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See in North Korea

Posted by in on 5-31-13

All tours are accompanied by a government minder, who will decide what you can and cannot see. From the moment you leave your hotel, expect to be accompanied by one or more minders. Besides ensuring that tourists do not stray outside of the designated tourist areas, their jobs include inspecting any photographs which they think do not portray North Korea or its government in a good light, and ordering photographers to delete them. It is generally advisable to listen to what your minder is saying, and agree with it. Asking awkward socio-political questions will result in vague, evasive replies at best, and several hours of interrogation at worst.

If you are uncertain about taking pictures anywhere, ask your guide. (Permission for subjects seems to vary wildly; you may get a guide that is relatively relaxed and will allow you to take pictures from a bus or within a city. On the other hand, you may get one that will strictly adhere to controlling where you take pictures restricting anything taken from a tour bus or of certain areas, like Pyongyang’s city streets, in general. There is simply no way to tell until you are actually on a tour.) If you think a particular photograph might be embarrassing to the DPRK in general, ask or simply don’t risk taking it at all.

Photography of military personnel is also generally prohibited. Again, if in doubt, ask your guide. However, there are instances where it is impossible not to photograph certain sites without including a few military personnel within the picture such as at Mansudae (the monument site for the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il) or at a local funfair. Reactions seem to vary between being ignored to curiosity, although you will be told where it is strictly prohibited from taking pictures (such as at certain areas of the DMZ) and the guards/soldiers there will react unfavourably to being photographed in general. Other areas where photographs are prohibited is inside the Friendship Exhibition displaying gifts from around the world to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and within the Kumsusan Memorial Palace.

The majority of sightseeing consists of visits to various war memorials, monuments to the Great Leader and the Workers Party of Korea, and numerous museums (mostly war-related, like the statues and monuments). The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a popular destination for most tour groups in North Korea.

Please note that whilst you are in North Korea, the prevailing viewpoint places blame on the Americans for starting the Korean War; disagreeing with this position is likely to cause problems for both you and your guide particularly as the two Koreas are still technically at war with only a cease-fire between them. Despite its misleading name, the DMZ is heavily guarded and dotted with minefields and other booby-traps. Under no circumstances must you stray from your group, or take any photographs of military installations. However, the “peace village” Panmunjom may be photographed, and boasts the world’s third tallest flagpole.

Whilst on these guided tours, especially to the state museums and monuments, you will undoubtedly endure an ongoing barrage of propaganda, consisting largely of anecdotes about things that Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il did for their country. Some of these claims may seem bizarre and even amusing to the outsider; however, a straight face is generally advisable. It is generally safest to at least appear to take everything they say seriously, even if it contradicts everything you were ever taught in history class or defies even the most basic human reasoning.

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