North Korea (officially Democratic People's Republic of Korea or DPRK) is a country in East Asia. It occupies the northern half of the Korean Peninsula that lies between Korea Bay and the East Sea, also called the Sea of Japan. It borders China to the north, Russia to the northeast and South Korea to the south.
Tourist travel to North Korea is only possible as part of a guided tour. Independent travel is not permitted. If you are not prepared to accept limitations on your movements and behavior, you should not travel to the DPRK at the present time. On the other hand, travel in the DPRK is, if nothing else, a unique experience.
In 1910, Korea was annexed by Japan. An exploitative and brutal Japanese occupation lasted until 1945 when Japan was defeated by the Allied Forces ending World War II in the Pacific. Based on an agreement between the Allies, the Korean peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel to facilitate the surrender of Japanese forces. The Soviet Union and the United States occupied the northern half and southern half respectively. Unfortunately the two states disagreed over the form an election for a unified Korea should take, and before long both sides created their own governments. The Soviet Union fostered a communist northern half under Kim Il Sung and the United States fostered a western-leaning southern half under Rhee Syngman. In June, 1950, a civil war erupted on the Korean peninsula when the North invaded the South and a United Nations force led by the United States entered the war on the South Korean side.
After nearly being driven out of Korea, on September 15-16th, 1950, Gen. Douglas MacArthur led a daring amphibious landing of the UN forces at Incheon, just west of Seoul, that dramatically turned the tables. The North was on the verge of defeat with scattered UN forces actually reaching the Yalu River border with China. But then massive Chinese forces secretly entered North Korea and launched a counterattack that pushed the UN forces back south of Seoul. The battles raged back and forth across the 38th parallel for almost three more years. In the end, little was accomplished except the death of over three million people, the vast majority Koreans. An armistice was finally agreed to in 1953 by China, North Korea and the UN forces, with South Korea refusing to sign, therefore leaving no settlement. Korea remains divided after over 60 years with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north, and the Republic of Korea in the south. Kim Il-Sung ruled as dictator until his death in 1994, and his son Kim Jong-Il has ruled North Korea ever since.
The entire Korean peninsula had been economically devastated during the Korean War, but the North, which had been the industrial half of the country while the South had been the agricultural half, rapidly rebuilt its industry and took an early economic lead over the South. In line with central planning theory the North developed its own agriculture using collectivization, machinery and fertilizers relying heavily on support from the Soviet Union. This system began to unravel in the late 1970s and 1980s as the Soviet system began to falter. With the end of Soviet aid in 1991 there was no way to continue to support the agricultural systems need for fuel, fertilizer and equipment. After so many years of government mismanagement, and the bad timing of severe flooding, the North's agricultural system collapsed in the mid-1990s leading to widespread famine and death for countless North Koreans. The North finally allowed international relief agencies to assist and the worst aspects of the famine were contained. However the DPRK continues to rely heavily on international food aid to feed its population while at the same time continuing to expend resources on its "songun", or "military first" policy based on a perceived threat by the United States.
Today the DPRK maintains an army of about 1 million men, most stationed within a few miles of the DMZ which divides the two Koreas. North Korea's long-range missile development and research into nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and massive conventional armed forces are of major concern to the international community. In December 2002, North Korea reneged on a 1994 "Agreed Framework" which required the shut down of its nuclear reactors, expelling UN monitors and further raising fears that the nation would produce nuclear weapons. Missile testing was conducted in 1998, 2006, and most recently April 2009. In October 2006 North Korea announced that it had conducted its first nuclear test. These actions have led to UN, and other international sanctions.
Current negotiations, most notably the "Six-Party Talks" involving China, Russia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and the United States, are aimed at bringing about an end to the DPRK nuclear weapons program, in hopes that a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War may finally be agreed upon, paving the way for the opening of diplomatic ties between North Korea and the United States. Unfortunately, in March 2010, a South Korean ship was sunk near the 38th parallel, increasing tensions between North and South Korea. Although North Korea claims not to have attacked the ship, the blame has largely been placed on North Korea.
In North Korea, the vast majority of people are Korean. There are also a few hundred foreigners to be found, however, most of them are fellow tourists. Because of the lack of immigration, North Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous nations on earth.
The climate is generally classed as continental, with rainfall concentrated in summer. Summer months are warm, but winter temperatures can fall as low as -30 degrees C. Late spring droughts are often followed by severe flooding. There are occasional typhoons during the early fall.
