North Korea Things to DoYou will not have a lot of choice to what you see in North Korea (officially called the DPRK – The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) since all tours only visit the authorised places. If you take an independent tour, you will have more flexibility, but it doesn’t open too many other options. If you do wish to undertake an independent tour that does not follow the usual sites of a group tour, book as early as possible, as getting such itineraries approved can take a lot of time.
Many people believe that it is difficult to obtain a visa for North Korea, but unless you are travelling on either the US or South Korean passport or a journalist from anywhere, this is not the case. However, one must use an authorised tour agent to visit the country. There are less than 20 of these around the world, and I paid extra for a private tour with Young Pioneer Tours. They are cheaper than most options and come with my strong recommendation.
Your first stop in North Korea will be in the capital of Pyongyang. The highlight was a visit to Mansu Hill, one of the first places you will visit in the city. It contains statues of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. Plus there is an impressive fountain area and other monuments. You are required to approach the statue as a gesture of respect with the option of laying flowers if you wish. If you do lay flowers, my strong guess is that it will endear you to your hosts more, and the more likely you are to receive different concessions as the trip progresses. The choice is yours.
The Victorious Fatherland Revolutionary Museum provides an alternative view of what is commonly known as the Korean War. Here you will understand North Korea’s interpretation of this conflict, including their belief that the war was started by an invasion from South Korea who was ‘coerced’ by forces of the United States of America. See if you can spend more time in this museum as it is one of the only places in the world that promote this alternative view – if you don’t agree, try at least to understand this perspective.
Mangyongdae Children’s Palace is an incredible place of learning – probably the world’s most spectacular school. There are expansive rooms, tall chandeliers and marble abound on the floors and columns. You will view children in classes undertaking such activities as drawing and accordion lessons. Ensure you attend the concert afterwards – the talent of the children is nothing short of extraordinary.A tour of the Metro System is a popular way to see the daily commute of North Koreans. Usually, you are restricted to the stations you can visit, but the main reason to take this experience is to see metro stations without any advertising. The only images or messages within these stations are those lauding the Great Leader and the North Korean nation.
The Kumsusan Memorial Palace is the resting places of both the Great and Dear Leaders. This is one of the great pilgrimages in the world, but ensure you bring suitable clothes for a visit; otherwise, you will be denied entry. Visiting here will allow you to see the genuine emotion North Korean have for the great leader; this is not an orchestrated performance put on for tourists. It is a highly revered place so strictly follow all instructions – including bowing to the embalmed body of the Great Leader, and remember that you only bow from the left, right and feet – never bow at the head. Also try to listen to the audio guide you are provided with, as it provides a fantastic insight into how North Korean view the Great Leader.
The spectacular and graceful Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance (also known as the Mass Games) occurs around August-September. However, it is not held every year, and there were no performances from 2014 to 2017 inclusive. With 100,000 people (90% of them amateurs) practising many months for the 90-minute show, this is rightfully considered a highlight of any visit to North Korea. I purchased 3rd class tickets, and they were more than adequate. If you buy a higher category of ticket, you will get a more central location in the stadium.Read more: North Korea Travel Guide
If you head down to the border with South Korea, you will visit the Panmunjom Demarcation Zone, where you can enter the DMZ. For those who have visited from the south, you will be surprised to learn that regulations on visiting from the North are far more relaxed. Restrictions imposed on visitors to the south – including no pointing, no bags, no touching or sitting on the chairs at the negotiating table that straddles the border – are all non-existent when visiting from the North. It was the only place in the country where one is allowed to photograph anything related to the military. Also, note that this is considered a serious place, so treat it as such – no laughing, joking around or any other boisterous behaviour.
Of equal interest is the Observation Post that occupies a high land that gazes directly into larges areas of South Korea. You can easily see South Korean military complexes from this location, and if you have trouble seeing them with your own eyes, powerful spyglasses are provided for your use.
Near to this and what is likely to be where you sleep if visiting the south of the country is Kaesong. It is fascinating to see a city of approximately 200,000 people with almost no vehicular traffic. Travelling by bicycle or on foot is the norm here. One of the highlights here is the Koryo Museum in Kaesong – and visiting the extremely well-maintained buildings and grounds will soon have you realise why it has been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Also, this is one of the best souvenir shops in the country with items available here that you will not find anywhere else. Take your time to see what is on offer.
Near to Kaesong is one of my favourite places in the country, the Tomb of Kongmin (also known as the Hyonjongrung Royal Tomb) is a 14th-century mausoleum that is one of the most picturesque historical sites in the country. Sitting atop a hill, you can look down a beautiful valley and enjoy the incredible natural beauty that North Korea can offer. If you are on an independent tour, request at the time of finalising your itinerary before your arrival in North Korea to spend more time at this peaceful site.Read more: North Korea Photo Gallery
One of the obligatory stops on any visit to North Korea is visiting the curiously named West Sea Barrage in Nampo. The Barrage is a dam and is quite an architectural feat. Though I was slightly underwhelmed by this placed, I was very interested in the video you must watch about the building of this place. Of all the propaganda videos you will watch in the country, this is the most interesting.
One of my favourite sites in the country is Mount Myohyang – the scenery in this area is gorgeous plus there are two important sites in this area. The Pohyon Temple is largely reconstructed after being destroyed in the Korean War. However, it remains (along with the Tomb of Kongmin) the most picturesque of North Korea’s historical sites. The historical architecture spaced through a very well maintained garden and the park is a lovely sight to behold.Also, in the area is the International Friendship Exhibition that is filled with thousands of gifts to the Great and Dear Leaders from around the world – included in this exhibitions is the train used by the Great Leader to travel and the gift of a bullet-proof black limousine gifted by the then Soviet Union leader, Josef Stalin. The local guide will show you the major gifts and will also show any gifts provided by your nation. It is a pity that such little relative time is spent in this place – for you will only see a small portion of everything that is on offer.
In different parts of the country, you will be taken to see different places such as a school, embroidery factory, church (yes, they are in North Korea), park and a cooperative farm. These visits are all highly managed to convey the best possible impression of the country, and as usual, ask permission before you photograph anything.
At the end of a day of sightseeing take time to watch North Korean television – your best opportunity to do so will be in Pyongyang. Local TV always provides a great insight into a country, and this is no exception in North Korea. There are 4 TV channels, but 2 of these only broadcast on weekends. Their news shows feature a presenter with a forceful narrative informing the eager populace of the latest production targets and other vital particulars of North Korean self-reliance. These were always accompanied by footage of orderly lines of workers applauding and waving flags and flowers at images of the Great Leader to celebrate another collective success. Television drama shows ordinary Koreans successfully overcoming adversity – whether that be storms, fires or imperialist aggressors during the Korean War. They ended with the main protagonists tearfully celebrating their victory as grandiose music soared in the background.Read more: Visiting the Mausoleum of The Great Leader