|Currency||North Korean won (KPW, ₩)|
|Population||25,028,853 (2014 estimate)|
|Electricity||220V/60Hz (European plug)|
|Time zone||UTC +8.5|
North Korea (officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea or DPRK) is a country in East Asia occupying the northern half of the Korean Peninsula that lies between Korea Bay and the East Sea (Sea of Japan). It borders China to the north, Russia to the north east and South Korea to the south.
Tourist travel to North Korea is only possible as part of a guided tour. Independent travel is not permitted. Be aware that during a trip to North Korea visitors will be constantly monitored to prevent them from doing anything that could "jeopardise" the North Korean system and the persons behind it. Taking photos considered "unsuitable", conveying negative thoughts about North Korea or talking to the locals without permission would all probably qualify as "undesirable behaviour" and lead to consequences not only for yourself but even more so for the individual who is responsible for you. If you are not prepared to accept limitations on your movements and behaviour then you should not travel to the DPRK at the present time.
|Donghae Coast (North Hamgyong, South Hamgyong, Kangwon, Kŭmgang-san)
|Baekdu Mountains (Ryanggang, Chagang)
|Pyongan (North P'yongan, South P'yongan, Pyonyang, Shinuiju)
|Hwanghae (North Hwanghae, South Hwanghae, Kaesong)
- Pyongyang — the capital city and the former capital of Goguryeo during the Three Kingdoms period
- Chongjin — Industrial city in the North East, very rarely visited by tourists
- Hamhung - Northern city, also rarely on official travel itinaries
- Kaesong — former capital during the Goryeo dynasty
- Nampho — industrial centre and port on the western coast
- Rason - Free trade zone on the Russian border, complete with casino
- Sinuiju - bleak industrial city right on the border with China. Probably the easiest ways to look into the country from the outside
- Wonsan — East coast port city slowly opening to tourists, as well as the first ski resort in the country
- Kumgangsan — the scenic Diamond Mountains, accessible on tours from the South
- Myohyangsan — this Mysterious Fragrant Mountain is one of the North's best hiking spots
- Baekdu Mountains — the tallest mountain in Korea and the Kim dynasty's mythical birthplace
- Panmunjom — the last outpost of the Cold War in the DMZ between South and North
Prehistory and founding of a nation
Archaeological finds of prehistoric toolmaking on the Korean Peninsula date back to 70,000 BC with the first pottery found around 8000 BC. Comb-pattern pottery culture peaked around 3500-2000 BC.
Legend has it that Korea began with the founding of Gojoseon (also called Ancient Chosun) by the legendary Dangun in 2333 BC. Archeological and contemporaneous written records of Gojoseon as a kingdom date back to around 7th-4th century BC. Gojoseon was eventually defeated by the Chinese Han Dynasty and its territories were governed by four Chinese commanderies, but this did not last long. Natives of the peninsula and Manchuria soon reclaimed the territory, namely the Three Kingdoms of Korea, Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje. The Goguryeo Kingdom (or Koguryo) ruled the entire area of modern North Korea, as well as parts of Manchuria and the northern parts of modern South Korea. Buddhist and Confucian teachings were prominent in the Goguryeo Kingdom, which adopted Buddhism as the state religion in 372. Despite repeated attempts by China, namely the Sui Dynasty and later the Tang Dynasty, to conquer the Korean Peninsula, northern-based Goguryeo managed to repel them. Eventually, Goguryeo fell to a Silla-Tang alliance, which had earlier defeated Baekje. This unified Korea under the Silla dynasty. Even though Tang later invaded, Silla forces managed to drive them out, thus maintaining Korea's independence.
Unified Silla was replaced by the Goryeo (also called Koryo) dynasty, from which the modern name "Korea" derives. One highlight of the Goryeo dynasty was that in 1234 the world's first metal movable type was invented by a Korean named Choe Yun-ui (200 years before Gutenberg's printing press).
Buddhist learning spread during this time and the former Baekje and Goguryeo leaders were treated well. The kingdom saw relative peace until the 8th and 9th centuries when clan leaders led uprisings and toppled the Silla, establishing the Goryeo Dynasty from which the name "Korea" was derived by Westerners. During this period, the nation suffered Mongol invasions, which led to unrest and the eventual establishment of the Joseon Dynasty in 1389.
The Joseon Dynasty was one of the longest running dynasties in the world, ruling from 1389 until 1910. King Sejong the Great's rule was especially celebrated, as he helped create the Korean script, choson'gul, which allowed even the commoners to become literate. He also expanded the nation's military power to drive out Japanese pirates and northern nomads and regain territories that had been lost. The Japanese invaded Korea under the leadership of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, though the Joseon Dynasty managed to drive them out with the support of China's Ming Dynasty, albeit with heavy losses in the Korean peninsula. In spite of its losses, the nation experienced about 200 years of peace, and its isolationist policies allowed it to further develop a uniquely Korean culture and identity.
Rapid modernization stirred by the Second Industrial Revolution created tension between China and Japan as they felt the pressures of Western expansionism, each wanting to extend their influence over Korea. This eventually led to the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, which took place on the Korean Peninsula, devastating the Joseon. Then in 1905, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, making Korea a protectorate until they were finally able to annex Korea in 1910.
