North Korea Travel Guide

North Korea Travel Guide

Pohyon Temple Mt Myohyang, North Korea

The Beautiful Pohyon Temple – Mt Myohyang, North Korea (DPRK)

To travel to North Korea, you must book a tour with one of the authorised tour operators – I chose Young Pioneer Tours.  It is impossible to undertake independent travel within the country under a tourist visa, but you can take the option (as I did) of an independent tour, that can be a little as one person. You will be accompanied by a guide or party official wherever you go. There are a number of important rules to follow in the country, so read below. Remember if you think it is acceptable to flout these rules I suggest you do no travel to the country. There may be consequences for you if you break these rules, but there are far more severe consequences for your guide and official if you do, so please don’t put them at any risk.

Visas: Your tour operator will apply for your visa on your behalf, which unfortunately does not appear in your passport, but on a green piece of paper instead. You will provide them with all the required information and passport photos electronically, and they will do the rest.

Accommodation: You will have little choice in where you stay in the country, as tourists can only reside at approved hotels. Within the Pyongyang, the most popular hotel is the Yanggakdo Hotel. It is the most luxurious hotel in the country, and everyone will stay here at some stage, and you can watch BBC World News here. If you are able, try for some nights at the Pothoggang Hotel in Pyongyang. While not as comfortable, it had the most courteous staff and the best gift shop in the country. One even has access to CNN.

Outside of the capital, the standard of accommodation is not as strong, with no guarantee that everything will be working (such as electricity or flushing toilets).  Regardless, it is still more than acceptable.

Food: All food is provided, and the overall standard is excellent, with some meals being excellent. Again, there is little choice to be had. Still, if you do wish to try a meal at a specific restaurant (such as Italian), then it is best to ask your tour company before arrival so that your visit can be approved – and even then, such as visit is not guaranteed.

Transport: All transport is provided, whether it be in a car, mini-bus or a larger bus. Note that when entering and leaving the country, you have the choice of taking either a flight or a train journey. I would recommend taking a train into the country as you get to see large rural areas that you would otherwise not visit, and then flying out of the country.

Read more: Things to do in North Korea

Climate: North Korea is a country with 4 seasons. It snows in winter, there is plenty of green and flowers in spring, summer is warm (but not hot) and autumn will see many trees change colour and lose their leaves – autumn would be a particularly beautiful time to visit the country. Most tours to North Korea occur outside of winter, and the season you visit will depend on the timing of events you may want to attend in the country.

Health: Bring all medications with you, including the usual for travellers (such as medication for cuts, scrapes, and traveller’s diarrhoea).  If you fall in, you will be guided where to go by your guide.

Communication: You will have almost no access to the Internet within the country, and likewise, your phone communication will be limited. Best to assume that you will have no contact with family and friends back home while you are in the country.

Electricity: You will have a secure and stable power supply within Pyongyang, and you should also have it outside of the capital city, but it is not guaranteed. Bring an extra battery or two just in case.

Painting of the Great Leader - Pyongyang, North Korea

Painting of the Great Leader – Pyongyang, North Korea (DPRK)

Culture & Customs: There are three things that dominant North Korea. First, is their love for The Great Leader (Kim Il-Sung) – the founder of North Korea. Second is the pursuit of the Juche philosophy of self-reliance; this partly explains why the country isolated itself from the rest of the world. Third, is the Songun (military-first) policy, and this partly explains the siege mentality that the country has held for many decades.

North Koreans are very sensitive to any criticism, not unusual for a country that has had an isolationist stance and siege mentality for 70 years. North Korean are courteous and try their hardest in sometimes difficult circumstances to make your stay enjoyable. While in North Korea (as with any country) seek to increase your understanding of the country rather than seeking to pass judgement.  Feel free to praise any aspect of your visit, but be cautious about expressing any criticism of your visit, and do not comment negatively on either the past or present leadership of the country.

Importantly, if you wish to write about your experiences publicly; do not identify your driver, official and guide either by name or in photos.  If you post anything deemed negative in any way on the Internet, it can have ramifications for your hosts, and these consequences could be serious.

