In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.
Independent travel to North Korea is generally prohibited, and the country's main tour company, the state-run Korea International Travel Company (KITC), doesn't deal directly with the public. Western visitors must therefore book a guided tour through one of a half dozen or so tour agents operating outside the country. These foreign tour companies generally set the tour itineraries and arrange the visas, travel tickets, and accommodation, and while they may send a company representative to accompany the group, all the local guiding is done by KITC employees who are assigned to the group and remain with it at all times, even in the hotels.
I arranged my visit through Koryo Tours, a British-run company based in Beijing, and the oldest company specializing in DPRK travel. Their six-day Early August Tour 2015 coincided with the end of a scientific conference I was attending in Beijing, which made it an easy choice for me. Signing up for the tour was as simple as filling out an online form, wiring 50% of the tour fee as a deposit, and sending a copy of my passport and photograph for them to arrange the visa. (If there's no DPRK consulate near you, Koryo Tours obtains a visa on your behalf and gives it to you in Beijing, where the tour starts. In this case, the visa is issued on a separate piece of paper which is stamped on entry and taken away from you on exit. Whether this is an advantage or disadvantage depends on what you think of having evidence of travel to North Korea in your passport.)
My adventure started on the afternoon of 31 July, when I attended the mandatory tour briefing at the Koryo Tours office in Beijing. Here I met the rest of our group and our tour manager, Sarah. Sarah went over the tour rules and guidelines, which had been sent to us earlier by e-mail. This covered advice on basic Korean customs and how much money to bring, but also very strong warnings about the sort of behaviour that could land us, her company, and the local guides in very deep trouble—namely, journalism, proselytizing, and showing disrespect to the supreme leaders Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. In fact, we all had to sign agreements confirming that we were not journalists and would not publish any photographs or articles about our trip in any mainstream media, and that we would not attempt to convert the local population, even by passive means such as leaving Bibles in hotel rooms.
|My DPRK visa (cover)||My DPRK visa (inside)||Checking in||Our Air Koryo plane|
The next morning at 10:00, we all met near the Koryo Tours office and climbed on the airport shuttle bus, where Sarah handed everyone their DPRK visas. We soon found ourselves stuck in heavy traffic, and some of us started to get nervous about missing our flight. "Don't worry, folks," Sarah reassured us. "Air Koryo's the kind of airline that would gladly hold the flight for us if I call ahead." (Air Koryo is the state-owned national airline of the DPRK.)
On arrival at the airport we stopped at the bank machines to withdraw Chinese yuan for spending money. (Visitors to the DPRK use yuan, euros, or US dollars for all purchases; using the local won isn't normally permitted.) Then we headed to the Air Koryo checkin desk, which for most of us was our first encounter with actual North Koreans. While our tour group stood in line to check in, the Koreans next to us were busy wrapping up enormous boxes, crates, and suitcases full of consumer electronics. Sarah explained that she sees the same Korean travellers over and over again at the airport—it's probably their job to travel back and forth to Beijing to load up on sanctioned goods.
Sarah warned us that the flight meals were terrible, so after checking in, most of us headed to Starbucks for a quick snack. This was also our last chance to check e-mail, since there is generally no Internet access for tourists (or anyone else, for that matter) in North Korea.
|The Pyongyang Times||DPRK Magazine||Air Koryo economy class||In-flight entertainment|
Before long, it was time to board the plane—a Russian-made Tupolev Tu-204. Like any other airline, they offered us a range of complimentary newspapers and magazines at the end of the jet bridge. By the time I got there, all copies of the English-language Pyongyang Times were gone, but I managed to snag the last copy of Democratic People's Republic of Korea. This is a beautifully produced, large-size, glossy magazine, though the writing would put even the most die-hard DPRK fanboy to sleep: page after page of articles glorifying Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. Nonetheless, Koryo Tours had warned us to treat these publications with respect: tourists have occasionally gotten into trouble for folding them so as to crease the cover image of the supreme leaders.
The aircraft interior was clean and modern-looking, and the flight attendants young and well-groomed. The in-flight entertainment consisted of a slickly-produced military concert video. For a couple hours, we all watched uniformed women sing the praises of the Korean People's Army to backdrops of old Korean War footage intercut with clips of a beaming Kim Jong Un. At the end of each number the camera would pull away from the stage to reveal a hall filled to capacity with applauding generals and other high-ranking officers. (Over the course of our tour, we became intimately familiar with this video, as it was played for us at almost every meal, no matter what restaurant or hotel we ate at.)
Contrary to expectations, the in-flight meal—a large bun containing a meat-and-vegetable patty—was quite tasty. I attempted to take a photo of it, but a flight attendant told me that photographing the food was forbidden(!). Dejectedly, I put away my camera while others in my group who had not received the warning snapped away with impunity.
|The mysterious Koryo burger,
as photographed by a fellow traveller
|The new Pyongyang Airport terminal|
Our flight arrived in Pyongyang around 16:00 Korean Time. We had been warned in advance that the border guards might try to inspect our electronic devices, and this turned out to be the case with me and others in our group. After showing my passport, I was taken aside and asked to surrender my digital camera and netbook. The guard returned my camera almost immediately—I don't think he even bothered turning it on—but he took particular interest in the netbook. He put it on a metal table and pressed the power button, and asked me to log in. I then witnessed him spend a good five minutes attempting to navigate my KDE desktop environment in a state of total confusion. It was clear he had never before encountered a computer running GNU/Linux. He moved around and closed windows at random, and opened and closed the Kickoff application launcher several times, completely bamboozled by the unfamiliar interface. Eventually he turned around and said to me, "Movies?"
I understood that he was looking for contraband films, which as far as North Korea is concerned means any movie in Korean or about Korea but not produced by the DPRK. I took control of the machine, using the only terminal window he hadn't yet closed to list the contents of my video folder. "Movies!" I said, pointing at the output of ls.
He clearly didn't understand. "Movies?" he asked again.
"Yes, this is a list of the movies!" I said, again pointing at the terminal output.
The guard directed his gaze at the terminal window and then back to me several times. He had no idea what to do. After a long pause, he said to me, "So, no movies?"
I sighed and decided not to press the matter. "Yeah, no movies," I said.
"OK, goodbye," said the guard.
I packed up my computer and headed out the security door and into the airport lobby. I had made it into the country.