Japanese occupation and a divided Korea
The Japanese exercised rule of the peninsula until their defeat in WWII in 1945. Japan was forced to surrender the territory and the Allied Powers divided the nation at the 38th Parallel, with the Soviet Union occupying the northern half and the United States occupying the southern half. The divide was supposed to be temporary however the political power struggle between the two nations to gain influence over the unified Korea led each to establish governments within their newly created territories. North Korea was established as its own nation in 1948 with the support of the Soviet Union, following the Soviet Communist model, with Kim Il-Sung as its leader, while at about the same time, Syngman Rhee established a capitalist regime with the support of the United States in the south.
Agitation between the North and South came to a head in 1950 when the North started the Korean War by attempting to reunify the country under its terms by launching an invasion. The Soviet Union and China fought alongside the North against the South, who were in turn backed by the United Nations (UN) forces led by the United States. The UN forces drove the North Korean forces all the way up to the Chinese border, whereupon Chinese reinforcements forced the UN forces to be driven back south. The war finally resulted in the signing of an armistice in 1953, largely maintaining the original borders set prior to the war. Because no peace treaty has been signed since the armistice, the nations of South Korea and North Korea are officially still at war.
Modern North Korea
With the nation in shambles after the war, Kim Il-Sung launched a campaign to unite the people by defaming the United States with Soviet support and purging the nation of dissidents and anyone thought to oppose him. He sided with China during the Sino-Soviet Split on Communist philosophy because he disliked Krushchev's reforms but began to praise the Soviet Union once again when China underwent its Cultural Revolution, straining relations with both neighbours. Consequently, he developed his own ideology, Juche (self-reliance), to create the sort of Communism he wanted for his nation. Throughout his life, Kim Il-Sung added to and clarified the Juche ideology in order to justify his governing decisions.
The Korean War not only divided the people, but it also divided the labour force. When the peninsula was united, North Korea had most of the nation's industries while South Korea was the agricultural centre. This divide allowed North Korea to initially bounce back faster than the South in the rebuilding process. The Soviet Union then funded agricultural efforts in the North, in accordance with the Communist model. This system began to unravel in the late 1970s and 1980s as the Soviet system began to falter. With the end of Soviet aid in 1991 there was no way to continue to support the agricultural systems need for fuel, fertilizer and equipment. After so many years of government mismanagement, and the bad timing of severe flooding, the North's agricultural system collapsed in the mid-1990s leading to widespread famine and death for countless North Koreans. The death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994 took place while the nation tried to deal with the crisis, slowing government response as the new leader Kim Jong-Il took his father's position.
The North finally allowed international relief agencies to assist and the worst aspects of the famine were contained. However the DPRK continues to rely heavily on international food aid to feed its population while at the same time continuing to expend resources on its "songun", or "military first" policy, which Kim Jong-Il introduced and used in conjunction with his father's Juche ideology (which he "interpreted").
Today the DPRK maintains an army of about 1 million men, most stationed close to the DMZ which divides the two Koreas. North Korea's long-range missile development and research into nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and massive conventional armed forces are of major concern to the international community. In December 2002, Kim Jong-Il reneged on a 1994 "Agreed Framework" signed by his father which required the shut down of its nuclear reactors, expelling UN monitors and further raising fears that the nation would produce nuclear weapons. Missile testing was conducted in 1998, 2006 and April 2009. In October 2006 North Korea announced that it had conducted its first nuclear test. These actions have led to UN and other international sanctions.
Current negotiations, most notably the "Six-Party Talks" involving China, Russia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and the United States, are aimed at bringing about an end to the DPRK nuclear weapons programme, in hopes that a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War may finally be agreed upon, paving the way for the opening of diplomatic ties between North Korea and the United States. Unfortunately, in March 2010, a South Korean ship was sunk near the 38th parallel, increasing tensions between North and South Korea. Although North Korea claims not to have attacked the ship, the blame has largely been placed on North Korea.
The death of Kim Jong-Il in late 2011 created a measure of uncertainty during the transfer of power to his son Kim Jong-Un; however, the country has since appeared to have stabilised (although considerable tensions have occurred intermittently).
North Korea may be the most ethnically homogeneous nation on earth, with everyone being Korean save for a few hundred foreigners. These foreigners are mostly diplomatic or aid agency workers, along with small population of Japanese who have Korean ancestry. Almost no South Koreans live in North Korea.
North Korean society is strongly divided and organised along a caste system known as Songbun. Membership of one of three main groups is determined not only by an individual's political, social and economic background, but also that of their family for the previous three generations. Education and professional opportunities are effectively defined by an individual's class.
The climate is generally classed as continental, with rainfall concentrated in summer. Summer months are warm, but winter temperatures can fall as low as -30°C. Late spring droughts are often followed by severe flooding. There are occasional typhoons during the early autumn.
Mostly hills and mountains separated by deep, narrow valleys; coastal plains are wide in the west and discontinuous in the east. The mountainous interior is both isolated and sparsely populated.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick. An excellent book recounting the lives of six North Koreans who managed to defect and find their way to South Korea. Provides a compelling picture of the miseries and occasional beauty in the lives of ordinary North Koreans during the famine of the 90s. ISBN 0385523912
Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman, by Soon Ok Lee. First-hand accounts of the prison system within North Korea
Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden. The riveting story of Shin Dong-hyuk, one of the only known surviving escapees of a North Korean prison camp, and his perilous journey out of the country.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot. An account of the imprisonment of Kang Chol-Hwan and his family in the Yodok concentration camp in North Korea.
Visiting North Korea can be challenging and you will not have the freedom to explore the country without a North Korean escort, either as part of a group or individual tour. Entry conditions change frequently and without notice depending on the geopolitical situation. For example, North Korea was virtually closed to tourism between October 2014 and March 2015 due to an Ebola scare, despite no cases of the disease in or anywhere near the country.