Mostly hills and mountains separated by deep, narrow valleys; coastal plains wide in west, discontinuous in east. Mountainous interior is isolated and sparsely populated.
Visiting North Korea can be challenging, and you will not have the freedom to explore the country without a North Korean escort, either as part of a group or individual tour. There are those who have called for a boycott on tourism to North Korea, due to human rights abuses in the country or how tourism may help finance the government. There is no official free enterprise activity in North Korea, and all tourist facilities are state-owned so the money goes directly to the government of North Korea. Others cite the possible benefits of Westerners engaging with North Korean citizens, particularly in a positive, friendly manner (i.e., contrary to the stereotypes of Westerners presented by internal propaganda); in practice, however, it is nearly impossible for a visitor to North Korea to have a spontaneous encounter of any kind with a citizen, as most activities of tourists are carefully planned and closely monitored. But regardless of political beliefs, North Korea is generally acknowledged to be a unique place to visit. Travellers must make up their own mind about the rights and wrongs of visiting this country.
Citizens of South Korea are normally not permitted to visit North Korea. In addition, there have been reports of difficulties regarding Israeli, American, British, and Japanese nationals. In January 2010, North Korea lifted the restrictions on American citizens who are now free to visit at anytime of the year. Contrary to rumor, Israelis and Jewish citizens of other countries do not face any additional restrictions. Citizens of all countries will need a visa, which will only be issued after your tour has been booked, approved by the North Korean authorities and paid for. Journalists (or those suspected of being journalists) require special permission, which is quite difficult to obtain. The North Koreans do not allow journalists to visit the country on tourist visas. A specialist North Korean travel agency can help you sort out the complex and ever-changing regulations. North Korea will rarely in practice refuse a visa to a tourist who meets the various requirements.
North Korea can only be visited by an organized tour, but this can be a large group or a party of one. Prices start from around $1000/€700 for a 5-day group tour including accommodation, meals and transport from Beijing, but can go up considerably if you want to travel around the country or "independently" (as your own one-person escorted group). Tour operators/travel agencies that organize their own tours to North Korea include:
Keep in mind that tourism in North Korea is not in a state comparable to any other country in the world. No matter which company you decide to book with, all tours are run by the Korean International Travel Company (with the exception of a few, such as Choson Exchange and The P'yongyang Project) and it will be their guides who show you around. The average number of tourists per group each company takes will vary considerably so you may want to ask about this before booking a trip.
Most people traveling to North Korea will travel through Beijing and you will probably pick up your visa from there (some agents arrange their visas elsewhere beforehand though). The North Korean consulate building is separate from the main embassy building at Ritan Lu, and can be found round the corner at Fangcaodi Xijie. It is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 0930-1130 and 1400-1730, and on all other days except Sundays from 0930-1130. Bring your travel permission, US$45 and two passport photos.
Recently tours from Chinese city of Dandong, on the banks of Yalu, the border river, have also started being popular. These tours are reported to be open for all except American nationals, and are especially interesting because they offer more insight into North Korean countryside as the tourists are taken to Pyongyang by a train from the border city of Sinuiju instead of a direct plane from Beijing. Travellers from western countris should hand their application forms 10 days prior to the start date of the tour, so agency can process visa applications, but you don't have to get to Dandong that early as simply e-mailing the details to the travel agency is sufficient. After your visa is approved by North Korea, the agency will send a confirmation e-mail, and after that you have to be in Dandong a day before the start of the tour, to hand your passport and photos (2-inch coloured ones). The tours start at Chinese customs at 9AM, and the train to Pyongyang leaves at 9:30AM.
Your guides will take your passport and keep it during your stay in North Korea, or at least for the first couple of days of your tour, for "security reasons" (or simply because your entry and exit dates must be registered - the black stamps on the back of your visa or passport). Make sure your passport looks decent and doesn't differ from the most common passports from your country.
There is one place in North Korea that can be visited without needing any kind of North Korean visa:
Until 2009, visa-free (or, rather, special group visa) tours were possible to two other places in North Korea — however, at time of writing, these have been suspended until further notice.
All three locations are (were) accessible to Americans, South Koreans, and most other nationalities, although a different list of restricted nationalities applies for Panmunjom (see article).
Hyundai Asan was planning to open up tours to Paektusan (Baekdusan), called Changbaishan on the Chinese side of the border, involving a charter flight from Seoul to Samjiyeon near Mt. Paektu, with the rest of the tour by bus and on foot. These never materialized though, so for time being, your options are to visit the Chinese side of the mountain (no special permits required) or add it as an expensive add-on to a standard North Korea tour.
