A lot of people don’t realise that you can actually travel to North Korea as a tourist. I guess the perception is that, because it’s a strange rogue nation, it wouldn’t be open to foreigners.
Well, guess what? You can go to North Korea. But it’s still going to be a very strange experience.
I’ve written a few stories about what it’s like to be a tourist in this fascinating country and what to expect from any North Korea travel. I’ve got links to all those articles at the end of this travel guide.
In this guide, I just want to focus on giving you some practical information in case you’re thinking about doing a North Korea trip yourself as a tourist.
The good news is that it’s not too difficult to arrange – but you do need to be prepared. You can’t just jump on a flight to Pyongyang and start exploring the Hermit Kingdom for yourself.
So here are my tips for your North Korea travel.
North Korea tours
The best (and only reasonable) way to travel into North Korea is with a tour company. Several thousand Western foreigners are allowed into the country this way each year.
There are several organisations that run North Korea tours – usually you would go in and out via China.
There are slight variations in price and length of the tours with different companies but, because the North Korean government has final say on the itineraries, they all go to generally the same places.
I would recommend Koryo Tours, which has been around the longest and is probably the most reputable company.
Other options which I have heard good things about include:
Normally you will have a Western guide who will go with you from Beijing (or wherever your group meets). And then you’ll be joined by local North Korean guides when you arrive.
Your tour company will help you with the visa application process and all the paperwork you’ll need to do to confirm you have permission to enter the country.
What will I be allowed to do in North Korea?
You’ll be surprised at how much you are able to do – and how much you’re unable to do.
Your itinerary will be decided for you by the North Korean authorities and you’ll have two guides with you the whole time. If you would like to make any changes it would normally take about three days to get them approved, so speak up early.
Your guides will take you to see a lot of things – monuments, museums, transport systems, factories, parks, and artistic performances.
From the regime’s perspective, all the sights are supposed to be painting a positive picture of the country. But you will find yourself seeing a lot of the country as you’re driven between all these places and on the streets around them.
You won’t be able to wander off on your own, though. You’ll always have to be in the company of the guides and you’ll have to follow their instructions on what you can or can’t do.
You will be allowed to take photos, except of military personnel and from moving vehicles
You will be allowed to take your camera and your computer in with you. You are also now allowed to take your phone with you and use it as a camera (and whatever else). But you won’t be able to connect to a phone network to make/receive calls or use data.
As long as you are happy to follow the instructions, it will all be fine. I think that’s part of the experience.
For more information about what you can do, you can read this story about visiting North Korea.
Things to see in North Korea
Most of the main ‘sights’ of North Korea are in the capital, Pyongyang, and this is where the shorter trips will focus their time. The highlights of the capital are:
- The Kumsusan Memorial Palace: This is the mausoleum of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and has a bizarrely-grand feel to everything about it inside.
- Juche Tower: The tower is about 170 metres high and has an elevator to the top. It gives a great view of all of Pyongyang.
- The Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery: The war memorial at the top of a hill for those who died fighting the Japanese.
- The Triumphal March: Intentionally-built to be three metres higher than the one in Paris, it is the world’s largest Arch de Triumphe. It will be hard to avoid seeing this as you drive around the city.
- The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum: This is interesting for the exhibitions but even moreso to understand how the propaganda system work in North Korea.
Getting outside Pyongyang will be slightly harder unless your tour is longer than a few days. You won’t have much control at all over which areas you visit. Here are some of the highlights and it would be worth seeing if they are included in any trip you’re considering.
- DMZ: You can visit the de-militarised zone from South Korea as well but there’s something fun about waving at the perplexed tourists from the North Korean side.
- International Friendship Exhibition: This is promoted as being a display of the presents given by world leaders to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, although I’m convinced the bunker built into the mountain is actually a lair for when nuclear war breaks out. It will be a highlight of the trip because of the bizarre collection of gifts.
- Ryongmun Cave: A strange warren of caves lit up with different colours all along. It’s a popular spot for school groups to visit, it seems.
- West Sea Barrage: This is an eight kilometre dam built during the 1980s and is the industrial pride and joy of North Korea.
If you’re interested in some of the other things you might see on a tour, you can have a look at my photos from inside North Korea.
What about the locals in North Korea?
Visitors to North Korea will get limited interaction with locals. But it will be rare to find many who speak English, so unless you speak Korean you won’t be able to talk to them much.
Many of the locals will try to ignore you, because that’s clearly what they’ve been told to do. Children will often look at you in fear until you smile and wave, when they’ll smile and wave back even harder.
The guides you are with won’t stop you from talking and interacting with local people. But they will keep a watchful eye on things to make sure there is nothing suspicious going on.
You can read more about life in North Korea here.
The best attitude is to assume that, unless you speak Korean, you won’t get to have many conversations with locals. However, you will still feel like you get a bit of exposure to their lives.
Safety in North Korea
As long as you don’t go into North Korea with the clear intention to cause trouble, you will find things to be extremely safe.
You are always being looked after by two local North Korean guides and so you can’t really get into trouble with the authorities because the guides will stop you from doing anything that could land you in hot water.
One of the aims of the trips for foreigners is to send a positive message about the country. The regime essentially sees it as a big PR campaign – with you as part of the propaganda machine – and so they don’t want anything to go wrong.
If you do what you’re told, it will be one of the safest trips you ever take.
You can read more here about the propaganda in North Korea.
However, you have probably read some of the stories about tourists being detained in North Korea. These unfortunate situations are rare and usually occurred because the tourist did something they shouldn’t have.
I think it’s clear that their punishment vastly outweighed their ‘crime’ and they were obviously used as a form of hostage for political negotiations. But the advice from all the experts is still that, if you do nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.
The Ariang Mass Games in Pyongyang
The Mass Games, the enormously epic 90 minute performance, has rightly been described as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’.
It takes place several times a week during August and September in the May Day Stadium, the largest stadium in the world (holding 150,00 seated people).
The performance is a huge patriotic display of marchers, dancers, acrobats, musicians and more. About 100,000 people take part in it, including 20,000 children who hold up coloured cards to make the tableau backdrops.
If you’re thinking of a trip to North Korea, it would be worth finding out the latest information about dates for the Mass Games and try to coincide your travels with it.
You’ll have to pay extra for a ticket to the performance but it is worth it. I would recommend the first class ticket, which cost about 150 Euro.
You can read a bit more about my experience there and see some more of my photos from the Mass Games here.
Overall, a trip into North Korea will be an experience unlike any other you’ve had in the world of travel. It will open your eyes to a country with so few parallels to any you have lived in before.
You shouldn’t be worried or scared. But you do need to do some preparation in advance and behave accordingly when you’re there.
The trip will be safe and comfortable – but your opinions will be challenged. North Korea travel is not a holiday… it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!