This article is part of our North Korea section: series of articles exploring everything you need to know about visiting DPRK. Head to our main North Korea (DPRK) page for more information.
While North Korea hosts on a yearly basis far fewer tourists than South Korea and their neighbours China and Japan, North Korea is becoming more and more open to tourists and numbers already exceed over 100,000 per annum. And, there are already several tour operators specialising in North Korea tours. But why should you travel to North Korea? What does travelling to this much caricatured yet mysterious country offer to visitors? Let’s take a look at three main draws which we have identified below.
Be the change
Number one: it’s important. While pundits have often said that tourism to North Korea is unethical because tourist dollars go towards supporting a bad government, the picture is a bit more complicated. As North Korea scholar Dr. Andrei Lankov has pointed out, the North Korean government relies on isolation to maintain its authoritarian rule. Through isolation, it can keep its population separated from outside culture and ideas which it views as dangerous, and maintain a sense of tension by portraying outsiders as the enemy so that it can present itself as their saviour and protector.
Opportunity to communicate
Thus, even though tourist numbers may be relatively small, tourism to North Korea provides a much needed window into the outside world. This is a window through which North Koreans can come into contact with new people and new ideas, and come to understand that foreigners are not all imperialists who want to invade their country. Furthermore, it’s what the people of North Korea want. On trips to North Korea you’ll find that they’re always very curious about people from foreign countries, and tend to ask them all sorts of questions about everything from everyday life, standards of living, to politics. They’re also generally very warm and welcoming to visitors from outside, and feel happy to see people interested in their country.
But such engagement isn’t just a one-way street, it’s a two-way one. People from the outside can also go in to North Korea and go beyond the sensationalist stories about the country in the mainstream media. They can learn that there’s much more to the country than Kim Jong Un, nuclear missiles, and political oppression. They can find that North Korea is a country with an ancient and proud culture, clean and well-presented cities, and a kind and well-educated population who are not brainwashed automatons but ordinary people just like anyone else who joke, laugh and cry, and harbour hopes, dreams and ambitions and the whole gamut of other characteristics that make us human.
Tourism thus acts as an important bridge between antagonistic and divided cultures, which know little about each other. It allows people on both sides of the divide to contribute towards the easing of tensions, and cross-cultural understanding through person-to-person contact and friendship. And for this reason we say that tourism is important.
The next draw of travelling to North Korea is that its unique. It’s not an understatement to say that there’s no other travel destination on the face of the earth quite like North Korea. Visit Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo and you will find some differences, but on another level they all feel like globalised, cosmopolitan mega-cities with McDonalds and Starbucks on every corner. Travel from any of these places to Pyongyang however and you will feel that you have stepped into another world, one without advertising, globalisation, the internet, and international businesses and fashion trends.
Remnant of the Cold War
While North Korea is a little more open than you’d think, Disney and The Titanic being very popular for example, and it is becoming more so over recent years with more and more “fast food” style joints and cafes opening in Pyongyang, it is still probably the most isolated country in the world resolutely sticking to its own unique and independent (or isolationist) path of development. And now that Cuba and Myanmar have normalised relations with the US and are beginning to open up in earnest, North Korea sticks out even more as the last isolated, old-style “Communist” state and remnant of the Cold War.
All this leads to North Korea being one of the most visually striking travel destinations in the world, with its own unique fashion, architecture, and artwork. Only in North Korea will you see people going to work not in Western business suits which are not standard all over the world, but in high collar Mao suits. You will also see female university students wearing the chimajogori, a high-waisted traditional style dress with a white top with a beautiful bow on the front with a navy blue or black skirt. Then there’s a kind of short-sleeved suit for summer, baggy Lenin caps, Kim Jong Il-style jumpsuits, and various other kinds of military-inspired civilian attire.
North Korea also boasts a unique architectural style, mixing Stalinist socialist realism with traditional motifs. For example, the Grand People’s Study House, North Korea’s national library, is built mainly in a socialist realist style but with traditional-style tiled roofs with wide eaves. The Arch of Triumph, despite its resemblance to its Parisian predecessor, has traditional-style brackets carved out of stone.
The country’s ideological uniqueness also manifests itself in many things that can only be seen in North Korea. From giant bronze statues of the leaders at Mansu Hill, to museums and artwork dedicated to their “on-the-spot-guidance” tours and “immortal revolutionary achievements”, and their birthplaces which are the sites of pilgrimage, and the extravagant mausoleum in which their bodies are preserved ala Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh, North Korea can be said to be the last living museum of a Stalinist personality cult.
North Korea also produces very unique visual art, with Communist-style propaganda posters everywhere the eye can see, murals and mosaics dedicate to the leadership, and a unique style of painting that mixes Western influences with traditional East Asian brush painting called “Chosonhwa”. It also has a lot of very unique food, such as its famous cold noodles, green bean pancake, and onban chicken soup. So see the sights and taste the food of North Korea, there really is nothing else like it.
Off the beaten track
The third big draw to travelling to North Korea is that it’s still relatively unknown. Indeed, a lot of people out there still think that travel to North Korea is impossible for foreign tourists, or that it’s highly dangerous, both of which are misconceptions which will disappear soon after doing some serious research on the matter. So North Korea really is an opportunity to get “off the beaten track”, and see what is truly a hidden gem, before the day it gets flooded with backpackers and tourists.
As touched upon above, it’s also an opportunity to learn more about a much stereotyped and misunderstood country. Did you know for example, that North Korean beer is considered to be of a much higher quality than South Korean beer? Taedonggang Beer in particular is much enjoyed by beer connoisseurs. It is made in a factory in Pyongyang which was disassembled and shipped over from the UK, and whose staff were fully trained in beer manufacturing by foreign experts. Visiting North Korea thus provides tourists with opportunities to discover such hidden gems, which will turn into head-turning anecdotes at dinner parties for times to come.
So in sum, you should visit North Korea because it’s important, unique, and unknown. Few tourists who visit North Korea feel that their money was wasted, or that their experience wasn’t interesting. Talk to most people who have visited North Korea and you will hear that to the contrary they feel that their trip, albeit intense and not your relaxing Hawaiian holiday, was easily the most unique and fascinating place they had ever visited.