How to Travel to North Korea: FAQ

Posted on February 12, 2015 by

Whenever we talk about our trip to North Korea, it comes as a surprise to many that tourism is actually allowed in North Korea. Yes, you can travel to North Korea as a tourist, you can see its museums, talk to its locals and even visit the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Korea.

As curious travelers, we’ve traveled to many forbidden lands, but none of these places are as isolated and elusive as North Korea. DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), also known as North Korea, has tucked itself into secrecy since its division with South Korea. International media coverage tends to obscure North Korea’s wider picture, so we encourage you to visit North Korea and find out the truth for yourself.

How to Travel North Korea — A Detailed Guide

how to travel north korea

For those who are interested in traveling to North Korea, here are some info that can help you to plan your trip:

Who can visit North Korea?

North Korea accepts tourists of all nationalities, including Americans. Koryo Tours says that with the exception of journalists, most North Korea visa applications — US citizens included — are approved with no problems.

Previously, US citizens were only allowed into North Korea during the famed Mass Games, but as of January 2010, North Korea changed its policy to allow US travelers to visit on official guided tours any time of the year. Americans still face restrictions that don’t apply to other travelers. For instance, they can only enter the country via airplane, unlike travelers of other nationalities who can enter from China by train. Keep in mind that North Koreans strongly believe that the US was the sole culprit behind the division of the country, so be prepared to hear anti-American sentiments throughout the trip.

One important point to note is that North Korea is not for everyone. Those who visit should come with an open mind, and acknowledge the other point of view (even if you disagree). Prior to our trip, we were briefed by our tour company,  “North Koreans are aware and can accept that foreigners hold different opinions, but they do not wish to be ‘taught’ or ‘saved’ by their guests.” We found that our North Korean guides were more than happy to talk to us about politics and the Korean war. As long as we accepted/respected their opinions and showed a genuine interest in their country, they were willing to open up more and discuss things with us.

how to travel north korea

The only way into North Korea: traveling with a tour operator

Tourism is highly restricted, so booking a guided tour with one of the dozen or so companies endorsed by the state-run Korea International Travel Company is the only way in. That means you have to travel with two or more tour guides at all times. You can however choose to travel in a group or individually with the guides. Most tours leave from Beijing — there is NO way into North Korea from South Korea.

We traveled with Beijing-based Koryo Tours and highly recommend them. They are a well-established company that has been promoting DPRK tourism through documentaries, art exhibitions and tours since 1993. Our Spring/Dragon Boat Festival Tour brought us through most of the main sights of Pyongyang, the country’s capital, and out to the DMZ (demilitarized zone that divides Korea into two) and nearby Kaesong city.

how to travel north korea

We were accompanied by two local guides and a tour leader: Mr Oh, a native who’s worked in tourism for 20 years and lived abroad in Seychelles; Miss Pak, a young, well-spoken North Korean lady always ready to answer questions; and Simon Cockerell, a knowledgeable British expert who’s been to North Korea over 112 times. The tour was well-organized and professionally put-together, our guides obviously have years of experience and it way exceeded my expectations.

Tours are not cheap, with group tour prices starting from €790 (US$1057). This includes the flight from Beijing to Pyongyang and train back to Beijing, as well as all meals, hotel accommodation and guide. Trips range from two days to two weeks. A typical tour consist of between 8 and 18 tourists. Koryo Tours’ group tours are set on dates to coincide with a major holiday or event in the DPRK – we were there during the children’s union founding day and saw a special performance at the children’s palace.

how to travel north korea

Is it controlled?

Regardless of whether you’re on your own or in a group, two Korean guides and a driver will accompany you at all times. Throughout the whole trip, you will be chaperoned around our guides and you’re not allowed to leave the group or hotel at any point. Deviating from this will only get your guides into trouble and you’ll run the risk of being deported or even worse, detained in the country by the government.

