What it's really like to travel in North Korea

Would you travel to North Korea? Would you want to implicitly support a dictatorial regime with your tourist dollars? Would you risk travelling to a country in which you can be imprisoned for no good reason for an unlimited amount of time?

My feeling is: yes. That's why I wrote a column a few weeks ago about this desire. I want to see North Korea. I think boycotts by travellers are counterproductive. I want to see the world with my own eyes.

The reactions to that post were varied. Some people agreed, or said they could see both sides of the argument; others were of the opinion that I should go to North Korea and never come back (Twitter's fun, isn't it?).


New subway train on the #pyongyang #metro #northkorea #livefromnorthkorea #koryotours

A photo posted by Simon Cockerell (@simonkoryo) on

My story, however, was hypothetical. I've never been to North Korea and, as a journalist, there's a chance I never will. So I was interested to find out recently that one of Australia's largest tour operators, Intrepid Travel, has just run a one-off "Expedition" trip to North Korea to coincide with the Pyongyang Marathon.

See also: Is North Korea's Air Koryo really the world's worst airline?

Fourteen travellers took on that journey a few weeks ago, and one of them was Tom Beadle, Intrepid Travel's product manager. I decided to have a chat to him about what life and travel is really like in this strange, unknowable land.

What were the ethical arguments that played out while Intrepid was deciding whether to run this trip?

"It was reminiscent of the decision to travel to Burma about 15 years ago. North Korea is one of the most secretive countries in the world, and the regime has been under scrutiny by media and human rights organisations… So is it best to boycott it completely? Because there's no private ownership in North Korea, by going there you're arguably supporting Kim Jong-un.  The argument is that isolationism never works. To cut a country off completely isn't a way to get more engagement going. Going there and trying to get that interaction is only going to get a positive effect on local North Koreans' view of westerners.

"We had a company-wide debate on this. We ended up with a vote between nine senior people in the company, and it was pretty close. People had really strong feelings on this."


What was it like travelling in North Korea?

"The most encouraging thing was the level of interaction. It was impressive, more than I thought. There was plenty of interaction with local people possible. There were people out practising for their May Day celebrations when we were there, these huge groups practising marching or dancing, and we could join in that, that was OK. I had a super-cool group of people and they'd go and get involved and dance with the locals.

"We rode on the metro, and visited the local supermarket, and the interaction with the locals was real. These things definitely weren't put on. Unless I'm very naive. And people were asking us about the outside world, and whether the things they were being told were true. "

See also: Don't go there: the destinations you need to avoid

Was it a strange experience in any way?

"We did some bizarre things. First day in Pyongyang, the day before the Pyongyang Marathon, we drove into the country, to Mt Myohyang​. It was a beautiful area. But rather than go for a walk in the countryside we went to this Friendship Museum, this huge vault, quite Orwellian in style, this big long corridor that seemed to go on forever, with about 30 rooms opening off it, and inside was all the gifts that have been given to the three generations of Kims over the last 50 years by various governments. And when I say governments it's mainly China, Cuba, Angola – all the communist nations. You go through these 30 rooms, one by one, with your guides, having a look at all the vases, all the plates, the boomerangs given by the Australian Communist Party… pretty weird things. And that was all about legitimising the regime, I guess.

"There are also two statues of the Kims in every city, and when you go there you all have to go and bow in front of them."


#pyongyang #northkorea

A photo posted by press the botton (@keemjunuts_) on

What was your accommodation like?

"In Pyongyang, there's only two hotels that tourists can stay in. And it's a 47-storey block, on an island with not much on it. They've got mysterious floors there, they call them 'mystery floors', that you're not allowed to go on."

Did you ever have the feeling you were being watched, or listened to?

"Only by our two guides. I don't think it's much wider than that. Our two guides were fantastic, but they were certainly trying to move us along if we were going too slowly. But a wider surveillance? I don't think so."

See also: The 16 best countries to visit for 2016

Are there bars and restaurants in Pyongyang that you can go to?

"Restaurants, absolutely. But most of the places we were taken were part of hotels. We all ate as a group every night there. Within the hotel you can go and have drinks at night, but you can't go out on your own. But I'm not 100 per cent sure. So every meal was together, with our guides.

"Within the hotel we were often out having drinks by ourselves. It's a pretty quirky hotel; there's a bowling alley downstairs, and hairdressers and karaoke bars in there. And the guides would have a drink with us. Some of the younger guys were out until two or three in the morning with the local guides."

What's Pyongyang like?

"It's a funny town. There's all this construction going on, really huge buildings, but it looks like there's not many people living in them. Newly built, 30-storey residential towers. There's a Future Scientist Street, where all the professors are supposed to live, but from the naked eye it doesn't look like there's many people there.

"They also took us to a model school, where they're showing all the kids learning English, doing maths, putting on songs and dance, and there's no doubt that's a theatrical show that's very much showing us the right thing."   

Did you ever feel in any danger?

"Nope. Not at all. I don't think the group did at all. Although going through customs was fascinating. You have to register any electronic device – your phones, iPads, cameras etcetera. And they do check all of your photos on the way out. I reckon they deleted a couple of my photos. I took a few photos going in of them checking other people's photos, and they're not there anymore."

See also: Three amazing countries with bad reputations

Did your phone work there?

"There was no connection for my mobile. There's a landline at the hotel – I wasn't expecting that. But no Wi-Fi or internet. Interestingly though, the North Koreans are starting to get mobile phones. "

So is North Korea misunderstood? Or do we have it right?

"I'm not sure I'm brave enough to answer that. I might have been hoodwinked. Is it a weird nation? I've never been to a country where there's that deference to the three leaders. But they're given no choice in that. It must have been like Lenin or Stalin or Mao. I've never experienced that.

"But are we wrong in our perception of it? No. Undoubtedly they've got a totalitarian government, and there's every sign of that. Are they a depressed people? I couldn't see that, but maybe that's because I only saw the things they wanted to show me. I didn't see any poverty. It's colourless, there's no advertising, everyone wears dark clothes, but I didn't see any sour, depressed people. But I didn't see enough to say that we've got the wrong view of them."

See also: The world's best cities with the worst reputations

Did you enjoy the experience?

"I did. Overall it was thoroughly enjoyable. At times bizarre, but the quality of my group really helped. We had a lot of laughs with our group, and with our main guide, who understood all of our humour."

Is Intrepid planning to run another trip there?

"Nothing is decided yet. I'm optimistic, but a decision hasn't been made on that."

Has this changed your mind on travel to North Korea? Would you go there? Or do you still support a boycott?

Editor's note: This article has been edited slightly from its original version over concerns that some comments may have impacted on local guides or operations.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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