My Trip to North Korea

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I just went to North Korea. Yup, I did. It still sounds weird to say it as North Korea or as they like to call it, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has redefined the term rogue. Their isolationist stance toward most of the world, their controversial nuclear weapons program, missile testing that has struck fear in the hearts of Washington, Seoul and Tokyo has made the DPRK the most mysterious and unpredictable country on Earth. Recent headlines have been about generally bad things including the recent imprisonment of two American journalists along with the aforementioned missile testing, poor relations with their Southern neighbors and most other countries as well, along with being part of the infamous “Axis of Evil”. However, a funny thing happened to me when I was there; it was one of the most fascinating places I have ever been to, good or bad, and I really liked it.

When I told people I was going to go there especially after the events of recent weeks with Bill Clinton going there to bail out the journalists, everyone thought I was nuts. I even thought I was nuts, but that wasn’t the first time so whatever! To my surprise when I got to the Koryo Tours office in Beijing, there were about 120 other people who shared my curiosity and fascinating to learn about this virtually unknown state. There were about 40 other Americans on the tour which is surprising to me because since the end of the Korean War in 1953, only about 1200 Americans period have been in the DPRK. That is pretty cool in and of itself.

Koryo Tours, who I had been keeping in contact with since February about this trip and about current events were absolutely fabulous and organized a tremendous tour and I hate tours! They had been recommended to me by several other Travelers Century Club members and a few website readers and a special thanks to one of my readers Ryan from LA who told me about this particular getaway which fit into my schedule perfectly. Koryo Tours broke the large group of 120 into six groups of about 20 per group. I was in group B and we had a really good group of people and a good mix of nationalities and personalities. The one thing in common was that everyone had to be slightly mad to be there in the first place. Nick, Simon, Hannah and Nancy ran a killer tour and place about half of the 2000 or so western and Chinese tourists per year that visit the DPRK.
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The tour included a charter flight on Air Koryo, the DPRK national carrier if you will as they only fly to Beijing, Shenyang and Vladivostok once a week and locals basically cannot or do not leave the country. It also included very regimented English speaking Korean guides who were actually pretty cool and had some sense of humor when they weren’t worried about the group splitting up or running off. It also included accommodation at the massive yet empty Yanggakdo Hotel, which was really pretty good, certainly much better than I expected. It had a bowling alley, casino, six restaurants, two spas and a pitch and putt golf course. Of course other than the casino, none of these things were utilized because of the constraints on our time but the casino, which is alcohol free, was the sight of some really fun times for the group to bond and it didn’t hurt that I won a lot of money either.
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After arrival at Pyongyang Airport and lengthy but efficient immigration and customs formalities (you don’t get a passport stamp by the way), we made our way to the world’s largest stadium, May Day Stadium for one of the world’s greatest events, the Arirang Mass Games.
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The Mass Games are a phenomenon of gymnastic displays that feature over 100,000 soldiers, children and students holding up and flipping enormous colored cards to form enormous murals in praise of the achievements (or not) of the DPRK. It is really hard to describe how cool this really was to be at and witness. The stadium is massive and holds about 150,000 spectators along with the 100,000 performers. The dancing and gymnastics are breathtaking and the scenes resemble an opening ceremony of the Olympics. However, the high-wire acrobatics are amazing and will cause you to hold your breath on several occasions. Additionally, the simple act of coordinating over 100,000 performers is mind boggling and sitting here now back in Beijing I cannot fathom it still.
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The performers were flawless, very disciplined, graceful and enthusiastic. This is even more impressive because they do these shows every night except for Sunday for months at a time in the summer. Being a foreigner in the stadium was really interesting as well and we were treated with such respect and everyone was so polite. This is both out of curiosity and because the government mandates that locals be extra nice to tourists.
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A good example from one of our sightseeing stops was we ran into a couple that had just been married and were taking pictures for their wedding. The guide asked us if we wanted pictures of the couple and everyone felt weird and didn’t want to impose on their wedding day. However, the guide insisted and went over to the couple and told them we wanted pictures of them. So they dropped everything they were doing and posed for pictures for our amusement. I felt really awkward about the whole thing but I did take a picture almost out of guilt because they had been so accommodating.
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After the Mass Games on Thursday night we went to a killer Korean Barbecue place called Pyongyang Number One Duck Barbecue. It is the best place in town and the food was excellent and the company was great as well as you’d expect in a group to North Korea-you have some pretty interesting folks. Of course the best part of dinner was the power outage that we experienced about half way through and the staff was so quick to respond with lights, it was very impressive. Power outages are very common in the DPRK as they have experienced energy as well as food shortages for decades.
