In April 2006 I went to North Korea for Kim Il Sung's birthday. I was a university student in my final semester and the entire trip took about two weeks. Whenever I tell people this they're usually pretty amazed or sceptical. The most common response is: "But how did you get the VISA there?" The simple answer is: easily, I applied.
I went with a company named Koryo Tours and, in fact, most of the pictures on their website were taken on our trip there although I don't think I'm in any of them. But I'm jumping all over the place so let me start at the beginning.
The Genesis of The Trip
Some time as a teenager or uni student I came across a documentary on North Korea. It's a hazy memory at best but it was fascinating nonetheless. I vaguely remembered seeing how an old lady lived and her room with the portraits of the leaders (Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il) hanging on the wall in the living room.
Fast-forward a few years and I'm at my local DVD store in Double Bay. They shut down a few weeks ago but they used to have an amazing upstairs with all sorts of documentaries, animations, Aussie films, foreign and arthouse as well as all the films by acclaimed directors like Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman and so on. It was there that I saw the documentary "A State of Mind".
I was captivated. Over the next few weeks I was still thinking about North Korea on and off and did some online research about visiting the country. I was working at Noah's Hostel at Bondi Beach at the time and although they paid less than what they were legally supposed to I was living at home and saving nicely. I'd done a lot of travel already at that point but this seemed like a new experience totally unlike backpacking or sailing.
I decided to book a tour and see it for myself. I had my spreadsheet out and worked out how much I needed to put away per week. Although I had a few of the formulas wrong so for the first two weeks I was saving so aggressively that on a date I had to forgo the popcorn to meet my goal (and I LOVE my popcorn!). Once I corrected the formulas I was way ahead of where I needed to be but at least I knew I wanted it and had the commitment.
For the most part Koryo handled the VISAs and all I needed to do was supply the documentation but there was a small catch. You needed to be employed to be able to visit. The reason they don't allow for students to go, I was told, is that they believe students couldn't possibly afford to travel on a trip so expensive (it was about $3,000 or so at the time, from memory although the price was in Euro (1900)). I had quit my job to focus on my studies.
Fortunately the fix was easy as they only required a letter saying you worked somewhere. One was produced (I think I told them I worked at the uni) and it had to have a phone number on it. I figured that the University of Sydney was so large and bureaucratic that even North Korea would lose patience in dealing with them and that it would all work out.
Whether or not my reasoning was right the paperwork all went through and I got my VISA. Before I knew it April, 2006 had rolled around and I was heading to Sydney Airport to catch my flight.
I had a fascinating time in North Korea and, as an experience, it was definitely worthwhile. Before I continue I should also note that there's a legitimate debate about the impact tourism has on the political and human rights situation there. I didn't really think about those implications before I went but since I've returned it's something I've thought about a lot more.
[More to come]