Difference between revisions of "North Korea"
Revision as of 15:59, 29 December 2011
North Korea (officially Democratic People's Republic of Korea or DPRK)  is a country in East Asia. It occupies the northern half of the Korean Peninsula that lies between Korea Bay and the East Sea, also called the Sea of Japan. It borders China to the north, Russia to the northeast and South Korea to the south.
Tourist travel to North Korea is only possible as part of a guided tour. Independent travel is not permitted. If you are not prepared to accept limitations on your movements and behavior, you should not travel to the DPRK at the present time.
Prehistory and founding of a nation
Archeological finds of prehistoric toolmaking on the Korean Peninsula date back to 70,000 BC, and the first pottery is found around 8000 BC. Comb-pattern pottery culture peaked around 3500-2000 BC.
According to legend, Korea's history begins with the founding of Gojoseon (also called Ancient Chosun) by the Dangun in 2333 BC. however, historians believe the kingdom actually dates back to around 7th-4th century BC. China's Han Dynasty brought down the Gojoseon Kingdom and divided the land into four commandaries, but this did not last long. Natives of the peninsula and Manchuria soon reclaimed the territory, leading to the Three Kingdoms, Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje. The Goguryeo Kingdom (or Koguryo) ruled the entire area of modern North Korea, as well as parts of Manchuria and the northern parts of modern South Korea. Buddhist and Confucian teachings were prominent in the Goguryeo Kingdom, which adopted Buddhism as the state religion in 372.
The Goguryeo had poor relations with its neighbors, especially the Chinese Sui Dynasty. They were able to fend off an invasion by the Sui, which contributed to the rise of the Tang Dynasty in China. With the change of dynasty however, did not come a change in attitude towards Goguryeo and the opportunistic Silla took advantage. In contrast to the Goguryeo, the Silla had been building positive relations with the Sui by sending Confucian scholars and Buddhist missionaries to learn from them, so once the Tang rose to power, they were able to align themselves with the Tang Dynasty to overthrow the Goguryeo, as well as the Baekje. The Tang attempted to annex the newly conquered territories as part China, but the Silla fought and eventually gained control of the territories in 676, uniting the Korean Peninsula under one rule.
Buddhist learning was spread to the masses during this time and the former Baekje and Goguryeo leaders were treated well. The kingdom saw relative peace until the 8th and 9th centuries when clan leaders led uprisings and toppled the Silla, establishing the Goryeo Dynasty from which the name "Korea" was derived by Westerners. During this period, the nation suffered Mongol invasions, which led to unrest and the eventual establishment of the Joseon Dynasty in 1389.
The Joseon Dynasty was one of the longest running dynasties in the world, ruling from 1389 until 1910. King Sejong the Great's rule was especially celebrated, as he helped create the Korean script, choson'gul, which allowed even the commoners to become literate. He also expanded the nation's military power to drive out Japanese pirates and northern nomads and regain territories that had been lost. Korean culture developed rapidly and flourished during the Joseon Dynasty until it was attacked by the Japanese in the 16th century and then attacked twice by China, which resulted in severed relations with Japan and Korea becoming a Chinese tributary state. In spite of its losses, the nation experienced about 200 years of peace, and its isolationist policies allowed it to further develop a uniquely Korean culture and identity.
Rapid modernization stirred by the Second Industrial Revolution created tension between China and Japan as they felt the pressures of Western expansionism, each wanting to extend their influence over Korea. This eventually led to the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, which took place on the Korean Peninsula, devastating the Joseon. Then in 1905, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, making Korea a protectorate until they were finally able to annex Korea in 1910.
Japanese occupation and a divided Korea
The Japanese exercised rule of the peninsula until their defeat in WWII in 1945. Japan was forced to surrender the territory and the Allied Powers divided the nation at the 38th Parallel, with the Soviet Union occupying the northern half and the United States occupying the southern half. The divide was supposed to be temporary however the political power struggle between the two nations to gain influence over the unified Korea led each to establish governments within their newly created territories. North Korea was established as its own nation in 1948, following the Soviet Communist model, with Kim Il-Sung as its leader.
