An Insider's Take on Traveling to North Korea
Waiting for the line to tug on the Taedong River. All photos courtesy of Uri Tours.
Andrea Lee of Uri Tours does the travel impossible: She lead tours into North Korea. For more than ten years, the Korean-American former attorney has arranged trips for everyone from curious and adventurous travelers to high-profile tourists like Dennis Rodman and Google's Eric Schmidt. How'd she get started? What's it like to travel in a repressed and outsider country? Fathom's Daniel Schwartz got the debrief.
Stay tuned for more: Fathom's exploration of North Korea will continue on our Instagram feed from April 11th to April 12th when Andrea does a takeover during her trip to the Hermit Kingdom. She'll be reporting from the Pyongyang Marathon and showing us first-hand what it's like to be a tourist and a foodie in North Korea. And for an extra special treat, she'll be mailing vintage North Korean postcards to 100 Fathom followers who enter our snail mail giveaway by March 11. Talk about forbidden ephemera.
What inspired you to start Uri Tours?
Most Koreans, my family included, are drawn to North Korea. We are naturally connected to her culture, yet unfamiliar with her lifestyle. The division of Korea is recent history, and many still remember unimpeded travel for family, food, and nature. While communication north and south of the 38th parallel is weak, our national identity — which transcends boundaries — remains strong. We're interested in North Korea. We want to reconnect.
Uri Tours was born out of a passion for connecting people with the DPRK. I was fascinated with the country after my first visit in 2003 with a Korean-American women's group. We speak the same language, but we know almost nothing about each other. After the trip, my father and I — he visited in the 1990s for business and shared my feeling — realized there was a demand for North Korean travel, and not just from Koreans.
I love the sentiment. Tell me more about your company.
Uri Tours organizes safe, educational, and culturally immersive public and private tours to the DPRK for individual and corporate travelers. My father and I founded Uri Tours more than ten years ago. Since then, by forging partnerships with local North Korean travel companies and tourism-hungry entrepreneurs, we've grown into the largest provider of North Korean travel in the United States. We're also the exclusive ticketing agent for Koryo Airlines (the DPRK's state-owned airline) in North, South, and Central America.
How long have you been leading the tours personally?
I started in 2003. I was working as a corporate lawyer in New York and led tours infrequently. But travel and cultural discovery have been important to me since childhood. My parents moved from South Korea to South America (I was born in Chile) and felt out Brazil before immigrating to the United States. Four years ago, I decided to marry my passions for exploration, entrepreneurism, and Korea, and dedicated myself to Uri Tours full-time. Now I'm CEO, and between April and October (peak season), I lead tours on a monthly basis.
Sorry if this sounds really American of me, but how did you even get access to North Korea?
We started traveling to North Korea via a diplomatic channel set up by the DPRK mission to the United Nations. It connects New York to Pyongyang and was intended for Koreans interested in discovering their roots. On the ground, we were lucky to find Western-embracing entrepreneurs eager to partner with us. Government involvement was necessary to start operating in the DPRK, but, for the most part, we built our tour company organically through personal agreements and an understanding — from both sides of the handshake — that the world should see North Korea with their own eyes.
How has the travel landscape changed since you started?
When we started, the process of designing tours was fragmented and unorganized. Patience (to put up with the bureaucracy of background checks) and special permissions (to do just about anything) were necessary to enter and experience the country. And once you were in, due to limited tourist infrastructure, you had roughly a week before your itinerary was exhausted.
Since then, North Korea has invested in tourism. Eight out of nine provinces are now open to visitors, and travel plans go beyond monument-gazing to include cycling, skiing, surfing, and visiting families. The country is opening up for economic and cultural reasons. People are aware of their nation's media profile and want to show others that they can't be defined by news coverage alone.
Tell us about your current tours.
Our tours depart from Beijing, start in Pyongyang, and branch out across the country for village visits, nature retreats, or athletic excursions. Our DPRK Weekender and 5-Day Standard tours highlight must-see spots. Our celebration tours are structured around national holidays (Liberation Day, May Day, presidential birthdays) and give tourists a chance to participate in festivities, public dances, and parades. In terms of weather, July is rainy season, August is humid, and May and September are beautiful. Our itineraries are active, but some are more sports-focused. We have biking, hiking, and skiing tours. You can also drink at Pyongyang's top microbreweries, fish along the riverbank, bag a pheasant at a gun range, and road trip to hot spring nirvana in Nampho on our Beer, Fishing, Boats, and Guns Tour. And for a breathtaking experience, we go to the Pyongyang Marathon and huff and puff our way through the capital.
