Why I traveled to North Korea

I just finished the illustrated travel diary about the most extraordinary trip I’ve done so far in my life. The special circumstances of this country need more explanations I can give on captions of the picture slide show. Here we go, here’s my D.P.R.K.-FAQ.

Dominik in Pyongyang.
Dominik in Pyongyang.

»Seriously? Why the hell did you go there?«

First of all it is important to answer »for what purpose« I went to North Korea: Tourism. After 5 years of research, reading and following closely the news about this country I booked a trip, went there and came back.

The answer to »why« consist of several answers:

  1. A trip to North Korea is time travel
    Have you ever thought of the (younger) past and wished you would have been there when historic moments happened? Did you ever wonder what it really was like at a time before you where born? I did. And North Korea is a window into a time that is the past in most other countries.
  2. It’s Asia
    One really simple but for me important reason: Within the last few years I’ve seen quite a lot Asian countries. This region of the word is highly fascinating and extremely diverse. On my journey through all Asian countries North Korea shouldn’t be the white spot on the map.
  3. It’s the last white spot on the world map
    Isn’t it kind of sad that we can reach every single point on earth in less than three days? There is no journey into unknown fields anymore and when you finally arrive on the other side of the world you login on Facebook and buy a Grande Latte at the local Starbucks. North Korea is still different. It is a place (almost) without any strong western influence (yet). It’s maybe the last white spot on the world map. I would lie if I denied the adventure factor as a motivator to go there.
  4. I want to understand
    What happened in this part of the world that some countries like Japan are leading economic powers of the so called first world while their neighbors are – not? How could that happen? What is going so terribly wrong that 60 years after a terrible and forgotten war this country is still  divided into two parts that are officially at war and constantly close to start fighting again?  What are the parallels to my own country that is so incredibly lucky that it was reunited peacefully – why is that not possible on the Korean peninsula?
  5. I have a weakness for unique places
    A million city with really little traffic. An Autobahn without cars. One of the largest statues in the world. A Mausoleum for god-like leaders? An half empty hotel on an island? I would go to any place that has one of these things alone.

In short: my curiosity brought me to North Korea.

My ticket to North Korea.
My ticket to North Korea.

»But is it allowed?«

Yes. As long as you are not a journalist or professional photographer you’ll get a Visa. Maybe even more surprising: Against a common belief, even US Americans can visit. It’s totally legal – from North Korean side as well as from US side. Actually one third of all Western tourists in North Korea are US citizens.

Air Koryo at the Airport in Bejing.
Air Koryo at the Airport in Bejing.

»How did it work?«

I entered the country per plane (Air Koryo!) and left it via train. The trip started and ended in Beijing, there is actually no other way to go into North Korea. You can’t go by yourself, a officially accepted travel agency is mandatory.

Dominik is looking at things.
Dominik is looking at things.

»Is it morally right to go to North Korea for – in the end – fun reasons?«

This is for sure a question everybody should think about before considering a trip to North Korea. I considered this question over several years while following the international news and reading a lot of background material. I came to the conclusion: yes, it is.

While there are many good reasons for and against any form of boycotts and principles I also strongly believe in change by including instead of excluding. It’s hard to keep the story of the child-eating capitalist alive if a significant percentage of citizens had positive experiences with foreigners. This is one among several reasons why I decided for myself that it is okay to go.

A newspaper in the Pyongyang subway.
A newspaper in the Pyongyang subway.

»What impressed you most?«

While it it easy to be impressed by the architecture and terrifying dimensions of everything there was one thing I was really surprised: The friendliness of every random person we met. Just everybody was kind, polite and friendly – and not only the people that are used to foreigners.

The Arirang Festival.
The Arirang Festival.

»Can you travel on your own?«

No. Group tours and private tours are alway with a mandatory North Korean guide. As a guest you know and have to accept the rules in advance: Don’t leave the hotel alone and don’t do whatever you are told not to do. Fighting against these rules wouldn’t make any sense, they would just send you home and your trip is over.

Some rocket related art at a school.
Some rocket related art at a school.

»What can you do and see in North Korea?«

A lot and nothing at the same time. A good observer will see within a few days enough stories for a whole lifetime. For sure it’s not the all inclusive beach vacation and I wouldn’t call my trip „vacation“. The  picture show gives a good impression on the places I’ve seen there – on the other side the best things are missing due to „no photos“ rules.

Don't worry, it's an airgun.
Don’t worry, it’s an airgun.

