He Said/She Said: Held Captive in North Korea

He Said/She Said: Held Captive in North Korea

North Korea in the news?  All too often it involves someone being arrested there, waiting for Jimmy Carter to fly in and rescue them.  Oddly enough though, tourists visiting North Korea volunteer to become prisoners of the DPRK.  Those coming to see North Korea are escorted at every moment, watched over, eat and sleep where they are told to, and subject their cameras to searches.  Nobody is free in North Korea, least of all the tourists, so what is the experience like?




“You do realize how stupid this is?” I thought as a flight attendant stood over me, forcing me to scroll through my photos and delete the pictures I had taken inside the aircraft.  This was minutes after stepping aboard Air Koryo, North Korea’s number one airline.  From this moment on it was clear, I was not a customer, I was their subject.

We were in North Korea for five days, at the end of which I was ready to leave.  This was the first time I wanted to leave a place so quickly, then again, they took away some of the rights I have taken for granted since childhood.  Rights like crossing the street on my own.  This became clear, when our guide instructed us to cross the street, so we did, individually instead of in a line as instructed.  As we were crossing the guide stood by the curb shouting for us to be careful, “the traffic!” he yelled, showing genuine concern.  Soon the Police were on the scene to chat with our guide, who wantonly exposed us to the dangerous traffic of Pyongyang.  After a few days of this I wanted to return to “free” China.

The world we lived in was completely created and controlled by our guides.  Days were spent in buses, being carted around from approved sight to approved sight.  While local life passed by the bus windows there was limited information given, and photos were allowed only when specified.  When we arrived at a tourist sight, locals were nonexistent.  It was rare that we were within shouting distance of any local person, let alone allowed to approach them.  Children seemed interested in us, but were shy to our cameras or chased away by security men.  We saw North Korea as they wanted us to, perfect North Korea.

We may have been tourists, but in North Korea, just like everyone else, we were their prisoner.  I did what they said.  I listened and nodded to their “facts” and propaganda, containing my own, different, ideas.  I did not question authority or their reality as presented.  In this way it is really an interesting trip, it’s fascinating to see how their system works, to see a place so different from what I have ever seen, to hear their view of the world.  At the end though I wanted out of their prison.




Each day I was in North Korea it became increasingly difficult to take our guides seriously.  The constant stream of known falsehoods they shared and the unnecessary “precautions” we had to make were ridiculous.  For example the constant assertion that South Korea is a puppet government run entirely by the U.S. to a bus full of Westerners who knew otherwise.  The insistence that we have an armed North Korean soldier on the bus for our own safety became increasingly laughable…only no one was laughing.

It was like being in an alternative reality and for all practical purposes that is the best way to describe North Korea.  There was almost nothing of the reality that I am accustomed to in the North Korean reality I lived in for the five days of the tour.  We were not allowed any interactions with local people other than the guides and every part of every day was choreographed.  Each sight we saw was hand picked by the DPRK and the allotted amount of time at the sight was pre-determined as were the bus pick up and drop off sites.

Each morning we would board the bus, be given the outline for the day down to the minute and then depart.  As we moved through the streets of even the largest city in the country we would see few signs of regular daily life as we knew it back home.  Instead we often saw school children in identical uniforms walking together, soldiers marching and empty streets.  In the rare occasion we would look out the window and see “normal people” we were restricted from taking any pictures.  It also seemed that we travelled the same routes over and over, allowing us to only see small pockets of each city we visited.

All of this made the entire experience feel rehearsed almost as if the hotel staff, restaurant employees, tour guides and regular street walkers had a set role to play and script that they operated from.  I don’t regret visiting North Korea at all, in fact it was one of the most fascinating stops on our trip, but it was tough to get over the lack of freedom to do, say or see anything we wanted.  The scariest part of it is that I think we really did experience what it’s like to live in North Korea.