Why is there a whole tour for the Pyongyang Marathon?
The Mangyondae Prize International Marathon draws runners every April to Pyongyang. The elite race is open to almost all runners, but requires registration through an official DPRK tour operator. Runners interested in racing this year should read the official race rules and enter on our website; we've extended our registration deadline to March 20th to accommodate applicants after the recently lifted ebola travel ban. Professionals must qualify to race for record time in the official marathon; amateurs can enter the marathon, half-marathon, or 10K. Non-runners can watch from the sidelines. All races are tough and must be completed in four hours for time to be recorded. But runners shouldn't sweat it — a bus will pick them up if they fall short, they'll still receive a certificate, and onlookers are very supportive.
Whether running or cheering, everyone starts and ends at Kim Il Sung Stadium and traces their way past all the major monuments and sites on the closed-off streets in the city center. Supporters take in the sights, shoulder-to-shoulder with locals, flat-out astonished at the endurance of amateur runners. Athletes get the Pyongyang experience with a shot of adrenaline and a chance at glory. Last year, an American girl won second place in the half-marathon and was thrilled to hold up her award in front of fifty thousand screaming admirers.
Is encouraging travel to remote places like ski resorts and hiking trails a way for the North Korean government to censor tourists from unsightly areas? Is that why there are so many sports-centered excursions?
People believe that North Korean interests promote sport-centered tourism. That's a misconception. We independently create our itineraries to appeal to our traveler base and focus on experiential tours to acquaint tourists with locals, culture, and nature firsthand. We like to incorporate sports into our tours because they help break the language barrier that prevents most English-speaking tourists from interacting with locals. For example, when we took a group of university students snowboarding at a ski resort, the locals immediately took notice. They crowded around us mid-slope, trying to figure out how snowboarding worked. Our group demonstrated to the curious onlookers, and both groups, despite not being able to talk directly, communicated gesturally. The nature of sports allows people to interact in a non-threatening manner. Politics is a very touchy subject in the country, and it can get tense when Westerners with different views approach North Koreans. It's not a topic of conversation conducive to getting to know someone. The camaraderie of sports diffuses tensions and brings people together.
What's the dream itinerary for the full North Korea experience?
Nature is very important in Korean culture. Due to strong preservation efforts, the DPRK is on a short list of nations with large swaths of undeveloped land. The best way to see the country's beautiful terrain is through outdoor sports. Hike Mount Chilbo in North Hamgyong province, the site of seven hidden treasures from ancient times, for phenomenal views from the snow-capped peak. Descend to sea level for a swim on beaches untouched by infrastructure on either coast. Catch a wave at solid surfing points like Hamhŭng on the Sea of Japan.
Koreans are very proud of their history, especially their temples. The north is dotted with old Buddhist temples from the Koryŏ dynasty, which established Buddhism as the national religion during their extensive reign. A trek to Mount Kumgang in the northeast is like an al fresco history lesson. It's a hotspot for sites like Kumgang Hermitage, Pyohunsa Temple, and Myogil Statue, the biggest Buddhist stone image in Korea. The inner Kumgang mountains are less traveled because of their proximity to the DMZ but hold hidden temples like Podok Hermitage, a one-room house from the Koguryo dynasty that's suspended on a single copper pole over a twenty-meter cliff.
There's rich variety in dialect, custom, and cuisine between regions in North Korea. Family visits are essential to fully experience these provincial personalities. I'd love for visitors to do home stays in every city, but currently, they're only allowed in Pyongyang and select cities. Home stays allow an insider's look into local life and are often opportunities to sample regional treats. A trip to the DPRK isn't complete without geeking out over the food.
Tell us about a moment of Uri Tours travel triumph.
There are many, but I'll share two. The first was from the Pyongyang International Film Festival, which screens progressive feature films, documentaries, and animated shorts from filmmakers around the world. The biennial production draws hoards and is an intimate way of getting to know locals. I overheard comments, like outcries of boredom from young men watching a documentary about the Kremlin. I experienced the energy of movie fanatics rushing to snag a spot for the popular Indian spy thriller Agent Vinod, a movie that drew a hazardously large crowd. People sat two to a seat, on top of each other, even on the ground. The guards barred the doors to keep people from bursting in. It was beautifully chaotic. People are people. They love entertainment. And they go crazy for movies.
