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Author Topic: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.  (Read 1391 times)

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Offline Manny

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My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« on: November 10, 2019, 08:31:59 AM »
Sometime ago we had a topic discussing travel to North Korea which you can find >>here<<.

I recently decided to go and visit the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) after mulling it over for some time (You'll find I use 'North Korea' and 'DPRK' interchangeably throughout my text).

The above linked topic discusses the various routes and companies one can use to visit North Korea, so I won't rehash that here. I'll give my recommendation of agent at the end. One cannot simply turn up as a tourist, one must book through an approved travel company/agent and the booking you make will be typically be all inclusive of travel in and out, hotel/s and several meals a day. It will also include the company of at least one guide at all times during your visit.

I chose the option of flying on Air Koryo, the DPRK's national airline, from Beijing to Pyongyang. As I have a Chinese multi entry business visa anyway, being in China was no problem and required no further expense or documents other than turning up. Those just passing through can get a 144 hour transit visa (info on that >>here<<). I was able to spend a couple of days beforehand in Beijing so got to visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

The travel company you use will arrange your North Korean visa. The North Korean visa isn’t attached into your passport as a standard visa, it comes as a separate card like this.



I suppose this prevents countries that are hostile to the DPRK - like the USA - creating problems for people who may wish to visit the USA afterwards for example. Also I gather the US government has banned its citizens from visiting the DPRK, so for those from the US that want to go there, there will be no trace in their passport of the visit.

The Air Koryo plane was a perfectly normal plane in decent condition. The air hostesses were my first introduction to the DPRK. A cynic may suggest that they were all chosen because they were rather easy on the eye. Noteworthy were their very nice well-tailored uniforms, reminiscent of photographs I’ve seen of American air hostesses from the 50s and 60s. Google will yield many images if you are interested.

Fellow travellers included some tourists, mainly Chinese and Russian, Chinese people who looked to be on business, and maybe 40% of North Koreans (easily identifiable by their party badges). You know how the media tells us that North Korean people are all unable to travel abroad? Not true. I eyeballed them using DPRK international passports at passport control with the RFID chip symbol on. Some people can travel in and out. I found out about that later in country.

So I arrived at Pyongyang airport. It is a perfectly standard clean and modern airport as you will find in any European city. Fill in the landing slip, answer a few questions about what money you are carrying, and if you have any publications, etc., and you're good to go. The customs tried to ask me a few questions about my iPad (which is allowed in), but his English wasn't up to it, and just as it was becoming tedious, a woman in a smart red suit appeared, introduced herself as one of my guides, dispatched the guard with a quick sentence, and out I trundled into the airport.

Group tours are the norm here, private tours can be arranged. I booked a group but lucked out as the group ended up being just three of us. So just three of us with two guides and a driver. This means I got to dig deep in conversation over the next six days and learn a lot.

So off in our minibus from the airport heading towards Pyongyang. It's late afternoon by now and its dusk.



You may have heard there are "no cars on the road", also not true.



There are fewer cars than in the west, that is true. But the way cars are owned differs - which I'll discuss later.

We are staying at the Hotel Koryo, Pyongyang's best hotel. It is delightfully 1980s in its decor. I loved it!





There is a chap on Youtube who has done a good video tour of it below.


In the evening we are fed in the hotel's famous revolving restaurant at the top of one of the towers. Nice to watch the city drift by as you eat. The food was quite agreeable and the local beer quite decent. Given a choice though, I prefer white wine. I assumed that may be unlikely in the DPRK, given what we read about shortages and sanctions. No harm in asking though. I was surprised to be asked if I wanted Italian or German wine, and soon after, a nice Italian Pinot Grigio arrived, an ice bucket appeared, and all was well. The wine was same money as in China, around £15-20 a bottle. I'll cover payments, currencies and purchases in another post.

Online andrewfi

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #1 on: November 10, 2019, 08:48:05 AM »
Glad you got back safe and sound. Did you manage to get bring back any posters? ;)
Looking forward to the next parts of your travelogue.
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Offline Manny

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #2 on: November 10, 2019, 08:56:03 AM »
Did you manage to get bring back any posters? ;)

I sure did (and lots of other stuff too), but I bought one rather than pilfering it as the American chap did.


Offline Manny

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #3 on: November 10, 2019, 09:14:33 AM »
About money and spending.

In general terms, foreigners are not allowed to use the North Korean Won.



