I Have Been to North Korea Over 100 times

My friend Simon Cockerell, General Manager of Koryo Tours, just did a reddit AMA (ask me anything).

I have been to North Korea over 100 times. AMA

I’m the GM of Koryo Tours.  The leading North Korea travel company.  In this capacity I have been to the country 118 times thus far. Glad to answer any questions about what it’s like to visit North Korea.

Simon from Koryo

Simon from Koryo Tours at the Mt. Myohyangsan Friendship Exhibition – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

I have pulled the best questions and answers from the session:

Please note that the grammar and punctuation reflect the nature of the real time Q&A format. 

Do you know why Americans (and only Americans) are not allowed to leave the country by train? (Assuming that rule is still in force.)

That rule is still in force and honestly I have no idea why. After all many Americans have a second passport and can just use that for travel. When you travel in or out by train you don’t see anything particularly sensitive anyway. I would expect this rule to change before long (but I have been expecting that for some time!).

What would you say is the oddest custom they have?

Finding something odd is subjective of course. A lot of the traditional rituals that Korea has would be perfectly familiar to people in South Korea but very alien to anyone who hadn’t been to either place (or to East Asia). Surely though the most quintessentially North Korean rituals are mass rallies. While we don’t attend these you do see them happening n the TV and while passing by. These are often not even broadcast very extensively as they happen so frequently. These are a part of life for everyone in North Korea but something that most people outside of the country have never taken part in. I’d distinguish between these and political rallies in western countries as the latter are of course voluntary. North Koreans don’t really choose whether to attend their rallies or not

Have any of your clients gotten themselves in trouble while visiting?

No, the people we take in are well prepared and know the rules, regulations, etc. Nobody wants to get in trouble in North Korea, no to get anyone else in trouble there so people do tend to be fairly well behaved.

What are some precautionary measures that you or your company would advise tourists to take before visiting (ie don’t wear THIS, don’t bring a camera HERE). Is there a particular season or time of year that you find a big spike in the number of tourists visiting? And sub question: what is the place like ‘off-season’?

Low season is winter; its very cold and the days are short. In fact tourists are not permitted to go there between Dec 15 – Jan 15 usually. High season is when there are a run of national holidays and big events. For the Mass Games which takes place every year recently between Aug – Oct the largest numbers of tourists visit. Many Chinese go at this time too so there are times when it seems the place is overrun with foreign visitors. in terms of what can be taken into the country it was always mobile phones that were not allowed. This has now changed and you can take them in, you need to buy a local SIM (50 EUR) though and the cost of international calls is very very high. But it is possible to take in overseas phones now. Cameras etc are fine too, there is a rule against lenses over 150mm but it has been years since I’ve seen that enforced. Computers are fine but there is no internet available for tourists. While the locals dress conservatively it is fine for tourists to dress as they like, but at the most significant places such as the Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il it is expected that tourists will make a bit of an effort – long trousers, no flip-flops, shirt, that kind of thing. Also visitors are advised not to give anything to locals which could be compromising for them – religious texts, western CDs, that kind of thing (although they can be taken into the country). As is well known this can cause some problems for people who aren’t supposed to have such things.

Have you noticed any major changes in the country since Kim Jong Il died? Do you think the country will ever open up to the outside world without foreign intervention?

I haven’t noticed any major changes since Ki Jong Il died. Some surface changes are clearly visible (obvious stuff like more statues of Kim Jong Il, that kind of thing) and more mobile phones in the general population, more building work going on (almost all in Pyongyang), but this may well have happened regardless of his death. So we wait with hope of more substantive change that has been widely predicted, but thus far not materialized. As for opening up the country I honestly don’t know. People there deserve better lives, even the people with relatively comfortable lives, but how and when it will happen is beyond my knowledge. A lot has been predicted by various experts but it remains unclear. We live in hope though, fingers crossed for substantive and beneficial change before too long.

You mentioned people are interested in the outside world. How much do you tell them? What are their responses?

As the people we deal with are adults I feel that if they ask a question they should get an honest reply. People don’t really ask if other countries are better than theirs though, they usually ask about what kind of houses people live in, what jobs people have. What films are popular, what people abroad think of North Korea? I’m of the opinion that answering honestly is best, they wouldn’t ask if they didn’t want to know after all!

