North Korea tour: My travel experience

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"A country that takes care of all people, gives work to everybody, where health care doesn't cost you anything..." This is what I heard from pro-Fidel Cubans some years ago while traveling to Cuba. Would I hear this kind of comments in North Korea also I wondered? How would it compare to the GDR (Eastern Germany) that I witnessed over 20 years ago? How do people live in North Korea? What are your restrictions on a North Korea Tour, etc...

As little information is available about North Korea, I try to summarize all information that I think could be of help for anybody traveling to North Korea or being interested about traveling there.

The information gathered here I did get personally from 6 different people, while I was traveling in North Korea. I won't quote persons individually because I don't want anybody getting in trouble sharing something with me.

Photo of North Korea tour: My travel experience 1/9 by Andre KiwitzPreparations
Photo of North Korea tour: My travel experience 2/9 by Andre Kiwitz
Time Magazine
Traveling in North Korea Eric Laffourgue

Travel type : you can only take part in an organized North Korea tour. So although it is a really interesting trip it's not a risky trip at all in my opinion. Stories like here from the german magazine spiegel ( translated version), make you believe something else, but in this case the writer seems to be a show-off.

Photo of North Korea tour: My travel experience 3/9 by Andre Kiwitz

Visa: You need a Visa to get to North Korea. We got it without any complications, it didn't even have a cost (we got it from the North Korean embassy in Berlin, Germany). From what I've heard this shouldn't have an influence on your future visa applications to the US, but I also heard a different story. What is your experience concerning this, please comment.

Cellphones are not allowed to take to North Korea. So just leave them at home. In case you forget, you have to leave them arriving and will get it back leaving the country. Alle other electronic equipment is allowed, so you can take laptops, iPods, etc. to North Korea, no problem!

Photo of North Korea tour: My travel experience 4/9 by Andre Kiwitz

Donations: at viventura we advise our clients to what to take along to South America in order to help local people. As officially North Korea doesn't need any foreign help, in the official travel documents no such information is included. But you do can help. North Koreans love outside clothes (primarily for the better clothes). They prefer 2nd hand western cloths to new clothes available in North Korea. But westerners are not allowed to hand something to North Koreans. So what could you do? a) bring second-hand clothes and leave them in the hotel you are staying b) give clothes to your guides/drivers / leave them in the bus saying, that you have no more use for them... When taking clothes, this clothes shouldn't be clothes easily identifiable as foreign clothes, so it shouldn't have any brands or foreign words printed visible on the chest etc... (you are allowed to give the guides/drivers tips at the end of the trip).

Most tourists in North Korea come from China. Just 2500 "westerners" come here per year. This number will raise this year and especially next year. A big german touroperator (Studiosus) just started to offer a tour to North Korea and I expect just them to send 500 tourists to North Korea in 2011.

Personal freedom: you never are allowed to be on your own outside the hotel. Depending on your guide, the guide will accompany you outside the hotel, in rural areas this seems to be easier than in Pyöngyang.

General Curiosities

Photography: you can take pictures, as long as no military is being shown in your photos. Your guides are advised not to let you take pictures of poor houses, hard-working people. They won't understand, why you would make pictures of this anyway, because it's not nice, but they also know, that westerners want to photograph exactly this. Always ask your guide, if pictures are allowed, this will prevent your guide getting in trouble. We were told, that stopping the car and getting out is not allowed (we did it twice anyway). Also you're not allowed to take pictures of things, that are being restaurated.

Eating: Food is really good, but it's a matter of taste. I personally love Kim Chi. My wife Adriana had a hard time with the food and wouldn't call it great at all. As I mentioned, that I love Kim chi, I got it every single time :) In our case, the guides could eat twice with us, they would have liked to do it more often, but according to my information, they tourist meals are to expansive to also buy them for guides & drivers.

Shopping: Stores remind me of GDR stores in the eighties. All of the items are displayed in glass vitrines. Products are imported from around the world. We saw brands like "ja" a store-internal brand from Germany, juice from Singapore, chinese junk food, etc...

