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This guide to travel in North Korea talks about tourism in this very restricted country and what it is really like to visit the DPRK.
Travelling to North Korea for seven days was hard. It’s propaganda via the medium of travel. I was overwhelmed, confused, upset, surprised, and returned with more questions than I had before I went.
My perceptions were certainly challenged, visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Living in the western world means that I have always been exposed to a one-sided and exaggerated view of what goes on there. A biased view that never mentions anything positive and which masks any forms of progress that might just pave the way for a better future, even if it does evolve slowly from an extreme belief system. At the same time, any showcased achievements you see when there entirely mask the atrocities that we know about but which are, obviously, not mentioned.
North Korea is a country held high as the ultimate war trophy, whose unpardonable extreme ideological policies are mocked alongside the suffering of its people, rather than put into context and explained. Yet interaction with North Koreans, however limited, paves a way for understanding. The more we learn, the less inclined we are to make assumptions. Travelling can help provide that context.
- NOTE: North Korea Travel May be Difficult Right Now
- North Korea Travel Guide – Frequently Asked Questions
- Can Anyone Travel to North Korea?
- Are Americans Allowed to Travel to North Korea?
- How Can I Travel in North Korea? DPRK Tours
- Do you get a stamp in your passport when you visit North Korea?
- How Do I Get Into North Korea?
- Is it Safe to Travel to North Korea?
- What are the Tourism Rules for North Korea? 10 Things to Know
- My North Korea Experience
- Real Life in North Korea – A Brief Look from the Bus Window
- Are People Brainwashed in North Korea?
- Is it Ethical to Visit North Korea?
- What Do You Get to See in North Korea?
- Be Open-Minded When You Travel in North Korea
- The Importance of Also Travelling to South Korea
- Thinking of Visiting North Korea? Pin It!
NOTE: North Korea Travel May be Difficult Right Now
Currently, in light of the current global pandemic, it may not possible to travel to North Korea.
North Korea Travel Guide – Frequently Asked Questions
Can Anyone Travel to North Korea?
You can’t travel to North Korea unless you are in a guided tour group. Tourism in North Korea is very restricted and you almost feel as though you live on the tour bus as you can’t wander around freely. At all times, you have two guides who chaperone you every step of the way.
It’s a completely different way of travelling, and as held back as you feel, the local people simply are not used to western faces and so this form of control allows them a slow introduction. When you visit North Korea, it is not a holiday.
South Koreans are not permitted entry to North Korea.
Are Americans Allowed to Travel to North Korea?
Following the death of American tourist, Otto Warmbier after he was arrested and detained in North Korea, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson authorised his department to block Americans from traveling to the country, which already advised against travel to North Korea.
The ban came into effect on 1st September 2017, leading some tour companies such as Young Pioneers no longer taking American tourists into the country (effective as of June 2017). Journalists and humanitarian workers are allowed to apply for exemptions under the ban.
How Can I Travel in North Korea? DPRK Tours
Choosing a North Korea tour isn’t too difficult since there are not an abundance of companies offering travel experiences there. I went with Koryo Tours in 2012, given their great reputation and the fact they opened up the concept of tourism there first.
Not only is it very expensive to go to North Korea, but it’s also somewhere that I knew I wouldn’t frequent regularly or easily, and so I wanted my trip to be expertly organised. With the tour starting and ending in Beijing, and all your visa requirements taken care of, the whole process was hassle-free.
The night before I remember sitting with a guy in my Beijing hostel, who was also going, and feeling overwhelmed. “We are going to North Korea! I can’t believe it!” which was quickly followed by “I’m scared”. Really scared of the million rules and regulations we had to adhere to, scared of what we might see, doing something wrong and being in trouble. And scared of what I would end up feeling.
In the departure lounge, nervousness and excitement were expressed through a mutual exchange of our knowledge and opinions as well as humour. We thought it best to get the jokes out of the way before landing in Pyongyang – the Team America film scenes, pondering over whether we would get to eat hamburgers invented by Kim Jong Il and so on. It’s better to get everything out of your system before you are exposed to the exaggeration, propaganda, and overshadowed facts where you have to keep a straight face. You will only be shown what they want you to see.
