Korean City Guides: North Korean Tours
Wish you were here? Tour North Korea with Ronny Mintjens!
Christopher KL Lau
Think of North Korea and many opinions, images and words come to mind but have you ever thought of North Korea as a tourist destination? People are beginning to be more adventurous and daring in their choice of nations to visit and North Korea is slowly making a name for itself as a go to destination to explore and appreciate.
With the help of Hong Kong based ex-professional footballer turned teacher turned tour operator, Ronny Mintjens, it is now possible to venture north of the DMZ and explore one of the most isolated countries in the world. In fact, you can even visit the northern side of the DMZ and peer into South Korea!
With Mintjens' expertise and guidance, participants have the chance to discover North Korea's culture, history, people, food and natural beauty. All nations have areas of stunning beauty and scenery and North Korea is no different. It boasts the mythical Mount Paekdu and the rolling valleys and the incredible rock formations of stunning Mount Kumgang.
Mintjens has many years of experience leading tours to North Korea and anyone who goes with him will gain unprecedented access to the the world's most closed off and isolated country and see the "Hermit Kingdom" with one's own eyes; through their own interactions, they will also help build goodwill to establish a growing and peaceful relationship between the DPRK and the rest of the world and of course experience North Korean society and everyday life.
Holidaying in the DPRK is not straight-forward, but nor is it as difficult as many think. In recent years, media reports about the abduction of overseas citizens in the 1970s, the on-going coverage over the DPRK's de-nuclearization process, and inevitable references to the demilitarized zone that cuts across the country as "the world's most heavily militarized border" have coalesced to give the impression that the country is a besieged garrison state on a permanent state of high alert and inaccessible by anyone.
Given that, it is little wonder that most people shy far away. Ironically, the DPRK may well be just about the safest country in the world for Western tourists to visit, partly because outside hotels tour groups must always be accompanied by their guide-minders who ensure none of their charges inadvertently breaks the law, and partly because the citizens are honest folk; in shops, for example, if the exact change is not available, customers may find packs of chewing gum or bottles of water replacing small denomination coins.
Things to do on a North Korean Tour
The trips help lift the veil of mystery and challenges people to make their own mind about North Korea's position in the world. Travel allows people to form their own judgements about a nation and this will allow people to form their own opinions about North Korea and its social, economic and political situation.
Innovators like Mintjens have gone to great lengths to help the outside world understand more about a nation which is at once, mystical, enigmatic, secretive and wholly unknown. The tours have become more varied in nature and how also offer the chance to run marathons, hike and even play golf!
The tours are organized in such a way that, visitors are always accompanied by local guides and participants will be safe. Common everyday annoyances such as pick pocketing, harassment and theft are virtually unheard of in the DPRK and there are no traffic accidents because there is literally no traffic as car ownership is so low!
Mintjens has even managed to chronicle and record all his know-how, pictures and rich experiences into a new book called A Journey through North Korea: Mysterious. Mesmerizing. Must-see. It offers a pictorial journey through North Korea with the best of the thousands of pictures that Mintjens has taken through his years of leading tours to North Korea (More details below).
For those seeking a truly new experience and to build their own perceptions of this reclusive and isolated nation, Ronny Mintjens kindly took some time out to answer a few questions to address any doubts and misconceptions about North Korea, if only Dennis Rodman can visit and how on earth a guy from Belgium ended up running tours to the world's most secretive nation!
Interviewer - Christopher KL Lau
North Korea?! Axis of Evil or hot tourist destination? Why would anyone want to visit North Korea? Surely, I would want to go to South Korea?
Like with any travel destination, everyone will have their own reasons for wanting to visit North Korea. It may be the thrill of visiting a country that relatively few people have visited so far, or beating the odds of entering a country that is supposedly very difficult to enter (it isn't !). However, anyone who does a little bit of background research will soon find out that North Korea is a fascinating country that has a lot to offer to those who decide to go and explore this unknown and often misunderstood country. Whenever North Korea is mentioned in the news, the issues relate to what has been happening on the Korean peninsula during the past 65 years. Very few people realize that in fact, this is a country with a history that goes back 5,000 years. Furthermore, the culture, the people, the arts, the music, the food and the nature make a visit very worthwhile. Having visited both North Korea and South Korea several times, I can safely say that for a true Korean cultural experience, North Korea is by far the preferred destination. And of course, if one visits during the second half of the summer and witnesses the Arirang Mass Gymnastics performance, then one gets treated to a show that is absolutely unique on planet Earth.
