Preparing for North Korea
In preparation for my tour through North Korea I looked at documentaries on YouTube, read other travel blogs and read Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. All of which helped me to prepare what I was going to see in North Korea. However they did not inform me well on the relationships with the North Korean guides (or minders as most people call them) I might form.
Before going to North Korea I was quite unsure what to expect from the guides. I knew that getting in touch with local North Koreans would be some of the highlights of the trip, but also the least likely to happen. This made me think a lot about the North Korean guides, because they are locals too right? But one can never learn anything from them, because they are completely controlled by the regime, right? In order to find an answer I would have to experience it myself.
Meeting the guides AKA minders
Upon our arrival our North Korean guides introduced themselves to us. Due to the fact that our group was quite large (around 20 people) we were assigned three guides and a driver. We called them Mr. Kim, Ms. Kim, Mr. Pak and driver Kim.
The same evening we had drinks with our guides and got to know them a little better. We drank beers, sang karaoke, discussed the schedule and played Ping-Pong. Despite the fact that we had not even left the hotel I felt that they were more guides than minders.
Throughout the entire trip there were just a few moment when our guides appeared to act like minders. However, for the most part they were genuinely friendly and interested in our lives. More than once on one of our long bus journeys Mr. Kim would come and sit beside me. We would discuss politics. Most of these concerned a recent nuclear missile test done by North Korea. Next to this he asked me about the other places I had visited. I would give him my phone and he would look at pictures while I told him some stories. He was truly fascinated by this.
Another moment that I will never forget happened on Mr. Pak’s birthday. Nearing the end of the tour I had developed a good friendship with Mr. Pak. Around 2 am in the evening Mr. Pak and I were the only ones left in the hotel bar. He talked about his son, who is my age, and his time in the army. We talked until 5 am and discussed many things I had not deemed possible. Nothing that could get us into any trouble, but much more than most resources on the internet led me to believe.
My experience and advice
If you have made it this far you probably know that I did not see my guides as minders. I experienced them to be like any tour guide and extremely friendly. They truly want you to have a good time and are very interested in your opinions.
If you go to North Korea I advise you to get close to your guides from day 1. They are normal North Korean people and talking about their daily lives can be very insightful!