Citizens of almost all countries will need a visa, which will only be issued after your tour has been booked and approved by the North Korean authorities. The sole exception is Malaysian passport holders entering for 30 days or less for official, business or tour purposes who have already acquired the appropriate documentation.
Tourists typically arrange a tourist visa through booking a tour with a travel agency that organises such tours. The travel agencies will usually deal with the visa on their behalf, although in some cases tourists are required to have a short telephone interview with the North Korean embassy in order to verify their identity and their job. In most cases the interview is conducted in a friendly manner so it is nothing to be worried about. Visas are often only confirmed on the day before the tour, but rarely will a tourist ever be rejected unless you show that you are of political status or being a journalist.
North Korean tourists visas are often issued on a tourist card. If joining a tour group, group visas are often issued on separate sheets of papers containing all the members of the group, attached with a tourist card that bear the name of the tour leader. This visa itself is never held by the tourists, although tourists can ask to take a photo of their visa. In any case no stamp will be placed in the passport. The only way where a visa and entrance stamp will be stamped on the passport is when the visa is issued within a North Korean embassy in Europe.
Journalists or those suspected of being journalists require special permission, which is quite difficult to obtain. The North Koreans do not allow journalists to visit the country on tourist visas.
Most restrictions on American citizens were lifted in 2010, although tourists are still usually not allowed to travel by train or participate in homestay programs. These restrictions do not apply to tours arranged by exchange programs like Choson Exchange and The Pyongyang Project.
Citizens of South Korea are not permitted to enter North Korea unless they have permission from the governments of both the North, for admission, and the South from the Ministry of Unification (통일부). South Korean citizens may face a lengthy prison sentence under the National Security Act (국가보안법) on their return if they do not obtain permission beforehand. South Korean citizens travelling to North Korea with a passport from a different country still risk prosecution.
Contrary to rumour, Israelis and Jewish citizens of other countries do not face any additional restrictions.
North Korea can only be visited by an organised tour, but this can be a large group or a party of one. Prices start from around USD1,000/€700/GBP580 for a 5-day group tour including accommodation, meals and transport from Beijing, but can go up considerably if you want to travel around the country or "independently" (as your own one-person escorted group). Tour operators/travel agencies that organise their own tours to North Korea include:
- Asia Pacific Travel Ltd - Chicago, USA
- Choson Exchange - Singapore, UK & USA. Not a tour agency, rather they provide training in business and economics in Pyongyang, but they occasionally bring people to visit North Korean universities
- DDCTS - Dandong, China
- Experience North Korea - Shanghai, China
- Juche Travel Services - UK, Beijing
- Korea Konsult - Stockholm, Sweden
- Korea Reisedienst - Hannover, Germany
- Koryo Tours and Koryo Group - Beijing, Shanghai, Belgium, UK. Also organises school visits and sports exchanges and has co-produced 3 documentary films about North Korea
- Lupine Travel - Wigan, UK.
- NoordKorea2GO - Amsterdam, Netherlands
- North Korea Travel - Spain, Hong Kong
- The Pyongyang Project - Yanji, China / Vancouver, Canada (Canadian non-profit that organises academic programmes, student trips, exchanges and Korean language study abroad at universities in the DPRK and Yanbian)
- Pyongyang Travel - Berlin, Germany (offers group tours, private tours and New Year's Tours to North Korea)
- Viajes Pujol - Barcelona, Spain
- Regent Holidays - Bristol, UK
- Tongil Tours - Canberra/Sydney - organizes group tours, custom private tours and study tours as well as academic and cultural exchanges, guides all speak Korean and have academic backgrounds in Korean Studies.
- Universal Travel Corporation - Singapore
- Uri Tours Inc. - NYC, US (runs standard and customized tours to the DPRK; also an Air Koryo ticketing agent in the US)
- VNC Asia Travel - Utrecht, Netherlands
- Yangpa Tours - USA, Korea - for all overseas Koreans focusing on food and culture.
- Young Pioneer Tours
- Your Planet - Hilversum, Netherlands
No matter which company you decide to book with, all tours are run by the Korean International Travel Company (with the exception of a few, such as Choson Exchange and The Pyongyang Project who both work directly with various government ministries and domestic DPRK NGOs) and it will be their guides who show you around. The average number of tourists per group each company takes will vary considerably so you may want to ask about this before booking a trip.
Most people travelling to North Korea will travel through Beijing and you will probably pick up your visa from there, although some agents arrange their visas elsewhere beforehand though. The North Korean consulate building is separate from the main embassy building at Ritan Lu, and is round the corner at Fangcaodi Xijie. It's open M, W, F 09:30-11:30 & 14:00-17:30; and Tu, Th, Sa 09:30-11:30. Bring your travel permission, USD45 and two passport photos.
Your guides will take your passport and keep it during your stay in North Korea, or at least for the first couple of days of your tour, for "security reasons", or simply because your entry and exit dates must be registered, as noted by the black stamps on the back of your visa or passport. Make sure your passport looks decent and doesn't differ from the most common passports from your country.
Visiting the North Korean border area from South Korea
The Panmunjom Joint Security Area (often called by the misnomer Panmunjom) is the only place in North Korea that can be visited from the South by regular tourists. This is the jointly controlled truce village in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas. It has regular one-day bus tours from Seoul. Restrictions apply to specific nationalities.
