Often described as the “Hermit Kingdom,” North Korea remains one of the most secretive and least visited countries in the world. This guide aims to demystify some aspects of this elusive destination, offering potential visitors an in-depth look into what to expect, how to plan your trip, and how to do so responsibly and safely.
Before diving into the guide, it’s crucial to note that traveling to North Korea comes with significant restrictions and risks. All tourists are required to join guided tours and are not allowed to explore independently. Moreover, various countries, including the United States, have issued advisories against traveling to North Korea. Always check the latest travel advisories from your home country and consult with experts before making any travel plans.
What This Article Covers
- Reasons to Visit North Korea
- Travel Restrictions and Visa Requirements
- Safety Guidelines
- Top Attractions
- Cultural Norms and Etiquette
- Frequently Asked Questions
Why Visit North Korea?
North Korea offers a travel experience unlike any other. Its isolation from the rest of the world has cultivated a unique culture and way of life that is both intriguing and mysterious. Visiting North Korea provides a rare glimpse into a society shaped by decades of self-imposed exile and a deeply rooted ideological framework. For travelers seeking the extraordinary, North Korea stands as one of the last frontiers of untamed travel experiences.
North Korea is a nation steeped in history, much of which is controversial and highly political. The Korean War, the ongoing tensions with South Korea, and the country’s unique political ideology all make it a point of interest for those keen on geopolitical matters. Historical landmarks like the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are interred, or the Korean War Museum offer a different perspective on world history, as seen through the lens of the North Korean government.
A trip to North Korea can be profoundly educational, challenging preconceived notions and offering insights into a largely misunderstood nation. Guided tours often include lectures and discussions that delve into the country’s politics, culture, and history. Although the narrative is controlled by the state, the experience nonetheless provides a valuable opportunity to engage with North Korean perspectives, which are often absent in global dialogues.
Adventure and Natural Beauty
While political intrigue often overshadows it, North Korea is home to stunning natural landscapes. From the rugged peaks of Mount Paektu to the pristine beaches of Wonsan, the country offers a range of outdoor activities. Whether you’re an avid hiker or simply someone who appreciates untouched natural beauty, North Korea’s landscapes offer a different kind of adventure for the daring traveler.
How to Visit: Travel Restrictions and Visas
Obtaining a visa to visit North Korea is a prerequisite but can only be secured through an authorized tour operator. Independent travel is not allowed; all visits must be booked through an approved agency that will handle your visa application as part of the tour package. Tourist visas are typically single-entry and only valid for the duration of your guided tour.
Authorized Tour Operators
While many travel agencies claim to offer North Korea tours, it’s crucial to ensure that you’re booking through an authorized operator. These tour operators work in direct liaison with the North Korean government to provide approved itineraries and necessary documentations. Booking through unauthorized channels can result in legal complications and a likely denial of visa. Do your due diligence, read reviews, and ask for referrals before choosing a tour operator.
Once in North Korea, strict adherence to government guidelines and rules is obligatory. Failure to comply can result in harsh penalties, including detainment. Tourists are required to respect local customs and laws, and they are generally not allowed to leave their hotels or interact with locals without a guide’s presence. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations provided by your tour operator before departing for North Korea.
Itinerary and Restricted Areas
Your visit will follow a predetermined itinerary set by your tour operator in agreement with North Korean authorities. Deviating from this itinerary is not allowed, and some areas are completely off-limits to foreigners. For example, the North Korean government restricts visits to certain military installations and areas close to the South Korean border, except the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), which can be visited as part of an authorized tour.
The political landscape in North Korea is highly sensitive, and all visitors should tread carefully when discussing politics or government policies. Negative comments or questions about the North Korean leadership are strongly discouraged and could lead to severe consequences. Always remember that you are under constant supervision and even casual conversations can be monitored.
What Not to Do
There are several activities that are strongly discouraged or illegal and could result in detention or worse. These include:
- Taking unauthorized photographs: Always ask your guide before taking pictures, especially of military personnel or installations.
- Distributing foreign media: Newspapers, magazines, or any material that is deemed ‘counter-revolutionary’ can lead to serious repercussions.
- Deviating from the group: Stay with your guide and group at all times unless explicitly given permission to do otherwise.
- Engaging in religious proselytism: Practicing or disseminating religious beliefs is forbidden and considered a serious offense.
