The Koryo Tours Blog

Enter Pyongyang – Timelapse

We’re very excited to announce the launch of our newest video co-production – an unprecedented time-lapse of Pyongyang! We shot this film in April with Shanghai-based Thrilling Cities – let us know what you think in the comments!

 

This extraordinary time-lapse video shows the North Korean capital of Pyongyang as it has never been seen before. Koryo Tours – a travel company set up by North Korea expert Nick Bonner in 1993 – used its 21 years of experience working in Pyongyang to secure JT Singh and Rob Whitworth unprecedented access to make ENTER PYONGYANG, a truly breathtaking piece of work.


ABOUT KORYO TOURS: Koryo Tours (www.koryogroup.com) specialises in travel to North Korea, and was founded in 1993 by Nick Bonner — a Brit living in Beijing. Koryo Tours now takes more Western tourists to North Korea than any other company and is a firm believer in responsible tourism, which includes raising money for charitable causes within the country, and participating in significant cultural engagement projects, such as taking Middlesbrough Ladies football team to Pyongyang in 2010 with the backing of the British Embassy there. The tour operator’s parent company, Koryo Group, has also made three award-winning documentaries about North Korea: The Game of Their Lives; A State of Mind; Crossing The Line. Koryo Tours runs regular trips to North Korea, including a special architecture tour in October, which will feature exclusive access and expert lectures

ABOUT ROB WHITWORTH: Rob Whitworth (www.robwhitworth.co.uk) is a prominent urban filmmaker. He is responsible for creating awe-inspiring videos that reveal locations in a powerful and compelling manner. The instantly identifiable style of his work has gained widespread critical acclaim, and received over five million online views. During 2014 Robert has been working on a number of major projects, including shoots for the upcoming ‘One Planet’ series for the BBC Natural History Unit, and a viral video of Barcelona. Originating from the UK, Robert gained his first-class honours degree in Photography from Norwich School of Art & Design. He is currently based in Shanghai.

ABOUT JT SINGH Toronto-born JT Singh (www.jtsingh.com) is a leading place-branding pioneer, creative director, global urban explorer and economic strategist focused on cities. He is the co-founder of Thrilling Cities (www.thrillingcities.com), which is the only exclusively place-oriented branding and creative agency in the world.

Film Screening at April 25th Studios, Pyongyang

Many tourists who have previously visited Pyongyang will have had the opportunity to visit the impressive Pyongyang Film Studio but on July 31st 2014, the Victory Day tourists became the first ever  to be allowed to visit to the April 25 Film Studio in Pyongyang!

As some readers may know, April 25th is the date when the Korean People’s Army (KPA) was founded, unsurprisingly then the studio mainly produces films for the army but in recent years have branched out, shooting many other types of films. DPRK film buffs will know that it was the April 25th Film Studio that co-produced the groundbreaking COMRADE KIM GOES FLYING along with Belgian production company Another Dimension of an Idea and Koryo Group!

The building was impressive, with a huge mosaic above the entrance and a grand lobby housing a mural of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il surrounded by soldiers from the KPA. To mark this exciting occasion we had exclusive access to  the screening of 1994 North Korean comedy, O YOUTH! Before we hit play, the director Jon Jong Pal, presented the film in front of the audience. What followed was one of those special ‘cultural engagement’ moments, when the audience had to cry out and stop his introduction (essentially a long description of the plot) to try and avoid spoilers! Well, from his point of view perhaps he assumed that given the film was 20 years old, we really should have seen it by now ;)

Not content with providing cinematic entertainment, spoiler-filled director introductions and opening up hitherto-closed cultural spaces in North Korea, we also brought the studio it’s first popcorn machine all the way from Beijing – so next time we visit there will be snacks all round!

Trips to the April 25 Film Studio are now offered on every group tour.

