It’s 3 am, I’ve just arrived back over the border in China after four days in the notorious North Korea, Also known as DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), and all I want to do is crash into my bed.
But I’m trying to get into the habit of writing travel posts when my emotions are raw and real, as we often have the ability to romanticise or exaggerate when relying upon memory alone.
So, let’s get into the nitty-gritty and stop messing about. I’ll try my best to explain the whats, the whys, the hows and the logistics of visiting North Korea.
Why I Went To North Korea
I want to visit every country in the world and North Korea is no exception to this goal of mine.
However, it certainly is a different beast in many ways. You really can’t expect people to have the same reaction to you visiting the lovely Norewigan fjords vs saying you’re going to visit North Korea.
Since travelling the world I have watched less mainstream news and made my mind up on countries and their people via real-life experience. I’ve lost count of how many times my encounters have been different to common rhetoric and I have changed my mind on things that I never believed I would in a million years.
…this isn’t the part of the North Korea blog where I drown in a sea of cultural relativism and blame Western media for painting the country in an unnecessarily bad light.
North Korea is a brutal totalitarian regime, run by evil megalomaniacs with human rights abuses that wouldn’t look out of place in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’
My reasons for wanting to visit North Korea were largely selfish, but my intentions were not sinister. I wanted to witness it with my own eyes and hopefully share even the most subtle of human connections in one of the most isolated and secretive countries on planet earth.
Is it Ethical To Visit North Korea?
I’m going to be really honest here, I do get a little defensive when I visit complicated countries and receive condemnation from people who go for low-hanging fruit, or whatever is fashionable to be mad about.
I also don’t love the term dark tourism, but there is no getting away from the fact that visiting North Korea and other incredibly sad places that I have visited would come under that umbrella. I think the negative feelings possibly stem from the veiled accusations that I must get some perverse sense of joy from living beings’ suffering, which is very far from the truth.
Visceral reactions and my delicate ego aside, there is less of an argument in my favour here considering that every single penny goes to the North Korean government. I have been to a lot of nations with corrupt governments in all corners of the world (including the West) and also countries that have been ravaged by war and I won’t be stopping that any time in the near future.
The counteracting argument has always been that the people are separate from the government and that they have every bit of right to make money from tourism as anyone else in the rest of the world (or arguably even more so if they are in dire straits). The problem here is that the people of North Korea do not get to keep that money in this transaction.
Pretty much every bit of the reported $30-40 million from tourism will go directly to the regime and let’s face it, there is no distribution of the wealth going on here, it will be held ever so tightly in the iron fist of DPRK’s “Dear Leader.”
As with anything you spend money on, it’s best to make the decision whether you are happy with what you are funding. Visiting North Korea once is enough for me, but I understand and appreciate the criticisms of this particular topic.
Can Americans Visit North Korea?
Yes and no. Since the death of American citizen Otto Warmbier in North Korea during his imprisonment between 2016 and 2017, the Secretary of State authorised its department to block Americans from travelling to North Korea.
However, there is another option. Many Americans have the opportunity of a second passport due to the heritage of their parents/grandparents.
For example, let’s say your dad is Mexican, and you have a dual American and Mexican passport, you will be able to enter North Korea via your Mexican passport.
North Korea hasn’t banned Americans, but the USA doesn’t want its citizens visiting due to security concerns and to avoid another international diplomatic disaster, also you might get into trouble if the USA finds out when you arrive home, so I completely understand if those who have the opportunity to do this would rather remain cautious.
So to put to bed a massive myth; it’s not that hard at all to acquire a North Korean visa. It’s only those travelling on a South Korea and USA passport who can not. I will delve more into the visa process below.
Is it Safe To Visit North Korea?
Contrary to popular belief, visiting North Korea as a tourist is arguably safer than visiting most countries in the world.
I had many arguments with my mother about this and a couple of others who lost their minds on this topic and were unable to use critical thinking.
Think about it; North Korea is ran by authoritarians and what do authoritarians love as much as power? Propaganda! Even though most of us aren’t buying their shit, the powers that be are trying to make us naive tourists skip back to our countries to spread the good word about North Korea’s misunderstood utopia.
So it’s in their best interests to not allow anything bad to happen to tourists.
