What’s it like to go on a North Korea Tour? Keep reading to find out about the North Korean city of Sinuiju!
The day had finally arrived for me to visit North Korea. I awoke early and left my hostel in Dandong to meet a representative from the tour group who had facilitated my visit to the city of Sinuiju. David was a young Chinese guy who briefed me on the procedure for crossing the border. He took me to the customs post next to the Sino-Korean friendship bridge which connects Dandong in China with Sinuiju in North Korea, where he would then leave me and informed me that I would be met by an English-speaking guide on the other side.
I was to be joining a group of Chinese tourists and everything was to be done in a strict order. I would be the last person in the group and would need to remain in this position throughout the day. After an hour or so of waiting around we were ushered to the Chinese border post.
As has become customary my passport attracted attention due to the VISAs from the ‘Stans’. The border guard wanted to know what I had been doing in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Through my guide I explained that I had traveled from London to China along the Silk Road. Eventually after a lot of frantic phone calls to superiors I was allowed through.
China to North Korea (Dandong to Sinuiju)
I boarded the bus that waited outside customs and we set off across the giant metal bridge, which was half rail track and half road. My palms were sweaty with nerves and my heart was beating fast in anticipation of what was to come. The Chinese tour guide came and collected everyone’s cameras as we set off on the five minute journey across the Yalu River to the DPRK.
The bus stopped on the other side of the river and as we exited the bus a North Korean official in a heavy brown uniform and wide-brimmed hat collected out passports. These would be kept for the duration of our stay and returned at the end of the day (at least I hoped mine would be)! Customs was straightforward and we passed through a metal detector and were out the other side in no more than a few minutes.
Meeting the guides for the Tour of North Korea
As I stood outside waiting to get on the bus a Korean man in his early thirties came over to me and asked if I was Stephen, to which I replied nervously that I was. He shook hands and looked me in the eye, asking questions about why I was visiting North Korea. I tried to remain calm and give acceptable answers. By now all the Chinese tourists were on the bus and I was standing outside with the Korean official.
He offered me a smoke which I accepted, as the Chinese passengers looked on from the bus. The official said we needed to wait for some more guides and then I could get on with the others. I was a little panicked by it all but tried to remain calm. After five minutes or so a couple of young Korean guides arrived. The women were decked out in traditional Korean dress.
I was finally allowed onto the bus and took a seat at the back. The young Korean male guide sat next to me. The main official who had questioned me earlier would be my private guide/government minder for the day. He took the microphone and gave instructions in Chinese to the other passenger and we set off.
We drove through what looked like a run-down port area and into the town. Construction was going on but there was no heavy machinery; everything was being done manually. I was surprised to see a couple of modern looking taxis on the street. Policemen in bright blue uniforms directed what little traffic there was. More people were on bikes and on foot and there were few cars on the streets.
Sinuiju, North Korea!
We were driven to the statues of Kim Il-Sung, the founding father of North Korea and his son Kim Jong-Il where I was told I must buy flowers (20MB – about $3) to lay as a sign of respect. My guide/minder explained the procedure and that after laying the wreath we must take a bow. I think I rose a little quicker than everyone else and suddenly remembered the stories of those imprisoned or exiled for being the first to stop clapping at a party conference in the GDR or Soviet Union.
My guide explained that there was a professional photographer and filmmaker with us to record everything and at the end of the day we could buy the photos (30RMB each) and a CD-Rom of the film (120RMB). He also explained that I must only take ‘nice’ photos and nothing that could show the DPRK in a bad light. He said all the pictures would be checked at the border. I assured him I only ever take nice photos…!
After paying our respects to the Sun-God we were taken to a museum behind the statues. A vast concrete building with little ornamentation. Inside we left our bags in exchange for a token and entered a large hall with three pictures of the Kim dynasty. The first was of Kim Il-Sung inspecting a factory. The middle one showed his son Kim Yong-Il inspecting a wheat harvest and the third displayed current leader Kim Jong-Un meeting with villagers.
