Although Tara and Mike love travel, there are still many (ok, maybe more than a hundred) countries that we haven’t been to yet, including North Korea. However, Mike’s brother Thomas not only made it there once, but had such a memorable experience that he went back a second time. Thomas seems to take gleeful pleasure in visiting countries that stress out his parents (this year he traveled to Iran). Since most Americans are nervous about traveling to North Korea (and rightfully so when you remember the news about Otto Warmbier), Thomas opens up about his trip and shares his impressions of the country, its citizens and how someone interested in traveling to North Korea might go about planning a trip.
Two Travelaholics: Why did you choose to visit the DPRK (North Korea) and when did you visit?
Thomas Shubbuck: I moved to Shanghai, China, in 2012 and began traveling throughout China and to countries in the Asian region. My work visa was flipped into a tourist visa at one point and I needed to leave China every 30 days. The agreement that I had with my workplace was that they would pay for my airplane ticket and that I would pay for my hotel, so I began visiting friends in the area. By 2014 I had already made my way to South Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and all over China. There was just one, small country close to Shanghai that I was missing and that was North Korea, or the DPRK, as Koreans prefer to call it. I found out that Americans were not allowed to travel there year-round until 2010, and that less than 800 had visited each year, so in October 2014 I took a 4-day trip to the country and enjoyed it so much that I returned for a 24-hour trip in April 2015.
Before my first trip in, I did a little research about traveling to the DPRK and found that I needed guides and could not go alone. I came across a company, Uri Tours, that had taken Americans there and found that the only complication that they only had one situation where an American tourist had ripped up his visa upon arrival and demanded asylum. Beyond that strange incident I found many positive reviews of the company. Also, they were responsible for visits by former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, the New York Philharmonic, former Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, and Dennis Rodman. I then researched about any Americans held in North Korea and found that they were humanely treated and no one had suffered during their time there, except for the feeling of depression.
2T: Was it hard to obtain a DPRK visa as an American?
TS: No, not at that time. I know now that the US Department of State has banned travel for US citizens to the DPRK, but at that time it was actually easy. I only needed to fill out a Word document and upload a picture. After that, the tour company handled the remaining details through the Beijing embassy. I think about 3 weeks was needed to process the visa. I was able to take a picture of the visa but couldn’t keep it. Also, throughout both trips, my passport was held by my guides which really didn’t bother me. Both times when I was leaving I asked for a stamp in my passport but was refused. Instead I taped my luggage tags into my passport as a reminder of my adventures there.
2T: So, as a US citizen, you needed to be accompanied by guides throughout your stay. How were they?
TS: After I arrived I was greeted by 2 female guides, a Ms. Kim and a Ms. Lee, along with a driver, Mr. Lee. They were some great people and very helpful. Sure, at times, Ms. Lee liked to talk politics but I would just smile. She told me several stories of “American imperialists” that were different than the history lessons I had been taught in the US. The stories were interesting to listen to as we moved from location to location and didn’t have music. Along the way there were checkpoints where Mr. Lee would pull over the car and we would hand over papers as soldiers would look inside. I figured that license plates might have allowed us to pass these points but that didn’t matter and so we would stop several times in every direction.
Some rules that were mentioned were that I could not take pictures of the military (but many military members took pictures with me). I also could not leave the hotel, which was fine with me since we were traveling around for nearly 12-hours a day. By the time we arrived at the hotel at night I was fairly tired and would quickly fall asleep.
Every morning Ms. Lee and Ms. Kim would meet me in the lobby of the Koryo Hotel and we would walk past a group tour of about 30 Europeans to the private car driven by Mr. Lee. I think by the second day the tour group thought I was a government official as I had my own driver and two ladies escorting me out, so a few of them took my picture. I found the guides to be fun and Mr. Lee and I shot a rifle together, Ms. Lee stood up to a Chinese man who bumped into me at a shop near the DMZ, and Ms. Kim made sure to shorten one day of my trip as I had become sick. In fact, Ms. Kim was our group guide for my second trip in and when I arrived at the airport hangar I gave her a big hug.
They never “followed me” or were strict when we visited any location, except when we were at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and were surrounded by soldiers. I bowed to the Kim Il-Sung statue with one hand in my pocket. Ms. Lee noticed that some soldiers were watching and told me to bow again with both hands at my side. Later in my trip, my guides helped me purchase a North Korean military uniform (which makes for a good Halloween costume) and suggested that I attend the circus, which I found to be amazing. If there was a way to stay in contact with them I’m sure we would remain good friends.
2T: Did the US travel warnings impact your decision to visit the DPRK (North Korea)?
TS: At the time I don’t believe there was anything that was strongly worded against traveling to the DPRK. I knew that some Americans had been detained, but as I researched further I found that these individuals were not harmed and either spent time in a hotel room or in a private villa. I figured Americans can be detained in any country and that foreigners visiting the United States have been detailed, too. My visit wasn’t political, or for religious reasons, and so I thought that if I followed the rules, I would be fine.
2T: But what about Otto Warmbier?
TS: Well, I toured the country before Otto arrived in North Korea and I experienced a pleasant and kind stay from everyone I met. I’m not really into politics, which allows me to travel to a variety of places, so I would refer you to read this GQ article about Otto in North Korea and I’ll leave it at that.
2T: Did you take any precautions before going?
