Let’s begin with this 4 minute video/documentary that I made from my trip to North Korea (which is my first video ever to hit 1 million+ views!) .
This Video Will Change Your Perception of North KoreaI recently spent 3 days in Pyongyang, North Korea with Koryo Tours and I put together this short video/documentary from the trip.
Please keep in mind that this video is about my own personal experiences in North Korea, so please take what I say with a grain of salt. I am well aware that all tours to the DPRK are organized and preplanned, and what I saw was a skewed perspective (a small fraction) of the realities that may exist behind closed doors.
My goal in making this video (and all videos) has always been the same – to focus on spreading happiness & positivity in our world by connecting with people across the globe. While it’s more challenging to do this in North Korea, I tried my best to show you a different (positive) side of the DPRK and connect with the people – which may change your perception from all the negativity the media has brought to this nation.
Many of you know my deep love and appreciation with Korea, as I lived and taught English in Seoul 18 months. I can speak Korean conversationally, so I used my ability to meet eye to eye with as many locals as I could and have conversations with them. Most people I came across were friendly and kind-hearted, even after telling them I was American. It’s unfortunate that they were born into such a controlling regime, but it certainly wasn’t their fault or choice.
I welcome your thoughts, feedback and questions about my trip to North Korea (comment below!) If you enjoy this video, please share it to help me spread a message of peace, positivity and happiness within the DPRK.
Music: Ben Sound & Audio Autix
Posted by Drew Binsky on Monday, April 24, 2017
Disclaimer: It’s important to know that all tours to North Korea are heavily organized and preplanned as to what we can do, eat, see and where we can sleep. Everyone must stick with the tour group at all times, and various rules are strictly enforced. I realize that what I experienced in North Korea was a small fraction of the realities that may exist behind closed doors.
Everything you are about to read is based off my own personal experiences in North Korea, so please take everything I say with a grain of salt.
Also, please note this is NOT an article about the politics of North Korea, so please, make your own judgments and keep your political opinions to yourself. That being said, I encourage you to ask me any travel-related questions in the comments below about visiting the DPRK.
“I’m going to North Korea”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Why would you ever risk your life?”
The questions came pouring in from friends, family and followers when they heard about my recent trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
And rightfully so, as North Korea has been a heavily debated topic across the globe for decades. Tensions are currently at an all-time high as I write this (April ’17), with Trump recently sending tens of thousands of American troops to the Korean Peninsula, and China ordering hundreds of thousands of military to prepare for battle.
From April 7-10, 2017, I went on a guided tour around Pyongyang, North Korea with a wonderful & reputable British tour company out of Beijing called Koryo Tours. From start to finish, Koryo was excellent to work with and they made me feel comfortable throughout the process. I recommend them if you are thinking about going to the DPRK.
North Korea was not what I expected. For one reason or another, I was expecting to see very few people out and about in Pyongyang, and a of lack of infrastructure and overall cleanliness of the city. It was quite the opposite actually — with thousands of people roaming around the street, all dressed nicely from head to toe, tall buildings with modern interiors and kids playing sports in the parks.
Here’s a selfie from when I got caught in the middle of thousands of people rehearsing their dances for the upcoming national holiday of Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15th.
Visiting North Korea was eye opening, surreal, and in a strange way, refreshing. I tried to meet eye to eye with as many people as possible, and have conversations with them. I wanted to feel North Korea.
I’m looking forward to sharing my first-hand experience with you inside the most isolated country on earth.
This 10-minute read is broken down into the following 10 sections:
– Why Did I Visit North Korea?
– A Brief History Lesson on Korea
– Rules We Were Told To Follow In DPRK
– Things To Keep In Mind As You Read
– Getting To North Korea
– First Impressions
– Things We Did
– Interacting With Locals
– My Two Cents On DPRK
– Final Thoughts
Why Did I Visit North Korea?
Aside from the fact that I’m trying to visit every country, I’ve always been fascinated with North Korea. When I was in college, I took an entire class on the history and propaganda of the DPRK. Two months after graduation (Aug 2013), I moved to Seoul, South Korea to live and teach English for 18 months.
Here’s a photo of me teaching English to my Middle School students.