All international flights go through Pyongyang's Sunan International Airport. No other North Korean airport handles international flights. Only two commercial airlines fly to Sunan: Air Koryo, the national North Korean airline, and Air China. As of August 2013 neither Aeroflot nor China Southern Airlines fly to North Korea.
North Korea's sole airline, Air Koryo, currently has scheduled flights from Beijing, which depart at 11:30 every Tuesday and Saturday, and return from Pyongyang at 09:00 on the same days. Air Koryo also flies to and from Shenyang every Wednesday and Saturday, and to Vladivostok every Tuesday morning. There are also services to Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait.
Air Koryo is the only 1-star (worst) airline on Skytrax's list, a distinction it has held for the past four years in a row. It has been previously banned in the EU due to concerns over safety. Although Air Koryo last experienced a fatal accident back in 1983, the airline only operates a handful of flights with its fleet of 10 aircraft. The main reason for flying Air Koryo is the experience: otherwise, it's probably better to fly Air China. The Air Koryo fleet consists entirely of Soviet or Russian-made aircraft, with the pride of their fleet being two Tupolev Tu-204s, which now usually handle the core Beijing–Pyongyang route as well as the Beijing-Shengyang route. Otherwise, you'll most likely end up on one of their Ilyushin IL-62-Ms (1979-1988 vintage), Tupolev Tu-154s or Tupolev Tu-134s.
Air China, a member of the Star Alliance, flies three times weekly from Beijing to Pyongyang using Boeing 737s. Air China is preferred by most to Air Koryo due to its far more modern and safer fleet.
Train K27/K28 connects Pyongyang to Beijing in China via Tianjin, Tangshan, Beidaihe, Shanhaiguan, Jinzhou, Shenyang, Benxi, Fenghuangcheng, Dandong and Sinuiju four times a week. There is only one class on the international train between Beijing and Pyongyang: soft sleeper. It can be booked at the station in Beijing, but reservations must be made several days in advance. Your tour agency will usually do this for you, unless you are travelling on work purposes. It has been increasingly difficult to book space on the Beijing–Pyongyang route, so confirm your tickets well in advance.
Once a week train K27/K28 also conveys direct sleeping cars from Moscow via China to Pyongyang and vice versa. The route is Moscow - Novosibirsk - Irkutsk - Chita - Harbin - Shenyang - Dandong - Shinuiju - Pyongyang. Departure from Moscow is every Friday evening, arrival at Pyongyang is one week later on Friday evening. Departure from Pyongyang is Saturday morning, arrival in Moscow is Friday afternoon.
There is also a direct rail link into Russia, crossing the North Korean/Russian border at Tumangan/Khasan. This route is served by a direct sleeping carriage Moscow - Pyongyang and vice versa and runs twice monthly (11th and 25th from Moscow), arriving Pyongyang 9 days later. However, since the mid-nineties this has not been an officially permitted route for tourists, and KITC refuses to organize trips using this route; a few Western tourists have been able to take this train into North Korea, but reports indicate that further trips on this route would probably be unsuccessful.
Some agents (Lupine Travel) can arrange to cross the border from Dandong to Sinuiju by minibus and then board a domestic North Korean train to Pyongyang. Usually you will be seated in a hard seat carriage with KPA soldiers and party workers travelling with their families. There is access to a restaurant car which stocks imported beers (Heineken) and soft drinks as well as some local beers and spirits. This train is supposed to take around 4 hr to reach Pyongyang but has been known to take as long as 14. If travelling in winter be prepared for temperatures inside the carriages as low as -10°C.
There was an unscheduled cargo-passenger ship between Wonsan and Niigata, Japan. Only available for use by some Japanese and North Korean nationals, the boat service has been suspended indefinitely due to North Korea's reported nuclear testing; Japan has banned all North Korean ships from entering Japanese ports, and has banned North Koreans from entering the country. Be careful about getting too close to the North Korean border in a boat; many South Korean fishermen are still waiting to leave North Korea.
Besides the unscheduled ferry there is also a cruise ship that operates between the coast of Northeastern China, and Mt Kumgang. Joint operated by China and North Korea the cruise line uses a 40 year old ship. The cruise trip is 22 hr long at each leg, and is 44 hr long in total but non-Chinese citizens are not permitted on the cruise to Mount Kumgang.
A bus is theoretically available from Dandong, China, across the Yalu River to Sinuiju. It's run by the "Dandong China Travel Company" but is only open to Chinese citizens at present.
All your transport needs will be dealt with by your tour company. Most of the time this means buses, although tour groups visiting remote sites (e.g. Paekdusan, Mount Chilbo) occasionally use chartered flights by Air Koryo. Wandering around on your own is not allowed, and you are required to have a guide to escort you at all times.
A carefully stage-managed one-station ride on the P'yŏngyang metro is included on the itinerary of most trips to Pyongyang, but use of any other form of local public transport is generally impossible.
If travelling in a small enough group it is also possible to organise a walk through some areas of Pyongyang with some travel agents (Koryo).
The official language is Korean. Note that North Koreans are quite picky about referring to Korean as Choseonmal, not hangungmal. Unlike South Korea, North Korea has abolished Chinese hanja characters and uses hangeul characters, known as Choseongul, exclusively.
Your guides will speak fairly decent and understandable English (some better than others) and will translate something if you wish. Some guides have the ability to speak Mandarin, German, Russian, Japanese or Spanish.
Although locals may be discouraged from speaking with foreigners due to government propaganda that implies foreigners are generally up to no good, and language can prove to be an additional barrier, there is no formal law preventing citizens of the DPRK from interacting with tourists. A visit to the DPRK around their holidays may give you more of a chance to interact with the locals.
