“How did you get into North Korea?” is the first question we are asked by people that hear we went there. Contrary to popular myths, you can visit North Korea. It is also one of the easiest countries to visit. Here’s what you need to know when considering a trip to North Korea.
The visa, which unfortunately you won’t get to keep, nor will you get proof of your visit in the form of a passport stamp.
The only way to visit North Korea and be allowed to leave without a Clinton or Jimmy Carter rescuing you is by taking a tour. There is no way around this, if you want to go, you will be on a tour. You will not be allowed to eat, stay or walk anywhere of your own choosing. Everything is prearranged on your itinerary. Want to cross the street on your own? You will quickly be escorted back to where you are supposed to be. This is the most frustrating aspect of North Korea, but also part of the experience. One of the wonders of the country is that it is isolated, few outsiders have ever seen it, and the country strives to be in complete control of everything. While you are in the country, you too, are under their complete control. Book your tour, hand over your passport and enjoy the show.
WHO SHOULD GO?
You should visit the DPRK if you have interest in any of the following: complete dictatorships; the purest form of communism still practiced; or, want to get to know people that have never seen the internet, international media, or heard that every story has two sides.
A North Korean tour guide explaining the “War of American Aggression”
AKA, the Korean War.
LOCAVORista and I have been to a lot of places and North Korea was the strangest, most fascinating and the one that left us with the most questions. This truly is a place like none other, reality is created, published and indoctrinated by a small group of leaders. Kim Il Sung, the father of Kim Jong Il is seen as a God. There is no advertising on the streets, just communist propaganda, the monuments are larger than rational people would ever build them, and everything is decorated as though the 1950’s never ended.
WHAT TO SEE IN NORTH KOREA:
The sights to see in North Korea such as the Arirang Games, Children’s Palace, War Museum, Kim Il Sung Mausoleum, and many monuments shouldn’t be missed. While most of Eastern Europe and former communist nations have taken down their monuments to socialism, leaders’ personality cult shrines, and propaganda; it still stands proudly in North Korea. I can’t imagine that they will exist when the government falls, so get there now.
DOES MY MONEY SUPPORT KIM JONG IL?
Yes. You are directly paying the DPRK state tour company for your tour, no matter who you book through. The meals you eat, places you stay, sites you visit and places you shop are directly tied to the government. That said, the entirety of your payment does not go directly to the DPRK leadership, the money does support the livelihood of all who work in the tourist agency.
Though paying money to the DPRK government may be a show-stopper for many travelers, this should be carefully considered. When visiting any country your money is inevitable ending up in government hands, which very likely supports things you don’t agree with. For example, every US dollar you have in your wallet is a free loan to the US Government, which does some questionable things.
I believe that things will never change without an exchange of ideas, though you may impart just a little of your worldly knowledge on a North Korean while visiting, every bit of outside information helps. There is no internet, international TV or phones to the outside world, the exchange of information you participate in is beneficial in opening up the country, little-by-little.
From what we found while researching, there are several companies that book tours to North Korea, but North Korean government guides lead all tours inside the country. The differences are in your travel companions, group size, and itinerary. Therefore, the cheapest tour that offers the sights you want to see is probably the best.
All tours originate in Beijing. Most tours start with an overnight train trip from Beijing to Pyongyang. Current regulations prohibit US Citizens from taking the train; entry by flight is the only option for my fellow countrymen.
A USSR era jet that will take Americans and other fliers to the DPRK
Kroyo Tours is the 800lb gorilla of North Korea tour companies; it is also the most expensive. KTG and Young Pioneers are the “budget” tours. We went with Young Pioneer Tours, which offers stellar tours, but is geared towards younger travelers. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, so I would recommend doing one of the independent tours to fit your schedule. No matter who you decide to travel with, make sure it is during the Arirang Games presentation.
All tour options start at roughly $300 per person, per day. We did the 4-day, 5-night tour, which covers the most important sights of the DPRK (Arirang Games, Children’s Palace, Kim Il Sung Mausoleum, and Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum). All tour companies seem to offer this tour.
The tour company you choose will arrange a visa for you. All the companies we spoke to said they have not had issues with people not being able to get a visa. This is of course as long as you do not put journalist, mercenary, or imperialist as your stated occupation.
The key visa you will need is a double or multiple entry CHINA visa. Since tours begin and end in China, you will need to enter the country twice. Make sure you have this visa arranged.
Inside of North Korea you will not need that much money as food, accommodations and lodging is included in your tour. Money will only be required for personal purchases such as gifts, water and beer. Posters and books cost around €10-25, water €0.50, and beer €1-2.
You will probably want to buy some propaganda posters, we did…
If you want to attend the Arirang Games the ticket is not included, currently this costs €80 or 800 RMB per person. If you want to splurge seats with a better location range from €100 to €300, but the cheap seats are just as good and it is not recommended to upgrade. If you choose to pay to see the Arirang Games twice you will likely be upgraded to the better seats for no additional cost your second time. It is an absolute must-see if it is occurring while you are in the country.
The last item you will need cash for is an obligatory “tip” of €5 per person, per day, for your guides. We were quoted this amount from a person that went with Kroyo Tours as well as our Young Pioneer Tour.
Euros, Chinese Renimbi, and US Dollars are accepted in the DPRK.
Being a government that maintains power by force, crime is pretty much non-existent. Locals are not allowed near you. It is not clear what they would do with things they stole from a foreigner, but like we have heard elsewhere, the penalty is far more severe than the reward of robbing you.
Photography is not allowed in all places. This is strictly enforced, including standing over you while you delete photos on your camera. Generally photos are allowed without any problems.
A guard chases away children that were watching the tourists. Locals were kept far away from us.
WHAT TO PACK
Travel light. You can bring a laptop and camera, but not a cell phone. If you bring a cell phone into the country it will be sealed into a plastic bag and held until you leave the country. It is not clear why this rule exists because the network in North Korea would not allow you to access it anyway…
We did not know of anybody having any issues with things they brought into or out of the country.