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Is North Korea the best PR agency in the world?

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This is the website of travel writer, Michael Turtle. After working in broadcast journalism for a decade in Australia, Michael left Sydney to travel the world indefinitely and write about his discoveries.

Visiting North Korea

Arriving at North Korea’s Pyongyang airport, you need to relinquish more than just your phone and GPS devices. You also have to check-in any preconceptions you have about North Korea because everything you think you know about the country is about to be challenged and, in many cases, greatly altered.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

We’ve heard about the nuclear weapons, concentration camps, the famines that have reportedly killed millions, the Dear Leader’s predilection for Hollywood classics and the rumours that he even has a rollercoaster in his garden (it can get quite ronery at the top).

But over the course of a week in North Korea, we came to see it as a country of natural beauty and undeniable human accomplishments. Most of the people we met had huge hearts full of goodwill and, by staying timelessly trapped in an era the world has left behind, the culture has avoided the dangers and self-destruction of capitalism and technological advance.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

North Korean news

The problem is you’re never sure how accurate a picture you’re getting of the notoriously secret and isolationist state. You know there’s a lot you’re never going to see and never going to be told.

The only way to travel in North Korea is with two local minders who will control your access to everything. Even the hotel Westerners stay at in Pyongyang is on an island in the river with guards at the entrance to prevent you leaving the grounds.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

There are rules about photography – nothing from a moving vehicle (although this wasn’t strictly enforced), nothing of military people or buildings (this was strictly enforced), nothing of locals without their permission and definitely (definitely!) nothing that would make the country look bad like poverty or unfinished buildings of national significance.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

Tour groups are taken to a seemingly never-ending array of monuments to celebrate The Great Leader Kim Il Sung, his son The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, the glorious Korean Workers’ Party and the Juche ideology that defines the state (but reflects very little of the reality of most people’s lives). These are massive edifices, often made of granite or marble, that would seem out of place in such a poverty-stricken country if there weren’t so many of them. Their purpose is apparently not just to galvanise the near-deity status of the Kims but also to prove a superiority over the rest of the world (the guides tell us with suppressed glee that the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang is a few metres taller than the one in Paris!).

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

Driving through the streets, walking in the parks and visiting the countryside does give us much more of a sense of what living in North Korea is like (and I’ll write about that in another blog post soon). But, like a good PR agency would do, everything is being filtered through the guides.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

North Korea’s propaganda

Our guides, Mr Lee and Miss Kim (as we called them) turned out to be lovely people who the group formed a strong personal relationship with. It was always their job, though, to keep us under control and spin a positive message. I’d been told that poor people in the countryside often panned for gold in the rivers and when I saw it for myself one day I asked Mr Lee what they were doing. “Catching salmon because there are so many great fish in our rivers”, was the reply. I let it go but when I heard someone else ask more directly a few minutes later he told them the people were “washing their gold”.

The guides proudly pointed out the glorious universities on the streets of the capital but they failed to mention that (as I later found out) no students are allowed to go to university this year because they’ve all been recruited to build monuments ahead of the celebrations of the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung in 2012.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

As another example, our final day in Pyongyang coincided with North Korea’s National Day and we hoped we might see some celebrations. Instead we were told by the guides that nothing was happening and ushered to a shooting range for a couple of hours (rather ironically) – only to discover on the BBC the next morning that a huge military parade had marched through the city and was attended by the leadership.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

Some tourists were convinced that entire groups of people or locations were set-up or faked just for the foreign observers who visited. Certainly, there were a few times when it seemed a bit too convenient that groups of locals would break into ‘spontaneous’ singing and dancing as we arrived. We also visited a farm and a factory that seemed a bit too sanitised to give a real sense of what it’s like in the country.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

Ultimately, though, we were able to have limited interaction with real North Koreans that would have been impossible to stage. The man who pushed his son aside so I could have a seat next to him on the subway; the young men sitting behind us at a soccer game who offered us food (a dried fish!) at half-time; the children who wanted to play games with us in a rural city we visited; the man in the military-coloured khaki suit who grabbed my hand on a ride at the funfair; and the hundreds of smiles and waves we got as we drove by in our bus.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche, propaganda, tourism

During those moments it felt like we were the tourist attractions, rather than the other way round. It made you realise there’s a great disparity between the North Korea you hear about in the media and the North Koreans you meet on the street. It’s country cocooned from time and information, where a lack of knowledge keeps the public repressed but also creates a childlike innocence and sense of wonder.

Are you interested in finding out more about North Korea? Check out my North Korea Travel Guide!

* If you would like to visit North Korea, I recommend looking at Koryo Tours.

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20 Comments
  • Richard Winstanley | Sep 12, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    So interesting Turtle! Can’t wait for the next installment!!