All tours are accompanied by a government minder, who will decide what you can and cannot see. From the moment you leave your hotel, expect to be accompanied by one or more minders. Besides ensuring that tourists do not stray outside of the designated tourist areas, their jobs include inspecting any photographs which they think do not portray North Korea or its government in a good light, and ordering photographers to delete them. It is generally advisable to listen to what your minder is saying, and agree with it. Asking awkward socio-political questions will result in vague, evasive replies at best, and several hours of interrogation at worst.
It is always recommended that if you are uncertain about taking pictures anywhere, ask your guide, though allowances seem to vary wildly. You may get a guide that is relatively relaxed and will allow you to take pictures from a bus or within a city. On the other hand, you may get one that will strictly adhere to controlling where you take pictures restricting anything taken from a tour bus or of certain areas, like Pyongyang's city streets, in general. There is simply no way to tell until you are actually on a tour. If you think a particular photograph might be embarrassing to the DPRK in general, ask or simply don't risk taking it at all.
Photography of military personnel is also generally prohibited. Again, if in doubt, ask your guide. However, there are instances where it is impossible not to photograph certain sites without including a few military personnel within the picture such as at Mansudae (the monument site for the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il) or at a local funfair. Reactions seem to vary between being ignored to curiosity, although you will be told where it is strictly prohibited from taking pictures (such as at certain areas of the DMZ) and the guards/soldiers there will react unfavourably to being photographed in general. Other areas where photographs are prohibited is inside the Friendship Exhibition displaying gifts from around the world to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and within the Kumsusan Memorial Palace.
The majority of sightseeing consists of visits to various war memorials, monuments to the Great Leader and the Workers Party of Korea, and numerous museums (mostly war-related, like the statues and monuments). The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a popular destination for most tour groups in North Korea.
Please note that whilst you are in North Korea, the prevailing viewpoint places blame on the Americans for starting the Korean War; disagreeing with this position is likely to cause problems for both you and your guide particularly as the two Koreas are still legally at war with only a cease-fire between them. Despite its misleading name, the DMZ is heavily guarded and dotted with minefields and other booby-traps. Under no circumstances must you stray from your group, or take any photographs of military installations. However, the "peace village" Panmunjom may be photographed, and boasts the world's third tallest flagpole.
Whilst on these guided tours, especially to the state museums and monuments, you will undoubtedly endure an ongoing barrage of propaganda, consisting largely of anecdotes about things that Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il did for their country. Some of these claims may seem bizarre and even amusing to the outsider; however, a straight face is generally advisable. It is generally safest to at least appear to take everything they say seriously, even if it contradicts everything you were ever taught in history class or defies even the most basic human reasoning.
So, with all this practical information being said, what are the places to go? A good part of the important attractions you'll be shown are in Pyongyang. Even if you're not here in time to see the Arirang Mass Games, there's plenty to see. There's the large Kim Il-sung Square, where the famously grand military parades take place. Even without the parades though, it's an impressive square, and on it is the Grand People’s Study House. This gigantic library and learning centre is home to over 30 million books and a modern system of conveyor belts to get you the one you need. Also on the square are two museums, of which the Korean National Art Gallery is the more interesting one. The other great landmark of the nation's capital is its Triumphal Arch. Slightly bigger than its Parisian counterpart, it is in fact the largest arch of its kind in the world. Another landmark you'll be proudly shown, are the large bronze statues of the Great Leader and Kim Jong-il. Respectfully join the locals in their serious undertakings to honour the statues, which are a key element of the devotion cult around the national leaders. For a better chance of some casual conversations with locals, try the pleasant Pyongyang zoo. Take a daytrip to the birthplace of the Great Leader in Mangyongdae and of course, visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun where both the previous Kim's embalmed bodies are on display.
No trip to North Korea is complete without an extensive glance at the uneasy and heavily fortified border stand-off at Panmunjeom, or the Joint Security Area. Not far from here is the town of Kaesong, with a lovely old town and the Unesco listed tomb of King Kongmin. For stunning natural sights, try reaching Kumgangsan, or the Diamond Mountains, where you'll find beautiful vistas, waterfalls, lakes and ancient Buddhist temples.
As mentioned above, there is very little to do beyond the watchful eye of your designated minder(s), with most recreational activity taking place within the confines of the tourist resorts. Bowling and karaoke are among the latest additions to its surprising plethora of recreational activities. The karaoke videos are often accompanied by dramatic historical footage of the Korean War, or goose-stepping People's Army soldiers.
Interestingly enough, North Korea has three amusement parks, two of which are abandoned due to mutual lack of interest and electricity. Sadly, the Kaeson Youth Fair has now closed, taking the infamous "Roller Coaster of Death" along with it. Still visible are the shooting-galleries with backdrops of snarling American and Japanese soldiers; however, it is unlikely that your guide will let you venture into any abandoned areas. The one remaining amusement park contains some rides which are actually quite modern and non-lethal, at least by North Korean standards, and is about as worthy of a visit as everything else you'll see whilst in North Korea.
The nightlife in Pyongyang is remarkably safe and non-violent, compared to the capitals of other nations (except maybe Reykjavík in Iceland); in general, the civilians are not a threat. The plain-clothes secret police, however, may or may not be a threat, depending on what you say or do. The North Korean definition of popular music is at least two decades behind the rest of the world; expect an onslaught of 80s hits from the West (some obviously are unauthorized copies, to judge by the quality), punctuated by the eerie caterwauling of Korean folk songs, and at least try to look enthusiastic about the whole scene.
