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Inside a Russian tourist trip to North Korea: Accordions, snowmobiles and an ‘old’ plane which ‘smelled of mothballs’ | World News

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Not many people can say they’ve been to North Korea, but this month’s private Russian tour offered a glimpse into a secretive country largely shut off from the rest of the world.  

A group of around 100 Russians were among the first to visit the country since the pandemic on a four-day trip and the North Koreans put on a show – from a flight on the country’s only airline, to empty ski resorts and accordion performances.

But the images and videos from the tourists paint a picture of what it’s like inside North Korea that contradicts the official version. They offer snapshots of a country that’s faced serious food shortages in recent decades and is under a range of international sanctions.

Image taken by Russian tourist inside Pyongyang. Pic: Elena Bychkova
Image:
Image taken by Russian tourist inside Pyongyang. Pic: Elena Bychkova

The tour began with an Air Koryo flight from the Russian city of Vladivostok to the capital Pyongyang. The airline is operated by North Korea and is made up of an ageing fleet of mostly Russian-made aircraft.

Route tourists took to North Korea
Image:
Route tourists took to North Korea

According to one of the visitors, the group was comprised of influencers, tourists, journalists and 13 school-aged children.

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‘Everything falling apart’ on flight out

Complaints began from the tourists as soon as they boarded the plane – contrasting with the smooth version of the trip presented by Russian media outlets.

“The plane is old and smells of mothballs,” one traveller wrote on Telegram, saying that the 41-year-old aircraft “is reminiscent of ‘something that was stored in a closet for a long, long time, and then brought out into the light’.”

Another traveller, posting on Instagram, complained: “It was even difficult to fasten the belt.”

The same tourist concluded simply: “Everything is falling apart.”

‘Don’t look at the tourists’ – accordions and crafts on arrival

Once in Pyongyang, the group was taken to Mangyongdae Children’s Palace on the Western outskirts of the city, where they watched uniformed children recite accordion music, engage in crafts and perform a concert.

Video footage posted by tourist Elena Bychkova shows that as the children played for the tourists, a giant screen behind them alternated between footage of a mountain and North Korean soldiers.

Posting a video of the children weaving in a classroom, one tourist commented on the apparently restricted nature of the scene, claiming: “The children were apparently told to sit calmly and in general, don’t look at the tourists.”

The group were also taken to see two giant statues of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il – as well as the Juche Tower and a monument commemorating Soviet contributions to the Second World War.

In Pyongyang, the group was housed at the Yanggakdo International Hotel.

Claiming that they were not allowed to leave the site, travel influencer Ilya Voskresensky wrote on Instagram that when he inquired as to why, he says he was told “because we don’t know Korean and we may have problems”.

While it is unclear exactly how the visit and itinerary were organised, tickets cost $750 and were booked through the Russian travel company Vostok Intour.

Yulia poses on tour inside North Korea. Pic from @yuliameshkova
Image:
Yulia poses on tour inside North Korea. Pic from @yuliameshkova

Pic: @yuliameshkova
Image:
Pic: @yuliameshkova


‘Patriotic music’ and ‘personal escorts’ on the slopes

After spending a night in Pyongyang, the tourists were flown to Wonsan and taken to Masikryong ski resort, a facility completed in 2014 as part of the country’s bid to encourage foreign tourism.

Once there, Mr Voskresensky noted the distinctly North Korean features of the ski facilities, saying: “Patriotic music is playing on the slope, various propaganda videos are shown on the big screen.”

Even while skiing, the group appears to have been accompanied by minders. Sharing a video showing a man skiing behind him and his companion, Mr Voskresensky wrote: “This is our personal escort and it’s not paranoia.”

In an indication of North Korea’s continuing ability to source goods from the West, Sasha Danilenko posted a photograph taken at the resort, showing her atop a Canadian Ski-Doo snowmobile.

After two days at the ski resort, the group returned to Vladivostok.

Pic: @sandpa_official
Image:
Pic: @sandpa_official


Visitors left unimpressed but alliance is growing

On the prospect of a repeat trip, tourist Yulia Meshkova told her followers: “I will no longer go for moral and ethical reasons.”

In another post, she characterised the state as a “totalitarian dictatorship” concluding that as a country it “does not represent tourist value”.

The tour came at a time when ties between Russia and North Korea, and their respective leaders, seem to be strengthening fast in a growing pariah alliance.

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Putin offers Kim a limo ride

Kim Jong Un paid a visit to Mr Putin in Russia last September.

On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin gifted Kim Jong Un a luxury Russian limousine which Kim said he “liked” on his recent Russia trip, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described North Korea as a “close neighbour”.

In January, the US accused Russia of using North Korean-sourced weapons in Ukraine. Although both Moscow and Pyongyang denied conducting arms deals, last year they vowed to deepen military relations.


The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open-source information. Through multimedia storytelling, we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.

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