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After dinner it was finally time to head to the hotel and hit the tea room aka the bar and get to know the people in the group. The local brew tasted like crap (actually clam juice) so everyone switched to imported Heineken for the steep price of $2 and closed the bar before the casino which closed at 3am. This was fun until everyone had to wake up at 6am for the unbelievably packed tour for day 2.
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In all my travels I may have never been on such a packed tour either in a group or on my own. We toured around Pyongyang for about 12 straight hours with only a short break for lunch. The guides took us everywhere and told us more information, true or not, about every imaginable monument in town.
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The monuments in Pyongyang are grandiose to say the least. The most famous one is the Mansudae Grand Monument which features a gigantic bronze statue of the father of Korea Kim Il Sung. This would become a growing theme because he is the father of current leader Kim Jung Il and is still considered the head of state even though he died in 1994. He is still referred to as the Great leader (Kim Jong Il is known as the Dear leader) and is revered like no person I have ever seen.
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Our group was fortunate to be in Pyongyang on a national holiday where groups of dozens of people at a time would approach the statue, stand in straight lines across, bow and then place flowers. It was done so orderly, almost as if it was a cult. It was pretty freaky and reminded me of some type of Jim Jones, David Koresh, Nazi zombie walk.
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Other sights we saw throughout the day included the Tower of Juche Idea, Chollima Statue, Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Triumphal Arch (bigger than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris), Kim Il Sung Square (where the famous military parades are held) and the Pyongyang Metro which is typically Soviet style and very beautiful. What’s the most interesting thing about the metro, aside from being the second deepest in the world is it doubles as a nuclear bomb shelter in case of an attack by the “American Imperialists” as the propaganda machine calls us.
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A few other ridiculous propaganda filled sights we saw was the Korean War Museum which details how the American Imperialists and South Korean puppet army attacked the DPRK and were always at fault and the Great Kim Il Sung single handedly defeated the Americans and claims his great victory second only to their liberation from the rule of Japan in 1945 after World War 2. On the other hand it had some interesting artillery and weapons displays-notice the tattered American flag in this picture.
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Secondly, we went aboard the USS Pueblo which was captured in 1968 after the DPRK alleged they invaded their waters in an espionage act. The ship is still held as a trophy and the American crew was held for nearly a year until they had to formally write an apology and admit their guilt and deep sorrow for their acts. Allegedly there was a formal apology from the US Government but the North Koreans made it seem like Lyndon Johnson was lying to the world on television. To be honest, I don’t know what the real story with that is as I was unaware of the incident until the other day. The point of the whole story is they made us watch this awful propaganda video painting the Americans again as complete tyrants and Imperialists and making it look like a great victory for North Korea.
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After a full day we headed to a hot pot restaurant which was again very good and then mercifully back to the hotel for another night at the hotel tea room. You are not allowed to leave the island the hotel is on-plus there is nothing to do anyway so you wouldn’t want to. The second and last night was also very fun but very subdued because of everyone being exhausted from such a packed day and a 6am wake up call to get the 8:30am charter back to Beijing where I am now.
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Reflecting back on this trip, although very short, it was so packed and there was so much information to process that I cannot possibly get it all into words in this post. However, one thing I do know is that I will never forget this trip and it may be the single most unique thing I’ve ever seen and experienced. The DPRK is a different world, the people are very nice but zombie-like and the city is eerily clean with no traffic, yet they have a dedicated traffic lady who may be the most famous women in North Korea and certainly entertaining and the extent is impossible to convey through pictures but trust me it was hilarious-even the guides made jokes about the traffic ladies.
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Finally, this was a learning experience. It was an experience in all ways and I still not sure how to summarize it exactly but it is something I highly recommend. However, time is running short as Americans are only allowed to go during the Mass Games, so you may have to wait a few years. As crazy as it sounds, I really enjoyed my time in the DPRK and feel like I have a strange understanding or at least awareness of how it must’ve been in the early years of Soviet or Chinese Socialism where the word of Government was law without question, there were no western influences and the education and information level of normal citizens was non-existent. Email, Internet and mobile phones do not exist in the DPRK and may not-ever. Who knows what will become of this part of the Korean Peninsula but I am sure glad to have been there and I want to again thank the awesome people at Koryo Tours for doing an amazing job and putting everything together.


