How to get into North Korea

Dear Reader,

It’s time to answer some of the biggest questions that many travellers wonder about: how to obtain visa and access to North Korea! So here is my experience or better yet, my holiday adventure!

Entering North Korea (DPRK) is a very unusual and restricted process that requires months to be completed before actually receiving the green light.
Entering North Korea is very easy, but few things can get you in trouble or on the black list: your nationality and your profession.
If you are South Korean and/or Japanese, be sure that the authorities will never let you in. Historically, even the Americans wouldn’t be allowed in as they are still considered as the Empire which invaded and made a mess. But as America is symbol of money, now they are allowed because they are big part of the DPRK tourist consumption.

North Korean countryside on my way to Kaesong.
North Korean countryside on my way to Kaesong.

You can fly to Pyongyang from three places: Beijing, Vladivostok and a city in Malaysia that I cannot recall right now (perhaps its capital). However, the overwhelming majority of foreigners travel to Pyongyang from China, either by train or flight. Me and my friends traveled via Air Koryo, although I heard from my other tour fellows that the train experience is quite something.

Inside the airplane on Air Koryo on my way from Beijing to Pyongyang.
Inside the airplane on Air Koryo on my way from Beijing to Pyongyang.

The only way you can enter the country is by joining an authorised tour from an authorised company. When I signed up for the Young Pioneer Tours, all I had to do was filling an application form.

Of course the DPRK authorities reserve the right to reject your application for X,Y, Z reason, and luckily, that wasn’t my case.

I did managed to enter so you’re probably wondering “Ok, but how easy it is to get to DPRK from China?”, and my answer is… It is an absolute pain mixed up with lots of bureaucratic issues and in some cases even many visits to the Chinese Consulate.
Anyway, it all happened two weeks before my departure… I was told “Do not go to the angry Chinese girl, but instead the grey-haired Italian man!”. Sadly, by the time I went the Italian man was gone, the Angry lady (if angry) was still there, but luckily there seemed to be a different Italian there as well. So I sad “I won’t go against the odds, so I might want to try someone more familiar”. I wish I thought this through a bit more, because the Italian guy who attended me made the whole process a lot more complicated and frustrating than I thought.

My entry visa to North Korea.
My entry visa to North Korea.

Basically there was no issue at all until the North Korea tour came up in the conversation with the Man. He had checked all my papers, requested a booking for every single night I was going to spend in China, flights details and bla bla bla, so to sum up I was entitled to a touristic visa. But as there was gap he wanted to know where I was going to go. The minute he heard me saying “North Korea! :)” he freaked out. He took back my tourist visa and nervously said “We cannot guarantee you be safe in there, so we cannot grant you a touristic visa. People cannot go to North Korea…” to which I impatiently replied “Yes, people can, I’m going since I’m in a tour plan, departing from Beijing. See? It is possible”. My inner patience thermometer was reaching a dangerous level, at some point he even said to me “It is not possible to go to North Korea, you need to go talk to the North Korean consulate, I cannot give you a tourist visa if you plan to go there, I mean… it’s a dangerous place, we cannot take responsibility for you”. Not wishing to be rude, I demanded to talk to Angry Lady as she dealt with my friends’ application and simply said “Can you please help us here? He evidently has no clue on what to do and you helped my friend getting everything done, so your help in here is much needed”. In the end, I signed 6 declarations, 6! All aiming to exonerate the consulate from any responsibility during my trip. Angry and all, the lady took one minute, and I got my two-entry visa. Yayy!

Teen soccer players on their way to pay respect to the Dear Leader.
Teen soccer players on their way to pay respect to the Dear Leader.

So, as the hardest part is over, let’s go back to the North Korean entry process. After getting the visa and having indeed flown over to China, you must be aware of the following pieces of advice:

  1. Always show respect to the Koreans leaders and avoid offending the local guides and people. At certain places especially statues of the leaders we will often bow to show our respect according to the local customs.
  2. You are not allowed to use the local currency in North Korea. In fact, you won’t even see a local bill or coin. Most of transactions are made in RMB (Chinese currency).
  3. Professional video cameras are not allowed to be taken into the DPRK, but handheld digicams have recently been allowed as long as you don’t film anything you’re told not to! Regular digital still cameras are fine, for professional cameras, lenses less than250 mm are allowed- anything over that could be retained at customs until you depart.
  4. E-books are fine, and normal books are OK as long as it’s not a Bible,Qu’ran or any other religious text. A couple of people were in trouble because they were bringing Bibles with them, so e-hem, no religious text book.
  5. It is strongly recommend you bring gifts for your North Korean guides when you first arrive at the hotel, and have a ‘sit down’.

