Oct 152008

While doing my usual cover-to-cover Lonely Planet read in preparation for an upcoming trip to Korea, the thought crossed my mind of possibly making a short excursion into the secretive and reclusive “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (aka North Korea).

Although it’s both extremely expensive and extremely unpredictable to enter the North as a tourist, it supposedly provides one of the most unique, interesting, and rewarding trips available on Earth today.

The DPRK is a country where ancient myth bends to political reality, where the mysterious dictator Kim Jong Il is believed to control the weather, and his father, dead for a decade, remains the head of state. To most of us the Cold War is just a distant memory – or a phrase once glossed over in a history textbook. But not in the DPRK. There, time has completely frozen. Mobile phones and the Internet are against the law, and any foreign visitor must be escorted at all times by two guides. Political propaganda saturates every facet of daily life. Nothing is treated as more important than the military. And while the Kim dynasty enjoys a life of great wealth and luxury, virtually nobody enjoys even the simple freedom of movement outside their town of residence. The lower class often ends up in forced labour camps, surviving off grass and rats – for infringements as little as having South Korean relatives – and of course every single person is obliged to wear “loyalty badges” featuring Kim Il Sung’s portrait. The DPRK has survived half a century of Stalinism, almost completely isolated from the outside world. It’s the only place in the world like it.

Imagine what an experience that could be.

Sadly, I learned that holders of American passports are only permitted to enter the DPRK during the Mass Games, the schedule of which does not agree with my own. But I decided to read through the North Korea section of LP anyway…and I have to say…I’m fascinated. Given a lazy Sunday afternoon with nothing in particular to do, I highly suggest spending an hour or two reading about the controversial history and frighteningly unusual present state of the DPRK.

Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to visit some day.

  21 Responses to “The DPRK”

  1. yikes, are cell phones and internet really prohibited? i mean i knew they were strict, but that’s just insane!

    i gotta say, the more mysteries the place, the more i want to experience it myself. *want* being the operative word. not sure if i’d actually ever go, though :-p

  2. That would be amazing to make it there! Glad that you are still making plans for traveling. I hope that you are highlighting lots of things and making copious notes before stepping on the plane. Thanks for keeping your blog updated.

  3. 万歳 for having both an American and German passport 😀

    Really, though, I look forward to reading about your upcoming trip.

  4. hmmm, blind worshiping of a figurehead. kind of amazing in this day and age, really…

  5. Oh boy…Noz, should I let you field this one? 😉

  6. lol…does Noz have some strong opinions on blind worship? 😛

  7. sounds interesting….I’ll go with you if you ever make it happen

  8. Linda: And that’s not even close to the most insane thing. How about the American tourist who once got thrown into prison for asking “Why is everyone here so skinny but Kim Jong Ill is so plump?” Their entire society is based upon worshiping KJI as a God…literally. The first stop on any tour is to the giant, bronze statue of KJI – the foot at which you are expected to place a bouquet of flowers. Locals can often be seen with damp eyes, being brought literally to tears by the image of their “Great Leader,” as they call him.

    Rory: You KNOW I am! 😉

    Max: Damn, I’m jealous.

    I want an EU passport! 😛

  9. C’mon dude – dont provide tourist dollars in support of a state that oppresses its people like that.

    P.S. – No, you don’t know me. I’m just a random lurker that enjoys reading your blog. 🙂

  10. i second mappo’s comment

  11. Hello new commenter!

    While I totally do agree with what you’re saying in principle, I don’t necessarily agree that in this case, visiting the DPRK would be doing a particularly bad/detrimental thing.

    I say that because in the grand scale of things, one budget traveler spending a couple thousand dollars for a few days of a unique experience doesn’t even put a dent in the millions (billions?) KJI is using to keep his dynasty alive. True, many budget travelers do add up, so in principle what I’m saying may be wrong and/or immoral. But one might also argue that by continuing to live in the US and pay its taxes, one is supporting a government that’s oppressed/murdered countless civilians in Iraq. One might argue that by eating beef, one is supporting the poor treatment and slaughter of innocent animals. One might argue that by driving a car, one is perpetuating the global dependence on oil and the increasing problem of global warming.

    The sad truth is that we all do things in our daily lives that negatively affect others, and while some of these things may be easier to avoid than others, you’ll drive yourself nuts if you look too deeply into everything you do. I always try never to do things that will harm others, and I do examine the consequences of my actions. But the fact is that in a case like this, it would take heaps of money and power to make much of a difference at all.

    If as a matter of principle you don’t want to spend your money in a place where it’ll almost certainly be put to bad uses, then I absolutely agree that you shouldn’t go to DPRK. But the small number of visas they issue annually are almost always sold out – so if you don’t go, someone else almost certainly will – and KJI will get his money anyway. Thus in my mind, abstaining from such an experience doesn’t really cause any good in the end. The difference isn’t whether he gets the cash or not, but only who it comes from.

    Otherwise, I certainly wouldn’t go.

  12. I didn’t have enough money to visit the country, in the end it was the DMZ tour for me, which was fine, too. Didn’t have to spend money in North Korea this way. http://japanese.tour2korea.com/ena/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=313068

  13. I actually did visit the DMZ (blog post here), but after reading the DPRK section of Lonely Planet…that ain’t nothin’ in comparison to the wackiness you’ll see and experience inside 😉

  14. Regarding the blind worship of Kim Jong Il… at least North Korea is up front about it. They brainwash everyone. Period. There is none of the farce of organized religion. In North Korea KJI is the only thing that matters, and if you don’t like it, you’re dead. Well, tortured first, then dead unless you change your mind.

    There is no annual month-long self-cleansing ritual, no annual rituals designed to covertly discourage critial thinking, and no weekly ritual of subverting yourself to god. There is no pageantry designed to mask the use of mind control techniques such as thought-stopping or source amnesia. There is no elaborate hierarchy of spiritual leaders, all of whom need money.

    I could keep going, but someone else has already said it better than I ever could: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeSSwKffj9o

    North Korea’s institutionalized worship of Kim Jong Il is the most honest religion in history.

  15. yeah, i guess it isn’t “blind” worship so much as “forced” worship.

    that clip is hilarious!! thanks for sharing, Noz 🙂

  16. I went to DPRK for 6 days back in 2005 with Koryo Tours. It was one of the most fascinating and rewarding trips I have been on. Seeing the sights that most people will never get to see, and everything that comes with it was something very special.

    I put a huge writeup on my site starting here:


    Also got plenty of photos I took and a tour video that was made during my visit. As for which of the rumours coming out of the country are true and which are not, actually going there can give you a bit of an idea. Reading something like Under The Loving Care Of The Fatherly Leader by Bradley Martin will give you a much better insight than most.

    In fact, there is a tour guidebook specifically for DPRK, which I picked up just before my trip. I believe it’s from a series called the Bradt Travel Guides

  17. A quick postscript, the pictures of the Dear Leader and The General in the schools, houses etc are definitely true, and the first thing I thought when I saw them was back to Imperialistic Japan, where every household had a picture of the Emperor.

  18. That’s the exact tour company I was looking into…and most likely would’ve gone with, were Americans allowed into the country at the time I’ll be available 😥

  19. Yeah, that sucks that you can’t get into the country when you are available. I would love to go back and see Arirang (the Mass Games).

    If you’ve an interest in that aspect of it, get hold of a documentary called A State Of Mind. It follows 2 girls through their lives in DPRK and preparations for the Mass Games. Great viewing.

  20. hehe,i could go to DPRK without visa.;-)

  21. Dave: Sweet, thanks, I’ll definitely check that out

    Julia: Wait, Chinese can go to North Korea without a visa?!?!

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