But what about that American kid who got imprisoned, tortured and sent home to die for stealing a sign from a governmental building when he was drunk? Didn’t turn out too well for him, did it? No it didn’t but he’s the exception as opposed to the rule. As long as you behave yourself, you will be just fine.
Also, if you think he “got what he deserved” for his foolish behaviour then maybe look into that hearltess bastard staring back at you in the mirror and take him/her to therapy. You should 100% be on your best behaviour when visiting North Korea and while I will use Otto Warmbier as an example of what could happen if you don’t; I refuse to join those callous people who believe the crime matches the punishment.
On another note, North Korean people are so terrified of adherence to rules due to the ramifications of breaking them that you are safer on the road here than a fair amount of destinations around the world.
Can You Get Access To The Internet in North Korea?
Ha! Open access to information is bad business for an autocratic regime and so access to the internet is only available to an estimated 1000-2000 if the population of 26 million.
Government officials and a select elite few have levels of access to the internet and there have been reports of some workers having access to a very restricted form of dial-up that is heavily monitored by the powers that be.
But you can forget about a North Korean SIM card during your time in the hermit kingdom. I was shocked to have limited options of internet while traveling in Cuba, but it would be absolute madness to expect internet as a tourist in North Korea.
Does North Korea Stamp Your Passport?
Nope. Same deal as the Israel passport stamp update; a temporary identity card and a tiny sticker on the back of your passport is all you get, although if you take the option of visiting North Korea via Dandong in China, it could raise eyebrows to privy American airport staff back in the USA who maybe have been told to look out for this entry and exit port, in order to highlight rebellious Americans.
Doubtful, but not beyond the realms of possibility.
Is it Hard To Get a Visa For North Korea?
It’s (relatively) not at all difficult to obtain a North Korean visa. I’m amazed by how many people constantly and confidently told me that, as a Brit, I “can’t go to North Korea”.
This is absolutely false. All countries around the world (with the exception of the two mentioned above) are eligible for a quick and painless tourist visa via a tour operator. It’s the double-entry Chinese visa that can be the pain in the balls.
I have been rejected for a double-entry visa on two occasions with no reason for my rejections. First time was in Lebanon and the second time was Nicaragua. These two nations don’t have the greatest diplomatic relationships with China, but Thailand does and so I got my dounle-entry China visa in Bangkok.
How Much Does it Cost To Visit North Korea?
I went with Young Pioneer Tours (YPT). I’ve also heard good things about Koryo Tours, but their dates didn’t match up with my plans.
A few of my friends had used YPT and given them the thumbs up. As mentioned above, I had one hell of a stressful time with my double-entry Chinese visa in some parts of the world; the North Korean visa process was simple and all taken care of by YPT.
China usually prefers you to get a double-entry visa in your own country, so I went with a visa agent in Bangkok (as that’s where I was living at the time) for a better chance and it all worked out well in the end.
I’d already paid the $1800 USD for the tour and flights and, with it being Chinese New Year, I had to wait until the final hour to find out whether I’d got the double-entry Chinese visa.
The tour, including a 3-night single supplement, the DPRK visa and insurance cost me $952 USD.
Which Currency Do You Use in North Korea?
You can use Euros and Chinese Yen. North Korea has its own currency, but much like socialist Cuba’s old system, only locals can use it, with exception of one place in Pyongyang where you can exchange your money in Kwangbok Department store… only if you spend money on the items in that store.
There were occasions later on when tour members subtly tried to pay for coffees and snacks in local currency. North Koreans never, ever took this and I suspect they’d be in a lot of trouble if they did.
Can You Take Photos in North Korea?
You can take photos in most places in North Korea, but some areas are restricted, and you’ll be informed when you are can not. Many of those times were on the train; taking photos of rural North Korea was mainly a no-no, I’m guessing the regime isn’t a big fan of a tourist snapping anything outside of the polished capital city of Pyongyang.
iPhones are authorised (that’s the only thing I took as a camera). DSLR cameras are allowed but lenses that exceed 150mm are strictly prohibited to bring into DPRK.
There are strict and weird guidelines for taking photos of any of the ‘hero’ statues of leaders past and present such as your hands should remain by our side and not behind your back or with your arms crossed. Also no pulling silly faces, chewing food or imitating the maeerisms of the leaders.
What Not To Bring Into North Korea?