Officials stood nearby with pens poised at notebooks ready to document his musings. My guide explained how many times each leader had visited the province. We were led back to the bus and I was reunited with my camera. I had been worried that they would not let me take it in because of the Wi-Fi symbol, but it evidently got through the censors.
Streets of the DPRK
As we left the city I noticed a large shop with lots of goods displayed in the window, but the way they were displayed made me think it was just for show. The shelves were a little way in and the surplus stock was stacked up against the window, giving the impression that things were in abundance. If they were, why not keep the goods in the store room? Perhaps I was overthinking things, biased by all the garbage fed to me by the media. It’s difficult to keep an open mind when one is bombarded with so much misinformation and politically motivated news. I chastised myself for falling prey to the vultures.
We drove out into the countryside. There were no other cars on the road but lots of people on bicycles. Peasant farmers tended the land. Again like the city there was no farm machinery and people were out in the fields harvesting by hand. It was like a picture of England in the first half of the last century. I can see why communist sympathizers might romanticize such scenes, but I think the reality for the people working the land isn’t such a cosy picture.
A North Korean Factory in Sinuiju
Our next destination was a soap factory where we could see the production line. As we entered the factory grounds agitprop posters stared at us from all around. Square-jawed soldiers peered out, flanked by menacing looking missiles. Another displayed Kim-Jong-Il on a visit to the factory.
Inside we witnessed the soap being made into blocks and coming off the production line. Workers dressed in blue busied themselves around the machines. We were then guided to a room displaying some of the finished products made at the factory.
After the factory we were ushered back onto the bus and driven back into Sinuiju to visit a Kindergarten and watch a performance put on by the children. My guide gave me a piece of card with English translations of the titles. Inside the kindergarten were the usual murals you would expect in such a place, but many of them with a military theme and friendly bears shooting guns and talking on radio equipment. Very surreal!
We were led to a large auditorium and I was asked to sit at the front. The show started with two little girls, no older than five years old who introduced the proceedings. They were done up in traditional Korean dress and make up, giving them a doll like appearance. We then proceeded to watch an assortment of performances including music recitals and choreographed dances.
The level of skill these young children possessed was amazing. I later asked my guide how long it takes them to train and he said about a year. Looking at the face of the children I couldn’t help but wonder how strict the regime was for such youngsters. It would take teenagers years to get to the level they displayed. One of the teachers helping looked very stern indeed. I guessed she might be the Head Teacher but I wouldn’t want to mess with her!
After the performance and some photographs with the children I was about to put the translation into my bag as a nice keepsake but then froze suddenly, remembering what happened to the last person to take something insignificant without permission. I later asked my guide if I could keep it and he chuckled and said “of course”, however I couldn’t bring myself to put it in my bag. I put it in the seat pocket of the bus and decided if it was still there after we had crossed the border, only then would I recover it. You may think this seems extreme and paranoid, but it’s difficult to describe the heightened sense of apprehension that never left me during my visit, and for very good reason.
Lunch on a tour of North Korea
It was by now after 1pm and time for lunch. We were driven back next to the customs post and entered what seemed to be a bus depot for the tourist board. Strangely the depot was manned by two sentry posts complete with young Korean female soldiers. I must admit they looked very striking in their drab olive uniforms complete with Kalashnikovs. The uniform looked like something from WWII. Heavy fabric greatcoats and cap.
We were taken into a building opposite the buses and went upstairs to a tabled room. It looked very similar to most Chinese restaurant rooms with the large spinning tables so you can take something and then spin it round to get at another dish. A nice spread was laid out for us including rice meat, fish, vegetables, tofu and salad. I helped myself to some of everything and it all tasted good. I especially enjoyed Korea’s national dish, Kimchi (spicy cabbage). All of this was washed down with a palatable North Korean beer.
