Image: Commuters in the Pyongyang Metro / Ben Mack
That’s the first feeling you get when you set foot in North Korea. Cold, all-consuming fear, the kind that eats at your insides and makes you go clammy as you slowly start sweating in places you didn’t know you could sweat. This intensely uncomfortable feeling will soon be accompanied by almost paralysing panic and a need to urgently pee, but you can’t do that until you’ve endured several hours of questioning by soldiers with deadly expressions and even deadlier weapons going through every file on your mobile phone, laptop, and any other electronic devices – and also all of your luggage including your underwear. They may even announce the size of your underwear to everyone in the room to humiliate you.
You may want to faint. You may try to convince yourself that it’s all a bad dream, that if you pinch yourself you’ll wake up from the nightmare.
But it’s no dream. It’s North Korea. And there’s no escape – not unless you want to potentially be shot dead while attempting to run away. Forget fight or flight; all you can do is freeze.
You’re trapped. You want to go home. You want to cry. But you can’t. You realise you may have made the biggest mistake of your life.
At least, that was my experience when I first arrived in North Korea.
The most secretive country in the world, the north-east Asian nation is synonymous with images of hordes of goose-stepping soldiers, Supreme Leader (that’s one of his many actual titles) Kim Jong Un, and nuclear bombs. Basically every country in the world strongly advises against visiting North Korea (including New Zealand) for safety reasons and because tourist dollars may be used by the North Korean government to fund its weapons programmes (the money tourism generates is believed to be the main reason why North Korea even allows tourism in the first place), but, with the assistance of a variety of specialised tour agencies, between 4,000 and 6,000 Western tourists visit each year.
Still, a decision to visit the so-called “Hermit Kingdom” is not to be made lightly. Not only is it expensive (expect to pay a few thousand dollars at the minimum – and no, you can’t just show up and expect anything less than a major international incident), a visit poses many ethical dilemmas. Furthermore, the entire time you are there, you will likely not have a single moment of privacy. Not one. And almost nothing you see will be real.
Even if you’re on a “private” tour, you will still be accompanied by North Korean “guides” (who are really minders that work for the government, or entities controlled by the government) who will rarely venture more than a few metres away from you. While the guides can be very friendly (being friendly is a key part of their job, and compared to the lives of most ordinary North Koreans, a job as a guide is considered very prestigious), their main job is to make sure you’re only seeing what they want you to see – and making sure you follow all the rules (one rule to keep in mind: absolutely do not speak negatively about Kim Jong Un or former leaders Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. It’s also a good idea not to talk about South Korea, which North Korea considers a breakaway region under US control). You will be completely at their mercy the entire time you’re in the country.
The vast majority of tours to North Korea are to Pyongyang, so odds are that’ll be where you spend most of your time. While many of the buildings you’ll see (like the Juche Tower, Arch of Triumph, Mansu Hill Grand Monument, Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, or the mind-bogglingly gargantuan Rungrado 1st of May Stadium, the largest stadium in the world) will be very beautiful – and the streets will be the cleanest you have ever seen – you should keep this in mind: the people who live in Pyongyang are usually the elites of North Korean society; they do not reflect the “normal,” everyday people who live in the country. In fact, if you’re a North Korean citizen, even just visiting Pyongyang from outside the capital requires a special travel permit. As such, there’s a good chance that everything you’ll be shown and experience – even “chance” events like a performance by a group of schoolchildren or a trip to a bowling alley – may be for your benefit; think of it like being in a real-life Hollywood movie.
Many North Koreans may be struggling with food insecurity, but you certainly won’t. In fact, the food will be one of the most heartbreaking parts of your trip, simply because it will be so sickeningly decadent.
Yes, there will be the Korean staple, kimchi. But there’ll also be fried and fresh squid, fish, barrels of sticky rice, platefuls of succulent pork that practically melts in your mouth, soup, beef, fresh crabs, and litres upon litres of soda and alcoholic soju and baijiu (a type of Chinese spirit). There’ll also be virtually endless portions of the famed Pyongyang cold noodles (also known as naengmyeon, a local delicacy not to be missed), heaps of mussels, eggs, ice cream, cakes, and rivers of fresh-brewed coffee that tastes as good as any you’ll get in Vienna or Auckland’s trendiest cafes; basically, more food than any human could ever consume. Considering that hunger remains a serious problem for millions of North Koreans, you’ll feel incredibly guilty if you eat any of it, and incredibly guilty if you don’t because all that food might go to waste.
In sum: the food will make you miserable. Oh, and your guides usually won’t eat with you, as they’re not allowed to become too friendly with their clients – so you’ll be forced to wallow in your misery with whoever the other foreigners are on your trip.
Awful feelings aside, and despite all the media warnings of nuclear tests, World War III, and your initial fear when first arriving, your visit will be very safe. While Americans have been detained by authorities several times in the past (often in order to gain concessions like public apologies from world leaders, which help the ruling Kim family to portray itself as powerful and discourage dissent) – and several are currently being held – no New Zealanders have been detained, no matter how controversial they may be (just ask Winston Peters, Gareth Morgan, and WINTEC’s Richard Lawrence, among other Kiwis who have visited the country).