While I was living in Korea, I learned how to read, write and speak the Korean language at a conversational level, and I embraced the culture and traditions of Korea. Given my obsession and deep connection with Korea, I was curious to see what life is like in the Northern half of the Peninsula – so I finally decided to go.
A Brief History Lesson on Korea
In case you are wondering why there are 2 different Koreas in the first place, here is a brief history lesson in two paragraphs.
On June 25, 1950, the Korean War began when about 75,000 soldiers from the North bombarded across the 38th parallel, the boundary between the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the North and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the South. The invasion was considered as the first military action of the Cold War, and by July of 1950 (one month after the North’s invasion), American troops had entered on South Korea’s behalf and the bloody battle started.
The Korean War lasted 3 years and finished on July 27, 1953. In total, some 5 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives during the war. Since the day the War ended, the two countries split on the 38th parallel and a thick wall was built at the border or Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). For the last 65 years, North and South Korea have technically still been at war because no peace treaty has ever been signed. The DMZ is the thickest and most militarized border on earth, as North and South Korea continue to grow apart.
Rules We Were Told to Follow in DPRK
As tourists, we all had to attend a mandatory briefing the day before the trip (in Beijing), and we were given certain rules to obey while in DPRK. Here are the top 3 rules that every tourist must follow.
#1) Never Disrespect The Leaders
The number one rule that we were told, and that you should be aware of, is to never, EVER talk about or disrespect their past or current leaders (Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il & Kim Jong Un). The citizens of the DPRK treat their leaders as Gods, and there are severe punishments if you disrespect them in any way. This includes folding a newspaper with his face on it, taking selfies with peace signs in front of their statues, taking cropped photos of their faces, or mentioning their names in any conversation. Just don’t do it.
#2) Don’t Spread Religion
We were strictly told not to speak about or attempt to spread any religion of any kind, such as giving people bibles, singing religious songs or handing out religious forms. Sure, you can be a religious person and visit DPRK but you better keep your mouth shut at all times. If we were found guilty of spreading religion, then we would have to face some serious consequences.
#3) No Photos of Military or Construction Sites
Photos and videos were surprisingly allowed of almost everything except military officers and construction sites. The reason for the latter is because North Koreans always want their country to look the best shape possible, and construction sites can make it look bad. Also, buildings are built by the military, so if you take photos of construction, then you’d also be breaking rule #1.
Things to Keep in Mind as You Read This
– All tourists sleep in the same 47-story hotel, called Yang Jak Do, which is located on a private island in the middle of Pyongyang. Once we enter the hotel at night, it’s forbidden to leave (but the hotel does have several bars, a bowling alley, ping pong room, billiard tables, karaoke room, banquet halls, gift shops, restaurants and more).
– All meals were planned inside of restaurants, and we had to eat with our entire group. The food was a mix of local dishes and Western food, and honestly wasn’t too tasty. The photo you see below is a traditional Korean food called Nang Myeon (cold noodles). It was my favorite meal of the trip, and it’s actually a common dish in South Korea as well.
– There is no wifi or any access to the internet while in North Korea.
– We were not allowed to use local currency. Only USD, Chinese Yuan or Euros to pay for everything in gift shops, etc. Also, every place we visited were “tourist places,” so we didn’t even have the chance to get local currency (although I asked for some from a street vendor and they gave me a few bills!)
– There are various tours running to North Korea with different prices all throughout the year (check Koryo’s website). My tour was the shortest duration offered — 3 days for the Pyongyang Marathon. All tours have different prices and schedules, which are all-inclusive (visa fee, return flights, hotels, transportation, food, tour guides, etc.).
Getting to North Korea
The tour started and finished from Beijing. As I mentioned earlier, everyone was required to meet in Beijing (where Koryo’s office is located) a day early for a mandatory briefing. During the briefing, they went over all the Do’s and Don’ts (mostly Don’ts) — as well as prepared us for all aspects of the trip.
We flew on Koryo Air, a North Korean airline, and the flight was 90 minutes long. The plane was an old and jerky Soviet airplane, filled with about 90% tourists with Koryo Tours, and a few North Koreans.
It first hit me that I was going to North Korea when I was checking in for the flight at the airport. My palms were sweating and I felt very anxious. I had no idea what was about to happen over the next 3 days of my life. I was so worried about getting in trouble or getting my camera taken, etc. I only told a few of my best friends and sister that I was going to DPRK… everyone else (including my parents) thought I was on a camping trip in China, because I didn’t want them to be paranoid while I was gone.