Comments

  1. You are a little nuts for going to DPRK but the Mass games must have been a great experience. It does remind me of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, which still amazes me. On another note, happy birthday!

  2. It was a great thing to see in person. Thx about the bday, I can’t believe you knew that! Take care, tell Ralph I said hi.

  3. I heard it said from a top TCC traveler that has visited every country on Earth, “After visiting North Korea, the thought of going anywhere else seems anti-climatic”. I bet that is partially true as it’s such a unique place to see. What an amazing experience.

  4. Wow great post. I cannot believe you went there but it sounds really interesting. I just looked at that company’s website and they are rnning tours thru September. I am thinking about it. Great pictures too! Thanks for the info.

  5. Amazing! You’ve got some serious balls, good luck in your journey for the record.

  6. These pictures are amazing as I am sure the experience was. It seems like a complete different world. Were there a lot of Americans? Brits? Did you have any problems with the visa or immigration?

  7. Sounds awesome – very insightful post. thanks for sharing.

  8. There was no trouble with visas or immigration as the Koryo Tours took care of it as a group visa. I didn’t get an individual visa sticker in my passport as you normally would, there was a separate piece of paper for the groups of 20. There were, as I said, about 40 Americans, several Brits, Aussies, Canadians and other Commonwealth nationalities. The time was short so I didn’t get to speak to everyone but there seemed to be several people of Asian backgrounds as well.

  9. Thanks for this great account of your trip. I am very jealous but I think my family would kill me if I ever went to North Korea. Maybe I will go and not tell them! It seems like it was well organized and safe. Did you ever feel threatened or in any danger at all?

  10. I went a few years ago on the same Koryo Tours trip, flying in and the train out. We certainly felt safe and; the only problem we ran into was the Mass Games were canceled the night before we got there, so we missed them!

    Pyongyang is one of the cleanest (and dimmest at night) cities I’ve been in. The weirdest thing was the total lack of advertising, though the propaganda signs and announcements take its place. The trip reminded me very much of my first trip to China in 1988.. though China has changed in leaps and bounds since then.

    Very few locals other than the guides speak English so you don’t get much chance to talk with anyone. The tours do keep you pretty busy and on the move, and at night you’re limited to the hotel/island.

    Lee, sounds like a great time! Haha good that you won some money there. Brings back some good memories, I enjoyed the DPRK visit as well.

  11. That’s too bad you missed the games. Did they even give a reason for cancelling them? That was also a good point about no advertising at all as there is no free market. I have some good pictures of the propaganda signs though. We did manage to see some coke and fanta at the restaurants they brought us to and of course heineken at the hotel but that was it for western/imported anything

  12. There was bad flooding in part of the country so the games were canceled when the population was mobilized to help with the rescue/cleanup.. we didn’t get to see any of that of course. Things were fine in Pyongyang and on the train trip out. They resumed the games two weeks later, so it was just really bad luck to miss out. I debated going on their mini-tour this year.

  13. i also was on the trip. but i managed to skip the part where u made a few anti-dprk comments by sleeping in until noon. instead, i had a very good talk with one of the special “security” tour guide about developing some real people-to-people friendship between north koreans and americans. u see, i skip the morning tour in order to show that there is no need for us americans to get paranoid about their excess loyalty to their leaders.

    anyway, i had a different take on the trip. the video i m making is 80 mb, so i might need to talk to simon about how to get it out to u guys.

