Forget five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants; throw in a controversial dictator, a fraught history and a rule book bigger than the Bible and you have an unlikely tourist hotspot—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK or North Korea.
While a holiday in a country so politically and socially isolated that it’s known as the “hermit kingdom” might sound absurd, more than 100,000 intrepid travellers venture here annually to get a glimpse of “real life” in this relic of the Soviet era. But would you go?
A trip to Pyongyang would bestow extraordinary bragging rights, enviable selfies and dinner party conversation for years, but there are very real risks associated with visiting North Korea. Relations between the DPRK and the West are at their shakiest in decades following the testing of Pyongyang’s first intercontinental ballistic missile last year. As North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and US President Donald Trump rattle their sabres, one hopes this talk of war is nothing more than bombastic rhetoric.
But it’s not just one’s personal safety that should be of concern. Given the DPRK’s abysmal human rights record and its nuclear weapons programme, is travel to North Korea even morally acceptable?
Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, has made 164 trips to the DPRK and describes it as “endlessly fascinating.” He is one of many who have visited in recent years who say North Korea’s reality bears little resemblance to the nefarious dystopia painted in the press.
One aspect of life in North Korea about which all media outlets wax lyrical is the nation’s aptitude for spectacle. This was on global display last month, when the nation sent more cheerleaders than athletes to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The cheerleaders arrived en masse—sometimes in groups of more than 100—and mesmerised audiences with perfectly synchronised clapping, chanting and arm-waving.
North Korea’s own Arirang Mass Games were once described as “Olympics on steroids” by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The most recent incarnation of this gymnastics carnival in 2013 saw 100,000 North Koreans—tens of thousands of them schoolchildren—perform a magnificently choreographed portrayal of North Korea’s birth, the rise of the Kim family and the founding of the Worker’s Party.
Of course, to do or see anything in North Korea one must be part of a supervised tour group. Tourism is possible only via approved travel agencies and chaperoned by two North Korean guides at all times.
To understand contemporary North Korea, one must understand its fraught past. The resentment towards the US and Japan driving North Korea’s political ideology had its genesis in 1910, when Japan annexed the Korean Empire. When the allied forces defeated Japan in the Pacific War two decades later, Korea was partitioned; Soviet forces occupied the North and US forces took the South. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin installed former soldier Kim Il-sung (the grandfather of the current dictator, Kim Jong-un) as the leader in the North, and US forces backed pro-capitalist dictator Syngman Rhee in the South.
Intent on reunification, Kim and his Soviet backers invaded the South in 1950, beginning the three-year Korean War, which claimed 2.5 million lives. Backed by the United Nations, US forces came to the aid of the South and razed Pyongyang. With his capital flattened, Kim retreated and an armistice was signed—but a peace treaty was never sealed.
Kim tightened his grip on the North, styling himself as a deity who demanded absolute loyalty and submission. He advocated an ideology of “juche,” or self-reliance, which espoused North Korea’s political independence, economic self-reliance and military autonomy, the latter of which resulted in a nuclear programme.
He stigmatised cooperation with foreign powers and entities, committing his nation to decades of development in isolation. Sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 have further restricted the flow of foreign goods into the country—although many foreign and luxury products are readily available on the black market.
It’s not entirely accurate to describe it as a Soviet relic, though. Kim Jong-un has embarked on an aggressive revamp of North Korea’s public leisure facilities, the best example of which is the new Masikryong Ski Resort, three hour’s drive from Pyongyang. The Masikyrong Hotel has a swimming pool and sauna, massage room, beauty parlour, billiards room, restaurants and an ice-skating rink.
Change is afoot at a grassroots level too. New restaurants, coffee shops and colourful fashions are gaining popularity in Pyongyang, thanks to an increasingly porous border with China and an emerging entrepreneurial middle class, which has ballooned in size and wealth since the 1990s.
Now, at a new upscale sushi bar in Pyongyang, chef Kenji Fujimoto, former sushi chef to Kim Jong-il, the late father of the current leader, commands prices that wouldn’t be out of place in London or New York. Not far from the Tower of the Juche Ideology, a new cafe with hipster timber decor reminiscent of a South Korean coffee chain, Ms Ri’s, serves specialist brews. Similarly, the Kumrang cafe makes espressos, cappuccinos, strawberry mochas and the like with intricate foam art. Ri Hyon-a, who trained as a barista in China, serves coffee that would give the Australians a run for their money.
Checking out the nation’s nascent coffee scene is all well and good, but what kind of risks is one taking by going to North Korea—and is it ethical to go at all? These are the questions tour operators are asked most frequently, particularly following the death of Otto Warmbier.
One’s safety depends on heeding one critical piece of advice. “Don’t break any of the laws, regardless of how unique or silly you think they may be,” says Cockerell.
Crossing the 38th parallel is no easy decision. Whether or not you decide to go, one thing is certain: a trip to North Korea will be unforgettable.
This story has been adapted from print for ThailandTatler.com. For the full feature, find our March 2018 issue.