For history prior to division of the peninsula, refer to my South Korea post – Travel Facts.
Division of the Peninsula. The Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945 was one of the darkest periods in Korean history. Many Korean citizens were press-ganged into slave-labour teams to construct factories, mines and heavy industry – particularly in the north. The use of Korean girls as ‘comfort women’ for Japanese soldiers – a euphemism for enforce prostitution remains a huge cause of resentment and controversy today in both Koreas.
Most of the guerilla warfare against the Japanese police and army took place in the northern provinces of Korea and neighbouring Manchuria. Kim-Il =-sung was a strong resistance leader, although not a strong enough force to rid Korea of the Japanese. The Red Army, in the closing days of WWII, entered Manchuria and Northern Korea as the Japanese forces retreated. The USA similarly began to move its troops to the country’s south. Despite an agreement at Yalta to give joint custodianship of Korea to the USSR, the USA and China, there were no concrete plans and with a National Geographic map, the USA divided Korea across the 38th parallel.
Hostage to Cold War tensions, and after the North refused to allow UN inspectors to cross the 38th parallel, the Republic of Korea was proclaimed in the South and the Democratic People’s Republic in the North in August/September of 1948.
The Korean War. Stalin personally chose the 33-year-old Kim Il-sung to lead the new republic. He outlived both Stalin, Mao Zedong and communism to become one of the world’s longest-serving heads of state. Kim sought and was given by Stalin the sanction to invade the South in 1950.
The brutal and pointless Korean War of 1950-1953 saw a powerful North Korea advance into the South, where it almost drove the US forces into the sea, followed by a similarly strong counterattack by the US and the UN which managed to occupy most of North Korea. China’s Mao Zedong covertly sent in the People’s Liberation Army and the front was pushed down to the original 38th parallel, and with 2 million dead, the original stalemate was more or less retained. The armistice agreement obliged both sides to withdraw 2000m from the ceasefire lie, thus creating the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) still in existence today.
Rebuilding the Country. China had alienated Kim but remained in the country to help with the massive task of rebuilding a nation all but razed to the ground by bombing. Simultaneously, Kim Il-sung began political consolidation and brutal repression. Democracy was dead.
Kim’s outlandish personality cult was generated almost immediately – the sobriquet “Great Leader” was employed almost immediately in everyday conversation in the North by the 1960’s. The first decade under Kim Il-sung saw vast material improvements in the lives of workers and peasants. Literacy and full health care were soon followed by access to higher education and the full militarization of the state. However, by the 1970s, North Korea slipped into recession, from which it has never recovered. Kim was raised to the status of a divine figure in North Korean society.
In 1980, the Great Leader’s son, Kim Jong-il, was attributed all kinds of wondrous deeds, was given several important public posts, including a seat in the politburo, and given the honorific title ‘Dear Leader’. Designated hereditary successor, in 1991, he was made supreme commander of the Korean army, despite never having served a day in it. From 1989 to 1994, the two were almost always pictured together, and praised in tandem, preparing the North Korean people for a hereditary dynasty.
Beyond Perestroika. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, North Korea lost its greatest sponsor and the subsidies it ironically needed to maintain its façade of self-sufficiency. They turned to China who acted as its greatest ally and benefactor ever since. China’s communism producing the fastest-expanding economy in the world, any ideological ties with Maoism remained purely superficial, and its increasingly close relationship to Japan makes it reluctant support for the Kiim regime all the more incongruous. Yet China remains the North’s one trusted ally, although it has several times demonstrated its unhappiness with the North’s continuous brinkmanship.
In 1994, it agreed to cancel its controversial nuclear program in return for US energy supplies in the short-term, but Kim suffered a massive heart attack and died. This rendered the North weaker and even less predictable than before. South Korea failed to send condolences for his death, and this slight to a man considered to be a living god set back negotiations with South Korea five years. The expected collapse of the N Korea regime did not happen as did not the expected succession of Kim-Jong-il. The country was more mysterious than ever as speculation occurred about power struggles between the military and Kim-Jong-il. But he assumed power in October 1997 after a 3-year mourning period. Surprisingly the presidency remained with the dead Kim Il-sung, who had been declared ‘eternal’ president, making him the world’s only dead head of state! The North’s economy had been contracting since the Soviet withdrawal of vital supplies and subsidies, its industrial infrastructure was ailing and the terrible floods of 1995 led to disaster. The North appealed to the UN and the world community for urgent food aid. So desperate was the Kim regime that it even acceded to unprecedented UN demands for access to the whole country, something previously unthinkable for its staunchly secretive military climate. Aid workers were horrified – malnutrition everywhere, starvation and deaths over the next few years of anywhere from hundreds of thousands to 3.3 million people.
