North Korea: Experiencing obstacles while traveling
Dmitry Lukyanchuk
The author of the DESTINATIONS travel project

North Korea: Experiencing obstacles while traveling

This year, after a long break, the Russians resumed traveling to North Korea. Dmitry Lukyanchuk, a travel blogger who visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) several years ago, told EcoTourism EXPERT about his experience and impressions of his trip to one of the most closed-off countries in the world.
- You have visited almost 150 countries. Is North Korea the most exotic among them?
- There are countries with more authentic culture and traditions, and there are places that are much more dangerous in terms of the unforeseen circumstances that can occur. As for the DPRK, this is, perhaps, the most closed-off country, taking into account the behavior requirements imposed on the tourists and their communication with local residents.
Judge for yourself. Tourists cannot move around the North Korea on their own; they are allowed to leave their hotel accompanied by their guide only. All they show to their tourists are the ‘approved’ attractions, such as monuments, memorials, industrial enterprises and agricultural farms intended for demonstration to travelers, as well as natural beauty, the Palace of Pioneers, the border with South Korea and the international pioneer camp Sondawon.


In North Korea, I actually felt like a foreign tourist in the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s when the tourist group was accompanied by a representative of the secret services, and they tried to show the tourists only the most beautiful sights in the country.

In addition to performing their direct duties, guides ensure that tourists do not contact the locals and do not take photographs that could spoil the image of North Korea in the eyes of foreigners. This happened, for example, in Wonsan when I tried to take a picture of a ‘smoking’ truck with a stove in the back, the truck was converted to run on wood instead of petrol. I was politely but insistently asked not to take pictures. Therefore, it was not possible to bring a photograph of this ‘miracle of technology’.
And the guys from Vladivostok whom I met at the hotel said that they were surprised by the guide’s words when they told him that they jog for health every morning. “You cannot jog or run,” he said briefly and clearly. But when the guide realized that the tourists won’t follow his instructions, he called someone and said “Okay. But I will jog with you”. And, indeed, he waited for the tourists at the hotel entrance every morning at 5.45 a.m. and jogged with them. It sounds like a joke, but watching the poor guy struggling for breath and keeping up with the tourists was a little sad.
- What else is not allowed in North Korea?
- One of the most unusual restrictions is that tourists should never touch the portrait (the face) of Kim Il Sung depicted on a 5,000 won banknote (the local currency) with their fingers as this may be considered disrespectful. However, when I was in North Korea, they didn’t give us Korean money at all. We paid in dollars everywhere. During the entire trip, I had a North Korean won banknote in my hands only once - when I asked the guide to show me Korean national banknotes. She handed me a new banknote very carefully and I carefully held it and returned the banknote to her. I don’t think that any punishment could be for me as a tourist, but it was better not to tempt fate. Taking North Korean won banknotes from the DPRK is a criminal offense.


And the most expected restriction is to bring propaganda, religious and philosophical literature in any languages into North Korea, except for books related to Juche (self-reliance), the main and the only ideology accepted in the country. And of course, bringing any erotic materials - books and magazines - is prohibited. The tourists’ tablets and smartphones can also be checked. There will be problems even for artistic photos of a naked body. For example, my book Directions would have been confiscated immediately because of the photos of many African girls; by the way, the photographs are completely ordinary ones, just the nations with different cultures and traditions have their own ideas about which parts of the body and which way should be covered.
It is unexpected but a guide-book to North Korea may also be confiscated from tourists at the border - probably, because no one knows what is written in them; so, everything you need will be told and shown to you by a state-certified guide.
- Indeed, it’s really a tourism with many obstacles. What surprised you most?
- I was mostly surprised about the cities in the DPRK. They are among the cleanest ones I’ve ever seen. Each house has an area that should be regularly cleaned by its residents outside their working time.
In Pyongyang, it is striking that there are unusually few cars on the streets and riding bicycles is very popular in the country. At the same time, everything is regulated as much as possible, and at intersections, there are traffic policewomen in blue skirts and white socks. There are queues at bus stops, and everyone moves strictly one after another to enter the bus. And in the metro, it is customary to stand behind each other on the rolling stairs; walking up or down them is not allowed.


Another observation is that the North Koreans wear simple and similar clothes. Men wear dark trousers and light shirts, and women are in knee-length skirts and light blouses. Their ‘similar look’ is also emphasized by their hairstyles, there are only a few approved haircut options for men and women in North Korea. There are many people in military uniform on the streets of the port city of Wonsan, but, as it turned out, the real military men are only those who have chevrons and shoulder straps; and it’s just ‘fashionable and comfortable clothes’ for the rest people.
But blue jeans are absolutely not accepted here. I was recommended not to wear jeans when making a tour of the mausoleum of the Great Leaders. Attending the mausoleum in the clothes that personify the United States (this is the opinion of the North Koreans), the North Korea’s main enemy, will be considered as an insult.
- How promising is the North Korea as the destination for the Russian tourists? Are there more pros or cons in traveling to this country?
- Frankly speaking, North Korea already has almost everything necessary for normal vacations for tourists. It’s safe in this country, the hotels restaurants are rather good. The guides and waiters speak good Russian. All necessary infrastructure facilities have been built, including good roads and going by taxi is not expensive. Of course, the travel itinerary is according to the ‘planned’ route, but this doesn’t cause particular discomfort. Only those who do not like or are not accustomed to Korean food may feel slight discomfort as it’s quite spicy. There are also meals that are exotic for us, such as a dog soup. It would be nice, of course, to increase the number of restaurants and cafes offering European cuisine, and add entertainment options because the dark deserted streets of Pyongyang in the evenings are not the best tourism attractions.


The Russian tourists may well be interested in spending their vacations on the North Korean beaches and ski resorts. As for the cost of services, it is very competitive. At least, the prices during the trip I made a few years ago were quite reasonable. The cost of the ‘full tour’ (all charges included) included the hotel accommodation, meals, guide services, transportation, transfers, and other expenses. The travelers needed extra money to buy souvenirs only.

Of course, there are also disadvantages to such tourism. But, as you know, the more closed-off a country is, the greater the wish is to open it for yourself, at least once.
Photo Courtesy of Dmitry Lukyanchuk