Considering you’ll always be with a guide (and sometimes several other people who look and behave suspiciously like secret police), the odds of being victimised by criminals are almost non-existent. This even applies to crowded places like the Pyongyang Metro (one of the most eye-bleedingly beautiful underground networks in the world), where groping a foreigner is basically unheard of. You’ll be unlikely to experience catcalling, no matter where in North Korea you go. But one thing you will get: lots – and lots – of stares, especially if you venture anywhere outside Pyongyang. Be prepared for it.
One restriction that frustrates many visitors is the rules about photography. Long story short: don’t take a photo of anything unless your guide says it’s OK. If you’re taking a photo of a person, ask them for permission as well. And, although images of soldiers are the first thing that pops into our heads when we think about North Korea, taking pictures of anything related to the military is usually illegal, unless you’re at a parade or in Panmunjom along the DMZ with South Korea (most tours go there, where you’ll come face-to-face, and even sometimes be able to take pictures with, allegedly the tallest soldiers in the Korean People’s Army, who are stationed there as a way to psychologically intimidate South Korea and the US).
Don’t think you can “sneak” photos, either: your cameras are usually searched again when you leave North Korea, as well as randomly by the guides or other people who may demand you delete any images they find offensive – or else.
Another piece of advice: tempting as it may be to take home a souvenir, don’t do it unless you pay for it. Otherwise, you may end up like American tourist Otto Warmbier, who in 2016 was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for attempting to steal a poster from the hotel he was staying at (aside: while 15 years may sound harsh, considering the poster he tried to steal related to former leader Kim Jong Il, his sentence was actually considered lenient for the severity of the crime).
Also, don’t worry about whether your work would prevent you from visiting. Contrary to popular belief, journalists can go to North Korea – and do so fairly regularly if they’re registered and receive special permission in advance. But go undercover, or without revealing that you’re a journalist (something not recommended under any circumstances), and you could be deported, sentenced to years of hard labour in a prison camp, or even be executed.
The biggest thing to understand when visiting North Korea is that there’s a lot you won’t understand. You’ll see some postcard-perfect natural areas – like Mount Paektu or Chilbosan – that could stand toe-to-toe with Cardrona or Tongariro any day, but you won’t understand why you can’t take photos at some or why you have to leave suddenly.
You also might not understand why your guide insists that every photo of a statue be taken only from the front of the statue and with the whole statue visible, even if it’s dozens of metres tall (speaking from personal experience, fail to do so, and you may find yourself being forced to make an on-the-spot “self-confession” of your crimes in front of armed soldiers), or why certain rooms of public buildings cannot be visited, but that’s simply the way things are, no matter how nonsensical they may seem. As I was told by a fellow foreigner when I first visited: “This is Korea. There are no rules.”
It sounds silly, but there’s also a real risk of brainwashing while you’re in North Korea, which increases the longer you’re there.
First, to get it out of the way: no, your hotel room probably won’t be bugged (but there may sometimes be armed guards outside your room at night to discourage you from sneaking off). Besides, your smartphone probably won’t work anyway, and you almost certainly won’t have any Internet access. But that also means you won’t have any access to outside information, meaning you’ll be completely dependent on your guides and state-run media for any news about anything and everything.
At first, claims by your guides that the North Korean government only wants to make peace with the US and South Korea might sound ridiculous. But after a week or so of hearing such things constantly and being bombarded nonstop by propaganda of all types, you begin to think that maybe, just maybe, there’s something to that. Give it another week, and you may believe it completely. And without even realising it, you’ve been brainwashed.
When it comes time to leave you may be invasively searched by authorities. Once again, that feeling of fear and clammy unease may bubble up within you, but with a few days of direct exposure to how North Korea works in your system, you should be inoculated against their attempts to intimidate and humiliate you.
Once you’re back in China (basically all trips to North Korea begin and end in China), you may experience reverse culture shock. After all, after having to literally pour water into toilets to make them flush (as you sometimes have to do at North Korean hotels), the idea that you can press a button and a toilet will flush will feel pretty bloody novel.
It’s also worth noting that friends and family may not understand your decision to go to North Korea, and they may even criticise you for it when you’re back in contact. Likewise, trolls will likely attack you on social media (mostly focusing on the fact your money may have supported the government in its oppression of others), especially if you publish anything about your trip (publishing something about it can also sometimes get you blacklisted by tour operators from visiting again, or, in very rare circumstances, placed on an “enemies list” by the North Korean government). But your experiences in North Korea will probably have helped thicken your skin in ways you never thought it would.
No matter if your visit is fairly routine (or at least as routine as a trip to North Korea can be) or, like me, you come down with a life-threatening illness, there’s a fair chance you’ll end up like Frodo Baggins at the end of The Return of the King – you’ll never fully get over your experiences, for good or bad.
You may even be so fascinated that before you know it, you may find yourself going back.