Introducing North Korea

North Korea still is one of the most reclusive countries of the world. Although there is a slight opening and some selected koreans are now allowed to visit their families in the south for a short day stay, visiting the country is still a highly organised operation for limited numbers of group tourists. Since access to North Korea is mainly via China, most visits are tacked on to China tours.

As you can see by this night satellite view of North Korea, in comparison to South Korea it's a happening place after dark.

More than 23 millions inhabitants live in this country. In comparisson, North Korea is slightly smaller than England and around 2000 square kilometers larger than South Korea. Most of its 120.540 sqkm territory is demilitarized zone, where you are not allowed to enter. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is situated on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. It shares borders in the south with the demilitarized zone (separating it from the Republic of Korea, see South Korea), in the east with Japan (by sea), in the north with China and in the west with the Yellow Sea.

Following World War II, Korea was split into a northern, communist half and a southern, Western-oriented half. Kim Chong Il has ruled North Korea since his father and the country's founder, president Kim Il Sung, died in 1994. After decades of mismanagement, the North relies heavily on international food aid to feed its population. Most of the land, particularly on the north and east regions, consists mostly of rugged mountains, separated by deep, narrow valleys. Only a small area is cultivable or exploitable. The eastern coast is rocky and steep with mountains rising from the water, the western coast is characterized by coastal plains. The average climate is temperate with rainfall concentrated in summer. It is very similar to that of South Korea, but colder and drier in the winter. Rainy season is from July to September, but autumn is cooler. Winters are long and frigid while summers are hot, rainy and humid. The best time of the year to visit North Korea is during the months of May, June, September and October.

Redefining the term rogue state through its isolationism, controversial nuclear weapons programme and missile testing, North Korea is probably the most mysterious country in the world today and one almost entirely untouched by tourism. Off the beaten path seems too slight a term for a nation that admits fewer than 2000 Westerners a year, and whose overwhelming attraction is its isolation and backwardness. The capital, Pyongyang, has a few sites worth visiting and Paekdusan is considered one of the most stunning sights in North Korea.

Here the Kim dynasty, which began life as a Soviet-sponsored communist government in the 1950s, has evolved into a hereditary dictatorship owing far more to Confucianism than Marxism. The founder of the state, Kim Il Sung, may have died in 1994, but he is still the president of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the name locals prefer for their country). His son, a man who has only ever uttered one sentence in public (it was ‘Long Live the Victorious Korean People’s Army’ at a rally in Pyongyang in the early 1990s), continues to rule like a medieval monarch, an unknown quantity with nuclear weapons and a huge army at his beck and call, giving sleepless nights to governments in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.

A trip to North Korea is strictly on its government’s terms, and it’s essential to accept that you’ll have no independence during your trip – you’ll be accompanied by two government-approved local guides at all times and only hear a very one-sided view of history throughout the trip. Those who can accept these terms will have a fascinating trip into another rather unsettling world. Simply to see a country where the Cold War is still being fought, where mobile phones and the internet are unknown, and where total obedience to the state is universally unquestioned is, for many, reason enough to visit.