This month’s North Korea DPRK traveler spotlight is on Stefan Krasowski, an American international business executive who manages the blog at Rapid Travel Chai. Stefan visited North Korea with Uri Tours on a 5-night tour during one of the biggest DPRK travel events of the decade, 2013 Victory Day, the 60th Anniversary of the end of the Korean War. Our Q&A with Stefan:
Can you tell us a little about yourself, your travel tendencies and why you wanted to visit North Korea?
I am a history buff and independent traveler. My favorites trips include driving the Roman ruins and Stars Wars sets of Tunisia, wandering the Ancient Cities and Hill Country of Sri Lanka, and North Korea.
You visited the DPRK once before. How did it feel to return to the country for the second time? What differences, if any, did you notice on the second visit?
From my May 2010 visit to today there are small suggestions of uptick in the economy, at least for the elite. Mobile phones are commonplace, store shelves are better-stocked, clothes are brighter. Pyongyang is no doubt the outlier, but I saw similar in my trip to Nampo as well. On the road driving through villages I caught sight of a bustling food market. I saw some local restaurants and beer halls packed with locals. Life is clearly still very difficult, undernourishment is visible, yet it seems slightly better than 2010.
The tourist infrastructure is a bit more developed and the guides this time were much more comfortable in allowing some flexibility to the itinerary and interaction with locals. Last time a closure at one site took nearly a day for guides to get approval for an alternate. This is now done relatively quickly with whispered mobile phone calls.
Our schedule changed many times due to the holiday festivities, each time the guides delivered surprises that were incredible, from an amusement park to a mountain barbecue. You must go with the flow however you can make reasonable advance requests that the guides will try to accommodate.
What was it like to be in the DPRK during Victory Day?
The North Korea I saw in May 2010 was grim. Seeing the country on Victory Day celebrations was an entirely different experience. The country is the closest I have felt to visiting a different planet, yet amidst the festivities, I danced with fisherman on a beach in Nampo and rode a rollercoaster in Pyongyang with young soldiers with their caps turned backwards. From the outside it would seem there is no place in North Korean society for enjoyment, yet here, unscripted, were people having a great time.
Joining the post-parade festivities up close was incredible. We were so close to the rumbling vehicles that one in our group got tank oil splattered all over her.
When we visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, we entered one room, and out came Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao. Our hotel was filled with dignitaries from many nations and I chatted with Chinese veterans of the Korean War.
This July, we were able to organize the first-ever 10K breakfast run through the streets of Pyongyang, and you were able to participate. How did you do?
I had only walking shoes and hadn’t run in years but I made the roughly 3k run along the waterfront up to Kim Il-sung Square, with several stops for pictures. Pyongyang on a summer morning is like a steam bath. I greeted everyone with English or Korean ‘Good mornings,’ most gave me the same look I give runners in the US, ‘are you nuts?’
It was great fun to enjoy this slice of life with Pyongyang’s early birds. In another country I might have slept in, yet in North Korea my rule is to try everything. Every activity is interesting and often surprising.
What do you think Americans would find most surprising about the DPRK?
Seeing people having fun.
An awesome dance party video taken by Stefan at the Nampho beach
A society so different to Americans is everyday life for North Koreans, now in the third generation since World War II. With the well documented horrors for many, how people navigate daily life is a puzzle to the outsider.
In two trips I have not had a single encounter that made me feel unwelcome as an American.
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is on the fence about visiting North Korea?
Often the hardest part is buy-in from family who try to veto the trip. You probably won’t convince them until you are back. Find some way to bribe them.
Thanks Stefan! You can read more about Stefan and his awesome blog at http://boardingarea.com/rapidtravelchai/about/. To find more pictures from Stefan’s trip to North Korea, visit his Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/rapidtravelchai/with/6160319997/. For more pictures on the 10K Pyongyang run, visit Uri Tours flickr page.
The starting line for the first-ever 10K run in Pyongyang.
The group with Ann Curry from NBC News outside of the Yanggakdo Hotel!