You will not find newspapers or magazines from outside North Korea (since media from outside the country is generally banned for ordinary North Koreans). Foreign broadcasts are jammed and the only radio and television allowed is government propaganda, although several international news outlets (including BBC World News and NHK World) are available in tourist hotels. Fortunately, alcohol is cheap and plentiful, although it is not advisable to become intoxicated and make a scene of oneself. Furthermore, both the trafficking and consumption of narcotics are punished VERY severely by authorities; traffickers can expect to face the death penalty if caught.
Finally, please note that power cuts may hit without warning in the middle of any activity. Whilst you might welcome this if the jukebox is starting to get to you, this is not a desirable outcome if you are in the middle of an amusement-park ride, particularly as these blackouts can last for hours at a time.
The Masikryong ski resort, North Korea's only ski resort, opened in winter 2013. Located near the western city of Wonsan, a visit to the resort may be included as part of a wider DPRK tour.
Currency in North Korea
Most short-term tourists in North Korea will not encounter the local currency at all, as the restaurants and souvenir shops geared towards tourists will deal exclusively in hard currency - US Dollars, Euros, or Chinese Yuan. Prices in these stores are listed roughly in US Cents. Vendors will rarely have change available, and having small bills to make change yourself will be very helpful in not being over-charged for purchases. Longer term visitors to Pyongyang should consider getting a debit card (labeled "전자결제카드") to make getting change easier. These can usually be bought at the pyongyang store in the diplomatic compound for 5$, and can be used and recharged at most foreigner-targeted stores around the city.
Markets, road-side stands, and stores targeting locals will deal in North Korean Won. There are several booths around the city which are able to convert foreign currency into Won. The exchange rate was 8,000 won to 1 USD at the beginning of 2014. The largest bill is 5000 won, roughly the cost of a Coke. The smallest is 5 won, which is used for the metro. Bills under 500 won are not used in practice.
If you want smaller bills, ask to convert 1 or 5 Chinese yuan at a currency exchange booth. You may get a strange look, but likely will be given some of the harder to find 5 and 10 won notes.
In 2002 Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) were abolished and along with them went all the different coloured currencies. Now there is just the standard North Korean won, which officially trades at approximately 95 per US dollar or 131 per euro (Aug 2011). Black market rates (especially in far northern Korea, near the Chinese border) may easily be 20 times the official rate, but importing or exporting Korean won is strictly forbidden. Conversely, were you to sneak out some won, they are practically worthless outside the country, but make unique souvenirs.
In reality, foreigners are expected to use euros or as an alternative Chinese renminbi, US dollars, or Japanese yen. Getting the local money is possible, but it is difficult to use as many shops want foreign currency. Currency handling is often bizarre, with a frequent lack of change and a number of rule-of-thumb conversions leading to highly unorthodox transactions. So be sure to bring lots of small change. On the other hand, since you will already have paid in advance for your hotel, transportation, and meals, your only expenses will be bottled water, souvenirs, snacks, drinks at the bars, laundry at the hotel and tips for your guides.
In any case, the only shops you will be likely allowed to visit are the state-run souvenir shops at your hotel and at the various tourist attractions. It is generally not possible to visit a real local shop which serves the local population, though you might get lucky asking your guide if he/she trusts you enough.
There are numerous hard-currency only souvenir shops at tourist sites. Interesting souvenirs include propaganda books and videos, postcards and postage stamps. At some tourist sites (such as King Kongmin's tomb), you can purchase freshly finished paintings with your name and the artist's name at the bottom.
Some excellent paintings on silk or linen were available in Kaesong directly from the artist. Haggling for better prices is not permitted but the prices are very low.
You will pay for most things up-front as part of your tour. Most sights have a shop associated with them where you can buy bottled water, souvenirs and snacks. These are reasonably priced. In August 2007, large bottles of local beer cost USD2 at the hotel bars in Pyongyang. If you haven't planned on spending money on gambling at the casino at Yanggakdo Hotel, €200 for one week should be enough to cover your costs of water, drinks at the bars, souvenirs and tips for the guides.
Despite severe food shortages in North Korea which have left millions dead, you will not have any problems getting food. Your guide will order all your food for you, and you will eat in hard-currency only restaurants. Vegetarians and people with food allergies or dislikes of common foods such as seafood or eggs will need to make arrangements in advance. A visit to a "real" local restaurant may be possible; enquire with your guide. Although your food will be better than that which 95% of the population eats, it's still not necessarily great. Shortages, combined with the typical use of Korean cooking styles, mean that there is a relatively limited variety of food - and this can get wearying on tours of more than a few days.
There are a few western food options now in Pyongyang and these restaurants can usually be visited if arranged with the guides in advance. They will usually require additional payment though (unless you have discussed this already with your tour operator) as the costs are not included in the per diem fee charged by the Korean Travel Company. There are two Italian restaurants (one on Kwangbok Street which is near the Korean circus where the pizza is great, and they have imported a pizza oven and all the ingredients so the quality is very high; and one near the USS Pueblo) and two burger restaurants (the more accessible is in the Youth Hotel). Both are inexpensive and do inject some flavour onto a generally lacklustre eating scene - especially on long tours! Visit the Vienna coffee house, which is on the river side of Kim Jong Il square, for a pretty good coffee served like you would get in Europe.
The local speciality is insam-ju, Korean vodka infused with ginseng roots.
