Pictures from a 24-year-old blogger's recent trip to North Korea

Jess josh nk soldierCourtesy Jess Harling/Jess TravelsJess Harling of Jess Travels and her boyfriend with a North Korean soldier at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

North Korea is one of the most secretive countries in the world.

Citizens are not permitted to travel abroad, and the few tourists that manage to visit are kept to a few choice sites, and are accompanied by guides at all times.

The US State Department “strongly urges US citizens to avoid all travel to North Korea/the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) due to the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement.” Two American citizens, Kim Dong Chul and Otto Warmbier, are still in detention there.

Undeterred, London native and travel blogger Jess Harling of Jess Travels spent two weeks touring North Korea with her boyfriend. While her interest in the country stemmed from Hollywood parodies, she was eager to learn more about it by seeing it for herself.

Her photos and firsthand account of the trip provide a rare glimpse into what life is like under Kim Jong-un.

Last year, Jess Harling and her boyfriend, Josh Fitzmaurice, spent Christmas and New Year's Eve in North Korea.

'Not the most romantic of destinations, but he had a fascination with the country as well,' Harling said.

Her interest in North Korea began as a teenager, when she saw the movie 'Team America,' a satirical comedy by the producers of South Park.

'I know that's really bad because (North Koreans) hate that film, obviously, but I was just kind of fascinated by the country,' she said. 'I was like, 'I just need to see this place for myself.''

Tourists in North Korea must be accompanied by a tour guide at all times. Their itinerary is planned and carried out with no detours.

From left to right: Kang (guide), Fitzmaurice, Harling, Ms Ha (guide), and Yu (driver).

'There's very few places in the world you go where every time you leave the hotel you're with a local guide,' she said. 'So in many ways I felt the safest I've ever felt on any trip, because there was no chance of me getting mugged or anything like that.'

Harling and Fitzmaurice opted not to go with a tour group, and instead travelled by themselves with two guides, Kang and Ms Ha.

From left to right: Kang, Fitzmaurice, Harling, and Ms Ha.

'I think if Kim Jong-un had been watching (Ms Ha) the whole time, he would have been happy with the way she presented the country. She was really good at keeping up that North Korean image,' she said. '(Kang) kind of talked like any 25 year old would. He was sort of like, 'I'm thinking of getting another job, maybe, or trying something else.''

At the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, they saw captured US weapons and pictures of injured American soldiers surrendering in the Korean War.

'It was all a little bit grim,' she said. 'Some of the pictures were a little bit disturbing... You can tell that they're really proud of it, but you can't smile along and be like, 'Oh great! Well done, you!''

'They really try to drill it into you that this is the Americans' fault, and that they're the worst people on Earth.'

They encountered a similar worldview at the Wonsan Orphanage...

The orphanage featured walls depicting cartoons of children attacking American soldiers.

'It was a really weird experience because everyone was really sweet and lovely, and the facilities were really good -- there were lots of toys and playrooms... but then there were these moments where it was really quite dark and eerie,' she said.

It also featured a room where the children learn about Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the current leader's grandfather and father.

'It really felt like a brainwashing room.'

The children also staged a little performance with singing, dancing, and magic tricks.

'It was insane,' she said. 'It was like they had all been to stage school. Big smiles, so engaging. I've never seen kids perform like it... They really regiment these kids, because I remember when I was five you couldn't have gotten our class to dance and sing like that.'

Not every moment of their trip was carefully staged. One day, the guides let them explore a grocery store on their own.

'The supermarket was actually the only place where our tour guides took us and were like, 'OK, you have an hour to look around on your own.' And we were like, 'No way! We get to leave you?' So that was quite cool.'

'People were friendly,' she said. 'A woman with her child was waving at us because we were the only white people in there.'

Harling and Fitzmaurice were in North Korea when University of Virginia student Otto Frederick Warmbier was arrested for allegedly stealing a poster from a hotel.

Xinhua News Agency/Contributor/Getty Images

'We never met him because we were on this private tour and he was on a group tour, but he must have been there New Year's Eve in the square when we were there, so we possibly walked right by him,' she said.

She maintained that incidents like that are the exception, not the rule.

'The only reason that you're going to get arrested there is if you break their rules,' she said. 'You have to respect that even if you don't agree with what the Great Leaders are about.'

For those considering a trip to North Korea, Harling recommends taking it seriously.

'Think about why you're going,' she said. 'Don't go for a laugh. Even though I find films like 'Team America' funny, and I do see the funny side, there's some very seriously wrong stuff happening in the country.'

She also recommends touring with an appropriate level of enthusiasm.

'They're really happy if you go and you respect them, much like any country, I guess,' she said. 'And they want you to be impressed, so be impressed.'

'I had a really nice time,' she said. 'Although there's some bad stuff happening in the country, they still have a culture that they want to share, and that is fascinating.'

'They're just people at the end of the day, and not everyone is a Kim Jong-un.'

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