Travelers looking to experience something totally different and to travel to a place where, most assuredly none of your friends have ever been, then North Korea is the place for you. An anachronism in so many ways, the country is one of only a handful of communist states left in the world, one that continues to play by its own rules on the world stage, and one that is sadly backwards, yet oddly charming. For the savvy and intrepid traveler, this strange land can provide a wonder and mystery that can only be found in very few corners of the world. One thing should be noted, it is impossible to write about North Korea without mentioning the government. The government permeates everything about the country, including tourism. Visitors to North Korea will always be members of a tour group, and will have at least one “guide” with the group, whose function is to keep tabs on tourists as much as it is to provide information to them.
To say that the government is paranoid and controlling is putting it mildly. Many tourists will feel limited and stifled because of the rules and regulations put into place. Of course, there are many ways to bend the rules. The best way to get ahead in North Korea is to play along and be respectful. Showing respect to the guides, the people, and the government will reward itself in the guides feeling more comfortable with you and perhaps allowing you to go out alone some, or showing you some places that are not normally seen by tourists. On the other hand, showing disrespect and speaking ill towards the government and its leader, Kim Jong Il, can have severe penalties for tourists and guides as well. It is important to keep in mind that severe penalties in places like North Korea are totally different than what most Westerners think of. Prison sentences, heavy fines, and worse are common in North Korea for even the smallest misdemeanor. Even if you feel that stopping and bowing in front of a statue of Kim Jong Il is totally absurd, you should still show respect by remaining still and silent as others pay homage. North Korean tour guides are expected to “control” the guests, so any disturbance or scene caused by a guest, will negatively affect your guide, and could easily get them into very hot water.
All that being said, the sights that await visitors in this country are like no others in the world. In Pyongyang, visitors will be shocked to find that even though many people can’t afford food and electricity at certain times of the year, the city has a functional and spotlessly clean metro, complete with beautiful artwork and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Visitors will be taken to Mansu Hill, where they can pay their respects to the “Great Leader”, Kim Sung Il, by bowing in front of a 20 meter tall statue of the leader. Another monument to the first Kim, is the Juche Tower. Rising over 170 meters, the tower was built using over 25,000 stones to commemorate the leader’s 70th birthday. One of the biggest pilgrimages in the country is to Mangyong Hill, birthplace of Kim Il-Sung. Thousands of Koreans visit the museum to witness the hard-scrabble conditions that the hero of heroes for North Korea had to endure in his childhood.
Kaesong was once home to a huge population, and was the seat of the Koryo Dynasty. Unfortunately, over the years, several wars decimated large parts of the city’s historical legacy, but a walk through the old quarter can provide a glimpse into the city’s past. Kaesong also has several museums and ancient ruins that have been preserved that are worth seeing.
North Korea is also home to some severe weather with the winter’s biting cold, and the summer’s monsoons. However, planning a trip during the spring or late summer/early fall, visitors will be impressed with the gorgeous skies, and alternately, blooming flowers or spectacular autumn colors.
Traveling to North Korea isn’t for the faint of heart, and is probably better suited for experienced travelers looking for something totally off the beaten path. Although visitors may feel like they are being treated poorly or that they are being ripped off for food or in hotels, rest assured that the overwhelming majority of North Koreans have it far worse. A trip to North Korea may not be for everyone, but for those daring enough to make the journey, the reward will be well worth it.