North Korea's sole airline, Air Koryo , currently has scheduled flights from Beijing, which depart at 11:30 every Tuesday and Saturday, and return from Pyongyang at 09:00 on the same days. Air Koryo also flies to and from Shenyang in Northeast China every Wednesday and Saturday, and to Vladivostok every Tuesday morning.
Air Koryo is the only 1-star (worst) airline on Skytrax's list and has been banned in the EU due to concerns over safety in the past, though is now allowed to fly in to EU territory again. To date, Air Koryo has only had one incident resulting in death, this was in Africa in 1983. The Air Koryo fleet consists largely of Soviet-made aircraft built between 1965 and 1990, plus the pride of their fleet, a 2008 Tupolev Tu-204, which now usually handles the core Beijing–Pyongyang route. Otherwise, you'll most likely end up on one of their four Ilyushin IL-62-Ms (1979-1988 vintage), but Air Koryo also flies Tu-154s dating back to the seventies and Tu-134s from 1983.
The only other airline with scheduled service to North Korea is Air China, which flies three times weekly from Beijing to Pyongyang. Neither Aeroflot nor China Southern continue to fly to North Korea.
Train K27/K28 connect Pyongyang to Beijing in China via Tianjin, Tangshan, Beidaihe, Shanhaiguan, Jinzhou, Shenyang, Benxi, Fenghuangcheng, Dandong and Shinuiju four times a week. There is only one class on the international train between Beijing and Pyongyang: soft sleeper. It can be booked at the station in Beijing, but reservations must be made several days in advance. Your tour agency will usually do this for you, unless you are travelling on work purposes. It has been increasingly difficult to book space on the Beijing–Pyongyang route, so confirm your tickets well in advance.
Once a week train K27/K28 also conveys direct sleeping cars from Moscow via China to Pyongyang and vice versa. The route is Moscow - Novosibirsk - Irkutsk - Chita - Harbin - Shenyang - Dandong - Shinuiju - Pyongyang. Departure from Moscow is every Friday evening, arrival at Pyongyang is one week later on Friday evening. Departure from Pyongyang is Saturday morning, arrival at Moscow is Friday afternoon.
There is also a direct rail link into Russia, crossing the North Korean/Russian border at Tumangan/Khasan. This route is served by a direct sleeping car Moscow - Pyongyang and vice versa and runs twice monthly (11th and 25th from Moscow), arriving Pyongyang 9 days later. However, since the mid-nineties this has not been an officially permitted route for tourists, and KITC refuses to organize trips using this route; two Western tourists have been successful in taking this train into North Korea, but report that further trips on this route would unlikely be successful.
There is an unscheduled cargo-passenger ship between Wonsan and Niigata, Japan. Only available for use by some Japanese and North Korean nationals, the boat service has been suspended indefinitely due to North Korea's reported nuclear testing; Japan has banned all North Korean ships from entering Japanese ports, and has banned North Koreans from entering the country.
A bus is theoretically available from Dandong (China) across the Yalu River to Sinuiju, it's run by the "Dandong China Travel Company" but is only open to Chinese citizens at present.
All your transport needs will be dealt with by your tour company. Most of the time this means buses, although tour groups visiting remote sites (eg. Paekdusan, Mount Chilbo) occasionally use chartered flights by Air Koryo. Wandering around on your own is not allowed, and you are required to have a guide to escort you at all times.
A carefully stage-managed one-station ride on the P'yŏngyang metro is included on the itinerary of most trips to Pyongyang, but use of any other form of local public transport is generally impossible.
The official language is Korean. Note that North Koreans are quite picky about referring to Korean as Chosŏnmal, not hangukmal. Unlike South Korea, North Korea has abolished Chinese hanja characters and uses hangul characters, known as Chosŏn'gŭl, exclusively.
Your guides will speak fairly decent and understandable English (some better than others) and will translate something if you wish. Other guides have the ability to speak both Korean and either Mandarin, German, Japanese, or French, depending on where you come from.
Although locals may be discouraged from speaking with foreigners due to government propaganda that implies foreigners are generally up to no good, and language can prove to be an additional barrier, there is no formal law preventing citizens of the DPRK from interacting with tourists. A visit to the DPRK around their holidays may give you more of a chance to interact with the locals.
In 2002 Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) were abolished and along with them went all the different coloured currencies. Now there is just the standard North Korean won, which officially trades at 175 or so to the euro. Black market rates (especially in northern Korean, near the Chinese border) are more favorable, but importing or exporting Korean won is strictly forbidden. Conversely, were you to sneak out some won, they are practically worthless outside the country, but make unique souvenirs.