Conflicts between the North and South were common in the early years and the tension came to a head in 1950 when North Korea launched an invasion of South Korea, starting the Korean War. The Soviet Union and China fought alongside the North against the South backed by the United States and UN. The UN forces were able to drive North Korea all the way up near the Chinese border, but when the Chinese sent their army, the UN forces were driven back south. The war finally resulted in the signing of an armistice in 1953, maintaining the original borders set prior to the war. Because no treaty has been signed since the armistice, the nations are officially still at war.
Modern North Korea
With the nation in shambles after the war, Kim Il-Sung launched a campaign to unite the people by defaming the United States with Soviet support and purging the nation of dissidents and anyone thought to oppose him. He sided with China during the Sino-Soviet Split on Communist philosophy because he disliked Krushchev's reforms but began to praise the Soviet Union once again when China underwent its Cultural Revolution, straining relations with both neighbors. Consequently, he developed his own ideology, Juche (self-reliance), to create the sort of Communism he wanted for his nation. Throughout his life he added to and clarified the Juche ideology in order to justify his governing decisions.
The Korean War not only divided the people, but it also divided the labor force. When the peninsula was united, North Korea had most of the nation's industries while South Korea was the agricultural center. This divide allowed North Korea to initially bounce back faster than the South in the rebuilding process. The Soviet Union then funded agricultural efforts in the North, in accordance with the Communist model. This system began to unravel in the late 1970s and 1980s as the Soviet system began to falter. With the end of Soviet aid in 1991 there was no way to continue to support the agricultural systems need for fuel, fertilizer and equipment. After so many years of government mismanagement, and the bad timing of severe flooding, the North's agricultural system collapsed in the mid-1990s leading to widespread famine and death for countless North Koreans. The death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994 took place while the nation tried to deal with the crisis, slowing government response as the new leader Kim Jong-Il took his father's position.
The North finally allowed international relief agencies to assist and the worst aspects of the famine were contained. However the DPRK continues to rely heavily on international food aid to feed its population while at the same time continuing to expend resources on its "songun", or "military first" policy, which Kim Jong-Il introduced and used in conjunction with his father's Juche ideology (which he "interpreted").
Today the DPRK maintains an army of about 1 million men, most stationed within a few miles of the DMZ which divides the two Koreas. North Korea's long-range missile development and research into nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and massive conventional armed forces are of major concern to the international community. In December 2002, Kim Jong-Il reneged on a 1994 "Agreed Framework" signed by his father which required the shut down of its nuclear reactors, expelling UN monitors and further raising fears that the nation would produce nuclear weapons. Missile testing was conducted in 1998, 2006, and most recently April 2009. In October 2006 North Korea announced that it had conducted its first nuclear test. These actions have led to UN and other international sanctions.
Current negotiations, most notably the "Six-Party Talks" involving China, Russia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and the United States, are aimed at bringing about an end to the DPRK nuclear weapons program, in hopes that a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War may finally be agreed upon, paving the way for the opening of diplomatic ties between North Korea and the United States. Unfortunately, in March 2010, a South Korean ship was sunk near the 38th parallel, increasing tensions between North and South Korea. Although North Korea claims not to have attacked the ship, the blame has largely been placed on North Korea.
The death of Kim Jong-Il on December 17, 2011 has created many feelings of uncertainty as the world waits to see how the transfer of power will affect the nation.
In North Korea, the vast majority of people are Korean. There are also a few hundred foreigners to be found, however, most of them are fellow tourists. Because of the lack of immigration, North Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous nations on earth.
The climate is generally classed as continental, with rainfall concentrated in summer. Summer months are warm, but winter temperatures can fall as low as -30 degrees C. Late spring droughts are often followed by severe flooding. There are occasional typhoons during the early Autumn.
Mostly hills and mountains separated by deep, narrow valleys; coastal plains wide in west, discontinuous in east. Mountainous interior is isolated and sparsely populated.
Visiting North Korea can be challenging, and you will not have the freedom to explore the country without a North Korean escort, either as part of a group or individual tour.
