A Canadian couple took an extremely bizarre trip to North Korea — here’s what happened

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Justin and Anna spent a little over a week in North Korea in 2012.
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Facebook/Justin Williams

Canadian couple Justin and Anna Williams have traveled to over 100 countries.

Of all the places they’ve been, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been the most memorable by far.

They were shocked to see how heavily tourists are supervised there, as well as how little some North Koreans knew about outside cultures.

“It’s like traveling to a different world,” Justin told Business Insider.

They arranged their trip in 2012 through a travel operator with links to the state-owned Korean International Tourist Company.

We’ve put together a collection of images that show what the experience was like for them, from the tight restrictions they faced to the fascinating sights they saw.

For a full set of images, visit Justin’s Instagram page.


Before their arrival, the couple attended a mandatory briefing session in Beijing, where they were told what they were and were not allowed to do once they arrived in North Korea. They were instructed, for example, to never take pictures of military installations or of statues of Kim Jong Il unless his whole image was in the frame. During the briefing, they met several Americans who said that they were able to take the trip using a similar process.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

When they were ready to go, they boarded a Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-204, where in-flight entertainment options included videos showing North Korean soldiers defeating US GIs during the Korean War.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

This shot of the capital city of Pyongyang was taken in-flight. Upon landing, their cameras and phones were searched for GPS capability and their passports were seized until their departure. “The scariest part of the trip was knowing that no matter what, it was simply impossible at that point to get out of the country, even if we wanted to,” Anna said.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

They were met by government minders — guides deployed by the government to make sure they were following the rules — and a driver who would be with them throughout their trip. During their conversations, the couple was surprised to learn that their minders had never heard of pizza.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

They noticed that there were hardly any cars or vehicles on the roads of central Pyongyang, in part because of the high poverty rate in North Korea (although there have been some changes to Pyongyang since their trip in 2012).

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Facebook/Justin Williams

Source: Al Jazeera


Next, they were taken to the Yanggakdo Hotel on Pyongyang Island, where, according to Justin, foreigners are required to stay on the 25th floor. The two weren’t allowed to leave the hotel until they were picked up by their government escorts each morning.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

Pictured here is the Arch of Triumph in central Pyongyang. Inaugurated on the 70th birthday of Kim Il Sung in 1982, it consists of 25,000 blocks of granite that represent each day in his life up until that point.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

Justin and Anna said that there are two things you would never miss in North Korea: massive monuments and military personnel.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

They also visited the Dear Leader, right, and Great Leader, left, statues in Pyongyang, which feature statues of Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung. Justin and Anna were required to bow before the massive statues and lay a bouquet in front of them.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

They checked out the massive Monument to the Party Founding in Pyongyang, which commemorates the 1946 creation of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

During their trip, they also drove four hours south to the Demilitarized Zone along the border with South Korea. They said that the eerie concrete highway was filled with tanks and troop convoys, but they didn’t see a single civilian vehicle.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

The border between South Korea and North Korea starts at the concrete line between the blue huts pictured here. Former US President Bill Clinton once called the area, which is the most heavily militarized border in the world, “the scariest place on Earth.”

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Facebook/Justin Williams

Source: CNN


Justin and Anna were guided through the area by senior military personnel, who continued to describe how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was prepared to, if necessary, “unleash total nuclear war on the Japanese and American imperialists.”

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Facebook/Justin Williams

They said that they were the only Westerners on the North Korean side of the border, and the atmosphere was “extremely tense.”

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Facebook/Justin Williams

Despite this, they were able to talk the guards into allowing them inside one of the blue huts. South Korea begins just behind the last two guards pictured here behind Justin.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

Back in Pyongyang, they went to a Fun Fair filled with roller coasters, bumper cars without seat belts, and a target practice competition with locals. According to Justin, the Fun Fair is restricted to elites, but the two were able to join while being escorted to each ride with at least half a dozen guards and minders.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

Anna was able to snap this picture with some of the female North Korean military personnel before their platoon leader spotted them.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

They were then escorted to the Golden Lane Bowling Alley. The pins pictured on the shirts of the men here are “loyalty badges” emblazoned with the image of the Dear Leader’s face. Justin and Anna were told that the badges must be worn by every North Korean adult.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

Even the bowling alley was filled with flags. “Propaganda infused almost every element of life there,” they said.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

All of the propaganda posters they saw were hand-drawn and painted. While it’s very difficult for Westerners to buy these, they were able to have one sent home through a contact in China.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

Since the couple had celebrated Justin’s birthday every year since they met, Anna arranged a special celebration at Chongryu Hotpot Restaurant with their government minders.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

They were also taken to see a local school in the country, which was showcased to them as a “world-class” place of education.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

While they were there, the entire school shut down to put on a dance recital for the couple.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

Inside the classroom of the school was a billboard of Kim Il Sung, the former supreme leader of the country.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

They also happened to witness sporadic celebrations breaking out on the streets during the “Party Foundation Day,” which takes place on October 10 every year and celebrates the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

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Facebook/Justin Williams

For Justin, the major highlight was visiting the Grand People’s Study House. Inside, there are over 30 million books, most of which feature the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. The green doors at the entrance are where Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un have conducted and watched over several military parades. “It was surreal to be there and to be taken back to all of the news clips you see about the country,” Justin said.

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Facebook/Justin Williams