Do you think the North Koreans actually believe all the propaganda their government produces, or do they realize that the government is their enemy?

I would say that by and large most people take most news they are given at face value. There is only one official news source and this is not a new system, the vast vast majority of people there have never known anything else. However people talk to ach other, and a fair number of North Koreans have been abroad (mostly to China) and know certain things that run counter to some things they are told. So its a combination. Much of the propaganda people are told is about how Koreans are best (rather than that they have more stuff I mean) and this is a powerful message for people wanting something to make them feel better about their situation. Being able to even slightly credibly blame the outside world (usually it is the US) for their predicament makes people feel that they are toughing life out all-in-this-together a kind of blitz spirit. This is outlined very well in this book http://www.amazon.com/Cleanest-Race-Themselves-Melville-Publishing/dp/1935554344 by the way.

I caught the tail end of a show on NPR regarding the environment in NK. I recall that one of the things the guest noticed was the absence of small animals (squirrels, birds, etc). I think they were making the possible connection between that and food shortages, but since I missed most of the show, I could be wrong. Have you noticed anything similar?

Hard to be sure to be honest. You don’t see that many birds around although you do see them. Squirrels and other wildlife too. It may well be that they have been caught, etc I couldn’t say for sure. This would be more likely in the worst-hit areas of the country, the places with the biggest problems due to lack of food, however these places tourists can’t go to so I can’t say for sure

Thank you for doing this AMA as well as producing documentaries. When asked, I always suggest that everyone watch State of Mind. I’ve been saving up to do one of your tours for about 3 years now but I’ve been struggling with my curiosity to see it first hand, but also my morale outrage that I’d be lining the pockets of “The Kims”. If I took one of your tours, can you please tell the break-down of where my money would go? Again, I’m extremely interested in experiencing N. Korea first hand, but the thought that I’d be helping the State say, buy more weapons to “guard” and oppress more people in Yodok keeps me up at night.

Thanks for the comment. I answered this a bit in another reply but its a valid concern and a common one. We believe that engagement and humanization is a valid thing to be involved in, we also try to direct those interested in humanitarian issues to the right organizations and have a handful of small projects that we fund ourselves. As for the breakdown of where payment goes to explain this would require me to know the exact source cost of everything to be able to work out profit levels from things such as plane tickets, hotel bills, etc to be able to work out what tax is paid to the state by the organizations that we pay for goods and services. Sorry but I simply don’t know these numbers. Apologies for this.

Does the VICE-documentary about North Korea give a good insight of what going to North Korea looks like? It’s on youtube if you have not heard of it.

The Vice guide is interesting for sure. It’s a wildly sensational piece though shot on what is a pretty normal tourist trip. Obviously the magic of editing/camera angles/editorial/etc can be used to make anything appear in any way but I would say it is worth watching with a slightly skeptical eye. It’s entertaining though obviously.

Simon and Ms Han

Simon and North Korean guide Ms Han at the Ynggakdo Hotel.

Is the food any different? Better? Worse?

 Its not a culinary wonderland of course. But tourists who go there are well fed. Generally the food given to tourists is a kind of compromise Korean food. the spice element is toned down as it is generally believed that foreigners cannot tolerate spicy food, but even when it is asked for and provided it is not anywhere near as spicy as a good Indian curry or anything like that. Generally for breakfast its toast and fried egg, for lunch and dinner a selection of dishes such as barbeques beef, fish (especially in Pyongyang), rice, mild kimchi, that kind of thing. Regionally there is some variation with potatoes replacing rice in the north of the country, and more focus on seafood on the north east coast. Simply down to what I available in certain areas. Obviously the country as a whole has experienced massive food problems and this is ongoing in many areas so people who visit there don’t expect much. But the quality ranges from ‘alright’ to ‘surprisingly good’. There is a limited amount of western food available in Pyongyang only. There are 3 Singaporean burger outlets, a couple of fried chicken joints (called ‘Kentucky’ locally), 2 pizza restaurants, and a couple of cafes (one of which was opened with Swiss investment, one German) but mostly it is Korean food, some Chinese, some Japanese.

What are some stereotypes you can trump about how our media portrays the people of North Korea, not the government?