Axis of evil. Reconciliation with South Korea and the US occurred and a meeting between the South’s Kim Dae-jung and the Dear Leader happened in June 2000, the first-ever meeting between the two countries. US Secretary of State Madeline Albright visited later the same year. Clinton’s term ended and George W Bush assumed the US presidency. In his 2002 State of the Union Address, Bush labeled the North (along with Iran and Iraq) part of an ‘Axis of Evil, launching a new era of acrimonious relations. North Korea resumed its nuclear program in 2002, claiming it had no choice due to American cessation of oil supplies and the two promised light-water nuclear reactors remaining incomplete. Frustrated at being ignored by the US throughout the Bush presidency, North Korea launched several missiles in July 2006, followed by the detonation of a nuclear device on its own soil three months later.
An uncertain future. Two US journalists were caught illegally entering North Korea and were sentenced to 12 years ‘reform through hard labor’ in March 2009, a sentence wildly condemned. Five months later, Bill Clinton flew in and rescued them, meeting with Kim Jong-il. This display of leniency was definitely not the norm for one of the most repressive regimes on earth. Far more common is for N Korean hostages and kidnap victims to remain forever captive. A 53-year-old S Korean female tourist was shot dead in 2008 after wandering into a military zone from a holiday resort. South Korea suspended tourism to the North and the S Korean resort in Kumgangsan remains closed to this day.
The six-party talks (the North, the South, China, Japan, Russia and the US), designed to tackle the nuclear program, ground to a halt after six years of negotiations. They reopened briefly in 2012, then broke down following a N Korean satellite launch a month later.
Kim Jong-il suffered a serious stroke in 2008, became visibly frail, and started promoting his third son, Kim Jong-un. After Kim Jong-il’s sudden death in late 2011, Kim Jong-un succeeded him. He gives long speeches in public, something his father never did, and has established himself as North Korea’s third dynastic leader.
North Korea Today. Kim Jong-un’s assumption of power was smooth. The Swiss-educated was in his late 20’s. He inherited problems in every field – food shortages, low industrial production, international sanctions and diplomatic isolation are just some. His easy manner, smiling face and his many speeches have boosted his popularity among a people that hadn’t heard their leader’s voice more than once throughout his reign.
His rule has given confusing signals. 2012 saw the country returning to the six-party talks in exchange for food aid and a moratorium on uranium enrichment, missile testing and the admission of IAEA inspectors. North Korea immediately launched a satellite to mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, but this broke the agreements made in the moratorium. The launch failed and the North Koreans got no food aid and increasing isolation.
It is impossible to know how much real power Kim Jong-un is a figurehead or how much real power he has, as the power struggles within the notoriously paranoid and secretive North Korean elite is totally beyond the understanding of the outside world. The sacking and disappearance of his uncle implies some power.
For the vast majority of North Koreans, life has changed little in decades. Life is incredibly hard: fear of arrest or denouncement is never far away, food is never plentiful, consumer goods remain unimaginable luxuries for most citizens, propaganda is ubiquitous and relentless, electricity is scant, work is demanding, and often weeks on end will be spent doing back-breaking work in the rice fields during transplantation and harvesting seasons. They have almost no control over their destinies and about the only option to change their lives is escaping across the border to China, and eventually South Korea.
Against all odds, the country has survived two decades since the end of the Cold War, and the Kim regime still has an iron grip on the country. After 60 years of total repression of all opposition, it appears there are simply no surviving networks of dissent.
As of October 13 2014 (the day I am writing this), Kim Jong-un has not been seen in public for over a month. He is reported to be in hospital with an injured leg. I am hoping there will be a revolution while I am there. It will add some spice to the trip.
The National Psyche. Polite and shy at first, their psyche is defined by a state-promulgated obsession with the country’s victimization by American and Japanese imperialism and refusal to move on from the Korean War. A source of great sorrow for people on both sides of the DMZ, the North’s constant propaganda about how the war was everyone’s fault but North Korea’s is quite extraordinary. This persecution complex is incubated from birth born from ignorance rather than a willful rewriting of history.
