easier than you might imagine. Several tour firms offer trips. All trips involve getting to Beijing, China. I went on a 5 day trip (the last day was on the train back to Beijing) with Koryo Tours, who are the cheapest. The only is also pretty down with the regime over there. Explore, Regent Holidays, Lupine Travel, Young Pioneer Tours (suspiciously similar to Koryo) and Korea Konsult are the main players. It's possible to have independent tours, but you will need to have guides at all times. The better you get on with your tour guides, the more you will see.