So I was mooching through our local library the other day, when something caught my eye: a Lonely Planet Guide to Korea. Not South Korea, just Korea. Surely not? I took it off the shelf, and sure enough it covered both North and South Korea!
I love the Lonely Planet range of books. They got us safely around the world in 2003-04, but they're so much more than just guide books. Every book I've read has been written with great flair, and with a delight in spinning yarns that tantalises the reader and inspires you to go out and explore. I knew I'd enjoy reading about North Korea.
My prior understanding was that no-one was allowed in and no-one allowed out, but it turns out this isn't the case. You need a visa (£60) and willingness to pay about £180 a day in costs, covering guides, hotels (chosen for you by the state) and full board. And other than that, you just need to be able to handle the following.
Did you know?
- The 'Great Leader', Kim Il Sung, remained in charge up to 1997 - three years after his death!
- You must be accompanied everywhere by guides, who ensure you only see what they want you to see. The only exception is your hotel room.
- There is a metro system in Pyongyang, but only two of the lines are for civilian use (the rest being used by the military). Check out the cool ticket machine shown half way down this page! Tourists are only allowed on a particular short journey between two stations, and report that the other passengers look suspiciously like actors...
- Most westerners can only enter the country from Beijing, which is the only city where visas are issued. The visa isn't attached to your passport, and you must return it when you leave, otherwise you wouldn't be allowed to travel to the USA or South Korea. Ever!
- The current leader, Kim Jong Il (parodied wonderfully in Team America: World Police) loves Hollywood movies - he owns 20,000 of them. In fact he loves movies so much, that he arranged for the kidnapping of a South Korean film director (Shin Sang-ok) and his actress wife (Choi Eun-Hee), bought them back to Pyongyang, and forced them to make seven movies over eight years before they could escape during a trip to Europe. Now that's dedication to the arts.
- An unknown number of people are held in labour camps, sometimes for crimes no more sinister than having South Korean relatives. It is rumoured that 8 million people died during a famine in the 1990s - about 35% of the population. All population statistics have a huge margin of error.
- North Korea has the fourth largest military in the world. They should be taken seriously. Especially as they have the bomb.
- Following the recent nuclear test, the US punished North Korea by banning the export of iPods there!
- Religion is banned. There is no access to the internets, other than for embassies via satellite. Laptops, modems and mobile phones are not allowed in (cripes!).
- Not much happens at night - check out this satellite image of the Korean peninsular, where you can see a clear contrast between North and South Korea.