All travellers must meet in the Koryo Tours office in Peking for a ninety-minute briefing on the day before we all fly together to Pyongyang. Koryo gives the tour group the North Korean lowdown and spells out to us in explicit detail what we can and what we most definitely can’t do while over there. Those who wish to travel to the DPRK are usually already well-read and have done their research months in advance. No one just decides out of the blue to go to North Korea, and those that do plan to visit tend to be educated and know what such a trip entails.
Koryo Tours must cover itself and make sure that all of its travellers know the rules and protocols of being a foreign guest in the DPRK. In my case, my research has informed me of these protocols already, and my chats with the North American Koryo rep Christopher Graper, who has himself attended such a briefing, have filled me in on how to behave while over there. Nevertheless, Koryo has to ensure that everyone going on one of their tours knows the ins and outs.
We will be told the rules for photographing in the DPRK, and that those who violate these rules do so at their own peril. The Mansudae Grand Monument of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, for example, is twenty metres high and must never be photographed from behind or in part (i.e., from only the waist up). There are however plenty of on-line photos of this statue of the Great Leader from the waist down, as well as other practical-joke kinds of photos that surely would have been deleted by the guides or local police had they been detected. In some cases I have read where photographers were sent home early on the next flight out of the country. The risk for taking such a jokey photo is not worth the repercussions.
Guests of the DPRK will also be told in the briefing what not to ask our guides. Keep to yourselves any questions like “You don’t believe all this propaganda, do you?” or “Are all North Koreans brainwashed?” or “Don’t you think that your people are repressed?”. I can feel myself cringing should any traveller in my group ask such questions of our guides. In DPRK travel blogs that I have already read, the guides will simply ignore these questions. The guides are highly educated, and are employed in one of the country’s most prestigious jobs. They have the rare opportunity to meet and talk with foreigners on a regular basis. They certainly are aware of the impressions of their country by the outside world and don’t need to be reminded of what capitalist imperialist aggressors think of their socialist dynasty. In our briefing, we will also be told not to scoff at the explanations given to us by museum guides and historical interpreters. We will be informed that the South started the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War (known to the western world as the Korean War), and that those who live in Seoul live in poverty, surrounded by prostitutes and drug addicts. Just smile when you hear this, nod and let it pass. Do not challenge the guides or the various staff, or you may find that your trip has been cut short.
Foreigners in the DPRK will stand out like Martians, so if any in the tour group decide to escape the clutches of being watched by the guides, it will not be long before they are spotted and rounded up. Tourists on their own definitely cannot get far in North Korea. Someone will spot you, whether it’s a civilian reporting to a police officer or a police officer himself. Don’t risk the chance that you might be led back not to your tour group but instead to a jail cell. Cases like this have happened.
If you behave yourself while over there, you will have an unbelievably surreal experience.