The only places foreigners can use them is the The Kwangbok Department Store and Supermarket and a market over in Rason. I got mine in the Kwangbok store.

In the Kwangbok store, you can ONLY use Korean Won to pay for your goods. This is because it is a local supermarket for local people. For this reason, there is a money exchange booth located within the supermarket.

The NK Won is pretty useless to foreigners outside that store. I used a few tipping guys who carried my cases in hotels, but in most circumstances, foreigners will use foreign currency for purchases.

Chinese RMB seems to be the most popular currency, followed by Euros and then US dollars. I am told you can also use Russian Roubles, Japanese Yen, Swiss Francs and British Pounds, but not everywhere.

Prices are typically quoted in Euros, and 50 RMB is the same as US$1 or €1. Notes should be in decent condition. Everything seems to cost €1/$1/10RMB or €5/$5/50RMB. Using a larger note like a €50 may mean you get your change in a mix of US dollars and Chinese RMB. I ended up with a pocket full of numerous currencies. You get used to it.

 

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #4 on: November 10, 2019, 10:31:52 AM »
Interesting read. look forward to the next instalments.

What other airline options are there to fly into Pyongyang?
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Offline Manny

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #5 on: November 10, 2019, 11:10:08 AM »
What other airline options are there to fly into Pyongyang?

I think you can go with one of the Chinese airlines, not sure if China Airlines, China Southern or China Eastern. But the other well-known route in is by train from Dandong in China. That is quite slow and the border control takes ages from what I read - maybe a ten hour experience in all from Dandong to Pyongyang. Routes by air from Russia are also available in, as options from Vladivostok exist. We have an old topic here: 'Safer than London': North Korea's claim to woo Russian tourists

The Russian facing North Korean tourism site is >>here<<.

Worth digging out online is the three part series "Michael Palin In North Korea" which is quite informative and lacks the usual western media hysteria and fake news. 

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #6 on: November 10, 2019, 01:15:25 PM »

The cars we read about not being on the road are in ghost towns where people don't live. Satellites have caught traffic cops working intersections with no cars. Manny, were you able to go into that huge triangle looking building in your photos? If so, what did you see in there?

Offline Manny

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #7 on: November 10, 2019, 01:36:52 PM »
The huge triangle building is the Ryu-Gyong Hotel - a hotel that was never finished. I was told it had a structural issue and that is why it was never finished. 

The Wiki page on it is >>here<<.

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #8 on: November 10, 2019, 01:59:17 PM »
To understand something about the country through western eyes, and understand much of what comes later, one needs to understand the politics a little bit.

Kim Il-sung - the first leader of NK.
Kim Jong-il - the second leader of NK, son of Kim Il Sung.
Kim Jong-un - the current leader of NK, and son of Kim Jong-il.

The statues and imagery that are everywhere feature Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. One isnt immortalised in statues and portraits until after one's death. Why there is little imagery of Kim Jong-un. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il have the respect of the people as they got out - and kept out - the US Imperialist Aggressors, which is how the US is commonly referred to.
 
As we know, North Korea is regarded as a Communist country, or perhaps we may refer to it as Socialism (two sides of the same coin anyway). The North Koreans refer to their politics as Juche. A political ideology developed by Kim Il Sung and a variance of Marxism and Leninism. The Wikipedia version can be read >>here<<.

I prefer to read it straight from the horse's mouth, so at one of the official bookshops I bought a copy of these books (one in Russian for Wifey).



Entitled: Kim Jong Il on the Juche Idea.

For all intents and purposes we can regard the ideology is pure Socialism from what I can see. So essentially, nobody pays tax from what I can gather, and most things are free at the point of delivery for the people. For example, universities, healthcare etc., are free. Nobody pays mortgage or rent - housing is also free. No Council Tax, rates or other property taxes.

Food: the basics are also free. There is a system that we would understand is like a ration book system and people go to government shops and get their quotas of food (which includes alcohol). Anything above and beyond those things are regarded as luxury items and you would buy them yourself from your modest monthly salary, believed to be around US$200.

It is therefore inaccurate to simply say "these people earn $200 a month". It must be viewed in the context that they pay no tax, no rent, no mortgage, no basic food bills, so that $200 is for 'discretionary luxuries'.

