5 Interesting Observations From My Hiking Trip In North Korea


Back in the spring of 2006, I was afforded the rare opportunity to visit North Korea and hike Mount Geumgang (or “Geumgangsan”), a tourist region near the DMZ dividing of line of North and South Korea. It was a bizarre experience (and one that ended with my tour group slamming soju shots with higher-up North Korean officials at a nearby hotel while I waited on the tour bus – will refrain from getting into this any further), but I am glad I overcame my initial hesitation and went. Here are some things that I objectively noted during my trip.

NOTE: This article is intended to be an objective, neutral analysis of my visit to North Korea.

1. The North Korean soldiers average about 5’5 in height, while the South Korean soldiers stand at about 5’9.

The height difference was rather stark at the border between the North Korean and South Korean soldiers. Not to mention, the North Koreans were about 2-3 shades darker than the South Koreans, which I gathered was due to the fact they likely spent more time outside doing manual labor. The difference in stature between the average North Korean soldier and average South Korean soldier was quite stark. If height is a function of nutrition, it is clear which side is the more malnourished country.

2. Their bibimbap had no spice.

Bibimbap, a hugely popular Korean dish that consists of an assortment of veggies overlaying the bed of rice (apparently a Gwyneth Paltrow favorite), usually has some spicy red pepper sauce mixed into it to give it a bit of a kick. The bibimbap we had in North Korea had no such sauce, leaving for a very bland bibimbap experience. Granted, my sample size was one meal, I extrapolated that their spicy sauce was a scarce good in North Korea and not as heavily leaned on as in South Korea.

3. Their mountains are beautiful.

Despite the extent of suffering and flagrant human rights violations we hear about occurring in the country, the mountainside itself was beautiful. It was a bit eerie, taking in how serene the hiking trail was, while knowing in the back of my head that there were other areas of the country that weren’t as tranquil. While we had various instances where we passed local “towns,” we were only allowed to observe these farming communities from the bus and were not permitted to take pictures.

4. North Korean women had a higher incidence of acne.

This was something that I am particularly attuned to, having struggled with bad complexions for years, but it was interesting to observe that the young 20-something North Korean women tended to have moderate to severe acne quite literally dotting their faces. While here in the States and in South Korea, we over prescribe Accutane and other pimple remedies like whoa, methinks North Korean women do not have the same access to such cosmetic luxuries and have to deal with acne on a more natural basis (with soap and water).

5. Their “5-star” hotel is the equivalent of a “2-star” hotel in the United States.

Because we were part of a tour group from South Korea, we were given the opportunity to stay in a “5-star” hotel near the mountain range, which – by American standards – was more like a “2-star” hotel. I can be particular, but I am less finicky about hotel accommodations, as long as there are clean sheets and clean bathrooms. I’m not someone who requires The Four Seasons or Waldorf Astoria – I am fine with staying at a Comfort Suites, La Quinta, or Holiday Inn. Yet, even with these standards, I was quite surprised to note that their version of a 5-star hotel was significantly below that of what I would feel comfortable with in terms of lodging arrangements.