  14. Thx for your insight Joe but I’m a little confused. Did you sleep in until noon on purpose? If so, then you missed most of the most interesting stuff about Pyongyang. I’m also not sure what you meant by anti-DPRK comments and Americans paranoia…I thought I was pretty complimentary in general toward the DPRK but certainly truthful where necessary regarding their propaganda, wtc. esp regarding their leaders and how they revere them. Take care and I would love to see your video when you’ve completed it.

  15. I went to DPRK a couple of years ago. Koryo Tours and the local guides were excellent.Pyongyang and the Mass games makes Disneyland look like the concert at Woodstock.
    For those looking into taking going, I strongly recommend going to the Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung.Try to talk your guides into allowing you to go.We did.It’s like Dorothy and friends seeing the Wizard of Oz. Un-Real!!
    I hope to go on a second-timers trip to DPRK before too long. Cheers.

  16. Lee,

    I want to print this in my magazine next month…We’ll talk by email…

    We’ll done…Interesting reading it from ur perspective…good times had by all.

    Good meeting ya in North Korea…oops..I mean DPRK.

    Peace
    Thane

  17. Thx Joe Mama, uhh Thane, haha. Ya shoot me an email about the magazine and maybe some free samples of those rubber things for toilets you sell so I can see what the hell you’re talking about. I have a buddy who’ll be in Shanghai, I’m gonna tell him to go see you and your bar in Ningbo. Ciao bro.

  18. Hi Lee,
    This sounds like a phenomenal trip and a unique experience. I would love to do something like this but I don’t think I have the guts. I think my family would disown me (especially my wife). I admire your courage and enjoy reading your blog. Good luck with your record pursuit.

  19. Lee, do you understand what Imperialism is? Or is it all one big joke to you? Because it certainly isn\’t for the countries that have been invaded, bombed, destroyed, stolen from… as surely you have now witnessed for yourself??

    Victor, you are ridiculous.

  20. Hi Ninel, I am very well aware of what Imperialism is. Thanks for asking.

    Its not my job to judge the government of sovereign nations nor do I take a political stance against their governments or boycott their country, no matter how ridiculous they may be.

    I don’t disagree that some people have very strong feelings against certain governments including my own, however, I visit the bad countries as well as the good ones. I am an experience seeker and DPRK is the ultimate traveling experience.

  21. Darren Richards says:

    I went to the DPRK this year and found it to be an amazing experience. I went on a week tour and went to all of the sites mentioned on your report plus the DMZ and International Friendship Place and we also got to see Kims preserved body whihc was one of the strangest moments in my life so far.

    I did speak badly one night of the Kims after too much drink in the lifts going back to my appartment and the lifts stopped and started to go back down. Was someone listening? The lifts went down a while and then started to go back up. I got into the country on Air China and left by train. Some people on my group had a very frightening experience. They were sharing a train carriage with a Chinese bloke, who placed a package behind there seat about 2 seconds before the DPRK immigration entered the carriage. Luckly the border guard looked behind the seat the Chinese guy was sitting on but he did not look behind the seat in question. Just as well I was not there I would have probably passed out. It turned out that the package was anti Kim stuff and not drugs. I personnaly fealt safe throughout the trip. The best way to deal with this particular trip is to be-friend the guides. Further into the trip the lead guide even drank with us and joined in singing and telling jokes. His jokes mind were anti-american. My tour contained mainly Brtish people, there were no Americans. On the last day we were even alowed to go around an exhibition on our own and the guide after brought us ice cream. I think there is no point going to the DPRK to slag off the system to them. This will not change them and you will probably see a lot less. Another point to remmber is that if you do anything wrong the tour guides are probably the ones that are likely to get in trouble. Did not get to see the Mass Games as went in April about 2 days after the missles tests, did go though to the Pyonygang Circus. Because of the missle test people thought I was super mad going and to be honest I fealt a bit deranged walking down the steps of the airplane at Pyongyang International. However within an hour or so of getting I soon forgot these feelings and Now I have an amazing experience to look back on.

