The ultimate "rogue state", the pinnacle of the "axis of evil", the Hermit Kingdom, the most secretive nation on Earth, home to the most excessive cult of personality ever, the realm of the Kims, the last beacon of staunchly Stalinist communism
... the list could go on and on.
There's so much that could be said about this most enigmatic country on the planet, but there isn't really the scope for a full political account of the country on this website.
North Korea will also have to be monitored for changes – especially since the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il
joined his great father
in the eternal Juche Tower in the sky in December 2011 and his youngest son Kim Jong Un became ruler Kim #3, at the young age of only 28.
Kim Jong Un at first didn't seem to have quite the full grip on leadership that his Dear Dad still enjoyed. Instead it looked like he had to share power with an uncle and the military top brass, like a mere figurehead without any clout. Bit by bit, however, Young Kim #3 seems to have asserted his position more than outsiders had expected. He even purged that said uncle in late 2013 and had him executed, a clear signal to anybody within the nomenklatura possibly daring to threaten the position of the new "Supreme Leader".
Whether his leadership will also allow for any substantial changes in foreign politicy or societal or economic reforms is still very unclear. We'll have to wait and see. So far, the propaganda and cult of personality at least seem to go on unabated.
For now, let's concentrate on the current dark tourism aspects:
Why it's dark
should really go without saying. The Korean War
, an abominable human rights record, a most extreme communist
dictatorship, devastating famine starving millions, the ongoing confrontation with the West, esp. the USA
(in particular on the issue of the development of nuclear weapons
) and just the fact that it is so shut off from the rest of the world – it all makes for more darkness than most other countries put together could muster. It's also the most "weird-dark" destination in the world, thanks to the unparalleled cult of personality characterizing the country.
As regards individual places, the following are given separate entries on this website:
- Kim Mausoleum
- Mass Games
- Panmunjom and DMZ
- International Friendship exhibition
- Atrocities Museum
(Note that the individual entries will not (have to) include details regarding transport, opening hours, admission costs and the like. Things like that simply don't apply in North Korea. Everything will be fully organized for you – see below.)
But can you go to North Korea as a tourist at all? Tourism in North Korea?!? Yes. It may indeed come as a surprise to many that it is in fact possible to travel to this crazy place. Though not in the "normal" way. There is no normal with regard to North Korea. And there are severe restrictions. But it is possible, even though North Korea remains one of the least visited countries on the planet. It sure is exotic to the max.
And it's got somewhat easier. The restrictions
that used to be in place with regard to tourists from the USA
wanting to visit North Korea have been lifted. In the past citizens of the great arch-enemy, the "Imperialist Yankee Aggressor", were allowed in only on separate tours and only on few special occasions. Now Americans can travel to the DPRK
just like any other nationality. The big exception remains South Korea
. Nobody travelling on a ROK
passport will be given a visa to North Korea. End of.
Some restrictions remain for all travellers. Most importantly: independent travel is not allowed in North Korea at all (neither for foreigners nor for North Koreans!). You have to go on an organized tour with guides, always two guides, in fact, irrespective of the size of the group. (Some assume it has to be two guides because they have to monitor each other as much as they have to monitor you, the tourist, so that they do not say the "wrong" things …).
THE specialist offering organized trips to the DPRK is the British (but Beijing-based) operator "Koryo Tours
", who have been running such tours for about two decades and have the best experience and contacts. They offer both group and tailor-made individual tours. They can also brief you about visas, dos and don'ts, and so on. See this sponsored page for Koryo Tours
What you get to see in the country is pretty much predetermined – by what the Koreans want you to see, not necessarily what you want to see. Fortunately there's enough overlap between the two from a dark tourism perspective to make for various stunning itineraries. If you want to go as an individual or as part of a small group with a tailor-made itinerary, there is some choice as to what to include and what not. But that list itself is predetermined. For such a tour you should plan ahead and make your wishes known well in advance (check out Koryo Tours
Remember, though, that even as an individual traveller you will always have to be accompanied by two Korean guides assigned by the North Korean authorities. And having the same two guides with you all the time during the day could be a bit much. Also, individual tours are naturally a lot more expensive.