Basically that although there is a very high degree of alignment enforced on the population by the state there are still differences in people that are observable. People like different music, have different favorite films. Like different jokes, etc. Not everyone is the same. Many of the North Koreans I know are lovely people – kind, helpful, understanding, and even liberal minded. Some are trickier and more doctrinaire, some of them are not very nice at all. I find this comforting as if everyone was very nice this would be a bit Stepford Wivesish. The variation in people’s character is refreshing and unexpected for most visitors. The main difference I think is that we generally expect people in North Korea to be in an almost perpetual state of anti-American rage. This si the view given in the media (both ours an theirs) but in reality this anti-Americanism is so abstract to most people that they don’t think about it all that much. After all its a poor place so most people are generally more concerned with food, family issues, education for their kinds, health for their parents, finding a pretty girlfriend/handsome boyfriend, etc than crushing their enemies all the time

Is Kim Jong Un like totally cute up close?

Sorry, never seen him in the flesh so couldn’t comment. The Onion clearly thought so though!

Do the residents have internet access or is it limited to what they can see/can do on the internet, if so what was your experience on it? Why is there never cars/people walking around when ever i see videos or pictures of N.korea?

The common person there has no internet access at all. Very very few people have ever used the true internet, with any luck this will change soon. There is a national intranet operated in universities and study houses, this contains mainly academic data for studying, some games and chat facilities etc too. but this is not something people can use widely and not for hours at a time. The intranet contains (I am told) no adult material at all, making it utterly distinct from the regular internet.

Is there anywhere in the DPRK (or indeed China) that sells North Korean vinyl records? I have a growing collection of what one might term propaganda recordings, but I imagine the Pyongyang crate-digging scene is somewhat on the small side.

I have never seen any vinyl records for sale there. Some must exist as obviously when people listened to music in the past they used records but I have never seen them there. The only NK related vinyl I have is a record released to mark a visit by Norodom Sihanouk – its a 10 inch record with music & lyrics in a book attached, one side is tracks written by Sihanouk about Kim Il Sung and the relationship between the two states, the other some general NK militaristic tracks. No second hand record stores or anything like that there, sorry!

Are the people nice? Do they genuinely like their government?

Most of the people I know there are nice, some are not – a statistic repeated across the range of humanity I think. As for their views on their government it is very hard to say for sure. certainly there are levels of support. This is the great unknown in North Korea though. It may be some years before proper objective information on this can be made clear.

How difficult is it for the average person to go there? Edit: Also how dangerous?

It’s very easy in fact. As a travel company we are not permitted to take journalists, we cannot take people on South Korean (ROK) passports but in general other than this anyone can go. Of the around 2000 people we take in a year something like 1/4 to 1/3 are from the US. The rest mostly from Western Europe, Australia, Canada, etc. the process of visa application is simple (the Chinese visa also needed to get there is usually more complicated) and anyone who would like to go would be welcome to drop us a line about it.

What’s the scariest thing you’ve seen (or were able to see)?

To be honest I haven’t seen anything truly and objectively scary. Tourisms as you might imagine cannot go to the deepest darkest parts of North Korea. But you can get an idea of what it is like while travelling around the country. In many ways seeing the zeal with which some people there take part in what could be called propaganda activities can be a bit scary; seeing the passion and true belief to an extent that is often unexpected can be eye-opening. But in all honesty I have never seen the darkest things that exist there.

Do you think the city of Hyesan could open for tourists at all? I suppose in general how much lobbying can Koryo Tours do to get new places open for tourists?

We can bring it up places we want to visit with our local partners, and put pressure on them to put pressure on the next level, and so on up the ladder. Problem is nobody seems to know quite how high the ladder goes so this is a slow and frustrating process However we tried for years to add the city of Hamhung to tourist itineraries and this was successful, Hoeryong also now. Chongjin too. Hyesan is on the list, but its a long list!

What are the tour guides doing in winter? When there are no tourists?

Basically they study – they have to memorize tracts which are issued every year about each place that tourists visit. Also about key topics like education system, co-operative farms, industry, that kind of thing. Often these are exceptionally dull. The one I saw that all guides had o learn about the Kimilsungia (a flower) was about 4 pages long, the first paragraph would have been enough. But then it went on at length about optimum growing conditions and so on, nothing anyone would really want to know about, nor would need to know about. But they are all supposed to learn these things. Often when there if a very standard question is asked to which a long formulaic answer is required the guides appear to go into a kind of trance (almost!) and rattle off the standard answer. The guides all joke about this afterwards though, they are not robots even though parts of their job are robotic, they can see the funny side of it! The visitors generally get more value from asking about personal lives, favorite films, how they met their husband/wife, etc re so than the big political questions (which will inevitably be discussed anyway).

