Let’s face it, visiting North Korea isn’t exactly the same as jetting off for an Australian road trip, or living the beach bum life on a Belize island and it takes a lot more meticulous planning and research than your typical destinations.
Whether you like it or not; it’s firmly in the category of weird/alternative travel and you should be prepared for people making a lot of bold statements and asking questions about your upcoming trip.
But what if you don’t have all the answers? That’s fine, neither did I until I threw caution to the wind and visited the DPRK myself for my 33rd birthday gift to myself.
Following that experience, I have put together a list of ‘know before you go’ and frequently asked questions before you go to North Korea.
Can You Visit North Korea?
Most people can visit North Korea as a tourist, with the exception of Americans and South Koreans and the only way to do it is via a North Korea-approved tour company.
Since the very dodgy 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. Needless to say, you will have to make the decision yourself whether you are comfortable with that or not, as in my personal experience the US government aren’t a big fan of you visiting countries on their blacklist.
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, Again, 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 on a second passport would rather remain cautious when the country opens back up for business.
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.
North Korea Travel Advice: What To Know Before You Go
I’ve noticed a fascinating pattern regarding misinformation on the internet and drivel from people’s mouths; the ‘experts’ who confidently talk utter nonsense about particular topics are those who usually have zero experience on the subject at hand!
It doesn’t matter if it’s about starting an online business, or visiting an unknown country – the confidence in their unequivocal bullshit is quite impressive.
I don’t class myself as a North Korea savant, but I have visited and I have been through the process to get there and back – so I promise you that you’re in good hands here with this guide…
Is it Safe To Visit North Korea?
Contrary to popular belief and being selectively closed off to open dialogue, visiting North Korea as a tourist is arguably safer than visiting most countries in the world.
I had many arguments with family members about this and a couple of others in my life lost their minds on this topic and were unable to use critical thinking.
Think about it; North Korea is run by authoritarians and what do authoritarians love as much as power? Propaganda! Even though most of us aren’t buying into their lies, the powers that be are trying to make us naive tourists skip back to our countries to spread the good gospel 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 heartless 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 the callous mindset of some people’s opinions since this event.
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 as crime is incredibly low, or even non-existent against visitors to the country.
How To Get To North Korea
There are 3 options for getting to North Korea and they are all via China.
- You can fly from Beijing to North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang with Air Koryo.
- The other option is to take a train to Pyongyang from Beijing, which takes 18 hours.
- I took the final (and slightly more difficult option) 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, which took around 8 hours.
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.
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 0f 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. Tourists are usually shocked to have limited options for the internet during their Cuba itinerary, but it would be absolute madness to expect the internet as a tourist in North Korea.
North Korea Rules For Tourists Don’t Make Sense (Accept Them Anyway)
A platitude that I often see or hear, which I massively disagree with goes a little something like this; “you should respect the laws in the country that you are visiting!”
What a stupid idea this is – that because something is different, we should “respect” it. Respect is like love, it should not be forced onto a person and it should not be demanded by another individual.
It’s ok to think that some laws and rules are silly, or even cruel – the best thing to do is accept them and keep your mouth shut when in North Korea (or any other country where you could risk danger by speaking your mind or breaking a rule).
Play the game. This is not a Hollywood movie, this is real life. Don’t break any of the North Korea rules for tourists and you’ll be fine. I’ll elaborate on the rule more in this guide, but the first rule is to try your best not to break them!
North Korean Guides Are Lovely: Be Respectful
You may assume that the Big Brother state of DPRK is sending out their best, scary-looking sinister foot soldiers in order to keep your imperial asses in line, imposing law and order by the power of fear and potential punishment.
This couldn’t be any further from the truth, the local North Korean guides are lovely, polite people who try their hardest to connect with you on any level (Harry Potter is one of the few pieces of Western literature allowed in the country, so there’s a connecting topic for you) and they studied incredibly hard to learn English via old-school methods, they are pretty impressive people.
Sometimes the guides will make a statement about the outside world that is objectively false. You will know it’s not true, but be compassionate about the situation they are in. Don’t be a smart arse and allow them the dignity of being wrong with the limited information they have at their fingertips.