 All photos ©Koryo Group
Tourists relax before the screening

Tourists relax before the screening of ‘O Youth’

Mosaic entrance to the April 25th Film Studio, Pyongyang

Mosaic entrance to the April 25th Film Studio, Pyongyang

Director Jon Jong Pal, presents his film

Director Jon Jong Pal, presents his film

Mural in the lobby of April 25 Film Studio

Mural in the lobby of the film studio

Pyongsong Taedonggang Clothing Factory

By Frances Kitt, July 2014

Koryo Tours’ July Budget group became the first ever tourists to visit the- an authentic working factory in Pyongsong, 30km north of the capital. The factory we visited opened in 1961 and has been manufacturing different garments for export since it’s opening.

Over 650 workers are employed 6 days a week, where we toured some of the manufacturing halls and saw separate material components being stitched together into recognisable sportswear products by hundreds of workers. We were shown a demonstration of an automated embroidery machine programmed to stitch individual logos onto clothing, with relatively modern machines which were in very good condition.

The manager explained the history of the factory and explained how its output had changed each decade. During the 1970′s it was used to export work clothes to Russia and later  in the 1980′s it specialised in making uniforms to export to Vietnam. From the 1990’s it was used to produce baby clothes for a Japanese clothing company and currently makes ski wear for export all over the world.

Trips to the Taedonggang Clothing Factory are now available on all trips to Pyongsong.

All photos ©Koryo Group

DPRK1509 DPRK1535 DPRK1531

 

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Football Fever!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Simon Cockerell, June 2014

During our June Spring Tour Koryo Tours’  group became the first tourists to visit the Pyongyang Football Academy opened in June of last year, by Kim Jong Un. Due to our long involvement in football in North Korea (from the movie The Game of Their Lives, to opening local football matches to foreign tourists, to arranging trips to see the national team play abroad) we were invited to come and see this centre of excellence.

 

Over 200 10 – 14 year old boys and girls attend this academy, we toured some of the classrooms and lecture halls, of course not just football and football theory is taught here, it also functions as a regular school too. We saw a lecture in progress on the flight of footballs played with spin, some of the dorm rooms for the students, and then moved out to the pitches themselves, the complex has numerous artificial pitches, al in very good condition, and overlook ed by the massive May Day stadium currently under extensive renovation in preparation for the expected Mass Games in 2015.

 

On the walk to the pitches I had a chance to talk to the director of the school, we discussed the players that they had sent for training in Italy and Spain, he told me they had high hopes that the skills that these 30+ young people that were currently training overseas would bring back would help immensely the development of the game in Pyongyang. I asked him about his hopes for the World Cup, which was starting just a few days later. He told me he respects the Italian, Spanish, and South Korean teams very much but was supporting Brazil, on the dubious grounds that as the host nation it would be good for them to win

 

We watched some teams training, practicing penalties, dancing (a pre-match ritual apparently for the girls teams at least), and one young wanna-be Ronaldo showboating with some impressive keepy-up skills.

 

The tourists were keen to show off themselves and the challenge was accepted, so 7 of us lined up against the cream of DPRK youth, it was height and weight vs skills and talent, and it was no contest, 10 mins later the score was around 9-nil, to the local side. Disappointing, but the visitors walked off with heads held high, having had one single shot on target in the whole game, we’ll be back for more though as the director of the academy invited us to bring more tourists along to have a look around, have a kick-about, and play some matches if any teams are interested, we hope to continue our connection with North Korean football for many more years!

 

 

footie2 footie IMG_5171 IMG_5170 IMG_5160 IMG_5159

Hiking & Camping In North Korea Tour 2014

This marks the first time camping has been offered on any North Korea tour – our Hiking and Camping tourists were the first to be able to camp out under the stars in two of North Korea’s famous mountain ranges and this was as much a treat for the guides as they had never done this before either!

hiking & camping group 2014

On this amazing journey we scaled the heights of some of the most iconic mountains in the DPRK, and witnessed some stunning and rarely-experienced views. We even spent a couple of nights sleeping out in tents under the stars in these unspoiled areas. This was the first time we were able to offer such a tour and we were excited to see the heights, the sights and the stars at night, covering some serious ground on foot in the deep mountains, as well as seeing some of the highlights of Pyongyang and beyond!

camping in North Korea!

