Politics aside, there are many travelers who are curious on how to travel to the reclusive communist nation. Preparing for a trip to North Korea is not like booking any normal vacation and there are some important things you should know.
- Independent Travel Is Not Allowed – Tourist visas are only granted to people who take part of a guided tour. Tours are generally booked by Chinese travel agents who will attempt to obtain a visa and submit a detailed itinerary to the North Korean authorities.
- The Koroyo Group, New Korea Tours, and Tour2Korea are good places to begin.
- Your Movement And Behavior Will Be Closely Monitored – Expect to have government personnel assigned to watch the behavior and movement of your group.
- Here are 4 things not to do.
- All Flights Will Originate From China – There are no direct flights to North Korea, except from China on North Korea’s only airline, Air Koryo (which does not have a website). You may also take a train during specific times of the year.
- Travel Is Permitted Only On Specific Days -Depending on whether you’re planning on train, bus, or air travel you’ll have to check with your travel agent for the various dates where entry is permitted.
- 3 Cities Are “Visa-Free” – Travel to Kaesong, Kumgangsan, and Panmunjom are visa-free on specific dates.
- Visits to Kumgangsan and Kaesong are not actually “visa-free”. They do require a special group visa that Hyundai Asan generates for the participants. These visas are only for cross-border travel to these two sites and for specific dates. Visitors to Panmunjom do not require a visa to cross into the DPRK in one of the buildings built right across the military demarcation line, but they do have to have their passports with them at all times. All three locations are accessible to Americans, South Koreans, and most other nationalities, although a different list of restricted nationalities applies for Panmunjom.
- All Tourism Money Goes Directly To The Government – All tourist income goes directly to the North Korean government. If you have qualms with the regime keep in mind that 100% of your expenditures including at shops, restaurants, or otherwise will finance it.
- You Won’t Go Hungry – Tourist restaurants are stocked with food and although the locals are constantly experiencing food shortages, you likely won’t. Vegetarians, or those with food allergies should let the tour agency know while you book the trip.
- Remind them each time you contact them also.
- Bring Hard Currency – Your credit card will be virtually useless, make sure to convert it into North Korean Won before you get there (either in China or South Korea). Make sure you have enough to last the entire trip.
- Take Pictures, But Quickly – Any perceived threat by locals or local authorities can result in your being arrested. Ask your tour operator before you snap any picture and don’t get too artsy when you do. Snap and then put the camera out of sight.
- Keep Your Mouth Shut – The best policy is to be silent while out with your group. Anything might be considered an insult to the government which will be bad news for you. Silence is golden.
- Contact Your Embassy – Either in North Korea or before you leave, in case you need their assistance. Make sure to leave a copy of your itinerary with them and family prior to your trip.
- Beware Of Customs/Immigration When You Return – Many countries (especially the US) don’t have diplomatic relations with North Korea. Be prepared for some tough questions when you return. Keep all of your tour guide information and papers handy. Explain throughly why you went.
- Regulations Change Regularly – All of the rules, laws, and regulations that you will encounter during any point of the trip (including getting a visa) may change without notice. North Korea frequently modifies travel regulations, although rules making it relatively easy to ensure you get a visa seem to float around.
Just like the disadvantages of traveling to the US or anywhere else, you should plan for any trip you’re willing to make. North Korea seems a fascinating destination that has (very, very) slowly been opening up to the global tourism industry. I predicted it would be an unlikely tourist hotspot in the next 10 years, would you be willing to make a trip there?
[photos by: Fi’s Space and kalleboo]
Nice site, need to dig more into it, there are plenty of interesting articles.
I just want to add a bit on North Korea as I’ve been there in 2008 and I also wrote quite extensivelly on my blog (sorry, it is in Romanian, but I have a translation widget)
As you said, you cannot enter independently. You should go with an agency. If you have the money, you can travel alone or with a friend (we were 2) without any group, but you will have the 2 guides + 1 driver always with you.
Entry is permitted anytime (except for US citizens). You will visit any place on the official tourist trail (there are more and more cities opening up actually)
There is plenty of food in the tourist restaurants, but you will find only Korean food. If you want anything else, closest place will be Beijing 🙂
Hard currency – bring euro, not dollars, in the very few places you will pay for something they accept only euro (and even if they have quite weird prices like 13,45 euros, you will get your change until 5 euro-cents). You cannot use North Korean wons. If you feel like buying some non-touristical stuff (like a banana or an icecream on the street), your guide will usually oblige – give him some tip at the end of the trip
Pictures / video – I was allowed to take pictures and film where I wanted. Exceptions were: no focus on the people faces (no one actually checked), no pics of the military (except Panmunjon where we are encouraged to take as many pics as possible and USS Pueblo). No pictures or filming, while driving, but our guides relaxed this after 1 day.
Discussions are ok, as long as you don’t insult the Great and the Dear. You might express doubts… I was actually a very interesting character for them, because they have no or very few people from ex-communist countries.
You cannot enter the country with your mobile phone and laptop. You check in at the airport and take them when you leave (I think laptop might be allowed lately). Don’t bring any newspapers or books with you, as you will spend quite some time at the border for the policemen to read your materials.
There are some Embassies which are operational. For EU citizens, the Romanian Embassy represents all the 27 nations (I think also the Polish one).
Regarding the trip there – I can only say – I visited 78 countries around the world, the trip to North Korea was probably the most striking experience. It is extremelly expensive, but if you can spend c 1000 – 1500 euro for 5 days, just go !
Thank you so much for the incredibly detailed information – so the guides didn’t take away from the experience? Actually sounds like they might have added to it. It’s also unexpected that the Romanian and Polish embassies are the ones to represent the EU in North Korea. I wonder what the exact reasoning for that is…
My guess is becuause of historical ties. Both countries were ex-communist countries and had important embassies in Pyongyang… They were just not withdrawn and when entered EU, they were there 🙂
In my travels, I found some nice perks for me from the ex-communist regime. Romanians are the only nation who do not need visas to enter Tanzania (apart from Kenyans, Rwandans and few other neighbours). Reason is Ceausescu was a good friend of Nyerere and Tanzania abolished the visa requirement. They did not change anything since 1989, so Romanians do not need any visa… In fact, the difference is that we do not pay 50 dolars visa-on-arrival price 🙂
It was an interesting interaction with the guides… especially that for me there were quite a lot of deja vus and I was quite well versed in the double meaning of what they are saying (I was 17 at Revolution). There are a lot of complains about impossibility of travelling independently in North Korea. Actually, it will really be difficult – people are afraid to talk to foreigners (I remember, I was actually ahead of the others in Moran Park and I met a Lady who was selling some sweets and icecream. I wanted an icecream (incredible, it had the same taste as the icecream in Romania when I was a kid), but the Lady was extremelly scared).
Additionally, nobody speaks any foreign languages (probably, not taught in school and only a few “chosen ones” learn for their relations with other countries). THe program was also a kind of flexible – we wanted a night tour in Pyongyang to take night pictures (the mega-buildings from there are well lit until 10pm when the light is turned off in the whole City, except the statue of old Kim) or to go to Circus.
Thanks for this post. We are considering venturing into N.K. in the next year or two. Quite excited now.
Glad this post was helpful, I’ll be interested to hear how much will change when you visit, considering the regime “change” that’s happened recently.
Yeah right! I’ll let you know how it goes 🙂