Welcome to North Korea. The isolated, totalitarian state with the surprisingly lax visa requirements.
My very first glimpse of North Korea was in 2008, from the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). I’d just had the living daylights scared out of me by the US soldiers at the Joint Security Area, the only spot on the border where soldiers from the North and South face each other directly. The briefing by the US soldiers just before you enter the area makes you think that any sudden move might lead to an international incident. Oh, and you might be shot by the North Koreans. I spent the whole visit moving with exaggerated slowness and slightly giggly with nervousness. My eyes kept on scanning the austere and ominously quiet North Korean side, with its single border guard, wondering if any outsiders ever got to see that country, other than as some indistinct landscape viewed from across kilometres of minefields and bunkers.
Six years later, I was clowning around with the North Korean border guards on the other side of the Joint Security Area, completely spoiling the view for the tour group on the South Korean side, who no doubt had just had the living daylights scared out of them by some US soldier.
Not only can outsiders get to see North Korea, it’s actually EASY to get in. Thousands of people visit the country every year. There were a dozen on my tour alone, and we spent the five days of the trip playing tag with two buses carrying about 50 more.
How does it work?
Step 1: Find a company that offers tours to North Korea.
Step 2: Select what you think is a unique and special tour only they offer.
Step 3: Pay more money than you’re comfortable with.
Step 4: Email a copy of your passport photo page and fill in a form. Make sincere promises that you’re not a journalist.
Step 5: Arrive in Beijing to collect your visa.
Step 6: Go to North Korea.
Although you might not expect it, the official (and only) North Korean tour agency, KITC (Korea International Travel Company), has a very slick and professional operation in place. Every tour comes with at least two local guides, up-market and quiet accommodation, dedicated tour buses, jam-packed itineraries and free meals at local restaurants.
And when I say every tour, I mean every tour. No matter which company you use to book your tour, you’ll actually still be doing a set itinerary arranged by KITC, regardless of what you pay.
But it’s worth every penny. KITC makes sure that you have special treatment throughout the trip:
- You get to jump the line at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum housing the embalmed remains of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, even if you look incredibly scruffy compared to the locals. Hopefully your embarrassment makes up for it.
- You get your own floor at the hotel. With lights! It’s strange seeing a 47 floor hotel with only one floor lit – yours.
- You also get to visit local restaurants, even if the entire staff have waited around for you to arrive, and the lights and music only get switched on when you walk through the door. Or after you’ve walked through the door, if you arrive unexpectedly early.
Of course, this special treatment by KITC also means that you’re never quite alone. Anywhere you go, except at the hotel at night, you’ll have (friendly but often insistent) local guides with you. We also had a cameraman with us, who took the official video of the trip, including a rather awkward over-the-shoulder shoot to look at the notebook of yours truly. I have my suspicions about the cameraman’s official job, but thankfully he clearly didn’t get a good shot of what I’d written down.
But the level of scrutiny you receive is far less than what you expect. In fact the whole trip is not quite what you expect. As the tour guides take you from monument (to one of the Kims), to statue (of one or more of the Kims) to museum (dedicated to one of the Kims) you get a strong sense of pride from them. They clearly feel that they are showing you something unique, something that makes the North Koreans stand out as a nation. And these are all certainly very impressive. But each experience contrasts with what you’ve driven past to get there – rundown buildings and aged infrastructure, the many gaunt-looking people in the streets and along the sides of the roads, the empty stores. And you don’t have the heart to tell them that China probably builds something larger and more impressive every week just to have another trashy tourist trap.
Forget about the monuments, statues and museums. That’s not why you go to North Korea. You go to experience the last remnant of the Cold War. You go to see a country that’s stuck in another time. A country where fact is often stranger than fiction, and fiction is taken as fact. The last truly totalitarian state on Earth – but one that welcomes tourists. That’s the strangest part of it all.
It’s also a country that’s rapidly changing, even if you won’t think so from listening to the international media. North Korea is pushing tourism, and creating more special economic zones. It’s opening up, even if they won’t say so officially.
And every tourist visiting the country adds a little more impetus to this change. Sure, my tour fee has probably directly funded the current oppressive regime. But I also know that I interacted with dozens of North Koreans, from a government official on the train to Pyongyang, to a little girl walking down the street who waved at me. And maybe, just maybe, I made a change in how they see the world. I like to think so.
So if you’re even thinking about a trip to North Korea, all I can say is GO NOW! When change comes, it’ll come very, very quickly. And you’ll never get to experience the weirdness of sitting in the most oppressive and isolated country in the world, watching a group of conservatively dressed waitresses busting highly inappropriate dance moves that they could only have seen from bootleg music videos. It’ll blow your mind.
How much will a trip cost?
Be prepared to pay at least €200 per day for any trip to North Korea. You also need to budget €50 for the visa, as well as travel costs to Beijing, which is where most tours depart from. Some tours will also ask for a tip for your tour guides. This is usually around €65, and often well earned by the hard-working guides.
Some tours are more expensive, depending on the company you use to arrange the trip, and some of the add-ons you select.
The tours are all inclusive, which means that all meals, accommodation and transport are included in the tour price. Transport usually includes an overnight train from Beijing to Pyongyang, via Dandong (well worth the effort). If you want to fly to and from Pyongyang, you might have to pay extra, depending on the tour you are taking. This is at least €50 each way, but can be more depending on the tour company, airline and flight availability.