They are a fiercely nationalistic and proud people, again due to endless nationalistic propaganda. Even more significant is the cult of KimIl-sung (the Great Leader) and Kim Jong-il (the Dear Leader) that pervades everyday life. All adult members of the population must wear a loyalty badge to both, a psychological step most foreigners find inconceivable. Due to propaganda and the very real international isolation, they feel hemmed in on all sides especially by South Korea, the US and Japan.
Personally, North Koreans are good humoured and hospitable, yet remain extremely socially conservative, the combination of centuries of Confucianism and decades of communism. Smile and say ‘hello’ to people on the street, as they are instructed to give foreigners a warm welcome. But don’t take pictures of people without their permission – it may be more relaxing for everyone to simple leave the camera in the bag. Giving gifts to ordinary people could result in unpleasant consequences. Interaction with children is much easier. They are remarkably forthcoming, wave and smile ecstatically to foreign tour groups. Personal interactions with normal North Koreans are impossible. Women especially are off-limits.
Lifestyle. North Korea is the most closed and secretive nation on earth. Power cuts are regular and food shortages a fact of everyday life. Outside Pyongyang, and even in the capital after 10pm, there are few lights on, with most windows lit only by candlelight, if at all. Presently famine is not an imminent threat, but most will eat meat only a few times a year, the rest of the time living off a diet of rice and gruel that is limited to one or two meals per day.
The system of political apartheid has effectively created a three-strata society with a uniquely North Korean caste system whereby people are divided into loyal, neutral or hostile categories in relation to regime. The hostile are deprived of everything and often end up in forced labour camps in entire family groups, maybe for nothing more than having South Korean relatives or for one family member having been caught crossing into China. The neutral have little or nothing but are not persecuted, while the loyal enjoy everything from Pyongyang residency and desk jobs at the lower level, to Party membership and the privileges of the elite. At the top of the tree, the Kim dynasty and its vast array of courtiers, security guards and other staff are rumored to enjoy great wealth and luxury, although evidence of this is hard to produce – the North Korean elite is also obsessed with secrecy.
The six-day work week (which even for office workers includes regular stints of backbreaking labor in the rice fields at planting and harvesting time) makes for an exhausted population. But this makes Sundays a real event and as they visibly relax, go on picnics, sing songs and drink in small groups. The showcase shops and department stores in Pyongyang have only a small number of imported goods available to the general population, highly priced and of variable quality. In the country, malnourishment is a common fact of life and living standards are particularly low.
In the first 20 years following the Korean War, Kim Il-song’s government genuinely increased the standard of living, bringing literacy and health care to every part of the country. Since the 1990s, people are just as poor as their grandparents were in the 1950s. Outside Pyongyang, the standard of living is far worse, but the carefully planned bus journeys will never fully expose the poverty to the casual tourist. Glimpses of life in rural villages from the bus can be chilling.
Population. A 2008 UN-sponsored census was the first in 15 years and found a population at just over 24 million. The ethnic homogenicity is a result of long isolation and xenophobia, dating back to the ‘hermit kingdom’ days. The number of foreigners is very small, all of them either diplomats or temporary residents working in construction. All of the 3 million residents of Pyongyang are from backgrounds deemed loyal to the Kim regime. With a complete lack of free movement in the country (all citizens need special permission to leave their town of residence), no visitor is likely to see those termed ‘hostile’, most of whom are in hard-labor camps miles from anywhere. All adults wear a ‘loyalty’ badge since 1970 featuring Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-ils portrait so you can be sure that anyone without one is a foreigner.
Sport. Soccer is the national sport, and seeing an international match is sometimes a possibility. Volleyball is the sport you’re most likely to see locals playing, as both sexes can play together, making it popular among work groups. The country’s greatest sporting moment came at the 1966 World Cup when they thrashed favorite Italy – the story is told in the documentary called ‘The Game of Their Lives’. Weightlifting and martial arts are the other international sports. The Mass Games is held annually from August to October at the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang. Over 100,000 soldiers, children and students hold up colored placards to form enormous murals in praise of North Korea’s achievements, and is an amazing sight.