    Darren

  22. Thanks for that detailed comment. Its funny you mentioned how you thought they were listening bc apparently every room, elevator, etc. Is bugged but the likelihood of anyone actually being on the other side listening is very low. Also, what you said about the guide getting in trouble if you screw up is also correct. The tourist will not get in trouble unless you kill someone but the guide is 100pct responsible for your behavior.

  23. Amazing! Seems like a real lightning rod of a place to visit based on some of the comments…I would love to go but I agree with Victor-my wife would never let me go, LOLLLL!!!

  24. Wow, that is an amazing trip. I have checked out the Koryo website and will think about doing a trip with them next year. I am British so hoepfully that will be OK.

  25. Steven McMahon says:

    Love it, Love it, Love it… What a cool place to visit. DPKR is ont of those places that you only hear about on the news and how everything and everyone from there is bad. It’s fantastic to get a perspective on the DPKR from the inside. It does sound like Russia in the 60′s to the 80′s.. If only we did not have kids then me and the wife would be able to go. Excellent report as well.

  26. Let them live the way they want to live. Who are we or to comment or suggest how they should be and how they should live.

    By the way who says the Internet or Mobile Phones have made the world a better place to live.

    Their are civilizations, certain people will never understand the depth of, and will always would like to enforce their opinion on everything under the Sun. By the way thanks, I am enjoying reading your each and every detail of so many places you have visited. Great. Thanks.

  27. Hey Deepak, I do agree with you that cell phones etc have not made the world a better place, just more accessible, which equals more hassles if you ask me!

    With regards to your other comment, if I understand correctly what you’re saying I would say…the people of DPRK have not chosen to live this way, they have no choice and thats why people have a problem with it. I’m also not sure which comment you are responding to.

    Plus, I agree that we will never understand certain civilizations and I certainly and most everybody is not trying to enforce any will upon the DPRK people but if they are given no choice and don’t even have the basic knowledge to make a decision then that should be considered wrong…don’t you think? take care buddy.

  28. “Asia Pacific Travel has posted its new and revised North Korea tour itineraries for the 2010 season. Earlier this month we received word from the Korea International Travel Company (KITC) in Pyongyang that they expect Americans will now be allowed to visit the DPRK all year long (vs. only in Aug. to Sep.), for up to 7-10 days (vs. only 5 days), and be able to take the train in and out of the DPRK (vs. not allowed on trains).”

  29. don’t know if anyone has suggested it but Hwang Sok-young’s “The Guest” – is a VERY interesting read [it's not that long either] and I’ve heard from many people that “Korea’s Place Under The Sun” [seen the book - it's a little longer] is also very informative.
    and in case you missed it – many people in ROK blame US for problems with DPRK as well…. [I've been here almost a year now]

  30. I loved your travelblog. I am looking forward to visitng the DPRK in the next year or two. Sounds like an excellent experience.

  31. Thanks!

  32. Thanks for sharing this Lee-I’ve been scouring the Internet for info about North Korea ever since I visited South Korea in 2010 and, of course, it’s very hard to come by. You delivered the info with facts and opinions and I appreciate both. It’s a hard place to even discuss, much less visit, because many of us have grandparents who fought in the Korean War (or “conflict”) and, regardless of what some people may think, it would actually be a point of contention to tell our familes that we are taking our tourism dollars there. I’m glad you had a good experience and would love to discuss more one day.

    • Anytime Proctor, it is quite an experience, not to speak of politics and poverty but the tourist experience is one I’ll never forget

  33. Makes me sad to hear comments from people like Deepak, “Let them live the way they want to live” as if the people of North Korea have any say in how they live.

    In every travel thread I’ve read all I read about is how you have to watch what you say and that if you don’t it’s mostly the guides who will suffer. That’s not a choice. That’s a damn shame. No one should have to live that way.

    While commenting on threads like these won’t change that in any way I also think it’s our duty as free people to call a spade a spade every single time because to do otherwise only empowers dictatorships around the world.

