North Korea? Is it really like this thing I saw?

This is the 3rd most common question I'm getting. Right behind, "North Korea? You can go there?" and "Why would anyone want to go there?" So I suppose I'm going a bit out of order, but I feel like this is background for the other two questions. But it's a fair question, so let me state, emphatically, that:

No. It is not like that thing you saw at all.

I came away from the trip feeling that the view the west (and the US in particular) has of the DPRK is weird. Pretty much everything I've seen has been sensationalized. They are very thinly veiled attempts to lock your eyeballs for a while and get you to view the follow-up. To that end, the whole place is portrayed as a massively controlled crazy-town. And, if you just spent a few nights in the country, I couldn't blame you for that being your take-away.

But that wasn't my experience. I was there for a bit over 2 weeks. I was there during a very busy time with road closures, shifting bookings, and short-notice happenings. And from what the guides said (both Korean and Western guides -- including at the briefing before we even went into the country), this was all fairly typical. I was fortunate enough to see my Korean guides exhausted after long days and buy them a beer to unwind. It's worth pointing out here that, even while unwinding "after the day," that they are still very much on-duty. They're actually always on duty, which became very apparent during the night of what I'll refer to as the Majon Guesthouse villa mix-up (I've likely already told you the story in person). From the second you clear security in the Pyongyang airport to the second you go back through security at the end of your trip, they are responsible for you.

This, to me, is the clearest refutation of the perception that you're always being watched. The guides are people and as such, sleep. Alcohol is cheap and new friends imbibe late into the night. Once back at the hotel for the evening, you're on your own to drink, relax, or sleep as you see fit. Yes - you are told not to leave the hotel complex. But this seems as much in your interest as anything else. No good can come of you wandering around, late, speaking little if any of the language (or customs). The potential for you getting lost or bothering people is just too high.

So, with all that as context, here are my impressions as a reaction to a few of the more popular (mis)conceptions:

There are no tourists/everything is empty:
I'll admit I was in the country at peak time. It was a national holiday - the 65th anniversary of the founding of the country. There would be celebrations, that was known, and people came. There were 27 other people that booked the same 16-night tour that I did and a load more that chose either the first or second half. And that was from one company. I know there was at least 1 other western company running tours (I took a train with them), and there were loads of Chinese tourists. Not to mention the international weightlifting competition that happened to overlap our tour dates (which prompted the rare event of seeing south korean tourists in the Yanggakdo Hotel). That scene where Shane Smith sits in the banquet hall of the Yanggakdo Hotel with nobody else around? Not even close to my experience. Not that the place was packed (everything about the hotel seems to be built for a bit beyond actual capacity), but it certainly wasn't empty. I suspect he got the shot by talking his way in before breakfast was open (as the buffet was always set before I got to breakfast -- and I had the first breakfast timeslot a few times). But perhaps travel has opened up that much in the past few years.

They do, however, do an amazing job of scheduling tour groups so as to not overload a particular monument/spot with tourists. Our group of 28 was split into 2 groups of 14 and we rarely saw each other outside of mealtimes & post-day hotel lobby drinking. North Korea is the one place where you can get your picture of nothing but the monument. No tourists jumping in your shot. You can actually wait for people to clear. And because you're traveling with them, they're probably a little more considerate than ordinary tourists. They're also likely to be just generally great people (as I'm convinced that most people willing to go to the DPRK are already pretty interesting and open-minded).

The leaders are a really big deal:
Yes. I'd say this is the one thing I've not seen a documentary come close to capturing. The reverence for the leaders and the military ever-present. I saw women crying at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun. Now, it's impossible for me to know how genuine any of it actually is. And there are inconsistencies in the narrative that hint that people really understand the presence of a myth. For instance, why do farm research at all when advances are made via on-the-spot guidance of the leaders? But, after a few days, it really all becomes quite normal. It all just becomes something you do. Going up to a monument to enjoy the views? Take off your sunglasses and bow first. No big deal.

Your routes are planned and you're not allowed to deviate from those routes:
False. Even though our impression is that the country is entirely centrally planned, it's clear that not all of the messages get around. On National Day, we wanted to be at the bowling alley at a certain time, as the bowling alley is conveniently located on the route participants in the parade use to leave the main square (effectively, a second little parade). Unfortunately, the traffic cops kept turning our bus back saying we couldn't cross the road. Furious texting ensued. Several calls were placed between the Korean guides to discuss closures and give suggestions to the bus drivers about which routes were still open. We ended up on a round-about tour of some back streets in Pyongyang. Sorry to kill your excitement here, but they look exactly the same as the normal roads we took (but slightly less wide and bus friendly -- our bus driver was awesome though). But on normal days, there's simply not enough traffic (or problems) to necessitate changing routes. They know the fastest route.. why would they take you a different way?

They hate Americans:
I came away with the impression that they lament the policies of the post WWII and pre-Korean war US government. But US policy at the time wasn't exactly set up our shining moment. But any notion that they hated me? None. Everywhere I've been, even when not being the best representative of my country, I've felt a bit of respect from my host for being willing to get out and see their country and experience their culture. This was especially true in the DPRK where they see that you're willing to hear their story of war crimes & sit through presentations on one of the worst period in your country's history. And there was even a feeling that they were cleaning up the language a bit in translation for us (I don't think I heard the word 'bastards' in english at all). Salted throughout all of that is definitely a small sense of blame of the US for current & past conditions -- a claim that through sanctions, the US is intentionally keeping their living conditions low (which I'd argue isn't all that inaccurate). But that blame is placed squarely on the abstract specter of US leadership. It's actually pretty amazing how completely they have internalized that struggle and made it part of the Korean identity. But hating me for the policies of my country? Absolutely not -- we're both just people. Subject to our government's leadership, right?

Let that last part sink in. That acknowledgement of a difference is significant because it is something they can't admit they posses themselves. I'll leave you with that for another second.

They walk in step:
Okay, so this really isn't pointed out a lot. But wow. I pointed it out to a few of my fellow tourists. And then they pointed it out to me. I saw it a LOT. And then I saw this post that said pretty much the same thing (btw.. I'm pretty sure we were in the country at the same time -- and viewed the schoolchildren's palace at the same time. But I do not know him/her and pretty sure he/she was not on my tour). I'm guessing it's a hold-over from military service which is a lot more pervasive than in the US. I still occasionally sync up somebody and I was just in marching band for a few seasons.

What did I miss? Leave your assumptions in the comments & I'll see if it's something I noticed. And add pictures. This post is too long for no pictures...


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