Most visitors, however, simply go on organized group tours that are offered from/to Beijing, China
(the only gateway to North Korea for tourists anyway). And group tours are quite probably the best way to see the country – even if you're (like me) not normally one for group travel, here, for once, it's actually the better option. For two reasons mainly: firstly, the other people who share this desire to go to North Korea (which most "normal" people find utterly "bizarre") will typically be interesting people themselves too. I can certainly vouch for that on the basis of my own experience from the tour I joined in August 2005 (I'm still in touch with some of them!). Secondly, in a group of 15 or so people, the impact of being watched by your Korean guides is less noticeable, you can blend in more and have more breathing space.
Theoretically, you could even go just as an individual – but any number of travellers, whether 20 or just one individual, will always have to be accompanied by two Korean guides assigned by the North Korean authorities. You may be given a bit more flexibility with regard to a travel itinerary, but you will still not really be free to choose what to see (and what not). And having two guides with you all the time during the day could be a bit much. Also, individual tours are naturally a lot more expensive. So in this case I'd argue for group travel.
Just a few more general points that have to be understood about travelling to North Korea, or the DPRK
, as the country is officially called. Consider these points well before making any plans to visit this country:
The North Koreans will be keen to show off what they regard as the best the country has to offer. If you get a weird kick out of socialist realism
monumentality and cult-of-personality excesses, then North Korea will be your El Dorado. If not, you'll get much less out of travelling to the DPRK.
Obviously enough you will not be shown any of the really dark bits – no detention centres or gulags
(whose existence would be denied if, stupidly, you asked!). Nor will you get anywhere near nuclear installations. You may not even see much of the conventional military machine of the country – although the proportion of North Koreans you'll see in military uniforms
is similarly restricted: while you can happily photograph all that's considered glorious, taking pictures of poverty, dereliction or anything military is right out. (On my trip, the train out of the country to Beijing at one point about halfway between Pyongyang and the border passed a freight train which was clearly loaded with barely concealed missiles … and even though by then we didn't have any guides with us any more, no one even reached for their cameras …)
Criticism or arguing about North Korea politically with your guides is pointless, and actually counterproductive (for the atmosphere alone). Don't even try it. Just go along with everything (and just entertain your own thoughts quietly).
At some points you will actually be requested to pay your respects to the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung
, the deceased god-like "eternal president" of the DPRK, as well as to his equally deceased son Kim Jong Il. At several grand statues of the big man (and his successor son) you're supposed to bow – maybe even lay down flowers. If that's a problem for you, then perhaps you shouldn't be visiting North Korea.
Itineraries and programmes change, often without any forewarning, no matter how assured certain itinerary items may have been. The standard line on the tour I was on was "it's 100% confirmed – unless it changes". And things did change. But complaining is, again, pointless. You just have to go with the flow. It is part of the overall experience.
You will in any case be given a package that will be utterly and uniquely different from travels anywhere else in the world. Appreciate it. It's a privilege.
I personally regard my North Korea trip as the most exotic, weirdest and, yes, the "coolest" of all the travels I have ever undertaken.
- Kim Jong Il socialist realism
- North Korea - crumbling industry
- North Korea empty motorway
- North Korea ex-railway bridge
- North Korea motorway near DMZ
- North Korea rural
- North Korea waving children in small town
- North Korean kimchi galore
- North Korean speciality - dog soup
- old Soviet-built North Korean aircraft
- promising mural on airport wall
- puzzling over propaganda
- rural railway station with gleaming Kim Il Sung
- rural train line
- schoolchildren music performance
- socialist realism embroidery of heavy industry
- studio set mock Western moral corruption
- the glorious West Sea Barrage celebrated
- the glorious West Sea Barrage
- worship of socialist heroes