(X-posted from another blog)
I’ve been fascinated with North Korea for some time. Their history spans 5000 years, and they worship the Kims as gods. They see us as imperialist aggressors, and they’re not wrong. No country is more imperialist and meddling than America. On that count I agree with them wholeheartedly.
All this time – as I soaked up any little bit of info I could get on North Korea – I just assumed isolationist policies did not allow any room for tourism. They don’t see themselves as subjugated as much as protected from the outside world. But the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as they like to be called) does have a fledgling tourism industry, and about 6,000 visitors a year are invited to the DPRK. Most of these are Chinese, some South Korean. Further, I assumed that because of their fury and hatred toward America, American citizens were banned from ever getting a tourist visa. I was wrong. I will not be the first American to visit and come back with no problems, but it is very likely that while there, I will be the only American in the country.
From the hotel window
I am beyond thrilled that I will get to see the country for myself, even if it is a pre-packaged tour, carefully arranged and totally supervised by guides employed by the DPRK travel company, a privileged position to be working. I am working with Koryo Tours based in Beijing, the intermediary between foreigners wanting to travel to the DPRK and the DPRK government. There are many steps to the process, but I have already submitted all documentation for the visa and am getting ready to put a deposit down on the tour. The night before we leave, there is a required pre-tour briefing at the Koryo tours offices in Beijing. At that time I can buy traveler’s insurance and even pay for the rest of the tour.
I was sent a long instruction packet about the DPRK. At the top it said DO NOT bring this to North Korea. In it was extensive information about the country, about what you can and cannot bring, information about the hotel we’ll be staying at, and some debunked myths. For example, it is not illegal to talk to locals or for them to talk to you. There may be a language barrier, however. Another fascinating thing I learned is that American money is accepted there! Apparently the dollar has great value; one dollar there can feed a family for two days. I will need three forms of currency – RMB (Chinese, for while I’m Beijing for a day and a night) euro, and American dollars. There were repeated warnings to never wander off on your own, and especially to not leave your hotel room at night. Further warnings included bibles – do not bring them. There is an American over there detained still who purposely “forgot” a bible in a restroom. Just yesterday, North Korea publicly executed 80 for owning bibles. All in all, my pre-tour instruction packet is a fascinating document and included information about the DPRK you just can’t get unless you declare intentions to go there. An entire page was dedicated to essentials for packing, and included gifts for the guides. The top four items? Chocolate, apples, face cream, cigarettes. The first three items are exceptionally rare in the DPRK. My state is drowning in apples so I’ll bring a whole bag.
I haven’t decided yet if I’ll bring my laptop. I want it for the long flight to Beijing and back, and the DPRK does not confiscate laptops or cell phones since 2013. They may, however, want to search the contents of a laptop which I don’t want. While there it’ll be useless to me. I will be totally cut off from the rest of the world – there is no internet, no cell phones. You can get SIM cards for smart phones in Beijing to make international calls, but these are expensive, and I don’t even have a smartphone. In the hotel there are phones capable of international calls.
I will turn 30 in Pyongyang! My birthday falls right in the middle of the tour. I timed it in August because I want to see the Mass Games. There aren’t any actual games, but think Olympics opening ceremony on steroids. Over 100,000 performers put on a spectacle of a show. Very few westerners have seen it live and in person.
The DPRK is more liberal with photography than people think. I have been told I will take more pictures than I expect, so bring lots of memory cards because they are not available in the DPRK. The exception is when visiting the Mausoleum with the embalmed bodies of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il – photography is strictly forbidden. This place is extremely important to the North Korean people and you won’t be allowed in unless formally dressed. You are also required to lay flowers and bow like everyone else. And I will do it. I intend to totally immerse myself in the culture as much as possible, to be as open-minded and respectful as possible. I feel this is absolutely essential for things to go well, and to get along well with the guides.
If you want to take pictures of the Great Leaders (their pictures and statues are all over the capital) that’s also fine but it has to be all of them, no part cut off. The guides will check. You must also be careful not to fold newspapers with their pictures the wrong way – their faces cannot be creased, and under no circumstances can you throw the paper away. I am excited to see the English language Pyongyang Times. What a souvenir that will be!
I will post more as more happens. It’s time to give Koryo tours my down payment.