Photo of North Korea tour: My travel experience 5/9 by Andre Kiwitz

Local Currency: the local currency is the North Korean Won. Foreigners won't be able to use them. There is an official exchange rate nevertheless of 140 WON for a EUR. Foreigners are just allowed into international currency stores. Here you can pay with EUR, USD or CNY (Chinese Yuan). You can ask your guide for some currency notes as souvenir.

International News: the tourist Hotels in Pyöngyang provide you with international News channels as BBC, Deutsche Welle etc...

How does a Tour to North Korea start? When traveling by air to Pyönyang (from Beijing) with North Korean Airline Koryo I set next to a North Korean Person. According to him, he arrived from India, where he worked for 4 years and know ill see his family again after 4 years. He asked a lot of questions about my visit in North Korea. After telling him, that I've been to South Korea before, he even asked to see my passport. After arriving in Pyöngyang he chatted with other people on the train, no sign of his wife/kids. I had the impression, that we were investigated on. Also during the flight the stewardess came to us about five times asking us if we were a couple, where we were from, ho many times we have been to North Korea for, etc... After answering she always went back to the first row talking to a man...

Personal at Pyöngyang airport are well equipped. Most of them have a little speaker in they ear.

All North Koreans have a little red badge with a counterfeit of their "great leader": Kim Il-Sung. This is similar to China some decades ago, when they had Badges of Mao attached to their clothes. Not everybody was wearing the badge but approximately 95% of the people.

Foreigners: Westerners living in North Korea are not allowed to have contacts with local people. So during a North Korea Tour it will be very hard to talk to a local person other then your guide. There are also about 300 foreigners, most being chinese, but also 15 germans among them. They have their own little district, where North Koreans are not allowed to go in. Some countries have embassies in Pyöngyang (Germany being one of them).

There is lots of speculation about North Korea. For example: do they really have a metro? I wonder why would you question this. Would you think they'd build that many stations on the streets and make the train run just one station, employing thousands of actors just to make some tourists believe Pyöngyang has a metro? Well I don't think so, Pyöngyang definitely has a Metro, you can watch this Video also:
(Video will follow)

Daily life/General topics

Cleanness: overall all places we went to were very clean. On the one side there is little plastic being sold in North Korea. On the other hand I could observe lot's of people sweep the streets.

Photo of North Korea tour: My travel experience 6/9 by Andre Kiwitz

As North Korea has no right to transmit the World Cup games, that would start in a couple of days (2010 World Cup South Africa), the games will be transmitted one week later. As North Koreans have no other News Source, they won't no the result before...

When paying for something in a "currencystore" you get the change often in another currency. You buy a drink in EUR and get back some USD...

Photo of North Korea tour: My travel experience 7/9 by Andre Kiwitz

The restaurants have big common rooms but also private rooms, where you can eat just with your friends or family (same concept as in china)

Political views: Germany is a good country, because we paid we paid the debts caused by wars imposed by Germany to other. The rest of the world: good. China: really good, as they support North Korea. Japan: really bad because of the 40 years, that Japan occupied North Korea. USA: very bad because they prevent a united Korea.

Agriculture: North Korea is an agricultural country. I've never seen a country that used that much terrain for agriculture as North Korea. In our whole trip I couldn't see any opportunity where they could cultivate more. During the harvesting season also all office workers need to go to the countryside to help getting the crops. This is done on Fridays. Workers participate on the success of the harvesting, as they get a "share" of the harvest depending on the crops success.

Wages: Not all North Koreans earn the same. According to our guides students get a salary of about 50 EUR, normal workers 150 EUR and people in higher positions 250 EUR a month. All North Koreans get a free apartment, health care, education and the rent.

