Enter one of the most secret and unknown countries in the world with an open mind. North Korea is not only wonderfully interesting, but also surprisingly accessible. In 2013, the curious traveler wanting to experience one of the last communist dynasties should book a ticket to Pyongyang, capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea. Exclusive travel is an understatement here, with less than 5,000 Western tourists visiting this little-known Asian country each year. If you're the type of traveler who likes to come home with original stories and photos that no one else could have taken, put this destination at the top of your bucket list. We answer five questions about how to do this.
1.How to get to North Korea?
Probably the most amazing thing about visiting North Korea is that anyone can do it (even the American traveler). Getting there is not complicated or dangerous and even relatively cheap. Simply book a trip with the English tour operator based in BeijingKoryo-Touren, which has been guiding curious tourists to North Korea for over fifteen years. In 2012, Koryo Tours attracted over 2,500 tourists to the DPRK, a third of whom were Americans. Koryo Tours will manage your visa, book your flight or train from Beijing to Pyongyang and also make sure you discover this country in a fascinating way. Start with a 1.5-hour flight from Beijing to Pyongyang on a Tupolev aircraft operated by the national airline Air Koryo. Premium vintage chic, beautiful flight attendants in white gloves and red lipstick, food that rivals many US airlinesPyongyang timetable, a North Korean newspaper translated into English. If you fly at night (which is highly unlikely), the view is spectacular: the Yalu River that separates China from North Korea, lit and bustling on the Chinese side and pitch black on the North Korean side. On board are mostly visitors and tourists, but also some North Koreans, easily identifiable by the Great Leader insignia they wear. Kim Il Sung himself watches the Tupolev land at Pyongyang International Airport. Thanks to a briefing in Beijing the day before, the international tour group knows what to expect in advance. Laptops, cameras, lenses, video cameras are allowed. In 2009 we still had to hand over our mobile phones at the airport, but nowadays you can take your mobile phone with you within the country and also buy a local SIM card with which you can make and receive international calls. Since 2008, there are internet connections in most big hotels, also western tour guides have internet on their smartphones.
Our UK tour guide Hannah Barraclough from Koryo Tours sharesyour adventuresvia Instagram, live from North Korea.
2. Are you free during a trip to North Korea?
Yes and no. Exploring alone is not possible. Book a solo trip to North Korea and receive two local guides and a driver in a sleek vintage Mercedes, or travel in an international group. With the latter, you will also be accompanied by two local guides, a western guide and a driver. Inquiries can be made, but because the program is so well organized you are somewhat limited as a tourist. In other words, you see the North Korea the government wants you to see. That in itself is fascinating. Of course there are limitations. It is strictly forbidden to photograph military installations (but isn't that the case in all countries?), such as the border with South Korea. It is necessary to bow to the statues of the Great Leader. But no matter how well-orchestrated the trip is (which also happens with many Western packages, where the tourist only sees and experiences the things the tour operator shows), you still get a glimpse of the real North Korea. In the capital Pyongyang, with its streets empty (only a lucky few drive cars), girls dazzlingly dressed in blue and white uniforms weave their way through the intersections. Between official visits to museums, monuments, and mausoleums, you'll gain a remarkable insight into the daily lives of North Koreans. On the 15th of August, Liberation Day, everyone is sitting in the park. There are picnics, dances, songs, games... Families sit on the grass under the trees and most of the ladies wear splendid dresses. It's a great time to sit down with the locals and have a nice relaxing time.
3.What's on the agenda?
A week in North Korea is a mix of visits, tastes and experiences. From bowling in a very strict communist looking bowling alley (balls made in the USA) and a ride on the Pyongyang subway to visiting a school library and a local music school where accordion, piano and guitar are taught with collective fervor . The group's male members have already been instructed to bring a tie to visit Kim Il Sung's mausoleum. Also included in the tour package is a visit to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between North and South Korea. On the way, you will pass several border controls on a road where there are almost no cars. As a tourist, you can stay close to the real, fragile line between the two enemies. As a reminder, take a photo of the blue guardhouse and resident sentry with South Korea just five meters away. Less official is the beautiful scenery of North Korea that you can enjoy from your window on the many bus rides: green rice paddies, lots of space and the occasional farm or village. One of these visits takes us to the North Korean coast, heavily guarded by the military. You immediately notice that Japan appears on the other side of the water. Despite this detail, a relaxed gourmet lunch follows in a small restaurant by the sea with freshly grilled fish, duck and seafood.
