A trip to North KoreaIn early April 2018 I went to the DPRK (North Korea) and took part in the Pyongyang Marathon. I flew to Beijing and then, after a night in the Chinese capital, I joined a tour into the DPRK organised by Koryo Tours.
Koryo are a British-run DPRK specialist based in Beijing and they had come highly recommended by a friend of mine who had participated in one of their tours in 2011. Having now experienced one of their trips myself, I would not hesitate to recommend them. Before, during and after the trip they were absolutely superb.
The Koryo “Marathon Weekender” tour involved flying from Beijing to Pyongyang on Friday 6th April, spending Friday afternoon and Saturday sightseeing in the city, running in the Marathon (I signed up for the half distance) on Sunday and then flying back early on Monday. I had made a special request to Koryo to alter the trip so I could return by train from Pyongyang to Beijing by myself and they had kindly agreed to it.
My choice of the DPRK as a destination was down to two factors that suddenly came together in late autumn 2017. My friend had been forwarding me emails from Koryo since 2011 and encouraging me to go. I had been ignoring them for one reason and another, but in 2017 the growing “Korean missile crisis” got me more and more curious about the country.
Then some family issues meant that my wife would need to travel back to Japan in 2018 alone and I found myself having to search for a destination I could visit by myself.
There are many strong arguments as why you should avoid visiting the DPRK. Chief amongst these is the fact that by visiting you are supporting and encouraging the regime. There are also counter arguments which suggest the local people can benefit from some contact with foreigners. To be honest I didn’t pay too much attention to either side. My natural curiosity to see the place for myself and my trust in the reports I had received from my friend persuaded me to go.
Thursday 5th April 2018
I flew to China from London on BA and landed in Beijing at 9:30am on Thursday 5th April.
Koryo insist (sensibly) that every person joining one of their tours must attend a briefing in Beijing before departure to the DPRK. They had offered a choice of times throughout Thursday, so after leaving my bag at my hotel (close to the airport) I caught the subway to their office in the city centre and arrived just in time for the 2pm briefing.
Koryo were sending two trips to the DPRK the next day: the 3-day one that I had booked and a longer 7-day tour. The briefing was common for both and the audience was comprised of people travelling on both trips.
The briefing, by one of Koryo’s British staff, was quite serious but it was given in a relaxed manner which actually set the tone for the whole trip. The message was that there were certainly very serious things to consider when visiting the DPRK, but the trip should be as enjoyable as possible too.
The briefing explained what we were to expect from the customs and immigration process and concentrated on what we should do and shouldn’t do once in the country.
The main point was to comply with whatever the local Korean guides asked of us and to understand that we would not be allowed to go anywhere without the guides being with us. It was stressed that the Korean guides could actually be held responsible for our actions. If we wandered off or did anything wrong they would probably get into more trouble than we would.
We were told that we would be able to photograph relatively freely but we should not take pictures of anyone in a military uniform. We should also be careful not to show any disrespect towards the leaders (Kim Il-sung and his descendants). If we photographed statues of them it was important that the whole body was displayed. We were told that we should also be careful about folding, tearing or disposing of any newspapers that had their photographs in them.
At the end of the briefing we were introduced to our Koryo tour leader (a Canadian lady) who would be accompanying us on the whole trip.
We were told to be at the Air Koryo check in counter at Beijing airport next morning at 9:30.