The second was a conversation I had with a restaurant owner during a scouting trip in Nampho. The proprietor, a middle-aged woman, didn't know anything about running a restaurant before she started. She learned to cook all the dishes on her menu, hired and trained her staff, and opened shop. Her story resonated with me. I wasn't a travel professional before I started Uri Tours. It felt good to connect with a fellow female entrepreneur in North Korea.
And now for a total travel fiasco. . .
Sometimes, we take older Koreans on tour, and they don't tell us in advance that they have family in North Korea. When they try to reconnect, it's personally very trying. One such case involved an older woman who grew up in the North but fled to the South during the war. Like many refugees, she had no idea the country would split and left behind family. When she requested to visit them during our tour, we unfortunately had to decline. We can privately help reconnect families, but not on tour. She was crying; it was a very sad moment.
And then there's the case of Matthew Miller, who was booked on our tour before tearing up his visa at arrivals and claiming asylum in North Korea. You can read his take on that travel fiasco on The Guardian.
Let's talk about the locals. What's the best way to glimpse authentic North Korean life?
Let's get something straight: Life in North Korea is not staged. You must visit the country on a licensed tour, and you can't roam off on your own without an official guide. Your itinerary is very structured and highlights sites approved for tourism, not torn-down villages or poverty-stricken areas. Your tourist experience is controlled, but your interactions are genuine. People think commuters on the Pyongyang Metro are actors. No, they're just carrying on with their day. In fact, like in other cities, it's in these mundane spaces that the best glimpses of life are found. On the subway, people read, practice scripts, and play instruments while old ladies wobble around overloaded with bags. The parks on Sundays are full of families picnicking and dancing.
What is North Korean attire like?
It varies based on profession, location, and personal taste. In the cities, men sport one-line buttoned jackets or classic green zip-up North Korean suits, not to be confused with the military green uniforms worn by soldiers. Women wear skirts, slacks, and chima jeogori — colorful, patterned traditional dresses worn casually (to work in a service facility) or formally (as a wedding gown). The South Korean variant, called hanbok, uses subdued pastel and matte colors and is worn for special occasions only. Koreans love fashion, and in the summer, women don sun dresses and colorful tops and carry umbrellas for mobile shade. Keds-like shoes are a popular footwear option. In the countryside, farmers wear utilitarian outfits like the North Korean suit.
Tourists can rock the local look by climbing the "STAFF ONLY" staircase to the tailor on the third floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang. Customers choose a style and color and attend two fittings before walking out with a custom tailor-made North Korean suit, coat, or dress. For the complete 101, check out our guide to getting a North Korean suit.
Yup. I need a North Korea suit. Sorry. Anyway, how are tourists treated?
Very well. Locals love our curiosity and appreciate that we've traveled to see and familiarize ourselves with their country. They're especially drawn to visiting Koreans. Oddly enough, some Korean-Americans think it's more dangerous to travel to the DPRK if you're ethnically Korean, as if you had to be born in the North to be welcomed by its people. That's so far from the truth. There's a sense of unity in the North among all Koreans. If you're Korean, people want to know everything about you. Do you speak Korean at home? Do you eat American food or kimchi? Are you married? (My favorite one.)
If you don't speak Korean, people are equally friendly. Most are shy, even the little kids who want to practice their English with tourists, but none are hostile — even those exposed to anti-America propaganda who meet Americans for the first time. They're conflicted. They want to judge us kindly despite reports to the contrary. I was approached by a young girl who, after discovering I was Korean-American, asked me why they hadn't killed me yet back home, as if America targets Koreans. Her older sister stepped in and remarked, "She's really nice. Maybe they wouldn't kill her."
How do you interact with locals?
I feel comfortable striking up conversation since I speak Korean, but I still follow social etiquette like I would in any other country. If someone looks friendly, I'll start up a chat. If they're shady looking, I'll stay away. I also would not broach the subject of politics with a stranger in North Korea. I don't feel censored; I just like to steer clear of tense topics.
I've approached a group of young soldiers in their last year of service and talked about future plans like going to college or working in the city. I've been approached, too. A guy came up to me while I was photographing a run and asked me to translate his favorite song into Korean so he could learn English. It was "Danny Boy." Of all the songs.
Okay, that's adorable! How do locals spend their time?