This marks the first time camping has been offered on any North Korea tour – our Hiking and Camping tourists were the first to be able to camp out under the stars in two of North Korea’s famous mountain ranges and this was as much a treat for the guides as they had never done this before either!

Hiking amidst some of the most amazing scenery and in some of the most untouched mountain areas in the world! The scenic and fragrant Mount Myohyang and the jagged and evocative Mount Kumgang areas – unforgettable views and stunning photos. View 82 photos from the hiking/camping tour >

Total hiking: 79km (approx. 50 miles) as the crow flies  with hikes that cover up to 28 km in one day …with lots of uphills and downhills !

Koryo Tours is proud to be the first to offer hiking and camping trips in North Korea – we are also planning on running a second one in 2015.  Contact us for more details:info@koryogroup.com or watch our website for updates

view

 

View 82 photos from the hiking/camping tour >

What’s New In Sinuiju!

Sinuiju Spring Fragrance Cosmetics Factory

new destination

A visit to the DPRK border town of Sinuiju has been a popular add on to Koryo group tours since overnight trips became possible in January 2014. I returned to Sinuiju last week to take the first western tour group to the Sinuiju Spring Fragrance Cosmetics Factory (or Pomhyanggi in Korean!). The cosmetics factory makes all number of products from ginseng toothpaste to washing powder. We went to look at the impressive mosaic of Kim Jong Il inspecting the factory before going to check it out for ourselves!

one of the many weird and wonderful products from the Sinuiju Factory

one of the many weird and wonderful products from the Sinuiju Factory

one of the cute wrapped soaps

one of the cute wrapped soaps

As well as the cosmetics factory, the Sinuiju city tour includes a visit to the Sinuiju Art Exhibition which houses paintings of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Mother Kim Jong Suk going about their daily duties. As a souvenir you can get a sketch of yourself for 20RMB. We finished with a tour and performance at Sinuiju Kindergarten before crossing over the bridge back to Dandong in time to catch the overnight train to Beijing.

The Sinuiju overnight extension can be added onto any tour that is leaving the DPRK by train. Please note that as US citizens are not permitted to take the train out of the DPRK, Sinuiju is currently closed to US tourists.

Learn More about Sinuiju >

Sinuiju Kindergarten Sinuiju local guides Miss Pak and Mr Choe Soap packing section toothpaste Kim Jong Il Mosaic

Pyongyang’s Unseen Interiors!

Koryo Tours’ groundbreaking Architecture tour travels the entire Chollima line on the Pyongyang Metro and visits a residential apartment!


By Daniel Levitsky, April 2014 In April 2014, after many years of waiting, a group from Koryo Tours were able to visit the inside of a Pyongyang apartment, and to see for the first time ever how Koreans in Pyongyang live within the confines of their own homes. The flat we visited was located in one of the newest blocks in the city, completed at breakneck speed last year beside the April 25th House of Culture in the centre of Pyongyang. Flats became available for occupation in 2013 as soon as the building was completed, and we were taken to one which is lived in by the family of a teacher at Kim Il Sung University. Following a visit to the university itself, we drove to the flat with a member of university staff, who took us up the flat, watched by fascinated children who were playing in the yard outside the entrance to the block. We were all delighted and excited to be climbing the stairs and entering the lift for this unique, unprecedented opportunity.   Once we got inside the flat itself, it was obvious that this was one of the largest, newest flats in a ‘normal’ block in the entire city, but it nonetheless provided a fascinating glimpse into everyday living conditions and family life in Pyongyang from a perspective which has never been possible before. The flat was fairly large, consisting of a spacious hallway, a large, light, open-plan living room and kitchen area, and four other rooms (excluding the bathroom), all of which were fairly large. The bathroom was very modern and also a good size, and the flat had a small balcony which offered wonderful views of central Pyongyang in all directions. Our hosts (the Kim Il Sung University teacher and his wife) were fairly relaxed and friendly, and were very keen to be hospitable, offering us cider and sitting and chatting with us in the living room about their family and work for quite a while. The kitchen, though not huge, was impressively modern, with good amenities and an open breakfast area, and all the rooms had family photos up and other bits and pieces dotted about to make them ‘cosy’. The block also had a large ‘rest area’ on the 30th floor, which had large balconies looking out in all directions across the city. We spent some time here taking photos, and were told by the building’s concierge that people use this space at weekends and on summer evenings. Our visit to the flat and rest area concluded, we descended in the lift, and as we emerged on the ground floor encountered two other residents of the block in the form of an elderly lady with what must have been her grandson. They at first were very surprised to see us, but quickly smiled and stood watching us leave the block, as fascinated and wide-eyed as us by this unprecedented visit. (Click on thumbnails to enlarge)

