Hi, I'm Eric Testroete, my friend and I went to North Korea September 2011. We took an individual tour, so this meant we spent 9 days with 2 North Korean guides and a driver.

Photos: http://testroete.com/northkorea.html (Big Picture/In focus style)

Additional Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dutchct/collections/72157627923846387/

Proof is in the above links (Hi Reddit).

I'll post specific stories that maybe interesting in the comments.

Edit: My friend will answer questions as well. Her user name is moarandmoar

Comments: 1822 • Responses: 26  • Date: 

dutchct983 karma

Our driver was a very aggressive driver. For whatever reason he wanted to get everywhere as fast as possible. That combined with sketchy North Korean roads made for some hair raising moments.

Since a lot of the roads are super old and made of concrete, they were really in bad shape; frost heaves, large cracks and pot holes. The driver would be so aggressive he would chirp the tires when braking and turning.

Additionally a lot of the pedestrians there aren't used to cars because they're aren't that many cars outside the cities. They don't look before they cross and often don't seem to hear us coming.

We had a few moments were we almost hit cyclists, children, pedestrians. This all came to a head in Hamhung (a city on the east coast). We were tearing down the road and there was a large crowd of people crossing the road. They slowly start to open up as we approach.. except one guy decided he wanted to play chicken with. As we race toward him he just stands there, staring at us. The driver realizes he's not moving, brakes and swerves. Everybody in the car looks back as we pass him to see if we hit him and he's still standing there looking at us. We must have missed him by inches.

The guides say nothing.

The next day when we're about to leave Hamhung and I talk to the guide: "Can we please slow down? We've had a lot of close calls" She replies laughing: "yeah, ok." I say looking her in the eyes "No seriously, we've almost hit a few people. Do you remember yesterday, we almost hit that man on the road?" She kind of realized how serious I was and talked to the driver. We drove at a reasonable pace from then on.

will7600 karma

You are very descriptive and a great photographer, thank you.

UncleTouchUBad127 karma

Wow, great photography. I spent several years in Japan and this makes me really wish I had taken better pictures and video. What kind of camera, lenses, and flash did you use?

dutchct112 karma

I usually don't like answering gear questions because the photos could have been taken on any DSLR.

It was Pentax K5 with most a 16-50 and a 50-135.

Eryan36536 karma

Why would you want to visit NK?

dutchct508 karma

I know you're getting some down votes for this one, but it's the most common question we get.

Our curiosity piqued when we started watching documentaries about North Korea and reading the Wikipedia articles. There are so many crazy stories that we just had to go see it for ourselves.

My girlfriend are very curious people by nature and have done some adventurous tourism in the past (solo driving through the Altiplano of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina).

We're not the type to go to an all inclusive resort. We really just want to experience something different and expand our world view. You don't really know what a place is until you go there.

meshugga256 karma

You don't really know what a place is until you go there.

God, that's such an "easy" insight, yet so few people have it. Arriving in a new or very different country always feels kinda magical to me. Warps my mind. Also, you suddenly start to actually understand people. Not just go sightseeing. Go sightfeeling, only then you can inhale the true spirit of the place you're at.

btw, I'd really like to know more about the personal relationships to your guides. What they told you about their lives, how their jobs work, stuff like that.

dutchct192 karma

It was interesting because there were so many tourists coming in at the time, that they had run out of guides. We changed to an individual tour at the last moment (the group was going to be 20 people).

We ended up getting the head teacher of the tourism school as our guide and one of her students, his first time as a guide.

She was older, in her 50s or 60s. Her English was fairly good and at first she was quite by the book. Later on she eased up as she got to know us and actually let us see the military parade, something the other tourists weren't allowed to do. We often got the feeling that we were her children and she kind of treated as such. This was kind of charming at times but annoying at other times. :) Her parents had grown up during the Japanese occupation and through the Korean war. You could tell she was very sympathetic to Kim Il-sung. She lives in an apartment with her daughter and grandson. She mentioned that he loved to chase cockroaches around the apartment. ಠ_ಠ

Our other guide was about our age, 28. He had just finished his 8 years in the military and was training to be a guide. His English was pretty poor, but he could recite descriptions of land marks. He was a child at heart, he would laugh at the goofy stuff we would do. We would tease him about having a girlfriend and asked him if there was anyone he liked. The other guide/his teacher brought up another student of hers and he got a bit shy :) He was also a ping pong coach. We played ping pong in Hamhung and politely obliterated me. Damn spin shots.

