Why is the famously secretive North Korea on our 2015 travel list? Because curiosity is a powerful motivator. The despotic regime has restricted travel dramatically to and within the country (and the U.S. State Department strongly discourages us to even think about it). But Joss Kent, founder of outfitter &Beyond, says that “if travel is about opening your eyes to other cultures and learning more about the world we live in, then North Korea has to be very high on that list of travel experiences. It will definitely impact the way you think.”
&Beyond doesn’t currently lead tours there, but to get beyond the propaganda curtain, we spoke with Simon Cockerell of Koryo Group, which has lead tours to the country since 1993 (though currently, the border is closed over concerns about Ebola). Cockerell has visited North Korea 140 times over the last 14 years. Here, his take on the fascinating country.
How did you wind up specializing in North Korea?
I was living in China, where I live now, and I got to know Nick Bonner, who founded the company in 1993. I thought would be a fascinating place to travel to and Nick was arranging trips. So I went on a trip and I found it so interesting that I wound up working with him.
I thought it would be more like China. It’s a common thing to project your experiences of other places on to it because it’s a bit of a black hole. I thought it would be like going back in time to China 20 or 30 years ago, but I actually found it to be much more complicated than that. There were a lot of elements that I recognized from China, and from Russia. It’s a place that’s difficult to understand, a place with a lot of dark things going on, but also a mind-blowing place with a lot of very fascinating people.
What surprises people most about the country?
People go there with the expectation that they can’t do anything. And that nothing will be provided for them. Because they know—we tell them in advance—that there are a lot of restrictions. And it’s true that it’s easily the most restricted country in the world as a tourist. You can’t go out without your guide. Everything that you do must be prearranged. There’s very little flexibility on the ground, though there’s flexibility in the planning. Nevertheless, people are surprised by the access they get to the country. For example, in the Pyongyang Marathon, you can now run unaccompanied by your guides. People expect to be followed everywhere and corralled into groups all the time, so they’re quite amazed to be able to do things like that.
Every group has two guides, and one driver, but a group can be just you—a group of one. They’re usually described in the media as government guides but actually they work for a state-owned company. They’re not representatives of any industry, they’re not undercover police or secret service. Everyone likes to think that one of their guides is in the KGB but actually it’s a little more boring. They’re just tour guides.
What about restrictions? And can travelers bring their computers and iPhones?
Yes. That changed about two or three years ago. Before, you had to lock them up at the airport—you’d wrap them up and seal them at the border—but that changed after North Korea got a functioning mobile network of its own. So now you can take in your phones, computers, Kindles, iPads—no problem. They won’t connect to their network and there’s no Internet, generally speaking. There are a couple of exceptions to that but I tell people that they will be offline while in the country, unless they have a 3G SIM card, which are exceptionally expensive. They can make international calls from hotels, of course. As for other restrictions, you shouldn’t take any religious material and distribute it—that’s illegal.
Can you walk us through what a typical tour might be?
There’s a popular belief that the government sets its own tour program but that’s completely untrue. We know the places you can go and the places you can’t go and then the places you can push to go. And we design our tour programs in advance and can design bespoke tours.
Nevertheless, there’s a highlights package that most people choose to do. The most typical tour involves flying into Pyongyang, which is just an 90-minute flight from Beijing. After you’ve gone through customs and immigration, you meet your guides and driver who are with you for the rest of your trip. Normally, a trip is around 5 days, 3 of which are spent in Pyongyang, the capital and the economic and political center. A trip there would involve some museums and monuments but also as much interaction with local people as possible. Places like the Pyongyang metro, the public transport system, is good place to get squashed up against North Koreans. Also at parks on weekends and holidays and places of leisure like the bowling center or shooting range. We try and make it so that you don’t just see North Koreans through the window. They are human beings. It’s easy for people to use ‘they’ to refer to North Koreans but what they mean is the government. Nowhere else would you do that.
In addition to Pyongyang, people usually go to Kaesŏng, the only part of the country that was not completely destroyed in the Korean War. Most of the UNESCO world heritage sites in North Korea are in Kaesŏng. The DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone) is very near to Kaesŏng, as is area called Panmumjom, where there are several former negotiation huts that straddle the border between North and South Korea (though it’s not called a border, it’s called a central military demarcation line). It’s a weird, tense, and very sad area—and it’s something that people must see. On one side you have North Korean soldiers and on the other side, you have South Korean soldiers under United Nations command.
