I Have Been To North Korea Almost 30 Times & Counting…Why Do I Keep Going Back?

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travel to north korea

Why I Continue To Travel To North Korea After Almost 30 Trips

My first travel to North Korea was in 2015. I called my mum and told her I had a new holiday planned. She cried on the phone and begged me not to go. She told me I was breaking her heart.

I told her to do some research on travel to North Korea. ‘It’s actually safe, lots of people do it.’ I reassured her.

She refused to even type ‘North Korea’ into Google. So I went anyway.

And it changed my life.

Related: Life In A Country Without Coronavirus & How I Got Stuck Here

travel to north korea
Taking part in a mass dance in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang with a North Korean colleague

My First Travel to North Korea

I’m not sure what first compelled me to think about going to North Korea. It was a mixture of things.

The thought about travelling somewhere new, exploring somewhere so secretive, and the adventure and risk fuelled me on even more.

And, of course, I was defying my mother.

When I first went to North Korea, I didn’t go to the capital, Pyongyang. I wanted something a bit different – so I visited an area very few do in the far North East of North Korea, bordering Russia and China. I went on a 4 night 5 day trip with a small group of foreigners, including two Americans.

What I found when I got there was a journey I think everyone goes through when they visit North Korea for the first time.

What is North Korea Like?

Expecting to see military parades? Everyone walking round in the same clothes and haircuts? Being told what you can and can’t do all the time?

Well, think again.

Visiting North Korea is, as I describe it, pleasantly underwhelming.

It’s mostly… kind of normal. If you can get over the abnormal.

You can take pictures and videos strangely freely, you can bring your phone, you can even buy a SIM card and have internet access (although it’s very expensive at over a couple of hundred USD – and that’s just the SIM card cost alone).

You’re not stuck walking in a group and you’re free to walk around the hotel, go out for a cigarette, enjoy the bars.

The government don’t record your conversations. And they don’t watch you 24/7 through a lens.

But the thing that’s most normal there is the people.

We forget that, apart from the government and leadership, behind the propaganda, there are normal people. Normal citizens living their daily lives. People with the same goals and wishes as everyone else in the world – to be happy.

And when I left, this is what I took with me after my first trip from North Korea. 

travel to north korea
North Koreans enjoying a seafood BBQ at the harbour in Wonsan city

Why I Went Back to North Korea

After coming out of North Korea and seeing it for what it’s really like, how so few get to see it, I realised I wanted to show more people what I’d seen.

And I remembered the foreigner who took me to North Korea, and I remember thinking as he worked and showed us around, hey, I could do this job. I knew I was good with people, I loved to travel, and I wanted to be someone who shows the “other” side of North Korea to people. Sure, there was also the aspect of “hey this is a cool job to put on my resume”.

I went back to the UK and finished the last year of my degree. And like it was meant to be, just a couple of months before graduation, I saw a post on Facebook advertising a tour guide job in North Korea with the company I first went with.

And the rest is history.

Why I Keep Going Back to North Korea

My first trip to North Korea was 5 years ago, and I started working in the industry around 3 years ago.  I’ve been going between China and North Korea on average once a month during this time, making it just under 30 visits to North Korea. The borders closed due to COVID-19 in late January, and I last visited just a week before the borders closed. That was the last time I visited North Korea in 2020. And probably the last time anyone will this year as a tourist, presuming the borders stay closed. But I still want to keep working in this industry.

Why?

Why after 30 visits to North Korea do I still feel like I haven’t got enough?

friends in North Korea
Two of my North Korean colleagues in Kaesong city close to the DMZ North-South Korea border

The People Continue To Bring Me Back

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the country that I love. It’s not just the job with Koryo Tours itself, either. It is the people that bring me back.

There are many people there, North Koreans, who I know very well and I would refer to as friends, people I care about. I can keep in touch with them by going back to the country and seeing them – but no other way. They all appreciate the work I, and the work everyone in the North Korean tourism industry does, to bring foreigners into the country let them see with their own eyes what North Korea is really like – and also vice versa.

Travelling to North Korea not only opens your own eyes, but it opens the eyes of the North Koreans, too. It is an experience we both benefit from.

Is It Ethical To Travel To North Korea?