I believe myself to be a pure Capitalist and a product of the Thatcher years. I generally find the very idea of Socialism abhorrent. Most of us in the west understand that Socialism and Communism historically doesn’t work across the world. Nobody is able to hold up a Socialist country as a great success. However, having visited North Korea, and discovered a country where there is virtually zero crime, zero litter on the streets, where everybody is fed (although western media claims otherwise), and morality seems to have frozen in about 1957, if it wasn’t for international sanctions this particular brand of socialism would probably work quite well. Not that I would probably choose to live in it personally.

As it was put to me during a conversation covering comparisons with the west, "litter and graffiti everywhere, unhealthy fast food, disrespect to families and elders, school shootings, immigrants stabbing people, street crime, rapes, pregnant unmarried teenagers, corruption, greed and avarice - should we admire and aspire to that?" - I had trouble replying that in a meaningful way.

The concept of personal property, ownership of valuable goods, simply doesn’t compute with the people. One owns one's own clothes, the contents of one's apartment, perhaps a bicycle and maybe a scooter, but anything beyond that doesn’t feature into personal private ownership. The cars you see are owned by companies, which are owned by the state. People manage those companies and get approval to drive those cars, but they don’t exactly own them in the sense that we own ours.

The fruits of labour or an enterprise that we would take personal profit from they put back into society for the good of the Korean people. Everything is done for the common good rather than personal gain. It's hard to summarise the thinking in a single forum post as I did the learning over a few days of conversation, and a few days learning doesn't make me an expert, but I think it important to grasp the basics to understand what you see there.

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #9 on: November 10, 2019, 02:03:28 PM »
Interesting read. I have not traveled near as much as I would like.
But Never thought of NK as one of my destinations.

I understand your reasons for visiting China, but why NK?

Waiting for more :)
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Online andrewfi

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #10 on: November 10, 2019, 04:06:07 PM »
North Korean cars, for example are akin to the company cars that many Britons drive, or want to acquire.

As cars are climbing in price, it seems that motor manufacturers and other stakeholders are looking at ways to socialise personal transport so that we no longer need individual ownership of cars. Tesla and Uber are obvious examples of first steps in that direction.

When I moved to Finland and spent time in Russia and Estonia, it was very noticeable how much less people spent on 'stuff'. It has changed over the past 20 years but still is different to the UK.

Not all cultures and societies place the same emphasis on the individual. A more socialised (not necessarily socialist) society does not need the same amount of personal 'stuff'. There's also less completion to acquire the stuff.

I recall that it was an early, but largely unstated, policy of the Putin government to encourage a move to a more individualist society. There were both political and economic benefits expected from that.

So, I can absolutely understand that Juche is a viable cultural choice, especially given the needs it satisfies and the external constraints upon the society.
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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #11 on: November 10, 2019, 05:05:47 PM »
As it was put to me during a conversation covering comparisons with the west, "litter and graffiti everywhere, unhealthy fast food, disrespect to families and elders, school shootings, immigrants stabbing people, street crime, rapes, pregnant unmarried teenagers, corruption, greed and avarice - should we admire and aspire to that?" - I had trouble replying that in a meaningful way.


With freedoms that come from a government that doesn't rule with an iron fist, some will take it for granted or abuse it. There's good and bad in every country. The best way to judge is to see how people vote with their feet. Bring down all walls, barriers, and restrictions of travel and will we see more people going in North Korean than leaving?

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #12 on: November 10, 2019, 05:21:28 PM »
The huge triangle building is the Ryu-Gyong Hotel - a hotel that was never finished. I was told it had a structural issue and that is why it was never finished. 

The Wiki page on it is >>here<<.

Construction started in 1987 and it's still not finished? Wiki said it cost 2% of N Korea's GDP to build and still over 30 years later, nobody is using it.

Offline Manny

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #13 on: November 10, 2019, 10:44:28 PM »
As it was put to me during a conversation covering comparisons with the west, "litter and graffiti everywhere, unhealthy fast food, disrespect to families and elders, school shootings, immigrants stabbing people, street crime, rapes, pregnant unmarried teenagers, corruption, greed and avarice - should we admire and aspire to that?" - I had trouble replying that in a meaningful way.


With freedoms that come from a government that doesn't rule with an iron fist, some will take it for granted or abuse it. There's good and bad in every country. The best way to judge is to see how people vote with their feet. Bring down all walls, barriers, and restrictions of travel and will we see more people going in North Korean than leaving?

Open your border with Mexico then.  :)

I understand your reasons for visiting China, but why NK?

Why not NK?

I wanted to see for myself what it was like. It's an easy side trip while in China.

People used to ask why I went to Russia. To most people, going to Russia is equally confusing.