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» Donna :
Sep 7, 2011

Wow! This brings back memories for me of old Europe. Visits to Berlin while the wall was up, and a week’s travel in Russia in 1974. And even those, as controlled as they were, weren’t nearly what you’re describing in North Korea. In Russia we had the warning not to photograph any military in uniform, but we were allowed some free time to wander through the cities. And in our effort to get to the zoo to see the pandas (who never showed! :-( … we met normal Russian people who “loved Americans.” But we were brought to the tourist stores to shop for those traditional Russian souvenirs and we stayed in the tourist hotels. We traded bubble gum with the kids for Russian pins they hawked. And all of us smuggled something out of the country, even if it was just a one ruble note wedged inside the camera case. When we landed in Vienna and our group entered the terminal (after flying Russia’s Aeroflot) you could hear an audible sigh from our group … at last we were back on free ground. In Berlin, on the second level of a glass topped tourist bus, I snapped a photo of “no man’s land” between the east and west by just pushing the button on the camera hanging around my neck and hoping it saw something. Had the guards seen that subtle move, they would have come on the bus, taken the film out of every single camera. Now it seems like a great victory but at the time, those were both pretty stressful experiences. Every American should visit a country like North Korea … they would have a lot more appreciation for all the freedoms we have here. In fact, let’s send some of our politicians there … they could use a good wake up call!! :-)))))


LOCAVORista Reply:

Donna, thanks for sharing your experiences. So interesting to compare those countries and their controls to the DPRK, it really is a stressful experience as you describe. We were happy to have no real trouble during the tour, but things were so controlled it was tough to do too much covert photography. We did get a few shots from the bus window, but there were so few normal Koreans on the street we couldn’t see much from the bus. We all took our fair share of items out of the country as well, but most of it was purchased at tourist stores as you describe.

» Kate C :
Sep 7, 2011

I have been waiting for this post. I was so excited when you said you were going in. This is fascinating to read. I honestly can’t imagine that, having never been terribly limited in any I’ve done my entire life. Did they plan your meals as well, or obligate you to eat at the hotel? Was your hotel room your only private time? While this doesn’t sound like great fun, what an experience this must have been! Definitely a great eye opening trip and story to tell.

LOCAVORista Reply:

Kate, we have more North Korea posts on the way- so many stories to tell as it really is a fascinating place, but one that is tough to describe. They planned all of our meals and even ordered for us, we all ate the same thing. The only meal variation was meat or vegetarian meals. Our hotel room was a nice, simple, private room with a great view of Pyongyang. Once we were in our room for the night we were expected to stay there, we could do some wandering within the hotel, but under no circumstances were we to go outside the hotel unless it was with a guide. These “programmed” aspects of the trip weren’t fun, but it was all part of the experience and we knew that was how the tour would be.

» Kate C :
Sep 7, 2011

Oh, and I completely agree with Donna about our politicians!

» Cindy :
Sep 11, 2011

Awesome, well written summary and insightful comments. Would love to hear more. Your poster arrived here yesterday. Will save it for you.


» Suzanne Kramer :
Sep 14, 2011

Pleasantville, the movie, comes to mind …. North Korea…??? I would have been scared spitless.
So absolutely profoundly glad you are out of there. Still watching the media on those three kids who mistakenly
“hiked” into the wrong country, (Iran) and have been stuck there since… (the woman got out, but still waiting for the
two boys to be released). Gosh, you guys are gutsy. Love reading about where I will never go…. you are an
inspiration!!! Love you Suzy

LOCAVORista Reply:

Suze, thanks for the well wishes on our return to free China (no comment on that). It was amazing how little fear I had while in North Korea. First of all with all the sights we saw in a day there was no time for fear and secondly it would have been very difficult to get in any kind of trouble without considerable effort on our part while under the watchful eyes of our guides. An incredible experience and one I won’t soon forget.

» Dad :
Sep 17, 2011

A couple of observations…..I must have set some kind of world record for holding ones breath for 5 days…….impressed that matt could bite his tongue for 5 days………your blog provides confirmation of what I already knew, without putting my “life in jeopardy”…….oh to be young and impervious…..most importantly, welcome home…..love dad

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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.


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