Crash Course: North Korea 

Statue of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang

By Hanna Petöcz

The DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a lot of things, but it is probably not the place you want to visit for your next trip. But if you really want to visit, North Korea is accessible to tourists, and I will tell you how. This is a Crash Course on North Korea. 

North and South Korea were separated during World War II, the South being occupied by the US, and the North by the Soviet Union. Tensions between the sides kept rising, as both forces established separate governments. Kim Il Sung, the North Leader, was doing everything in his power to reunite the two Koreas under a communist reign. This ultimately resulted in an invasion by the North, which led to the Korean war between 1950 and 1953. The war ended with an armistice, but no formal peace treaty was signed, leaving the peninsula divided between North and South to this day. 

North Korea maintained a communist regime after the end of the Soviet Union, with one of the strictest and most dystopian societal structures. What you must know, or are about to discover, is that the North Korean government is all about controlling every aspect of its inhabitants’ lives; making sure all runs smoothly, with every individual having their exact place and duty, like a monumental machine. 

As in many strict societies, North Korean citizens are divided into social classes, collectively called “the Songbun System”. Songbun is the sociopolitical classification that determines the status of citizens, based on their family’s history of loyalty to the government. Within this system, there are three major classes: “Core”, “Wavering” and “Hostile”. 

Those part of the Core class are the elite. They live in the capital, and have access to the best that North Korea has to offer (imported food, prestigious universities…).  

The Wavering are not considered as the truest citizens, but not particularly bad either. They get average job opportunities and live in smaller cities. They live a decent life: nothing luxurious.  

Those of the Hostile class are seen as the “bad” people. They are exiled to the countryside, and must endure poor living conditions. They are often punished by not getting enough food, left to starvation. Citizens can get into the hostile class if they, or one of their family members, do something illegal. This shadow put on the family lasts for three generations before a chance appears to get redeemed. 

In our culture, when we talk about crimes, we think of robbery, or in extreme cases, murder. In North Korea, the concept of crime is quite different. Even making a phone call to a foreign country or wearing jeans can put you in the hostile class in the blink of an eye. Another sad but expected fact about Songbun, is how easy it is to fall, and how difficult it is to rise, within the classes.  

Another aspect of this country is its state ideology, “Juche”. Juche embodies a set of political and philosophical principles, thought of by the country’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung. At the heart of Juche is the idea of self-reliance, emphasizing the importance of political independence, economic independence, and military strength. This ideology encourages a country’s self-sufficiency and development of their own industries and resources, to reduce dependence on external support. This is part of the reason North Korea is so isolated. The other part is that the country only has trading deals with China, with whom they share a massive border. The other two neighbouring countries are South Korea, and a miniscule border shared with Russia. Having a state ideology based on independence, and only one country to trade with, has left North Korea quite isolated. No wonder we have such little information about what is really going on over there. 

What you can do to learn more about North Korea though, is to go there! Yes, I know that it sounds insane, but it is possible. There are specific travelling agencies that are connected to North Korean ones that create journey plans for tourists. With a group and a tour guide, you can visit the most important places in the country. But it is not without risk. North Korea, having extremely strict rules, applies these to tourists as well. In case of a mistake on your side, you can be trapped in the country until the government thinks you have been rightfully punished. This can be years of intense labour camp, without your home country being able to do anything about it.  

The DPRK is one of the strictest and most peculiar countries on earth. If I were you, I would think twice about visiting. And if you decide to take the risk, I advise you to do the most research possible.