My guide was impressed with my chopstick skills as a knife and fork had been provided for me, the only non-Asian on the tour (and possibly in the entire country). He kept questioning me about my time in China and I was worried that he doubted me due to my lack of Chinese. I carefully considered every answer before I spoke knowing that the slightest slip could have extremely regrettable consequences. Again, paranoia, but sometimes it pays to be paranoid and talking to a government minder in one of the most closed and restrictive countries on earth was one of those times. Nevertheless, and with the help of a glass of beer I started to relax a little and found the lunch quite enjoyable. The waitresses took to a small stage and sang for us.
After lunch we were directed to a small shop in the downstairs section of the building that had a few souvenirs for sale. I bought a Korean doll for my girlfriend and two bottles of North Korean Ginseng wine and a few other little nick-knacks.
Sinuiju History Museum
Next stop was the Sinuiju history museum and as the tour went ahead I got my own private tour with my guide. The museum, which had to be unlocked especially for our visit, was more impressive than I thought it would be. It charted Korea’s history (North and South) and had many interesting exhibits including recreations of burial chambers, stone and bronze age archaeological finds and more recent exhibits including traditional clothing and instruments. I was impressed, and my guide was able to give good explanations of everything making it a highlight for me.
Our last stop of the day was a local park where we were told we could relax while we waited for the border post to re-open. It was almost 4pm by now and we had half an hour to sit, walk or just relax. I asked if I could take photos and was told it was ok. I walked around the small park and noted the people out dancing and playing musical instruments which is also a common sight in China. I must have wandered off a little too far as soon my guide came rushing over to bring me back to the main group. I bought a beer from the small café in the park and sat down to relax for a few moments. I was called over to join a table with some Chinese tourists and chatted as best we could with the language barrier.
Leaving North Korea
We were told to get back on the bus and we drove back to the bus depot/restaurant/shop. The photos and film were ready for collection and I bought three pictures and the DVD. At $30 it wasn’t cheap but worth it for the mementos. There was a bit of waiting around and it was now that my mind went into overdrive. Getting in was easy, it was the getting out that concerned me and I could feel myself sweating. Before leaving I had received a few messages from friends and family urging me not to go and this played on my mind. Due to the current political climate with North Korea and the rest of the world it was not out of the question that they would want to keep me back as some sort of bargaining chip and this worried me a great deal.
We were told to get back on the bus and our cameras were again collected. After driving to the border post, our bags were scanned but we were not searched personally. Two stern border guards told us to open our passports. These moments are always tense even if you have nothing to hide and it seemed like an eternity before they were happy that no one had stowed on board our bus in a foolhardy bid for freedom. The bus started and I breathed a sigh of relief as we made our way over the bridge back to China.
On the other side the bus was stopped before the Chinese border and we idled for 10 minutes or so in no-mans-land. Again this got my heart racing. Why the stop? Were we about to reverse and go back to the DPRK? We were above Chinese land so I didn’t think the Korean’s could come over this side without sparking an international incident! Eventually we were on our way again and drove the two-minute journey to Chinese customs.
Getting back into China was a lot more hassle free than leaving, namely because the same official from the morning was still there so I would not have to explain everything again. It took about half an hour to pass through and then I was back on the street in the middle of Dandong. By now the adrenaline had really kicked in and I felt amazing. Maybe it’s not much of an accomplishment, but I felt like I had achieved something and gone somewhere where few dare to go. I felt myself walking with a slight swagger. Country number 41, and not just any country!
How to Travel to North Korea
Getting there: The only way to visit the DPRK is through a tour. Companies such as Young Pioneer Tours can arrange North Korea tours but they don’t come cheap as you must have a minder with you at all times.
VISAs: The tour company you book with will apply for your VISA and it is relatively easy for them to obtain this on your behalf. Applications are rarely refused.
Money: It is illegal to bring North Korean currency into or out of the country. The Chinese Yuan (RMB) is accepted at any of the places it is possible to spend money.
Conduct in the DPRK: It is imperative that you show respect at all times for the political system, ruling party and Korean people. If you are unable to do this then DO NOT COME to North Korea. Misbehavior of any kind can put you and your guide in real danger so keep any negative thoughts to yourself until you are out of the county. Behave with dignity and respect and you will face no problems and be welcomed as a tourist.