My Smoky Holiday In North Korea

Do North Koreans ever get to go to places beyond their hometowns? What do North Koreans usually do for vacation?
October 22nd, 2012

Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.

Jae-young grew up in North Korea but now lives in the South, and is happy to tell you all about her past. So if you have a burning question for her, get in touch and send us your questions. This week, James C. of Australia asks the following:

Did you ever get to go to places beyond your hometown in North Korea? What do North Koreans usually do for their vacation?

We don’t get to travel much in North Korea and during my time there I only went to two or three different places.  I once visited relatives in Chongjin, a city in the north east of the country, and once or twice went to a “revolutionary” town as part of a trip organized by my school.  But like other North Koreans I got to travel through my television, learning about famous places like Pyongyang and Mount Kumgang through a range of TV shows. I was always curious about these places and always wanted to visit them, but I sadly never got the chance.

One of the few times I went to another town was on a school trip and it is something that will always stick in my memory.  The “revolutionary” town we were visiting was some three hours away from my school, so we had to travel by road to get there. However, our school didn’t have a bus and all they could get for the long drive was an old truck.

I remember it was a truck that would have normally been used for delivering coal and the exhaust was really smoky. We had to sit in the back of it for six long hours to get to and from the town that day.  When I came back home, my nose and my white clothes had become black from the coal dust and I felt really car sick.  This kind of thing was normal growing up in North Korea, with the economic problems affecting everything from school trips to even simple things like trying to go out for a picnic.  But despite the problems, we genuinely enjoyed our coal-truck trip.

Moving from one city to another in North Korea is extremely inconvenient. Because of this, people do not often leave their home town unless there is an emergency. First of all North Korea has pretty bad transport infrastructure, secondly people don’t have much time for travel, and thirdly, it is not easy to get permission from the government to move from one city to another.

Some people do get to travel, though.  My dad had a job that involved a lot of business trips, so he often visited big cities like Pyongyang, Sinuiju, Hamhung, and Nampo. However, these were all work trips and none were for pleasure, as far as I recall.

As I mentioned, we don’t have much time for travel anyway. North Korea isn’t as free as the outside world so it’s a real privilege for anyone to go on holiday, assuming they can get enough time off work in the first place.  However, occasionally the government does send a group of people who have worked really hard on special trips, but this only happens once or twice a year.

These kind of trips are not the leisurely holidays that you might enjoy overseas with your friends or family,   but instead are more like group tours that follow a government approved itinerary. On these kind of trips people usually go to North Korea’s main sites: Mt. Paekdu, Pyongyang, Mt. Chilbo, and Mt. Kumkang. Fortunately for those lucky enough to go on these kind of holidays, the government pays everything and all the facilities and services are provided for free.

My friend used to work in ‘Dol Kyuk Dae’, a government office, and went on one of these special trips as a reward for her hard work. She told me she really enjoyed her trip, having the chance to go all over the country to see Mt. Paekdu, Mt. Kumkang, and even a hotspring in Kyungsung!  The government paid for everything to give her a great holiday and she only need to bring a little bit of money for herself.

I know that there are some really fortunate people in North Korea who have enough time and money go to nearby beaches or valleys with friends or family. One household in my town was quite rich and they used to rent a car to go the beaches sometimes. But, it is not common situation and most people just go to the closest valley or mountain when they have free time, quietly enjoying the environment or spending time by going fishing.

I myself never got the chance to go to the beach in North Korea. I saw beaches on TV a lot but I didn’t have a chance to go in person because I lived so far away from the sea. Maybe that is why now I love beaches and enjoy eating seafood so much!  I am happy that I can now go to the beaches anytime I want and enjoy holidays by going on trips, things I didn’t get the chance to do in North Korea.

Got A Question?

If you’ve got a question then you can find out how you can get it answered by visiting our “Ask a North Korean” page here. We’re already sending the best of your questions to Jae-young who is hard at work responding to them all!

Artwork by The Morning Skyrail

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Jae Young Kim