Simon Cockerall is the General Manager of Koryo Group, a company that leads tours to North Korea. He first went to the country in 2002 and has been 121 times since, usually between 12 to 15 times a year. Despite its notorious closed state reputation, he is adamant that North Korea makes for a worthwhile (and safe) tourist destination, even for families. He tells suitcases&strollers how, despite the media hype, families can and should visit North Korea with kids.
Is it safe to visit North Korea?
This is perhaps the most common question we get asked. Yes, it is safe. In 20 years of operation we have never once had a tourist kicked out, detained, questioned by the police or anything like that. As all tours there have to be managed with a full itinerary and local guides it’s a little like being on a school trip. There is really no danger as long as you look both ways before crossing the road and simple universal things like that. The macro-political issues and tensions that erupt sporadically don’t affect the tours or tourism in general there at all.
Even with kids?
Yes, it is safe for anyone to travel there. Most tourists do not travel with kids but it is not at all uncommon for people to take their children with them on a tour.
Is it really that easy for foreigners to visit?
Yes, the visa procedure is simple and as long as the tourist is not on a South Korean passport then we can take them in.
Are some parts of North Korea more dangerous than others?
No, for tourists there is no more danger in one place than another.
How is North Korea different from travelling to South Korea?
It’s completely different. Tourism law in North Korea requires all tourists to have local guides, to arrange their itinerary in advance (this is what we specialise in, designing itineraries that make the trip as special as possible), and there are large areas of the country it is not possible to go to. South Korea isn’t like this at all and you can travel freely there.
However a trip to North Korea is simply more interesting than a trip to the South. It calls for intellectual engagement with the place being seen and isn’t simply a “holiday”. Despite being two halves of one nation, the experience of visiting each country is very different indeed. I’d suggest people go to both of them to be honest!
What’s so special about North Korea? Why visit as a tourist?
It’s the most interesting, enigmatic country in the region. It’s the most unique trip you can take. It’s little-seen as well so if you want bragging rights for visiting an obscure destination, you can do no better. However it’s not for everyone; if the aim of a holiday is to lie on a beach or simply relax then there are better options in Asia. But if the aim is to see and do some fascinating things, to be exposed to people and places that very few foreigners get to see, then a trip to North Korea can’t be beat.
Should tourists visit a country that is politically closed?
I believe so. It’s important for people to see what they can with their own eyes, although nobody would claim that that tourists enjoy freedom to roam around in North Korea. It is, nevertheless, true that what you see is real and the people you interact with are not actors. Even though tourists there cannot be exposed to the full extent of the country we still assume that the people we take are intelligent and perceptive enough to know there is more to it.
There is great value in being there, in seeing as much as you can see in the time you have there and in maintaining an interest in the place that isn’t just seeing news about nuclear threats and so on. Also going to a place and seeing the people there helps to humanise both sides; the North Koreans to us and us to them. After all, as negative as Western news is about North Korea, this pales in comparison to how negative Democratic People’s Republic of Korean news is about foreigners. So going there shows the people you see that not all foreigners are up to no good at all times, and hopefully we see the same.
Is it appropriate for children to visit North Korea?
I don’t see why not. As long as it is safe then I don’t see why it would be a bad idea to take kids anywhere. North Koreans have kids after all and interaction whenever possible between the younger generations should be encouraged.
How has North Korea changed since you first visited?
More has become possible for tourists there. It is possible to go much further afield than ever before to remote cities and mountain areas that were off-limits to tourists for decades.
There has been a gradual opening up for more tourist opportunities and the authorities and local people have become more accustomed to tourists and thus a bit more welcoming and willing to interact. This has been the main change: the attitudes of local people when encountering foreign visitors.
Just three days ago I became the first (and so far only) Western tourist ever to visit the border city of Sinuiju, a place we are now opening up to Western tourists for the first time. We have been able to take in school trips and sports teams which was not possible even 10 years ago.
What are the most surprising things about a trip to North Korea?
That the people there are not mindless robots. They can be related to and gotten along with. As the media reports on North Korea always focus on the big issues it can be forgotten that 24 million other people live there who have nothing to do with nuclear weapons. It’s possible to connect on a human level with people there and this is what is most memorable about the tours.
There is a burgeoning middle class, at least in Pyongyang. Two million mobile phones have been sold there, there are people with leisure time and money to spare and this is slowly trickling down to other areas too. Without doubt the majority of people in North Korea still live hard lives, don’t have enough material goods or opportunities, and a great many people suffer from seasonal food insecurity too. But it is the range of life-experiences [among North Koreans] that [tourists] find surprising.
What's the optimal amount of time to plan to travel around North Korea?
A tour of any length is a fascinating and eternally memorable experience but I would suggest 5 to 7 days as an optimum. All tours are action-packed and not very relaxing to be honest, but you’ve gone all that way to see and do as much as possible, so relax later!
What are your top highlights for a trip to North Korea?
· Getting as much contact with the local people as possible. This is what we specialise in; going to parks, local bars, funfairs and organising sports events such as our recent fun run in central Pyongyang, all to maximise mingling time with the local folk.
· Going around the country to see the variations in atmosphere, architecture and landscape between the different regions and cities. This explodes the myth of total uniformity in North Korea and gives visitors a more nuanced understanding of the broad issues relating to North Korea.
· Seeing big events such as local football matches, the ARIRANG Mass Games (there is nothing like it anywhere else), the mass dances and parades.
· Seeing some of the highlights of the tour program – the Pyongyang Metro, the giant mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (where tourists can see them lying in state), The Juche Towe, the central Kim Il Sung Square of Pyongyang and the DMZ (the Korean Demilitarised Zone). There is a reason we do all these places on almost every tour – they are worthwhile and genuine highlights of any visit to North Korea.
For more tips on travelling to developing and remote countries with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.