Having said this, you are ready to go and enjoy the most hermetic country on earth!

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Children in North Korea

Dear Reader,
Unaware of international affairs, ignorant of what happens beyond their own town, children in North Korea enjoy a casual day at the beach with their families and picnics under the shades. I took this photo in Namp’o.

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DMZ: the friendly DeMilitarised Zone of North Korea

Dear Reader,

There are strange borders all over the world, but some of them are even stranger. The DMZ is the de facto border and buffer zone between North and South Korea, a 4 km wide and 240 km long strip that slashes right across the peninsula visibly decorated with military tanks, electric fences and army soldiers. Supposed to be one of the scariest places on earth, Stanito found it for you…

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The entry of the DMZ.

They call it De-militarised Zone but in fact it is anything but heavily militarised, with a 4 km buffer zone filled with land mines. Not that we saw any of them, of course, but we did cruise through the 4 km road across the fields as our guide was explaining everything about it. Even pill-boxes I could see there.
It all looked very surreal, not to mention that this border is major attractions for those who dare to come to this part of the world. Truth is, my friends and I found it very interesting and relaxing experience in spite of what many people say about it from the South Korean side. I haven’t personally seen the border from Seoul but I’m told by many that the place is indeed a stressful one as tensions are palpable.
Not the North Korean side though. Here the atmosphere was overall surprisingly relaxed and, while normally taking photos would be a problem, here our guides really didn’t budge an inch about it.
Tension was the last thing we perceived here. In fact, soldiers were quiete but still friendly enough to take their picture with us

This part of our tour encompassed a full immersion on the historical events that led to the creation of this buffer zone in 1953.

As we arrived the first thing saw was the actual delimitation between North and South side which is literally a thin strip that marks the border. If you want with one step you’re in country and with a step back you’re in the other

Throughout our walk and itinerary we were told the story that led to the eventual official separation of both countries according to their version.

We paid special attention to the Negotiations table, where Kim Il-Sun signed the peace agreement in 1953 with the imperialist power, the United States…

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Kim Il-Sung (Premier, not President yet) endorses the armistice agreement on July 27, 1953.

… and the monument that symbolises Kim Il-Sung achievement

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Monument to Kim Il-Sung final signature dated 7 July 1994, one day before his death.

So we spent time listening to their version of the facts and witness the places where these events actually happened.

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My friend Greg is in the photo is taking the North Korean side while I am taking the US side a the DMZ Negotiations Table for simulation purpose only.

It is definitely very interesting to hear all of their history even though you might think that many of the facts are altered and the glory of their nation. The US and Soviet led-Korea claim completely different versions where the ‘surrender’ changes depending to whom you ask. Both Koreas claimed unification at some point, problem is they claim the territory over the other one. Only time can settle this difference I think.

What not many people know about the DMZ is this…

A long long time ago there used to be a road connecting Kaesong and Seoul by crossing a river. The local people built a bridge and a town which was named Panmun.
Harsh weather, however, made the village short-lived and the heavy rains eventually washed it away and prevented people from crossing the river. People persisted though and there they built an inn for those travellers that were delayed to cross the river due to weather conditions. It was called Panmunjom.

Then the Korean War came and the town Panmun was in fact erased from the map. But the name persisted until this very day. In fact, dear Reader, Panmun is where they built the houses to hold the Negotiation Tables with the United States.

 

 

Pyongyang is a Statement

Dear Reader,
These are some of the photos I took of Pyongyang, North Korea, which means ‘flat land’, an ideological statement forged in concrete, bronze and marble. A totalitarian metropolis, built almost entirely from scratch following its destruction in the Korean War, Pyongyang is a fascinating yet simultaneously inaccessible place, so inimaginable and hardly accessible where people walk by on the streets dressed as from the 1940’s.

Every visit to North Korea focuses heavily on the capital, it’s monuments and its historical proud spots. Even their maternity hospital is a ‘must’.

