What life is like leading tourist in the DPRK.
James Scullin used to work with me teaching English in Melbourne, Australia. He left the job to go on a tour to North Korea. After he left I kept up with him via email and was surprised when I learned he had become a tour leader in the DPRK. Here are some of his impressions working in the Hermit Kingdom.
When did you first start getting interested in North Korea?
I studied political science at university and have always had a particular interest in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc to which the DPRK is somewhat a remaining member. Also, I’ve spent a few years in Germany and been interested in the history of East Germany and the Berlin Wall, which obviously correlates with the situation in Korea to a degree. In fact, we have a lot of Germans (mostly East Germans) on our tours and drawing comparisons between divided Germany and divided Korea and discussing the fall of the Berlin Wall always makes for interesting conversation with North Koreans.
Did you have previous experience as a tour guide? How did you go about getting a job as a tour leader in the DPRK?
While I was living in Berlin, I used to take people on walking tours throughout the city. Few cities areas rewarding as Berlin if you’re a big history nerd and being a tour guide there was always something I wanted to do. In terms of the DPRK job, I basically just went on a tour with Juche Travel Services and heard they wanted someone based in Beijing to lead tours. I was living in Germany at the time and had always wanted to live in China so it just worked out well.
In the DPRK, the Korean International Travel Company (KITC) provides local guides on each tour who do the heavy tour lifting with regards to keeping to the itinerary, translating and describing the sites. My job is to help things run smoothly and make sure tourists don’t do anything they shouldn’t, which in my experience has never happened. Tourists I’ve been to the DPRK with have been mostly respectful and mindful of the DPRK’s eccentricities.
What are people’s main misconceptions about North Korea?
Well, I think the list of misconceptions about the DPRK is endless. North Korea is a third world country and, clearly, there is a lot to be improved there economically and politically. However, I don’t think our media does a very good job of trying to understand North Korea more. The fact is that the outside world really doesn’t know a lot about the DPRK and I think it’s best to keep an open mind. The recent BBC Panorama documentary is a good example of someone going to the DPRK with a preconceived notion and making the program according to his predetermined opinion. While such documentaries do bring awareness to the poverty and state control prevalent in the DPRK, they choose to ignore, however bizarre they may seem to a western audience, facets of everyday life in North Korea, which you gain somewhat of an understanding of as a tourist.
As a result, we have a lot of people on tours ask if their hotel rooms are being surveyed and whether certain situations are choreographed only for western eyes to give a false sense of normalcy to the place.
While I do admit to there being a sense of theatre to some events, especially being part of a tour group, would the state organs really be interested in listening to a conversation between two backpackers in a hotel room? Would an entire pier full of hundreds of people be deployed there by the government, given barbeques and meat to eat with their families only to be seen by the eyes of a handful of foreigners to feign a sense that life is normal in North Korea? While North Korea is an impoverished third world country, our media leads us to believe that scenes of North Koreans enjoying themselves is impossible, however this is not true and the situation is more nuanced. There are many places in the DPRK that are shielded from foreigners; however, this in no way means that the areas we do go to are staged propaganda performances.
One of the most appealing aspects of travelling to the DPRK for tourists is that North Korea is a strange country. While this is certainly true to an extent, there are people there who raise families, date, look to improve their careers, have hobbies, etc and the media’s black and white lens tends to miss this fact and portray the people as brainwashed drones.
Do you have anything to say about people who question the ethics of going on a tour? For example, I am simply giving 1100 Euros to a corrupt dictator.
There are two schools of thought on this where one believes that greater engagement with the outside world will lead to change in the DPRK, while the other sees tourism as legitimizing and even supporting the regime financially. In terms of finance, I think you have to consider that the DPRK is looking to increase the number of foreign visitors it receives and to do this a lot of the money made off tours is reinvested back into the tourism industry whether it be purchasing new buses or hotel maintenance. There is also a cut taken by the western tourism provider.
