Why do we travel? To relax, to unwind, to get away. To return home rejuvenated, having rekindled our marriages or our relationships with our children. Some travel to try new food and drink, to see how the locals live, to be immersed. Some of us just want to be elsewhere, anywhere, to break up the monotony of daily life.

But some of us crave seeing the un-see-able. We want to challenge ourselves in the midst of history. We want to have a great story to tell. We want to know that we were there. Luckily for us, there is still some mystery left in the world–and one of the best places to explore it is in North Korea.

It’s formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or the DPRK, and it’s referred to as such within the country without a trace of irony. Though the tiny dictatorship has been cloaked under self-imposed isolation since the Korean war, outsiders know a bit. Defectors have talked of unimaginable human rights violations taking place in its prison camps, of widespread, years-long famine exacerbated by government corruption,  and of systematic, lifelong brainwashing initiated by the late Kim Il-sung. (His son and grandson, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, have carried on the tradition.)

On a trip like this, your luggage should have the strength to stand up to the unexpected. The Briggs & Riley Baseline 27″ Wide Body Upright is made of 1680 denier ballistic nylon and sized generously to haul your souvenir propaganda posters back home. Ballistic nylon was originally developed to be used in jackets for World War II airmen, but these days it leads a much more low-key existence as material for high-end luggage. If ballistic anything seems like overkill when it comes to luggage, consider that the Korean War isn’t officially over–it’s simply in the midst of the world’s longest ceasefire.

Though the country is open to tourists, the only way for intrepid outsiders to see the DPRK is through a state-sponsored guided tour. Calling North Korea image-conscious would be an understatement; because of this, most tours will take place in Pyongyang, the capital city that houses wealthy government officials and other high-ranking citizens. There are museums and monuments throughout the city dedicated to the accomplishments, both real and fabricated, of the Dear Leader and Eternal President (Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, respectively). During your trip, it is advisable that you remain respectful of the country and polite towards your guide (gifts of chocolate, cigarettes, or Scotch are appreciated and will often pay off in the form of off-the-beaten-path sights and experiences), even when it’s difficult to do so. To disparage the country, its leaders, or its people may result in dire consequences for your guide. It is likely that your hotel room will be bugged, and any phone calls or internet access are heavily monitored. As a westerner in North Korea, it’s best to assume that you’ll be under constant surveillance–and act accordingly.

Another popular site is the DMZ, or demilitarized zone, the heavily guarded border which separates North and South Korea. The DMZ can be accessed through both countries, and regardless of how you visit, the experience is extreme. Photography and cell phones are prohibited, and tensions run high on both sides. Outsiders often comment on the size disparities between North and South Korean soldiers–as a result of a life of sporadic bouts of malnutrition, North Koreans are often measurably shorter than their Southern kin. The North may be obsessed with touting themselves as a utopia of Juche idealism, but seeing the disparity firsthand leaves plenty of room for doubt.

Your trip to North Korea is an excellent opportunity to reflect on humanity’s extremes, freedom and isolation, the psychology of power, and to assign real faces and voices to the 24 million faceless and voiceless North Korean citizens. We may never know how North Korea truly feels about its leadership–dissent is punishable by death, and citizens are encouraged to report each other–but seeing it in person before its inevitable collapse is truly a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience.

  • Cedric Entwistle

    Good stuff!