 Are North Koreans allowed to leave the country and if so, under what circumstances and restrictions, if any?

More North Koreans than most people expect leave the country (I refer here to people leaving legally) however as people expect the number to be zero this isn’t saying much. There are people who live and work overseas as diplomats, businessmen, waitresses, loggers, etc etc but the general rule is that when you go abroad it is because you are sent there, not because you just fancied a visit or to have a look around another country. The vast majority of people have never been abroad, even the vast majority of people in Pyongyang

I’ve heard their television channels are very…. limited and very controlled. Could you describe a typical day of television programs there and what they entail?

Some news (which is mostly propaganda of course, but sometimes there is real news reported too), cartoons (usually local, but sometimes foreign), movies (again usually local, foreign at weekends), and documentaries – usually on the leaders, war, history, that kind of thing. Its fair to say that to most outsiders its pretty dull and uninspiring. Oh, they have exercise shows as well

Generally speaking, how do North Koreans feel about south Koreans? do they ever discuss the n/s Korea political situation?

They do discuss it, in broad terms. And they more or less follow the party line of SK government = bad, SK people = our brothers and sisters. People very much look forward to reunification and believe that it would follow their plan of a confederal republic. One country, two systems. So discussions on this are always worthwhile, and I would encourage it for anyone going there.

What has compelled you to go there so often?

I visit for work. Taking in tourists, sports teams, school trips and so on. But its a fascinating place. The people tend to be much more interested in the outside world than is expected, they also tend to be very easy to get along with and as much interaction is possible is found to be very worthwhile.

Would you say western society has a very warped view of what the North Koreans are like?

On the human level perhaps. we do tend to ignore the fact that the average person gets up in the morning, goes to work, is underpaid, has family concerns, etc like most other people. Its hard to humanize a people we have very little knowledge of or interaction with. That’s one of the reasons we try to promote as much interaction as possible (which is very difficult). Likewise the North Koreans often have no idea of the real lives of western people – they think that Americans in particular spend a lot of time thinking about North Korea and plotting how to destroy it, and are often disappointed when it is explained that most people don’t give them a second thought.

Does North Korea have any big fast food branches? (like Mc Donalds, KFC etc.)

No, none. It has 3 branches of a burger chain which was opened with Singaporean investment. 2 branches of a friend chicken place, opened with (I believe) South Korean investment,  and a handful of street side burger shacks, none of the places you mentioned though.

Have you spoken to anyone who escaped from a work camp? If so what was their experience?

Sorry I haven’t. There are some very interesting books on this subject though.

Do you just tour Pyongyang where most elites live or do the tours go outside to rural areas where their population is starving to death?

Tours all go to Pyongyang, but most also go outside to other areas. It isn’t like there are just two kinds of places there though, some second-tier cities are in better condition than others, some countryside areas are more fertile and viable than others. Some areas benefit from cross border trade with China and thus can sustain people much better than others. However the areas where people have the least food, the least services, the hardest lives, etc cannot be visited by tourists. Many areas around the country can, and the list is expanding all the time, but not everywhere.

I’d say you might be one of the only people on reddit with enough data to finally answer this question: Statistically, Is North Korea best Korea?

Good question. As the concept of ‘best’ is subjective I believe that this can’t be answered statistically. Sorry!

It might seem like a dumb question but what is the DPRK’s stance on marijuana?

I’m no specialist in this field but as I understand they have no real official stance on it. There is an article about this at http://www.nknews.org/2013/01/struggle-is-the-enemy-weed-is-the-remedy-the-truth-about-marijuana-in-north-korea/ its a little sensational, but worth reading

My question is, it seems very often, people who are journalists wanting to go through DPRK go through as tourists, and then they write their book, or produce their TV show or what have you. I know that the DPRK won’t allow reporters except in very controlled circumstances.