North Korea can only be visited by an organized tour, but this can be a large group or a party of one. Prices start from around $1000/€700 for a 5-day group tour including accommodation, meals and transport from Beijing, but can go up considerably if you want to travel around the country or "independently" (as your own one-person escorted group). Tour operators/travel agencies that organize their own tours to North Korea include:
Most people travelling to North Korea will travel through Beijing and you will probably pick up your visa from there (some agents arrange their visas elsewhere beforehand though). The North Korean consulate building is separate from the main embassy building at Ritan Lu, and can be found round the corner at Fangcaodi Xijie. It is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9:30AM-11:30AM and 2PM-5:30PM, and on all other days except Sundays from 9:30AM-11:30AM. Bring your travel permission, US$45 and two passport photos.
Your guides will take your passport and keep it during your stay in North Korea, or at least for the first couple of days of your tour, for "security reasons" (or simply because your entry and exit dates must be registered - the black stamps on the back of your visa or passport). Make sure your passport looks decent and doesn't differ from the most common passports from your country.
Visa-free entry from South Korea
There is one place in North Korea that can be visited without needing any kind of North Korean visa:
Until 2009, visa-free (or, rather, special group visa) tours were possible to two other places in North Korea — however, at time of writing, these have been suspended until further notice.
All three locations are (were) accessible to Americans, South Koreans, and most other nationalities, although a different list of restricted nationalities applies for Panmunjom (see article).
Hyundai Asan was planning to open up tours to Paektusan (Baekdusan), called Changbaishan on the Chinese side of the border, involving a charter flight from Seoul to Samjiyeon near Mt. Paektu, with the rest of the tour by bus and on foot. These never materialized though, so for time being, your options are to visit the Chinese side of the mountain (no special permits required) or add it as an expensive add-on to a standard North Korea tour.
North Korea's sole airline, Air Koryo , currently has scheduled flights from Beijing, which depart at 11:30AM every Tuesday and Saturday, and return from Pyongyang at 9AM on the same days. Air Koryo also flies to and from Shenyang every Wednesday and Saturday, and to Vladivostok every Tuesday morning.
Air Koryo is the only 1-star (worst) airline on Skytrax's list  and has been banned in the EU due to concerns over safety in the past, though is now allowed to fly in to EU territory again. To date, Air Koryo has only had one incident resulting in death, this was in Africa in 1983. The Air Koryo fleet consists largely of Soviet-made aircraft built between 1965 and 1990, plus the pride of their fleet, a 2008 Tupolev Tu-204, which now usually handles the core Beijing–Pyongyang route. Otherwise, you'll most likely end up on one of their four Ilyushin IL-62-Ms (1979-1988 vintage), but Air Koryo also flies Tu-154s dating back to the seventies and Tu-134s from 1983.
The only other airline with scheduled service to North Korea is Air China, which flies three times weekly from Beijing to Pyongyang. Neither Aeroflot nor China Southern continue to fly to North Korea. Air China is recommended above Air Koryo due to its far more modern and safe fleet.
Train K27/K28 connect Pyongyang to Beijing in China via Tianjin, Tangshan, Beidaihe, Shanhaiguan, Jinzhou, Shenyang, Benxi, Fenghuangcheng, Dandong and Shinuiju four times a week. There is only one class on the international train between Beijing and Pyongyang: soft sleeper. It can be booked at the station in Beijing, but reservations must be made several days in advance. Your tour agency will usually do this for you, unless you are travelling on work purposes. It has been increasingly difficult to book space on the Beijing–Pyongyang route, so confirm your tickets well in advance.
Once a week train K27/K28 also conveys direct sleeping cars from Moscow via China to Pyongyang and vice versa. The route is Moscow - Novosibirsk - Irkutsk - Chita - Harbin - Shenyang - Dandong - Shinuiju - Pyongyang. Departure from Moscow is every Friday evening, arrival at Pyongyang is one week later on Friday evening. Departure from Pyongyang is Saturday morning, arrival at Moscow is Friday afternoon.
