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Visting...North Korea

by - 13 September

What is to visit the world's most secretive country.....twice? 
Gunnar Garfors, the youngest hobby traveler to visit all 198 countries in the world, visited North Korea first in 2009. Eight years later the Norwegian man who visited every country in the world traveled back to see for himself how the country has changed. 
What are his impressions from the country that the whole world is watching now? Read below my interview with Gunnar Garfors:

Gunnar, now everyone in the world is talking about North Korea. When were you in the country? Before or after the missile tests?
North Korea is really good and calculating when it comes to PR, using their weapon tests to get worldwide attention. I last visited in 2009, then again in the middle of August. That was after some of the missile tests but before their alleged hydrogen bomb test. Our guides were well-informed about the tests and even started discussing Trump's actions with me. He is being portrayed as a crazy person in North Korean media. For probably the first time, they seem to be in line with most of the rest of the world on something.

How was the situation there as far as you could judge given the fact that you were always accompanied by guides?
All visitors will be accompanied by two guides, whether you travel alone or you are in a bigger group of 10 or 12. The guides/guards are there to make sure you see only what you are supposed to see, and they work as more traditional guides telling you about whatever you see. Everything they say is carefully weighed, they have been through training that has been approved by the government. The reason that there are two of them is to monitor each other as well. A guide may otherwise become too friendly with the visitor and get unfiltered information about the outside world. The guides seemed well informed about the missile tests and the reactions from the US. Trump is portrayed as a nonsense speaking cowboy, and they even asked me what I would have done if I had been in Trump's shoes. A tourist can only soak in the atmosphere to a certain degree, as literally everything is very well monitored and controlled.
One of the saddest things was the lack of smiles. And almost everything seems staged. There is a lack of information about what happens outside the country, you don't need to be a huge fan of conspiracy theories to guess what that may lead to, people have imaginations. Then add all the rules and regulations and the differences between country sides and capital. No one owns their own house or apartment, for instance. A housing committee decides where you will live, someone will, in other words, get nicer locations than others. It sounds a bit conflict inducing to me.

Hanging with locals in Pyongyang in 2009.

How different did you find North Korea now in comparison to 8 years ago? 
There were more people, but they seemed more hostile to foreigners than in 2009. I was also allowed to enter a supermarket which was full of locals, I was not allowed last time. So, a little bit more open perhaps.
Still a lot of propaganda, and the US still being their enemy number one.
Some more traffic than last time, inside Pyongyang at least. Outside of town, there are virtually no cars.
My mobile phone wasn’t taken away from me in the border, as it was in 2009. Which was totally meaningless, given that there was obviously no roaming. My phone would in other words have been useless.
They also went through my luggage by hand. Back in 2009, they had merely X-rayed it. And as last time, they went through my magazines and books.
“Our intranet is pretty good, though,” assured me my guides. And told me about a dating service, sports sections and news. Although they went on to explain that it was a modified version of the internet, translated to Korean (and properly censored by the translators, surely). Which also means that it is a dead, non-dynamic version of some very specific parts of the internet.
I was able to photograph relatively freely on both visits, but I know of others who were not on either occasion. A friend of mine even had all his photos deleted back in 2009. Some guides are a little bit more open than others, it seems like.

Is it safe now to travel to North Korea?
It is the safest country in the world to travel to. Just don't break any rules or regulations. Don't steal and don't preach. Crime towards foreigners is practically unheard of. Unless you count being spied or lied to (heavy propaganda) as crimes. Then again, that is also the case in many western countries.

What are the most absurd rules?
a) You cannot fold a newspaper or a poster if there is a photo of the supreme leader (or his father or grandfather) on it.
b) If you take photos of statues of the leaders, you cannot photograph only a part of it. The entire statue must be in your photograph.
c) If sending a letter or postcard home, the stamp (with a picture of one of the leaders) must be placed with the head up. Otherwise, the stamp will be removed and glued back on the right way (even though it will cover some or most of the writing – this happened in 2009 when I sent a postcard home, the recipient couldn't read anything as the stamp had been moved and placed on top of my message).
d) No religious writings are allowed.
e) No news stories or books that include any info on North Korea can be brought into the country. This includes guidebooks. I assume North Korean books are excluded from this rule and can be brought in freely, should you have any when you enter.
f) If visiting the Mansudae Grand Monument, the huge statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, you must bow to them and lay down a flower bouquet. Refusal to do so will not be appreciated (although you are unlikely to be punished).
g) As a foreigner you will get to jump any queue to any tourist attraction, whether in one of the fun fairs or one of the museums.
h) You are not allowed to see anyone's real home. Probably because there are remotely controlled lights and speakers there to make sure that citizens do as they are told at the right times.
i) You are not supposed to talk to any locals except the guides. Most don't speak English anyway, but to do so is frowned upon. I spoke to locals both in 2009 and in 2017 and was semi-gently escorted away.

How locals treat people from the West?
After years of propaganda against US citizens and westerners in general, don't expect many smiles. I went jogging around town and received quite a few negative stares and disapproving looks.

Are there many foreign tourists traveling to North Korea? From which countries mainly?
Between 95 and 99 percent of all visitors are Chinese. Which means that there are at least 100,000 visitors every year, but relatively few western ones. British, Dutch, German, American (until Sept 1 when they were no longer allowed to visit) and Russian make up most western tourists, according to my guides.

How difficult is to organize a trip to North Korea?
It is very easy. Everything will be done for you by a tour company. Local guides will then meet and greet you and be with you at all times when in the country. The exception is on the train to Pyongyang where there are no guides.

What are the most surprising things people don’t know about North Korea?
That it is very easy to visit (unless you are South Korean or a US citizen) and that it is totally safe to visit (as long as you follow their rules).

Read more about the life in North Korea and escaping from there here and more on how Gunnar visited every country in the world here

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