How does it affect your relationship with the DPRK when someone who goes through your agency as a tourist ends up publishing a print or video report that’s critical of the DPRK as a whole and or the trip (ie, my handlers didn’t let me see poor people, I was only shown what they wanted me to see etc..)

Do they get angry with you guys, or is the expectation of vetting if someone is a journalist posing as a tourist something they are supposed to figure out prior to granting a visa? Does that end up souring your relationship with the DPRK, or is it just something that they know is going to happen every one out of ten times or so, and just figure that its better for them to get the tourism dollar than close the country down to tourism on the risk that some of the tourists will be western journalists who will be critical of the DPRK?

Also, if I personally go on a tour through the DPRK, and I don’t do anything stupid, am I relatively safe. By the time I go I would be traveling on a Canadian passport, but I’m from the USA originally, and I’m sure they would ask where I was born..If I’m not doing anything moronic do I have nothing to worry about or is there always a chance that because I’m an American they will decide that it might be politically good to arrest me and hold me hostage for awhile until they can find an American ex president to come rescue me. Which seems to be what has to happen when people are arrested.

 Thanks for this comment, very interesting one. Basically as a tourism organization we are not permitted to take in journalists. There are ways for journalists to go but the opportunities are quite rare in general. We can get told off of we do take in journalists and we ask everyone when they apply to be honest about this. We may well have taken in people undercover as it were and not know about it, we have certainly taken in people who have published things after the trip and in general blogs, etc are not an issue at all. Its only the major media which could cause problems and touch wood this hasn’t been a problem for a while. If you’re on the tour and people discover you were born in the US (this is written in your passport right? its not a hard thing to find out) then they wouldn’t care. This doesn’t matter at all. Nothing to worry about. We’ve never had anyone arrested, detained, kicked out, etc. never. Never had to call in Clinton, Bush, Nixon, whoever to rescue any tourists (Obviously this circumstances of the recent arrests that everyone knows about are a bit different to being a tourist visa) so this isn’t a credible concern honestly. It is however probably the most common question we are asked (after ‘really?’). I hope this goes some way to answering it!

If I were to visit North Korea through your agency, is it possible to watch a local North Korean football game and visit the famous Okryugwan restaurant?

Yes, these are both possible. Local football matches take place in 5 batches though out the year. Basically a series of round-robins. International games take place too but only when scheduled, there is only the occasional friendly.

Is it true that each non-Korean in NK has an appointed translator who basically follows him everywhere?

Each tour group (be it one person, or 20 people) has 2 tour guides (who are translators too) who lead them around, they don’t follow you, you follow them!

What does the normal tour look like? Do you get involved with the locals?

As much as possible we do.  Although there are many limitations. I always try to encourage people to go to places where random interaction is more likely; parks, funfairs, bowling, walks along the river, picnics, that kind of thing. People in North Korea are not the most forthcoming so interacting with people does tend to need a push from the visitors side. Taking a football or some balloons along on a trip is often the best way to interact with people

What other languages do the people of North Korea speak? Does anyone speak English?

Most people speak no foreign languages.  However this is gradually changing with English now part of the curriculum (however many schools in the countryside still have no way of teaching this), so the numbers of young people, particularly students, who can speak English are going up. People who are very very old can usually speak Japanese (they were forced to do so under the occupation), and some middle aged people can speak Russian. Chinese is also very common particularly among people involved in tourism (the vast majority of tourists who go are Chinese)

As a person picky about food, would I even be able to go?

Yes. Depending on how picky you are you might want to supplement the food given with some things you are used to though. Usually most people have no problem though

We you there around the time of Kim Jong Il’s death? If so, were people as shaken up and upset about it as American media led us to believe? I know that you mentioned that they take their news at face value, but does that apply to the deification of their leader as well?

I wasn’t there myself, in fact it happened at a time when no tourists were there (deep winter). However I would say people were surprised about it. although he had been visibly ill the news there never explicitly reported on this, they always had him being very active and so on and I think even though people could deduce that he hadn’t been well they never knew it properly, So his death was unexpected and the loss of a constant presence in people’s loves. I would imagine people felt quite uncertain and nervous at that time. The scenes of grief and so on that are now so famous appear to be both real and exaggerated; people there know how to perform at such an occasion and OTT moaning and rending of clothes doesn’t mean that it is totally fake of course. I would say it is a performance based on a level of genuine feeling for most people. Hard to be sure on this though, one day we may know!