There is also a direct rail link into Russia, crossing the North Korean/Russian border at Tumangan/Khasan. This route is served by a direct sleeping car Moscow - Pyongyang and vice versa and runs twice monthly (11th and 25th from Moscow), arriving Pyongyang 9 days later. However, since the mid-nineties this has not been an officially permitted route for tourists, and KITC refuses to organize trips using this route; two Western tourists have been successful in taking this train into North Korea, but report that further trips on this route would unlikely be successful.
There is an unscheduled cargo-passenger ship between Wonsan and Niigata, Japan. Only available for use by some Japanese and North Korean nationals, the boat service has been suspended indefinitely due to North Korea's reported nuclear testing; Japan has banned all North Korean ships from entering Japanese ports, and has banned North Koreans from entering the country. Be careful about getting too close to the North Korean border in a boat; many South Korean fishermen are still waiting to leave North Korea.
Besides the unscheduled ferry there is also a cruise ship that operates between the coast of Northeastern China, and Mt. Kumgang. Joint operated by China and North Korea the cruise line uses a 40 year old ship. The cruise trip is 22 hours long at each leg, and is 44 hours long in total, but as a person outside of China you may not be allowed to go on the cruise to Mt. Kumgang.
A bus is theoretically available from Dandong, China, across the Yalu River to Sinuiju. It's run by the "Dandong China Travel Company" but is only open to Chinese citizens at present.
All your transport needs will be dealt with by your tour company. Most of the time this means buses, although tour groups visiting remote sites (eg. Paekdusan, Mount Chilbo) occasionally use chartered flights by Air Koryo. Wandering around on your own is not allowed, and you are required to have a guide to escort you at all times.
A carefully stage-managed one-station ride on the P'yŏngyang metro  is included on the itinerary of most trips to Pyongyang, but use of any other form of local public transport is generally impossible.
The official language is Korean. Note that North Koreans are quite picky about referring to Korean as Choseonmal, not hangukmal. Unlike South Korea, North Korea has abolished Chinese hanja characters and uses hangeul characters, known as Choseongul, exclusively.
Your guides will speak fairly decent and understandable English (some better than others) and will translate something if you wish. Other guides have the ability to speak both Korean and either Mandarin, German, Russian, Japanese, or Spanish, depending on where you come from.
Although locals may be discouraged from speaking with foreigners due to government propaganda that implies foreigners are generally up to no good, and language can prove to be an additional barrier, there is no formal law preventing citizens of the DPRK from interacting with tourists. A visit to the DPRK around their holidays may give you more of a chance to interact with the locals.
In 2002 Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) were abolished and along with them went all the different coloured currencies. Now there is just the standard North Korean won, which officially trades at approximately 95 per 1USD or 131 per 1 euro (August 2011). Black market rates (especially in far northern Korea, near the Chinese border) may easily be 20 times the official rate, but importing or exporting Korean won is strictly forbidden. Conversely, were you to sneak out some won, they are practically worthless outside the country, but make unique souvenirs.
In reality, foreigners are expected to use Euros or as an alternative Chinese RMB, US Dollars, or Japanese Yen. Getting the local money is possible, but it is difficult to use as many shops want foreign currency. Currency handling is often bizarre, with a frequent lack of change and a number of rule-of-thumb conversions leading to highly unorthodox transactions. So be sure to bring lots of small change. On the other hand, since you will already have paid in advance for your hotel, transportation, and meals, your only expenses will be bottled water, souvenirs, snacks, drinks at the bars, laundry at the hotel (which is as expensive as in Europe), and tips for your guides.
In any case, the only shops you will be likely allowed to visit are the state-run souvenir shops at your hotel and at the various tourist attractions. It is generally impossible to visit a real local shop which serves the local population, though you might get lucky asking your guide if he/she trusts you enough.
There are numerous hard-currency only souvenir shops at tourist sites. Interesting souvenirs include propaganda books and videos, postcards and postage stamps. At some tourist sites (such as King Kongmin's tomb), you can purchase freshly finished paintings with your name and the artist's name at the bottom. And if you are very lucky you might be able to get hold of some socialist realism paintings, although customs officials are not keen on these things going out of the country, so do beware.