If you are serious about your trip to North Korea, the following items are forbidden to bring into the country:
- Religious scripture – (no Bible, no Torah, no Pali Canon, no Quran = no problem).
- Anything offensive movies that are anti-North Korea – and yes that includes Team America. It’s much easier to not bring in any documentary or movies at all if you ask me.
- Books about North Korea – Or even South Korea. Use your head, don’t give them anything to be mad about.
- Pornographic material – including all those racy photos that you so enthusiastically received over from the object of your desire/s. But let’s not be hasty, keep a backup. No need to kill beautiful memories because of one little trip.
- Drones – North Korea has a total ban on drones.
- Satelite phone – I don’t know anyone who owns one other than mountain climbers! But if you have one, leave it at home.
How Do You Get To North Korea?
There are 3 options for getting to North Korea and they are all via China.
- You can to fly from Beijing to North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang with Air Koryo.
- The other option is to take a train to Pyongyang from Beijing.
- I took the final (and most difficult option, yet fun) of the three: I made my way to Dandong, which is on the China and North Korea border, and took a slow train to DPRK from there.
Regardless of what option you take to get to North Korea, you’ll need your tour company to book your transport to North Korea from China and don’t forget you’ll need a double-entry China visa in your passport before arriving in China if you want to visit North Korea.
Arriving in Dandong, China
Dandong has an airport – sweet! Well, yes, it would be…if it was actually open for business. Sky Scanner and Momondo still showed it as an option, but this was a glitch in the system as Dandong airport was closed (it is now open after renovations)
I flew to Shenyang and took a (very efficient and comfortable) bullet train to Dandong. It took an hour and a half to get there. If you do have to take the train to Dandong, you need to order the ticket online first at ctrip.com and collect it at the station in Shenyang.
The purchase of the ticket is simple but give yourself a lot of time to get to Shenyang train station. The traffic from Shenyang Airport can be unpredictable and once you get to Shenyang train station, nothing is in English so you’ll have to engage your best improvisation skills to work out which counter you’ll need to go to so that you can receive your ticket.
Oh, and you’ll need the booking code along with the passport number that you registered upon buying your ticket on ctrip.com.
Upon arriving, I was met by a gigantic statue of Chairman Mao with his arm raised.
It was bloody freezing. Seriously, don’t underestimate this part of the world during winter. Permanent nipple-on awaits you.
After a rough couple of transits, I was delighted to see that my hotel was only a three minute walk away from the station.
I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn. It was incredibly good value for money at $50 USD per night and so I stayed for two nights – choosing to be risk-averse in case I had any issues with the connections and taking advantage of the delicious DIY Chinese hotpot options at dinner.
Day 1 Of The North Korea Tour
As instructed, I went to Dandong train station at 8am to meet the group. They weren’t particularly hard to spot; Dandong wasn’t exactly flush with non-Chinese for the two days that I was in town and Rowan, our Aussie guide (and absolute legend of a bloke too), was towering above everyone at around 6 foot 7!
We made the usual, awkwardly polite introductions and received our briefing, which was quite relaxed, and off we toddled to the train.
Everyone had a sleeper berth on the train, but I don’t think anyone actually used it as nervous energy was running rife.
We met our first North Korean at the border. We stayed on the train, as he had a list of our names, and he took our passports, registered our cameras and checked our luggage.
The man was incredibly amiable and smiley, dressed in full military gear with a pinned badge that showed the current leader, Kim Jong-un and his father Kim Jong-il, with the North Korean flag in the background.
We were allowed off at one stop before we got to Pyongyang where we stocked up on beers from Korean ladies at a small stall, photos were not allowed to be taken here, but they were allowed at a later stop.
After seeing about eight hours of snowy, rural landscapes and several locals riding their bicycles, the train parked up and we were in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang.
We jumped on our tour bus and met our two Korean guides, a man and a woman with perfect English who seemed genuinely happy to see us, before grabbing a quick Korean lunch and getting to our hotel – Hotel Sosan.
Day Two of The North Korea Tour
The best day of the trip for me as I got to sink my teeth into the level of weirdness that fuelled my curiosity.
Today was Kim Jong-il’s birthday (the Team America one) and celebrations were in full swing across the capital.