In the past few years, North Korea has made great strides in providing a quality experience to its increasing number of visitors. The tourism sector is relatively young, but quite a lot of development work is being done in order to open up more places of interest, in order to improve the quality of the service, the accommodation, the transport and the overall travel experience. A week-long visit allows the visitor to see various parts of the country, and to have a packed itinerary full of cultural, historical, natural, social, educational, sporting and culinary experiences.
How on earth did a person from Belgium end up organizing tours to North Korea?
I first visited North Korea in 2007 on an educational goodwill tour with a number of students from various countries around the world. At that time, a typical visit to North Korea only lasted for four days, and we visited Pyongyang and Kaesong. The highlight of the tour was our visit to a secondary school in Pyongyang, which was in effect the only place where we had direct contact with the local people. That first visit gave me a lot of food for thought, and I became fascinated by the way this country operates, how it has developed since the end of the Korean War, and how the people live their lives. I came away with more questions than answers, and decided to try and deepen my understanding by visiting more regularly. At first I organized educational tours, but soon I received interest from members of the general public who wanted to go and visit North Korea. I did a lot of public presentations and talks on North Korea, and when the demand for tours became important enough, I decided to give this amazing travel opportunity to anyone who is interested. Over the past years these tours have grown in length, in scope and in terms of access to various parts of the country, and I am now also developing special interest tours for schools, for particular groups such as sports teams, music ensembles, hikers, cyclists, aviation and train enthusiasts, and architecture fanatics. With every visit to North Korea I realize that the country's development is moving forwards, and my relationship with the North Korean partners is such that together we are opening up more and more opportunities for travelers. As an example, in 2014, I was instrumental in opening up the annual Mangyangdae Prize Marathon (aka the Pyongyang Marathon) to amateur runners, and in encouraging the North Korean organizers to add a half-marathon and a 10 km run, thus giving opportunities to a wider range of runners to experience the streets of Pyongyang from the ground level. This first edition of the full three-event marathon is proving to be extremely popular with runners from around the world!
Will people's perceptions of North Korea be completely altered by the end of their trip?
Of course it all depends on the initial perceptions that travelers take with them to North Korea. The vast majority of seasoned travelers realize very well that the way in which North Korea is usually portrayed in the Western media is quite biased, as it serves a certain purpose and a certain agenda. Balanced and objective reporting about North Korea is rather scarce. Very few visitors go to North Korea in order to have these media-induced perceptions confirmed. Instead, a visit soon becomes a week-long exchange of points of view, of ways of looking at the past, the present and the future, and of confirming that we all share the same humanity. We as visitors learn as much from the North Koreans as they learn from us. Nobody should go to North Korea in order to try and 'convert' the local people to the ways of the West. Similarly, the North Koreans do not attempt to convert us. What it all comes down to is showing respect to the wide variety of viewpoints and opinions, and to realize that there is in fact a lot of common ground between 'them' and 'us'. The citizens of North Korea share many of the same ambitions and goals with us. They want to live a happy and healthy life, they want to find themselves a good husband or wife, they want to educate their children and they want peace for everyone. It was mainly with this in mind that I have recently published my book, A Journey through North Korea to show that this country has many similarities with many other countries on our planet, and that the people there are part of the global family. In my opinion, the people of North Korea deserve just as much respect as everyone else, and the country deserves to be visited and understood. My book attempts to shed some light on the mystery that North Korea remains to those who have not yet visited.
Wait, I only thought celebrities like Dennis Rodman can go to North Korea. How does an everyday person end up going?
One can not simply walk into a travel agency and buy a ticket to Pyongyang. All travel to North Korea is on pre-arranged package tours, usually between five and seven nights long. Shorter and longer trips are possible. Joining a tour to North Korea is very straight-forward, the paperwork is quite minimal, and everybody, with the exception of South Korean passport holders, can visit the country. Every year a few thousand people visit North Korea, and the number is growing steadily. I would like to add here that it is completely possible for US citizens, Japanese citizens and Israeli citizens to visit North Korea. Any readers who would like to find out more about our tours, or who would like to register for one, are welcome to check out our website, www.visitdprk.weebly.com, and to get in touch in order to get further information.
