There is a habit that Covid has not managed to make me lose: surfing on Google Earth and fantasizing about new possible journeys. A few days ago, while I was observing the last stages of the Trans-Siberian, my eyes fell on a country that I had never considered for a trip or for an interview: North Korea.
Despite the background ukulele, the DPRK - an acronym for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - is not a country that refers to the concepts of freedom and joy. Defined by Human Rights Watch as "the most repressive government in the world", North Korea does not guarantee, even if it provides for them on a formal level, many of the fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, press, association and worship. In fact, the ideology of the current North Korean leadership is founded on the Juche, which is a political system inspired by socialism. Explained for the first time in 1955, Juche absolutely overlaps with the personality of its creator Kim Il-sung (grandfather of Kim Jong-un), the founding father of the homeland who, since his death in 1994, has been revered with the nickname of "eternal president". Juche is based on three pillars: jaju - the affirmation of the independence and political autonomy of North Korea - jarip - autarchic - and jawi - the self-defense that must guarantee the continuity of the regime and reinforce internal nationalism. North Koreans worship juche by remaining loyal to leaders, proving ready to sacrifice their lives for their homeland, and even working for free to prove their loyalty. In return, the government provides them with housing, monthly livelihoods, education and free health care. The only huge flaw: there is no private property, therefore no own goods. Individual freedom does not even appear among them. Those who violate government regulations can risk a lot. The ''enemies of the nation", or political dissidents, may even face the infamous punishment for three generations - the ''guilty'', the current family, children and grandchildren will have to serve their life sentence in a concentration camp.
Given that journalists and reporters are denied access to the country, having reliable and up-to-date information is very difficult. Who remains then? Who could go and report news of a nation that, also due to the absence of the internet and the ban on expatriation for citizens, is practically cut off from the rest of the world? If we were in other countries that are often, mistakenly, defined as impossible, the answer would be obvious: travelers! But in North Korea nothing is obvious. If also in other states tourists/travelers must observe behavioral rules to respect the sensitivity of the local population, in North Korea there are almost unique rules. To give an idea: it is forbidden to travel independently; it is forbidden to move (even for a walk) without the presence of the two guides established by the agency (by the government); it is forbidden to express critical opinions on the government (absolutely understandable prohibition, but also to fold the page of the newspaper where the photo of the leaders appears is insulting); obligation to bow solemnly and lay flowers in front of monuments of national importance; constant monitoring of movements, phones and conversations. Added to this is that - for European tourists - only the embassies of Sweden, Bulgaria, Poland, Czech Republic and Romania are present on the territory. Why then should we leave for North Korea? Why should we comply with these rules that no longer sound just like due respect? It was useless to question myself. Despite my best efforts, I hadn't been able to give myself any convincing answers. I therefore decided to contact the KTG team, one of the very few travel agencies recognized by the North Korean government. Awarded in 2019 and 2020 as Travelers' Choice by Tripadvisor users, KTG is an international travel agency (headquartered in Shenyang, China) which, in addition to organizing trips to China and Tibet, specializes in promoting tourism in North Korea. I couldn't miss the opportunity to satisfy my numerous ''why?''. My interlocutor was Rayco Vega, a member of the KTG team. I have tried to be very soft on my questions and, unlike in previous interviews, I will avoid expressing thoughts that could put Rayco in trouble, as he operates in North Korea. I let you free to interpret the answers.
Rayco, I would like to start with a personal question. How was your interest in DPRK born?
I saw a documentary about the DPRK back in 2005 with my cousin. I had studied about the Korean War at school but did not know much about the DPRK other than it was a socialist country. I was immediately attracted by the images shown of the country and their way of life there as it was so different to any other place in the world and this piqued my interest in the country. Coincidentally, I was planning to move to Northeast China then, close to the DPRK, to study Chinese. Once there I had classmates from both North and South Korea. I became obsessed with North Korea, reading as much as I could about the country, whether media articles or academic papers, watching videos online, etc.
Why did you decide to organize travels to DPRK?
Initially my goal was just to go there and visit. However, when trying to arrange my trip I realized it would cost me a lot to go there for a few days and saw that there was no company offering affordable tours to Westerners, so I saw an opportunity to offer this service. Many people I met were interested in going too but would always mention how expensive a trip there was. After my first trip I could not stop thinking and dreaming about the DPRK, it was such a fascinating destination.
