When I tell people that I have been to North Korea, the general response goes something like:
“North Korea! You can’t actually go there, can you?”
“How did you get in? I thought no one would be able to get a visa.”
“Were you scared? Was it safe?”
“No you didn’t. You mean South Korea”
Sigh. NO I don’t.
Can you actually go to North Korea?
Yes, any nationality can go. If you are living in South Korea, or you are a journalist then it will be harder, but anyone else can easily get a visa with one of several companies that run tours to the country.
You can try to get a visa yourself and save some money, but everyone on my tour paid 50 euros for the tour company to process it. I paid, and the next I heard I had the visa. No issues, no problems.
Americans can’t travel in or out by train which is unfortunate as the train trip from Beijing to Pyongyang is really cool. I’m not sure that anyone knows why they have that rule, it’s just a fact. Americans must take a plane.
The train goes via Dandong, so you can also start your trip here and save money.
There are ethical issues to consider when visiting North Korea, although I find it ironic that they so often come up for North Korea and not for many other countries. This blog post however, is already too long. I will talk about them in another post.
Can you travel independently in North Korea?
No, not really. You can pay extra for a private tour, and set your own itinerary, but you must go with two or three Korean guides and if you pay even more, a foreign guide from your tour company.
Group Tours will also have two or three Korean guides and usually a tour company guide, but this may vary with each tour company. There are several companies. I went with Young Pioneer Tours, which was really good.
How restrictive are the tours?
What are you allowed to do?
You are only allowed to visit some parts of the country. Large areas are off limits and even if you pay for your own private tour and make your own itinerary, you won’t be allowed to go.
You also will have to follow the tour group, and you won’t be allowed outside the hotel grounds to explore by yourself. However the schedule is so full I don’t think that you would have time to anyway.
The tour group itself is allowed a good amount of freedom. When we went to the park for example, I walked away, lost my group and explored. I saw lots of local people, found a local man playing on his musical instrument and listened for a while. I ended up miming a conversation with a group of locals cooking food. I was gone for at least half an hour, completely unsupervised. I hadn’t failed to meet up to get the bus, so no problem. I don’t think anyone actually noticed.
When we were at the beach in Wonsan along with several hundred North Koreans, we swam with them, played volleyball with them, and those in the group who spoke Korean talked to them.
At one point in Pyongyang I walked away from the tour group and went across the square and up the street. No issues.
If you could speak Korean, then you could talk to whomever you wanted. No one will stop you from approaching and speaking to anybody in the street, in the park, in the fun park, on the subway, or in the shopping malls and pubs.
Our group stopped for lunch at the midway point between Pyongyang and Wonsan, we ate a packed lunch and ended up joining a group of North Korean workers and staying for two hours talking to them through hand gestures, broken Korean for us and about five English words for them.
We were told not to take photos of soldiers, or of the police and were asked to put our cameras away for the last part of the journey to Kaesong on the border between North and South. This was to avoid any issues with the soldiers at the check points thinking that we were taking photos of them.
At the mausoleum of the late Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, you also were not allowed to take your camera inside.
We were also asked not to take photos of people working – repairing the side of the road for example – because North Koreans did not like to be photographed not looking their best
Other than that we could take photos at any time and of anything.
Lots of people seem to think that your photos are searched at the end of your trip. They’re not at all, probably because you can take pictures of basically anything you want.
What are you allowed to take?
What are you not allowed to take is probably the better question. These things include:
– books on the situation in North Korea (guide books are fine)
– books, newspapers or magazines from South Korea
– American or South Korean Flags
– Anything with GPS (technically, people just put tape over the GPS letters on their cameras. It didn’t matter on my tour, they never checked.)
– clothes or bags with political slogans
You are allowed to take your phone in, and when I went you could buy a sim card that could be used to call outside of the country but not in the country for 60 euros.
They do however check what type of phone you have so that they can check that you take it out of North Korea and don’t leave a device with international capabilities in the country. Of course they never checked on the way out so that was kind of pointless.
Your tour company should give you all the details in case this changes.
They do conduct a bag search if you enter the country by train, but I don’t think that it is particularly thorough most of the time. For our search we opened our bags so they could go through them. The guard turned his head to look at one bag, and then turned it the other way to look at the other bag. Ticked off something on his paper and left.
I mean how interesting would it be to look at tourists’ clothes?
Is it safe to visit North Korea?
While you do need to follow the rules set, I’m not quite sure why so many people seem to think that it will be dangerous.