We visited the Kim Jong-il Sung Square, which was pretty uneventful, until we went to the Mansudea Monument where we were met with two jaw-dropping, colossal, bronze statues of the current leader, his father and also the first leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung.
Hundreds of locals gathered and queued up in an orderly fashion to lay flowers at the feet of their past and present leaders with a slow bow in unison.
We had to do the same. You can opt to stay on the bus or hang back if you’re against this act, no one forces you to take part.
The rules are pretty hilarious for taking photos of this statue. You cannot crop the photo – it must show the full size of the leaders – you can’t mimic their poses, and you are not permitted to zoom into their faces.
I couldn’t help but (internally) laugh at the irony of the rules enforced by a regime which is fiercely against religious freedom, as they embodied a very old-school religious way of thinking; the worshipping of a deity, which you are forced to respect, regardless of how you are treated and you’re unable to question it.
After this we went to visit the Pyongyang Metro Station, one of the deepest in the world and we took a ride on it the Pyonyang underground. I tried to lock eyes with locals coming up the other side of the escalator as we were going down.
North Koreans are very reserved and shy, but there were moments when an elderly lady would smile or a kid would wave, and it lit up my heart whilst a million and one questions bounced around my mind.
What did they make of us being there? Do they have an idea of how unique their situation is in the world? Most importantly, were they happy?
The metro train was bought second-hand from Berlin after the fall of the wall. German graffiti was still engraved in the windows and on the ceiling, giving it an extra edge as we travelled to our final stop.
From here the weirdness level was cranked up a notch as we visited a flower festival. Not just any flower festival, but one wholly devoted to Kim Jong-un, affectionately named; The Kimjongilia Flower Festival!
We watched locals queue up to have their photo taken behind a large image of the current leader and behind beautiful red flowers before moving on to a dance ceremony.
The two hours of dancing was completely mesmerising. Each dance consisted of men and women holding hands, lined up in a man/woman formation, taking a couple of steps before clapping in unison and bellowing out a sound/word. Check out my Instagram video below for a better idea of what it looked like.
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I’ve just come back from 4 days in North Korea. Blog post is written, just need to edit some photos before that’s published. __ People have been asking me what it was like. It’s not one of those questions that you can answer with a few sentences. __ This was a massive celebration for Kim Jong-il (the guy from ‘Team America’) as it was was his birthday. *Play sound* if you want to hear the Korean music. __ In Nepal now, that trip took a lot out of me, but the show must go on. Hoping that the words will do justice to what I felt in my heart.🇰🇵 __ #pyongyang #northkorea #offthegrid #solotraveler #lifewelltraveled #lovetraveling #abroad #sharetravelpics #traveljunkie #traveljunkies #wheretonext #trippics #bestdiscovery #globe_travel_ #wanderlusters #travelinspiration #bestintravel #forbestravelguide #travelandleisure #travel_captures #travelinspiration #traveltime #greatesttravels #nomadlife #justgo #travelguide #tripstagram #travellovers #ilovetraveling #ilovetravelling
At times like this, it’s hard not to ask yourself; do the people enjoy doing this or have they been made to do it? many of them were kids, not adults. Kids like to dance and play, but how much of this was free will and how much of it was simply doing as they are told?
We finished in the early evening in Kwanbok Mall, the most popular in Pyongyang, where locals like to hang out for a chat and to eat together. This was the only place where we were allowed to exchange our Chinese money for North Korean currency. We were told to try and make sure that we spent most or all of it as we would not be able to spend it anywhere else in North Korea.
Photos were restricted in the whole of this mall.
I bought snacks for the next day’s bus ride to the DMZ and some food from the top floor.
Day 3 Of The North Korea Tour
Sometimes I look back on an old blog post and photos of past travels and think about myself; “what an absolute knob”. And the one that really hurts is a photo taken of me from the other side of the DMZ in South Korea.
I’m smiling in it with arms slightly aloft, a little falsely, with a veneer of boisterousness and you can see the immaturity in my face that I clearly didn’t understand the significance of the sensitive place that I was in.
The DMZ, which stands for the demilitarised zone, marks the end of the Korean War in 1953 when an armistice was agreed between both militaries and their allies, and a line was drawn via a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula to serve as a buffer zone between North Korea and South Korea.