The driver spoke no English, but he loved the Soju. We were warned to not give the driver alcohol. But one night we were having duck BBQ and topping up the Soju cups for the guides. At some point I noticed our guide was giving her Soju to the driver and he was getting pretty smashed. Slightly concerning, but we made it home safe. I don't think there is drinking and driving awareness in North Korea. At one point he showed us a photo of his little girl on his phone.


Your photos are absolutely amazing. Thank you So Much for sharing them!

friendlyaussie422 karma


dutchct88 karma

Good guy PENIS_IN_MAH_MOUTH. Thanks pal.

dutchct377 karma

Some of the most interesting stuff we saw while we were there on the drives between landmarks. All the land marks are very controlled experiences, but on the drives they can't control what you see. It gives you an idea of what it's like to live in North Korea.

Some things we saw were people mowing lawns by hand, children walking with large bags of rice, people watering crops with a bucket plant by plant, wood burning trucks, ox and carts.

But the one that really sticks with me was while driving back from Hamhung, I saw a child on the side of the road playing with an AK-47. He was barely strong enough to hold it up, kind of shakily pointing it at the horizon.

This was a shock to me so as soon as I saw it I turned my head around to look. The guide noticed this immediately and looked as well. I realized a minute later that maybe we should stop and deal with it. But then I realized the guide saw it as well and did nothing.

smellyjellyhole203 karma

You mean they were cutting their grass with scissors? My dad does this and he is North Korean.. now I know why.

dutchct214 karma

Knives in this case.

dutchct303 karma

So I want to talk about Kumsusan Memorial Palace which is the Mausoleum were Kim Il-sung lays in state and where I assume Kim Jong-il will be.

We got the tour of it and the whole experience was pretty nuts. We didn't know what to expect as there are no pictures online.

You start the tour a maybe a kilometer away from the actual building. We were basically in a holding room with other tourists and their guides. The guides are all talking to each other and we're checking out the propaganda magazines showing Kim Jong-il looking at things ;) We're all dressed in our best (i bought my first tie for this occasion).

Eventually its time to go and all the tourists and their guides go out side and line up under a covered walk way in rows of 4. The locals show up by train to the right of us. They're all dressed in their best. The women in their colorful dresses and the men in that grey/brown style outfit.

The tourists go first and we start walking toward a large hallway. We enter the hallway and we have to walk over a foot cleaning thing. Kind of plastic carpet on rollers. We then have to check our cameras at the camera check. After this we walk through the xray machine to ensure we don't have cameras hidden on us.

After this its time to go down the massive hallway. We step onto these moving floors that you see at the airport. There are about 5 going toward the Mausoleum and 5 coming back. We don't walk on these moving floors, we just stand there and slowly creep along. Finally we get to the end of the hallway.. turn right. More moving floors. Escalators.

Eventually we get to a room with a large white stone statue of Kim Il-sung.

We enter the room of mourning and given ear pieces. On the ear piece is a very emotional British voice describing how sad people are at Kim Il-sung's death. We are lead to large reliefs showing sad people upset at Kim Il-sung's death. The guides know the exact timing of these and lead us to the correct relief as the audio progresses. At the end we return the ear pieces.

We head into an elevator and go up a floor and get in line with other tourists. When its our turn we walk through a wind machine to blow off any dust that might be on us. After this we enter the room where Kim Il-sung lays in state.

Its a large room and he is laying in the center. He is laying in a glass box similar to Kim Jong-ils. The whole room is in orange light to prevent UV damage. There is a line of people formed at his feet. Kim Il-sung's body has been embalmed and his face looked really taught. He had definitely lost his shine.

