Header images courtesy of Eunice Liu and Mirko Kuzmanovic (Shutterstock)
With the recent hit of Netflix’s Crash Landing On You, feverish interest about North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has once again been stirred, with audiences wondering whether the DPRK really looks like what it has been portrayed in the popular television show.
As people coming from the “outside world,” we are not allowed to travel to North Korea by ourselves but must join tours organised by agencies which are recognised by the state. Tour guides will be present almost around the clock, taking you around to designated spots, eateries, hotels, and so on. Let us take you on a journey to North Korea from the perspective of a tourist; what to do, what to eat, and how to get around.
Contrary to what most people may presume, North Korea, especially its capital Pyongyang, offers quite a number of tourist attractions (mostly for foreigners).
Kim Il Sung Square at the east bank of Taedong River (大同江), for instance, is one of the most renowned tourist spots in Pyongyang. As its name suggests, the Square is named after the country’s founding leader Kim Il Sung in 1954. Similar in form and design to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Kim Il Sung Square is one of the largest squares in the world, which is mostly used for rallying and assembly. The countdown for the new year, for instance, is held annually in the Square with firework shows and other performances.
Right opposite Kim Il Sung Square is the Juche Tower (主體思想塔), which is situated on the west bank of Taedong River. Named after the Juche ideology introduced by Kim Il Sung, the Tower is a tall pagoda commemorating the seventieth birthday of Kim Il Sung. Visitors can go to the top of the Tower for a breathtaking panorama of Pyongyang.
Mansu Hill is another tourist spot, which is essentially an immense open space consisting of a complex of monuments. These include two gigantic bronze statues situated right in the centre of the open area, featuring two deceased leaders of the country, namely Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
Opposite to Mansu Hill is the Monument of Party Founding. It celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Workers’ Party of Korea in 1995, and is rich in symbolism, with a hammer, a sickle, and a calligraphy brush representing industrial workers, farmers, and intellectuals respectively. Two buildings resembling red flags are situated next to the Monument.
Geumsusan Taeyang Gungjeon (錦繡山太陽宮), the tomb of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, is a must-go site for tourists. To pay respect to the deceased leaders, people, both foreigners and locals alike, are required to wear formal attire upon entering the tomb. They are required to be quiet and humble in front of the late leaders.
The Demilitarised Zone runs at 38th parallel north, marking the border barrier between North Korea and South Korea. Tourists are taken around the Demilitarised Zone by some military personnel. Tourists are shown exhibitions regarding the War and some background information related to the DPRK but are not allowed to take photos of the personnel (you may try asking, though the answer is most likely a no).
Seemingly the only department store in Pyongyang, Kwangbok Department Store (光復百貨) consists of three floors, with the ground floor selling groceries, the second floor selling more luxurious items like clothes and electronic appliances, and the top floor selling food (it is, in fact, a food court). Interestingly, the commodities featured are quite diverse, with some items coming from North Korea itself (such as some snacks in the groceries section) whilst some imported are from the outside world. While the Kwangbok Department Store is considered high-end and classy by locals, it is nowhere similar to what we usually see in other parts of the world.
Pyongyang cold noodles are definitely a must-try for tourists and the most prestigious eatery for this is doubtlessly Yuliu Guan (玉流館), where the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-In, and Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, had lunch in 2018. Also known as “peace cold noodles” or “unification noodles,” the noodles in Yuliu Guan are cold, soft, and tender, nicely complemented by pieces of meat and other toppings.
Taedonggang, a beer crafted by the state-owned Taedonggang Brewing Company based in Pyongyang, offers seven types of beers, each with different concentrations of malt. While Taedonggang is easily found in restaurants and bars across the capital city of Pyongyang, it is rarely exported out of the country. Therefore, indulge in the exclusive booze as much as you can while you’re there!
Similar to its southern counterpart, North Korea also relies heavily on kimchi as its staple food. Despite so, the kimchi here is somewhat less spicy and more rustic, though still quite scrumptious and healthy.
Apart from traditional cuisine, food from other countries are offered as well. Pizzas and hamburgers, for instance, are served in some of the restaurants. The appearance and taste of these foreign cuisines are comparable to what you can normally find in other countries, though modern twists like “dessert pizzas” are also available.
There are a few modes of transportation in the DPRK:
The underground railway seems to be the common mode of transport for citizens. Akin to Russia, North Korea has extremely deep underground railways, some of which reach 150 metres in depth. The design of railway stations is quite similar to that of Russia as well, characterised by a lot of state-sponsored wall paintings. Tourists are only allowed to take the underground railway at designated stations under the guidance of tour guides.
Trams, consisting of only three lines, are not hugely popular with citizens as they do not reach many places. Similarly, private cars are rarely seen in North Korea, usually reserved for government officials or foreigners.
There are two major ways to get into and out of North Korea:
Air Koryo (高麗航空), the only nationally-recognised airline in North Korea, offers flights from parts of the world such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and different parts of China, such as Shenyang and Harbin, to Pyongyang International Airport. Refreshments such as hamburgers and soft drinks are served during the flights.
Alternatively, the train between DPRK and China is the most popular means of transport, running from Pyongyang to Dandong in China. The journey takes up the bulk of a day, including a few hours spent on checking tourists’ identity documents. The train is utilitarian, with seats and even bunk beds for travellers to rest during the long trip.
Foreigners are not allowed to travel to the DPRK on their own and can only get into this mysterious country by joining pre-arranged tours, which are led by state-recognised tour guides. Visas need to be obtained in advance, usually prepared by tour agencies.
There are quite a few rules for tourists to abide by (not exhaustive, of course):
1. Do not bring politically sensitive reading materials into the country, especially those relating to the USA.
2. Do not take pictures of military personnel.
3. Tourists are allowed to take photos of statues and pictures featuring the leaders, but the photos must show the entirety of the statues and pictures.
4. Do not imitate the leaders in any way.
5. Only RMB and USD are allowed to be used as currency.
6. Tourists are advised not to explore on their own during their rest time when they are supposed to rest in hotels.