For years, North Korea has remained frustratingly under the radar. Its militarized border keeps people out and encloses its citizens in a community of lies, where leader Kim Jong-un ruled as god. In the last few years, North Korea has somewhat relaxed restrictions on tourist visas and allowed select commercial tours. The places visitors can go are restricted, but now that Westerners are inside the border, they can start to appreciate everything North Korea has to offer.
We spent some time playing with the just-released North Korea Travel App to see exactly what adventures the mysterious country has for the intrepid tourist. (Note: The app suggests you download it "offline: before your trip, as North Korea has patchy cell service.")
Number One: You can get drunk and shoot chickens at the Shooting Range
A potential animal rights nightmare lives at the North Korean Shooting Range in Pyongyang. It features an indoor and outdoor shooting range, and visitors can opt between shooting at targets indoors or targets AND chickens at the outdoor range for an extra fee. The guns available are pistols and rifles and a round of ammunition costs around 1 Euro. There is also a bar. Obviously.
Number Two: You can watch schoolchildren practice taxidermy
In America, it's generally frowned upon for non-parents to poke around an elementary school. But North Korea actively welcomes you to take a look at their children’s schools, proudly marking the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace in Pyongyang as a must-see attraction. Here you can watch "child prodigies" (this is how the app labels the students) go about their daily business in music, languages, and, uh, taxidermy.
Number Three: Pack some ramen before you go
North Korea has many alluring incentives for tourists, primarily a peek into a world about which we know so little. But evidently, it lacks places for tourists to get any nourishment, and by that we mean decent, hearty grub. Food! The app lists 22 restaurants total for the whole of North Korea. Perhaps this isn’t that surprising for a country that has a historically high number of terrible famines; even reports of cannibalism from starving citizens.
In February 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea’s human rights conditions said that the "North Korean government has used food as a means of control over the population." To be fair, they do mention that "not all restaurants are allowed to accept tourists," so there is food for locals… but just not for you.
The app shares some interesting details of what to look out for in the restaurants it has highlighted. But the descriptions aren’t very appealing. For example, The National Restaurant in Pyongyang is described as having a "wide range of meat, including ostrich from the nearby ostrich farm." Important to note, however, is the tip for prospective diners: "Pay attention to the use of plastic flowers to decorate the ceiling. If a fire were to break out then a shower of molten plastic would ensue so keep a close eye on the table top BBQ." Duly noted.
Number Four: North Koreans REALLY likes amusement parks
Perhaps it’s the grim-faced schoolgirls uniformly marching en route that suggest North Korean fun times might consist of eating porridge while polishing boots, but the number of amusement parks listed in the guide suggest this is not the case.
Notable places include the Mangyongdae Funfair in Pyongyang, which originally opened in 1982 and was renovated in 2012 after receiving criticism from Kim Jong-un. (Hey, leaders like to relax too, y’know?) It features roller coasters, double-loop coasters and cable cars. This suggests that North Koreans and South Koreans share similar tastes, as South Korea is famous for its abundance of amusement parks.
Number Five: You can watch North Korean women give birth
Maternity rooms are usually considered a sacrosanct space. Not so in North Korea. The Maternity Hospital in Pyongyang allows visitors to tour the delivery rooms and wards. Whether or not this is during birthing times is unclear, but according to the app, the experience is so unusual that "tourists often wonder whether the hospital is real or a performance for their benefit." Who doesn’t love an antiseptic event in scrubs?
North Korean Birth Tip: Triplets are considered particularly special. Any mother who has three boys will get silver knives, and birthing triplet girls is rewarded with gold rings. Score!
Number Six: Anti-American clowns will entertain you at the circus
People go to circuses to relax and put their feet up. In North Korea, this means getting highly amused at the People’s Army Circus in Pyongyang, where a costumed clown mocks America. There are no more details than that, so you’ll have to decide for yourself if this means the clown would be a buffoon-style Bill Clinton or a red-nosed Obama. The other circus in the capital, The Pyongyang Circus, also features an anti-American clown, where a Korean man dresses as an American soldier.
Number Seven: You can visit the site of the World’s Worst Zoo
This is the point where you start to think the app creators might have wanted to spend a little more time on their content. The Rajin Zoo, affectionately described as "The World's Worst Zoo" by locals, was shut down in 2012. The app reports that at its peak, it had "three ducks, a turkey, elusive foxes, and a drawing of a monkey. There were also three bears, one missing an arm." Again, the zoo is closed, so you can see where those things once were but are not any more. No word as to the fate of the ducks or the monkey art.
Available for 99 cents on Android and iOS.