Why visiting North Korea was a bucket list experience for this reader...

Philip Engelen in North Korea. Picture: Supplied.

Philip Engelen in North Korea. Picture: Supplied.

Published May 15, 2024


One of our loyal readers, Philip Engelen from Cape Town, has travelled to many destinations around the world.

But visiting North Korea when parts of it was still open to tourists, was truly a unique experience for him.

Below, Engelen describes his time in North Korea.

I often like to visit unusual countries but, back in 2015, when North Korea was still open to visits by tourists, I joined a small and varied group from 11 different countries on an eight-day visit.

We all have our preconceived ideas about North Korea, but the country and its people surprised me.

They love to dance, sing karaoke and drink draft beer.

Their love of food, culture, and of course football, makes them not too different from many of us all over the world.

But very sadly, they live under a very oppressive system. During our tour, we visited many interesting places.

Among them was their football academy for young boys and girls which is next to the national stadium that seats 150 000 fans.

The academy enrols children from as young as 7, and along with football training every day, they have school classes where they learn English, Japanese and other European languages.

Our group played against some of their-under 14s during a nine-a-side for just ten minutes. They beat us 3-1 and really, they were very good.

Leaving early on a misty and overcast morning from the capital city of Pyongyang, we drove for two hours in the centre of a wide six-lane highway, as we were the only vehicle on the road, towards the border and the ancient town of Kaesong.

We had to stop at six checkpoints where officious, unsmiling guards came on to our bus each time and scrutinised our passports.

The closer we got to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), the road changed to a single lane and zig-zagged around what we thought were tank traps.

We passed through high gates with high thick walls on either side, then through a no-man’s land, totally devoid of trees and any type of habitation until eventually arriving at the border.

We were first taken and shown a group of old buildings. We were also allowed to sit in the places where the American and North Korean delegates had sat and we were fed a diatribe of indoctrination about how the brave North Koreans had beaten the wicked American imperialists who’d invaded their country and fought and won the biggest war in history.

Then, we visited a very large building and stood on the balcony that looks down on the actual DMZ and looked at American and South Korean soldiers staring at North Korean soldiers, a rather chilling site.

Down at ground level, we were taken into the pale blue long rooms that straddle the border with South Korea and we were allowed to briefly step over the border into this neighbouring country.

It was a very strange and rather intense experience.

On our journey back to Pyongyang, we passed through the same six checkpoints and our group was fairly quiet during this ordeal.

There are no private vehicles and cars are reserved for only party officials, diplomats, doctors, professors and some teachers.

There is also a very efficient underground system with beautifully painted stations.

Visiting North Korea was an all-encompassing and stimulating experience on so many levels. It really is like no other country in the world that I’ve visited before, except perhaps my visit to Albania in 1986, but that is another story.