To be able to travel without repercussions in North Korea, you need to adhere to certain rules. Your task is to inform future tourists of their existence. What are the main rules to follow? What is absolutely forbidden to do?
Rules are not as strict and as hard to follow as people tend to think but it is very important that we follow them. You have to be respectful towards the leaders, the country and the Korean people. You should absolutely not to disrespect the leaders, the Korean people or the country in general. There are specific norms regarding taking pictures; we should not take pictures of the military (as in many countries), except once at the DMZ - Korean demilitarized zone - where it is ok to do so, we should not take cut pictures of the images of the leaders as they are highly respected figures or take pictures of construction sites. Other than, we can take pictures and videos. Another rule is that we cannot wander off alone without our guides. The key is to be respectful and this is something travelers do not find hard to understand.
What reactions do future travelers have in front of this list? Aren't they afraid of being stuck in the country or facing penalties like jail?
We send hundreds of travelers to the DPRK each year and I have found that people are very open minded. They already have an idea of the rules that must be followed before we send them a tour briefing and before we meet to go over the tour briefing. They know that it is a different country to theirs, with different rules and norms that are to be respected as is the case when going to any other country. Other than that, we remind people about normal courteous behavior, such as asking locals (or asking the guides to ask them) if it is ok to take a close-up picture of them as they may not approve (same as if somebody in Spain may not like being taken a close-up picture by a German tourist without being asked). People are not afraid of being stuck in North Korea, they have either travelled extensively around the world and have been to some places that are actually unsafe and/or they have researched a lot about the DPRK and seen videos / read blogs of travelers who have been. They know that it is a safe destination so long as you respect their norms, which are very easy to follow. What has caused some worry is when the international situation regarding North Korea has been tense. So, for example when former US president Trump threatened North Korea with 'fire and fury’ back in 2017 or to totally destroy North Korea, this did cause some concern with some of our travelers and we did have some cancellations.
Let's imagine that I, a non-journalist/reporter European citizen, decide to go on a private tour of North Korea. You prepare my visa and I finally arrive in Pyongyang. Do I have freedom of movement? Are the two guides and the driver chosen by you or is the government providing them to you?
If you go on a private trip we can customize your itinerary based on your requests, so you decide where to go or what to see beforehand. Once in Korea your two guides and driver will be with you at all times. Unlike what many people think, it is actually possible to modify parts of your itinerary once you are in Korea. So, for example, you may decide that you would like to go to a local beer bar one evening, go for a walk around the city, go to the theatre, etc. and this can be arranged even if it was not in your original itinerary. It is, however, hard to arrange a visit to certain places once you arrive in Pyongyang. For example, if you would like to go to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace we need to notify Pyongyang several weeks before you go there, so you will not be able to arrange a last-minute visit there if you have not applied to do so beforehand. Once in Korea your two guides and driver will be with you at all times. There are some exceptions though. If you are on a private trip and you take the domestic train from Pyongyang to the special economic zone of Rason, bordering Russia, you will be by yourself on the train. The ride takes 30 hours. You will be on the train with locals, many headings to Russia. Once in Rason your local guide there (you will have one guide there, not two) and your driver will be waiting for you at the train station there. As for the guides, we have a list of guides that we prefer based on our frequent trips to North Korea. Based on the profile of travelers we ask Pyongyang to provide them with certain guides. For example, if we have a younger group of travelers we may suggest a younger guide. If the group is more interested in talking about politics we will suggest guides who we know are fascinated by this topic. In any case, we always ask for guides who we have worked with and who have received excellent feedback from our travelers and tour leaders. This is one of the advantages of going to North Korea frequently. It has also helped us establish excellent relations with the local guides and managers in Pyongyang throughout the years.
How do people react when they meet a foreigner? Are there ways we can interact with the local population? Do the guides help the exchange or are they also responsible for supervising the conversations?