And yet, while these are all impressive, the real delights of Pyongyang are found in the quieter moments when you can get glimpses of everyday life. As you wander the streets between sights, you’ll still be able to find a semblance of normality surviving in the capital. You just have to look hard for it because you will perceive that people are not keen on engaging with foreigners.

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Religion in North Korea

Dear Reader,

I received a question via contact page which I find quite interesting:

What religion/s do North Koreans practice? Do they go to a church or kind of temple like the Chinese maybe?

The answer is a long one.

North Korea is officially an atheist country. Or at least it has been since the ascent of the Kims. Even the DPRK official guide book won’t mention ‘religion’ in its contents.

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But let’s start in chronological order.

Until the year 300 AD Koreans of the entire peninsula mainly believed in an indigenous shamanic religion known as Mu. The Mus were shamanic intermediaries between their people and the gods of nature so you can expect their rituals to be something similar to ancient Greek religion where sacrifices to the Sun, Moon, Ocean were on the daily agenda.

Then the years 370’s BC come and Korea sees a wave of invasions and a range of “foreign visits”. It is here where Koreans come to know Buddhism for the first time thanks to the Chinese, more precisely the Former Qin Dynasty. Over the years Buddhism flourished into becoming more of a political influence. In the year 900-1000 we see the arrival of Confucianism, always from the Chinese. At the time Korea was divided in three kingdoms under the rule of one sole king. This king welcomed new doctrines and eventually transformed them into a more Korean stile of religion with traditions of their own.
Even Christians arrived and endured a long battle against the Japanese Empire, in the attempt to establish Shinto.

In 1945 though the freedom of expression of any kind changed dramatically. Cold war sparks proxy conflicts all over the Asian continent and Korea find itself divided: North with the Soviet-Communist and South with the US-led anti-communist.

As the country is divided in two opposite sides many have time to flee south while many others, especially the more autochthonous communities, remain in the North.

Several constitutions have been drafted ever since and many of them literally express freedom of religion, like Article 14 of the 1948 constitution:

citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea shall have the freedom of religious belief and of conducting religious services

Even though this is clearly stated, reality is quite different. And furthermore, dear Reader, ever since the Kims rose to power it has been incredibly difficult to obtain any sort of reliable statistic information regarding the population. if there’s such information available it is obviously very questionable.

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Kim Jong-Il, son of Kim Il-Sung

When the Korean peninsula split there were still indigenous religions and most of the ones I mentioned before. However the regime rapidly started to oppress and interfere with the individual freedom. The government has exercised extremely closed scrutiny and control over religious groups. Until this very day. The regime continues to repress the religious activities of unauthorised religious groups. If people are people are caught engaging in preaching, and specifically, those repatriated from China and found to have been in contact with foreigners or missionaries, normally are arrested and subjected to harsh penalties. Due to the country’s inaccessibility and the inability to gain timely information, the continuation of this activity remains difficult to verify.

 

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Dear Leader and Great Leader, the Kims

Why all this harsh treatment against freedom of religion? Reasons are fundamentally two:

1- Communism is adverse to religion and the cold pragmatism of its adherents would argue against priests, preachers and churches that God doesn’t stop floods or guard against invasions, therefore their belief is found with no base.
This is because Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin saw religion as a form of retarding human development.

2- Marxism might have been the reason why religion is not acceptable in North Korea, but if we dig deeper we find that religion contrasts vehemently what Kim Il Sung created: a cult of image. Kim Il Sung followed the Marxist doctrine until he came up with the idea of Juche: self reliance. This is a concept that we will explore deeply in my next post.
However, briefly, Juche’s philosophy celebrates the power of man, of self reliance, of the State, and you can see it manifested in forms of supernatural powers attributed to the Leaders.

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A portrait of Kim Il-Sung explaining and lecturing about agriculture techniques as part of the propagandistic message

This cult has led to make the Kims the indisputable leaders of the country. Their portraits are hung everywhere. Every house by law has to have a painting of Father and Son in each main room. Same goes with main squares and monuments. Even libraries.

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This painting is found in the Grand People’s Study House

Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il worked to build a cult of their image: they have visited every town and corner of the country. Farms, factories, hospitals are either named after the date they visited or have meaning built into their grouting.

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This is the signature of Kim Il Sung I found at the maternity hospital as it was inaugurated by the Dear Leader

Their deification makes it impossible to tolerate religion beliefs of any kind because such would strongly contradict its very mission. Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and he is still venerated nowadays as the country’s ‘Eternal President’.

