North Korea Overview
Isolationist, awkward and a feather in any hardcore traveller’s hat, North Korea is a harrowing Asian experience. A far cry from the modernity of the South, the North is largely bereft of electricity, completely lacking in advertising and a little like stepping back in time. It’s a pricey experience, and one that will give you little freedom to explore on your own, but equally it’s an utterly unforgettable one.
With the cheaper, backdoor route across the DMZ from South Korea now shut down, you’re talking a bill of thousands of dollars to come in over the northern border from China. While you’ll have some say over your itinerary (at a cost) before you arrive, your stay in the North Korea will be strictly controlled. You’ll find yourself quarantined in your bedroom at night, your photography heavily restricted, some corners firmly blocked from view and your interaction with the locals limited to an absolute bear minimum. You’ll even have to show due reverence in front of the statues of Mr. Kim (senior and junior), which can be an uncomfortable experience. The pay off? This is one trip you’ll probably never stop talking about.
A typical jaunt, depending on its length, is likely to incorporate capital Pyongyang, along with trips to the hills of Kumgangsan (The Diamond Mountains) and Paekdusan, while a longer trip might include the southern town of Gaeseong, too. In Pyongyang you’ll be isolated in your hotel for long periods of time; when you do escape it will be to explore the ‘modernity’ of the city, examining its mammoth monuments or dipping down into the regal (but almost certainly unused by locals) subway line. Pictures of the ruling Kims seem to stare down on you from the peak of every building.
Gaeseong, meanwhile, used to be the gateway to the South, and hides numerous archaeological treasures (from museums to the locations of legendary Korean stories), as well as surreal, backwards street scenes. Visit the DMZ and experience their view on the Korean War, while being watched by South Korean military police. Head for the hills of Kumgangsan and Paekdusan and you’ll find a striking side to the country, with craggy, soaring views. All in all, though, it’s the surreal vibe of North Korea that fascinates tourists, and it really is unforgettable.