To realms unknown

North Korea 2

I have long used Voyages Jules Verne for interesting places to visit.

In 2012 one flyer caught my notice. The chance of a trip to the hermit nation, North Korea. I instantly booked up. This trip is no longer on offer and I am pleased I took the chance in May 2013.

To begin, it is the only country where I have had to fill in a pre visa application form. It is certain that my son, as a former RAF intelligence officer, would not have got in. I was pleased that, despite being a former East Lothian Councillor, I got a visa.

Flights are only on Air Koryo from Beijing. Eat well before – in flight food was a tasteless cold hamburger. The in flight magazine is Kim propaganda.

Having arrived you need to go with the flow and pay heed to regulations. I was on one of the first tours where tourists were allowed to keep their mobiles – although there was no connection anyway. First night food  at the Koryo Hotel was grey boiled chicken, but it got better. One tour member rarely got off the bus. I wondered why she had booked given the clear statements by the tour company about severe restrictions on movement and food quality.

In Pyonyang you are taken to the Kim statues. All have to make flower tributes. Flowers sold must be recycled and resold many a time every day. Photos must include the whole statues.

North Korea 1

As well as the UK guide, two Korean guides accompany you everywhere. This included when crossing the street to take a picture of the Koryo Hotel. We also had a Mr Video man – making a CD that was charged at 70 Euros and included shots of your group linked to a lot of propaganda. Only one person (not me) bought one. If you fall behind a “tourist” appears from nowhere, but there are no local tourists.

There are wonderful beaches with nobody on them. Beaches are closed off by barbed wire. Service stations have staff who come out to greet tourists with flasks of hot water and instant coffee/tea bags (as in the top picture). Take a torch when you go to the loo as all is in unfinished building darkness.

There are frequent “No Photo” warnings. I tried to take a picture from the revolving restaurant of the Koryo Hotel but was stopped. The only thing that was lit up was the pictures of the Kims at the nearby railway station. In the revolving restaurant it was the window that moved and not the floor and so you had to move to get a different view. The Hotel has floors that are missing on the lift directory. It is a diplomatic hotel and has listening stations. We went away for a couple of days but on return rooms and any left property were exactly as left. The hotel had lots of places to eat … all were empty. Trip Advisor regularly emails me to say that that my hotel review has been found by others to be useful – it is my most helpful review so far.

There is some stunning scenery. A trip to Mount Kumgang  National Park took us to the Oi Kumgang Hotel. It is a massive hotel, but apart from my party of seventeen British, and another party of eight Germans, it was empty. It had been built for South Koreans to link with their families but the visits had been stopped. The so called Business Centre had an international phone with no connection, two ladies manning a Fax machine and an ATM that was not plugged in. Tourists are not allowed to handle local currency anyway. Purchase at the bar was difficult. Payment in euros or dollars (not sterling at all) was met with change in a mixture of euros, dollars, chinese yuan and, when desperate, bottles of water.

A walk to a local waterfall was the time we escaped the guides; they had to keep up with the fastest, thus we slower people got to meander and enjoy the scenery and flowers. As it was a gorge there was nowhere we could stray.

My visit coincided with a missile crisis as Kim Jong Un threatened the world. Thus North Korea became the only country where I have taken pictures of what was on TV. Pretty girls in uniform or long dresses singing to a backdrop of launching missiles, tanks etc. They also had a liking for Scottish bagpipe music that played repeatedly with shots of the Highlands. Mind you, as we stood on the border between North and South Korea at the height of the crisis, soldiers were replanting flowers around a Kim monument.

The visit felt choreographed. A visit to a farm with a happy farmer. A visit to a historic site (fake history behind it). A visit to a children’s theatre performance. However, it was possible to look closer. No sign of any older people or people with disabilities. Beaches empty except for a couple of women sifting the sand to remove shells on a beach that nobody used. Evidence of low employment. Empty housing.

Not many get to see  North Korea. I am pleased I saw it at first hand. However, before visiting I was aware of issues and since return I have read so many stories of its dreadful human rights record  on which Amnesty International and others re trying to take action.


* Jacquie Bell lives in Dunbar, Scotland with her family where she is the Vice-Chair/Secretary of Dunbar Community Council. She is a member of the Scottish Executive, Policy Committee and Conference Committee. Jacquie likes travelling to unusual destinations. She and her husband have a house in Latvia.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Thank you for sharing this, Jacquie. A fascinating read.

  • Richard Underhill 29th Aug '16 - 9:17pm

    Refugees cross the river border into China illegally, transit another country and are accepted in South Korea.
    North Korea had athletes at the Rio Olympics winning 2 golds, 3 silvers and 2 bronzes. South Korea won 9 golds, 3 silvers and 9 bronzes.
    In the unlikely event of successful peace negotiations South Korea is unwilling to be as generous to North Korea as West Germany was to East Germany.

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