The plane took off and soon later we touched down in Pyongyang’s brand spankin’ new airport that was shockingly modern and clean.
Even more shocking, the immigration and security at the airport was a breeze. They didn’t search me or anything! Believe it or not, you are allowed to bring in computers, phones, cameras etc. – but you must declare every electronic item you are bringing into the country.
Here are the 3 forms that you must fill out in the airport and present to the immigration/security officers.
When we arrived at Pyongyang International Airport, we found our group of 20 people and met our local tour guide, Mr. Kang. There were some 800 tourists going to the DPRK this weekend in total for the Marathon (which I was told was the most tourists ever in the DPRK at any time). Every bus (or group of 20 people) must have 2 local Koreans and 1 Koryo employee (Westerners) with them at all times.
My group mostly consisted of Europeans, and there was only one other American other than myself.
First Impressions of North Korea
From the moment we touched down, my eyes were glued out the window. I was fascinated by every little detail – from the distant mountains, to the farmers in the rice fields, to the colorful and tall buildings.
Given that we only had 3 days in Pyongyang, we immediately went from the airport to visit some sites. We visited the National Library where we ran into a newly-wed couple (and were able to photograph them). Then, we went to Mansu Hill Grand Monument, where we saw the two giant statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. It was crazy to witness this with my own two eyes, after learning and studying so much about them. The only word to describe it was surreal.
I was surprised to see so many modern buildings and wide streets with hardly any cars. Nearly everyone was dressed the same, in dark fancy clothes, and there were lots of people walking around on the streets but I couldn’t figure out where they were going. The metro was specifically crowded with people seemingly heading somewhere…
Were they going to work?
I hardly saw any workplaces such as hotels, restaurants, shops, banks, hospitals, offices, cafes, etc. Very strange feeling.
Things We Did in North Korea
Throughout the trip, we did a variety of activities and fun things that you might find surprising. Here were my top 7 highlights, in order with #1 being my favorite:
#1) Running in the Pyongyang Marathon
Without question, my favorite part of the trip was participating in the Pyongyang Marathon, which began and ended inside a giant stadium filled with 50,000+ screaming Koreans.
This was just the 4th year the Pyongyang Marathon has been opened for foreigners, so I can say that I’m one of the first few thousand foreigners to ever run in this race. I only did the 10K, but people had the option to run a half or full marathon. The weather was perfect that day and the run was amazing – all throughout the streets of Pyongyang. This was the first (and only) time that we didn’t have to be stuck with our tour group and we were free to roam around (within the track). I was talking to spectators on the side of the road (in Korean) and giving high-fives to all the kids – which was really a special experience for me. After the race finished and while we were all waiting for the full-marathon runner to finish, I was able to mingle outside with a bunch of locals stadium and have conversations with them. There were even beer tents serving local beer!
#2) Riding on the Pyongyang Metro
The underground metro in Pyongyang is the deepest metro system in the world – averaging more than 100 meters (330 feet) below the street.
It reminded me exactly of the metro system in Moscow and Kiev, with its tube-like structure, tall ceilings and long escalators. We rode 6 stations and it was really crowded the whole time. It was a unique experience to be surrounded by North Koreans and seeing their daily life unfold in front of my eyes.
#3) Going to the Circus
Would you have ever guessed that Pyongyang has an incredible circus and talent that rivals Cirque Du Soleil in Las Vegas?
I surely didn’t know that! North Koreans, in general, are very talented when it comes to all sports, because they train very hard, and acrobatics is no different. We unfortunately weren’t allowed to take photos or videos inside the circus, but I snuck in a few (not recommended)!
#4) Walking in the Main Squares/Monuments
Walking through the massive Kim Il Sung Square, and seeing the dominating statues all around the city was fascinating.
We visited Pyongyang at a great time of the year because the following week (on April 15) was the biggest national holiday – Kim Il Sung’s birthday. In preparation, we witnessed thousands of people practicing their dances in the streets to get ready for the giant show in celebration of his birthday and to show off their national pride.
#5) Chilling in the Park
We stopped at a local park to hang out and see daily life passing by, and while doing so, we bumped into a newly wed couple taking wedding photos.
