Saturday, February 26, 2005

North Korea as a tourist

Travel to North Korea is very heavily resticted. You cannot travel on passports from the US, South Korea or Israel. You cannot travel on a tourist visa if you are a journalist. Most painfully of all, you cannot travel around freely within North Korea, but must at all times be accompanied by two North Korean government officials (the second one, presumably, to keep an eye on the first). For me, I went with a group organised by Simon and Nick at Koryo Tours, a British company based in Beijing who help curious westerners like myself settle their North Korean fetish. As we had just past the depths of winter and this was the first tour for the year, there were only four in the group, with John, Tom and Aruna my travel partners.

Our guides for the trip met us at Pyongyang airport when we first arrived. Mr Ri was in his late 40s and had been a tour guide for many a year. He also spent time serving in the Korean People's Army, and so is one of the few NKoreans to have travelled abroad, in his case to China and Tanzania (interesting footnote that NK had close ties to many similarly minded African countries during the cold war, and there were many technical exchanges between them). The other guide for the trip was Miss Pak, a 21 year old Pyongyang native who had recently graduated from the NK Foreign Language School, and spoke a charming but slightly broken brand of English. The guides are from a small pool of foreign speaking guides at the Korean International Travel Company, the Government travel company.

During the trip, the guides kept a close but not suffocating eye on us. Whilst we were told never to stray from the group, there was never a problem with us lingering a little behind the group, or meandering in a way that left us surrounded by NKers. Language difficulties were a much greater barrier to communicating with the local people than the guides were. During a few experiences on the trip - such as on the Pyongyang Metro or whilst walking to the hotel in Kaesong - we were freely encouraged to engage with local people. The guides also served a slightly more sinister role - it is likely that they were keeping a close eye on our activities. Asking too many odd questions or taking too many photos was likely to be reported to people further up the hierarchy.

The guides are adept at giving you the official version of all things North Korean. Throughout their commentary on the various sites visited, they would heap praise on the two Kims, celebrate the happy lifestyle of NKers and do all they could to give the best possible impression of the country. They are also well aware, however, that those of us who are travelling may not be big fans of the Kims (or, indeed that favourite of Korean dishes, kimchi) and make no attempt to proselytise. There is no need for tourists to lie through their teeth in praise - instead, some careful diplomacy is needed. Whilst outright criticism of NK would be a dumb move, there is plenty of room for honest questions ("So do you think that Juche has been a success?"). Heaping fake platitudes apon the regime will bore you and fool no one.

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The tour guides, Mr Ri and Miss Pak are on the extreme left and right (in the photo, I mean, not politically), whilst John, myself, Aruna and Tom fill out the picture and empty the pitcher.

2 comments:

Badarchin said...

Hello. My name is Ganzorig.Ts I am owner of a Mongolian travel company. Our web sites are www.travelgobimongolia.com and www.mongoliantourworld.com. We are interesting to travel to NK. Thank you for your sharing experience.

Badarchin said...

Hello. My name is Ganzorig.Ts I am owner of a Mongolian travel company. Our web sites are www.travelgobimongolia.com and www.mongoliantourworld.com. We are interesting to travel to NK. Thank you for your sharing experience.