For the most part, it’s extremely difficult to visit North Korea. It’s considered the most closed society in the world and the ruling Kim administration doesn’t take kindly to tourists snooping around. If you’re set on going you have a few options, but you will be required to travel with a tour operator and you will be with a guide at ALL times. The tours are strict, precisely planned and expensive.
All tours are operated under an umbrella organization run by the North Korean government called the Korea International Travel Company (KITC). This group contracts out individual tour companies from around the world who make all outside travel arrangements and get tourists into the country. Once you have arrived, the KITC will take over from there and provide the group with North Korean guides and transportation.
The minimum price which the KITC has set is 1,000USD for a five day trip. This includes all meals, accommodations, attractions, and transportation within North Korea. However, you will be expected to pay for your transportation to China, where the majority of tours to North Korea depart from (flying from either Shenyang or Beijing). Tours are always more expensive because of additional transportation costs, tour company fees, more amenities and accommodation upgrades in North Korea. A tour package with top quality accommodations can run you as much as 1,500USD per day!
As mentioned above, your spending within North Korea won’t be extremely high, due to the “all-inclusive” nature of North Korean tour packages. You may want to buy snacks and souvenirs. Most shopkeepers will only accept major foreign currencies (Japanese Yen, Chinese Yuan, the Euro and US dollars) since the North Korean Won is worthless on the foreign market. Bring lots of small change in a variety of strong currencies.
As of 2012, the Euro had the best exchange rate in North Korea. Don’t be surprised by strange exchange rates. It’s often not based on the actual market value but on what currency the shopkeeper wants. You may even be able to get things cheaper by paying in a certain currency. It’s possible to exchange some money into the North Korean Won, although you will need to talk to you guide about where to do this. If nothing else, the currency makes a cool souvenir!
You must apply for a special visa to enter into North Korea. This is done through the tour group that you will be traveling with. They will help you apply for your visa. Since 2010, Americans are allowed to enter the country with few restrictions. Other nationalities should not have a problem, although you will be required to prove your identity and show that you are not a journalist, usually through documents and a phone interview with a North Korean official. Journalists and South Korean nationals are not allowed to enter the country without special passes, and good luck obtaining one! North Korea is very wary to let South Korean nationals or journalists into the country.
Arriving in North Korea
Getting to North Korea can also be a challenge. The easiest way is by plane or by train. Air China and Air Koryo (North Korea’s airline) have weekly flights departing from Beijiing, Shenjang, and Vladivostok in Russia to Pyongyang. There is also a train to Pyongyang from multiple locations in China and one that starts in Moscow via Beijing. It’s difficult to travel overland into North Korea and it is not possible to enter from the South Korean side. The buses that come from China take Chinese passengers only.
Tours are all very similar. The tours are heavily scheduled and well-planned. There is little room for relaxation or leisure. This is a sightseeing vacation. The trips visit war memorials and monuments of the Great Leader and the Workers Party of Korea. Museums visited pertain mostly to the war and the success of the Worker’s Party. Trips also stop by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from the North Korean side, which is a very different experience from a visit from the Southern Korean side. Some trips also go to Mount Geumgang, the largest and apparently most beautiful mountain on the Korean peninsula.
Once you are in North Korea, you must abide by the guides’ rules. It is vital to pay respect to the tour company, the country and the people serving you. Violation of any of these rules will likely result in severe consequences for you, but also for your guide (who has been given the responsibility of supervising you during your stay). Your tour agency will go over these rules with you prior to your departure. Here’s what you can expect them to tell you:
àNote: As of 2012, you can get a SIM card for your cell phone. The rules changed after Google CEO, Eric Schmidt took a trip to Korea and advised the government to welcome the internet. He also recommended that tourists be allowed to use cell phones while in the country.
If you would have a problem doing any of the things mentioned above or with following strict orders, you should not consider traveling to North Korea.
To better understand these rules, one North Korean tour company uses the analogy of visiting someone’s house. For example, if you were a guest in someone’s home, it would be rude to snoop around when the hosts weren’t looking, or make condescending marks about their house and personal life (especially when they’ve been kind enough to invite you in the first place). Think of the North Koreans you encounter during your trip as “hosts”. Be respectful and follow the rules that have been set out, use caution when speaking and you should have no problems.
Just like visiting someone’s house, it’s nice if you bring small gifts to show appreciation for your “hosts”. Good gift ideas are chocolates, liquor, cosmetics and small accessories.
North Korea Tour Companies
Here is a list of tour operators that organize trips to North Korea. This is not a complete list. There are other organizations that offer tours, and some individuals are licensed to take groups but do not operate a tour company. It is advised to choose a tour group operating from your home country or from wherever you will be at the time of departure. They will coordinate flights to China and then on to Korea for you.
Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.