In reality, foreigners are expected to use Euros or as an alternative Chinese RMB, US Dollars, or Japanese Yen. Getting the local money is possible, but it is difficult to use as the shops all want foreign currency. Currency handling is often bizarre, with a frequent lack of change and a number of rule-of-thumb conversions leading to highly unorthodox transactions. So be sure to bring lots of small change. On the other hand, since you will already have paid in advance for your hotel, transportation, and meals, your only expenses will be bottled water, souvenirs, snacks, drinks at the bars, laundry at the hotel (which is as expensive as in Europe), and tips for your guides.
In any case, the only shops you will be likely allowed to visit are the state-run souvenir shops at your hotel and at the various tourist attractions. It is generally impossible to visit a real local shop which serves the local population, though you might get lucky asking your guide if he/she trusts you enough.
There are numerous hard-currency only souvenir shops at tourist sites. Interesting souvenirs include propaganda books and videos, postcards and postage stamps. At some tourist sites (such as King Kongmin's tomb), you can purchase freshly finished paintings with your name and the artist's name at the bottom. And if you are very lucky you might be able to get hold of some socialist realism paintings, although customs officials are not keen on these things going out of the country, so do beware.
On the tour to Kaesong tourists are warned not to purchase anything that could be construed as North Korean propaganda including any images of North Korean leaders such as stamps or postcards. No biographies or books are permitted back into South Korea. This is a South Korean restriction, it does not apply to border crossings with China. If you are leaving the country via flight to Beijing or train via Dandong you should encounter no problems bringing home any North Korean merchandise for your own personal enjoyment.
You are, however, allowed to buy post cards and send them to yourself in any country except South Korea which apparently will not deliver them.
Some excellent paintings on silk or linen were available in Kaesong directly from the artist. Haggling for price is not permitted but the prices are very low.
You will pay for most things up-front as part of your tour. Most sights have a shop associated with them where you can buy bottled water, souvenirs and snacks. These are reasonably priced. In August 2007, large bottles of local beer cost US$2 at the hotel bars in Pyongyang. If you haven't planned on spending money on gambling at the casino at Yanggakdo Hotel, €200 for one week should be enough to cover your costs of water, drinks at the bars, souvenirs and tips for the guides.
Despite severe food shortages in North Korea which have left millions dead, you will not have any problems getting food. Your guide will order all your food for you, and you will eat in hard-currency only restaurants. Vegetarians, and people with food allergies/dislikes of common foods such as seafood or eggs will need to make arrangements in advance. A visit to a "real" local restaurant may be possible; enquire with your guide. Note that although your food is better than what the majority of the population eats, it's still not necessarily great. Shortages combined with the typical use of Korean cooking styles mean that there is a relatively limited variety of food, which can get wearying on tours of more than a few days.
The local speciality is insam-ju, Korean vodka infused with ginseng roots. Locally made Taedonggang beer is very good--the brewery was purchased from Ushers in the UK in 2000 and physically moved to Pyongyang--and some of the Sojus are not bad either. Local alcohol is inexpensive; a 650mL bottle of beer is 0.5 euro. However do not get drunk and cause trouble. Toe the line and show respect, or you and your guide will face serious penalties.
When it comes to water, stick to bottled water, as with other under-developed countries, the water is not always properly treated.
This is likely to be your principal expense while in North Korea. You may only stay at "designated tourist hotels", for which you will need to pay in hard currency. There may be discounts if you ask for lower class accommodation, if you are travelling as part of a group, or if it is low season (November – March). Costs for your tour, which will include accommodation, all sightseeing activities and meals, will range from US$70 to US$200 a day, depending on these factors.
Usually you pay for all your meals, hotel and Beijing–P'yŏngyang journey to your tour operator before you leave. One week in high season at a four-star hotel will then cost something between €1300 and €1600, depending on your tour operator, but might get as low as €800 for one week.
If you are interested in teaching in North Korea, you may find success by contacting the North Korean UN Mission in New York, or contacting a North Korean university directly. Your odds of success are, however, quite low: there is only a small team of 4 English Language Instructors dealing with teaching and teacher training, with a Project Manager leading the team of three, placed in Kim Il Sung University, Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies and Kim Hyung Jik University of Education.
