The first hurdle of a trip to North Korea is getting a visa, allowing you to enter the country. I say hurdle – it’s not actually that difficult. In most cases, the travel agent who you book your trip with will handle everything for you. Usually you’ll pick up your visa in Beijing which is on a separate piece of paper and never even get a stamp in your passport. Indeed, on my second trip (September 2008) we all travelled on a group visa which we never laid eyes on. This time I decided to have my visa issued at the UK embassy in order to get a sticker (and stamps) in my passport, and requested to go to the embassy myself to pick it up. Incidentally, it is possible to get a visa and stamps in your passport. There is a lot of misinformation about North Korea online, with “no passport stamps” being one example.
Like most things to do with North Korea, the UK embassy is a little bizzare. Unlike their enourmous compound in Beijing, the UK diplomatic outpost is a detatched house in West London, close to Gunnersbury Park and on the North Circular. There were two Mercedes cars parked outside, and the DPRK state seal above the doorway. I had arranged to meet the diplomat responsible for my visa at 3pm, so dutifully turned up five minutues early. After 20 minutes of doorbell ringing and knocking I began to suspect nobody was home – and just as I was about to give up a Korean woman answered. It seemed more like a house than an embassy (I believe two or three families may live there), although the spotless marble hallway and large propaganda poster of Kim Jong Il amongst adoring crowds gave the game away. After a few hurried phonecalls it turned out my diplomat was in the centre and i’d have leave my passport and return 45 minutes later.
Upon my return, the knocking game started again. I presume the doorbell is broken as I heard nothing and didn’t seem to get a response from it. After 10-15 minutes I could see a small Korean girl run up to greet me through the glass panes in the door, but who did not understand my motions to pull the doorhandle. Eventually I found out the embassy phone number online and phoned them to say I was on the doorstep – finally, my diplomat appeared with my passport, visa and all. Hooray!