Do you get a stamp in your passport when you visit North Korea?
No – the visa is simply printed out and kept together in one big file for the entire group which includes individual images of everyone on the tour (a page that is also stuck on the bus window for reference).
How Do I Get Into North Korea?
After signing up for a tour and when your visa and permission for entry to North Korea is granted, you will fly from Beijing to Pyongyang on Air Koryo – a state-run airline. Air Koryo has consistently bad ratings, but flights to North Korea are the only means to enter.
The majority of organised tours leave Pyongyang via train, back to China (specifically Beijing), upon which North Korean guards will enter the train before its entry into China to check your camera and make sure you are not taking any offending material outside of North Korea. Other tours may also fly back to China via Air Koryo.
Is it Safe to Travel to North Korea?
As long as you follow all the rules outlined to you before you enter North Korea, travel is ‘deemed safe’ in the respect that you are never alone, never allowed to travel at your own will or allowed to travel outside of the designated areas where you are chaperoned by North Korean guides at all times. This means it is highly unlikely that you will be affected by any serious crime or be the victim of it, nor witness any major situation taking place in the country at the time due to the controlled nature of the visit.
You are also pre-briefed, prior to departure, on every applicable rule, which you must follow. These are often reiterated on the trip itself. There is no excuse to break the rules which are clearly laid out.
There is nothing brag-worthy about travelling in North Korea and everyone is effectively at risk travelling there.
It is also wise to keep up to date with the latest news agenda, alongside political tensions in the area and those between North Korea and your country of citizenship that may affect your entry to the country as well as any pending bans or rule changes.
What are the Tourism Rules for North Korea? 10 Things to Know
You will attend a meeting in Beijing at the offices of your designated tour company before the start of the tour (normally 24-48 before), which outlines the rules you must adhere to when travelling in North Korea. These include:
- The types of camera and lens size permitted for use in the country.
- How your Passport will be taken from you when you enter North Korea, for the duration of the tour (and usually kept by your tour group leader) and returned to you upon arrival back into China. The reason for this is stated as being “for security reasons”. At the time I travelled, my mobile phone was also confiscated.
- How to take pictures of the Kim statues, which cannot be captured close up or cropped. They must be captured in their entirety.
- The kinds of pictures you are NOT allowed to take. Pictures of any form of construction, scenes that denote poverty and images of the military are not permitted. When in doubt as to the nature of what can and can’t be photographed, ask first.
- How you will be expected to honour the leader. When visiting the statues of Kim Il Sung your group will be expected to bow and lay flowers, just as the North Koreans do. You are also obliged to pay respect when visiting all monuments of national importance.
- The importance that any kind of independent travel in North Korea is in no way allowed, anywhere or at any point of the tour.
- Do not try to reason, state facts, change the narrative or attempt to overturn the words and actions of your North Korean guide or those you come across at designated sites. This is their job, and while you might categorically know something not to be true, they have no choice, and you chose to be in this restricted and propaganda-heavy situation.
- Any attempt to converse privately with a North Korean citizen will be seen as an act of espionage.
- To act positive, praise-worthy and keep any negative thoughts to yourself and not say anything derogatory out loud. It’s better to be submissive and accept the situation than to be seen as trying to overturn it.
- Do not bring with you any materials pertaining to South Korea, religion or anything that can be seen as a form of ideology of which you will be seen as imposing.
You must, absolutely follow the rules for travel in North Korea and don’t do anything outside of those rules which may draw attention to yourself.
There are no exceptions to these rules and nor will you get off lightly. Imprisonment and torture are common forms of punishment and your tour company has no special command to get you off the hook.
Also, anything you do wrong also puts your North Korean’s life (and their family’s lives) at risk.
My North Korea Experience
When You Visit North Korea Your Initial Perceptions are Challenged
Pyongyang, where the North Korea tour is mostly be based, isn’t a grim and frightening ghost town. Looking out from the top of the hotel, you are afforded a view just like any other big city, including skyscrapers, factories, monuments and mass housing. It is, after all, the centre of the country’s most elite – it exists as a centrepiece and to house particular people.
I thought Pyongyang would be a small concrete city, hidden from view. Instead, it sprawls for miles and miles and looks just like any other city, except it’s scattered with propaganda posters, mosaics and bronze sculptures of the Kims. It is both the pivotal destination for tourism, the capital and at the heart of the regime.
