In the summer of 2016 I visited North Korea for a total of 12 days. One is not allowed to travel independently through North Korea, therefore an organised group tour is the way to go. Togethere with approximately 15 other people I went on a group tour organised by Young Pioneer Tours. I cannot recommend this tour company more!
At some point during the trip we visited a beach on the west coast of the peninsula. This visit was truly amazing and took away all my doubt that tourist cannot have an impact on the local population. In this post I will describe what happened as best as I can.
Beers and BBQ
In the morning we visited a sea lock close to the city of Nampo. Although the stories told about the sea lock were very interesting, and somewhat exegareted, all of us were looking forward to the afternoon. In the afternoon we would visit a local beach. Despite the fact that a 100-day work campaign was going on we were hopeful that there would be some locals.
As we drove down a hill towards the beach we could already see many buses and people at the beach. Due to this our North Korean guides visibly became more nervious. As we arrived at the beach the local officials escorted us to the roof terrace of the main building on the beach. Despite the 100-day work campaign the beach was full of locals. They were singing, drinking beer and enjoying their BBQs. It seemed that people were fairly drunk and having a good time. And ofcourse many of them were staring at us.
High-five in North Korea
We were not allowed to go on to the beach at first. Therefore we got ourselves some drinks and waited for our North Korean guides to finish their discussion with the local guides. This lasted about half an hour, but finally we were allowed on to the beach.
Together with another young guy from our group we ventured into the water and decided to swim to a pier in the far distance. However, before we arrived, I had open my foot badly on a sharp rock. Despite this I was caught up in the moment and continued towards the pier. Some kids were playing and fishing on the pier. We approached them, but as they spoke no English communicating was difficult. They proudly showed us how many fish they had caught. I continued by teaching them how to give a high-five. North Korea is probably the only country, where high-fiving is an alien concept.
Despite the fact that we went as far as we could it only took 15 minutes before I hear my guide yelling my name. He was not angry at all, but he was there to keep an eye on things. After seeing my bleeding foot he told me to return to the beach and get some medical attention. Due to the risk of infection I agreed with him and we returned to the beach.
“You are friendly”
After some desinfecting alcohol and bandages later I was good to go again. Regardless of the fact that my foot was hurting quite badly I borrowed someone’s camera and returned to the beach. It felt like a very special moment and I did not want to miss out on anything!
I approached some boys, whom I think were around 15-16 years old. At first they turned their backs towards me and looked away. However, after asking a simple question they quickly answered and I noticed some genuine curiosity. They even spoke some English. I asked where they were from and why they were at the beach. The answers were not very in-depth or insightful, but I could feel them easing up a little.
After a while I proposed we take a group picture together. I handed one of them the camera and he took the picture shown below. They all seemed to enjoy this, but it may have been a bridge to far. Right after this they told me they had to go. As we were saying our goodbyes one of the boys said “you are friendly”. This may not seem like much, but he said it with a very surprised and genuine tone. As they walked away it dawned on me what had just happened. By talking to these boys I had changed their image of Western people. Next to this I proved that it is possible to break down barriers and have an impact by visiting North Korea as a tourist.
I joined the rest of the group, because they were dancing with a different group of North Koreans at the beach. I told them about my experience and joined them in dancing and karoake.
The locals tried all the English they knew and shared everything they had. They gave us watermelon and pushed us to try some of their shellfish, which they prepared with gasoline. I had to take a good sip of soju, Korean liquor, to avoid any bacterias. This lasted for a while, but then one of the local guards turned off the radio. This was the signal to back off and leave the locals alone. Not long after we left the beach.
This was definitely the highlight of my trip to North Korea. It changed my mindset for the rest of the trip and encouraged me to emit more positiveness during the trip and try to talk to locals as much as possible.
If you are considering travelling to North Korea I highly recommend you to read the following book: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. It prepared me well for my trip to North Korea and has helped me put a lot in perspective.