It’s human nature to wonder what lies beyond locked doors, so it’s no surprise one of the world’s most secretive states holds so much allure. Whether you agree with their ideologies or not, North Korea is a fascinating place, and slowly the communist country is opening up to the outside world.
Of course, all visitors must be accompanied by a national guide, but that doesn’t detract from the sheer wonder of exploring a society so different to our own.
Michael Palin was given unprecedented access for a Western journalist, he was approved to make his TV documentary Michael Palin In North Korea, and the country clearly made a big impression on him. Here, he shares some thoughts.
The colours are surprisingly bright
“People think of it as a grey, cold, rather bleak place, but it isn’t. The buildings themselves are quite bright. They have decorations in all the restaurants – lots of flowers and bunnies, which is a bit juvenile in some way. But they do love decoration. They love colour and they love to express themselves musically or in sport.”
It reminds me of China 30 years ago
“I didn’t see a tractor or a combine harvester or anything like that. All the work in the fields seemed to be done by hand. People had bicycles, so they were cycling, but there were quite wide roads with nothing on them at all. That did remind me of going to China 30 years ago. Little villages looked reasonably comfortable. But then you get to Pyongyang and it’s a city with quite handsome buildings and wide roads, and a hotel that functions pretty much like any Western hotel.”
Billboards are blissfully absent
“It has a very quiet, almost serene atmosphere. There’s no advertising at all – apart from the propaganda posters, which are not absolutely everywhere. The hoardings have pictures of people either celebrating learning or celebrating missiles. But there’s no consumer advertising, and that’s quite restful after a bit, because it’s always in your face here. You’re in a big city and yet it feels like a city that’s a film set, where you’re given your lines in the morning.”
I’d recommend it to anyone
“If someone said to me, ‘Should I go to North Korea?’ I would say, ‘Yes! Go’. But I think you’ve got to go there in the spirit we went there, which was not to judge and not to condemn, but to understand and learn.
Here are some things to know before travelling to North Korea
Tourism in North Korea is unlike anything you will have experienced anywhere else in the world. Tour companies organise everything, from your visa to government-appointed tour guides. That means those who travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will be on a bus, following a predetermined itinerary for the entirety of their stay.
Independent, adventure or solo travel is not allowed, your every movement is controlled. You must not leave your hotel without a guide, you will not be allowed to travel on the public transport system at all, and both you and your guide will be punished if you violate the rules.
Only travel to North Korea if you are prepared to accept harsh limitations on your movements and behaviour.
It’s unlikely you will be affected by any serious crime but, as always, you should exercise care. Be alert to your surroundings and ensure personal belongings are secure, especially at Pyongyang Airport and in public markets. Even though your movements are tightly choreographed you should not get too complacent.
Unofficial estimates put the total number of tourists at 50,000 each year with Chinese travellers making up the majority of the numbers. It’s estimated that only 4000–5000 tourists from Western countries make the trip each year.
The monsoon season is from late June to late August. Typhoons can occur between August and September and flooding may disrupt essential services.
The local currency is the North Korean won but foreigners are forbidden to use it. The euro is the most widely accepted foreign currency with the US dollar and Chinese yuan close behind. You must take enough currency for your entire stay in North Korea as you can’t use ATMs, traveller’s cheques, debit or credit cards.
So, it does seem like there’s nowhere on Earth quite like North Korea. If you’re planning a trip, just make sure to read up and do a lot of research before making the decision.
Are you intrigued? Would you travel to North Korea?
– With PA
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