It is possibly the safest place I’ve ever been.
Partly because you have to be in a tour.
This removes the vast majority of potential dangers that travellers and people in general face.
I mean, you’re in a bus that drives you around, with a driver that knows where he’s going, with multiple guides that are fluent in your language and the local language.
Pretty hard to go wrong.
But also because of the people.
North Korean people are often portrayed as robotic brainwashed sheep. Perhaps people believe this propaganda and think that they all hate foreigners as a result of government propaganda.
This is not true at all.
My group had many chances to interact with Korean people. They were friendly and curious, and before you say it was fake, please keep your conspiracy theories at least somewhat realistic.
I danced with a guy on the beach in Nampho, I danced with some ladies in a park in Pyongyang, played with children in a Fun Park in Pyongyang, and I played a version of water volleyball in the sea in Wonsan.
When I wanted to climb up onto the sea diving platform in Wonsan, I could not climb on to it. It was too high.
One man who was already on the platform tried to help me up but couldn’t.
So all without speaking, a girl in a boat saw me, rowed over, and pulled me into the boat. They then helped me up. We smiled at each other and I thanked them in Korean.
They are real people.
They are not their government.
Separate the two in your head.
They are not all hostile robots driven solely by whatever alarmist propaganda their government spews.
Try not to be as well.
What Can You See in North Korea?
What you can see is going to largely depend on your tour. You can pick tours to cover certain holidays and see something entirely different.
I went in August to see the Arirang Mass Games, which was wonderful. Unfortunately 2013 was the last year that this was done.
Arirang is an old story that the performance was based on. My guides thought that they would still have a performance and just base it on something else.
In 2014 however there has been no performance, I really hope that they start doing a performance again. It was amazing.
There are still lots of good reasons to visit North Korea. Some of my favourites included:
1. Mansudae Grand Monument
These are really impressive bronze sculptures that a lot of tours will visit on the first day. By the end of the tour you will have seen so many sculptures and mosaics that that you may well be sick of them. These statues are really cool though.
2. Pyongyang Metro
This is by far the most elaborate metro I’ve ever seen and may be the most elaborate one in the world. Has anyone seen one more elaborate?
With beautiful detailed mosaics on the walls and decorative chandeliers suspended from the ceiling and a gold plated statue in one of the subway stops, it’s rather odd to travel in slightly rickety, out of date and clearly well used carriages.
3. Kumsusan Palace of the Sun Mausoleum
You are not allowed to bring your camera inside here, but it is out of this world. After going through metal detectors and a touch down search, you walk over a shoe cleaning device with rotating bristles.
Then you spend maybe an three quarters of an hour walking and travelling on flat escalators through a ‘hall of fame’ with music playing and photos of the late Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
Just before entering the main mausoleum room you will pass through a small metal room that will blow air at you to blow any dust off.
When you leave this room to go into the second mausoleum room, you pass through another metal wind room.
After these you will see rooms dedicated to each of the deceased leaders, showing large maps that detail where they have travelled in their lives.
Kim Jong-il was even supposed to have died in a moving train. They (somehow??) have put the carriage that he died on inside the building.
You need to bring formal clothes when you go here and be careful what type of shoes you take. If you want to take high heel shoes then take ones with a strap over the ankle. One lady in my group almost was not allowed in because her high heel shoes were also slip-ons. She had to borrow a pair from our guide.
Also take shoes that don’t make too much noise and that you can walk quietly in.
5. The Children’s Palace
While I’m sure that they work very hard, harder than I would want to work, the talent shown here is amazing. We saw classes of children playing Go, doing the most beautiful embroidery I’ve ever seen, singing in a choir, playing a variety of musical instruments and doing gymnastics.
We also saw an amazing show with children doing acrobatics, rollerskating tricks, juggling, singing and playing musical instruments.
On the west coast is the city of Wonsan. It was probably my favourite city to visit.
It is less visited than other places in North Korea (which is saying something) and it was interesting to walk around.
We walked along a concrete pier to an island and explored it. This was another time when I temporarily lost my tour group. On a whim we sat down and bought locally cooked shellfish from locals who were selling it on the sides of the pier.
The next day we also spent most of the day at the beach, playing volleyball, water volleyball, swimming and jumping off the diving platforms.
I loved my trip to North Korea and would highly recommend people consider going. I faced some interesting objections when I decided to and have gotten a number of disproving looks since, but as I said earlier in this post – it is already about 2000 words long. So if you are still reading – I’ll talk about the ethical issues in another post.