North Korea may not be the first place you think of for a holiday, but for those who have had the experience it’s a place like no other. Michael Ruffles writes about a recent trip and shares his photo gallery.
One week it’s on the brink of all-out war, the next announcing ambitious plans to increase tourism – there are rarely any dull moments watching what North Korea will do next. The recent announcement that the Hermit Kingdom wanted to increase tourism tenfold and welcome up to a million visitors by 2017 and double that again by 2020 was totally in character for a nation prone to hyperbole. But those who have been always say the same thing: go now, before it’s too late.
Visiting North Korea is also like no other holiday on Earth. You are followed everywhere, and even though you will want to photograph everything you will likely get told off if you point the camera out the window of a moving vehicle, towards a construction site or at anything remotely considered a bad look for the country.
The days tended to be busy, with at least two destinations to see. The itinerary has to be fairly strictly observed, although in some cases that seemed to be largely to ensure the destination had the lights switched on when we arrived.
In some locations we were the only visitors for the day: the Fatherland Liberation War Museum where they tried to show proof the US started the Korean War didn’t even bother to turn most of the lights on. Guides would greet us and bombard us with statistics about one monument or another: the time a statue took to build, the number of bricks used, how a picture measuring 25 metres wide by six metres tall marked the start of the war.
If we stayed in Pyongyang, we would return to our hotel for lunch. On road trips north and south, there was the chance to eat out, but without fail it would be a hotel lunch away from wherever North Korean citizens were. On most nights, we were back in the hotel by 6pm. We had to make do with playing pool and downing beers in the hotel’s various bars, and chatting with either the waitresses or the minders who had been with us all day.
A Hong Kong businessman broke the monotony with strawberries one evening, and we ventured out to a pizza restaurant on another occasion only to find Western NGO workers. In exchange for hard currency, euros in my case, the hosts put on the best show they can.
It’s impossible to deny enjoying my journey to the Orwellian state, but I was also keenly aware that unlike millions living there I had the luxury of being able to leave.