Religion. It is regarded as an expression of ‘feudal mentality” and has been effectively banned since the 1950s. As the Kim regime became more deified in the 1990s, propaganda against organized religion stopped. A number of Buddhist temples are on show for tourists, In recent years three churches have been built in Pyongyang to cater to the diplomatic community.
Arts. The regime claims that scores are films are produced annually, and it is possible to see some on tours when local films with English subtitles are a fascinating experience. The Kims does not encourage original writing. All non-party-controlled forms are quickly suppressed since the 1990s. Bookstores stock an unimaginatively restrictive selection of books, focusing heavily on the works of the last 2 leaders. Performances of traditional Korean music, singing and dance are rarely available. More feasible are visits to revolutionary opera or a classical-music event.
Environment. It is spookily litter-free as streets are cleaned daily and there is no graffiti. However the countries cities are polluted and there is no environmental consciousness. Subarctic, alpine and subtropical plants and trees are native and the fauna is limited to nature reserves in mountainous regions. Defoliants are used north of the DMZ for security purposes. Areas of particular biodiversity are the DMZ, the wetlands of the Tumen River and the Paekdusan and Chilbo mountains in the far north. Hopes of truly nature-focused tour is unlikely. Indonesia named an orchid after Kim Il-sung – ‘kimilsungia’ – and Japan developed a begonia after Kim Jong-il – kimjongilia – and both are omnipresent throughout official tourist sites.
Devastating floods and economic slowdown have stripped fields of topsoil. Combined with fertilizer shortages, this has caused expansion of arable land. Unsustainable and unstable hill sides, river banks and road edges have been brought under cultivation exacerbating erosion, deforestation and fertilizer contamination. The threat of floods and famine remains.
Food and Drink. Tour groups eat sumptuously by North Korean standards but fare is still mediocre with kimchi, rice, soups, noodles and fried meat. Vegetarians are catered to but food is bland and heavy on rice, egg and cucumber.
Taedonggang, a local lager is pleasant and imported beers are common. Fruit juices and sodas are available. Soju (the local distilled alcohol) is strong stuff. Blueberry wine is in two forms, a low alcohol type and the potent, reinforced version.
Accommodation. All is in state-run hotels, which are all of a perfectly decent standard especially in Pyongyang. You usually won’t have much control over where you stay unless you organize your own private tour. All hotels have restaurants, shops (although bring everything you will need outside Pyongyang), and usually some entertainment (karaoke, pool tables and a bar). A homestay scheme in Chilbo opened in 2006, although it’s about as far from a homestay as you can imagine, as it is set in a showcase village. While many hotel rooms may be bugged, it’s unlikely that anyone will be listening, so there’s no worry about what you say in your room.
Children. A DPRK tour is not suitable for kids. Long exhausting days and endless sightseeing will bore a child. There is a lack of comforts and facilities for foreign children.
Custom regulations. Procedures vary from polite inquires to thorough searches. A Lonely Planet and other guides are okay but any books about the country and its politics should be left at home. Cameras are fine though huge zoom lenses and large tripods are not allowed. Mobile phones are forbidden and will have to be left at customs. Laptops are now fine to bring. Religious materials for personal use are also fine.
Embassies and Consulates. North Korea has diplomatic relations with most EU countries, although few have embassies. Visa applications are best handled by the Beijing embassy. Sweden looks after US, Canadian and EU citizens without embassies. UK represents Australian, New Zealand and Ireland. Other countries with embassies are Germany, India and Russia.
Internet Access. There is no internet access for tourists. Foreigners working in Pyongyang have internet access.
Legal Matters. It is extremely unlikely that a tourist will experience legal problems with North Korean authorities, but if this happens, stay calm and ask to speak to your countries diplomatic representative. Usually tourists who break the law are deported immediately. 13 Japanese nationals were kidnapped between 1977 and 1983 and more than 400 South Koreans, mostly fishermen have been abducted and their fate remains unknown. The most sensational kidnap was the South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his wife were held in a gulag for 4 years and then joined the elite lifestyle exclusive to the inner circle of Kim Jong-il and made 7 films (read Kingdom of Kim about this experience).
Maps. You do not need maps anywhere due to the unique hand-holding arrangement with the guides. Pyongyang maps, available in most hotels and shops, can be helpful to learn the layout of the city. The best map of the country available outside the country is by Nelles Maps.
