Part of the fun of travel is learning about particular customs and habits of your host country. Being “a good house guest” when traveling can make or break a trip and being culturally aware and sensitive when traveling in new foreign lands is one of the most important factors, in this particular writer’s opinion, of not looking like “that guy” overseas.
Like any country in the world, North Korea of course has it’s own set of particular customs that may not appear to be completely obvious to those outside of this part of the world.
Motioning, not pointing!
Pointing, particularly at people and definitely at any portraits or monuments of North Korea’s leaders is considered quite rude. Instead, motion with your hand outstretched in the direction you’re referring to.
A particular drinking culture
North Koreans love a drink and drinking culture is very much a part of their lives. When drinking, it’s important to pour for your host and drinking companions first. When it comes to your empty glass, someone will pour for you, so refrain from pouring your own drink. Additionally, when “cheersing,” younger guests should cheers their elders by clinking glasses below the glass of their elder drinking companion. Sound strange? The good news is there’s no “15 years of bad sex” if you don’t make eye contact, chukbae!
Dongji & Dongmu
You may hear your Korean guides referring to each other as “Kim Dongji,” or, “Pak Dongmu!” Like Australians or Brits using “mate” as an informal and friendly greeting, Koreans use “dongji” and “dongmu” as a form of camaraderie (literally, these two words translate as “comrade”), with “dongji” being used to refer to higher ranking or older comrades and “dongmu” being used to refer to lower ranking or younger comrades. And now for the world’s worst (or best) North Korean joke, “Q. What do you call Comrade Cow?” “A. DongMOOOOOOO.” Okay, sorry about that.
Pyongyang is no doubt an extremely photogenic city and everyone’s edging for that North Korea photography exclusive or Facebook profile photo. However, photography culture is a little different in North Korea, with people not exactly documenting their lives with every food consumed for their followers to like on Instagram. Unlike enthusiastic Chinese nationals more than happy to pose for photos and in most cases ask for photos with European travellers, North Koreans generally are a lot more shy and not as receptive to having DSLRs and camera phones in their faces by tourists. Best practice is to ask permission before taking their photos, something your YPT guide and Koreans guides will gladly assist in.
Gift giving culture
Gift giving culture is a big part of North Korean culture – particularly when meeting new hosts or guests at social events. Newly-wed couples can be seen sitting behind giant gift tables at their wedding ceremony with gifts of alcohol, fruit and other such luxury items given as gifts. When traveling to North Korea, while not essential, we highly recommend bringing some form of gift for your Korean guides, a definite great first impression that is greatly appreciated by your guides. The most commonly appreciated gifts including alcohol (whiskey or vodka the most popular), beauty products for women or foreign cigarettes for men.