Photography is controlled to a certain level – and military/custom officers will definitely get you to delete photos that they don’t approve of. Photography of anyone military or strategic is not allowed. We were also advised not to take photos of people without their permission as many North Koreans do not like to be photographed – but surprisingly, we found that most of them, especially children, were more than happy to pose for photos with us. On the train ride from Pyongyang back to Beijing, military officers came to check through all our cameras and deleted photos that were not allowed.

how to travel north korea

There are a number of items that are not allowed into North Korea:

  • mobile phone – which can be left at the customs and returned upon departure
  • books about DPRK or the Korean situation (guide books are fine)
  • American or South Korean flags or clothes prominently showing these
  • books or magazines/newspapers from South Korea
  • clothes with political or obscene slogans
  • any GPS device – this includes cameras which have GPS (they will confiscate them at the customs)

While it’s true that our movement and freedom were restricted, I didn’t feel controlled in any sense of the word. We were free to interact with locals, we drove by farming lands, we saw shabby alleyways and we were obviously allowed to have our own opinions (our guides respected that as long as we didn’t impose our ideas on them).

how to travel north korea

Photography in the countryside is not allowed.

What do you see in North Korea?

You’ll be surprised but there’s quite a lot of sights to see in North Korea: from impressive monuments to museums and microbrewery visits. Most of the museum visits include a tour given by military guides who speak amazing English and offer interesting, contorted views on the outside world. You get to talk to quite a few locals (not only military) and ask as many questions as you want. Koryo Tours does a great job of educating travelers on North Korea and also mixing up the itinerary with educational/cultural visits and local interactions.

An important stop on the tour is Mansudae Hill in Pyongyang, home to statues of late President Kim Il-Sung and leader Kim Jong-Il. Visitors have to dress formally and present flowers at the monument. We are also expected to bow and pay our respect to the ‘supreme leaders’. Other monuments we visited include the Juche Tower and Workers’ Party Monument which are extremely impressive in scale and grandeur. Carvings depicting workers are results of world-class workmanship. We also visited the USS Pueblo, an American espionage ship that was captured by the North Koreans in 1968 (they definitely showed how proud they were of capturing it).

how to travel north korea

One of the highlights of our trip was touring the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace, meeting children who have been trained there since a very young age and seeing them perform (it was rather eerie to see how well-trained they were). North Korea’s annual mass game is an extremely famous event, and even thou we didn’t get to visit during the festival, this visit to the children’s palace gave us a peek into how serious they take their performing arts.

To give us a chance to see local life, Koryo Tours also took us on a ride on their local subway. The Pyongyang metro, the deepest in the world, is almost like a time machine, bringing us back to several decades in time to Soviet-style train stations and in Russia-built wagons. On the subway, we had so much fun interacting with the locals, showing them our photos and using sign language to talk to them. When we smiled and waved, they would often smile back and look upon with curiosity. We also went to play bowling at a local establishment and it was just so interesting to see North Koreans having leisure time. At Mount Ryonggak, we played guessing games with children in the park, witnessed a couple taking wedding photos and danced with groups of ladies who were having a picnic and drinks.

how to travel north korea

how to travel north korea

 

All in all, a visit to North Korea will definitely open your eyes to a place that is otherwise closed to the outside world. The only way to truly understand a place like this is to visit and see for yourself.


Disclaimer: Our experience was made possible by Koryo Tours but all opinions expressed above are my own. 

About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. #NGTRadar: Travel Lately – Intelligent Travel - February 18, 2015

    […] Tourism may not fly immediately to mind when you hear North Korea, but this elusive country is open for business. Here’s what you need to know before you [email protected] […]

  2. #NGTRadar: Travel Lately - BluGry8MiDawg - February 18, 2015

    […] Tourism may not fly immediately to mind when you hear North Korea, but this elusive country is open for business. Here’s what you need to know before you [email protected] […]

  3. Our Favourite Travel Bloggers - traveljunction.com - April 21, 2015

    […] experience of over 90 countries, there’s lots of specific off-beat travel advice, such has how to explore North Korea, as well as more general posts such as tips on traveling when pregnant. It’s all about being […]

Leave a Reply

css.php
2 Shares
Share
Tweet
+12
Stumble
Pin
Share

Wildlife Photography ebook|Sign for our monthly newsletter to download for free!

x