»What was the most unique experience there?«

The Mausoleum. Basically a gigantic marble temple with the only function to display the mummified bodies of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung in Snow-White-like glass sarcophagus. Pictures are strictly forbidden. The scene there I remember best:

Before you actually see the bodies of the Great Leaders you have to walk trough endless corridors with pictures left and right. Actually, walking is not the correct word since they installed these horizontal escalators which we know from airports. So please imagine the following situation:

You’re standing in line on one of these band-conveyors. The speed is set to »dignity« level so you have enough time to recognize the hundreds of „Kim Jong-il looking at things“ photographs left and right from you. On your right side is another band-conveyor, going in the opposite direction. There hundreds of people stand in line on their way out. But unlike on your last Disney Land trip everybody is completely silent and just looks at you. Because you are the only foreigner. Oh. Did I mention that almost every other person in that building wears a military uniform?

So you scroll by, minute by minute, in a totally silence environment, these hundreds of military people that watch you closely. Think of it. Still scrolling. Still. Yes, Still.

I really want to tell Matt Groening this story so much.

Fireworks! Explosions! A mural with Kim Jong Il.
Fireworks! Explosions! A mural with Kim Jong Il.

Please enjoy the pictures in the travel diary – It needed a decent amount of time to pick the 62 best ones out of 1,600 photos I made in total. Laura, thank you so much for your help with that, your work on that diary and being the best travel companion I can imagine.

Dominik and Laura in North Korea.
Dominik and Laura in North Korea.

42 thoughts on “Why I traveled to North Korea

  1. i absolutly adore your diary, great pictures, i can pretty much imagine how you felt at some points. Never thought about northkorea from a touristic point of view. Thanks :)
    My friends unlce told me.. everybody should go to as many uncommon places as you can, cause god knows how long you will be able to do so.

    keep it up !

  2. Hi there – what an amazing report. love your trip, great pictures! I am also a big fan of odd places in this world (have been to Angola for example) and got fascinated about your trip to North Korea. I am wondering if this is dangerous what you did and as a European citizen there will be any issues getting there? Where can you book such a trip?
    Would be great hearing from you. many thanks,

    Chris / Germany

  3. Yvonne, thanks for your feedback – I totally agree!

    Christian, let me put it this way: I already was about to book this trip two times before and didn’t do it for security reasons. The first time was when Fukushima exploded; I originally planned to book my trip in the same week. But since it was unclear what exactly happened in Japan I didn’t do it. Looking back now it turns out that it wouldn’t have been necessary to cancel.

    The second time I didn’t book was spring 2013 when the tensions between North and South really went bad. Was it clever to cancel back at that time? Maybe – you never know. It’s hard to distinguish between political rhetoric and real danger.

    But basically that’s from my perspective the the biggest threat. Traveling within the country is totally fine in terms of security – probably this was then most secure trip of my life so fare. You constantly have a guide around and there’s nothing like crime against foreigners. Follow the rules, read about the country in advance, don’t do something completely stupid and be aware of the fact that you at a place that is different than any other place you have ever been – and you will be totally fine.

    I highly recommend Koryo Tours, a company run by some British guys based in Bejiing.

  4. This is so friggin‘ awesome. I also had a hard time picking the best pictures from my russia travels – and russia is far more familiar to western tourists though still being different. I enjoyed your photos very much.

  5. So now I’m back. During the past half an hour, I’ve been on that trip, taken by your 62 pictures. And it has been one bizarre experience, wondering between questions about truth, piece, beauty and power. Thanks so much to share it with me and us.

  6. ich lass mal ein „Dankeschön!“ hier. Also jemand, der den Iran bereist hat, kann ich die Faszination eines unberührten und fremden und zugleich hochtechnologischen Landes nachfühlen. Keine Werbung, kein McDonalds, stattdessen überall Bilder der großen Anführer etc.. Auch wenn NK auf alle Fälle ein paar Level krasser ist.

  7. Eine fantastische Bilderreise, wie man sie sonst nicht zu sehen bekommt. Was für ein interessantes unbekanntes Land. . Nur von den beiden Staatsköppen werde ich wohl heute Nacht träumen. Kein Bild ohne sie. Das muss dir doch auch Alpträume verursacht haben ;-) -Danke, dass ich ‚mitreisen‘ durfte – klexel

  8. Hi Dominik,
    Awesome diary, really interesting from first to last photo!
    how much did this trip cost you? I wonder how expensive are these obligatory tours.

  9. Hello Dominik,

    Comment from India :) … Did u come to know anything on the concentration camps in North Korea? …. I mean did anybody even mentioned about the concentration camps?

  10. I truly enjoyed your photos of NK. I noticed a typo on slide 39 in the last sentence. I thought you would like know because I expect many people to view your photos and to be as in awe as I was. Cheers.

  11. Thank you for taking the time to caption and share these photos. I had not known about the famine in North Korea, nor about the Kotjebi, and those are heartbreaking stories. I had also known nothing about the absence of traffic, the enormous mass festival, the hotel-island for foreigners…these are fascinating, thought-provoking, and surprising revelations.