To get the most out of a visit to North Korea, we recommend to our fellow travelers that they read up on the country's history and current situation. Once we land in Pyongyang, our local guides have lots and lots of stories and facts that they share, and being well-prepared makes everything that more relevant.
To you, what has been the highlight of all your trips to North Korea?
It is very difficult to name one. North Korea has a surprising number of stunning highlights, for a variety of reasons. Hiking in the Mount Kumgang area is an incredible experience. To know that one is walking on overgrown paths and amidst streams, waterfalls and ponds that have not seen any visitors in more than six years, and being all alone with nature in this stunning environment, is very difficult to put into words. The same applies to having a first glimpse at Lake Chon, inside the sacred Mount Paekdu. The scenic beauty of Mount Paekdu is without parallel. The Arirang Mass Games performance, a two hour long high-octane show full of sound, light, colour and dance is simply unforgettable. Over one hundred thousand people are involved in this spectacle, which does not have its equal in our world. Standing on the border between North Korea and South Korea and seeing the Cold War at work, with soldiers from both sides facing off across a narrow concrete slab, is an almost surreal experience. The Korean War, which ended in no more than an Armistice agreement, should be a thing of the past. Instead, the DMZ runs like a scar right across the Peninsula, and continues to divide two countries that have over 5,000 years of common history.
But beyond the amazing natural and cultural attractions, the very best moments are those spent with the local guides, the students in the schools and the people we meet in various places. To spend an hour or two with the soldiers who guard the border with South Korea is priceless. To discuss the unique nature of the North Korean society with the local guides makes time stand still. Some amazing discussions are had on the bus, over lunch or dinner, whilst walking along the Taedong River or during some down-time at the local coffee shop. The people of North Korea are the country's greatest asset, and no visitor will remain stoic and unmoved whilst listening to their views on the world and on life in general.
North Korea is always in the media and is constantly portrayed in a negative light. How fair and consistent are these reports?
As explained above, the media reports serve a specific agenda. The situation on the Korean peninsula is a very complex one and this complexity, combined with the fact that little information comes out of North Korea, makes reporting on this country a free for all. It is pretty much impossible to verify any report made about North Korea, and it is best to see the negative tone of the reports in this perspective. What I can say is that I have seen a lot of development in Pyongyang in recent years. The transport system has improved a lot, beautiful new flats have been built in various parts of the city, several new attractions have been opened, both for citizens and foreigners, and the prevailing atmosphere is one of progress and hope for a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict.
Visa, travel documents - surely it is a lot of red-tape and administrative work to go and visit North Korea?
The logistics of visiting North Korea are actually quite straight-forward, and in fact easier to navigate than for many other travel destinations. The myth that North Korea is a closed country that is very hard to access really needs to be debunked - anyone who wants to visit can do so, hassle-free. Tours are always organized in advance, and the amount of input that travelers can have in the drafting of their itineraries is remarkable. At this point in time, the only people who can not get tourist visas to North Korea are those holding South Korean passports, whilst special visa procedures apply for professional journalists and professional photographers.
On these trips, do you get to speak to many everyday citizens?
The amount of interaction with the local citizens increases gradually. During my first trip, in 2007, I only really got to talk with our local guides and with a teacher at the school that we visited. Since then, it has become increasingly easy to have conversations with more and more locals - it is now possible to strike up a brief conversation on the metro, or in the park, or at the fun fair, or in restaurants, shops or entertainment areas. One would still not walk up to a pedestrian in the street and start a conversation, but who would do this anyway, in any city or town in the world? The tours that I organize include as much interaction as possible with the local people. The conversations that are being had are honest and informative, and it is no overstatement to say that some friendships are being formed during the tours. On the day of departure, there are usually a few tears being shed, not just by the foreigners who have had such an amazing experience, but also by some of the local guides who have found a genuine connection with their guests. Just like in any other country, the human connection is very strong and something we don't necessarily control. Visitors who are prepared to have a conversation will find plenty of takers!
In some instances there may of course still be a language barrier, but on one of my tours I had a number of Korean participants, and their conversations simply never ended!
All photos courtesy of Ronny Mintjens
For more information on Ronny's tours, please go here: visitdprk.weebly.com