Secret Compass’s Team Treks Through North Korea’s Mountains On An Unforgettable Expedition
By Jill Webb
Secret Compass is a perfect fit for adventurers who would rather take an expedition over a vacation. Seriously.
The UK-based company sets up expeditions within some of the world’s wildest, most obscure places. While most travel companies lead people to relaxing getaways and guide them with sightseeing, dining, and hotels, Secret Compass sends its clients on a true adventure.
Secret Compass’s trips are staffed with highly trained expedition leaders and medics. When you sign up for the trip, you get put on a team with other like-minded people to adventure with.
The company puts an emphasis on getting travel insurance because going on these expeditions comes with a lot of risks– but has left past teammates with amazing experiences.
Up for an expedition
George Kourounis, a Canadian adventurer, was no stranger to thrill-seeking when he signed up for Secret Compass’ North Korea expedition.
Kourounis, 47, has been storm chasing since 1997 and once hosted the Canadian television series “Angry Planet” which followed him getting up close and personal with the forces of nature.
Nonetheless, Kourounis stumbled across Secret Compass’s website and thought “wow, this is extreme.”
He kept tabs on Secret Compass, and when an expedition to go to mountain trekking in North Korea was in the works for May 2017, Kourounis knew he had to go.
“I thought, man you know what, life is short I’m gonna sign up for this,” Kourounis said.
The trip lasted about ten days and Kourounis had approximately nine people on his team. Everyone besides him was British, and they all were experienced travelers. One young couple was treating the expedition as a belated honeymoon.
“The vast majority of the Secret Compass trips are typically physically demanding, so it’ the kind of people that really like the feel of a real expedition,” Kourounis said.
Getting to Pyongyang
The team met up in Beijing and flew to Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea. In the airport, security was definitely a top factor.
“When we arrived I was expecting them to go through everything that I owned, and they pretty much did,” Kourounis said.
He didn’t bring his main cellphone or camera, instead, he brought less valuable ones in case they were confiscated.
At the airport, workers were keeping track of what the team was bringing in, including all kinds of electronics like mobile devices, cameras, and memory cards.
“They checked all of our bags to look and see if we brought any books with us,” Kourounis said. “Specifically they were looking for things like bibles and things like that which are not permitted in the country.”
After going through the airport, the team set off for a couple of days in the capital.
The team had two North Korean guides and a driver assigned to them, who stayed with them the whole time and explained the rules of what they can and can’t do. For instance, they couldn’t just take off and walk away if they felt like it.
“There were several times when we were taking pictures of things where we were told ‘no, you have to delete that photo’– sometimes for seemingly no reason,” Kourounis said.
While in the capital, the team visited Kim Il-Sung Square. Kourounis said the square was made up of interesting museums and fascinating architecture.
They seldom interacted with the locals due to the language barrier, but Kourounis said he felt safe and everyone was extremely friendly. The locals always had a huge smile on their faces when greeting a foreigner.
“It’s weird because it’s such a regime that it’s hard to tell whether that people are truly happy or whether they are told that they have to look happy,” Kourounis said.
“There’s a veil of mystery across everything. We didn’t wanna discuss politics, we didn’t really want to discuss religion, we didn’t want to discuss anything that was gonna be sensitive because we know that if we get in trouble, our guides also get in trouble.”
The only time Kourounis recalls feeling nervous while in the country didn’t have to do with North Koreans, but instead from his home-neighboring country, America.
At the hotel, there was a satellite TV– which Kourounis found very strange– and in the morning, he started his day off by watching the news.
“There’s a news report of North Korea having just launched a ballistic missile test while we were there,” Kourounis said. “And I’m thinking ‘oh crap, is Trump gonna nuke us?’ That was a legitimate fear that I had for a while.”
While the other members of the Secret Compass knew about the political situation, nobody mentioned it when out with the guides.
“I don’t even know if they were aware of it, and we didn’t really wanna bring it up.”
There was a lot of political uncertainty between the U.S. and North Korea, especially since it was in the midst of Otto Warmbler, a young American student who was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of labor for attempted theft.
Warmbler fell into a coma during imprisonment and was sent home to the U.S. where he died a few days later. It did not go over well for good international relations between the United States and North Korea.
The teammates had to deal with the potential reality of getting nuked in the back of their minds while they were trying to enjoy their expedition. But, Kourounis knew everything would at least be fine within the country itself.
“The interesting part was that almost universally people thought I was crazy for going,” Kourounis said. “You go in and you follow the rules, and you do things by the book, and everything is gonna be fine. They want to show off their nation.”
Mountain-trekking gets weird
Kourounis favorite part was seeing the parts of the country that no one ever gets to see.
“The mountains in the central part of the country are absolutely beautiful. They remind me of some of the Dolomites mountains in northern Italy,” Kourounis said.
When the team was mountain-trekking, Kourounis got to experience rugged trails, beautiful rock formations, and spending nights camping beside a rushing river.
A lot of weird things happened to Kourounis on the trip, but the by far the weirdest experience was happening when the team was trekking up a ski hill. It was warm out, so there was no snow on the hill.
“We’re trekking up and we’re sweaty and we get to the top of the ski hill and we hear the sound of children singing,” Kourounis said. “We round this corner and there’s a group of twenty or thirty little kids.”
The kids with their families and they were celebrating something about children– potentially Chosun Children’s Union Foundation Day.
The children were dressed up nicely, singing and dancing. Parents were there taking photographs, a woman was playing the accordion, and everyone was generally very friendly to the foreigners. But just as Kourounis and his team were about to leave, things got weird.
“They pull out these plywood cutouts that are painted to look like grotesque caricatures of U.S. army soldiers,” Kourounis said.
The parents then gave the children sticks and encouraged them to run over and start hitting the U.S. soldier cut-outs with the sticks.
“All I can think of is ‘wow, I’m Canadian, but they don’t know that’ like for all they know I could be American. So, that was a surreal thing, seeing how early the indoctrination and the propaganda begins.”
Besides some odd encounters and the lurking fear of being nuked, Kourounis had a positive experience in North Korea, and with his Secret Compass team.
He encourages people to check out the country, despite the instilled fear that surrounds it.
“Give the country a chance. People are people, we all want the same things. We want to be prosperous, we want our families to be healthy and happy,” Kourounis said. “Hate the government, love the people.”
Secret Compass no longer offers these trips to North Korea, as of 2021.