I am shocked how, well, shocked I am after reading these answers. I must be the quintessential “Ugly American” but I had a very different view on North Korea. One thing I don’t understand is, if people can go into NK fairly easily, what is the big deal about NK-SK reunions like what were just in the news? Can SK citizens not go into NK?

That’s right, SK citizens cannot go as tourists. The family reunions are sadly very infrequent and only involve a very small number of people. These are government level arrangements also.

Do they have beer pong in NK? Legitimately curious.

No, they have beer though. And ping pong. It’s just waiting to be introduced.

How badly is the internet censored? I know it gets censored, but to what degree?

To the extent that nobody has access to it basically.

What are some of the most shocking daily reminders that you witness that remind you you’re in a totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship?

It’s a somewhat loaded question obviously but the main thing that makes every visitor constantly aware that they are in a country very different to their own would be first the limitations placed on the movement of visitors. In brief you must be accompanied by tour guides wherever you go, the itinerary must be planned in advance (this is what we do, it isn’t imposed on tourists from above, it is planned in co-operation with the travel agency). That said there is some small leeway for things such as going to local sports events, having some time in a park to mingle with people having picnics, wandering at leisure around a funfair. But movement is restricted; rules on tourists are strictly enforced and so on. This is the most visceral reminder. Additionally just looking around one sees the lack of adverts, the uniformity of dress (with some variations emerging in recent years), the architectural style, the flags, portraits of Kim Il Sung, and so on which leave you in no doubt that you are in fact in North Korea. There’s never really any doubt about where you are.

I’ve always wanted to go, but still cannot put aside the money required for a trip to the DPRK. My fear is that by the time I can afford it, the regime may have crumbled by that point or war could break out again. Do you ever think that would ever be a possibility in the next few years?

Predicting the lifespan of any government is very hard of course, also predicting wars too. It seems like a war is highly unlikely though, as for the big political question – that’s really one for expects who focus on such issues. I would suggest reading the essays of Andrei Lankov for one about this kind of thing, he’s much better qualified than I to answer the political questions.

To what extent are foreign movies and fiction writing available to North Koreans? Would they know Star Trek? Can they read a novel, say by Agatha Christie?

This is a very good question. I would say no in both examples though. Those in North Korea who are lucky enough to study foreign languages, literature, etc often know quite a few foreign writers, these tend to be along the classic lines such as Dickens, Jack London, etc. but a lot of young people know Harry Potter (this is in Pyongyang by the way, outside the capital this drops off). Foreign films are seen (legally I mean) not so often but there is a film festival in Pyongyang every two years that a few thousand people attend, also Saturday evenings foreign films are shown, usually older Chinese and Russian ones but sometimes more modern fare, such as Bend it Like Beckham. Still while the days of people asking if Mozart is still alive may have passed it is not strange there at all for people not to know what Star Wars is, not to have any opinion on Jacob vs Edward, etc.

How do you justify to yourself the money you bring into the totalitarian murderous dictatorship of North Korea through your tours? In future years will you look back on your time there as people do to Stalin’s USSR or Mao’s China or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia?

Basically we take the approach that exposing as many North Koreans to as many foreigners (and vice versa) as possible will in some small and incremental way help to demystify both sides. The level and veracity of anti-US, anti-Japanese, etc propaganda in North Korea is hard to overstate. So humanizing the other side and making people see as much as possible that at the simple human level people are all the same has great value. This constructive engagement approach is supported by a wide range of national governments, embassies, and international organizations. Obviously nobody wants to support the government of North Korea. but its too simplistic to state that all tourism $ go to the government to use for the bad stuff they get up to. There is a cost to everything bought or used there just as there is anywhere else. Tourism numbers are very low and profit as paid to the government in tax by local companies is also low, and we believe counterbalanced by the engagement approach. We hope and expect eventual change there which will improve the lives of the everyday people, people we engage with as much as possible on as many ways as possible (through sports, school exchanges, etc) and I would hope that in the future we can look back and see that during our time there we helped to move people away from the idea that all foreigners are evil and up to no good. and for the visitors that there is a difference between the 24 million people who live in the country and their government. That people can kick a football around with each other without it being a national issue. That kind of thing.

