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Beyond Ballistic Missiles: 10 Most Beautiful Places In North Korea

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4 months ago

North Korea may be reopening its borders to foreign tourists in 2024, so it’s time to get thinking about planning a trip to the Hermit Kingdom. You will definitely want to see these beautiful places in North Korea for yourself.

As a foreigner, you will only be able to visit North Korea on a group tour – so that means your itinerary is set and you don’t need to think about it, right? Not so fast.

Group tour itineraries can be more flexible than you realize when you’re actually in North Korea, so it pays to know where to go so you can ask to see it.

Ryugyong Hotel North Korea Pyramid Shape
The famously incomplete Ryugyong Hotel in central Pyongyang (you won’t be able to miss it)

We list out all of the most beautiful and fascinating places that you should try to visit on your tour of North Korea. And if these aren’t specifically on your itinerary, let your tour guide know that you would like to see them if time allows. They might even be pleasantly surprised that you know about these sites.

1. The International Friendship Exhibition

This is truly one of the most exciting places to visit in North Korea. The International Friendship Exhibition is a huge collection of gifts that were presented by foreign dignitaries to Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. Most of the gifts were given by officials of countries that were communist.

You’re going to see some incredible things within these buildings including a stuffed bear’s head, a basketball signed by Michael Jordan, and a bulletproof limousine. These gifts are all designed to show to the North Korean masses an apparent support for the North Korean government by other governments around the world. For you, though, it’ll just be exciting to see some outrageous things!

North Korean propaganda poster with a hand smashing an American airplane
You’ll see lots of peculiar things on your trip in North Korea

It’s located quite far from Pyongyang in the countryside so this is one that you’ll want to already have on your tour itinerary (it can be hard to make room for it). If it isn’t, I would really try to extend your trip so as to go. It’s uniquely impressive.

2. The Museum of American Atrocities

This is one of the most interesting places to visit in North Korea. The museum is about the Sinchon Massacre, and it is intensely graphic in the depictions of the atrocities (which were objectively heinous, irrespective of which side committed them).

Monument to the Party Founding North Korea Pyongyang Woman Walking Blue
Monument to the Party Founding

You may also be able to visit the “revenge-pledging place” wherein North Koreans ceremonially denounce the U.S. and, you guessed it, pledge to take revenge for the apparent atrocities committed by the Americans. It is quite something to see.

It was opened and closed to foreign tourists at various times when North Korea was open to tourists prior to the pandemic. A lot of tour companies don’t include this in their itineraries because it may or may not be open.

north korea propaganda poster with a hand smashing an American tank
One of the many propaganda posters you can find around North Korea

You can try your luck when you’re in North Korea. If you’re an anthropological traveler, this one should definitely be on your list.

If you do get to go to the Museum of American Atrocities, please take it seriously. Be respectful, even if you disagree with the narrative.

In many ways, the Sinchon Massacre is the equivalent of the Holocaust for North Koreans. It’s worth reading The Guest by Hwang Sok-yong before you visit this museum.

3. The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

The diorama of blond-haired, blue-eyed American soldiers (i.e., the typical American, according to Koreans) being attacked by vultures is forever etched into my mind. This museum tells the North Korean side of the story of the Korean War.

The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang is a lot less intense than the Museum of American Atrocities. But you’ll see lots of unique paintings, seemingly fabricated documentation, and piles of captured American weapons and helmets.

USS Pueblo North Korea Museum
USS Pueblo ready to be boarded

It all comes together to tell the story of North Korea’s success in their fight against the Imperialist Aggressor, the U.S., and its puppet state, South Korea.

You’ll also be able to see the captured USS Pueblo which is a US Navy vessel captured by North Korea in 1968. You can even board the ship to see what the Americans were up to.

4. Pyongyang’s Future Scientists Street or “Science City”

This one is quite unexpected and very easy to miss if you didn’t know to ask for it. It’s located in Pyongyang and is marked by futuristic-looking architecture that stands in stark contrast to the Soviet-style architecture that dominates Pyongyang. There’s a reason why Pyongyang’s architecture is so interesting.

Galaxy Tower in Science City in Pyongyang Blue and White
The very architecturally unique Galaxy Tower in Science City in Pyongyang

It’s particularly beautiful because the architecture blends a sort of retro-futuristic with traditional socialist architecture. It’s worth asking if you can check it out. It boasts a pizza restaurant which we had the (mis)fortune of eating at (I’m not sure what they were passing off as cheese).