I listened closely as the DMZ soldier spoke passionately about the events which led to the DMZ’s creation, translated fluently by our Korean guide, Hong.
It was a lot more relaxed than it was five years ago on the South Korean side. From my time at the DMZ and the Morton Museum I was surprised mainly by two things:
- North Koreans refer to the Korean War as the “war with the USA”. The USA was, of course, instrumental in the Korean War, but I found it interesting that the south never got a mention.
- North Koreans as a collective allegedly want reunification with South Korea. This shouldn’t surprise me really, as the older generation will undoubtedly have family members and friends who they haven’t heard from, or even know if they’re alive, in several years.
The desire is apparently for one country, with the north staying socialist with their leader and the south staying in a capitalist system with their own leader. I’m no political analyst but I don’t see this working out.
And of course, a lot of what you are told in the DMZ can be laced with propaganda.
We stopped off in the city of Sariwon on our way home where we viewed the city from above on a mini 20-minute hike before heading back to a special dinner in Pyongyang. Sariwon is a common pit-stop for tourists on the way back from the North Korean DMZ.
People were even shyer there and I witnessed cute moments like a young, bashful man politely attempting to chat up a young woman in front of her friends and young children playing creative games that they seem to enjoy.
North Korean food is unsurprinsgly similar to South Korean food, but with a slight twist. Kimchi was served at every meal, some of the smaller snacks were akin to dim sum, and it was generally spicy, but not as spict as South Korean food. Needless to say, I said a polite “no thanks” to the offer of dog soup.
As we tucked into our grub, a curtain went up and a stage appeared with a gorgeous all-girl Korean band.
Some of the women changed their wardrobe more than Whitney in her prime diva days whilst six of the other women were pretty much rocking it for an hour straight.
My personal favourite was the violinist. She was phenomenal and again I consciously caught myself thinking as I did back in the metro station the day before – does she want to be there? Does she even have an ounce of a choice?
I’m not sure if it was because I caught her during a particularly sombre instrumental solo at the end, but I felt myself become a little melancholic in all honesty.
Maybe I was overthinking, she could just be doing something that she loves and I’m ruminating over nothing (it wouldn’t be the first time), but it would be foolish to downplay the severity of the situation over there.
The people are not free and they probably never will be. At this point, I sensed a profound sadness in her eyes and I was officially North Koread out.
It felt a little like a human zoo to me; no fault of the tour operators, who spoke respectfully about sensitive topics, but I was just happy that this was the final night and I was ready to go.
Is Pyongyang all a Fake City?
Some of the group met for beers later that night in our hotel and there was a schism over this question.
Whilst there was an overall agreement on the fact that what we had seen during those four days was certainly cherry-picked for our foreign eyes, a couple of the tour members doubted to what level you could fake day-to-day life in the capital city.
The question is not suggesting that the people themselves are all actors, but more like the city is carefully selected city by the regime. Choosing the most well-off people in North Korean terms and passing it off as the norm.
Based on reports from former political prisoners, classed as dissidents, some institutions have claimed that the country has an estimated 2.6 million people imprisoned in one of 200,000 active concentration camps.
Final Day Of The North Korea Tour & Final Thoughts
We said farewell via the war museum in the capital, which had some interesting artworks and anti-American propaganda.
The train back to China couldn’t have come fast enough for me. I was done. Many starry-eyed members of the tour were talking about returning one day, but I highly doubt that for myself. While In love watching dystopian movies and tv shows, the experience of being so close to a real-life one was too much for me.
Some moments in North Korea felt very sterile, but I’m still glad I went and didn’t regret it at all. Those fleeting moments of a smile with solid eye contact, a wave, and a kind gesture from a local are all worth it, and that’s what I went for.
Bu that’s as far as the romanticisation goes for me.
Finding ‘the truth’ over there is something of a wild goose chase and the capital city is a veneer of the harsh truth, used as a distraction from the human rights abuses perpetrated across the country.
My Korean guides were clearly smart and, relatively speaking, had more of an idea of the outside world than most of the folk living in rural areas, but I never wanted to compromise anyone’s safety by asking anything too serious.
I did the best that I could with my eyes and ears. I came, I saw and I kimchi’d. I felt a range of strong emotions that I kept to myself and upon departing I can only continue to reflect upon them and try to make sense of my experience in North Korea.