It’s crucial to have a list of emergency contacts before you arrive, though it’s worth noting that you’ll have limited access to communication channels. Here are some essential contacts:
- Your country’s embassy or consular service in North Korea or in a nearby country (as some countries don’t have diplomatic relations with North Korea).
- Contact details of your tour operator.
- Local emergency services (although contacting them directly may be restricted).
North Korea’s healthcare system is significantly underdeveloped, so it’s essential to take preventative health measures before your trip:
- Ensure all your vaccinations are up to date.
- Carry essential medications, as well as a basic first aid kit.
- Discuss travel insurance options with your tour operator, keeping in mind that many insurance providers do not cover travel to North Korea.
Understanding and following these safety guidelines can be crucial for a secure and incident-free visit to North Korea. Always exercise extreme caution and follow the instructions provided by your guides and tour operators.
The capital city of North Korea, Pyongyang, is often the first stop for most guided tours. Home to monuments and landmarks that offer a glimpse into the nation’s history and ideology, the city serves as a fascinating introduction to North Korean culture. Notable attractions include the Juche Tower, Kim Il-sung Square, and the Mansudae Grand Monument. While in Pyongyang, visitors can witness grand performances like the Mass Games, showcasing large-scale gymnastics and artistic displays.
DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)
The Demilitarized Zone, better known as the DMZ, is perhaps one of the most unique tourist attractions in the world. Separating North and South Korea, this heavily fortified area offers a stark reminder of the ongoing conflict and division between the two nations. Despite the underlying tension, it’s a popular tourist destination. Tours often include a visit to the Joint Security Area (JSA), Panmunjom, and other observation points where you can literally stand on the edge of one of the world’s most contentious borders.
As the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula, Mount Paektu is a must-see natural attraction. Revered in Korean folklore and considered the birthplace of the Korean people, this dormant volcano offers stunning vistas, including its famed crater lake, Heaven Lake. While getting there can be a logistical challenge, the views and cultural significance make it well worth the effort.
Kaesong and Panmunjom
These historical cities are often included in tours and provide valuable insights into the Korean War and the subsequent division of Korea. Panmunjom is located in the DMZ and is the site where the armistice agreement was signed. Kaesong, on the other hand, is home to well-preserved historical monuments and offers a different perspective on the nation’s past.
For those interested in experiencing North Korea’s natural beauty, Wonsan offers beautiful beaches and is known as a resort town for locals. While the typical tourist itineraries may not include a lot of leisure time, a stop in Wonsan offers a glimpse into how North Koreans enjoy their free time, albeit within the limits set by the government.
These top attractions offer a mix of history, culture, and natural beauty, each providing its own unique glimpse into the enigmatic world of North Korea.
Cultural Norms and Etiquette
Understanding Political Decorum
Political decorum is of utmost importance in North Korea. When visiting monuments dedicated to the country’s leaders or other political landmarks, showing the utmost respect is mandatory. For instance, when taking photos of statues of leaders, it’s considered disrespectful to cut off any part of the statue, like taking a photo from the waist up.
Dress modestly and conservatively to respect the local culture. When visiting memorials or other significant sites, men should wear trousers and a collared shirt, and women are advised to wear knee-length skirts or dresses. Wearing jeans or casual wear to formal or significant places is generally considered disrespectful.
Be very cautious when discussing politics, especially if the topic involves the Kim family or the North Korean government. Such conversations are not just frowned upon but could land you in serious trouble. It’s safest to avoid sensitive or controversial topics.
Photography is tightly controlled. Always ask your guide whether it’s permissible to take photos before you snap your camera or smartphone. Photos of military installations, checkpoints, and soldiers are generally prohibited. Some public spaces and interiors of buildings may also have restrictions.
Gifts and Souvenirs
It’s common to offer small gifts when visiting important cultural or social institutions. However, gift-giving is a sensitive matter, and it’s advisable to consult with your tour guide on appropriate items and etiquette. As for souvenirs, your options might be limited and controlled, often to state-run shops with pre-approved items.
Interactions with Locals
Although it’s rare for tourists to have the chance to interact freely with local North Koreans, it may happen under controlled circumstances. In such cases, maintain a polite demeanor and avoid sensitive subjects. Even seemingly innocent questions could be misinterpreted.
