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.