Our correspondent who travelled to North Korea recently met with an unwelcome reception at Narita airport as he returned via Beijing.  “Customs officials, without any idea it was about to happen, spent about 10 minutes going through my things” he described. “It’s a sketchy country, so I guess they have to do these things, but still – it’s disappointing.”

The result of the search was that he had to give up every single souvenir he got in North Korea.

When he says “give up” he really means “have taken from him with no real choice in the matter.”  In the strictest of terms, yes, he could have kept the souvenirs. However, he wouldn’t have been able to pass through customs and enter Japan with them.

Also, when he says “every single souvenir” he means it.  Here’s a list of all the items Narita customs officers confiscated.

North Korean Items Given Up To (i.e. Taken By) Narita Airport

a bottle of alcohol; a bottle of cola; Korean ginseng; chopsticks; a jar of hot pepper paste; a toothbrush; shampoo; conditioner; bubble bath; a shower cap; slippers; a shoe polisher; a plastic bag; a sewing kit; soap; a poster; a jar of honey; a drawstring bag; toothpaste; DVDs; a Korean phrasebook; a subway pamphlet; a hotel pamphlet; a map of Pyongyang; postcards; a sightseeing map of North Korea; a guidebook for North Korea; some stamps, envelopes, and letter paper; North Korean money; and some powdered bear liver

These items were everything he got except for items bought in China and all of them went into the custody of Narita airport.  Our correspondent also had to sign a form declaring that he was “voluntarily relinquishing” these items.

This was especially surprising since the recent soccer match between Japan and North Korea saw many people travel between the two countries.  Yet with all the people going there and back there wasn’t a single report of anyone having to “give up” their souvenirs.  So what’s the deal?

He quickly inquired with Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry about this.  “North Korean items, if souvenirs for individual use, are restricted as a part of the economic sanctions placed on North Korea because of their nuclear missile program” a Ministry staff member explained.

When our correspondent’s travel guide company was asked, he was told “taking items back to Japan from Korea is no problem.  During the soccer game everyone took things back with them.”

“According to Customs, the reason for the confiscation was that no diplomatic relations exist between Japan and North Korea, but if that’s the case, there aren’t any relations between Japan and Taiwan either.  So I asked the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry who said that it wasn’t a matter of diplomatic relations rather than the economic sanction that are to blame.” (our correspondent)

That’s fair enough, but it would be nice if all these agencies could be on the same page about this matter.  Even better, perhaps they could enlighten travelers before going to North Korea so they don’t waste their time and money.

At least you can hear it here if not from the proper authorities.  ”Do not attempt to bring souvenirs back to Japan from North Korea.  Anything from a piece of paper to a jar of honey will be taken from you.”

Photos and Traveller:Kuzo

Some souvenirs on display at the hotel gift shop in North Korea.

[ Read in Japanese ]