Skip to main content

10 things to know before visiting Pyongyang

By Kate Whitehead, for CNN
August 9, 2013 -- Updated 1130 GMT (1930 HKT)
Beer is a big deal in North Korea. 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 <a href=''>North Korea</a> and two years later opened for business just outside Pyongyang. Beer is a big deal in North Korea. 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.
Beer is big
The subway is very, very deep
Under ground in Pyongyang
60 years of 'peace'
Dear Leaders
Street side festival
Love in Pyongyang
Nation of straight lines
Department stores off limits
The 'Kim pin'
High heels for every occassion
Mobile phones are fine
  • 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

(CNN) -- 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.

North Korea: The unseen view

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

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.

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

3. You can bring your mobile

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

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

6. The Metro is seriously deep

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."

Straight lines come natural in North Korea.
Straight lines come natural in North Korea.

8. Single-hearted unity

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).

Two North Koreans display their \
Two North Koreans display their "Kim pins."

10. 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

Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
The guidebook asked staff, contributors and authors for well-known and lesser-known recommendations.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1607 GMT (0007 HKT)
An airport in Asia has stolen the crown from Manila's Ninoy Aquino, voted 'world's worst' three years in a row.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0543 GMT (1343 HKT)
It's time for a beef break, veal vacation, hog holiday or sinew sabbatical in a T-bone a-fide U.S. meatopolis.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
With so many awesome new attractions on the way, the next few years are going to be a roller coaster ride.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 0107 GMT (0907 HKT)
Scientists are busy surveying Southeast Asia's Coral Triangle, home to 75 percent of all known coral species.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1350 GMT (2150 HKT)
Bounce Below in Wales
Bounce Below transforms an abandoned slate mine into a surreal, springy world of fear and fun,
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2316 GMT (0716 HKT)
With chopsticks or fingers? Wasabi or no? A double Michelin-starred Tokyo chef sets the record straight and shows us the sushi way.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2224 GMT (0624 HKT)
Markthal Rotterdam foodhall in the Netherlands.
It may look like a gateway across time and space crafted with alien technology, but in reality it's a fruit and vegetable market.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 0925 GMT (1725 HKT)
Based on the votes of over 330 industry experts, the 2014 winners include bars from 27 cities in 14 countries.
October 12, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Careening down an active volcano at 95 kph on a thin board? It happens only at Cerro Negro in Nicaragua.