Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on March 2010

Photos by Julian Ryall

As the early morning mist burns off the Taedong River, the imposing Tower of the Juche Idea slowly emerges on the far bank. It’s 170 meters tall and topped by a bright-red flame that’s illuminated from inside to create a rippling effect. At 6am on the dot, someone turns it off. Probably to save electricity.

North Korea is not a land of economic plenty, but it offers an incredible experience for any traveler who manages to enter what is probably the hardest destination to have stamped in your passport. And one of the most expensive.

Sunan International Airport, about 30km west of Pyongyang, is most visitors’ portal to a nation that clearly prefers to keep itself to itself and rarely gets anything other than negative coverage in foreign media. After departing from the impressive Beijing Capital International Airport—all glass, chrome and high-tech efficiency—Pyongyang’s gateway to the world is a little shabby. There are two immigration booths, a single luggage carousel and large pictures of the Dear Leader and Great Leader towering over the arrivals.

This won’t be the last that we see of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, the father and son who have ruled the country since the Korean peninsula was ideologically divided into North and South at the end of World War II.

A guide during your stay is not an option; it is a requirement. Motioned aboard buses to the hotel, we meet our hosts and translators and are soon treated to the party line on how things operate in North Korea. Every mention of the United States, for example, is preceded by the word “imperialist.” Japan doesn’t fare much better. Just smile and nod.

After passing through the outskirts of the city, made up of rather dilapidated low-rise housing blocks, the first landmark that greets visitors is the impressive Arch of Triumph, marking the spot where Kim Il-Sung made his rallying speech after the departure of the Japanese occupiers. A little further on, our guides point out the Chollima Statue of a winged horse, representing the rapid pace of socialist reconstruction in the country. Just round the corner is yet another towering bronze statue—they do seem to go in for monuments on a grand scale here—of a benevolent Great Leader, his right arm flung out to his people.

Other non-tourist sights are equally mesmerizing, like the female traffic controllers who stand on raised dais at every main intersection directing the non-existent traffic, or the legions of cyclists that make up a Pyongyang rush hour.

Visitors invariably stay at the Yanggakdo Hotel or the venerable Koryo Hotel, which is all marble floors, high ceilings and dark corridors—the lights are kept off. Disconcertingly, all the mirrors in the guest rooms are very firmly set into the wall, and I have an uncanny sense that I am being watched.

Your guides will be very keen to show off the city’s attractions, and are generally flexible in dealing with specific requests. Top of their must-see list will be the vast Kim Il-Sung Square, where military march-pasts are held on a regular basis, the Grand People’s Study House, and the Student and Children’s Palace, where visitors are likely to be treated to music and dance performances.

The American spy ship USS Pueblo is moored on the Taedong River, more than 40 years after it was seized off the east coast of the peninsula. Machine guns are still mounted on the vessel and the damage from cannon shells is clearly marked.

The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is predictably vast, and well worth a visit, showing off captured tanks and aircraft from the “Imperialist US warmongers.” It concludes that had the North Koreans not decided on a “tactical withdrawal” from the South in 1953, their forces would have routed all comers. Smile and nod.

Meals will probably be eaten in your hotel or at restaurants around town that accept only hard currency—and serve remarkably good food. All the staples of the more familiar South are available, including kimchi and thinly sliced beef that is grilled at the table. Make sure you order the excellent Taedonggang beer to go with it.

One of the days will be set aside for a visit to either the sea barrage at Wonsan, on the east coast, or the ludicrously named Demilitarized Zone, where thousands of weapons face each other across a stretch of really rather pretty and unspoiled real estate.

After an explanation of how the imperialist aggressors murderously assaulted the peace-loving people of the DPRK (remember: smile and nod) and another round of monuments, visitors are allowed to enter the blue huts where on-off negotiations continue to take place between the North and South. The demarcation line runs through the huts and the middle of the table where the talks take place; outside, vicious-looking South Korean troopers exchange glares with their equally menacing North Korean counterparts.

There is palpable tension in the air here, and not a lot of smiling on either side. If the balloon ever goes up again, it is very likely that it will start here.

Straight as an arrow, Route One heads north from the border back to Pyongyang, with the occasional checkpoint and detour around a downed section of elevated highway. The countryside is beautiful, particularly when cloaked in the colors of autumn, and people can be seen gathering the harvest from the fields.

North Korea is a remarkable country and, at times, breathtaking. Just make sure you go before the regime is toppled and it becomes a pedestrian member of the global community.

Getting into North Korea is a famously tricky undertaking. By far the best method is to take part in one of the regular trips organized by Koryo Tours (www.koryogroup.com), who have been taking groups into the country since the early 1990s and have the paperwork and procedures down to a fine art. Flights— either with the domestic airline Air Koryo or China Airlines—operate several times a week from Beijing, with frequent connections to Japan. Visitors are required to stay in one of two hotels, either the more central Koryo H otel or the Yanggakdo Hotel, and spend hard currency, with Euros preferred.