Greg's First Time in
the DPRK (North Korea)
| Part 1: A Journey

Greg first traveled to North Korea in July 2016 in the footsteps of his grandparents who visited the country in 1988. Since then Greg has become a member of the Koryo family as the head of our Beijing Office and DPRK Tours, and as a Tour Leader.

On this day eight years ago on Saturday, July 2nd, 2016 I first entered the DPRK as a tourist.

Since then I have led twenty-four of Koryo Tours' North Korea tours, assisted with the entry of the filming crew of Michael Palin in North Korea, and spent a month in Pyongyang studying Korean at Pyongyang College of Tourism. 

I have spent half a year of my life in North Korea.

So where did it all begin?

A Little Background Story

I grew up listening to my grandparents' travel testimonies. So, since I became a traveler myself, North Korea has always been on the top of my list of countries I wanted to visit.

When I moved to China I decided this was the time to go.

Initially, I wanted to travel in 2012 using the money I earned working in a US summer camp. A story many of my tourists find entertaining...

The Diamond Mountain

I was specifically looking for tours that would take me to Kumgang-san (the Diamond Mountain) as its beauty was praised by my grandmother every time she recounted their 1988 visit to North Korea.

Her fascination with the Diamond Mountain is not unique. When I was studying in Seoul, whenever a Chinese classmate learned that I had been to North Korea, their first question was if I had been to Jingang-shan (Mandarin for Diamond Mountain).

Also, since antiquity, it has been a subject of many Korean poets and painters.

It was also the first region that opened up for South Korean tourists (1998-2008), during the hopeful years of the Sunshine Politics around the turn of the century.

The First Koryo Tours Tour

So I carefully selected Koryo Tours' The Summer Holiday Tour in North Korea. It not only fit my schedule but included Kumgang-san and, apart from Nampo, all the cities that my grandparents visited.

It also included Hamhung, which was opened up by Koryo Tours in 2010.

Honestly, I went for the itinerary and not the travel company.

But my choice of Koryo's tour in the summer of 2016 proved to be a life-changing decision.

Had I travelled with another company, I am sure I would have profound memories of the country and our local North Korean guides but my life would be completely different. Probably I would be a burnt-out Assistant Professor of Diaspora Studies.

And I wouldn't have met Michael Palin - a childhood hero of mine.

A Start of a Journey

All tours to North Korea start with a pre-tour briefing in the afternoon the day before the tour.

Twenty-two tourists gathered at the Koryo Tours Office, who would be travelling in two groups led by my tour leader Jessica (later I worked with her as an intern and became her replacement when I became a full-time employee) and James (who later became my mentor at Koryo).

The briefing was held by James.

I won't go into details about the briefing - come and join us on a tour if you are curious - but it touched upon the entry procedures at Pyongyang Airport, what is not supposed to be taken to the country, photography rules, dos and do nots while on tour and what to expect in general.

The briefing was concluded with a Q&A session.

The tour officially began on Saturday morning at Beijing Capital Airport Terminal 2 at the Air Koryo check-in counter.

The first thing one notices when flying to Pyongyang is the number of boxes, nylon canvas bags, and TV sets North Koreans take back to the DPRK.

No surprise when a country is under international sanctions and the few foreign products that one can find in North Korea are horrendously expensive for the locals.

Besides North Koreans, some Western, Hong Kong, and Chinese groups, diplomats and UN workers were also travelling to Pyongyang on this day.

Flight to Pyongyang with Air Koryo

Our flight to Pyongyang was on Air Koryo's Tupolev Tu-204-100 aircraft (tailnumber: P-633). It can accommodate up to 176 passengers.

The flight was almost full and all flight attendants were female. However, there were some male Air Koryo crew members in the cabin.

I have never managed to verify this theory but I believe that they have two flight-deck crew on their international flights.

To my surprise, on this flight, there were no propaganda songs coming from the speakers.

Later, when airborne on the overhead monitors a Moranbong Band concert was screened, and at the beginning of the safety demonstration video we were greeted by the airline of Songun Korea. Songun is the military-first policy introduced by Kim Jong Il during the 1990s and which favours the military over all other aspects of life.

Later it was kind of abandoned by Kim Jong Un to shift the focus to economic development.

After take-off, the three entry forms were distributed ('Landing Card', Customs Form, and Health Declaration Form). A concept that back then was not alien for flights bound for Seoul either.

And then came the real treat: the Koryo burger.

My understanding is that it has improved a lot over the years and it indeed changed while I was a frequent traveler on Air Koryo but I loved it. It was tasty with a piece of processed cheese and cabbage salad.

The drinks were Air Koryo's own brand of fizzy fruit drinks. I went for a "grape juice" as the flight attendants called it.

Coffee and tea were also served.

Air Koryo Catering​​​​​​ Service

My First Conversation with a North Korean

My first conversation with a North Korean also took place during the flight.