Undoubtedly, spending money on a tour to the DPRK is giving money to the state. This is true because the state owns everything in North Korea. However, within the state owned system are organizations like KITC that need to reinvest and balance their own budget. Of course, a portion of this money does benefit the central government and the elite; however, you have to remember that the DPRK economy does have billion dollar trade deals with China and its allies, making the return on the few thousands of tourists each year relatively modest by comparison.
What would be gained if western tourists boycotted North Korea altogether? I don’t think the domestic situation would be any different. Also, despite being on a guided tour, you do engage with the country and its people. A lot of people there have never seen westerners before, especially in the countryside, and whether it be singing karaoke with a guide or waving and smiling to a group of children on a farm, engagement, in my opinion, is better than isolation.
What are some memorable stories? What is the best and worst part of your job?
I think one of the most interesting parts of the tour is engaging with locals and, in most cases, this is with the guides. Anything is up for discussion really but if you ask political questions, you can expect you’re going to get a certain answer. Instead, it’s more interesting talking about everyday life topics like dating for example. Two prospective couples will seek to find each other’s blood type early on in order to determine whether they are compatible to bear a healthy child. I also had a guide ask me for a distinction between the words ‘nationality’, ‘citizenship’ and ‘race’, which gives you an idea of how Koreans see themselves and the Korean nation. The guides really have an incredible work ethic and are very personable and develop great relationships with people on tours. They’re quite funny and sarcastic.
Also, they aren’t shy of the odd glass of soju or the karaoke stage. In terms of taking people on a tour, it is ridiculous how trigger-happy people are with travel photography. With analog cameras, there is a decision to be made if something is photo worthy. With digital photography, everyone feels they have to document everything and there is such a sense of urgency of making sure that every photo is taken to prove that the event actually took place. Having said that, the DPRK is a great place for a photographer and Pyongyang especially is a very photogenic city.
Where can I find out more about the DPRK? (books, movies, authors, etc.)
There’s a lot of good information about the DPRK these days. Online, ‘NK News’ is a very well-run and up to date website that has participants from all across the DPRK watching community. They have regular contributions from defectors as well as interesting daily life columns that cover things like sex and smoking pot in the DPRK. ‘Daily NK’ is run by defectors and is also quite good.
There are lots of interesting books too. I just read ‘The Real North Korea’ by Andrei Lankov, who is the pick of the North Korea scholars as he ventures to formulate future scenarios for the DPRK and, as a Russian, he makes useful comparisons between the USSR and DPRK ‘communist’ systems. ‘Nothing t oEnvy’ by Barbara Demick is a good focus on the personal story of a tragic romance and ‘Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader’ is, at 1000 pages, the ultimate package of history, politics and society in North Korea.
I want to go on a tour…any groups to avoid? What should I prepare for? How to maximise my experience?
The North Korea tourism market is growing and becoming ever more competitive. There are groups that offer specialized tours. For example, the company I work for, Juche Travel Services, is the only company that offers Aviation Tours that allows airplane enthusiasts the opportunity to fly on a series of vintage Soviet aircraft such as Tupolev, Antonov, and Illushin that are no longer flying elsewhere in the world. We also offer Railway Tours where you can travel on a chartered train across the North Korean countryside and there’s even a Bird Watching Tour. If you go on a more general tour, you should remember that all tours to the DPRK are run by the KITC and that some companies charge 50% higher than others for basically the same tour itinerary.
Our website has a fact sheet about do’s and don’ts in the DPRK and we also have a pre-touring briefing dinner in Beijing the night before flying out. Contrary to what many believe, photography is permitted and there is no shortage of people who have written travel blogs and edited short films from their travels. The basic rules for photography are that you cannot take pictures of the military, don’t take pictures that may cast the country in a poor light and if you want to take a picture of a person, get their consent before you do so. Aside from that, you are permitted to take as many photos as you like and, in my experience, I have never had an official look through my camera when departing the country.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, I have to say that it’s important to bring an open mind with you on the tour. You will certainly encounter a different worldview from the North Koreans and it’s best to be diplomatic when discussing politics and understand that they simply see some things differently, but that you can still learn from each other regardless.
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