10 things to know before visiting Pyongyang

Story highlights

  • North Koreans are enthusiastic beer drinkers
  • North Koreans have a huge crush on heels and kimchi
  • If you are traveling in North Korea, Korean won would be the last currency you can see

It has the world's tallest unoccupied building, it puts on the world's biggest annual show and it's sometimes prone to petulant nuclear threats.

But what else do you know about North Korea?

1. North Koreans brew great beer

North Koreans love a pint and have a thriving beer brewing culture.

Taedonggang Beer is one of the best-known local beers. In 2000 the state-run brewery bought up an entire British brewery, shipped it to North Korea and two years later opened for business just outside Pyongyang.

Taedonggang Beer is a full-bodied lager and is named after the capital's Taedong River.

North Korea: The unseen view
North Korea: The unseen view


    North Korea: The unseen view


North Korea: The unseen view 02:56

2. High heels are in

Women love their high heels and many wear four-inch heels day and night, to work, to do the shopping, in the military -- we even spotted a woman working on a construction site in a pair.

The wedge heel made its appearance in the isolated state four or five years ago -- a trend that made its way across the border from China. Today there are still plenty of wedge heels about, but it's the thin heel that is Pyongyang's must-have fashion accessory today.

3. You can bring your mobile

Local cell phones allow all the functions of a regular mobile, with the exception of access to the Internet.

Visitors no longer need to leave their mobiles behind. As of January, you can bring your phone into the country and buy a local SIM card from a booth at the airport.

The SIM card allows you to make and receive international calls and call other foreigners in Pyongyang who have mobiles -- you can't call locals as they are on a different network.

A local SIM card for two weeks goes for €50 ($66), but be warned -- calls are expensive ($6.60 a minute to call the United States).

North Korea's Koryolink has more than 2 million subscribers. The local cell phones allow all the functions of a regular mobile -- make calls, listen to music, take photos -- with the exception of access to the Internet.

Given the regular power outages, the "light" function on mobiles gets plenty of use.

4. People love to sing

Most North Koreans can carry a tune and if you ask someone -- politely -- to sing a song they will probably oblige -- on the spot, with no accompaniment.

Pop music is big, especially songs with lyrics. The best-known Western group is still the Beatles -- "Hey Jude" and "Yellow Submarine" are high on the list -- and Celine Dion and the Carpenters also go down well.

No surprise then that most bars have karaoke.

The all-girl band Moranbong is the most popular local group. The girls -- who were apparently hand-picked by North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un -- wear skimpy dresses and belt out pop tunes, the North's answer to K-pop.

5. Car park volleyball

Volleyball is one of the most popular sports and North Koreans often strike up a game in their lunch hour.

The games can be fast and fun, men and women often playing together. The lack of a net is no obstacle and many games start up casually in a car park or any open space.

Korean wrestling is also very popular.

Behind the veil: Rare look at life in North Korea

6. The Metro is seriously deep

Pyongyang's metro network is reportedly the world's deepest.

The Pyongyang Metro is 100 meters underground and it takes a couple of minutes to ride the escalator down to the station. The journey is long enough that some commuters sit on the steps -- despite the signs asking passengers not to.

There are no advertisements on the walls to distract you on the ride down to the station -- just bare white walls. (There are only five advertising billboards in Pyongyang, all owned by the same car dealership).

The underground network has two lines and 17 stations. Inspired by the grand Moscow Metro, many of the stations have ornate chandeliers and paintings and murals on the walls.

7. Crazy about kimchi

Kimchi -- spicy pickled vegetables -- is the national dish and it's said that every woman makes a different kind of kimchi.

The dish is time-consuming to make and the traditional recipe requires women to lovingly swirl and smear hot pepper paste over cabbage leaves for hours.

Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours, which specializes in travel to the reclusive socialist state, says: "There's a saying that you must taste a woman's kimchi before you marry her."

8. Single-hearted unity

Straight lines come natural in North Korea.

North Koreans seem to have an innate ability to form a line -- not a queue, but dead straight lines.

The training begins as young children and by the time they are in their teens a crowd of hundreds can organize themselves into any number of parallel lines, equally spaced, in a minute.

Whether it's factory workers walking down the street, people gathering to lay flowers beneath a statue of the Great Leader, or soldiers jogging, moving in formation, showing "single-hearted unity" is the order of the day.

And it's catching. Spend a week touring the capital and your guides will make sure you get give plenty of practice forming lines.

9. You won('t) see that

The local currency is the won, but foreigners are not allowed to use it. Instead visitors must use hard currency -- U.S. dollars, euros and renminbi.

Bizarrely, given the proximity to China, the Renminbi offers the worst exchange rate. Euros get the best rate at present.

Pyongyang isn't a shopping destination. North Koreans do most of their shopping in the local markets -- there is a blue-roofed market in most neighborhoods, but foreigners aren't allowed to visit these.

Officially, visitors aren't allowed in department stores either, but this is a rule that is given much more flexibility.

Visitors tend to be herded into the Foreign Language Bookstore and stamp and souvenir shops where you can stock up on propaganda posters, North Korean stamps and postcards and books by Kim Jong Il (he wrote -- or ghostwrote -- hundreds).

10. Kim pins

Two North Koreans display their "Kim pins."

All North Koreans wear a "Kim pin" on the left breast of whatever they are wearing. The pins show a portrait of Kim Il Sung or his son, Kim Jong Il -- and sometimes both.

Surprisingly given that everyone wears one -- from infants to old folks -- there are no shops selling the pins. Instead they are given out sporadically -- on special occasions and to mark significant events -- and there are lots of different styles. The style doesn't denote anything, just the period it was given out.

There is a story that North Koreans will be punished if they give a Kim pin to a foreigner, but that's a myth and they are occasionally given to visitors.

How to travel to North Korea