TS: I always research the countries I visit before I go and so I read much about what I could and could not do during my visit. I also was able to meet with the CEO of Uri Tours, Andrea Lee, in Shanghai before I had left China. She came and spoke to the high school students for a couple of hours. I had requested that the students provide me with stuffed animals/plush toys, or school supplies, of which I could bring and hand out. When I arrived in North Korea the first time I had a medium-sized piece of luggage full of stuffed animals and a backpack full of school supplies. Also, through my research online, I had found out about the “secret 5th floor” at the Yanggakdo Hotel but my plan did not call for me to stay at the hotel. I did receive a file from Uri Tours about what I could and could not do and stuck to it.
One thing mentioned was not to take pictures of any military (but I did a few times and no one bothered me about it). Another thing that I read online was that I could not remove North Korean won (money) or the pins of the leaders that every citizen wears. The “Leader pins” were very important to every North Korean citizen, although I did read that such pins are available for purchase on the Chinese border from individuals who have crossed over.
2T: What was it like arriving in North Korea? Were you scared?
TS: Our plane in Shanghai, Air Koryo, left around 4:00 am on an October morning and we arrived around 7:00 am. I was the only foreigner on the plane and the rest were Chinese citizens visiting during the yearly “Golden Week,” where families had time to travel together. At that time Pyongyang was still building a new airport and runway as Kim Jong-un was moving toward wanting to welcome more tourists to the country. As our plane arrived the sun was beginning to rise, and yet we were surrounded by a thick fog, while we were parked a bit from the airport hangar. We then needed to walk down some movable stairs and take a bus in.
As we jumped in the bus we could see soldiers everywhere in their uniforms. Some were walking in formation, others were running with stretchers with heavy items in them, while others were standing at attention. Because of the fog it felt like we were in a war. I wish I had the nerve to take pictures and video like the Chinese citizens were doing but, having just arrived, I didn’t want to press my luck. Later I found out that the soldiers were in charge of building the airport and that the stretchers were carrying bricks. It would have made a good start to a movie if I could have taken video of the bus drive from the airplane to the hangar.
Eventually we arrived at the hangar but I needed a little help understanding the immigration card that was written in Hangul, the Korean language, so I asked the airplane stewardesses for assistance. After filling out the form I gave my passport to the immigration officer who allowed me through, but did not stamp my passport, and then on to the inspection area where they quickly looked through my bags and had me turn on my iPad. It actually was a very fast process. I then met my guides.
2T: So where did you visit during your stay?
TS: Each day was filled to the max for more than 12 hours. From the time we left the hotel until the time we returned for the day I was kept very busy. It might be best to explain my visits through pictures.
2T: Did you ever feel unsafe?
2T: What was the sentiment toward America/Americans like?
TS: There were posters and murals at some locations throughout the city that were anti-American, but I felt safe and not in fear of anyone. The only time that a location was all about being anti-American was at the War Museum. Before entering though, I walked over to some middle school students who were waiting to enter and shook their hands. I did that a lot. At the amusement park I would shake hands, and when I walked by people in the street I would as well. I handed out candy on the metro and gave toys to a kindergarten and an orphanage, along with notebooks and pens to the high school students. When meeting people they really didn’t care where I came from. Everyone just enjoyed a handshake, or a smile, or gamsahamnida (Thank you).
2T: How would you compare/contrast North Korea to the U.S.?
TS: The U.S. is a much more open society with the ability to travel, access the Internet, and ability to contact anyone at any time. Even driving in the vehicle with government license plates we were made to stop at checkpoints and provide paperwork. So, yes, North Korea is a closed society but I personally wasn’t controlled as you would have expected. I could have purchased a SIM card to use my phone and the Internet but figured that I would rather immerse myself in the culture.
2T: There have been mentions that people at locations in the city are staged, as if they are actors. What was you take on this?
TS: The first time I visited I was a single traveler, so to have a metro full of actors would not be worth the effort on their part. When viewing the paintings and sketches by the students I did find them to be impressive for their ages though. But they might be “that good” since the student dances, singing, and playing of musical instruments were all authentic. I’m sure after much practice a student could excel at what they were being taught.
2T: There have also been mentions that tourists are only brought to the best places. How would you respond to that?
TS: I would say that most visitors to Los Angeles are brought to Disneyland, and not to Skid Row. Every culture wants to show off their best. The airport was being worked on and some streets were being repaved. Improvements were happening at a lot of places around Pyongyang when I was there. Outside of the city there were some potholes but I have seen much worse on some streets in the U.S.
2T: What really stood out to you?
TS: I was impressed with how kind everyone was to me. After all you hear about visiting the DPRK, you figure that you may be watched all the time and locked into your hotel room. It was much, much different than that. Most locations that we arrived at had a local guide that spoke perfect English and was always wearing a dress or uniform that represented the culture. Military uniforms were worn at the War Museum and DMZ, and traditional gowns were worn at all other locations. Also, there is a casino in the hotel basement that had table games and slot machines.
2T: Why would you recommend (or not) that an American visit North Korea?
TS: At this time Americans cannot visit North Korea, but I think the interaction between Americans and Koreans is an important one to share cultures. The only way to open a closed society is to interact with the people.
2T: Would you like to mention anything else?
TS: No one checked my pictures upon entry or exit (during both trips). No one followed me everywhere (if I wanted to go to the restroom/WC my guides would tell me the location and let me find it by myself). I had the ability to take any pictures I wanted (except for some members of the military). I was able to talk to anyone passing by (although few spoke English). Even though I was told the tour scheduling could not be changed, my guides suggested a visit to the circus (which I loved) and a visit to a church (which I passed on because I wanted more time to visit the orphanage). There have been so few Americans held in North Korea that such fear of not being able to leave is unwarranted. No American has died in North Korea since the Korean War.
Again, I don’t wish to jump into politics, so here are some statistics about Americans dying abroad (not just being detained):
All pictures are copyright Thomas Shubbuck.