Language: Korean is the official language of the country, with the North Koreans claiming it to be a purer form of Korean than practised in the south.  If you bring a Korean guide book, be aware that there are dialect differences between the North and South. Your escorted tour will have a guide that can act as a translator in case the people you meet do not speak your language.

Currency: The only currencies accepted are Euros and Chinese Renminbi – there are no credit facilities or ATMs in the country, so bring what you require in cash.

Insurance: As usual, you should take out travel insurance, but be aware many insurers will not insure you for any travel to Afghanistan, especially if you are a citizen of a nation that deems the country’ unsafe to travel’ or has economic sanctions on North Korea. If this applies to you, please research to find what options (if any) you have.

What to Wear: What you bring will depend on the time of the year you are visiting and on your activities. Dress accordingly to any similar travel in places such as Europe or North America. But be aware, I didn’t see any North Koreans wearing shorts or exposing a lot of skin. Unsure if this was due to the weather or cultural reasons, but it was an observation I made. Note that if you wish to visit the Kumsusan Memorial Palace (the resting places of both the Great and Dear Leaders), you will need to wear at minimum smart casual clothes (no jeans).

Read more: North Korea Photo Gallery

Photography and Other Restrictions: There are theoretically restrictions on bringing in mobile/cell phones, but these appear to be now relaxed. Lenses over 150mm in length on a DSLR are also prohibited, but I was allowed to bring my 18-200 lens after a few tense moments of uncertainty at the border.  Avoid bringing any “propaganda”, which could mean any Western newspaper or book regardless of content and definitely not anything that paints North Korea in any negative manner. I strongly recommend not bringing any religious material into the country.

Always ask for permission before photographing anything, and though it gets tiring after more than a thousand photos, the more your North Korean hosts trust you, the more liberties you are given. For example, I was allowed to photograph Pyongyang at dusk, something that is denied to many.  There are rules about photographing statues or images of the Great Leader (Kim Il Song), Dear Leader (Kim Jong Il) or the current leader, Kim Jong-un – for example, only photographing statues from the front – obey these directives. Photos cannot be taken from a moving vehicle (though I did on the train out of the country and I had no guide at that point). So always ask if you wish to do so. Your camera may be checked for photos at the border before leaving, so if you have sneaked in any unauthorised images, you are likely to lose them then.

You are prohibited from going anywhere without having an escort (either your guide or official) shadow your every step.  If you do want to leave your hotel, for example, your guide will escort you.  Again, heed all instructions given to you by the guide about where it is acceptable for you to go.

If you cannot abide by the controls of movement, photography, be respectful to the leadership (both past and present), and are not willing to accept statements about the country’s achievements without challenge, then it is best not to visit North Korea.

Village Street North Korea

Village Street Scene – North Korea (DPRK)

Safety:  North Korea is one of the safest countries you will ever travel. During my 2009 visit, I was always accompanied by a driver, official and guide, and because the only people who are likely to speak to you have been authorised to do so, the chance from petty crime is almost nil.

The biggest threat to your safety is if you are perceived as being disrespectful. As mentioned before, never say or do anything disrespectful with regards to any of the current or former leaders. In particular, the Great Leader, he is genuinely and deeply loved (it is not an act put on for tourists), and as such, all statements regarding him should be positive – very positive.

You will be told seemingly implausible stories, mostly surrounding the Korean War (or as it is termed the Fatherland Liberation War). You must accept these statements without question, and if you do wish to question these statements, it is best to do so by asking for more information rather than challenging the statement directly.

Be aware that visitors have been arrested and jailed for subversive activities relating to illegal missionary work. If you are visiting, leave your Bible, Koran or other religious books behind. If you wish to spread the word of God, North Korea is not the place to do it for the consequences can be severe.

If you do something disrespectful or unacceptable you are likely to be deported. If it is considered more severe, you may be arrested, and if this occurs, there is very little your government or anyone else can do to assist you.

Read more: Visiting the Mausoleum of The Great Leader

If you wish to visit North Korea, it is important to read the following information:

Lonely Planet  Tripadvisor  UK FCO