On the tour to Kaesong tourists are warned not to purchase anything that could be construed as North Korean propaganda including any images of North Korean leaders such as stamps or postcards. No biographies or books are permitted back into South Korea. This is a South Korean restriction. It does not apply to border crossings with China. If you are leaving the country via flight to Beijing or train via Dandong you should encounter no problems bringing home any North Korean merchandise for your own personal enjoyment.
You are, however, allowed to buy post cards and send them to yourself in any country except South Korea which apparently will not deliver them.
Some excellent paintings on silk or linen were available in Kaesong directly from the artist. Haggling for price is not permitted but the prices are very low.
You will pay for most things up-front as part of your tour. Most sights have a shop associated with them where you can buy bottled water, souvenirs and snacks. These are reasonably priced. In August 2007, large bottles of local beer cost US$2 at the hotel bars in Pyongyang. If you haven't planned on spending money on gambling at the casino at Yanggakdo Hotel, €200 for one week should be enough to cover your costs of water, drinks at the bars, souvenirs and tips for the guides.
Despite severe food shortages in North Korea which have left millions dead, you will not have any problems getting food. Your guide will order all your food for you, and you will eat in hard-currency only restaurants. Vegetarians, and people with food allergies/dislikes of common foods such as seafood or eggs will need to make arrangements in advance. A visit to a "real" local restaurant may be possible; enquire with your guide. Note that although your food is better than what the majority of the population eats, it's still not necessarily great. Shortages combined with the typical use of Korean cooking styles mean that there is a relatively limited variety of food, which can get wearying on tours of more than a few days.
There are a few western food options now in Pyongyang and these restaurants can usually be visited if arranged with the guides in advance. They will usually require additional payment though unless you have discussed this already with your tour operator as the costs are not included in the per diem fee charged by the Korean Travel Company. There are 2 Italian restaurants (one on Kwangbok Street and one near the USS Pueblo) and 2 burger restaurants (the most accessible is in the Youth Hotel). Both are inexpensive and do inject some flavour into the palate - especially on long tours!
The local speciality is insam-ju, Korean vodka infused with ginseng roots. Locally made Taedonggang beer is very good--the brewery was purchased from Ushers in the UK and physically moved to Pyongyang--and some of the sojus are not bad either. Local alcohol is inexpensive; a 650mL bottle of beer is 0.5 euro. Imported beers, such as Heineken, are also available at similar prices. However do not get drunk and cause trouble. Toe the line and show respect, or you and your guide will face serious penalties.
When it comes to water, stick to bottled water, as with other under-developed countries, the water is not always properly treated.
This is likely to be your principal expense while in North Korea. You may only stay at "designated tourist hotels", for which you will need to pay in hard currency. There may be discounts if you ask for lower class accommodation, if you are travelling as part of a group, or if it is low season (November – March). Costs for your tour, which will include accommodation, all sightseeing activities and meals, will range from US$70 to US$200 a day, depending on these factors.
Usually you pay for all your meals, hotel and Beijing–Pyeongyang journey to your tour operator before you leave. One week in high season at a four-star hotel will then cost something between €1300 and €1600, depending on your tour operator, but might get as low as €800 for one week.
If you are interested in teaching in North Korea, you may find success by contacting the North Korean UN Mission in New York, or contacting a North Korean university directly. Your odds of success are, however, quite low: there is only a small team of 4 English Language Instructors dealing with teaching and teacher training, with a Project Manager leading the team of three, placed in Kim Il Sung University, Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies and Kim Hyung Jik University of Education.