4. Is visiting North Korea for everyone?
Some tourists may wonder if traveling to a country like North Korea is ethical. Undoubtedly, each one decides for himself, but the same happens with other countries that are not 100% politically correct or free of corruption. Tourism is a source of income for North Koreans. Another important aspect of tourism is the interaction between foreigners and North Koreans. At least the visitor gets to see the residents as they really are and vice versa. The trip to the DPRK lifts a corner of the veil for both sides. Perhaps this interaction paves the way for greater freedom and peace for all. All a tourist needs (apart from a fancy tie) is an open mind and the belief that, despite the negative reports in the West, there is something human behind a country like North Korea. Discovering one of the most mysterious countries in the world has its own strange aspects and rules. As a real and experienced traveller, you now have everything in sight.
5. Are the Mass Games really spectacular?
Yes, yes and yes! There are few words to describe an event of this magnitude and impact. This is the main attraction in the DPRK and simply the most amazing thing you will ever see! The Mass Games can basically be described as a synchronized socialist-realist extravaganza in which over 100,000 participants take part in a 90-minute display of gymnastics and dancing, all accompanied by music wrapped in a highly politicized package. Literally no other place on earth has anything like it and you have to see it for yourself to really appreciate the scale on display. The Arirang or massive games take place weekly in July/August of each year and last until mid-September. 80,000 dancers and gymnasts train throughout the year to perform in front of their countrymen and especially in front of their leader. The backdrop is made up of over 20,000 cardholders who sit in the audience and make patterns appear by synchronously rotating the colored cards. As a tourist there is absolutely no problem visiting and photographing these events. Prices for one night range from $130 for third-class seats to $450 for VIP seats. Would you like to see for yourself?
try this"I want moreVideo by the music band Faithless, footage made possible by Koryo Tours.
THE JUDGMENTWe really enjoy traveling to North Korea.Koryo-Touren🇧🇷 It was one of the most amazing trips we've taken in years. From the interesting group of travelers we met along the way to singing karaoke and mingling with the locals over a drink and rolling a cigar together. The culmination? The mass games, an impressive event (we went twice) that can only be witnessed here in the DPRK. Would we go back to North Korea? Yes, in no time.
HOW TO CONTINUEbritish travel companyKoryo-Tourenexcellently organized! Travel to the DPRK from Beijing. Excursions can be done in groups or individually, depending on your budget and desires. For travelers with less time, you can book a Mass Games Break where you can watch the Mass Games and discover Pyongyang in a few days. Departure is always outside Beijing and depending on the type of trip booked, whether by plane or train. He flies with Air Koryo, which flies to Beijing three times a week. The flight takes just 1.5 hours in a comfortable aircraft in economy and business class configuration.
WHERE YOU LIVEAccommodation in the DPRK is very simple. In Pyongyang, we stayed at the super cool Yanggakdo Hotel, with 47 floors. It is a Western equivalent of 3 stars (Chinese 4 stars) and is equipped with a revolving rooftop restaurant, bars, shops, swimming pool, bowling alley, casino and other entertainment facilities such as karaoke. The hotel has reliable electricity, heating, air conditioning, hot water with even foreign TV channels including BBC World and Japanese and Chinese TV and internet access available. In a small cafe next to the hotel, bottled beer is served at EUR 0.40 a draft.
VISA AND CASHGetting a North Korea visa is easy with the help of Koryo Tours. They apply for the visa for you, so you don't have to organize it yourself. The official exchange currency in the DPRK is now the euro (the US dollar was phased out in 2003). We recommend that you bring Euros, however in most cases Chinese Yuan, US Dollar and Japanese Yen can be used. It's best to carry small bills/coins as change can be a problem. Travelers checks cannot be cashed in the DPRK. The official currency, the DPRK won, is now valued at approximately 170 won per 1 euro. It is possible to get real DPRK money at the hotel, but it is just a souvenir and cannot be used to buy goods. The best currency for buying goods is still the euro, but keep in mind that all goods sold to visitors are quite expensive. Tipping is appreciated in North Korea. For example, 5 euros a day for the guide is a good amount. In restaurants or bars, you decide whether you want to tip the waitress or not.
