It wasn’t something they really expected to happen.
Years ago, David Thomas and his friend Clay Baxter were watching the Australian Open. Thomas, who had never been overseas, asked Baxter if he ever wanted to visit the continent. Baxter doesn’t enjoy travel. He said no. Thomas, persisting, asked where Baxter might want to travel.
He answered: North Korea.
“I didn’t even know you could go there. I thought it was illegal,” Thomas says. “You have to go with an organized tour group. They’re approved by the government.”
When Baxter retired, he made good on his plans, and the two book a trip to North Korea for late August.
“They make it very clear you’re coming as a tourist. If you’re a photojournalist or a missionary, we have no responsibility for you,” Thomas says.
Here’s the story of a Kentuckian’s atypical vacation to the much-maligned and generally isolated Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—aka, North Korea.
Thomas and Baxter traveled with the Koryo Group, a Bejing-based British company. They had two options for their tour: either a five-day visit to Pyongyang, various monuments and the Demilitarized Zone—called the DMZ—or a nine-day tour that traveled further north into the nation’s mountainous and rural areas. They chose the five day trip. It was exhausting.
“You’re with your guide on the bus going to a function. The shortest day we had was 12 hours,” Thomas says.
Thomas says the group was put up in a hotel that was “very dated but spotlessly clean” and they were strongly encouraged to stay in their rooms once they were dropped off in the evening.
“You’re day is over when you get to the hotel,” he says.
Thomas says he wasn’t a fan of the food, which, aside from breakfast pastries, was largely Korean fare, braised tofu and kimchi. Others on the group enjoyed it, though.
As for the city, Thomas was surprised by Pyongyang.
“It was much more bustling than I thought it would be,” he says. “Everything I saw on the Internet made me think you could effortlessly walk through the middle of the road and no one would be there. It was busy. Lots of people walking and on bicycles, but that’s how it was in China.”
Thomas says there were some propaganda and social realism posters on buildings, as well as ads for Chinese cars. He saw a few Mercedes and Audis on the roads. And there was a public military exercise happening on many days.
“You can take photos, which surprised me,” says Thomas, adding, “They’re very particular about photos of their leaders.”
Thomas says the group was told not to fold or otherwise crease the newspapers in their hotel rooms, out of concern that they may damage a photo of the Korea’s past leaders, Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il.
“Our tour group operator told us one year, a guy smoked in his room, put his cigarette out, and after he put his cigarette out, he threw it in the newspaper and wrapped it up,” Thomas says. “The cleaning people opened it up, it had cinged the face of one of the leaders. The tour group operator said they stopped them at the airport.”
There is one place no one can take photos. The mausoleum where Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are laying in state. It’s a very important place for North Koreans.
“You arrive and these rollers brush your feet off on the ground. Then you go through a miniature car wash dryer to blow off the dust,” Thomas says. “You take a really long moving sidewalk, I think deliberately slow, to get to the main area. You’re greeted with a woman, strikingly beautiful. She had a deep, operatic voice. She introduces you to the building and mausoleum. She was very somber. It wasn’t an affectation. I saw a number of Korean people wiping tears from their eyes. It was impressive.
“You go into the main mausoleum area. It’s darkened. I was expecting a sarcophagus, but it was glass, with light on the embalmed body.
“You go out into the courtyard. I had heard how meticulously maintained the grounds are. I thought it was hyperbole. They said people used tweezers on the grass and combed it after it rained. It rained while we were in there, and we came out, and there were people with tweezers planting grass blade by blade and fluffing it up.”
Thomas says he never felt unsafe, given the strong military presence. And the anti-American feelings were not ever-present.
“They’re used to having Europeans on the tour, but our tour guide operator said increasingly, the groups are dominated by Americans,” says Thomas. “The only time I felt awkward, was, they had a tour of the Pueblo, which was a spy ship in the 60s they captured.
“They show you a little film. It’s from their perspective. ‘The Western Imperialists denied it was a spy ship until they were shown the proof.’ There’s a video of Lyndon Johnson denying it then backtracking.
“The tour guide asked where we were from, and we said ‘the U.S., Kentucky.’ She said, ‘Oh, American.’ No one ever said anything harsh, but I could tell she felt a little awkward.”
Thomas and Clay returned home without incident, with photos and stories of their experience, and no scars or scares from the DPRK. Though it’s not a place they’re likely to revisit.
“It ranks among the most exotic vacations I’ve had, but not the best,” Thomas says. “It was a trip, not a vacation.