When its our turn in line, we bow deeply at his feet. We walk to the left and bow again. We walk around his head and bow to his other side. After this we walk out of the room.

After this we see a room with all of Kim Il-sung's "participation prizes". Lots of gold plaques from African and South American countries. There were pictures of him shaking hands with Castro and Gaddafi. We were there before Gaddafi died, but while he was in serious trouble.

The next room was room where you could write a message to Kim Il-sung. We just walked through, but I'm totally going to do this next time.

Then we were shown his overly elaborate train car and maps of where he had traveled to. We were also shown a bullet proof Mercedes.

After this we took the same route back down the moving floors. This time the locals were coming the other way. We exchanged glances as they were just as interested in us as we were them.

After this we got our cameras back and took some pictures in front of the palace. The same place Kim Jong-ils funeral procession ended.

wickintheair222 karma

Are you worried that by entering as tourists, you monetarily supported an oppressive regime? I mean, it seems like it would be cool to see what's there, but I wouldn't want to give a dictator and his death camps any money just so I could have a story.

dutchct437 karma

This is a good question and we considered it ourselves.

Our perspective and the travel agency's perspective is that the more North Korea is exposed to western culture, the better. In any other part of the world the idea of interfering the local culture would be distasteful, but when we're talking about a regime that has kept its power in large part due to keeping its people fearful and angry at westerners, anything that can be done to break that down is a good thing. Any tourist that goes in becomes an ambassador for the outside world. They can see for themselves that westerners are not evil and conversely we can see that the general population isn't evil.

We were really aware about our image during the trip and tried to be as polite and friendly as possible.

Additionally the travel agency we went through also does humanitarian work. For example during our trip they brought in medical equipment.

The more they open up the better it is for North Korea and the better it is for the rest of the world.

We do understand that our money did go to an oppressive regime.

SmallInJapan112 karma

Interesting thought. I wanted to ask the same question. Do you really think that your limited interaction had any effect? (imagine my tone as inquiring, not grilling or patronizing...) Thanks for the AMA!

dutchct225 karma

I think it must have had a small effect. Our guides were fairly endeared to us by the end of the trip. I think they were honestly sad to see us go.

We're hoping to go back this spring and we'll try to meet up with them again.

We did have some goofy/nice moments. On the roller coaster you would take spiral track up before the ride began. Every time we went around we would wave to the people and they would wave back laughing and smiling.

I think positive moments like that really help.

Additionally, North Korea gets around 3000 tourists a year, so all those tourists will be interacting with North Koreans in some way.

Fishtails110 karma

So basically, you were there to violate the Prime Directive?

dutchct16 karma

Better than going to Risa.

hurrdurr204178 karma

dutchct41 karma

comedy gold

herpingthederp22164 karma

If you don't mind me asking, how much did it end up costing you?

If you don't feel comfortable answering it here, it would be cool if you could just PM me. :)

dutchct212 karma

We did the individual tour for 9 days with 2 people. It cost us about 2400 euros each. This includes the flight from beijing, hotel, food, transportation. We only brought extra spending money for souvenirs.

You can take a group tour, and it becomes cheaper. Or if you have more people in the individual tour, it becomes cheaper as well.

Apparently its much cheaper if you are Chinese citizen. You also get more access.

tobiassjoqvist156 karma

Which of your prejudices were true, and which weren't? Did you talk to anyone about the world outside of NK, and what did the person say to you? Were you surveyed and how?

dutchct248 karma

  • One of the things we assumed going was that North Korea was a technological black hole. And I think they were and still have a long way to go.

But our guides had cell phones and would always call ahead to places we were visiting. We would see a lot of people in talking on cel phones. Pyongyang had more cars on the road than we expected there to be (outside of the city is a different story).

The hotel had an email service. €1.50 for a 15kb email. We sent one but it never got to its destination.

I think the impression is that its a very depressing, sad place. But the people in Pyongyang live fairly well. We went bowling with our guides and the alley was packed with people having fun. There was an arcade at the alley as well. They took us to the "fun fair" which is an amusement park. Everybody was enjoying themselves there.