When celebrating a festivity or when on holidays and having fun, Koreans tend to be very curious and friendly when they see foreigners. There are several holidays such as the Birthday of President Kim Il Sung, May Day, Liberation Day, National Day, etc., when people gather in the park, dance, have drinks, etc. It is very common for people to ask us to join them dancing, drinking, eating, etc. When we head to the beach and there are people there having fun they also ask us to join. My personal impression is that people are curious about foreigners and see foreigners who visit their country as friends who would like to know more about the DPRK. Guides help for this interaction to take place as they know that this is something travelers like though many times travelers can interact with body language. Generally speaking (when they are not holidays) when we take the metro or go for a walk teenagers and kids tend to wave, say hi, smile, etc. When we head out to more remote areas people tend look very surprised and may shyly smile or wave back at us.
Besides the capital Pyongyang, what are the major attractions that North Korea offers?
There are many places we can go to in North Korea now and many activities we can do that used to not be offered before. We can now cycle in Pyongyang and around different places in North Korea (we have our own KTG bikes in the DPRK), go skiing, go surfing on east coast, camping, etc. We can now also take a train from Pyongyang to a special economic zone in the far northeast, Rason. It takes around 30 hours. We were one of the first to take this train route, before then you had to enter Rason through Jilin province in China, not via Pyongyang, as Rason is run by the tourism authorities in Rason not in Pyongyang. As for where to go, we can now go to every province in the DPRK. Among the most visited areas are certainly the DMZ and Kaesong, the southernmost of the North Korean cities which, thanks to 12 sites, has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Here you can stay overnight in a traditional Korean courtyard hotel located in the old part of Kaesong, which was converted into a tourist complex in 1989. Near Pyongyang is Nampo, where you can visit a local cooperative and also some factories, giving travelers a chance to see other aspects of the country. Sariwon is also popular for having some historical remains from the Koryo dynasty. Finally, there is Hamhung, an industrial city that began receiving Western tourists only in 2010. Arriving in this city involves three days of travel, but offers the opportunity to visit the largest fertilizer factory in North Korea.
And from a naturalistic point of view?
There are Mount Myohyang, home of the International Friendship Exhibition Center, which are two huge buildings built in the mountains that contain thousands of gifts given to the leaders of the DPRK. These include impressive gifts such as a Stalin train and one from Mao Ze Dong. They even have a plane, in a room, given by the USSR. Also, there are Mount Kumgang, Mount Paektu, Mount Myohyang, Mount Chilbo, many underground caves, etc.
Do you have the freedom to customize the itineraries? What are the main difficulties you encounter?
We design all of our itineraries and submit them to Pyongyang. There are areas and places where tourists can go to and based on this we design our programs. When arranging private tours, we customize these based on the travelers’ requests so long as they are logistically possible. The main difficulties when arranging our tours comes down to logistics. Air Koryo only fly on several days of the week to Pyongyang from Beijing, Shenyang and Vladivostok Russia and some sites only open on certain days of the week and we have to take all this into account when designing our tours. Moreover, we arrange tours during all of the major national holidays, so this is something to bear in mind when fitting places into the program. For instance, regular Air Koryo flights from Beijing to Pyongyang are on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun only opens to visitors on Sunday and Thursday mornings and on major national holidays, the DMZ closes on Saturdays, many indoor areas are closed on Sundays and national holidays, etc. We need to carefully take all of these factors into account when programming our itineraries.
Isn't it dangerous for the regime to allow access to foreigners?
There are many misconceptions abroad about the DPRK. Allowing people to come and see Korea increases understanding of the country, the way we perceive them and how people there perceive foreigners. My personal opinion, and I am just someone working in tourism not in politics, is that the more interaction there is between the DPRK and the rest of the world, the harder it will be for foreigners to have a dehumanized image of the country.
What are the repercussions of the sanctions on the tourism sector?
There aren’t sanctions against tourism but there are sanctions against certain goods that has affected us. We were going to arrange a big stand up paddling event, teaching locals how to do SUP. We had reached an agreement with one of the main SUP manufactures to loan us SUP boards. However, sanctions do not allow the import of luxury goods including water sports goods into the DPRK. Although the boards would have been lent to us free of cost and we would have given them back to the board manufacturing company, we were put off by the term “import” and decided not to carry out the event. One of the goals of sanctions is to create uncertainty regarding activities carried out in the DPRK and this discourages many people from interacting with the DPRK. We tried to contact the UN offices and other authorities and they only answer we received was to contact a lawyer specializing in UN sanctions to see what they thought, so we ended up not carrying out such a great event. It really was a pity. Other example are increased costs of certain goods, such as petrol, which of course affects the tourism industry.
