A couple from Arad (Romania), Adrian and Alecsandra Moldovan have decided to visit North Korea in 2018. One of the editors of the Koreanista Blog made an interview with the brave travelers.
Fábian Armin Vincentius: North Korea is not a common destination for Eastern European people. When and why have you decided to go to North Korea?
Adrian Moldovan: I have always wanted to visit North Korea, because it is such an isolated country and because nowadays we get a lot of contradictory information about this place. I wanted the truth with my own eyes
Another reason is that I grew up in a communist country – Romania – until my age of 14 and remember it being a hard time. I’ve heard the situation nowadays in North Korea is similar to the situation in the countries of the Eastern Bloc in the 80’s. I wanted to show to my younger wife, who did not live in communism, how it was back then.
Also, I am a passionate traveler and want to go to as many countries as I can. We decided to visit North Korea one year ago before we actually did.
There are group tours provided by different travel agencies to North Korea. Tell us more about the practical steps which need to be done before entering the country!
Basically, it is not hard at all. But you must be aware that all the governments advice against going there as a tourist, and it is easy to understand why. If something happens to you, you are completely on your own, without the possibility of getting help from outside.
That being said, it is enough to contact a tour operator for North Korea – most of them are mainly from China – and they will tell you what to do. It is easy, technically you need only to transfer the money and the signed papers and they are doing everything for you. The tours start and end in China. This is the only way to get into North Korea, even though I’ve heard of Western tourists who went to North Korea from Russia, but that is supposed to be very complicated. To North Korea you can either fly from and back to Beijing or you can go cheaper and safer) with train from the Chinese city Dandong, situated at the border.
Important notice: you are not allowed on this tours if you are traveling with an American, Japanese or South Korean passport. From what I’ve heard, Israelis are also forbidden to take part in these tours.
There is, of course, a small chance of your visa for North Korea being denied, and this happens if you are a journalist – and the North Korean authorities find that out, which I doubt – or if you are believed to go and fight the communist ideology – hard to give details about that.
Tell us your most exciting experience from North Korea!
The most exciting experience happened when we were allowed to go completely on our own in a huge park where a lot of locals were having picnics and celebrating. It happened to be the Party Foundation Day). Our group was allowed to split and me and my wife were completely on our own between Korean people. My wife was invited to dance with some ladies doing some sort of Tai Chi and things like that.
It also was a huge scene where everybody could get on to perform: sing and dance together. We walked on the alleys and gave sweets to Korean kids who were there with their parents. I don’t want to say that we have not been observed from the shadow – maybe by the secret police –, I just pointed out our most astonishing experience there.
Another impressive adventure were the Mass Games. Even if we do not agree that 100.000 people are being demanded to perform – some say quite like slaves –, we could not avoid of being impressed by the huge show this is. Strictly from artistic point of view – production, choreography, energy, dynamics –, it was by far the greatest artistic show we’ve ever seen.
Tell us your biggest cultural shock from North Korea!
Well, I have read a lot about Korea and therefore it hasn’t been any really big cultural shock. Still, we were amazed about the discipline and obedience of the people.
Do you have a favorite Korean food or drink?
We loved the Korean hot pot and the Pyongyang cold noodles were also really interesting.
Is it true that North Korean people are not allowed to speak with foreigners (tourists)? Have you managed to discuss with anyone besides the guides?
Now this is really a good question. As I said, we could have spoken with the locals, because, as I have mentioned before, we were allowed to walk on our own in a park –and later also in a supermarket.
The truth is tourists are like nonexistent for locals and they act as if they do not even notice you, and there are 3 reasons for that.
The first one is that very, very few Koreans speak English or any other language beside Korean, so it is hard for you to make a conversation with them.
The second one is that they really prefer to avoid trouble. They are not forbidden to talk to foreigners – at least that’s what we have been told – and nobody will harm them if they say maybe “hello” or take a photo with you. But any longer conversation with a foreigner can be considered part of a conspiracy and the person is likely to be asked afterwards by the Police to answer some questions.
The third one is that after 70 years of communism they are so indoctrinated with the idea of every tourist being an enemy, that many of them rather look at you with hate, disgust or fear than wanting to make a photo with you.
Visiting North Korea is sort of a moral question as well. Some people say that it is irrationally expensive, and by paying this amount of money you just financially help a brutal regime.
Yes, it is irrationally expensive and the money is taken by the regime. But it is the only way to go there. Yes, if you just go to make a selfie in Pyongyang, it might be blamable.
We tried to do something for the simple people from there and I will tell you how.
The tour operator said to us we can bring as many gifts in form of food, cosmetics, sweets and all kind of stuff that is not available there and give it to the guides. We were quite close to the 2 Korean guides and the driver during our 3 days there. We made as sure as we could that our gifts will be given to simple Korean people and not to the governmental bribe machine.
Further, let me tell you a personal reason. I will tell you how it was in Romania in the 80’s: I was a small kid and I knew we were forbidden to interact with Western tourists, because they were considered “dangerous capitalists”. Still, we searched for the presence of Westerners in the resorts on the Black Sea and the tourists gave us sweets and smiled to us. They wore nice clothes, unseen in communist Romania, they used expensive perfumes, and they were like a message from a better world, a world denied for us.
I can remember, interacting with them and looking into their eyes, full of compassion – exactly how we are looking today to the North Koreans. It was like a promise, like a ray of light, of hope, that came to us a few years later after the fall of communism.
We tried to be now those Westerners for the people in the park and on the streets of Pyongyang. We tried to tell them with our eyes: “we know you are here, we know how your life is, you are not alone, we think of you, have faith, other times will come one day. We love you and even if we are not allowed to help you directly, we will do everything we can for you, brave people of North Korea!”
Also, they believe that foreign tourists perceive only a small part, an “illusion” of an utterly poor country. What do you think about this?
If everything that tourists get to see in North Korea is a “huge stage” with actors dressed as passengers and so on, we think that sure, the parts of the city where they take the tourists are clearly prepared to make the country look way better than it really is.
But I don’t think every single human being we saw was an actor. I mean, there is no need to put thousands of actors to live normally for a group of 15 foreigners. The rules the locals get regarding strangers – no or very little interaction – are enough.
From the train you can see more of the “unprepared for tourists” Korea. And yes, it is a poor country, and pretty much of what Western propaganda says about North Korea is quite true. Sadly.
Would you like to visit North Korea once again? If yes, why?
North Korea, aside from its political problems, is a beautiful country. We would have loved to travel all across the country, as the tour operator we have been with offers a lot of different tours. Sadly, they are very expensive and also we didn’t want to donate the regime such amounts of money.
I would love to go back again, but I admit, this time I am afraid. I talked to a lot of people about what we saw there – like in this interview –, we made those videos for our YouTube channel. Maybe if we will go back there they will recognize us and we will be in trouble. North Korea is a dangerous country and you are safe only if you totally obey to their rules.
Interview made by: Armin Vincentius Fabian
The photos belong to Adrian Moldovan