Outside of the show cities things were a little different. Poverty was a lot more obvious. As I mentioned in another post, we did see people picking grains off the ground to eat. We did see a lot of rough looking people.

The kids at the Coop farm kindergartens were definitely in a fortunate situation, but they were wearing clothes donated from the west. Additionally if you look through flickr, you can find different kids wearing the same clothes.

The guides told us how school was mandatory for all children. But as we drove from the farm, we saw kids walking down the road with large bags of rice or corn.

  • We didn't talk much about the the outside world. We did talk to our guides a little about South Korea and mentioned we would be meeting our friend there who teaches English. She would take us to the school she works at the meet the children. I offered to give a message to them from our guide. Our guide asked us to tell them something like "Lets work together to reunify Korea".

  • Not sure exactly what you mean by surveyed. On the way we took the train. When we hit the chinese border the guard did look through our photos and deleted a couple.

UrShiningDesire132 karma

What were the pictures????

dutchct208 karma

Photos of soldiers. I was able to recover them after crossing the border.

We knew this was coming so we backed up everything on our laptop. We put everything on a second partition and unmounted it when the time came. They never looked at the laptop.

AtmanRising55 karma

I heard you couldn't bring computers into North Korea...

dutchct133 karma

No GPS's, cellphones or lenses over 150mm.

dutchct149 karma

Post with interesting North Korean stuff:

  • Documentaries:

North Korea - A day in the life - Dutch documentary that follows a woman through her normal day.

Departures - North Korea - A Canadian travel show that did 2 episodes on North Korea. Their trip is what you can expect if you went there yourself.

A State of Mind - This documentary follows 2 girls preparing for the mass games.

Crossing the Line - About an American soldier that defected during the Korean war to the North. Interviews with the man himself.

Born and Raised in a Concentration Camp - A defector talks at google about his life in North Korea.

Pyongyang Style - Tourist video, love this one.

  • Wikipedia/Aritcles:

Kenji Fujimoto - Kim Jong-ils japanese chef who escaped north korea, then wrote about Kim Jong-il, including his sex parties.

Gippeumjo - A group of 2000 women with the sole purpose of providing "pleasure" to the North Korean leadership.

North Korean plane crashes in China

Chung Mong-hun - A south korean and Chairman of Hyundai, he committed suicide after being involved in a scandal that sent money to North Korea.

North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens

Korean Air Flight 858 - North Korean terrorist attack related to the Olympics in Seoul

I know there is a ton more stuff, but I can't get to it all. Feel free to reply other interesting stuff.

xodios93136 karma

This is an interesting one, di you talk / interact with any millitary personel? What were they like, normal people or the blindly patriotic brainwashed types?

dutchct374 karma

At the DMZ I had a conversation with one of the soldiers with my guide as a translator.

Basically he asked where I was from, I asked how long he has been a soldier and if he likes it. I said he must be very proud! This went over really well and he said he was very proud.

It was a really nice moment. You could tell he was very patriotic though.

At the gift shop there were some other tourists, a couple who had brought their baby. Blonde, blue eyes. The soldiers just melted, especially the ladies. They couldn't get enough :)

A baby in North Korea is probably the best icebreaker :)

[deleted]128 karma

How did you get in? What were the best parts? Worst parts?

dutchct291 karma

We got in through a travel agent in Beijing that organizes tours.

My girlfriend and I had spent a lot of time watching documentaries and reading wikipedia. The place seemed so mysterious and unusual. I thought.. well maybe we can go there.

After a quick Google search we found it it's easy to get in. All you have to do is chose what you want to do and wire the money to the travel agency. The trip is all inclusive including transport to and from Pyongyang. Everything is organized for you and the guides know exactly what you've requested.

Some of best things were that we actually got fairly close with our guides. We chose to go bowling with them and that was a great ice breaker. At one point we had a fairly frank conversation initiated by one of the guides, I was surprised. Usually they always talked about North Korea in a very positive light.

My girlfriend and are very curious people, so the whole experience of being there was a positive thing for us. It was really interesting to see inside such a closed culture.

