You cannot travel to North Korea without being part of a guided tour, that’s the law of the land. You literally cannot leave the group, you feel like you live on the tour bus. Two guides will show you everything that you are supposed to see, and not let you see anything that interferes with the image that they want to present to the world. It is a very different form of travel.
Pyongyang, the capital, could almost pass for a pleasant city in another part of the world; this is misleading. It has the skyscrapers, hotels, factories and housing seen in so many places. It seems open and well-spaced. But of course this is part of what the West is expected to see. Apart from propaganda posters and statures of the president it almost looks normal. We are not meant to be aware that most of the population does not live here, and the shop fronts appear to be all closed.
Outside the capital the run-down buildings are frequent, as are buildings under construction. As this is not dwelt on by the tour group, and as asking questions doesn’t seem like a good idea, the extent of the poverty here is hard to ascertain.
What stands in contrast to this is the countryside, which looks green and impressive. This is both farmland and natural landscape. You would think that this land has the food and supplies to look the whole country. Apparently, North Korea admits to limits in its farming practice here. Not sure what to make of this situation.
The North Korea tours are very different to the Japan tours. In Japan one is aware of the foreign culture, and wary of offending the customs of those locals who are actually very likable. There is freedom of movement, but the knowledge that you are expected to already know how to act. North Korea tours, by contrast, keep you on the local straight and narrow. The rules are spelt out, and you are kept from breaking them. Then again, as much is hidden it is hard to be sure about too much in North Korea.