There is no denying that it is for show. This is not how the majority of North Koreans live. The city gleamed with new and pristine buildings, built to the grand imposing communist-style façade of dominance, modern progression and increasing wealth. There are statues so immense that their towering presence automatically creates an air of intensity, like the artistic propaganda posters you can’t miss. The stylised shop fronts we too often take for granted when at home are, in fact, empty. Or they happened “to be closed” that day, of course.
Aside from that, it was a functioning city full of local people going about their daily lives. Whether that was the queue for a building we could only assume is a food and ration station (there are only tourist stores open), the pockets of people disappearing underground to use the Metro station or walking to the office, or the mothers out with their children, we got only a very, very small glimpse of daily life. Mostly from the bus window.
You must always remember what is deliberately presented to you when you travel in North Korea.
Whilst you know about malnourishment and mass electricity blackouts, you don’t see it in the show city. So whilst there’s no denying the existence of this because there’s proof from defectors and undercover reporters, in Pyongyang it is not on the scale we are told about because the set-up is very different. Although extreme poverty does exist en masse throughout the country (as footage shows), this is what you (strategically) won’t see.
Real Life in North Korea – A Brief Look from the Bus Window
When we drove out of the city we did pass shanty type towns with run-down buildings. It wasn’t pretty and people looked less affluent. This was a real glimpse into how some of the population live outside of the capital and was the more shocking side to travel here. Of course, upon leaving Pyongyang, you can’t take images. Instead, you only remember what you saw.
Construction was taking place everywhere, and we still wondered why many people were wandering around aimlessly, or living in semi-completed buildings. I’ve also seen similar neighbourhoods in China and other parts of Asia, where buildings are left to rot rather than being maintained and where wealth distribution is unbalanced. I wouldn’t say this housing is unique to North Korea, but it did show the existence of the same underbelly of poverty. From news investigations we know deep down it’s far worse than what we see from a quick glance out of a bus window, of course.
What confused me the most about North Korea was the beautiful countryside in Nampo and around – green hills and yellow crop plantations, trees and orchards. In a land that has around 70% mountainous terrain, it looked pretty impressive.
Our British guide told us that North Korea had admitted to bad farming practice and that it lacked knowledge about beneficial methods, but it looked as though things are improving. Or could. If it was put into practice for the benefit of the people.
I’m no farmer, but I wasn’t expecting to see so much green and grain. Whilst this may not produce a plentiful supply for the entire population, there is production in farming, although I have no doubt that it’s far from enough or distributed properly, if at all. There have been famines since the 1970s when the help from the Soviets ended, and the need for international aid began.
Our visit to a local farm was very set-up, and we had no belief that anyone we met actually lived there. The shame is that it still provides a window of hope of what can actually be.
Our visit to an apple factory with its investment of millions of pounds worth of equipment looked as though a slow growth of manufacture and export is on the cards – or again, one could hope. The mechanism is there – it just needs to be implemented.
Are People Brainwashed in North Korea?
The question of what it is like to live in North Korea fascinates everybody. The notion of brainwashing even more so. When you look into it a bit more deeply, we all are cut from an ideology of the society we are brought up in, except that in North Korea it is on a very extreme scale to what we will ever know.
From what I observed when I was in North Korea and what I read before and after my visit, the majority of North Korean people know of nothing else and by having no access to other sources or information and therefore no comparison (except the few who retain and obtain information and later defect), it appears they live in a world they assume is normal.
From that sense of normal appears to be a genuine love for the Kims – nearly everybody wears a pin badge bearing one or both of them and many bow to the statues before work in the morning. They believe in everything they have been told as they have never known the full facts, or been given the means to find out or make a personal judgement. If you knew of NOTHING else, what would you do? Sure, there must be people from older generations who also know the absolute truth but have no option but to live in submission.
My point is that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge a nation of people without looking at their ideology in context. It’s devastating that people have to live in such isolation in this day and age. We, in the western world, are lucky to live in societies where we have freedom of speech, freedom of expression, access to information and means from which to realise our aspirations and make informed choices.