By adhering to these cultural norms and etiquette guidelines, travelers can better navigate the complexities of visiting North Korea while showing respect for the nation’s unique customs and regulations.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it safe to travel to North Korea?
While North Korea is generally safe in terms of crime rates, the political climate and strict laws pose unique risks. Failure to adhere to local laws and norms can result in severe penalties, including imprisonment. Always consult your country’s travel advisory before planning a trip.
Can Americans travel to North Korea?
As of the latest information available, American citizens are generally discouraged from traveling to North Korea due to the high risk of arrest and long-term detention. The U.S. government currently does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, which complicates consular assistance should any issues arise.
What currency is used in North Korea?
The North Korean Won is the official currency, but tourists are generally not allowed to use it. Instead, you’ll likely use Euros, Chinese Yuan, or U.S. Dollars for any transactions.
North Korean Won current exchange rates
- 100.000 KPW = $111.11 or $1 = 900.00 North Korean Won
- 100.000 KPW = €103.04 or €1 = 970.46 North Korean Won
- 100.000 KPW = 88.33 British Pounds
- 100.000 KPW = 168.21 Australian Dollar
- 100.000 KPW = 150.91 Canadian Dollar
- 100.000 KPW = 1,159.51 Swedish Krona
- 100.000 KPW = 446.20 Polish Zloty
- 100.000 KPW = 2,509.36 Czech Koruna
- 100.000 KPW = 145,783.11 South Korean Won
- 100.000 KPW = 793.39 Chinese Yuan
- 100.000 KPW = 16,049.56 Japanese Yen
What’s the best time to visit?
The best times to visit North Korea are during the spring (April and May) and fall (September and October) when the weather is mild. These seasons also coincide with major national holidays, offering a unique glimpse into the country’s culture and celebrations.
Do I need a special adapter for my electronics?
North Korea uses Type C and Type F electrical outlets, with a standard voltage of 220V and a frequency of 60Hz. Make sure to bring appropriate adapters and converters if your devices don’t match these specifications.
Is Internet access available?
Internet access is extremely restricted. Tourists are generally not allowed to use the North Korean internet and will not have access to global internet while in the country. Some tour packages may offer limited access to international news.
What is the food like?
North Korean cuisine is similar to South Korean food but less spicy. Common ingredients include rice, vegetables, and meats. Specialties like Naengmyeon (cold noodles) are popular. However, be prepared for a lack of variety compared to what you might be accustomed to.
Can I take a train into North Korea?
Tourists are generally not permitted to enter North Korea via train. The usual method of entry is a flight into Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport.
These are some of the most commonly asked questions about visiting North Korea. Due to the country’s closed nature and rapidly changing regulations, it’s important to consult with experts or official sources for the most current information.
- Koryo Tours – www.koryogroup.com
One of the most well-known and oldest tour operators specializing in trips to North Korea. They also offer additional materials like books and documentaries to give you a deeper understanding of the country.
- Young Pioneer Tours – www.youngpioneertours.com
Another tour operator with a focus on budget travel to North Korea, offering a variety of tour packages including themed trips like the North Korean Marathon.
- Lonely Planet – www.lonelyplanet.com/north-korea
Provides general travel information and tips for North Korea, though it is essential to note that their information might be outdated due to the restricted nature of the country.
- 38 North – www.38north.org
A specialized website offering in-depth articles and analyses on North Korea, useful for those wanting a deeper understanding of the country’s politics and society.
- NK News – www.nknews.org
An independent news organization offering the latest news and analysis on North Korea. They also have a tourist-centric section offering travel tips.
- U.S. Department of State – North Korea Travel Advisory
Provides the latest travel advisories and information, particularly useful for U.S. citizens considering travel to North Korea.
- FCO Travel Advice – North Korea
The UK government’s foreign travel advice page for North Korea, containing practical information including safety and entry requirements.
Visiting North Korea is unlike any other travel experience. From the unique political climate to the restricted but fascinating tourist attractions, a trip to this secluded nation offers a rare glimpse into a society largely closed off from the outside world. Understanding the cultural norms, legal restrictions, and guidelines is essential for anyone considering this journey. While North Korea may not be a typical travel destination, its unique blend of history, politics, and natural beauty make it an intriguing choice for the adventurous and curious traveler. Always consult up-to-date resources and experts to prepare adequately for this one-of-a-kind experience.