 

North Korean Gifted Children

Dear Reader,

There are still many mysteries for which my friends and I still have questions for. How much of what we saw and witnessed in North Korea was actually true and how much of it was staged for us?
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No offence to our devoted guides but I think this is a question that many people who have been to the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea have asked themselves. Sometimes the reaction of people or even the very performances we have seen were so perfect that we were bewildered by them to the point we didn’t know if it was all part of an act or was true genuine talent.

Staged or genuine, the DPRK is still one of the most impressive countries I’ve ever been to. And the Mangyongdae Children Academy was another milestone of my North Korean journey.
In this particular case we didn’t think what we saw was staged at all but we did think it was all part of really hard work and training imposed on these children. Same sensation I’ve got after watching the Mass Games in Pyongyang.

The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace is a facility where children of most ages can engage in extra-curricular activities such as painting, playing chess, learning music, sports, ballet dancing and various other kinds of art.
To date it is the largest palace dedicated to children and is located in the north side of the Mangyongdae-guyok district.

Here we saw children practising a variety of artistic activities and hobbies.

This is the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

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And this is our welcoming tour little girl who will take us through the palace to see the performance in various disciplines that astonished us one after the other…

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The dancing class

The music class

The calligraphy class where students learn how to write in the proper order and fashion the original characters of Hangul writing system

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Speaking of writing and calligraphy, some Readers have asked me if North Korean speak any different from South Koreans. Originally, yes. The Korean Peninsula has used a Unified Korean Orthography since 1933 as defined by the Korean Language Society. The system has endured the Japanese rule of Korea even, but with the establishments of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea in 1948, the two states have taken on differing policies regarding the language. In 1954, North Korea established the rules for Korean orthography which was only a minor revision in orthography that created little difference from the one used in the South. In time, the standard language in the North and the South gradually differed more and more from each other having the North Korean version sounding and reading like a very old Korean language that hasn’t evolved through time. Keep in mind that most of the population (with the exception of the Government elite) haven’t had any window to the rest of the world, therefore their language hasn’t had a chance to evolve like in South Korea (which in time has indeed adopted new words like most languages do).

The sewing class, I remained to stare at their creations for who knows how long as these girls worked patiently on their marvellous drawings…

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A girl sewing a grape plant marvellously…

The chess and board games class

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The ballet class

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At the end of our visit the children gifted us with a remarkable (to say the least) performance. I’ve never seen children performing with such talent…

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The performances were truly out of this world, absolutely dazzling.

 

The North Korean Hollywood: Cholliwood

Dear Reader,

We have Hollywood in the US, Bollywood in India, Nollywood in Nigeria… So why not finding the exact replica in North Korea as well?

Our North Korea tour certainly enlightened us on many things, I probably didn’t pay much attention to the itinerary they sent us at the beginning because I remember being very surprised when we arrived into this films studio. It’s nickname is Cholliwood.

Alley of the Cholliwood Films Studio, else known as Pyongyang Film Studio.
Alley of the Cholliwood Films Studio, else known as Pyongyang Film Studio.

According to what our guide was telling us, the Pyongyang Film Studios had a big shining moment in the late 1970’s, where the studio produced many films with specific themes: anti-Japanese, anti-US Imperialism and somehow even China has a place here.

It seems like Kim Jong-il’s love for movies got completely out of hand in the late 1970s when he had two South Korean actors (husband and wife) abducted. He wanted to have them working for him, producing films for him and North Korea.

After the demise of the films époque, the escape of the two abducted actors and the critical situation of the country which led to famine, the film industry collapsed. However, me and my friends were lucky to see that even though it is almost completely disused we could still find some people working in it.

The entire idea of Cholliwood (from Chollima) is to recreate from ancient Korea to nowadays, from Japanese streets to Korean and Chinese towns, buildings, and époque.

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This is part of the Japanese 1930’s set.

Facts about the Pyongyang Film Studios are hard to find and the propaganda certainly doesn’t help uncovering truths, not even about its size and number of studio staff. Some sources claim that the studio produces 20 movies a year, others say that it churns out up to 60, while critics claim that only one or two movies are produced a year and higher numbers include documentaries and shorts films.

But the buildings are still there for us to see, here are some views of this peculiar place

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Only few people were around that day but we could still see enough.