Koryo Tours Architecture Tour visits local apartment
Inside Apartment
View from outside
Outside view
Koryo Tours Architecture Tour visits local apartment
Inside Apartment
Koryo Tours Architecture Tour visits local apartment
Inside the apartment
Koryo Tours Architecture Tour visits local apartment
Inside the apartment
Koryo Tours Architecture Tour visits local apartment
Inside the apartment

As well as this exciting tour of Pyongyang apartment, our group also became the first company to take foreigners on a tour of the entire first line of the Pyongyang metro (the Chollima Line, opened in 1973). For many years foreign tourists were only able to see two stations on the system, Puhung (Revitalisation) and Yonggwang (Glory), which are two of the most elaborate stations on the system and form part of an extension at one end of the line opened in 1987. Over the last few years tourists have been allowed to ride further, from Puhung to Kaeson (Triumph) station further down the line, travelling six stations down the line. It was only possible, however, to view the platforms at three stations, Puhung, Yonggwang and Kaeson. Last week, however, our group were the first to be able not only to alight and see the platforms at all the stations between Puhung and Kaeson, but to be able to travel for the first time beyond Kaeson station to the end of the Chollima Line, thus becoming the first foreign tour group to travel along this section of the system, and to see the line’s final two stations, Chonu (Comrade) and Pulgunbyol (Red Star). This meant that we saw, for the first time ever, the stunning decoration at Tongil (Reunification) station, consisting of beautiful bronze reliefs down either side of the station’s central hall depicting glorious socialist construction in the North on one side, and hardship under US occupation on the other. These images come together at the end of the hall in a striking, colourful mosaic showing an imaginary scene of a reunified Korea, complete with celebrating Koreans and idyllic landscapes in the background. Other stations had simpler decoration and smaller central halls, but all contained mosaics small and large depicting images related to the station’s theme, both in small circular form down the walls and in large-size images covering the entire wall at one end of the station hall. Our extended tour also meant that we were the first to see station where it is possible to change from the first line to the second (Chonu), whose central hall has staircases at either end, one for changing to the Hyoksin Line, and one to exit to the street. Next Architecture Tour will run in October. View > Images of all the ‘new’ stations which we visited can be found below, click on the thumbnails to enlarge.

Pulgunbyol Station

Pulgunbyol Station

Pulgunbyol Station

Pulgunbyol Station

Chonu Station

Chonu Station

Chonu Station

Chonu Station

Chonu Station

Chonu Station

Chonu Station

Chonu Station

Chonu Station

Chonu Station

Tongil Station

Tongil Station

Tongil Station

Tongil Station

Tongil Station

Tongil Station

Ponghwa Station

Ponghwa Station

Ponghwa Station

Ponghwa Station

 

Pyongyang Marathon 2014

Pyongyang Marathon 2014

The Pyongyang Marathon 2014 took place on April 13th 2014, and this was the first time foreign amateur runners could also participate in the race, previously only open to professional foreign runners, a very special opportunity indeed!

50,000 people in the stadium and the marathon included three categories Full Marathon, Half-Marathon and 10K (Men / Women).

The amateur 10KM Marathon for men was won by a Koryo Tours tourist!

We also met with Jong Song Ok, the 1999 world female marathon champ, now she is the head of DPRK Marathon Committee

Collection of images from the Pyongyang Marathon 2014. You can now also sign up for 2015!

