Asia travel

Tours of North Korea are monitored, but offer insight

Carefully monitored tours to North Korea give insight into life in the world's last Stalinist state, writes Juliet Rix

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 April, 2015, 5:14pm

"YOU'RE GOING WHERE?" my friends ask. It is, in fact, remarkably easy to visit North Korea (or, as they prefer to call it, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK), the world's most secretive state. Today, tours run regularly from Beijing, many of them well organised and comfortable. While North Korea's government thunders about war, more of the country is being opened to foreign tourists - albeit, in tours monitored by Korean guides.

A visit here is almost like seeing a dinosaur species in the wild. It is a peek at a throwback culture preserved behind a very current iron curtain.

I arrive not knowing what to expect - certainly not the 47-storey, 1,000-room Yanggakkdo Hotel with panoramic views over the capital. Pyongyang is a post-Korean-war city of concrete; the communist tower blocks are softened by tints of colour and the skyline is enlivened by a few modern buildings, such as the unfinished Pyramid Hotel that rises like a rocket from the streets.

The broad avenues (one a full 100 metres wide) carry few cars - and very few of these are privately owned. Most of the action is along the edges of the roads. Here, beneath the omnipresent images of The Great Leader Kim Il-sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, and slogans exhorting hard work for the fatherland, support for the army and death to the "American Imperialists", crowds of people walk, pull handcarts, cycle and labour in tightly-packed gangs - weeding, planting, paving, and endlessly sweeping.

Children in neat blue-and-white uniforms with the classic socialist red neckerchief look at us curiously, occasionally waving or saluting. Some perform with spectacular skill at the vast Schoolchildren's Palace where the talented (and privileged) attend after-school classes. I am reminded of China in the mid-1980s, and I'm not the only one thinking of the past: a group of young Shanghainese staying in our hotel says they are having a fascinating time "looking at our parents' youth". But North Korea is different, too.

We visit the country's "most sacred, holy place" - the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum of the Kims. The Great Leader died in 1994, his son in December 2011, and the newly double mausoleum reopened earlier this year.

We dress up smartly, go through airport-style security and are stripped of everything but our wallets, and these are searched, before stepping onto a lengthy travelator (no walking!) through attractive gardens with swans gliding along man-made rivers. The respectful calm and stately progress is in sharp contrast to the rush through the Mao Mausoleum in Beijing.

There are no Mao suits here. Many women are in doll-like full national costume - floor-length dresses with flouncy sleeves and brightly coloured conical skirts. Although most women work, they are not treated the same as men. They have, for instance, only recently been allowed to ride bicycles in Pyongyang.

We are gestured through a car wash-style arch that blows the dust off us - and stands our hair on end - before we are allowed to enter the hallowed rooms of the bodies themselves. Here, in silent groups of four, we bow to the feet, the left and the right of each dead leader. "They've passed away," confirms our guide, "but Korean people think they are still alive".

Kim Il-sung, now dead for 19 years, remains the nation's president despite the fact it is his grandson who now rules. Everywhere we go, the most crucial piece of information the guides wish to impart is when the Kims visited.

At the Museum of Metro Construction, the first couple of rooms are about the building of the deepest metro in the world (which doubles as a vast bomb shelter). But the rest is full of detailed 3-D models of the routes followed by the leaders on their various visits, red stars marking where photographs were taken, quotes from their "on the spot guidance", and glass cases containing the torch used to light their way, the hat, the ashtray … We are not sorry to be spared the Museum of the Construction of the Museum of Metro Construction (yes, really).

As we are leaving the museum, a work unit of women is waiting on benches. One of our number greets them with the traditional Korean, " An yong ha shim ni ka" and a little bow. Chaos ensues as almost the entire group rises to greet him in return. Everyone laughs. This warmth and sense of humour takes me by surprise, but we find it repeatedly, in random encounters, in our guides as they relax as the week progresses and especially in the parks on a public holiday.

We are, for once, let loose from the group. A few of us end up sharing a family barbecue while others play frisbee (brought by the tourists) with local young people or take part in a tug of war. Later, among trickling streams, and traditional-style pavilions, we find ourselves singing and dancing with the locals - a very far cry from the bellicose rhetoric of the government.

We are returned to political awareness passing through Reunification Arch (with carvings of scruffy-looking South Koreans on one side and fit and youthful Northerners on the other) onto the wide empty road to Kaesong and the Demilitarized Zone, the border with South Korea. The road is littered with checkpoints and flanked by concrete blocks clearly designed for loosing onto the tarmac if required.

We have seen plenty of trucks full of soldiers in Pyongyang - almost one in 20 of North Korea's population is in uniform - but most were armed with hoes and shovels. Now they have guns.

North Koreans are taught that America keeps their country divided and that the Korean War started with the South invading the North. Everything that is wrong in North Korea is blamed on the US and the peninsula's division. Reunification is seen as a kind of nirvana. When I say to one of our guides that maybe one day he could visit Europe, he replies, "Maybe after reunification."

We sit at the green baize table across which two years of peace talks took place and at the desks where the 1953 armistice was signed. Since the North annulled the agreement earlier this year, we are not allowed into the UN huts that actually span the border.

At time of writing there is no official alert against Hong Kong residents travelling to North Korea, although tourists are warned that the situation could change quickly. We are told the situation is very tense, but it doesn't feel that way.

When we head back to Kaesong, the ancient capital of the Koryo dynasty (935-1392), we find low-rise alleys of traditional Korean houses. It is one of the few parts of North Korea that wasn't bombed during the war, and still has houses more than 100 years old. Some of these are now the Minsok Folk Hotel where we spend the night on thin mattresses and well-heated floors.

We line up outside the hotel gate, taking photos. We're pushing the boundaries here: when one of us tries to cross the road for a better shot the guides are on to him in a flash. It's a pity. Our peek behind the Korean iron curtain has been fascinating and I would like to see more. Maybe next year - or after reunification.


Getting there: Beijing-based, British-run Koryo Tours ( offers tours to North Korea and can create tailormade trips. Special tours are coming up for Victory Day on July 27th, which is the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, as well as the first ever tour to include non-Chinese to the border town of Sinuiju.