What is North Korean culture like?
North Koreans tend to be very reserved. We try to get as much going with locals as possible. We’ve been running school trips, for example, where we’ll bring middle school or high school students to North Korea. They’re not going to become Facebook friends or pen pals or anything but most people in North Korea have never met a foreigner. Their only image of a foreigner has only been on the state-run news, which only reports exceptionally negative things—race riots, massacres. They paint the rest of the world as a disastrous place.
What kinds of places are off-limits?
There are vast areas of the country that you can’t visit for a variety of reasons, some of which are never given. But some are simply because there are no roads to it—it’s a very poor country and its infrastructure is weak. The majority of the country is not open to visitors. And what you do not see are the deepest darkest things which everybody knows about, but it’s easy to say ‘Oh, they’re hidden from me.’ But they’re not intellectually hidden from you. You know that there are areas where people are desperately, desperately poor, where food insecurity is a perennial issue. There’s a common belief that what you’re shown is a kind of Truman show, a dog and pony show, but it’s not. What you see is real life, but it’s not the totality of real life. We assume that travelers here are intelligent and worldly enough to know that.
What about food? How is it handled with tourists?
If there’s one thing that’s known about North Korean food it’s that there isn’t enough. Nevertheless, Korea was once a unified society and there are certain common dishes. A lot of the more well known dishes in South Korea—things like bulgogi, barbecued meat, kimchi—are also found in North Korea. North Korean food is known to be a bit spicier. Food is often better than people expect. In some places it’s very good and in some places it’s just good enough to fill you up. But travelers are always given enough food.
The toughest thing to witness as a traveler?
It’s a place that’s not visited much, called Sinchon. During the Korean War a lot of people were killed in grisly and nasty ways. Each version of history varies; North Koreans say it was done by Americans. Other historians say it was done by South Korean Christians reacting against Communist oppression. There’s a museum there, called the Museum of American Atrocities. And it’s basically the North Korean equivalent of Auschwitz. It’s a very hard place to go. And I always warn people before they go that it’s quite likely that a lot of what’s claimed there is not the absolute truth. Yet it’s fascinating and says a lot about the mindset that people there don’t see the Korean War as history, they see it as ongoing and they believe that the aggressors in the war are still just a two-hour drive away in South Korea. It’s weird. That’s what makes it kind of a time warp.
What is it like to watch the mass games?
It’s like nothing on earth. It’s like the Olympic opening ceremony, four times a week—if the Olympic opening ceremony was much more highly politicized and aggressive and propagandistic. It’s mind-blowing: It’s frightening, it’s awe-inspiring, and also just a little bit weird to see hundreds of thousands of performers and not nearly that many spectators.
At all times in North Korea there’s a sense of synchronicity. If you visit a school, they’ll line up and march into their classrooms in sync. At the workplace every morning, everybody gathers and does calisthenics in sync. It’s drilled into you, this way of thinking and acting as a group. And that doesn’t exist for tourists. Tour guides are always making fun of us. There’s a couple of places where you have to line up and of course the lines are in shambles, and after three steps, everyone’s out of pace. And the guides are thinking, “Kindergarteners could do this.” They have practiced all their lives to do things in a synchronized ways. But the scale of the mass is so different. It’s chilling.
You’re the new official partner of the Pyongyang marathon. How did that come about?
We’ve been trying to gain access for years. The marathon has been going for 27 years (every April, the Sunday nearest to the birthday of Kim Il Sung on April 15) and foreigners have been in it for quite a long time, but only professional runners.
But, finally, we were able to take in amateur runners. The tour guides don’t run with you so you’re left to your own devices. Last year, a lot of people started to high-five the locals (a crowd of 10,000 cheering people on) and talking to people, if they spoke any Korean. So some people’s times were very slow because they spent half their time just interacting with people. One guy did the half marathon—it’s about two laps of Pyongyang, I think—and the second lap was twice as long as the first because he stopped to drink beer with some young guys who were standing by the side of the road. It’s a great way to see the city and it’s a great equalizer. The people aren’t thinking, ‘There goes the bloody American devil,’ they’re thinking ‘Oh that guy’s just sweaty and out of breath, just like everyone else.’ I heartily recommend that anyone thinking of going, go for that (this year, on April 12). This is perhaps the single best way to spend a day with people.