What a holiday to North Korea is really like

Chinese tourists leave after paying homage to a giant portrait of Kim Il-sung at a square in Rason city in North Korea.
Goh Chai Hin | AFP | Getty Images
Chinese tourists leave after paying homage to a giant portrait of Kim Il-sung at a square in Rason city in North Korea.

Media coverage of North Korea is often fascinating and sometimes terrifying, but the accuracy of such reports is questionable. As tourism to the isolated communist country increases, more travelers are deciding for themselves.

Catherine Blair, a 33 year old primary school teacher from the U.K., became fascinated with the country after watching a documentary on the North Korean Mass Games. In 2013, she visited North Korea and met her current boyfriend, an Australian that was on the same tour.

"I certainly didn't expect to meet someone on the trip, but I guess it wasn't totally unlikely considering the type of person that would go on a trip like that," she said. "Everyone had fairly similar personalities and travelling backgrounds... Still, it's an unusual place to meet someone."

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North Korea has been open to tourists since 1998, but many people aren't aware. In 2011, authorities pushed to welcome international investors and the press - an attempt to stimulate the depressed economy.

Interest in North Korea is growing, companies that specialize in organized tours - the only way tourists are permitted to travel there - said.

"Demand for our business is now ten times what it was a decade ago," said Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based tour guide company specializing in North Korea. He estimated that 5,000 westerners and 30,000 Chinese visited North Korea over the past year, but noted that many Chinese visit on day trips.

"The country will always attract the more adventurous type of traveler, but there is definitely room for this market to grow," he said.

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A different perspective

Sophia Khan, a 23-year old post graduate from the U.S., told CNBC her trip to North Korea last year altered her preconceptions about North Koreans.

North Koreans live under a totalitarian dictatorship regime led by Kim Jong-un. They are unable to use the internet, prohibited from travelling abroad and face many other restrictions.

"I had gone assuming everyone would be a robot, that they couldn't smile or find humor or have personalities," Sophia said. "I let everything I'd read in the press allow me to subconsciously assume they were anything less than human."

However, she found North Koreans bubbly and inquisitive: "Waitresses would shriek when I said I was from Los Angeles and proceed to sing Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and Madonna songs to me. A few of the North Korean men would openly flirt, as well, which I found shocking."

Accompanied by local tour guides, tourists can consider the credibility of information provided.

"You know what should be taken with a grain of salt and what sounds like actual fact," said Sophia. "If they're describing the history of a mountain or the construction of a restaurant, it's fair to believe they have little reason to tell outrageous lies about it. If they're describing wars or military capabilities, silently nod and make a note to fact-check."

"The only time my blood pressure rose uncontrollably was when they made us watch a video depicting their victories over the Americans, spitting out outrageous fallacies about the U.S. and wartime," she added.

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British teacher Catherine said her tour group was only shown the 'best bits' of North Korea, which was frustrating.

"We couldn't just turn up and visit somewhere... nothing felt spontaneous. I always liken it to being in the film 'The Truman Show'," she said referring to a 1998 film where the protagonist is trapped in a televised soap opera. "It felt like if I turned a corner or looked behind me when I shouldn't something would be going on that I shouldn't have seen."

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Fear of the unknown

Traveling to North Korea is safe as long as tourists respect certain rules, Koryo Tours' Cockerell said. Refraining from openly criticizing the government is the most important rule, while adhering to certain dress codes and not taking photos where photography is prohibited is also advised.

"What I think is misunderstood is that if you are aggressive or overly negative towards their way of life it is not you who will get into trouble, it will be your guides as they are responsible for you," added Catherine.

Sophia noted an alarming incident where a member of her tour group accidentally vomited on the Monument to the Korean Workers Party.

"Our American tour guide was trying to appease the guards who wanted to yank the poor Brit off the bus," she said. "The tour company apparently was banned from visiting the monument again. Needless to say it was a very tense half an hour for everyone involved."

At present North Korea has temporarily banned tourists as a precaution amid the recent Ebola outbreak.

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