WARNING: Under no circumstances whatsoever are you to say something that could be perceived as an insult to Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-Il, Juche, or the North Korean people or government. Simply avoid the topic if you can. Keep in mind that anyone can be an undercover police officer or an informant. You and your guide are likely to face serious trouble but assume that your guide will bear the worst of it. "In trouble" does not mean a slap on the wrist. North Korea is known for extremely harsh punishments which range (for the guides) from lengthy prison sentences to a lifetime of torture and forced hard labour in the gulags, while you will most probably be sentenced to a short stay in a local prison or labour camp, deported, and banned from re-entering. Assume that you will be under surveillance at all times during your trip.
Crime levels are practically zero, at least to tourists on a strictly controlled tour. However, pickpockets are the least of your worries. The authorities are very touchy, and you need to watch what you say and how you say it. Just do what the guides do, praise every stop on your tour, and remember the rule, "If you don't have anything good to say, don't say it at all." Also, the official policy is that you are not to wander around on your own. You are expected to get permission and/or have a guide accompany you if you are leaving your hotel on your own. This will vary depending on what hotel you are in. The Yanggakdo Hotel is on an island in the middle of the Taedong River in Pyongyang. Therefore you can walk around the area a little more freely than if you are at the Koryo Hotel right in the center of town. You should always be friendly and courteous to your guides and driver who will normally reciprocate by trusting you more and giving you more freedom. For taking photographs, one needs to exercise restraint, caution and common sense. If you appear to be looking for negative images of North Korea, the guides will not be happy and will tell you to delete any questionable images. In particular, you are not to take photos of anything military, including personnel, or anything showing the DPRK in a bad light. Try to recognize a good photo opportunity, raise your camera at a reasonable speed, compose and take the picture, and lower the camera at a reasonable speed. Try not to spend overly long times composing a perfect masterpiece, or make fast, or furtive motions. This will only call attention to yourself and the image you are trying to take and can result, whether justified or not, in your being told to delete the image.
Digital cameras are commonly inspected when leaving the country. A simple workaround is to leave a memory card with innocuous snaps in the camera and file away any cards with ideologically dubious content.
Drinking water is untreated and there are reports of foreigners being hospitalized in the DPRK after drinking the water, sticking to bottled water is highly recommended. Medical facilities are clean, but outdated and often lacking in basic supplies, and if you fall ill you might be better off going to China for medical treatment. Contact your embassy or consulate in North Korea (if your country has one) for assistance. US citizens may contact the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang for advice if needed.
It is important to emphasize that the government of the DPRK -- in particular the leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il -- are very highly revered in North Korean culture. While slavish devotion is not expected from tourists, especially given that the Juche philosophy of the DPRK is specifically aimed at the Korean people only and is not applicable to foreigners, insulting them in any way is highly offensive and illegal, and will get you and (much more so) your guides into trouble. The guides already know how the rest of the world sees their country, it is not worth inadvertently threatening their lives by insulting their leaders.
Bringing gifts like cigarettes or scotch for the men, both guides and the driver, and chocolate or skin cream for female guides, is a nice gesture. Please be respectful toward your guides, especially since North Korean guides are known to occasionally take tourists whom they trust well enough to see other places and events in North Korea that they wouldn't ordinarily go to.
Most, if not all, tour groups to the DPRK are asked to solemnly bow and lay flowers on one or two occasions in front of statues of Kim Il Sung when visiting monuments of national importance. If you're not prepared to do this, do not even try to enter North Korea. Just be sure you always act in a respectful manner around images of the two leaders. This includes taking respectful photos of any image of them.
Any trouble you cause as a tourist will likely be blamed on your tour guide's inability to control you, and he or she will bear the brunt of the penalties. Additionally, future tourists will be allowed less freedom and will face increased restriction on where they can visit and what they can photograph.
Other than your tour guide, you will likely not meet anyone else in your trip who speaks English; a few Korean words and phrases are a nice internationalist gesture.
Despite the sharp political differences, North and South Koreans generally share a common culture; the various tips in the South Korea article under respect (such as using two hands to pour drinks) will also help here.
A 3G mobile phone network (Koryolink) was introduced in Pyongyang in 2008 and now covers the 42 largest cities. It widely used by locals who can afford it and by long-staying foreigners who file an application. Sim cards and phones can be purchased in International Communication Center.
Internet is mainly banned for locals, but can be used by foreigners after filing an application for permission. In the large hotels, internet access is theoretically possible, but must be applied for in some days advance. If you stay longer, or tell your inviting party early enough, it can be arranged. There are no public internet cafes or business centers with web access in the hotels. In addition, note that the content of your web traffic is likely to be monitored.