Locally made Taedonggang beer is very good. The brewery was purchased from Ushers in the UK and physically moved to Pyongyang, and some of the sojus are not bad either. Local alcohol is inexpensive; a 650mL bottle of beer is €0.50. Imported beers, such as Heineken, are also available at similar prices. However do not get drunk and cause trouble. Toe the line and show respect, or you and your guide will face serious penalties.
It is advisable to stick to bottled water for drinking as the tap water is not always properly treated.
This is likely to be your principal expense while in North Korea. You may only stay at "designated tourist hotels", for which you will need to pay in hard currency. There may be discounts if you ask for lower class accommodation, if you are travelling as part of a group, or if it is low season (November – March). Costs for your tour, which will include accommodation, all sightseeing activities and meals, will range from USD70 to USD200 a day, depending on these factors.
Usually you pay for all your meals, hotel and Beijing–Pyongyang journey to your tour operator before you leave. One week in high season at a four-star hotel will then cost something between €1,300 and €1,600, depending on your tour operator, but might get as low as €800 for one week.
It can be difficult for foreigners to become students in North Korea, although University exchange programmes may be possible.
The Pyongyang Project arranges tours of North Korea with an academic focus, with the aim of participants learning about the country rather than just sightseeing.
Yanbian University, in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in north eastern China is closely affiliated with other universities in North Korea and can offer relevant courses for learning about North Korea.
If you are interested in teaching in North Korea, you may find success by contacting the North Korean UN Mission in New York, or contacting a North Korean university directly. Your odds of success are, however, quite low: there is only a small team of 4 English Language Instructors dealing with teaching and teacher training, with a Project Manager leading the team of three, placed in Kim Il Sung University, Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies and Kim Hyung Jik University of Education.
There is an opportunity to teach in the Pyongyang Summer Institute during summer time when it is opened to foreigners. It's voluntary, unpaid work, though.
Crime levels are practically zero, at least to tourists on a strictly controlled tour. However, pickpockets are the least of your worries. The authorities are very touchy, and you need to watch what you say and how you say it. Just do what the guides do, praise every stop on your tour, and remember the rule, "If you have nothing good to say, don't say anything at all."
Also, the official policy is that you are not to wander around on your own. You are expected to get permission and/or have a guide accompany you if you are leaving your hotel on your own. This will vary depending on what hotel you are in. The Yanggakdo Hotel is on an island in the middle of the Taedong River in Pyongyang. Therefore you can walk around the area a little more freely than if you are at the Koryo Hotel right in the centre of town. You should always be friendly and courteous to your guides and driver who will normally reciprocate by trusting you more and giving you more freedom.
For taking photographs, one needs to exercise restraint, caution and common sense. If you appear to be looking for negative images of North Korea, the guides will not be happy and will tell you to delete any questionable images. In particular, you are not to take photos of anything military, including personnel, or anything showing the DPRK in a bad light.
As noted before, your photographic freedom can largely depend on the type of guides that you are assigned and the rapport that you have with them. In a best case scenario, you can often take pictures without feeling as if you're trying to sneak them by anyone and without pressure capturing some truly unique images. If you are in an area that prohibits picture taking, you will also be informed of this and it is best to simply follow your guide's direction. When in doubt, always ask. Your guide might even want to try out your camera and take a picture of you for your collection.
In a worst-case scenario, you can be expected to raise your camera at a reasonable speed, compose and take the picture, and lower the camera at a reasonable speed. Don't try to take pictures of anything that you have been told not to, such as military personnel or certain locales. This may call attention to yourself and the image you are trying to take and can result, whether justified or not, in your being told to delete the image.
Digital cameras are commonly inspected when leaving the country by train. A simple workaround is to leave a memory card with innocuous snaps in the camera and file away any cards with ideologically dubious content.
Visitors of Korean descent should never reveal this fact. North Koreans have a very strong sense of ethnic belonging and this will inevitably draw unwanted attention to you. Furthermore, if you run into trouble then holding a foreign passport will not count for much if you are considered a Korean by the authorities.
Visitors have also been targeted for political reasons; in 2013, an 85 year old American citizen was arrested, briefly incarcerated and expelled by the DPRK because of his military service during the Korean War.
Drug trafficking and the consumption of narcotics can be punishable by death in North Korea. Marijuana, however, is legal and often found growing freely alongside the road in North Korea.
It is strongly recommended that you avoid bringing religious texts or performing any religious activity. In 2012, Kenneth Bae, an American Christian missionary, was arrested for his religious activities in North Korea, and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour (however, he was released nine months later). Additionally, another American, Jeffrey Fowle, was arrested for leaving a Bible at a North Korean nightclub, and spent six months in a North Korean jail.
Drinking water in North Korea is apparently untreated and there are reports of foreigners being hospitalized in the DPRK after drinking the water, therefore sticking to bottled water is highly recommended.
Medical facilities are clean although very outdated. If you fall ill then you might be better off going to China for medical treatment. Contact your embassy or consulate in North Korea (if your country has one) for assistance.
It is important to emphasize that the government of the DPRK — in particular the leaders Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un — are, at least publicly, very highly revered in North Korean culture. While slavish devotion is not expected from tourists, especially given that the Juche philosophy of the DPRK is specifically aimed at the Korean people only and is not applicable to foreigners, insulting them in any way is highly offensive and illegal, and will get you and (much more so) your guides into trouble. It is not worth inadvertently threatening their lives by insulting their leaders.
