As crazy as it sounds, going to North Korea has always been a dream of mine. It’s certainly a unique place to visit and it’s the closest thing left in the world to the Maoist regime of my parents’ era. A lot of people are surprised that Americans are even allowed to visit the country; well, since 2008, even us “American imperialists” have been able to visit. As long as you’re not a journalist or have some sort of agenda, North Korea is happy to accept you as a visitor as long as you follow the rules.
Basically, every visitor/group of tourists to North Korea is escorted by at least two North Korean tour guides (sometimes referred to as minders) everywhere you go. These guides are all from state-owned KITC (Korean International Travel Company) and no matter which Asian/European travel company you book your tour with, the local guides are going to be from the same company and the itinerary is going to be very similar. The oldest and most well-known tour company that does tours to North Korea is Koryo Tours but I decided to go with Young Pioneer Tours. YPT has been running programs to North Korea for a couple of years, has a great reputation and is cheaper than most of its competition. The “Young” in its name also tends to attract younger travelers; the average age of my tour group was about 30 compared to the much older demographics of all of the other groups we saw. I definitely highly recommend YPT if you’re thinking about going.
Even though I’ve always wanted to go to North Korea, the actual planning of this trip was rather last minute. You’re supposed to book at least a month in advance so YPT can get you a North Korean visa in time. In my case, I booked just over 3 weeks out and I was happy to have just barely made the cutoff.
I booked the 5 day tour (really a 3 day tour: late arrival on day 1, sightseeing days 2-4, and very early departure on day 5) and there were others in my group that had signed up for a 7 day extended version of the trip. I have to say that although the 7 day is a much better value, with only minimal additional cost over the 5 day version, I had enough of the country and was happy to get out of there. I never thought of myself as a particularly high maintenance traveler but I don’t do motels and even the best hotels in North Korea are little better than motel standard.
Let’s start with a little history lesson, the North Korean version at least. The various kingdoms of the Korean peninsula can trace their history back several thousands of years. Around the turn of the last century, the “Japanese Imperialists” colonized Korea, made Korea forgo its independence and with it, its culture and language. Of course the Korean people weren’t pleased with the colonization and their second class status and that’s where the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung comes in. Kim Il Sung came from a very poor family and left Korea for Manchuria as a teen to play a critical role in the anti-Japanese movement and led the Korean people to victory against the “Japanese Imperialists.” As Japan fell with the end of WWII, the former Japanese colony of Japan was handed over to temporary oversight to the Soviets and the US; the Korean peninsula became divided near the 38th parallel. The “US Imperialists,” in their quest for world domination, created a puppet government in the South backed by Syngman Rhee. The “US Imperialists” provoked an attack on the Korean (North) people the morning of June 25, 1950. During the 3 year long war, both the North (supported by several million of Chinese People’s Volunteers, including Mao Zedong’s own song Mao Anting, who died in the war), and “US Imperialists”/the South, had almost taken the entire Korean peninsula. However, the “US Imperialists” were ultimately unable to win and the two sides signed an armistice agreement on July 27, 1953. July 27th is now celebrated as Victory Day because that’s the day the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea “won” the Fatherland Liberation War. Kim Il Sung and later, Kim Jong Il, worked all their lives for the benefit fo the people and to reunify the North and South. The reason that the Korean peninsula is still divided today is because of the anti-Korean policies of the “US Imperialists,” which has caused great suffering to the people.