Sorry if this was answered before but is it safe for foreigners to visit North Korea? And how do they typically view these foreigners whether they are American, Canadian, Chinese, etc…

To be honest they view them all the same when you’re there. Most people you interact with are involved in tourism and have a lot of experience in dealing with tourists. Those you interact with who are not involved in tourism are usually just excited to interact with a foreigner, it isn’t very common there!

How widespread is smoking in North Korea? In China it seemed like everyone smoked. I just wonder if the authoritarian government had particular policies on it.

It’s rare for men not to smoke. I know only a handful of men there who do not smoke. However it is exceptionally rare for women to smoke. Sometimes you see some older ladies smoking, local tradition has it that when a woman is widowed she then starts smoking her husband’s brand to remind her of him

There have been anti-smoking policies though. Kim Jong Il was supposed to have described smokers as one of the three great fools of the 21st century at a time when he quit himself (the other fools BTW were people who don’t like music, people who aren’t interested in computers).

Quick question; have any of your tourists been arrested and/or never ended up leaving the country?

No, never happened to any of our tourists.

Would you recommend a student right out of high school to take a trip alone? Of course, I don’t understand the risks and wouldn’t do anything stupid like insult their beliefs or leaders.

While they don’t take kindly to criticism of their leaders this is something most people already assume on a tour. It is safe to take the trip alone at any age.

I’m going to ask what i can only assume is on everyone’s mind what’s the night life like in Pyongyang?!

There isn’t much of it to speak of. For tourists there are hotel bars (all of the hotels have them), or going to a different hotel or different bar. There are funfairs in Pyongyang that are open late, as late as midnight. There are no nightclubs or late bars outside of hotels. By midnight its all pretty deserted to be honest. The local’s entertainment in Pyongyang is basically drinking a bit after work (men), chatting with family and friends, singing karaoke (done at home usually), walking around and sitting outside. It’s fair to say, it isn’t Bangkok.

I see you are a sports fan. Does North Korea have many team sports programs for the public, such as in schools or otherwise? If so, what sports do they prefer? If not sports, do they get any recreation?

They do have sports at school, mostly football (soccer), volleyball, gymnastics, ping pong, etc. People are work units also have mandatory sports practice which is usually calisthenics and volleyball (none contact, and can be played by men and women). The most popular sport is football although the teams there are pretty poor at it. The women’s team is one of the higher ranked in the world but can’t seem to turn it on at the very top level (despite the powdered deer antler!). I go to as many local football games as I can but there is rarely much of a crowd, and not much chanting, singing, or anything like that.

Is there any live theater in North Korea? Musicals? Are they propaganda-like or real works or art?

They have theatre, ballet, etc. but a very limited range of performances. All are essentially propaganda. The 5 revolutionary operas are stunning performances with very unsubtle messages. Whether people see them for the message or the form is hard to say. There have been some visits by foreign troupes, performers, and so on and these are often shown on TV. the pieces they perform tend to be pretty neutral though.

Have you ever read the book Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick? If so, has life in North Korea (customs, social relationships, etc) changed much or is it still somewhat like she describes in the book. Always been curious about this, thanks!

Yes, it’s a terrific book, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone. A very well written and important book indeed. I have been to Chongjin and Kyongsong several times. The journey itself is fascinating even though the list of things you can see and do there is much more limited than in Pyongyang and elsewhere. Also the local tour guides are much stricter when it comes to photos etc. It makes Pyongyang look super-liberal really. The situation there is clearly not the same as it was as the time period covered by the book but this area is also clearly much poorer than other areas. I would estimate that the majority of people we take to Chongjin have read Nothing to Envy as a primer for the trip


4 responses

  1. Reblogged this on danmillerinpanama and commented:
    A fascinating interview with a chap who takes tourists to North Korea and who has been there more than one hundred times. Well worth reading.

    February 14, 2013 at 2:20 am

  2. Reblogged this on 365 Days in Korea and commented:
    An interesting insight into a trip to North Korea. He clears some things up and dispels a few rumours but also confirms a few speculations. An interview worth reading if you’re interested in the North.

    February 14, 2013 at 3:54 am

  3. Dee Williamd

    Brilliant insight. A very good interview with very good answers. I really want to go

    April 1, 2013 at 11:23 am

  4. Pingback: Crisi coreana - Pagina 109

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