  • Rosie | Sep 13, 2011 at 11:00 am

    You are so lucky Turts, how incredible! So interesting to read about, can’t wait for the next update.

  • Claire | Oct 6, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    This is fascinating….North Korea is such a mysterious place. Pretty cool you got to go there. Thanks for sharing.

    • Turtle | Oct 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm

      Thanks Claire. Yeah, I count myself as really lucky I got to see it. You should check it out some time – it’s not too hard to do!

  • Deb | Nov 21, 2011 at 4:19 am

    Lucky you! We were supposed to go earlier this year on a press tour to North Korea. We had to sign a bunch of forms promising to not talk about the political situation and a bunch of other things. It was going to be an amazing opportunity and then at the last minute, the government denied the tour. We got an email stating that they changed their mind and weren’t allowing travel journalists to come in. We were a bit bummed but what can you do.
    Deb recently posted..Picture Perfect Portraits: Children of the WorldMy Profile

    • Turtle | Nov 21, 2011 at 6:26 am

      If you ever get another opportunity then you should definitely try to go. It was one of the most amazing places I have ever been to!

  • Maria D. | Dec 18, 2011 at 3:01 am

    North Korea is kind of intimidating, in a sad way, when you hear about it. Too bad that family looked so sad in the photo.
    It seems like an interesting place to visit.
    Maria D. recently posted..This is a Hold Up!My Profile

    • Turtle | Dec 18, 2011 at 7:11 am

      It was a fascinating place to visit! I’m not sure of the family was sad or just trying to behave in front of the foreigners. Either way, it was a bit surreal.

  • Journeys and Travels | Jan 30, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    This is interestingly a fab! I never even thought, as I commented on the interview you had with Plif Damon that you traveled to North Korea. I am a travel blogger myself but thinking about Pyongyang prior to reading what you shared here is, by all means, out of the question. I have never thought it possible to go there and sightsee.

    thanks for this rather awakening experience of yours Turtle and as one will always travel to do self-rediscovery, as I did in my many travels, I learned that through this that you wrote, I have taken in, perhaps in the future, the possibility of me pursuing a visit to Pyongyang.

    • Turtle | Feb 2, 2012 at 2:43 am

      You should definitely try to go there some time. It was such an amazing experience. If we travel to see the world, then this is somewhere worth seeing (who knows how it could change in the years to come).

  • rashmi | Mar 28, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Great title. This article has made me more curious about North Korea.
    rashmi recently posted..Hong Kong on the CheapMy Profile

    • Turtle | Mar 29, 2012 at 3:22 am

      It’s hard to find a lot of good literature about the country. If you’re interested, there’s a great book by Mike Kim which is based on interviews with refugees from North Korea.

  • Alley Rose | Nov 17, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Hey Turtle, just saw your comment about North Korean literature…have you read Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West ??? chilling…

    • Michael Turtle | Nov 18, 2012 at 12:42 am

      Oh no – I hadn’t heard of it. Thanks for the tip… I’m going to see if I can find a copy.

  • Cassie | Mar 15, 2013 at 5:09 am

    Fascinating! Your last paragraph is illustrated best by the little boy staring at you in the second to last photo!
    Cassie recently posted..Photographic Guide to the GalapagosMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Mar 26, 2013 at 3:51 am

      Yeah, I love that photo. A sneaky candid one but the expression says so much.

  • Laura @Travelocafe | Sep 22, 2013 at 11:55 pm

    This feels like an amazing adventure. :) For sure not many travel bloggers have done this trip.
    Laura @Travelocafe recently posted..Hotel Burdigala, Bordeaux. Elegant and DiscreteMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Sep 24, 2013 at 3:21 am

      I don’t think many people at all go there each year. Firstly, there aren’t a lot of available spaces for these kind of trips. But, more importantly, I think most people are too scared.

  • Jay B. | Dec 3, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    Given the level of control that exists there it´s quite surprising that the guides were so kind and you even managed to form a certain bond with them. I would expect watchful, policing people that avoid sharing anything personal..I bet you´ve been asked many times whether or not you felt like you you were able to experience the “real” North Korea..Must be a difficult question to answer given the circumstances. But there´s one thing I´m sure of – a trip like this would definitely made me want to go back and learn more. Thanks for this interesting read!

    • Michael Turtle | Dec 4, 2013 at 4:39 am

      I certainly don’t think you see the ‘real’ North Korea but you see more than they think they are showing you. There are certain things you can’t avoid, even if they tell you not to take photos out of the moving bus, for instance.
      As for the guides letting their guard down, I guess you have to think of them as employees rather than brain-washed soldiers. They are still normal people who are happy to chat and meet new people. But ultimately they would be in danger if they stepped too far out of line.

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