5. The Large Bronze Statues of the Great Leaders at Mansu Hill

The Mansudae Grand Monument or the Mansu Hill Grand Monument is an incredible area filled with monuments to the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Kim dynasty. It’s sort of a pilgrimage site for North Koreans.

North Korea Pyongyang Mansu Hill Statues Bronze
The famous bronze statues of the Great Leaders

The statues themselves are huge and worth a visit in and of themselves, but it’s the way North Koreans behave around the statues that is most interesting. It’s not uncommon to see North Koreans crying near the monument. And you’ll see them laying flowers at the base of the statues (you can do it, too, if you are so moved, for a small fee).

You’ll have to bow at the statues so make sure you’re ready for that.

6. The Juche Idea Tower

To really understand North Korea as it exists today, you have to understand the Juche idea. It’s topped with a flame which represents the eternally burning flame of the Juche idea. It’s quite an impressive stone monument.

Juche Idea Tower North Korea
The Juche Idea Tower

You can pay to climb to the top of the tower for a good view of Pyongyang, but the best view of Pyongyang is from the Grand People’s Study House. You can see the full expanse of Kim Il Sung Square from the Grand People’s Study House. Your guides won’t usually take you unless you ask!

View of Kim Il Sung Square from the Great People's Study House
View from the Great People’s Study House of a Workers’ Party of Korea rally being held at Kim Il Sung Square

7. The “Reunification” Monument

North and South Korea are still not unified but this monument stands ready to commemorate the reunification when it does happen. Each of the female figures represents one of the two sides of the 38th parallel.

The Monument to the Three Charters of National Reunification is on the Reunification Highway so you’ll very likely see it on your way to the DMZ.

Arch of Reunification Pyongyang
The Arch of Reunification

8. Panmunjon DMZ Village

If you’ve been to South Korea, you may have visited the demilitarized zone from the South Korean side. But it’s an entirely different experience on the North Korean side.

The rules on the North Korean side of the DMZ are significantly more relaxed than on the South Korean side. You will be able to go in and see the armistice documents in the blue room, and you can generally take photos of whatever you want.

North Korea South Korea Border DMZ facing South Korean Building Stainless Steel
A view of the South Korean building at the DMZ from the North Korean side

You might be surprised to find out that this was the one place that we were allowed to take pictures of soldiers. Thinking about it, this was the most freedom we had – and it was probably so that people on the South Korean side could see us moving around as we please.

Contrast that to the South Korean side where the guides are concerned that any movement could set off the North Koreans.

9. The Pyongyang Metro

This is one of the deepest subways in the world (it rivals Kyiv) and you really feel it. We stood on the escalator for over two and a half minutes to get from the top to the bottom. Naturally, it also doubles as a bomb shelter.

The stations are ornately decorated with chandeliers, beautiful mosaics in the socialist realist style and grandiose statues throughout. The stations remind of a bygone era of North Korean prosperity. It really is one of the most beautiful places in North Korea.

Grand mosaics in the Pyongyang Metro.

Some tours will include a ride on the metro so if that’s something that you’re keen to do then make sure you look for one that includes this.

And no, the conspiracy theory that claims that the people using the metro are paid actors and it doesn’t actually work are untrue: locals and foreigners (including foreign students) regularly use the metro.

10. Anywhere that’s off the Authorized Tourist Track

Being on the road is the only time that you’ll be able to catch glimpses of the North Korea that your guides don’t want you to see. We encountered roadworks on the way back to Pyongyang which meant we had to take a different road back that passed through a village.

The guides initially closed the curtains on the bus but we still managed to see what they didn’t want us to see: abject poverty.

North Korea Roadworks
Not everything goes to plan in North Korea (despite your guide’s best efforts), so you might get to see some interesting things.

There are so many other other strange and interesting places to visit in North Korea beyond this list (like the Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia Exhibition Hall – it’s essentially a greenhouse that displays two flowers named after the country’s deceased leaders.

And beyond the sites, there is obviously so, so much more to experience in North Korea, not least the Arirang Mass Games. It has not been run since 2020, but if it is ever run again and you can align your trip to North Korea with it, you should absolutely go.

Arch of Triumph North Korea
The Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang

This is truly a spectacle like nothing else, and it’s set in the largest capacity stadium in the world: the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium (capacity of 150,000!). And just to set expectations, it’s not so much games, but rather a 90-minute performance featuring over 100,000 participants engaging in dance, acrobatics and dramatics.

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