The mundane thrills of travelling in North Korea

Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.

On a brisk winter night in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, a group of 14 tourists was led off of a bus and into a single file line, their faces awash in pink light from a nearby neon sign — a beacon of brightness in an otherwise hazy and dark city. I was at the back of the line.

All phones and cameras were to be either switched off or left onboard the bus. Compliance was enforced by a stout man named Mr. Lee, renowned amongst our group for rummaging through purses and asking us to open our coats. His black suit jacket was barren except for one red pin, bearing a portrait of Dear Leader Kim Il-sung, still recognized as president of the country despite his death in 1994. The design of Mr. Lee’s pin distinguished his status as an exceptional servant of the North Korean government. It’s a coveted honour among citizens, worn with pride by all who the state deems worthy of receiving it. Unable to be purchased for any sum, they’re treated like medals, adding the only permissible flair of colour to the typically beige or grey suits of the North Korean elite. It was placed on his left breast, directly above his heart.

Throughout the day, cameras were often banned at Mr. Lee’s discretion, which seemed to be based on an erratic set of criteria: paranoia, the desire to preserve state secrets and his own random whims. Restaurants, shops, construction sites and groups of soldiers all seemed to fall under his umbrella “no cameras” policy at one point or another, though none came up with any regularity. In line beside the dust-caked tour bus, my group and I whispered in fast, slang-heavy English — the kind a non-native speaker like Mr. Lee or his colleagues might have trouble picking up on. None of us could determine a logical reason as to why we couldn’t photograph our destination, but we didn’t argue — we signed a waiver before leaving Beijing promising we wouldn’t. The 14 of us obeyed, left our cameras on the bus, and turned out our pockets for inspection.

After we’d been given the all clear, we were escorted one by one from the idling bus to a currency exchange booth where, for a lopsided conversion rate, euros or U.S. dollars could be handed over for a fistful of North Korean won. And then, with local cash in hand and a strict reminder not to leave the premises without exchanging it back, our handlers released us unaccompanied into the building with the pink neon sign: the Kwangbok Department Store.

These rigorous security protocols, as arbitrary as they may seem, are standard for most tourist-approved sites in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, which is its citizens’ preferred name for their country. The Korea International Travel Company, often abbreviated as the KITC, has mandated strict measures that govern what foreigners can and, much more importantly, cannot, see and do in the isolated state. When compared to almost every other nation, the activities readily approved for foreigners make up a very short list: visiting bookstores, public monuments, city parks and the Pyongyang Metro are generally admissible in the “fun” category — most other places, from restaurants to museums, come with restrictions.

While in the country, the lives of visitors are tightly controlled by a government desperate to present itself in a positive light. Following decades of widespread famine and high-stakes sabre-rattling with atomic bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea has garnered an atrocious human rights record. Its government is keenly aware of how it might be perceived by tourists. Rather than be apologetic or proactive about its issues, though, the country has chosen to merely mask its tarnished social landscape with a façade of impeccably clean monuments and smiling schoolchildren.

Government-employed minders are not shy about telling you to delete an imperfect picture if you should, for example, photograph a statue from an inappropriate angle. The government knows that most pictures taken by tourists are destined to be posted on social media or blogs, so visitors are actively discouraged from photographing everything but the most impressive sites. In my five-day trip to the DPRK, I was outdoors and unsupervised only once, for no more than a few minutes, in my hotel’s parking lot — an unacceptable lapse by North Korean standards. What could I have seen? Where could I have wandered?

Tourism in North Korea is “defined by its limitations,” said Simon Cockerell, the general manager of Koryo Tours, a travel agency that specializes in organized trips to the DPRK. Cockerell, who has been working with Koryo since 2002, said he supports the practice of visiting mundane locations, saying it is the best method of facilitating interactions between citizens and tourists. “Nobody has ever gone to North Korea and said, ‘I’m not bothered about interacting with local people.’ It’s the exact opposite. I don’t think I’ve ever had to explain why we were going to a supermarket to any tourists I’ve had,” he added. “It’s interesting because of where it is, because of the people around, and just the unexpected experiences. It’s doing something very normal in a very abnormal place.”