I think travel to North Korea is ethical. And many people don’t share this opinion. I believe that bringing tourists into North Korea functions as a kind of diplomacy between nations – between nations where diplomatic relations are often otherwise stretched.

Note: Due to the US travel ban banning US citizens from travelling to certain countries, including Iran and North Korea, US citizens cannot currently visit North Korea. North Korea also closed its borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although North Korea has not reported any coronavirus cases.

Zoe Stephens
Zoe is a freelance writer from Liverpool, UK. She spends her time travelling between China, where she is based, and North Korea, where she works as a tour guide for Koryo Tours. You can follow her journey and see her content from North Korea on Instagram (@zoediscovers) and YouTube. You can see more about her life stuck on Tonga on Instagram @ifyouwerestrandedonanisland.

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27 COMMENTS

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27 COMMENTS

  1. I Have Been To North Korea Almost 30 Times & Counting…Why Do I Keep Going Back?
    Isn’t the short answer to this: because it’s my job?

  2. There’s always a lot to be said for meeting new people and seeing new places. Personally there are a lot of places I’d hit before North Korea. It would be interesting to know how many trips there would have been if there was no job relationship.

    Also. travel blog or not you can’t really think a North Korea post isn’t going to invite in a political slant in it’s responses. Many, of not most, people don’t compartmentalize in quite that way

    I did enjoy the COVID-19 bound island writings though.

  3. Many people seem to miss the entire point of being in totalitarian countries, as tour operaTor or not.

    Spending time with people whose worldview s have been shaped by other political and philosophical views is eye opening on both sides. One of my sons and his wife spent two years teaching English at a teachers’ college in China. The Peace Corps sent them.

    They learned how universal the hopes and dreams of college kids are, while their students learned that people from America are not tall and blond, that knowing gay people doesn’t make you criminal, and that Americans can be caring and helpful.

    Maybe the poster should have omitted the name of the tour company. But for a state like NK, the danger of its citizens learning the normalcy and freedoms of the Other is far more costly than any monetary gain from tourism.

    TBH, I’m not all that interested in going to NK. But my biggest reason for travel in general is to learn about both the natural beauty and the people of places I visit.

  4. Americans are not prohibited from going to Iran, so you should correct that part of your article. But you’re right about thev USA government making it illegal to visit the DPRK, which is a frustrating blow to the people-to-people diplomacy you talk about that is sorely needed by these two countries now more than ever.

  5. Thank you! This is precisely why I read this travel blog.
    I wish the commentators would please try to keep their politics out of this (and other) discussions.
    Learning about others is never harmful.

  6. There are countless documented cases of people and their entire families being imprisoned in true concentration camps for mild anti-government statements. And then being tortured and starved year after year. Yet, not even a passing mention of these most brutal human rights violations.
    Yes, there may perhaps be some value in person to person interactions between the two countries, buts let’s not bury the truth while doing so.

    • Bobby Frank – do we discuss human rights issues when discussing visiting the UK? No one is burying the truth, but the same standards should be applied.

      • You’re quite welcome to do so in the UK. You can call Boris Johnson or the Labour Party twits in the middle of a park.

        Try that in the PRK.

        Her little business exists because a totalitarian regime lets it. For its own purposes.

        Try having a little comprehension of scale and context.

        • P – you’ve intentionally missed the point. You’re trying to make a point and intentionally misunderstanding what I said so you can make an inconsistent point.

          This page is not a politics site, it is a travel site. My point is that we don’t discuss politics regarding any destination, because this is a travel site. None of the posts on this site demand people account for politics to visit any country. We aren’t going to start now, either.

      • Ryan: Maybe we should. Maybe people should care about human rights violations when discussing visiting the United States. Maybe we should discuss human rights violations when visiting Texas. Etc

  7. For all of the people criticizing the OP how many of you have ever been to North Korea? Perhaps you should go there before regurgitating the info you get from the mainstream media.

    • That argument is lunacy. I suppose I can’t critique Nazi Germany now because I can’t visit there. Gonna have to rely on that mainstream historiography for all my opinions.

  8. This is embarrassing.

    This reads like a paid article placement for Koryo Tours guised as an article about “fostering understanding”, which must put a friendly face on a monstrous regime in order to conduct its business of duping nitwits who want a cocktail party story for their friends about their “extreme travel.” Oh, you’re so extreme. You were babysat and hand-held through a repressive communist country. Bold and daring.