The worst parts were getting glimpses of the poverty. We did see people picking grains off the ground to eat. There is a famine generation there as well. We saw people clearly in poor health with open wounds on their face. This is a certain age group that was affected by the famine in the 90's. They are a fair bit shorter than the rest of the population.

Most of the food wasn't great, Kimchi and my guts don't get along.

pterodactyl12286 karma

Could you maybe talk about the "fairly frank conversation" a little bit?

dutchct469 karma

At one point our guide asked us which was stronger, South or North Korea. I was a bit taken aback by this and tried to answer as diplomatically as possible. Basically I told her that the culture in the north was very strong, and the south is very western by comparison. I told her the south was very advanced technologically and told her about the internet, Wikipedia etc.

She asked who is Wikipedia written by and what does it say about the North? I told her it was written by people all over the world and that it said both good and bad things about North Korea, just like it does for every country.

Finally I told her that if the two countries were to resume fighting, It would be a very bloody war and that I hoped that would never happen. She didn't appear to be offended by any of this.

[deleted]86 karma


dutchct271 karma

I'm not sure how true this is. I've heard they aren't allowed to talk to forgieners. And for the most part we didn't have any real interaction with a random person.

But.. I've never been so stared at in my life. All the time we would catch people staring at us. We would look at them and they would quickly look away. Occasionally you'll get someone confident enough to stare back at you. The people were definitely very curious about us.

At one point we were waiting for our guides in the van, and two little girls would slowly come out of their hiding spot to look at us. We waved and they hid. Then they would slowly come back. We wave and they would hide again. Eventually they ran across the parking lot and they waved at us as they ran away. :)

I think a lot of people haven't seen a foreigner before. We must look like we came from another planet.

Daniel1399999 karma

Just out of pure curiosity, what ethnic group are you?

dutchct77 karma

I'm Caucasian as is my girlfriend. I live in Vancouver, Canada, but my parents are Dutch immigrants.

Blue_Bi0hazard75 karma

from what I gather they fed you a lot of proper-gander about north korea?

dutchct157 karma

Yeah, there is a lot of propaganda. The Mass Games themselves is a very patriotic show, with a lot of communist/socialist imagery.

Some of the more controversial stuff was a guide talking about the Axe Murder Incident on the DMZ. Basically she was saying American soldiers slaughtered North Koreans with an axe. Meanwhile the story that west believes is that the North Koreans killed Americans with the axe. It doesn't help the North Korean story that the North Koreans are in possession of the Axe.

Also at War museum in Pyongyang they have a torpedo boat on display. They claim it sank the USS Baltimore. The USS Baltimore never fought in the Korean war.

Most of the propaganda was about Kim Il-sung though. Lots of stories about his child hood and all the good work he had done for North Korea. One funny one was how he had guessed the number of fruits in a persimmon tree. He guessed 803, he was off by 3. Apparently the extra 3 were for luck.

Bel-Shamharoth57 karma

Have you been banned from /r/Pyongyang yet?

dutchct11 karma

Not yet!

Figment_HF14 karma

Did you feel safe?

dutchct12 karma

Yes. With exception of our aggressive driver.

PrincessNell13 karma

Did anyone talk about Kim Jong-Un? Was he ever mentioned alongside Kim Jong-Il? I'm curious about how aware people were of Kim Jong-Un before his father's death.

dutchct25 karma

This is interesting.

Kim Il-sung is still top dog over there. He was talked about most by our guides. His statue is in every city we visited. And these are beautiful massive statues. Most buildings will have his and Kim Jong-il's portrait.

We didn't see any statues of Kim Jong-il. But he was on North Korean television a lot. If he was in a painting, Kim Il-sung was also in it.

Kim Jong-un was no where. Never mentioned. It was only when we brought him up to our guides, they were like "ah yes, he is very much like his father". When we mentioned he was the 3rd son, the guides said.. "oh we don't know this". When we mentioned he had studied in Switzerland, again the guides claimed they don't know that.

I couldn't tell they actually didn't know, or weren't supposed to talk about it.