We shouldn’t be so quick to brand a nation of people as odd, weird or crazy when they have no clue and are just going about their normal lives. The normal they know.
It’s the regime we should be judging, and judging it in scale to our own.
Is it Ethical to Visit North Korea?
The ethical question of visiting North Korea is a tricky one, and I sit on both sides of the fence.
On the one hand, everything that happens in North Korea is wrong. At the same time, in that case, we wouldn’t be travelling to many places – the western world is perfect in comparison. Some argue that by visiting North Korea you are helping to fund the regime or government’s objectives, but remember this applies to many countries open to tourism. Think of the corrupt governments that still exist in Asia and the Middle East, but you don’t think twice about heading there.
On the other hand, meeting North Koreans is a gateway to openness. North Koreans are some of the kindest people I have ever met. Our guides were easy-going, approachable, witty and caring. Of course, you can’t talk openly to them, speak of things at home, or try to inform them of the facts behind the Korean War. This would be against the rules set upon you and at risk to them. Beyond the historical ‘facts’ they had to tell and the rules they had to impose (since they would be in serious trouble over any of our irresponsible actions) they weren’t lifeless robots. They became our friends, just like any other person.
On National Day we walked through a park where hundreds of locals were celebrating with their families, laying out a huge picnic, firing up the barbeques, playing music and dancing. While some were unsure of us, giving a stare that suggested a slight fear of the unknown and given what they have probably been told about the western world and its people, the majority were welcoming, offering food and pulling us into their dancing circles.
You might question the serendipitous encounter at the time visitors arrived. Even if they were told to be there (which is highly likely), shaking hands, smiling and interacting was the only reassurance we could provide that we are not all bad, and I feel that is a positive start to what could be a slow but positive change in this country.
Travelling to North Korea and a tourism drive could be one way to start opening the cracks.
What Do You Get to See in North Korea?
The number one rule of travel to North Korea is that you will never see the real North Korea. Travelling to North Korea is in no way a relaxing holiday or a form of vacation. They want you to return having believed the PR presentation about development, happiness and loyalty.
Points of Hero Worship in North Korea
A trip to North Korea is not complete without the sites they want you to see – the showpieces of the regime and the points of Hero Worship – such as Kim Il Sung Square and the statue we had to bow to, the Tower of Juche Idea, the Founding Party Monument, the captured US spy ship USS Pueblo, Kim Il Sung’s native home.
Places of Entertainment in North Korea
A fairground, a bowling alley, nights of karaoke. That’s also part of the itinerary and which you realise are places built for the elite locals and not just for western entertainment. Keeping the people happy and occupied – distraction keeps the ideological machine in motion.
Imposed Order and Fake Scenarios
The main downside to what you see is the imposed order and structure as well as the exaggerated explanation, yet this is what you expect before you come on the trip. Some things you visit, such as the farm collective, appear a little too set up with the people ‘placed’ there, which didn’t feel right or real at all. But you only had to look into the distance to get a better picture, without taking an actual photograph.
Most things you experience in North Korea can only stay in your mind.
Propaganda literature and videos on a North Korea tour give an extremely one-sided argument to the history of the Korean War. It is frustrating, but you have to grin and bear it. Everything is built in what they call ‘chollima time’ such as their version of the Paris Arc de Triomphe, of which North Korea’s is bigger and took less time to build. “This would normally take five years to build, but we built it in three!”
Local guides gush about Kim Il Sung more than you would declare the love you feel for your parents – he is often referred to as ‘our father’ much like religious terminology. Films detailing milestones of the country such as the building of the West Sea Barrage dam are long, tedious and full of descriptions of the ‘revolutionary spirit’ behind its construction. Every place of high importance bears a plaque of when one or both of the Kims made a visit, alongside a giant painting of them.
This can become very tiring but does give solid insight into the way the minds of the people have been moulded and the lessons to be learnt from that.
A Visit to the DMZ from the North Korea Side
While tourists can easily visit the DMZ in South Korea, North Korea’s tourism doesn’t leave this off the agenda. This is your chance to see it from the other side and, of course, hear the story from their perspective.
You get to sit in the same room, converse over the negotiation table (which you are not allowed to sit at when you visit from the South Korea side) and see the North Korean guards on duty at the borderline.
