Saturday, April 2, 2016

This is What It’s Like to Take a Vacation in Communist North Korea

By Emma Reynolds
A travel blogger who visited North Korea on one of the secretive country’s tightly controlled tours says everything outsiders see is a lie.
On their arrival, tourists have their passports taken away and are given a half-day briefing on dos and don’ts. “It was don’t more than do,” Anjaly Thomastold “We were told not to take pictures of unfinished buildings, work half done, or local people. You have to bow to every statue of [North Korea’s ruling family] the Kims and there’s no folding of a newspaper with a picture of them on it.
“If you’re asked to walk in a straight line, you walk in a straight line.”
Thomas said her group stayed at a hotel on an island in the middle of a river, where tourists could drink and gamble at a casino — something citizens are rarely able to do. At the hotel, she said, “you’re free, because you can’t escape.”
The Indian writer and blogger said guests would look out at Pyongyang at night and see total darkness, because no one else in the capital has electricity to light their homes after dark.

“It’s all make-believe,” she said. “They show you the best of Pyongyang, you eat at the best restaurants, but you don’t see many locals eating there. They get their food through a public distribution system, they can’t buy it themselves. For tourists, there’s plenty, but people have a food shortage.
“Coffee shops are few and far between.”
But the clean, pretty facade is convincing, she added. “If you drove down the streets, you wouldn’t believe something is wrong,” she said. “Everyone seems really happy and beautiful.
“Everything is big, it’s huge. The buildings are old but well-kept, like they’re stuck in the 1950s or ‘60s.
“The school was big but there weren’t a lot of students. There was nobody, it could have been put there for us. They know when the tourists are going to arrive.

“You always have a guard with you, and a guard minds the guard, and they have cameras on us.”
A brief visit to a town to the north of the capital revealed there was “no architecture, nothing to see.” It was only the “fabulous” sacred palaces in Pyongyang that were filled with marble and gold, chandeliers and travelators that “go for miles.” Local visitors were crying genuine tears as they looked around the buildings that they were given time off once a year to explore. “They really feel it.”
The group were taken to a library filled with books on the Kims. Thomas bought chopsticks and fridge magnets with pictures of the ruling family on them as souvenirs. “There’s nothing else to buy,” she said. “There are no stores you can walk into and buy off the rack.”
She said the North Koreans she met seemed surprisingly content with their lot. They don’t have GPS or hi-res cameras, but they believed the presence of a few mobile phones from China showed they had “the most modern technology.”
“A girl had an iPod and our North Korean guide had never seen one before,” she said. “He looked at it and said, ‘What is this?’”

Most ordinary people avoid tourist groups, she said, because they could get in trouble for approaching them. A few tall, attractive, impeccably polite representatives are assigned to speak to visitors. “They are the public face of Pyongyang,” said Thomas.
One belief that unites everyone in the repressive Democratic Republic of North Korea is that they are at war with America — and that they can win. “Americans are infidels, bastards,” she said. “Postcards show Korean soldiers pulling out the liver of Americans.”
At the museum, the visitors heard a different version of history, and the few US citizens in Thomas’s group were not allowed to take the train back to Beijing, but had to fly out. Officials checked everyone’s photos as they left before handing back their passports.
Looking back on her short, carefully managed trip, Thomas says she remains curious about many things.
But as tourism starts to increase, she’s fascinated to see what happens, and if the illusion could fall apart.
The above originally appeared at


  1. Sadly the North Korean people have been told this past week to prepare for another "arduous march".
    Good luck to them.

  2. I've been to North Korea, in August of 2014 for 5 nights. This article contains inaccuracies, misdirection, and lies by omission. I'm not an apologist for the North Korean regime but this article is just propaganda.

    There is a quote saying "they always have cameras on us". That is only true if your group opted in to get filmed, and at the end you get a professionally cut video of your trip to North Korea. This is part of the misdirection that I am talking about.

    There is only one time where you need to walk in a straight line and that is in Kaesong, at The North Korean side of the DMZ. And it is only required for about a minute. This article makes it sound like it happens all the time. Lie by omission.

    North Koreans are very shy and don't approach foreigners however it did speak to some North Korean people on the street, in the train station, in the park, etc. I can speak Korean, however, and I was the only one in my group doing this. It isn't illegal to talk.

    Quite a few people had mobile phones which were rebranded Chinese OEM. I got to examine a waitresses mobile phone and it was an android. She had a phone number but she said that it doesn't take calls from overseas.

    I have no idea why they were not allowed to take the train out of North Korea (perhaps it was not functioning) but I took the train in and planned to get the train out but decided that I wanted to take the plane back to Beijing instead and the North Koreans accommodated my request and even refunded the cost of the train ticket that I had prepaid.

    The "half day briefing" doesn't take place in North Korea but in Beijing, with the tour company that they booked with. In my case I didn't attend that briefing at all as I joined the tour in Dandong, on the Chinese-North Korean border.

    Oi noticed a few things that others have not. One thing that is never reported however is that inter-racial sex with North Koreans is illegal. North Korea is an ethno-state not a Stalinist state. One of the most common slogans that I saw besides the ones extolling their leaders was "love country, love race".

    I didn't notice much industry. There are some minor vendors that I noticed in the park, from whom I bought some snacks. I also found out that the prices in the North Korean currency presented to tourists was a sham. Stuff on sale would be priced in North Korean Won, and then converted into USD or another currency. They were selling bottles of whiskey for about 500 won (or whatever I forget the exact figure) which they claimed was $70 in the hotel. But the snack that I bought outside, which was similar to packaged potato chips, cost 2000 won, or $1. Obviously one of these prices is the real one.

    I got asked several times if I was a spy on account of the fact that I was a bit too observant, spoke the North Korean dialect (easy if you know South Korean and the rules to change your speech to North Korean).

    What else... North Korean women are attractive and not plastic surgery ridden. I saw some women in fashionable clothes but not many. Perhaps they were party elite. North Korean women are flirtatious (if you initiate it) but demure. However the whole inter-racial sex being illegal thing is a big obstacle to romance there, to be mild. And on that subject, don't believe stories about foreigners having sex with North Korean women in North Korea. If they say they did they are lying. Even a Chinese businessman that I spoke with that had been to North Korea more than 30 times had not been able to do that. Nor a Russian diplomat that I chatted to in the diplomatic club. I bring this up because there have been some articles along these lines recently.

    Getting tired of writing... Enough for now.