North Korea: How can I visit the secret state, and is it morally right to go?

With the threat of nuclear war forever looming on the horizon, how safe is it to travel to the Korean Peninsula?

Simon Calder
Thursday 25 August 2016 12:18 BST
The Pyongyang skyline
The Pyongyang skyline

“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is so tense that a nuclear war may break out any moment” – so said the North Korean state media organisation on 23 August, as South Korean and US troops began their annual exercise simulating conflict across the divided nation.

This latest declaration is likely to be yet more rhetoric from the last bastion of oppressive state communism, though Seoul and Washington are well aware of the nuclear threat posed by Kim Jong-un’s regime.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as the north styles itself, is an international pariah for much more than its nuclear ambitions. A 2014 UN report on human rights in the country accused the government in Pyongyang of “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence”.

Even by the relaxed standards that prospective tourists typically apply to the human rights records of destination countries, that is a stark charge sheet. Yet each year up to 2,000 travellers sign up with Koryo Tours a British company based in Beijing to visit what the firm describes as “the world’s most mysterious country”.

The firm runs group tours from the Chinese capital starting at €990 (£854), all in. North Korea’s uncompromising attitude to the rest of the world is echoed in its policy towards foreign tourists, which can be summed up as “our place, our rules”.

The trips are not exactly “go-as-you-please” adventures. Groups are assigned two guides and a driver, and participants are told they may not wander off on their own. Trips begin in Pyongyang, viewing monuments to the founder of the DPRK, Kim Il-sung, and his son, Kim Jong-il, father of the current leader.

Most trips include a visit to the DMZ, the demilitarised zone on the South Korean frontier, for which the term “demilitarised” is about as accurate as the “democratic” in North Korea’s official name.

Tailor-made tours can also include industrial visits to the Sonbong Textile Factory, the Hungnam Fertiliser Factory and, for real enthusiasts, the Tae‘an Heavy Machine Tool Complex. It’s not all work: Koryo Tours can take you to the DPRK’s first ski resort, in the mountains near the Chinese border.

Along the way, tourists are expected to be respectful towards their hosts, with men required to wear a tie when they visit the mausoleum where the previous two North Korean leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, lie in state. They also need to watch their words. The Foreign Office warns: “Insults or jokes about the North Korean political system and its leadership are severely frowned upon.”

If such a journey has echoes of an experience in your younger days, you may not be surprised to learn that Simon Cockerell, Koryo Tours’ general manager, likens it to “a school trip”.

Some observers fear that tourists are being used as pawns in a wider political game, succumbing to the regime’s propaganda rather than gaining a proper understanding of the misery of life in the “hermit kingdom”. Louis Cole, a British travel vlogger, has been widely criticised for posting YouTube videos that reflect only positive aspects of North Korea.

But Mr Cockerell says of his clients that: “Nobody goes in with their eyes closed. They are open-minded, engaged people.” Koryo Tours gives a percentage of revenue to support humanitarian work in the country.

He believes that the encounters between tourists and North Koreans are beneficial: “Most North Koreans have never met a foreigner, and there’s very few foreigners that have ever met a North Korean.

“I don’t think that anyone’s ever argued that there’s too much interaction. Our view of North Koreans may be negative, but their view of us is much, much worse. These small, low-level engagement opportunities can have an effect over time, showing that we’re not evil-doers, we’re not out to get you.”

Mr Cockerell acknowledges that tourism is not a “magic bullet”. Kim Jong-un has amplified the rhetoric against the West since he took power in 2011, as well as cracking down mercilessly on perceived rivals for power.

What about the inevitable accusation that visitors see only what the government wants them to see? Mr Cockerell says: "There is a high degree of control and many things cannot be seen, but the people who go there can infer things and know things intellectually even if they don’t know them viscerally.

"You can’t see and do everything, but that is not at all the same thing as not being able to see or do anything."

Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, visited North Korea a decade ago for his book Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil. He says: “Switching from Kim Jong-il to his son, Kim Jong-un, has hardly brought sanity to international relations or improvements in life for the poor, downtrodden North Koreans. Every now and then little glimmers of hope are quickly tamped down by more outbreaks of madness.”

48 Hours in Pyongyang

We applied The Independent’s long-established city-break template to North Korea’s capital…

Why go now?

Pyongyang provides “a microcosm of Korea’s past, present and future, from which one can learn about and experience the history, unique culture, wisdom, talents and enchanting customs of the Korean people,” at least according to the DPRK government. A visitor's other motives could include the wish to see a relic of communism before it follows Albania, Vietnam and Cuba on the road to capitalism, or unifies with South Korea.