CLIMATEWe highly recommend going during the summer months when the big games are on. However, summer is quite hot and humid during the day and cooler at night.
Freedom of movement
North Korean citizens usually cannot freely travel around the country, let alone travel abroad. Emigration and immigration are strictly controlled.
The main form of punishment used by North Korea is imprisonment in forced labor camps. They believe forced labor to be a form of repatriation in that when a person works for their country, they will grow an appreciation for it and be less likely to commit a crime against it.How to get inside North Korea? ›
- Visas. You need a visa for all types of travel to the North Korea. If you arrive without a valid visa, you may be: ...
- Other visas. Business travellers generally need: sponsorship by a North Korean organisation. ...
- Border measures. Due to COVID-19, North Korea has closed its borders.
Citizens of South Korea require special permission from both governments to enter North Korea and are typically not granted such permission for regular tourism except in special tourist areas designated for South Koreans.Can North Koreans have phones? ›
North Korea has an adequate telephone system, with 1.18 million fixed lines available in 2008. However, most phones are only installed for senior government officials. Someone wanting a phone installed must fill out a form indicating their rank, why they want a phone, and how they will pay for it.Why is North Korea dark at night? ›
Since the mid-1990s, when fuel stopped flowing from the defunct Soviet Union to North Korea, the famously hermetic country has descended into darkness.Can Americans go to North Korea? ›
Americans are not allowed to go to North Korea.
The restrictions in place previously restricted Americans' ability to engage in direct exchange activities with DPRK citizens, have direct contact with North Korean individuals within the DPRK, and travel by train between Sinuiju and Pyongyang.
They have a close special relationship and China is often considered to be North Korea's closest ally. China and North Korea have a mutual aid and co-operation treaty, which is currently the only defense treaty either country has with any nation.What is the haircut law in North Korea? ›
The North Korean haircut rules are: Men's hair should be kept between 1-5 cm in length, with recommended haircuts every 15 days. Women are allowed to choose from one of 14 slightly longer styles. Spiked hairstyles are exclusively banned because the government thinks it's rebellious.How many people have escaped North Korea? ›
Since 1953, 100,000–300,000 North Koreans have defected, most of whom have fled to Russia or China. 1,418 were registered as arriving in South Korea in 2016.
Travelling to North Korea completely alone is not permitted. Private tours can be organised, but you will always be accompanied by tour guides, even if you are just one person travelling. Wandering alone through the streets is not allowed.Is it safe to live in North Korea? ›
Because of this lack of international cooperation, travel to North Korea is not recommended. The increased risk of unlawful detention and imprisonment and the potential for warfare or nuclear escalation outbursts make visiting this nation unsafe.What happens if a North Korean escapes? ›
Physical Isolation. It's illegal for North Koreans to leave their country without the government's permission. North Koreans who do attempt to leave the country illegally and are caught can face severe consequences including torture, forced labor, and life-imprisonment in a political prison camp.Can you get married in North Korea? ›
Recently, wedding culture has significantly changed in North Korea, many wedding restaurants have been built recently in Pyongyang, therefore, they hold the wedding ceremonies in public places like wedding restaurant or hotel, rather than at home. Weddings are usually held on Sundays and other public holidays.What happens if you get caught escaping North Korea? ›
If the defectors are caught in China, they are repatriated back to North Korea, where rights groups say they often face harsh interrogations and years of punishment, or even death, in kwalliso prison camps (such as the Pukch'ang camp), or in kyohwaso reeducation camps (such as the Chungsan camp or Chongo-ri camp).What happens if you break the rules in North Korea? ›
It is a criminal act in North Korea to show disrespect to the country's current and former leaders, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung. Persons violating the laws of North Korea, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned.What happens if you are caught try to escape North Korea? ›
Physical Isolation. It's illegal for North Koreans to leave their country without the government's permission. North Koreans who do attempt to leave the country illegally and are caught can face severe consequences including torture, forced labor, and life-imprisonment in a political prison camp.What happens if you commit a crime in South Korea? ›
There are nine types of criminal penalties: capital punishment, imprisonment, penal servitude, revocation of qualification, suspension of qualification, fines, jails, minor fines, and forfeiture. The most frequently used type of punishment is a fine followed by imprisonment and penal servitude.