  34. Bethaney - Flashpacker Family says:

    Fascinating stuff. It’s a country that is very intriguing to me. I’m glad to hear that it IS possible to travel to North Korea. I’m not entirely sure it would be possible with a family mind you. What do you think? Might have to leave them in Beijing.

  35. Ya it’s not a place for children, that’s for sure. I don’t even know if they’d let you bring a child…a husband would be no problem though! Let me know if you make it!

  36. Having been based in South Korea for several years I’m very keen on doing a tour in the North.

  37. Well done, sir. In the span of a vacationers sightseeing tour, you have managed to turn one of the most despotic dictatorships in the world into…a tourist attraction. No mention of the starving (or starved) millions in the hinterlands, no mention of the purges, no mention of state sponsored terrorism against South Korea or other nations. Cool trip, bro, no doubt! Glad you had fun, you brainless monkey…

  38. Haha…I like that

  39. I came across your website after reading your interview in the Sydney Morning Herald. What an amazing life you must have had. I’ve made it to 39 countries thus far, and have stood on every continent (which was my only travel goal). But you sir, you take the cake!

    My girlfriend and I are taking an overland safari (South Africa to Kenya) on our way to living in London, so I was pleased to see your comments on Africa in the SMH interview. I will remember to take some Tabasco sauce!

    I really enjoyed this post, as I’ve recently returned from a trip to North Korea. I really enjoyed the Mass Games. Truly unique, and truly amazing. I share your thoughts, that it is a country that I will never forget.

    Best of luck with the remaining countries. No doubt you will get to them all.

    • Thanks Simon for the nice comment and you will love Africa, my favorite continent to visit…Australia aside of course! Also, congrats on seeing the Mass Games, something special most people will never see!

  40. What a bizarre place, Lee! I would love to see it because everything I hear about it makes it sound so surreal. Incredible how the tour guide forced the newlyweds to pose with tourists… Thanks for sharing your trip.

  41. This was a nicely detailed post. Thanks for sharing.

  42. I urge you not to be naive. Where do you think your tourist dollars are going? This nation is cut off by sanctions for a reason. Tourism is one of their few sources of income, and funds a regime that ensures compliance through fear of death. Are you not aware that if any NK citizen does anything seemingly unapproving, they and 3 generations of their family are whisked off to labor camps.? They are then subjected to systematic torture, rape, and starvation. That’s why the people are so orderly and compliant when they greet tourists. It’s all for show. They live in CONSTANT fear. You can read about the horrors of these gulags from the very few who have managed to live to bring awareness to the atrocities. The paradox is that you will not see the real North Korea on a tourist itinerary.

    • North Korea is not funding its government through tourism. If you add up all the money they receive from foreign tourists, it might just about cover Kim Jong Un’s sock budget for the year. For casual tourists, boycotting an entire country because you don’t like the government is pointless, self-righteous nonsense.

    • I agree with Mark. Although tourism brings a little money into North Korea, it’s a drop in the bucket of the money funding the North Korean regime. North Korea is heavily involved in counterfeiting and illegal trade around the world and they are still being given money by China and a few other countries. Sure, the little bit or tourism money does fund a little of the North Korean regime, but being able to educate people about North Korea after visiting is a very good thing.

  43. It was a great trip. Hats off to Koryo and the North Korean guides for providing us with an amazing experience.

    But seriously, Lee, the food was gross.

  44. I dispute your claim that only about 1200 Americans have visited North Korea since 1953. I visited in 2008 on one of the day-trip tours that Hyundai-Asan offered from Seoul. Those tours have since been discontinued. but Hyundai was taking 600 people/day up to North Korea 6 days/week. There were no restrictions or limits on Americans taking the tour, just that the tour was 100% in Korean language and it was necessary to just watch people and adapt. There were several other Americans on the day-trip I took and I expect that that was a normal amount. It was very easy to sign up and I only needed to email a jpg of my passport page plus fill out a form to send to Hyundai-Asan. They did everything else and I just showed up at the meeting point in Seoul.

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