They even let us take photos with them (although they didn’t seem too happy about it). While we were in the park, it was nice to be surrounded by locals going about their daily lives and simply observing the culture around us.
#6) Drinking at Bars
I didn’t expect to be drinking any booze while in the DPRK, but surprisingly, there are a few bars around Pyongyang (for tourists), as well as multiple bars in our hotel.
North Korea beer was actually pretty good, and easy to drink, and the soju (rice liquor) was similar to what you can find in South Korea. Beer is cheap – about $2 USD per glass.
#7) Going to the Shooting Range
Yes, I shot a gun in North Korea.
They have a shooting range, much like any shooting range I’ve ever been. I shot an AK-something at some targets and bottles. We had the option to pay a little more money to “hunt” live chickens running around the back, where every time you shoot one dead, they give it to you to bring home to cook and eat. A few guys in our group shot some and we ate them for lunch the following day.
Other activities that are offered in Pyongyang are going to the water park, amusement park, visiting schools, playing golf (which I wish I had time to do), and more.
Interacting with Locals
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the trip for me was being able to interact with locals.
It was difficult to find opportunities, as the tour is on a tight schedule and we cannot break from the group, but there were certain instances where I had a few minutes to speak with people.
For example, after the marathon ended, I had a 10 minute conversation with a Korean couple and their son outside the stadium. I told them I was American and they seemed to be very interested and they wanted to hear more about it. The kid told me that he is a really good badminton player.
I also spoke with these adorable girls, as they were enjoying their lollipops. As you can probably tell from the photo, one girl was very happy & open to speak with me, while the other was too shy.
I got to know our tour guide, Mr. Kang, and some of the hotel staff pretty well. Of course, I never brought up anything political (they wouldn’t talk about it anyways), but it was nice to joke around and simply hang out with locals. I realized this was the first (and maybe last) opportunity that I’ll have to interact with North Koreans.
I must say it really helped to know Korean Language and have the ability to ask people questions and try to get to know them. The language in the North is more or less the same as in the South, but slightly more traditional. Very few people speak English apart from the tour guides and hotel staff.
My Two Cents on the DPRK
I am not ignorant, naive or oblivious to the realities that exist in the country, such as labor camps, extreme poverty and severe bad treatments. I know we only saw a fraction of the “true” DPRK, which was a very skewed perspective of the reality happening inside. I realize that people are essentially brainwashed from a young age and are told what to think, how to act and what to believe in. I know that people in North Korea rarely have access to phones, TV’s, or to any news/ current events happening outside of their borders.
That being said, I did see a charming side of North Korea that I didn’t expect, and that certainly doesn’t get discussed in the media.
Kids go to school, tell jokes with their friends, and play sports in the parks. Adults ride their bikes to work or take the metro, hang out on the streets with their friends and love their families.
People are people, regardless of how & where they were brought up. Everyone wants to love and be loved in return. We all need to eat to survive, and have a roof over our heads.
Nobody chooses which country or society to be born into, and it is unfortunate that people in the DPRK were brought up in such a controlling regime. People in the DPRK stick together as one community, and many of them appeared to be happy as they don’t know any different.
To be honest, it was a little refreshing to not see everyone glued to their phone screens 24/7 (much like I experienced in Cuba). It was like stepping in a time machine back to the 1970’s or 80’s.
Final Thoughts on North Korea
I left the DPRK with more questions than I had when I arrived. I am still fascinated by their culture, economy, politics and how they remain to be the most isolated country on earth.
After reading this article, I hope you now have a better understanding of what it is like to visit North Korea. As I mentioned in the beginning, everything you just read was based off my personal experiences on a guided tour, so please make your own judgments. I’d love to hear your thoughts, opinions and questions in the comments below – so don’t be shy to ask away!
**The cost of my tour to North Korea was covered by Koryo Tours. That being said, every time I accept a sponsored trip, I always make sure I am able to write my honest opinions and I will never skew information to write positively about a company if I didn’t find it to be positive. I can say wholeheartedly that Koryo Tours was excellent to work with, from start to finish, and they really did a professional job of making sure everyone is okay and safe. The people working at Koryo are welcoming and kind, and they always made me feel comfortable. I highly recommend looking into Koryo Tours if/when you are planning your trip to the DPRK.**