With less than a month before my departure to North Korea, the travel company, Koryo Tours, has sent out a ten-page document to all of its customers outlining the formalities, protocols and rules for foreigners in the DPRK. It is a daunting document, and to be totally honest, a little scary as well. For the first time since I started planning this trip, I am a little scared about going, but I wonder if it’s just the butterflies in my stomach that are acting up since my departure date is getting closer.
The first thing the document says, underneath the heading “Notes for Travellers”, is “Please do not take these notes with you into North Korea”. I wonder why they might cause trouble, since the travel company is only informing travellers in advance what the authorities themselves would be telling us. I do not have liberty to post the document here, however I can tell you that there are sections on what to expect at DPRK customs and baggage inspection; explicit rules for photography (with lots of items underlined and listing what not to photograph); what is considered proper dress in the capital city and what you can expect to find–and not find–while in the country. It is for this reason, I suspect–informing visitors of all that one would find lacking in the DPRK–that would cause offence to the authorities. Whatever one might need should be brought from home, as there will be no opportunity to buy these things while in the country. Need aspirin, instant coffee, extra photo cards, camera batteries? Pack them before you leave.
The document even has a section entitled “Things you can take which you may think you can’t take”, which among the list of permitted items includes a notebook and pen, of all things. I myself had even asked Koryo Tours Toronto rep Christopher Graper if I would be allowed to keep a travel diary while on the trip, as I feared the authorities might prohibit this as some form of amateur journalism. I was assured when Christopher told me that I could keep a diary, and that the authorities would not take it away from me or read it before I left.
Yesterday I completed my shopping trip for gifts to present to my North Korean guides and locals whom I will meet. I will be bringing the following items into the country to distribute: soap, face cream, chocolate bars, boxes of Smarties, lollipops, boxes of Crayola crayons, men’s dress socks, men’s underwear, women’s underwear, pens, pencils, pencil sharpeners and books of lined paper. My suitcase will be bursting with these gifts. I will distribute them myself and if I do not get a chance to give everything away, I can give the gifts to my guides who will distribute them for me.
I had read in many books how underwear and socks are hard to come by. A North Korean adult might have only one pair of socks that is supposed to last a whole year, until the next distribution of country-wide “gift boxes” from the Dear Leader. Crayons and lollipops are on the official list of suitable presents for children, and chocolate bars are a rare luxury. The other items are always in demand. After I took a look at the pile of gifts I will be bringing into the DPRK, I can now say with confidence that I will be coming home with a lighter suitcase than the one I had left with.