How do I get a visa?
Your tour company will arrange the visa for you. Some companies fold this into the cost of the tour, while others make it a separate cost. In either case it will be around €50, and all you need is a scan of the photo page of your passport, some digital passport photos and a completed application form.
However, if you’re a professional journalist you’ll need to jump through extra hoops, and will probably be denied entry. South Korean citizens aren’t allowed at all, and US citizens can only fly in a fly out, and can’t take the overnight train.
You won’t get a visa or stamp in your passport. Instead you’ll get given a separate “Tourist Card” insert for your passport. If you have a North Korean embassy in your country, you do have the option of getting it stamped into your passport, but it’s not necessary.
Is it safe?
Yes. You don’t have to worry at all about crime while you are there, as you’re monitored the entire time. But, of course, don’t leave your money and valuables lying around unattended. That’s just silly.
And barring a complete breakdown of the security situation in Northeast Asia while you are there, you’ll be able to arrive and depart completely safely.
There have been a few incidents where tourists have been detained by the North Koreans. However, these have been linked to activities that the North Koreans explicitly ban, such as evangelising, or where they suspect that someone had motives for visiting other than tourism. Or if someone did something truly stupid and offended the North Koreans. If you really are in the country just to visit, there’s nothing to worry about. It’s probably the safest you’ll feel anywhere in Asia. Not what you’d expect.
How much spending money should I take with?
Take as much cash as you can afford. Once you are in North Korea, you won’t have access to any outside funds.
There’s not a huge amount to spend your money on, but what there is you probably won’t find anywhere else. And at sometime in the future, I’m pretty sure “Made in North Korea” will become a collector’s item.
And it’s not a place to buy stuff on the cheap. Forget about bargaining. They just don’t understand the concept. You are visiting a communist country, after all.
You’ll also need a little cash to buy drinks and snacks and to do some activities, like bowling, karaoke and what ever else might be on offer. These are generally not that expensive, but you don’t want to miss out because you didn’t bring enough cash.
Take at least €50 per day. Take more if you can afford it. At least you don’t have to worry about anyone pickpocketing you!
Foreigners can use Euros, Chinese Yuan and US Dollars. I found that the North Koreans were most interested in US dollars, and that got a better exchange rate. However, I used Chinese Yuan, and I found it easier to use this for smaller transactions, and it was easy to get change.
If you take Euros and US Dollars, take a range of notes, with as many smaller notes as you can manage. Most transactions will be small amounts.
Tour prices compared
You will need to make use of a foreign tour company to arrange your trip to North Korea. Most are based in China. However, as mentioned earlier, no matter which company you use you’ll still end up going on a standard KITC tour.
The difference is in price and the size of the tour group you join. Below are some of the more prominent companies, with average tour prices:
- Young Pioneer Tours (): A relative newcomer to the industry, but fast becoming a major player. Young Pioneer Tours specialises in small group tours, and has a reputation for arranging unusual and unscheduled side trips for its tour groups in North Korea that the larger tour companies don’t offer. This is the company that I used, and it was excellent and far cheaper than any of the other companies, with a smaller tour group and more personal attention. Average price: Around €200 per day.
- Koryo Tours (http://www.koryogroup.com/travel_tours.php): This is perhaps the most well-known company offering trips to North Korea. They have a range of tours, but these tend to be in large groups. Average price: Around €300 per day.
- Uri Tours (http://uritours.com/): Uri Tours vies with Koryo Tours for reputation and recognition, and offers a similar range of tours, again in larger groups than Young Pioneer Tours. Average price: Around €350 per day.
All foreign tour groups can only stay in certain hotels, and you don’t have much choice. However, the standard is approximately the same in each, which is about 3-stars equivalent.
The facilities vary at each. At the Yanggakdo Hotel, for example, there is a spa, swimming pool, karaoke bar and a bowling alley. Pop around if you are there. The staff will be grateful for something to do.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit North Korea is during the Arirang Mass Games, which are normally held from July to September. However, 2014 is the first time in eight years that the games won’t be held, and it’s uncertain when they will be held again.
Summer is normally a good time to visit the country, as the locals are more outdoors and you get to interact with them. However, it is also the busiest tourist season. Spring and Autumn can be pleasant (I went in mid-March, and it was great), but the weather is unpredictable. Winter is very cold, but there will be few tourists.
The vast majority of the trips offered are to Pyongyang, the capital, with some side trips from there. In recent times KITC has also started offering trips to other parts of the country. All the itineraries, though, are subject to the vagaries of the North Korean government, and whether some or other attraction happens to be open at that time.
Try and choose an itinerary that at least includes the following:
- Mansudae, where the large golden statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il can be seen.
- Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the embalmed remains of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are on display.
- The DMZ
- A trip on the Pyongyang subway. A definite must, with its impressive platforms and old East German subway carriages. You also get to interact with the locals a bit.
- Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery, where the bronze busts of various struggle heroes are on display. This also has impressive views of Pyongyang, on a good day.
- Juche Tower. Spend the extra €5 to go to the top for excellent views of Pyongyang.
- Pyongyang Film Studios. How often do you get to stroll around bizarre interpretations of street scenes from around the world?
- Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. One of the more impressive war museums. It’s worth it just to experience the North Korean version of the causes of the Korean War.