See photos from the Marathon on our Facebook page >

5 Common North Korea Myths Debunked!

By Simon Cockerell, March 21st 2014

 

1. Can you hook up with a local girl?

 

While not technically illegal this isn’t something which is commonly achieved. It is much discussed by certain tourists but despite some serious efforts by some of the people on tour I have never once known of this conclusively happening. North Korea places great pride in its national homogeneity and is a deeply conservative culture, thus hooking up with a visiting foreigner would be something a bit shameful and also something quite out of character for almost all the women there (the men too, despite their bouts of braggadocio and masculine preening regarding their pick-up skills), not to mention somewhat unprofessional for people in the service industry. Its basically not something that can be realistically expected to happen; flirting is common, developing a crush on someone is universal, but beyond that we would have to disappoint. But thwarted Casanovas shouldn’t feel too down about it; we travelled there a few years ago with a group of professional pick-up artists, and they all struck out too, to try and fail places you in illustrious company!

Koryo Tours' Daniel in Haeju with KITC's Yong Hui

Koryo Tours’ Daniel in Haeju with KITC’s Yong Hui

2. Can I travel if I’m American or Israeli? What if I’m gay?

 

Yes. Until 2010 it was possible for Americans to visit only during the Mass Games (so for 2-3 month periods every year or so) and then only for 4 nights per trip. Since January 2010 it has been possible under the same conditions as other tourists (a couple of exceptions though: Americans cannot travel by train and cannot stay in some of the regional hotels), so that has meant more access to the country for US tourists than ever before. Israeli tourists have the same situation. DPRK has diplomatic relations with the Palestinian State and not with Israel, but in practice for tourists this doesn’t mean a thing, Israelis are welcome to come on tour.

While North Koreans will deny that homosexuality exists in the DPRK it is more a case of not existing culturally than anything else. It isn’t an inherently anti-gay country, just somewhere that this is never mentioned, and people grow up generally completely ignorant of the existence of alternative sexuality as well as gender issues, not to mention the mechanics of any kind of non-vanilla sex. We take quite a large number of gay tourists and for the most part, the guides and other Koreans have no idea if they are gay, even if it isn’t hidden or ambiguous at all. The signifiers and codes that people elsewhere recognise and are attuned to simply don’t exist in North Korea, so in that way it’s a very naïve place. Sadly this means that for gay North Koreans they would end up living lives of frustration based on a lack of understanding about their own identity, not having the references to understand themselves and not having society understand them. There is a long way to go in that respect. But for gay tourists this is no issue at all, almost nobody in North Korea has ever given homosexuality a second thought, and many people find it confusing and slightly amusing rather than having a major problem with it. You can travel openly and as freely as any other tourist.

A tourist leads a class at Kim Jong Suk Middle School in Pyongsong

A tourist leads a class at Kim Jong Suk Middle School in Pyongsong

3. Do you have to swear allegiance to the leaders to get a visa?

 

No, this isn’t necessary at all. At some places visited on most tours (statues of DPRK’s leaders, the Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il) visitors are asked to ‘pay respects’ which means to make a short bow. You can do this or just stand still, the local Koreans may take this as you honouring them sincerely, or just going along with the local ritual, in many ways it doesn’t matter. We equate this to the act of taking off your hat in church, or shoes in a temple; it’s just a case of going along with the social norms expected by the hosts, it doesn’t put you on their ‘side’ or mean anything more than you want it to mean. So no, you don’t have to leave any principles behind when you visit, you don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not, and you don’t have to pretend to be in favour of anything you aren’t. North Korea’s political ideology is specifically for Korean people, if you’re not a North Korean then you aren’t included in this calculation, you’re just a foreign visitor.

Bride, Groom, Best Man and Maid of Honour getting wedding photos taken.

Bride, Groom, Best Man and Maid of Honour getting wedding photos taken.