Does culture exist in North Korea?
Of course, Korea is a nation with rich history and culture. Much emphasis is put on music, poetry, fine arts, traditional dances, etc. There are cultural houses in almost every community (문화회관) including cooperative farms, where locals gather for cultural events. Travelers can also enjoy a theatre or opera performance with locals, see traditional activities, etc. They also have a rich culinary tradition.
Unfortunately, in many countries the archaeological heritage has been destroyed by the regime in an attempt to deny the past. Let's think of Syria or Afghanistan for example. How is North Korea from this point of view? Are there any archaeological sites that can be visited that have kept their original meaning and appearance?
Yes, the DPRK actively works with UNESCO to preserve and safeguard many sites all around country. In Kaesong alone for example 12 places make it a UNESCO World Heritage site. Unlike other major cities in the DPRK, Kaesong was not completely destroyed during the Korean War, it was thought that it would end up being part of South Korea. You have many historical sites there such as the Tomb of King Kongmin and his wife, the Koryo Museum, Southgate, Sonjuk Bridge, etc. There are historical sites all over the country, such as Sariwon with Mt. Chongbang and Songbul Temple, Pohyon Buddhist temple in Mount Myohyang, the Koguryo tomb complex, Mt. Kumgang, Pyongyang, etc. and a lot of importance is attached in preserving them.
Do you believe that the presence of foreign citizens can help North Koreans understand - or at least question - that there is not only that reality in which they are forced / manipulated to believe?
I think that in the West we usually mistakenly tend to think that Koreans know very little about the outside world. Just as a quick example, I have been to schools where our Spanish travelers were amazed to see that kids there loved Messi and have had people ask them with interest about the independence movement in Catalonia and travelers have found this very surprising. Based on my experience, Koreans also make a clear distinction between governments and people, so when they say that they oppose US aggression they make it very clear that they refer to the US government and not the American people themselves. The US heavily bombed Pyongyang in the Korean War, in fact there were around 420,000 bombs dropped on Pyongyang and the population of Pyongyang was of about 400,000, so that is more than one bomb per person, and the US keeps pushing for sanctions that make some aspects of life in Korea hard, but people do not hate American people themselves as people tend to say or think in the West. I think this is why Koreans are so friendly and welcoming with foreigners there, including Americans, because they make a clear distinction between people and governments. From what I have seen, Koreans are aware too that conditions of some aspects of life in their country are modest and that this is as a result of heavy sanctions imposed against their country. Regarding having foreign citizens in the country, it helps for there to be communication and understanding both ways, as anywhere in the world. If you have 0 people visit a country it is easier for there to be stereotypes in both directions. I am not saying that people are being manipulated to think one way or another in Korea as you state in your question, just that communication and interaction help create understanding and interest amongst people. Please check the video we shot on May Day in Pyongyang some years ago, you can see locals and foreigners interacting, playing and dancing together.
Why should we travel to North Korea?
The DPRK is not a destination for everyone of course, so not everyone should go to North Korea. However, for those interested and with an open mind, they will be able to experience a country and system completely different to anything they have seen. Going there will also allow you see that Koreans are normal, ordinary people, something we tend not to think about when reading about the country. It definitely helps break barriers and stereotypes that may exist on both sides. The vast majority of our travelers have told us that this destination has been the highlight of their trips, regardless of whether they are experienced travelers or not.
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I really appreciated Rayco's willingness to answer difficult questions. I sincerely believe that the KTG team is suitable for those wishing to visit North Korea (you can contact them via the website or the official Facebook page).
As for me, despite having lived and traveled in difficult or sanctioned countries, I really struggled to put myself in the shoes of a traveler visiting North Korea. Yes, I know. I should use catchy phrases and push you to take this unique and unmissable trip, but as Rayco rightly pointed out, North Korea is not a country for everyone and not everyone is for North Korea. In the next interview we will reverse the point of view. We will meet an artist who, unwittingly, has left the borders of North Korea and has never been able to return. He had to leave family and friends. He had to, and still has to, hide his face under a mask. He had to change his name and identity. Many calls him ''Sun Mu, the North Korean dissident'', but I did not perceive the fire of rebellion in him. I perceived the sadness of a man who understood that he ''lived like a frog in a well''.