Crime levels are practically zero, at least to tourists on a strictly controlled tour. However, pickpockets are the least of your worries. The authorities are very touchy, and you need to watch what you say and how you say it. Just do what the guides do, praise every stop on your tour, and remember the rule, "If you have nothing good to say, don't say it at all." Also, the official policy is that you are not to wander around on your own. You are expected to get permission and/or have a guide accompany you if you are leaving your hotel on your own. This will vary depending on what hotel you are in. The Yanggakdo Hotel is on an island in the middle of the Taedong River in Pyongyang. Therefore you can walk around the area a little more freely than if you are at the Koryo Hotel right in the center of town. You should always be friendly and courteous to your guides and driver who will normally reciprocate by trusting you more and giving you more freedom. For taking photographs, one needs to exercise restraint, caution and common sense. If you appear to be looking for negative images of North Korea, the guides will not be happy and will tell you to delete any questionable images. In particular, you are not to take photos of anything military, including personnel, or anything showing the DPRK in a bad light. Try to recognize a good photo opportunity, raise your camera at a reasonable speed, compose and take the picture, and lower the camera at a reasonable speed. Try not to spend overly long times composing a perfect masterpiece, or make fast, or furtive motions. This will only call attention to yourself and the image you are trying to take and can result, whether justified or not, in your being told to delete the image.
Digital cameras are commonly inspected when leaving the country. A simple workaround is to leave a memory card with innocuous snaps in the camera and file away any cards with ideologically dubious content.
Drug trafficking can be punishable by death in North Korea, even any consumption of narcotics in North Korea can be fatal.
Drinking water is untreated and there are reports of foreigners being hospitalized in the DPRK after drinking the water, so sticking to bottled water is highly recommended. Medical facilities are clean, but outdated and often lacking in basic supplies, and if you fall ill you might be better off going to China for medical treatment. Contact your embassy or consulate in North Korea (if your country has one) for assistance. US citizens may contact the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang for advice if needed.
It is important to emphasize that the government of the DPRK -- in particular the leaders Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un -- are, at least publically, very highly revered in North Korean culture. While slavish devotion is not expected from tourists, especially given that the Juche philosophy of the DPRK is specifically aimed at the Korean people only and is not applicable to foreigners, insulting them in any way is highly offensive and illegal, and will get you and (much more so) your guides into trouble. It is not worth inadvertently threatening their lives by insulting their leaders. To prepare yourself to understanding the North Korean Government mindset; you may want to read George Orwell's classic 1984. Think of the North Korean Government as Big Brother watching you.
Bringing gifts like cigarettes or scotch for the men, both guides and the driver, and chocolate or skin cream for female guides, is a nice gesture. Please be respectful toward your guides, especially since North Korean guides are known to occasionally take tourists whom they trust well enough to see other places and events in North Korea that they wouldn't ordinarily go to.
Most, if not all, tour groups to the DPRK are asked to solemnly bow and lay flowers on one or two occasions in front of statues of Kim Il Sung when visiting monuments of national importance. If you're not prepared to do this, do not even try to enter North Korea. Just be sure you always act in a respectful manner around images of the two leaders. This includes taking respectful photos of any image of them. When photographing statues, especially Mansudae, be sure to get the entire statue in the photo.
Any trouble you cause as a tourist will likely be blamed on your tour guide's inability to control you, and he or she will bear the brunt of the penalties. Additionally, future tourists will be allowed less freedom and will face increased restriction on where they can visit and what they can photograph.
Other than your tour guide, you will likely not meet anyone else in your trip who speaks English; a few Korean words and phrases are a nice internationalist gesture.
Despite the sharp political differences, North and South Koreans generally share a common culture; the various tips in the South Korea article under respect (such as using two hands to pour drinks) will also help here.
You will not be allowed to bring a mobile phone from outside the country into North Korea.
A 3G mobile phone network (Koryolink) was introduced in Pyongyang in 2008 and now covers the 42 largest cities. It is widely used by locals who can afford it and by long-staying foreigners who file an application. SIM cards and phones can be purchased at the International Communication Center.
International calling is generally possible from hotels, though it is expensive.
Internet facilities are limited, as few locals have permission to use it. Most of the larger hotels have internet access available, but this needs to be applied for some days in advance. Advise your tour operator or inviting party of your requirements well ahead of time so that access permission can be arranged. There are no public internet cafes or business centers with web access in the hotels. Also note that even if you have internet access, your traffic may be monitored, so be careful of what you type in your email, and be aware that access to many websites that people outside of North Korea normally use is blocked by a firewall.