1. North Korean students and men are forced to have the same haircut
This is one of the most popular questions I get asked about before we’ve entered North Korea. Although, there have been times where I’ve been asked this question nearing the end of a tour by tourists who have kept this question to themselves but had the need to finally ask me because of their misunderstanding.
No, North Korean men or students were never and haven’t been forced to have the same haircut.
This myth all started from a blog from BBC which was referencing another news article which was referencing another news article which was referencing an unknown source (lol). The quirky and obscureness of the topic helped this story spread through social media which then quickly escalated to other news websites which was basically read by anyone with an Internet connection.
2. Pyongyang traffic doesn’t exist
When arriving in Pyongyang, you’ll probably be hit with traffic or gridlock. This is usually the first myth that my tourists discover that is totally busted. Pyongyang certainly has traffic, and like most traffic with a city population of 2 and a half million or more – it usually hits you at the most inconvenient time.
The increase of traffic means the demand for traffic lights to help cope is growing. This sadly means that the famous and beautiful Pyongyang traffic girls are slowly disappearing. When I first entered Pyongyang back in 2012 I remember specific intersections hosting these traffic angels. These days they’re replaced with the modern LED traffic lights and these girls are moved onto slightly more heavily dense intersections that require their special attention.
There have been many times where I’ve waited for tourists as they wait patiently by the side of a road for a gap in the traffic so they can take that perfect shot of an empty road in Pyongyang. I don’t stop them from doing this but I will admit it does get a little tiring.
However, saying all this about Pyongyang traffic doesn’t mean it’s quite the same for the remaining towns or cities in the country. Once we head out of Pyongyang city on a highway, the traffic quickly dies off leaving only farming vehicles, military trucks, a limited amount of private cars and other public buses.
3. There’s no Internet in North Korea and nobody owns a cell phone
Whilst the general public of North Korea haven’t been given access to the Internet this doesn’t entirely mean Internet is not available in North Korea. Orascom, an Egyptian telecommunication company had partnered with Korea’s state owned KPTC to launch the DPRK’s very first 3G Koryolink service in 2008. In 2013 the service was first offered to foreigners travelling or working in North Korea which was then quickly restricted to only foreigners working in North Korea.
The 3G service that is provided in North Korea is actually good. It’s relatively fast, and it covers any area in Pyongyang and most of the rural cities. When I’m driving down to Kaesong (the city near the DMZ) the entire drive down I have full bars even in long deep tunnels that have been carved into mountains. However, once I reach the DMZ my signal is blocked and I have no way of making any phone calls or receiving 3G. This would obviously be for security reasons. The North Korean guides usually poke fun at me, as the signal on their phones works perfectly fine.
Why is this? The simcard I received from Koryolink works on a different frequency to the simcard that is given to the North Korean public. This way it stops me from being able to call or answer any phone calls from a North Korean citizen and vice versa. This also prevents North Koreans from connecting to the 3G service.
The majority of North Koreans do own a cellphone. However, it’s a specific North Korean made cellphone that can only accept North Korean simcards and no other foreign simcard. With their simcard they’re able to access a separate network that connects them to the country’s intranet.
4. Visiting the DMZ from North Korea is just as strict as South Korea
Although Bill Clinton once said the DMZ is “the scariest place on Earth”, you certainly don’t get that feeling from the north. Yes, it’s tense rocking up in the bus and seeing North Korean soldiers on duty – but once a tourists waves at a soldier and the soldier waves or salutes back, everyone feels more at ease.
There’s no dress code, you can wave, you can smile, you can shout, you can talk, you can laugh, you can cry, you can even flip the birdie to a South Korean soldier on the other side. It’s totally cool. The only two rules I tell my tourists is to please pay attention to the KPA local guide when he talks for common courtesy, and obviously not to cross the line over to South Korea.
5. You can’t take photos in North Korea
I’ve talked to a lot of people who have a fascination with North Korea and want to travel there but I do hear “I would like to go but what’s the point? You can’t take photos” fairly often. You totally can take photos in North Korea.
Whilst I do encourage my group to feel comfortable and take as many photos as they wish, I also do my best to motivate them to get involved with the surroundings around them as much as possible. The common mistake a lot of tourists do in North Korea is they travel the entire tour behind their lens.
The North Koreans, like most people anywhere in the world, don’t exactly appreciate someone running up to them, snapping a photo of what they’re doing and walking away. The locals react a lot better if you establish some sort of connection first with a simple smile, a wave or a hello.