Families take their kids rollerbladding, bowling, or out to billiards. But come nightfall, adults love to kick back with a few (too many) drinks and flex their vocal cords singing karaoke. North Koreans are big drinkers and very musical people. Almost every restaurant has a karaoke machine and pours Pyongyang soju. The beverage is distilled from rice, barely, or other grains, but I've seen it prepared from corn in the North. It's a staple in any Korean household and is sold in both countries through multiple brands. Some say it tastes like rubbing alcohol, but locals who've acquired the taste love it. It comes standard with seafood meals because it kills off remaining bacteria, a boozy boon to tourists unused to the water. If locals aren't drinking the national drink, they're drinking beer. Craft beer is becoming big, and lots of microbreweries are popping up. Locals are ordering from an expanding list of pilsners, dark ales, and rice beers. Even small restaurants have a tank of house-brewed beer on tap.
Andrea, we've both been waiting patiently all interview to talk about this. Let me have it. What's the food like?
Historically rich, dependent on ingredient availability, and an adventure for foodies who like flavor variations. Each region is known for its produce and twists on traditional dishes like cold noodles (called raengmyun in the North and naegmyun in the South). Pyongyang cold noodles are made with buckwheat and are served in beef broth and are the most popular, with restaurants in South Korea serving this style of the dish. Hamhung cold noodles are served without broth in a very spicy red sauce similar to kimchi. Paekdu region farms grow small, slightly bitter, delicious potatoes. Kaesong ginseng is famous for its medicinal properties and is traditionally prepared in a chicken soup called samgaetang. The city has always been the culinary and intellectual hub of Korea, and since its contributions pre-date the division, the soup can be found all over the South. There are even restaurants called Kaesong Samgaetang in Seoul dedicated to it. Funny enough, it's only after I started traveling to the DPRK that I realized many dishes I grew up eating and craving originated in the North.
Recently, isolationism, mountainous terrain with little arable land, and natural disasters have led to food shortages and famines that change the recipes of traditional dishes. Chefs adapt to lack of ingredients by incorporating more local, easy-to-grow foods. You'll find more potatoes up north and corn down south. Since cow numbers are low in North Korea, meat dishes use lamb or duck, which are less expensive than beef.
What would I eat during my trip?
Lots of kimchi and cold noodles washed down with lots of soju and beer. Myungtae, pollock traditionally hung over the roof of a house to dry, is the North Korean bar snack. The dried fish is hand shredded then eaten. According to custom, women do the shredding while men crisp the skin with a lighter.
On the streets, vendors sell kimbap (rice and fillings wrapped in seaweed, sort of like Korean sushi), banchan (pickled appetizers), and craft beer (which you can drink on the streets!). Lamb kebabs and ice cream are summer street food, and during the fall, carts sell roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts. Pizza in Pyongyang is popular. Pizza Restaurant on Kwangbok Street, Pyulmori near Koryo Hotel, and Italian Specialty Restaurant near Yanggakdo Hotel get Italian chefs to train their own, and their pies aren't bad. The shelves of Kwangbok supermarket give a good indication of what Pyongyang locals are eating. The new Walmart-styled shopping center sells domestic and foreign food products on the first floor, housewares and clothes on the second, and hot food on the third.
What the North Korean diet lacks in beef it makes up for with seafood. Locals enjoy the bounty with a clam bake called jogae bulgogi: Mussels and clams are laid over a bed of stones, doused in alcohol, and lit on fire. Alcohol is poured to fuel the fire until the heat forces the bivalves to open. It's an exciting and delicious tradition.
If you're feeling adventurous, try sweet meat. That's dog, and it can be prepared in a sweet sauce (think pulled pork) or in a spicy broth. It's traditionally eaten at the beginning and end of winter and is thought to keep you healthy during snow season. It's also an indicator of general health — if you have an adverse reaction to it, something's wrong with you. (But don't dwell on this.) If you're feeling fatigued during a tour (or after your dog meal), break at a rest stop for a medicinal dose of snake wine.
Dog and snake wine. Yum. What do you look forward to eating when you return to North Korea?
Bibimbap from Arirang Restaurant in Pyongyang. They add raw meat to vegetables and rice in a hot stone bowl. By the time they're done mixing, everything is cooked and smells delicious. And makguli, a sweet, milky alcoholic rice drink. They sell it bottled throughout Korea, but I get it homemade in the North.
Andrea, this has been great. Thank you. Before we sign off, please look into your crystal ball. What is the future of tourism in North Korea?
I think it's in a transitional phase. Every time I visit the country, I learn something new about the government and how to operate tours. I've learned that the tourism industry is very dynamic. People think all decisions are made from a central body and everyone has to act on it, but North Koreans are more entrepreneurial than you think. The industry professionals I work with are warm and business savvy and want to get to know the international traveler. They're constrained by certain policies, but they actively seek feedback from tourists and want to improve. I'm encouraged by how much they want to grow.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.