According to Reporters Without Borders, North Korea is currently ranked last out of 180 nations in the World Press Freedom Index, with the isolated dynasty notoriously cracking down on its own people to prevent unfavourable information from circulating. In the DPRK, monotony is a hallmark of the media. The country only broadcasts one state-owned news channel, KCTV, which was anchored by the same main presenter, Ri Chun-hee, from 1974 to 2012. Just two main newspapers, both government-run, are in widespread circulation: Rodong Sinmun, published daily in Korean, and the Pyongyang Times, an English weekly mostly stocked at hotels, airports and other locations frequented by visitors. Current leader Kim Jong-un almost always appears on the front page of both.

“Only a certain type of person goes to North Korea,” continued Cockerell. “The thing that people are most looking for when they go there is some kind of understanding. Everybody who we take is interested in what that country’s like, what’s going on, how to make some even ephemeral connection with the local people. And to do that is to inject yourself into the daily life of as many North Koreans as you can.”

By his own estimation, Cockerell said that Koryo Tours annually facilitates approximately 5,000 tourist visits from the so-called “European market,” which the KITC defines as all non-Chinese visitors. However, customers from this demographic, primarily made up of citizens from continental Europe and North America, are the minority; Chinese travellers account for as much as 80 per cent of the foreign tourist arrivals in the DPRK.

Most North Korean tourist itineraries tailored to the European market consist of the same few elements: a home base in the capital, a day trip to the de-militarized zone on the South Korean border, a compulsory visit to the former leaders’ mausoleum, and a whirlwind bus tour of brutalist monuments dedicated to a member of the ruling Kim family. And while some are advertised as specialty trips that allow customers to, for example, participate in the Pyongyang Marathon or attend a state-sponsored air show, the tours largely follow a tried-and-true formula established in the early days of DPRK tourism in the 1990s.

“In many ways there is an approved list of what you can and cannot see. The list is increasingly vast,” said Shane Horan, an Irish photographer who formerly led trips to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours. The international travel organizations, he said, and the state-owned KITC often take different approaches in welcoming tourists. While the North Koreans attempt to present their latest and greatest monuments, visitors seem to yearn for more personal interaction in traditionally mundane places. “[Foreign tour operators] are interested in showing normal life and interacting with locals. [They’re] not interested in just going from monument to museum,” added Horan.

Though not an official rule, organized trips to North Korea are often segregated and do not allow for much interaction with local residents. However, unless a foreign tourist were to speak the Choson dialect of Korean, it would be unlikely that much meaningful interaction would be able to take place at all with citizens not involved in the tourism industry. Beyond the government-appointed minders that must legally accompany every trip and the handful of museum guides and gift shop clerks scattered around the DPRK, the only opportunity foreigners have to mingle with locals is when they visit more everyday locations.

“I would have been disappointed if the guides had only showed us more or less impressive monuments and famous places, and not given us any peek into how it is to be a citizen of North Korea,” said Jon Olav Hjelde, 29, an ordained Lutheran minister from Norway. Hjelde, who travelled to the DPRK as a tourist in 2016, said he decided to take the trip following an 18-month stint living in South Korea, during which time he heard almost nothing in the media about the North.

While the DPRK works to impress tourists with outlandish gimmicks and flashy, patriotic displays like mass dance performances and military parades, many visitors seem to search deeper, spending anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars for a chance to spend time in the country and interact with its locals. “Seeing monuments and famous places is good, of course. But they don’t tell much about ordinary life for the North Koreans,” said Hjelde. Content with seeing as much of the day-to-day affairs of locals as possible, he, just like me and most other tourists who visit Pyongyang, took his North Korean won and stepped into the building with the pink neon sign.