South Korea is in fashion. The premiere of ‘The Squid Game’ On Netflix it has catapulted it as the most watched series on the platform (until another production dethrons it in a few days, since we already know that success is ephemeral). That, coupled with the popularity of so-called k-dramas and kpop groups like BTS o Blackpink has focused on a silent country historically conquered by its most famous neighbors China and Japan.
However, the other Korea (Best Korea, as some internet users hilariously call it) remains the most impregnable country in the world. Can’t avoid fascinate in a hyper-connected and globalized world, precisely because of its mysterious idiosyncrasy, of a secret and walled place. From time to time in the West we attend, surprised and horrified, news of murders, torture of deserters and the violation of human rights. For its part, Kim Jong Un is the only dictator who, instead of fear, seems to produce laughter (in our country he has his propio alter ego on Twitter) but he is also the only dictator from a family that has been able to stay in power for three generations. In Korea he is “revered” as a god in a way that (in the words of Catalan Alejandro Cao de Benós) in the West “we cannot understand.”
In the West we witness, surprised and horrified, news about murders, torture of deserters and violation of rights
But is it really a country as hermetic as it seems? Do youIt cannot be visited under any circumstances?
Actually, you can.
The agency Travel Pujol has been organizing trips to North Korea. As they themselves explain, it is one of the few agencies in Europe accredited, by the official North Korean tourism agency (KITC), to organize trips to the country without intermediaries. We have chatted with them in case any particularly curious reader is interested in knowing what it is like stroll around Pyongyang (always accompanied, of course).
“The idea arose when almost 19 years ago a client asked Jose María Pujol (who was the promoter) if he could organize a trip for certain export issues with North Korea”, he tells me Maria Jose Pujol, responsible for the agency. “It was a territory that no one was going to at that time. Jose María was investigating, he himself decided to travel to the country by contacting the authorities, and from there he saw that there was an opportunity to visit a place where very few people I had gone and it was accessible from very few countries. Right now we continue to be pioneers and references, because not only do they contact us Spaniards to organize their trip, also people from Latin American countries“.
They range from young people who have just finished their studies to older people who visited or got to know Mao’s China in their day.
In principle, anyone could legally travel to North Korea as a tourist. Only South Koreans and journalists are routinely denied permission to enter, so even though I might not have a chance to go for my profession, I ask him what exactly needs to be done in order to set foot in the country. “I understand that the requirements are still what they were before COVID. First of all, you can’t go on your own“, he explains.” The person will always be accompanied, whether they go alone, as a couple or in a group, from the moment they land from the plane and set foot on North Korean territory is a mandatory rule. This is linked to the fact that tourists cannot leave the hotel alone. All kinds of fantastic stories run on the internet about people who escape from the hotel and travel on their own, but today it is not like that. You cannot organize trips on your own, but you have to buy a package with certain services. For example, you need a visa that we process, and you also have to fill out a series of forms “.
He tells me that tourists are very diverse, although of course it is still a minority destination (or it was, before the arrival of the coronavirus, since no one has been going for two years). From young people who have just finished their degree and whose dream is to travel to North Korea, “like those who dream of buying a car,” he explains, to older people who visited or knew in their day the China of Mao or Albania when it was a closed country, and they are interested in seeing first-hand that communist splendor of a hermetic country. “For many it is a curiosity. There are still many people who do not know that they can visit and ask us if it is not a joke,” he says. “What I can tell you is that, in general, more men travel than women, as a curious fact. But when they go (perhaps to accompany their partners) they also come back amazed.”
You can enter from Dandong in China or by train from Vladivostok in Russia. But the most common is to fly to Beijing and then go to Pyongyang
Times to travel range from Holy Week (March and April is when the cold in Korea calms down a bit) until October and November, so it covers a surprisingly long period, although of course, the majority visits are concentrated in summer. As in Singapore with the gum problem, if you go to North Korea it is better not to bring pornography or “books that violate their social and political ideals.” I ask him if any tourist has ever had a problem in the country: “No one has ever broken the rules, we take it for granted that travelers are adults and everyone knows where they are going and even though we we deliver documentation, they also find out what they can and cannot do. You will always be accompanied by a guide who makes sure you follow the rules. North Korea is a safe country for travelers, “says María Jose.
From just six days that cover Wonsan, Mount Kumgang and Hamhung, to a stay of 15, there are different ways to visit the country. In general, the most common is to fly to Beijing and then to Pyongyang, which is where the airport is located. Four-day visits are called “Corea Express“I ask him who might want to travel to the other side of the world to spend so little time:” Sometimes they are students who live in China and are excited to see the country, and they can go from Beijing. ”
Some of the visits may be a bit ‘monographic’ for the western traveler, but one does not go to North Korea to see European architecture or wild beaches: the Kumsusan Memorial Palace (where the remains of President Kim Il Sung rest and where formal clothing is required), the Cemetery of the Martyrs of the Revolution, Kim Il Sung Square, the Arc de Triomphe opened in 1982 (slightly higher than in Paris), the 38th parallel north… “you’re going to see something you don’t see anywhere else,” he explains. “There are also temples, of course, because it shares geography and history with South Korea, but that’s not the most interesting thing about the country.”
“Some travelers ask us if they can visit both Koreas: no. If you want to go you will have to go back to Beijing and travel again”
Although you can also visit the ‘natural beauties’: Kuryong Waterfall, Samil Lake or Songdowon Beach. Surprisingly, there are many different circuits depending on what ‘the body asks’ of the traveler. “You can also enter from Dandong in China or by train from Vladivostok in Russia, doing the Trans-Siberian. But the most common thing is to fly to Beijing and then to Pyongyang, “he explains.” Yes. Some travelers ask us if they can visit both Koreas: no. If you want to go to South Korea from North Korea, you will have to go back to Beijing and catch a plane again. ”
I ask him if it is true that I have read that, in order not to have any kind of problem, it is obligatory to prostrate in front of the bronze statues of Kim Il Sung (the “eternal president of the country”) and Kim Jong Il (the ” dear leader “):”Let’s see, everyone does it a little in their own way“He explains.” If you don’t want to, you don’t have to lower your head to the ground. But it is true that the visit is included in the ‘city tour’ and it is interesting, because these colossal monuments are part of the architecture of the city. You don’t go to North Korea to see shopping malls or department stores. You won’t see any advertising anywhere either, just government propaganda. ”
“You will not see shopping centers or department stores. You will not see advertising anywhere, just propaganda”
I ask you, therefore, if you recommend the trip. “I work in a travel agency, so I would speak with the same passion about Argentine Patagonia, to give an example, but I think it is highly recommended as long as one is well informed about where he is going. Although that can be extrapolated to any destination, from Korea From the North to Galicia. It is a country that does not leave you indifferent, you are going to see something that you do not see elsewhere because it is the only country closed to outside influences, although little by little they are arriving. Going is like moving to another planet, it is difficult to explain in words. It gives a lot to think about and is very interesting, transport you to a type of society that we never see, and for that alone it is worth it. If you want to experience something different, no matter how much you have traveled, go and immerse yourself for a few days in such a different and closed country. “In the moral code and the tourist preferences of each one, we will leave the choice, now, finally, we warn: Don’t go with credit cards, because they don’t accept them. Always carry a little change. Just in case.