I was seated at the emergency exit row facing one of the F/As' seats and the flight attendant initiated a conversation during the approach to Pyongyang.

The more cynical-minded would say that it was to attract our attention so that we don't lean out to the window and take photos but then what about the other 30-odd rows I might ask.

Anyhow, she asked us about our nationality (the chap sitting next to me was American so his response was followed by some odd silence) and if we thought that the quality of water served on the flight was good as it was bottled in the DPRK.

She also talked about the compulsory 12 years of education in North Korea and The Science and Technology Center. It seems her pride in the DPRK as an educated and technologically advanced nation was on her agenda that day.

Before I even realized, we landed at Pyongyang Sunan Airport with a 13-minute delay that is certainly credited to the ATC restrictions at Beijing Capital and not to Air Koryo's tardiness.

The entry procedures were far less painful than I thought.

My bag was screened, my iPhone registered, and they had a glimpse at my camera concluding with a smile that it was not a problem.

What was interesting though that a probably high-ranking cadre was met by men in Mao suites at the baggage belts and they carried that bloke's belongings from that time on.

He was also the first and rather rare Korean person on whom I saw a tattoo although I didn't really see the design. That was surprising indeed especially if you consider the taboo around tattoos on the Korean Peninsula and Japan (a country that influenced Korea to a much greater extent than Koreans on any side of the DMZ are willing to admit).

First Impressions of Pyongyang

We were met by our two guides Ms. and Mr. Pak at the landside of the airport.

Ms. Pak misheard my introduction and thought I said I was angry when I just said that I'm Greg. Nevertheless, the name stuck and Mr. Pak called me Mr. Angry throughout the trip.

From the airport, we drove to Pyongyang and to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

On the way there Ms. Pak briefly told us about the rules and concluded that "when in Rome act like the Romans do". She also gave us a brief introduction to the country. Since I believe that in light of recent changes, this is already a piece of history, I will quote the introduction as closely as it was told to us as possible:

Our country is border by Russia and China in the North, by the West Sea in the West, by the South Sea in the South, and the East Sea in the East. The population of our country is 70 million of wich 20 million live in the northern part of our country, 40 million in the southern part, and there are also 10 million oversaeas Koreans in Japan, China, and Russia.

I doubt that when we finally return we will hear about the South Sea as a border and 40 million (sic!) Koreans who live in the southern part.

They will be forgotten as Koreans and if at all referred to the southern part it will be called the ROK.

My first impression of Pyongyang was that the primary means of transportation were walking and cycling, the taxis were the same as in China and saw way more people with mobile phones than I ever imagined. The windows and balconies are nicely decorated with pots of flowers.

It was fundamentally different from the prejudiced images I had in my head.

At first sight, the strangest thing was that it was not that strange at all. A first impression Professor Andrei Lankov also writes about in his book and told us during a lecture on our North Korea From a Near Distance Tour.

Ryugyong Hotel from the grounds of the War Museum

The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and the USS Pueblo immediately became my favourite museum in the whole of the DPRK, a ranking that has not changed over the 27 visits I made to the country.

The narrative is obviously the official narrative of the DPRK which is interesting and somewhat disturbing to listen to but the presentation is World-class with all the artefacts, dioramas, and all.

The icing on the cake is the massive panoramic display of the Battle of Taejon (16-20 July 1950) with sound and light effects. Here, our local military guide showed some sense of old-school humour by saying that "the gentlemen are automatically going towards the stairs" instead of using the elevator.

Our dinner was at one of the KITC Restaurants on Kwangbok Street where the main dish was bibimbap. To my surprise, the wet wipes were from Cathay Pacific the flag carrier of Hong Kong.

Evening traffic on Kwangbok Street

After dinner, we drove to our hotel. On the way, we could witness the evening traffic of Pyongyang with trams, trolleybuses, minibuses, and double-deckers overcrowded with commuters.

I also managed to peek into some of the apartments where one could not miss the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Our first night was in the Yangagkdo Hotel.

My Swedish roommate and I retired not long after checking in as we were scheduled to leave the hotel at around 8:30 in the morning to start our Pyongyang city tour.

We will also drive some 170 kilometres south of Pyongyang to Kaesong on the border with South Korea, already south of the 38th parallel.

To be continued... 

Koryo Tours
North Korea Tours


Gergo Vaczi

Greg is the Koryo Tours DPRK Tour Manager.

He grew up in post-socialist Hungary and first travelled to North Korea as a tourist in 2016 following in the footsteps of his grandparents, who visited in 1988. He has since lived in the Netherlands, Israel, China, Korea and Iceland and holds a degree in Sociology and Anthropology. He has taken 26 groups to North Korea and lived in Seoul studying the Korean language full-time for two years. He also completed a long study course in Korean at a university in Pyongyang.

Read more about Greg's journey to become a North Korean Tour Leader here.

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