Obtaining a North Korea Tourist Visa Isn’t as Hard as You Think
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 a pain in the balls.
I have been rejected for a double-entry visa on two occasions with no reason for my rejection. The first time was in Lebanon and the second time was in Nicaragua. These two nations don’t have the greatest diplomatic relationships with China, but Thailand does and so I got my double-entry China visa in Bangkok with no dramas at all.
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 with a second-nationality passport.
Doubtful, but not beyond the realms of possibility.
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.
In my personal experience, China usually prefers you to get a double-entry visa while you are 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.
Currency Used 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 the 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 coffee and snacks in local currency in other destinations. North Koreans never, ever took this and I suspect they’d be in a lot of trouble if they did.
Add this to your rules list of ‘things to do in DPRK,’ as you could also get locals in trouble if you do that and they accept.
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 can not. Many of those times were on the train; taking photos of some parts 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 your side and not behind your back or with your arms crossed. Also, no pulling silly faces, chewing food or imitating the mannerisms of the leaders.
Prohibited Items For Tourists Visiting 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).
- Any offensive movies that are anti-North Korea – and yes that includes Team America. It’s much easier to not bring in any documentaries 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 – DPRK has a strict no-porn policy. Including all those racy photos that you so enthusiastically received from the object of your desire. But let’s not be hasty, keep a backup back home. No need to kill beautiful memories because of one little trip.
- Drones – North Korea has a total ban on drones.
- Blue denim jeans – I’m not even kidding. Apparently, the DPRK government see blue jeans as the archetype of Western Capitalism. Black jeans are fine, I wore them.
- Satellite phone – I don’t know anyone who owns one other than hardcore mountain climbers! But if you have one, leave it at home, you absolute stud!
Get Ready For The Cult of The Kims
I thought that I wouldn’t be too shocked by the unabashed outpouring of emotion for the current leader Kim Jong-un and his forefathers who were rulers of the country before him… until I visited North Korea myself.
It’s incredibly intense and the propaganda is palpable. Their faces are everywhere and it’s up there with travelling in deeply religious countries and seeing all those glorious monuments to spiritual deities – but in this case, the Kims are Gods.
Keep Your Polarising Political Opinions To Yourself
This is not Twitter, Facebook or an argument with your out-of-touch Grandma on Christmas Day. You are not in the British ‘Question Time’ studio audience, acting on the impulse of “I have a voice and I shall be heard!”
There will be no artificial dopamine kicks or rapturous applause once you are done with your rebellious monologue.
This is real life and you are in the most censorial country on earth, where mind control of its people is down to a fine art thanks to the fact that the regime is ruthless when they hear something they don’t like.
Even if a guide/soldier says something that gives you the motherload of negative visceral reactions, just suck it up and shut your mouth.
Live to fight another day.
Don’t Return Home as a Puppet For Propaganda (or a Smug Wanker)
I remember a few influencers getting justified criticism a while back for how they presented North Korea after their visit and how they chose to completely ignore the big, fat, giant elephant in the room that is the inconceivable human rights abuses in the country.
I won’t name the individuals because I believe we should allow people to learn from their mistakes and I’m not a big fan of online witchhunts.
Just try your best not to come back like one of these numpty idealists who believe too much propaganda, the old saying “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out” springs to mind.
Also, make an effort to not be one of those smug Western wankers who laugh at the people (as opposed to the regime) during your time there or upon returning. I’ve seen it a lot on late-night American TV shows, where the seemingly “liberal” presenters mock the beliefs of the North Korean people, followed by sycophantic laughter from the audience.
I can’t control what you do, of course, I just think that we could try and be a bit classier sometimes and realise that if we were in their position, we would almost certainly have the exact same outlandish beliefs.
I notice that I may have ended all of this North Korea travel advice a little seriously – in a stern parental kind of manner. It’s all with good intentions to hammer home all of the above so you know what to do and what not to do when visiting DPRK and come back safe with your own story to tell.