Young Pioneer Tours

How I became a tour guide in North Korea

I’ve had a fascination with the DPRK for over a decade now. Something about it has always drawn me in. From the seemingly endless media gossip to books and news reports sourced from inside the country, I’ve soaked everything and anything up that is even remotely related to the country since I was a teenager.Pyongyang

It was somewhere that I wanted to go, badly. For most people in the UK, I suppose North Korea is a shady unknown filed firmly in the category of “places you can’t visit, and don’t want to.” In fact, it is the one of the least visited countries by UK citizens in the world.

“Although it was something that I desperately wanted to do, it never seemed to come to pass. Family and friends were disinterested, or worried about the repercussions of traveling to the country. One of the prevailing myths is that visiting the DPRK as a tourist is dangerous. Those of us who have been know that this couldn’t be further from the truth, but it’s easy to believe when all we really ever hear about North Korea in the media is of a dark and sinister place. I don’t think anybody really believed my persistent remarks that one day I would go there.”

Apart from holidays, and a brief and misguided stint in Australia and Turkey when I was a teenager, I’ve always had my feet firmly planted in the UK. Eighteen months ago, I was a pretty typical British 20-something; working in a middle management position for a financial company, living at home to save money and to afford to travel a couple of times a year. I could see the next few years laid out neatly in front of me. The possibility of an upcoming promotion that would net me very decent prospects in the scintillating world of Insurance, a deposit to put on a small two bedroom and quite possibly a cat. In short, a safe and comfortable future.

It was at this point my curiosity reached its peak and I decided that it was now or never. I was going to North Korea, and I was going alone. I researched travel companies and after some deliberation decided on YPT.

“My mother’s reaction when I told her was “oh my god ”, my father asked me if I was insane, and my colleagues at the time threw me a”nice to have known you” party the day before I flew out to Beijing.”

After a couple of days bumbling about in Beijing with zero Chinese language abilities, wondering if I’d made a huge mistake, I met Rowan, YPT’s founder Gareth, and the rest of the group the day before my flight into Pyongyang.

Kim Il Sung Square
Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang

Whatever I expected from the tour to follow, I didn’t get. I didn’t expect to drink with North Koreans at 3am and swap rude jokes. I didn’t expect to take a selfie with a solider at the DMZ and certainly I didn’t expect that my interest in the country would increase tenfold with every day I spent there. I thought that I would return to the UK, my curiosity sated, and that I would resume my lovely, if not slightly dull, life.

What I didn’t expect most of all was the reaction on day three of the tour, when after some deliberation and with a “what’s the worst that can happen” attitude, I approached Rowan about the possibility of working for YPT. He told me that this was something to think seriously about – and that it could definitely be arranged. The rest of the tour passed like a bit of a dream, with my mind whirling with this new place and the prospect of returning.

On the flight home, I made my decision. There was nothing set in stone – no contract, no start date, just a promise that next year at some point there would be an opening for a position and I would be contacted. But something had sparked in me and I realised that I had to make a change. I didn’t know if I would ever work for YPT. What I did know that there was adventure out there, and I had a choice. I could see two futures unfolding; my safe haven and the absolute unknown.

Bangkok Kindergarten
A very brief stint as a kindergarten teacher in Bangkok

“On my first day back in the UK, I quit my job, hastily packed a suitcase and booked a one way ticket to Thailand for the next week. My nearest and dearest questioned my sanity yet again, and I began to wonder if they were right. I figured I could teach English there and wait, and if nothing came of my North Korean dream I would have a decent story to tell, and another country under my belt.”

As it turns out, I didn’t have long to wait at all. Almost exactly three months after I touched down in Bangkok, Rowan contacted me and told me there was a job waiting for me in China. It was sooner than I expected. I had just moved into an apartment. I had a great job working with adorable kids. I was learning Thai. I was enjoying myself. I was in China within a fortnight.

Half of the YPT team in Beijing, a week before my first trip into the DPRK as a member of staff

The rest, as they say, is history. I alternate between managing our online presence and guiding tours to the DPRK, helping tourists to have that same experience and engagement with Koreans that so captivated me. I can confidently say that it’s the best job I’ve ever had – the thought of returning to a fluorescent cubicle is anathema to me now – and my absolute favourite question in the world to be asked is “so, what do you do?”

I’ll return to the DPRK next month to guide two tours back to back – our ever popular Summer Tour, and to see Slovenian band Laibach perform in North Korea, making it the first time in history that a foreign group has played there. That’s pretty exciting stuff.

I don’t know if there’s a message here, but what I’ve taken away from this experience is that it can be okay to act rashly if you feel that what you are doing is right. Sometimes life just falls in place and things work out better than you ever expected.

Thanks for reading, past present and (hopefully) future Pioneers. See you in Pyongyang…


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