On that day some of the crew were working on signs to be used in the respective scenarios.

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The following signs would have been used in the Japanese set

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And finally a simple truck which I assume is used as part of a war movie given its rusty look.


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The Reunification of the Koreas

Dear Reader,

Speculations over a future reunification of the Koreas have been going on for decades since the War ended and the two Koreas signed the Armistice Agreement in 1953.
Below is the photo I took during my stay in North Korea of the Arch of Reunification, a symbol of the Korean reunification proposals put forth by Kim Il-Sung. The two women symbolize the two Koreas, and together they are holding a map of a unified Korea.

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The Arch of Reunification else known as Monument to the Three-Point Charter for National Reunification built in 2011. This statue expresses the shared yearning felt by both north and south to unify once more. It is represented by two women dressed in traditional Korean garments holding a sphere with the Korean peninsula map without separation. Photo by Stanito with Canon compact camera.

The idea, a pipe dream for now, has met tremendous difficulties in order to even envisage a possibility of reunification. Not only the two countries have grown considerably different both politically and economically, but also continuous tensions between the two nations have this process more unlikely to happen.
Kim originally proposed a federation of two states where initially the powers would remain as they are today with a foreseeable slow transition. However this proposition has met many difficulties as the proposed unification expressed by Kim would follow a German-unification style with the big question on how the South Korean government would handle such a scenario and what should be done to transform the North Korean economy (of which we know almost nothing due to lack of statistical reliable data).

As far as we know, on paper, both Koreas are firmly committed to the principle of national unification. During official contacts between the governments, both sides mention that the unification should peaceful and gradual and that they should be able to co-exist. Hopeful words in theory but still unlikely in real life, although not impossible.

What to pack for a Dictatorship

Dear Reader,

Packing is a pickle, especially for people like me who tend to bring almost… everything.
A few months ago I received a question regarding packing instructions and advise for sporty countries. I thought that was a really good question because it will definitely vary depending on where to go.

DO NOT try and take everything with you. Exhibit A above.

Based on internet and common sense, it is easy to pack a suitcase if you go to Thailand, or Spain, or Jordan. But what about the special countries? Like North Korea? Yemen? Or China? Does the packing rule change? As these countries sometimes present warnings and limitations because of their governments (China, though, is not exactly a dictatorship but does present many limitations) sometimes there are rules set out in advance to prevent any difficulty for and from the visitor. Like North Korea. Myanmar didn’t have ATMs until couple of years ago, so rules and recommendations need to revised from time to time. For North Korea, I wasn’t warned about any specific rule regarding clothing (except the one piece of cloth for a formal visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun), but I distinctively recall the pre-tour information pamphlet with recommendations. Let’s see the bottom lines on packing:

  • Do not pack any religious book with you. You can’t play with this topic as it is highly sensitive in most sporty places (North Korea, Palestine, Yemen, China, etc).
  • Pack light and with the necessary, do not pack too many pieces of clothing, remember that is always best to travel light with the necessary items. If you find a pretty shirt, you’ll buy it in the moment, but depart light.
  • Photo equipment: bear in mind that professional cameras with lenses up to 250mm might not be allowed in some places. For the rest consider that in many places you won’t find lenses and other camera items, so pack them with you.
  • As ATM machines may not be available, bring lots of cash with you in sufficient quantity for the duration of your trip (Eur and USD will both be fine). Don’t waste time and space for travellers cheques. Just cash.
  • Lots of gifts like tobaccos and cigarettes, pens, mainly intended for bartering and gifts. Very useful items 😉 used by Stanito and Travel Buddy.
Cigarettes are always well accepted
… and chocolate too.
  • Wet Wipes are always a must-have for a number of reasons.
  • A torch or flashlight. This is a fundamental item. The best countries are those that are sporty, do not always expect light everywhere and have your own.
  • Take with you a useful passport. Many passports are not accepted, like in North Korea a South Korean passport will not be allowed to enter the country. Here is a list of friendly passports and here as well.
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Everybody likes Italians, that is a certainty, and Chileans. Although Chileans are a more rare sight in sporty countries.
  • Notebook in case you want to write down interesting things you hear or see.
  • Minimized toiletries: we girls are specialists in finding teeny tiny tooth pastes, shampoos and creams. If you know you’re going somewhere where you will not find these items, use small containers.

Follow these rules and you’re good to go 🙂 !

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