Touch down

The main approach is by air from Beijing, aboard either Air China or Air Koryo: “the unique national flag carrier in DPR Korea”, as it calls itself. When choosing an airline, bear in mind that staff at the UK embassy in Pyongyang “avoid using Air Koryo unless it is operationally essential”.

There are also flights from Vladivostok in Russia, the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. By rail, Beijing is also the usual starting point; the journey takes about 26 hours. Many tours allow you to fly in and take the train out.

Check in

Hotels in the capital are important landmarks. The Pyongyang Koryo Hotel, near the railway station, has twin towers, each of 45 storeys, and each topped with a revolving restaurant.

The Potonggang Hotel, overlooking the Potong river, is also impressive by local standards, with CNN International available on your room TV, and a karaoke room to let it all out.

Significantly cheaper places are available, such as the Ryanggang Hotel, but Koryo Tours notes that water is not available 24 hours a day.

The Foreign Office warns: “An incident at a hotel in Pyongyang in June 2015 highlighted a culture of low safety awareness. You may wish to check hotel fire procedures.”

Day 1

Take a view

The Juche Tower is a 170m high monument on the banks of the Taedong river with views across Pyongyang. It was completed in 1982, and is dedicated to the North Korean ideology of Juche. This concept is often translated to “self-reliance”, but means, according to the DPRK government, “that the masters of the revolution and construction are the masses of the people and that they are also the motive force of the revolution”.

The motive force to get you to the top of the tower is a lift, which costs the equivalent of £4.

Take a hike

Don’t stray too far. Koryo Tours says: “You are free to walk around the grounds of the hotel but elsewhere you must have your guides with you.”

Lunch on the run

“Kimchi is a nutritious foodstuff which is fermented by lactic acid bacilli and abounds in various kinds of vitamins and microelements,” says the DPRK government. “It plays an important role in neutralising the acid humours with alkali ones for the Koreans who eat boiled cereals as their staple food.” Your trip may not be long enough to acquire this particular taste.

Cultural afternoon

To get an understanding of the prevailing political culture, visit the USS Pueblo, tied up on the Taedong river. She is “an armed spy ship of the US which conducted espionage acts in the territorial water of the DPRK and [was] captured by its heroic navy”.

An aperitif

Order a Taedonggang, and toast the nation’s first beer festival. North Korean state TV reported the event thus: “The Pyongyang Taedonggang beer festival shows our people’s lives filled with happiness and optimism, building up a people’s paradise and a highly civilised socialist country, while smashing the US and its followers’ heinous moves to isolate and stifle the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).” Cheers.

Dining with the locals

Don’t envisage a convivial evening in a side-street restaurant in the company of ordinary citizens. Were you able to travel freely around the country, you could begin to test the accusations from international organisations that many North Koreans face severe malnutrition. The UN accuses the regime of “the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation”.

Day 2

Sunday morning: go to church

The North Korean government insists: “Every citizen in the DPRK enjoys full freedom of and right to religion.” But the 2014 UN report on human rights in North Korea observed: “Christians and others considered to introduce subversive influences are the primary targets of a systematic and widespread attack against all populations that are considered to pose a threat to the political system and leadership.”

A walk in the park

Even 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moranbong Park has a DPRK-USSR Friendship Tower, celebrating North Korea’s affinity for hard-line communist regimes.

Out to brunch

More from the official doctrine on dining: “In the diet of the Koreans, bean paste and soy sauce are indispensable basic seasonings and, at the same time, important subsidiary foodstuffs. As a Korean saying goes, ‘The taste of food means the taste of bean paste and soy sauce’.”

Take a ride

The Pyongyang Metro is one of the deepest underground railways in the world. Its tunnels, 360ft below ground level, double as air-raid shelters. The system, with two lines, is largely modelled on the Moscow Metro, and uses second-hand rolling stock from the Berlin U-Bahn.

Window shopping

Mansudae Art Studio is described by Koryo Tours as “Pyongyang’s centre of artistic excellence,” and it is the best location to buy propaganda posters. In addition, the Korea International Tourist Service (KITS) runs plenty of souvenir shops, including a new one opposite the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which depicts the North Korean view of the Korean War.

The icing on the cake

The DMZ, south of Pyongyang, epitomises the Cold War in a single, heavily fortified frontier. You can visit the hut shared between – and guarded by both sides, and wonder at the weirdness of the world.

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