It is advisable to refer to North Korea as the DPRK instead when discussing it with your guides. DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and is the official name for the country reflecting their belief that the south (not capitalized) is occupied territory. You will also notice this referenced in their literature in the same way (ie as "south Korea").
The DPRK has very strict laws about taking pictures though there are many great photographing opportunities around the country, particularly in cities such as Pyongyang. Again, this largely depends on the guides assigned to you and how relaxed they feel to trust that you won't do anything to embarrass them. While it may have been true in the past to "not look at" or "take pictures of" people in the DPRK, you may be also surprised to be able to take a picture of a wedding couple or of a grandmother taking their grandson out for a walk waving back. Also, do not take photographs of anything that could be of strategic importance (i.e. places with a soldier(s)/policemen in front of it) or of things that you been told specifically not to. Again, as emphasized before, always ask your guides if you are ever in doubt.
Bringing gifts like cigarettes or Scotch for the men, both guides and the driver, and chocolate or skin cream for female guides, is a nice gesture. Please be respectful toward your guides, especially since North Korean guides are known to occasionally take tourists whom they trust well enough to see other places and events in North Korea that they wouldn't ordinarily go to. This can also extend to how freely they may feel about your picture taking. Remember, they may be as curious about you as you are about them.
Most, if not all, tour groups to the DPRK are asked to solemnly bow and lay flowers on one or two occasions in front of statues of Kim Il Sung when visiting monuments of national importance. If you're not prepared to do this, do not even try to enter North Korea. Just be sure you always act in a respectful manner around images of the two leaders. This includes taking respectful photos of any image of them. When photographing statues, especially Mansudae, be sure to get the entire statue in the photo. Formal dress is also expected at important monuments such as Mansudae or in visiting the Kumsusang Memorial Palace.
Any trouble you cause as a tourist will likely be blamed on your tour guide's inability to control you, and he or she will bear the brunt of the penalties. Additionally, future tourists will be allowed less freedom and will face increased restriction on where they can visit and what they can photograph.
Other than your tour guide, you will likely not meet anyone else in your trip who speaks English; a few Korean words and phrases are a nice internationalist gesture.
Despite the sharp political differences, North and South Koreans generally share a common culture; the various tips in the South Korea article under respect (such as using two hands to pour drinks) will also help here.
North Korea is officially atheist. The regime promotes a national philosophy of self-reliance called 'Juche' (주체) which some would categorize as a political religion that pervades all aspects of life in the country. As a tourist you would not be expected to observe this, although you must always be respectful towards symbols of 'Juche' which are often the images of past and present leaders Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un.
Although officially religion such as Christianity and Buddhism is allowed, it is vigorously suppressed in practice with severe punishment being given to followers. You should still refrain from any religious discussions during your time in North Korea, and be aware that any form of religious proselytizing is dealt with very seriously by the regime, with foreign missionaries having previously been sentenced to life imprisonment in labor camps. With this in mind, be careful of performing even personal religious rituals or bringing religious items into the country and preferably do not do so at all.
For medical emergencies dial 02 382 7688 (Pyongyang number)
As of January 2013, you are allowed to carry a mobile phone from outside the country into North Korea. You will not be able to use your current SIM card in North Korea, however. The only network you are allowed to connect to is the local network, Koryolink, via one of their SIM cards. Your phone must be a 3G WCDMA phone which can connect to the 2100MHz 3G frequency band.
A 3G mobile phone network (Koryolink) was introduced in Pyongyang in 2008 and now covers the 42 largest cities. It is widely used by locals who can afford it and by long-staying foreigners who file an application. SIM cards and phones can be purchased at the International Communication Center, No.2 Pothonggang-dong in Pothonggang District, opposite the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium, as well as at Pyongyang airport and some hotels. As of 25 Feb 2013, 3G mobile internet via Koryolink is available to foreigners, although pricing is currently unknown. Bear in mind that these SIM cards will only let you call internationally and to a very small number of internationally-enabled phones in North Korea. There are three plans you can choose from for your SIM card:
- Purchase a prepaid SIM card for €50. This gives you the SIM card to keep indefinitely for return visits, and includes a small amount (less than €30) of calling credit.
- Rent a prepaid SIM card for two weeks for €50. This includes €30 of calling credit.
- Rent a prepaid SIM card for one month for €75. This includes €55 of calling credit.
Calling rates are as follows:
- China and South-East Asia: €1.43 per minute.
- Russia: €0.68 per minute.
- France and Switzerland: €0.38 per minute.
- U.K. and Germany: €1.58 per minute.
International calling is generally possible via landlines in hotels, though it is expensive (€2 per minute as of Feb 2012) and all calls are likely recorded and monitored.
Local calls need elusive 10 chon coins when calling from call boxes, but can also be made from hotels and post offices.
Additionally, your phone calls may be heavily monitored, so you should be careful of what you talk about in phone calls that you make in North Korea.
Internet facilities are limited, as few locals have permission to use it. Most of the larger hotels have Internet access available, but this needs to be applied for some days in advance. Advise your tour operator or inviting party of your requirements well ahead of time so that access permission can be arranged. There are no public internet cafés or business centres with web access in the hotels. Mobile internet is available via Koryolink's 3G network (see above) using a local SIM card, but details about this are currently scarce. Also note that even if you have Internet access, your traffic may be monitored, so be careful of what you type in your email and be aware that access to many websites that people outside of North Korea normally use is blocked by a firewall.
There is a growing diplomatic presence of foreign embassies in North Korea's capital city of Pyongyang. It is worth knowing beforehand which country can assist you in case of an emergency, such as a medical condition or a police incident.