    The idea that you’re just winging it around North Korea revealing “the real place” is laughable. I hope you’re advising tour members not to grab a propaganda poster for posterity. Getting repeatedly tortured and being placed into a permanent coma until your parents pull your feeding tube isn’t much fun.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Warmbier

    I understand that useful idiots abound, now more than ever, but ask one of those friendly N Korean citizens who isn’t on your itinerary if they can travel anywhere outside of N Korea when they want to. Or anywhere in N Korea, for that matter. Or if they can choose their job. Or where they live. Or how they live. Or dissent peacefully. I’m not talking about the government plants you interface with to collect your pieces of silver. Actually, don’t. Because they’ll get picked up and beaten after you leave. Along with their families.

    Hey, you could try chatting with some of the women who are forcibly sold to Chinese men to feed an impoverished corrupt government’s drive for hard currency, but your tour group may not like that. Especially with the reveal that they like those girls young.

    This is an ill-disguised propaganda piece. You’re encouraging babysat travel to a country with blinders on where the regime has starved many of its citizens to death, arbitrarily arrests and sends citizens to gulags for the ThoughtCrime offenses of a relative or neighbor, enforces constant forced labor on regular citizens who are not lucky enough to be born in the party elite, where dissenters are strapped to an anti-aircraft gun while the Dear Leader giggles. Does your tour tell people about songbun? How about rodong dallyeondae? How about North Korea’s abduction project where they randomly steal women and children from South Korea?

    I’m guessing none of that made your glossy pamphlet.

    Shawn can run M2M however he likes, but I’d be cautious about who and what you give a platform. Straight up: this reads like a placed advertisement article from Koryo. And if it’s not, why would you further the aims of companies like this under some ridiculous posture of being open-minded?

    • A bit of a stretch would be me being kind on this one. Zoe is going to be writing many articles for us (already has written a few). Her working for a tour company has nothing to do with it. We thought it would be interesting to get a first hand account on a place few people have been. She has probably been there more than 99.9% of the world. There is value in that whether you wanna see it or not.

  9. So nice, you decided to post it twice.
    Zoe is a freelance writer from Liverpool, UK. She spends her time travelling between China, where she is based, and North Korea, where she works as a tour guide for Koryo Tours. You can follow her journey and see her content from North Korea on Instagram (@zoediscovers) and YouTube. You can see more Zoe is a freelance writer from Liverpool, UK. She spends her time travelling between China, where she is based, and North Korea, where she works as a tour guide for Koryo Tours. You can follow her journey and see her content from North Korea on Instagram (@zoediscovers) and YouTube.

  10. For the most part life goes on as normal in all countries. There are nice people and nice places everywhere. Tye challenge with North Korea is uncertainty when things go wrong. Are you willing to risk that when the world is full of other nice places? Frankly it seems like more of a brag thing than anything else.

  11. That’s all well and good, but don’t expect your country to bail you out and rescue you when you do something the DPRK doesn’t like. Have fun, take the risk, and you’re on your own.

  12. I’ve been to DPRK back in May 2011 and Aug 2017. I felt very safe as well. It was interesting to see the changes from 2011 to 2017! Back in 2011, the guide collected all of our cellphones in the beginning and gave them back to us before we left. I recall asking my guide what he wanted his children to study and he hopes for them to have a future in government. When I visited again in Aug 2017, cellphones were not collected. I asked the same question to the guide (different person) and she said she hoped her children will become scientists. In 2017 I definitely saw the glorification of scientists in a lot of places which I thought was cool and something we don’t see here in the USA.
    I really hope to visit again once the US ban ends as I’ve always wanted to run a marathon there. I also hope to learn a little bit of Korean next time I visit.

  13. Interesting read. But considering the shady stories that come out of NK, if I ever went (which I probably wouldn’t) – I’m not sure it’d be the best idea to wear Balenciaga shoes? just feel like that would make me a target. My triple S trainers would stay at home!

    • Sean – I’m not sure what you’ve been reading. No one in North Korea is going to steal your shoes or even care what shoes you’re wearing. 🙂

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