Money. The unit of currency is the North Korean won (KPW), which was drastically revalued in 2009 leading to economic chaos, public unrest and suicides as people lost their life savings overnight. Tourists usually do not deal with local currency – everything can be paid for with Euro or Chinese yean (but bring small change of both as big notes can be impossible to change). It may be possible to get some won from your guides as a souvenir, but it is illegal to take out of the country, so hide it deep. Pre-revaluation notes are available to buy for souvenirs. Credit cards are completely useless, bring all the cash you need, travelers cheques are not usable and there are no ATMS.
Photography and video. Always ask before taking pictures and respect the reply as North Koreans are especially sensitive about foreigners taking pictures of them especially if they were to end up in a newspaper article that contains anti-DPRK content. It’s normal for customs officers to give your pictures a quick look through at the border and delete any offending content. Taking photographs from the bus is officially banned but possible if discreet and not of sensitive places like soldiers or any military facilities, except at the DMZ where it is encouraged. Memory cards are not easily available and laptops are useful to download pictures before the border. They are much more stricter about using video cameras. Filming the Mass Games in full is not possible.
Post. It is monitored but reliable and the colorful stamps make good souvenirs. Postcards arrive earlier than letters as they don’t have to opened.
Public Holidays. These are good times to visit especially May Day (May 1) or Liberation Day (from Japan – August 15) as both are celebrated with huge parades.
Telephone and fax. 381 numbers are international and 382 numbers are local. It is not possible to call the other. International calls start at €3/minute to China and €8 to Europe. Mobile phone networks exist in most large towns but are not accessible internationally. They are not allowed in the country. One page of fax to China cost €4.50/page and one to Europe €15/page.
Time. The time is GMT +9 hours. You will see years such as Joche starting in 1912 when Kim #1 was born but they are always clarified with ‘normal’ years.
Toilets. Usually basic and smelly squat toilets are all that is available. Regular cuts to the water supply are dealt with by buckets of water. Toilet paper is supplied in hotels but not elsewhere. Diarrhea is common in the country. Soap is scarce so hand sanitizer is a good idea.
Travelers with Disabilities. North Korea places great emphasis on caring for the disabled. Facilities are basic but manageable. Most hotels have lifts.
Visas. All nationalities need a visa. US and Israeli citizens are perfectly able to visit the DPRK, although presently it is not possible for South Koreans, but that may change. Restrictions have relaxed as it used to be necessary to send a full CV listing all previous employers along with a letter from your present employer. If you work in the media, human rights or other controversial profession, be sure to not put this on the application form. Your travel agent will normally handle this for you and in most cases, the visa is a formality if you travel with a well-known travel agency. I only needed to send a scan of both my passport and a passport photo. The visas are issued in Beijing the day before travel so don’t worry about leaving home without one in your passport. The embassy visa charges are €50 in Beijing and are included in most tour packages. North Korean visas are not put into passports, but are separate documents taken from you when you leave the country. If you want a souvenir, make a photocopy. No stamp of any kind will be made in your passport.
Women travelers. Despite being a traditionally patriarchal society, women travelers will have no problem.
GETTING THERE AND AWAY.
Beijing is the only real transport hub for entering the country, offering regular trains and flights to Pyongyang. Regular flights exist from Vladivostok and Shenyang in Northern China, but as visas are picked up in Beijing, other routes are generally impossible.
Entering the country. With a visa, entry is easy. Your guides will take your passport for the duration of your stay. This is totally routine so do not worry about it getting lost.
Trains. There are four weekly overnight trains from Beijing taking about 23 hours, though delays are not uncommon. The North Korean train is actually two cars attached to the Beijing-Dandong train which are detached at Dandong, taken across the Yalu River Bridge to Sinuiju (Korean side), where more carriages are added for local people. You remain in the same carriage for the entire journey and can mingle with locals in the dining car on both sides of the border. Accommodation is in 4 berth compartments. Trains usually spend about four hours at the border for customs and immigration, 2 hours on each side. Food is available in the restaurant car but bring small denominations. There are no facilities for changing money at Sinuiju. Be very careful about taking pictures from the train in North Korea especially in stations as they are considered military objects.
There is also a weekly train in both directions from Moscow that travels through Northern China along the Trans-Manchurian Railway taking 7 days.
Getting around. All accommodation, guides and transport must be booked through the government-run Ryohaengsa, or via a travel agency.