    And wow, so many questions raised: Are there any relief efforts or orphanages for the Kotjebi? Has food production stabilized in North Korea, or is there still widespread hunger? I’m curious now about rural North Korea, and what we would find there…

  12. Really great diary, thanks for sharing this experience with us.
    I hope so that I will visit North Korea one day..

  13. Thanks very much for the great slide show, with thoughtful, helpful captions, and the blog post with background.

    Have you considered just posting all 1,600 pictures? No captions, just the pictures (since captioning all of them would be quite a chore). This is a world that few see. I imagine many others would take advantage of the opportunity to see many more photos.

    Again, thanks for sharing your trip in such a thoughtful, helpful manner.

  14. Dominik,

    I stumbled across your website from a friend’s post on Facebook. This is simply amazing! I’ve visited South Korea (I’m from Los Angeles) and got to see the DMZ. I always wondered what was across those 25 steps.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your blog! Keep up the great work. I look forward to reading more of your adventures.


  15. For the first time in my life, I actually really want to visit North Korea. Thanks Dominik, your sharing is amazing.

  16. An hour ago I would never have thought that the DPRK would be a possible tour destination. Now I’m making plans in my head. Thank you so much for the photo blog and all the useful information you have provided. They have really put things into perspective.


  17. Hey Dominik, I spent about 4 hours here looking at your photos, reading – and Googling some more info. I would be thrilled to see some more pics and I’m a bit sad that the „best places“ couldn’t be here hence the „no photo“ rules. I wonder how much it all cost you, including visa, the tourist agency, flight tickets etc. How long did you stay? Do you have any pictures of the apparel shops from the inside? Cannot imagine a no-brand store. Thanks for these posts and pictures and everything.

  18. Great pictures and stories Dominik!
    I was in Belarus a few weeks ago and your photos reminds me what I saw over there.
    Empty streets in the capital, everything perfectly clean, old school style subway, no advertising, „communist“ way of living…

  19. I know in your blog that you thought about the reasons for not going to North Korea. What kind of arguments did you think about that supported your visit to North Korea? The North Korean Refugees community in the South ask people not to travel to North because the money (via the tourist companies) is only used to keep the regime alive. These same refugees say that tourists that come to North Korea do nothing to help the country in any way to „open“ it up because the contact made are supervised and only selected people can actually talk to the tourist . Do you worry that when people see your photos, they think a visit to North Korea is the next „adventure“ tourist stop to brag about to friends? I think its important that if you write a blog about your trip, you should mention the realities of North Korea include thousands of political prisoners, the starving people in the country side, the human trafficking on the border.. and etc.. Perspective on a country shouldn’t be a staged showed as these tourist trips are.

  20. Truly excellent, really enjoyed your travel diary, rare illustrated glimpse into a little known country and culture. Thanks !

  21. Why should Dominik write about things he HAS NOT SEEN on his trip? There is enough inforrmation on that from other sourses. This is a blog of a person about what he has seen and experienced and a pro o anti North Korean propaganda…. Thanks a lot for the blog. I am the one who will NOT go there for any reason.

  22. I checked your picture slide show, and those photos are really good! I paid attention on this pic „girl with a gun“: it could be a fake gun which she uses for army training(or getting used to army training) since many of these girls to army. I saw something pretty similar in one documentary. Anyway good job.

  23. I read your blog and saw those beautiful, careful selected 62 pictures. I think you have done a great job . What I want to say this that maybe you could have a more detailed blog about your day-wise experience and the timeline of your journey. But once gain, a great job done

  24. Wow this is so cool.. I live in S.Korea and I always had a negative picture about N.Korea.. Your report and pictures changed my mind.. love this.. respect….!

  25. Hallo, Dominik! Ich bedanke mich ganz herzlich für diese Erklärung für Nord Korea! Die Fotos haben mich wircklich in eine andere Welt gebracht, aber die Erläuterungen zu jedem Bild darf man nicht verpassen! Dann bich zu dein Blog gesprungen und noch mehr über dein Trip gelesen… Ich bin geboren und wohne in Bulgarien – ein ehemaliges sozialistisches Land, aber den Maßstab diser Ideologie, die ich in Korea gesehen habe, ist damit gar nicht zu vergleichen!
    Also, wen du nach Bulgarien kommen würdest, bin ich dabei!

  26. This was truly awesome. I wish I can travel there soon. I suggest you plan for your next travel, to Iran; you might find it quite different from your expectations as well.

  27. Hello Mr. Schwarz,

    I really enjoyed your travel posts on DPRK and thus would like to say thanks for such a great story you share with the world. I’ve sent you an email regarding a request for the press in South Korea. Hope to hear from you soon on that matter.


  28. North Korea is definitely a very interesting place to go to. Everyone should go at least once. It will definitely provide a very insightful experience.I went there 4 years ago and it is still a great conversation starter no matter where I go.

Comments are closed.