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #14 on: November 11, 2019, 06:23:37 AM »
Having lived in South Korea and having Korean friends I can tell you that their views on NK are a bit different.  Some families haven't seen each other in decades due to the border.


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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #15 on: November 11, 2019, 09:43:14 AM »
I've been enjoying this thread Manny, thanks!

I think we all appreciate how difficult life is, in North Korea and most of us wouldn't swap it for what we have. However, there's many a home truth said in much of what you've posted, with the two main points being;

- It isn't half as bad as portrayed in the West, particularly the US
 
and

- There's a lot to be said about our societies these days and it was a valid question, that was put to you regarding what we face. Seen from the outside in an alien world, much of what we suffer is pretty unappetising.

In a humorous way, the whole concept of the motor industry over there, has meant that they've dodge a massive environmental bullet. In the west and much of Asia, urban traffic, the congestion and the pollution it brings, presents us with huge challenges. I honestly don't know how we can reverse it and we'll just get smashed with morality tax. Over there, problem solved!  ;D

Also, at any point did you feel uneasy or wary about having to withhold your normal behaviour? That's one thing we kinda get spoon fed on western TV.

Looking forward to the rest and of course, Billy and Guile's predictable reactions. USA USA USA  :gousa:

Offline Manny

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #16 on: November 11, 2019, 10:07:39 AM »
Also, at any point did you feel uneasy or wary about having to withhold your normal behaviour? That's one thing we kinda get spoon fed on western TV.

I didn't feel I had to modify my behaviour at all. I found the place to be very relaxed, the people calm, polite and pleasant. People imagine there is this sinister air or overtone going on, and there simply isnt.

It's actually a great place to chill out, and I'll tell you one reason why: no internet. We are used to picking up our phones a thousand times a day whether we are on the forum, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, doing emails, whatever. Then there is the constant beeping of Whatsapp, Skype, SMSs or whatever you use. In the DPRK you pick up your phone and it is silent and says 'no service' at the top of the screen.

I found that digital detox alarming on day one, but quite refreshing from day two. By day three I was loving the peace and quiet.

The hotel had TV with BBC, RT and other stations on......



I didn't switch it on once. When you are in such a quiet and serene place, who wants to hear Trump bellyaching about China or Corbyn hand wringing over Brexit on the news? You feel strangely isolated from day to day life back home and media, like you are on the moon or something.

It makes you talk to people more.

When I was at the DMZ, my phone briefly flicked over to a South Korean network, and exploded in beeps and message alerts. I was quite dismayed being bit by reality again.  :chuckle:

Not to worry though, it was brief, they must have some signal blocking stuff going on, as after that short 4G connection, I was showing network but nothing worked.

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #17 on: November 11, 2019, 10:24:17 AM »
I'm sure the BBC is a safe bet over there, with all the socialist/communist propaganda it pumps out  :laugh:

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #18 on: November 11, 2019, 11:09:35 AM »
The western media is fond of telling us that there are many restrictions on taking photographs and especially filming in North Korea.

I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Whilst it is true that there are restrictions on photographs of military installations, soldiers and the like, photographs of regular things and life in and around the streets there are no restrictions that I encountered. As long as you don’t seek to do anything that they consider disrespectful you will have no problems at all.

Below is a video composed of several short videos I took simply driving around the streets in different places (excuse the wind noise). I have segued them all together to create one video which is 4½ minutes long. The video starts off driving past Kim Il-sung Square which you will be familiar with if you’ve seen NK military parades and the like on the news.


I think that gives you a pretty good impression of day-to-day life around the streets. I found it remarkably similar looking to Russia.

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #19 on: November 11, 2019, 12:17:23 PM »
Many, most, all(?) countries have restrictions upon pics of military stuff to a greater or lesser degree. If that's about the only restriction it is hardly earth-shattering.

I wonder if restrictions are being eased as the country opens up to foreign visits and tourism?
Or the more cynical part of me wonders whether previous travelers making documentaries and travelogues were purposefully talking up restrictions with an eye to increasing the degree of perceived risk?
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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #20 on: November 11, 2019, 12:27:01 PM »
I wonder if restrictions are being eased as the country opens up to foreign visits and tourism?

I think so. Tourism is growing now. There's a ski resort, a Vegas type place, and a beach resort. I dont know the names of those places off the top of my head but anyone interested should follow >>this girl on Instagram<< as she is a tour guide there and she is a mine of information.