4. How many tourists get arrested every year?

 

Koryo Tours has never once had a tourist arrested, detained, molested, questioned, expelled, etc from North Korea. Not once in 21 years of operation. We take great care to inform our travellers of the rules and regulations, limitations and realities of travelling to North Korea, both in pre-tour info packs we send out, and at the pre-tour briefing which we ask everyone to come to. All of our staff have been to North Korea a great many times, with some having been more than 100 times, and we bring the benefit of that experience to help make the tour as safe and secure as possible, our record speaks for itself. Actually it is very hard to get yourself arrested there, simple ‘mistakes’ such as taking the ‘wrong’ photo and getting caught usually mean being asked to delete it, or the guides getting told off, we do advise everyone that it is the guides who get into trouble, not the traveller, so be aware that personally responsibility is very much diminished for foreigner visitors (this isn’t a license to misbehave, this just means someone else gets into trouble for you, not ideal at all). There have been some recent high-profile cases of people visiting as tourists and getting arrested, the details of these incidents are widely known and are largely in the public record. In all these cases the reason for the arrests and detentions were not for the kinds of things that are normally done on a tour, these weren’t arbitrary incidents, and were not things that normal tourists commonly do, and we would advise everyone travelling there to be aware of what you are and aren’t allowed to do. Also we ask that if anyone has any concerns about this they contact us and we can explain in more detail. Fundamentally a trip to North Korea is not a case of taking your life or liberty into your hands, there is no reason why you would be detained or get in any trouble for no reason whatsoever, but to be informed is to be prepared and we have always been the company that gives the most information – so be safe on your adventure and come along with Koryo Tours!

 

 

Koryo Tours' Amanda and KITC's Kim Won Ik

Koryo Tours’ Amanda and KITC’s Kim Won Ik

5. Are the guides minders or government spies?

 

No, although it makes for a sexier holiday story to say that the government followed you around everywhere, the truth is that tour guides lead you around. The guides don’t work for the government, they work for KITC – the national travel company, which is state owned (there are many differences between the State, state-ownership, and the Government) but operated in many of the same ways we would recognise from any other company (profit motive, etc). Minders work for government ministers and organisations, they are something different. Spies are are something different again. Not wanting to burst anyone’s bubble but simply put; tourists are not very important, and have nothing to say that would be worth the government spying on them, there are more tourists going to North Korea than most people expect and the logistics and likelihood of everyone being under constant surveillance from their guides all the time is pretty remote, after all the guides are fallible humans too. I have read a claim online that the guide literally (and yes, this word was used, and used in the right way, not figuratively) follows you everywhere, even when you go to the bathroom. It’s hard to see how one guide could follow a whole group of people every time they g to the bathroom, it’s a case of a wild baseless exaggeration that is believable because it is related to North Korea. The reality is more boring and mundane; the guides are held responsible for the tourists they are charged with, the tourists have to stay with the guide, sometimes the guide needs to go to the bathroom too and it might be the same time as you – coincidence? Or irrefutable evidence of a massive government conspiracy to make sure you don’t do anything naughty while peeing? I’ll leave it up to you to decide (note: it’s the former)

KORYO CINEMA! Our Flavour


KORYO CINEMA + Organic Kimchi Samplers

Film: OUR FLAVOUR (aka Our Fragrance)

March 27th | 7:30PM

Venue: Koryo Tours office

Entrance: Free

Please RSVP via email to: info@koryogroup.com

Free entry at the Koryo Tours office with Organic Kimchi samplers by local foodie Sue Zhou Does Food: www.suezhoudoesfood.com

Our Flavour:

 

This film is a romantic-nationalist-propaganda-comedy. On the surface it is a fairly slight romantic comedy about the initial incompatibility between a young man and woman who have been simultaneously set up by their grandparents and also cast together in a fashion show. The young woman is a tour guide who is overly attracted to foreign ways and the young man is a Kimchi specialist who follows traditional values.

 

After many clashes due to these different values, the girl and her family eventually realise that the Korean way is best and are welcomed back to the fold and become close with the boy and his more traditional Korean family. The tipping point for the tour guide is when she takes her group of western tourists (actually Korean actors padded and bewigged to represent Europeans) to a park where they are lectured on Kimchi, the national dish, by her erstwhile boyfriend. She sees how she is a poor patriot by not knowing as much about her heritage as him and changes her and her family’s ways on the spot - an accessible film of contemporary DPRK that is well worth watching for anyone with an interest in Pyongyang life.
Sue Zhou does food