Photo of North Korea tour: My travel experience 8/9 by Andre Kiwitz

Power/Water Supply: the state has a serous problem generating sufficient electricity and supplying enough water. For most people in Pyöngyang you can just get water 2-3 hours a day (in that time they fill up tanks to save water for the day). The Tourist Hotels in Pyöngyang have all-day water supplies though. Electricity seemed to be working fine in Pyöngyang, as you can see on this picture:

In other areas, in Kaesong for example, we were noticing electricity problems at night. The costs for electricity & water is around 3-5 EUR a month.

Transport: The roads in North Korea are quit empty, nevertheless lot's of people are driving in cars. It's forbidden to have a car privately (you can just one a motorcycle or a bicycle privately), but people in good positions get a car for their job. I would guess, that there would be around 20.000 cars or so in Pyöngyang. Apart from cars you have the metro, Taxis, streetcars, buses, bicycles and motorcycles in Pyöngyang.

Businesses: Everything is state owned in North Korea. I know of three Joint-Ventures though. a) FIAT is cooperating with Pyöngyang to manufacture cars in North Korea, in total the have two brands built in North Korea: Hwiparam & Ppeokkugi

b) a Joint Venture with a german company getting Internet to the hotels
c) a Joint Venture to modernize the cellphone network with an egyptian company, part of the deal is also to finish the 105-floor hotel in the middle of Pyöngyang until 2012

Military: The military is really important in North Korea, the military boss is the second most important person in North Korea. On the street you see a constant presence of military. You also have the Youth Organisation, like the Free German youth (from the former GDR)

Photo of North Korea tour: My travel experience 9/9 by Andre Kiwitz
(here kids prepare for the kids day on the 7th of june 2010)

Communication

Corruption: It's hard to tell to which level corruption exists in North Korea, in my presence two military officers accepted cigarettes in order to do a favor (leaving the hotel, taking a picture)

Situation with South Korea: for me it's interesting to see that our guides / the local military guide at DMZ never talked about a conflict with South Korea. They always refered to a conflict with the United States. And interestingly, the armistice was negotiated with North Korea on one hand and the US on the other and not South Korea. According to the military person at DMZ, the US tries to stay long-term in South Korea, in order to strengthen their position in demanding long-term presence they blame North Korea for sinking a submarine.

Fashion: for Adriana it was a shock to see that fashion seem to have stuck in the seventies? There is no individualism at all. Even people without a uniform seemed to be dressed a kind. No written words I have seen on any shirt. The clothes remind me of movies made about the GDR.

Smoking: Smoking is ridiculously popular in North Korea. According to our guides 99% of male North Koreans smoke. Even in closed places like in the restaurant. This was totally surprising and sometimes uncomfortable.

Education: It was amazing to see how well our guides spoke english/Spanish. They have never been to an english/spanish speaking country, but nevertheless speak fluently. A thing that North Koreans seem to be great in: Singing.

Internet: North Korea doesn't have Internet yet. A german company is setting up Internet at this time, so that high-ranking military people, important business man and other VIP in North Korea will get it soon. According to my information soon the Hotels for international guests will have Internet Service.

Email: North Korea has a tiny Email infrastructure. For example our guides have email access through the companies email account, there is no such thing as personal email accounts. The email adresses have the domain silibank.com, the domain is registered to LiaoNing ZhongTian Real Estate Develolpment Co.LTD from China. Attachments like PDFs can be read, pictures can't be sent (it's unclear if it's for the size or security).

Cellphones: the cellular network is working for almost 2 years in North Korea. A limited network of people have access to it (and use it a lot), like tourism guides, people who do important business, politicians and military people. Tourists have no right to use cell phones.

News: North Koreans don't have a free press, all news are emitted from the state. Before arriving to North Korea tensions were high because of the submarine incident with South Korea. North Koreans were aware of these tensions and were informed about the incident. They knew the South Korean/US Version of the story (ship was shot), but believed the North Korean Version of the story (ship ran into a rock). I talked about this incident quit a bit and could into more details if requested in the comments...

I booked my tour with www.tschollima-reisen.de and I was really pleased with there service (it's a german operator).

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