The DPRK has hung out the "open" sign in my view. The DPRK wants tourism. The DPRK also wants to do business.

Or the more cynical part of me wonders whether previous travelers making documentaries and travelogues were purposefully talking up restrictions with an eye to increasing the degree of perceived risk?

I agree with that too. The Michael Palin documentary flew in the face of everything I'd seen prior. Estonia in the late 90s was more risky than the DPRK today in my view.

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #21 on: November 11, 2019, 01:02:11 PM »
A few notes about the internet in North Korea:

The common version that we hear in the west is that the internet simply doesn’t exist and/or isn’t allowed. That isn’t quite accurate.

For sure, the average person in the street has little option to access the internet. I'd suggest they also have little desire or knowledge of it. If you imagine how we all were in the 1980s, we don’t miss what we never had. When the internet was introduced, many of us didn't see what it might be able to offer us and so wasn't interested.

Some people in the DPRK have an email address and internet access. If you can demonstrate that you need it for your work, it is available - subject to approval. Many people who run businesses, those in responsible positions in universities and similar and people like lawyers have internet access and email.

If you are a foreigner spending some time there you can get a SIM card that is internet enabled from KoryoLink. Set up costs €250 and data charges are quite high but it is early days. As tourism grows, that will improve.

There are a couple of hotels where the internet is available via an ethernet cable for foreigners. Other hotels offer a communications suite where are you can send emails and do other things.

Pyongyang airport in the departures lounge has wifi available for foreigners at quite a modest price. You buy a voucher from an office for something like €2 IIRC, and then log on to the nearby coffee shop wifi with the code they give you.

Local people have access to an intranet (Kwangmyong). This gives them access to various local channels and information portals. From what I saw of it, it reminded me of the very early days of the internet in the mid to late 90s when a AOL offered you a limited amount of channels for information. You'd click "weather" or "news" or whatever.

My advice would be dont bother chasing an internet connection in North Korea, and paying a lot for it, unless its very urgent. Just enjoy the digital detox that no internet offers you. Let your brain rewire itself as you learn to stop checking your phone, and you again start to have conversations with people rather than prodding a screen. It's cathartic.

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #22 on: November 11, 2019, 02:55:25 PM »
Interesting video, a few things stand out.
It looks very quiet for size of what looked like downtown.
Doesn't look busy?

Not many cars on the road, the majority in your videos
seem to be taxis or buses, a few looked quite official.
then maybe 3-5 private cars. Would make you believe only the rich
have a car, IE: connected.

It looks quite clean. Not sure about holiday destination.
I guess if peace and quiet is your goal, maybe the spot :)

Ironically when I travel, I use the internet for maps and locations.
not much else, I do what I have to business wise once maybe twice
a day and as quickly as possible.

I would not do well on vacation as I like to wonder, being forced to have a guide
would not be enjoyable for me. At least at this stage of my life, maybe that will change with time.
There is nothing permanent except change.

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Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #23 on: November 11, 2019, 03:19:50 PM »
Would make you believe only the rich
have a car, IE: connected.

I photographed this Mercedes and asked the questions about car ownership.



Cars are generally not privately owned. Car ownership is done via companies and organisations. Rather like company cars as Andrew mentioned upthread.


being forced to have a guide would not be enjoyable for me.

The two guides I had were very bright, chatty, university-educated girls with excellent English, they answered my constant questions [over six days] very well and in great detail. They took all the pain out of the trip. They were also extremely well organised. I did so much in six days my head was spinning. They also engaged with me and debated me on politics and our two societies. We had some very interesting conversations. I learned an obscure board game from them, sang karaoke with them and really enjoyed the time I spent with them. I think if you met the two guides I had, you'd have no complaints at all.

I use a couple of women in China as and when needed who do any translation/interpretation as needed, stuff like my bullet train tickets, item sourcing, help with shopping, changing money/bank stuff, bookings, local bureaucracy, etc. It saves shed loads of time, angst and money. The guides in NK do the same thing. You'd never do a fraction of the stuff I've done in the same time without them and their local knowledge. They are a benefit not a hindrance.

Offline Omega1982

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  • Trips: 5-10
Re: My Visit to North Korea. A Look Inside the DPRK.
« Reply #24 on: November 11, 2019, 06:37:23 PM »
Are the guides single? 

So how were the women? 

Do you think there will ever be a bride industry? 

I read somewhere that North Korean women are more naturally beautiful than the South Koreans which love plastic surgery.