To the average person, North Korea is one of the most mysterious, terrifying and controversial countries on Earth. It is known for all the wrong reasons, not least concerning this week’s saga concerning the apparent assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in Malaysia. With this in mind, most people don’t even think once about the idea of travelling there, never mind the question as whether it is possible or not. So when I then tell people that I’ve been to this place multiple times, the response is often one of shock, bewilderment, curiosity and probably some reserved feelings that I’m a bit crazy. For all we see and hear about the country, a trip to North Korea is actually possible and contrary to stereotypes we see, hear and read every day, that experience is accessible, simple and safe. Obviously, visiting an impoverished and totalitarian state never can be an “ordinary” experience, it’s no Benidorm, it’s no Tenerife, but what’s where the real adventure lies.
I first visited North Korea in 2014 with the British Agency Lupine Travel. It was a rollercoaster of an experience. It was eye-opening, it was educational, it was emotional and in some ways tragic too. You step into a different world, one far removed from your own. The train journey to Pyongyang elucidated scenes of backward, humble villages frozen in time. Despite such humbling poverty, everything was carefully decorated to the tiniest detail in slogans, statues and carefully crafted imagery. The North Korean state using all of these measures to claim that it was apparently not oppressing these people, but liberating and enabling them. The feelings of all strike you so deep and that’s before you even begin to witness the palace like museums acting as literal monuments of worship, directed around by two local guides who give microscopic attention to what you see, observe and photograph. Above all, you’re always left wondering, what’s real, what’s not real? With experience, you start to work it out.
Afterwards, I didn’t quite believe there was any comparable travel experience on Earth, it beat dozing off on a tacky Spanish beach hands down. In fact, upon leaving I was so driven by the experience that I felt compelled that others could learn from it as well. With this in mind, I got back in touch with Lupine and began to work for them, promoting tours as well as representing groups as a guide, utilising my academic knowledge of North Korean affairs to my advantage. Soon enough, I had been back three additional times. Although the experience has become somewhat routine, desensitising me to things other people are fearful of, it has never failed to excite me or dissuade others from doing it. Its role I have come to love and cherish.
Some people say we shouldn’t go to North Korea, they say it is unethical because it gives credence to a brutal regime which builds illegal nuclear weapons. I don’t see it that way, rather, visiting this country offers an opportunity to build bridges, to break down barriers and dissolve decades of mutual fear. For all the North Korean regime imposes a cruel way of life on its people, those people are still human beings. They are not brainwashed robots, deluded and deceived about their situation, but real people who live real lives, just trying to make the best out of what they have. On my journeys, I have met some wonderful people in that country, whom for all the propaganda and tension still have a willingness and curiosity to welcome and take an interest in visitors, nothing is going to happen to you. Even if they outwardly must pay lip service to it, beneath the surface the locals do not bare the banner of belligerence which Kim Jong Un snarls to the world. Beyond all that hysteria, lies a heart.
So yes, I believe Visiting North Korea is quite an incredible thing to do, but I speak as someone who enjoys defying “the ordinary” in life. I understand it will never be everyone’s cup of tea; I’m not that unhinged. Yet above all it offers us an opportunity to step out of our comfort zones and walk beyond the horizon, to challenge and test what we know, to question, to think and to explore. Although what you see is certainly not the full extent of what goes on there, you actually have a chance to visit the world’s most secretive and isolated country. Test yourself, try it.