I was in DPRK about 6 years ago (almost to the day, if memory serves).Originally Posted by Julia
You know you're not going to Waikiki when the tour guide in Beijing reminds your tour group (independent travel is forbidden) very firmly not to expect that anywhere in NK you are not being listened to, and that includes your hotel room.
Visas are organised in Beijing by the tour company and they come as a "group visa" with all members of the party together. Visas are very easy to get as long as you are not American, Israeli, South Korean or Japanese. Once you land in Pyong'yang (on NK airlines) you are escorted through immigration where you surrender your passport and, if you have one, your mobile phone. I was reliably informed that this was standard practice and designed so that no one would lose their passports. FWIW, Australia had an embassy in NK but they were deported in the mid-70s after allegedly "spying". The only Western missions in NK are Britain and Sweden.
All visitors to NK must, before they do anything else, visit the statue of Kim Il Sung (The Great Leader) and lay a wreath. I noticed that as we arrived at the statue so did hundreds of NK people. This was to become a familiar pattern.
Our hotel in PY was a relatively modern (relative to the rest of PY) building on an island in the middle of the Taedong river, which flows through PY. I'm 100% certain you are kept on the island so that westerners cannot go wandering through the streets of PY without their government guide. There are taxis at the front of the hotel 24/7 but they will not leave unless you have your guide with you. I was surprised that the rooms received CNN and BBC, although our NK guides' rooms did not and they asked a lot of questions about what was happening on "the news". People in NK didn't know about 9/11 until six weeks after the event!
During the 1960's the NK's captured what they said was a US spy ship the "Pueblo". This is now kept as a trophy in the Taedong river, and all westerners are taken to it to hear the heroics of the capture of what our guide called the "big nose Yankees". This short video is then shown explaining the NK point of view.. I found it quite difficult not to laugh, mainly because the narrator has serious difficulty trying to say "pueblo" as well as several other English words. There's alos some propaganda corkers in there "The brazen faced American imperialists" etc...
Of course every trip to the Korean peninsula usually involves a trip to the DMZ and this was no different. NK consider that they won the war and that SK is occupied by western imperialists. On the drive down to the DMZ the empty highway (no one can afford cars so the roads are mainly for military equipment and as showpieces) has huge concrete slabs lining it that are wired with explosives in case the South comes north. The bridges are also wired the same way. Once inside the DMZ, there is a road sign that says "Seoul - 80". It's incredible to think how close Seoul is to NK, how in such a small area you can have a modern vibrant metropolis next to a hermit state that still lives and breathes the Cold War. The DMZ itself is an eerie place. The blue buildings in the JSA straddle both countries inside them is the only place where you can walk across both countries. While inside them SK guards watch you through windows in a Taekwondo fighting stance, which is a little disconcerting!
I was there for 4 nights. It's about all you really need because the propaganda gets a bit boring after a while and there isn't an awful lot to do. I did visit the mausoleum of Kim Il Song, so I guess I'm one of the few Westerners to say I've seen his dead body. The guys who run the tours have said when they started running them children would run away when they saw westerners because they had been fed a diet of all the bad things round-eyes do but when we were there we even visited a performing arts school and the kids were coming up to us giving us high fives and what not. There is a crack of light entering NK very slowly.
Well worth the trip if you ever get the chance, it was amazing coming back to China and feeling "free" again.