After that, you will get to look through Binoculars out into the DMZ ‘No Man’s Land’ area in-between the two country borders, where you are informed North Korean guards keep constant watch.
Riding the Pyongyang Metro
One of the deepest metro systems in the world, you get to go 110 metres underground to ride the Pyongyang metro. Adorned in intricate mosaic tiled propaganda images and bronze and with revolutionary themed names like ‘Comrade’, ‘Glory’ and ‘Reunification’, North Korea’s subway is quite the experience.
This is a stop included on your organised tour since North Korea is both proud (of those stations on show) yet secretive and guarded since you can ride only five of the 16 stops. Of course, you embark and disembark at the grandest station of them all – Prosperity.
Hundreds of people can be seen making their way to and from work and home, on a ticket that costs 5 Won (less than one US cent). I have seen images of all 16 stations in use and apparently, you can ride all of them – you just don’t on a tour as it would take too long. But in reality, we will never know if the entire metro system is in constant working order and for whom such a service is for.
I’m fascinated by metro systems all over the world and the Pyongyang subway is a highlight for the curious-minded. I would love to ride them all since it is said each station exists as a timeline and story flow of North Korea’s history.
Watching the Arirang Mass Games in North Korea
When you sign up for your North Korea tour you will be asked if you would like to purchase a ticket to the famous Arirang Mass Games spectacle at the Rungrado May Day Stadium, also known as the Arirang Festival. It is deemed a highlight and THE thing to see in Pyongyang, There are various tickets for different seating plans, but for the majority of tourists this feat of athleticism and showmanship of gymnastics is a highlight.
While no show on earth will ever compare to that of the Mass Games in North Korea – a spectacle so incredible and full of athletic prowess that it blows your mind – it was also very uncomfortable to watch.
At the back of your mind weighs the reality of the extreme training of the participants, who live within a gruelling and dominant regime where the Mass Games is a part of the societal showcase. You can imagine the pain and endurance to be perfect, and exactly what would happen if someone messed up. No one puts a foot wrong during the performance.
As a communist state, North Korean flags and red symbols appear heavily throughout. The huge picture in the background? That’s school kids trained all year to make images from pieces of coloured cards for hours on end at this show.
Be Open-Minded When You Travel in North Korea
North Korea strikes me as the kind of place that paints of picture of what China must have been like in its early days of revolution – ox and cart farming, collectives and a desperate thirst for industrialism.
While places of communist past have or are slowly moving on, becoming ‘socialist’ and slightly more progressive, North Korea lags behind by still keeping an ultimate grip on its people, yet struggling with the realisation that it needs to develop, trade and open up with the rest of the world in order to sustain itself in the modern age.
A country still at war, striking fear into the heart of its people is the only way it maintains control. This is something my generation, in particular, doesn’t understand as many of us have never had to live in a country in serious conflict with another. Whilst we would all love to see a united Korea, it wouldn’t be that easy.
Think of the differences between East and West Berliners when the wall came down. Two ideologies and different ways of life collided; two economic and education systems trying to integrate. I couldn’t imagine this would be an easy process of bringing immediate peace, but hopefully, I will see some movement towards this in my lifetime.
In tourism’s infancy, around 1,500 tourists visit North Korea annually. Today, that number is more in the regions of hundreds of thousands, but mainly from the Chinese market in comparison to the smaller numbers of western tourists going to the DPRK. Still, that’s thousands more than we ever thought possible.
From what we were told from the Koryo Tours representative with us, the more time goes by, the more tourists are allowed to see and do – a two-way trust process that slowly grows, where we can show the North Koreans a positive side to the Western world and its people and where we can try to understand them.
There are two sides to every story, and while there is a lot wrong with North Korea, we should hold onto anything positive in hope that it somehow paves the way for openness.
Maybe one day the people will harness the power for change or the ideological system will change.
Only then can we be friends without restriction.
The Importance of Also Travelling to South Korea
It was important for me to gain a wider perspective on the culture and history of the Koreas and the conflict, and so a few months later I travelled to South Korea for three weeks. I was able to see some core sights and gain a better understanding of just how different life is on the other, more accessible side of this heavily tested border.
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