North Korea is possibly the strangest and most intriguing country on the Earth, because of its tight borders, oppressive regime and highly negative public image. There’ve been movies and countless documentaries, and the country has been the centre of an innumerable number of jokes and memes.
What most people don’t realise is that entering the country is actually far, far more accessible than you’d expect. In fact, the process of applying for visas and permissions is even more streamlined than applying for visas for countries like the Russian Federation.
I travelled to North Korea several months ago, and spent a week on a strictly guided tour of what the nation has to offer. (Click here to see the full review). We flew in on the one “One-star” airline, Air Koryo, and stayed at what they call “Seven-Star”, the Hyangsan Hotel.
1. Pick your tour company
Three main companies conductapproved , government run tours from the Western world.
Each company offers more or less the same things, but there are differing price ranges and options.
Juche is known for their involvement in aviation, and runs annual aviation tours to the Wonsan Air FestivalWonsan Air Festival in September. It is perfect for any aviation enthusiast, and gives people the chance to see and travel on old Soviet aircraft.
Koryo is perhaps the most well known, and is widely regarded for comprehensive tours to the Pyongyang Marathon and the Mass Games, both major tourist events.
Young Pioneer offers the budget end of the spectrum and is perfect for cost-conscious travellers wishing to glimpse the country.
2. Decide your tour details
Most tours offer similar itineraries, with highlights including Kaesong and the DMZ, Kim Il Sung Square, Hyangsan and more.
You’ll have to decide how long you wish to stay. We travelled there for 6 nights, however found this just a little too long. 4-5 nights would be ideal unless you’re keen to stay longer and explore places other than Pyongyang and Hyangsan.
Each company offers themed tours for things such as New Year, Kim Il Sung Square birthday and Foundation Day, to name a few.
Finally, you have the option of doing a private tour or a group tour. Private tours are more expensive, but more personalised and give you the chance to tcustomise your itinerary. Group tours, on the other hand, are cheaper and less flexible.
3. Decide how to travel to North Korea
The two main entry methods are either train or plane from China.
The train is significantly cheaper, and departs from Dandong, China. It takes about 24 hours, and would be quite and interesting experience!
The flights are carried out by Air China and Air Koryo, with at least one flight per day, barring Sunday. Most depart from Beijing, with occasional flights from Shenyang, China and Vladivostok, Russia. The flight is about 1.5 hours and is a fascinating way to enter the country. Air Koryo is one of the most intriguing airlines in the world, yet is much better than people think. You also have the option to upgrade to Business Class for around €300.
Click here to read our review of Air Koryo from Beijing to Pyongyang.
Click here to read our review of Air China from Pyongyang to Beijing.
4. Contact your tour company
The tour operators have very friendly and helpful agents who will answer any of your questions before and during the booking process. Whilst you do research into your trip details and choosing the company, don’t hesitate to contact the companies to clarify any questions at all. This isn’t a place you want to be going to unless you’re completely in the know.
5. Make the booking
Once you’re ready to proceed, the company will request copies of your travel documents, which they will use to process the visa application. Payment generally occurs via a transfer to a bank account, and most companies prefer Euros. Just be cautious when making the transfer with international money transfer companies, as there are tight restrictions on sending money to North Korea, even in-directly. A direct transfer with a bank (e.g. Bank of China) may cost a little more, but will avoid any issues.
It’s important that you check all your documents are in order and that you have sufficient travel insurance. Most “Global” or “Asia” insurance packages will cover North Korea, but be sure to check. Medical facilities are limited, so in any serious illness/ accident you will be repatriated to China, so ensure there is sufficient cover for this.
There are a few restrictions on who can and cannot enter, with South Korean nationals barred from normal tourism. Make sure you check that your citizenship does not interfere with the regulations.
6. Know the facts
This country is unique. It is very important you are aware of all the regulations and rules that are imposed on tourists before entering, as arrests and punishments can be arbitrary and severe. Acts considered normal in the Western world may be crimes in the DPRK. You will have to sign a declaration form during the booking process, requesting that you comply with all expected rules.
Public tours are solely for tourism purposes, and professional journalists/ photographers are not permitted without special permission. You are not technically permitted to bring in any DVDs/ films of/ from foreign countries, and customs officers will search through laptops/ tablets and phones on arrival. As a socialist state, religion is not practiced widely, and your own practice of religion and using of religious materials may be prohibited. It is strictly prohibited to distribute any religious books/ materials to anyone in the DPRK. You’re also requested to treat your guides, the ideology of the DPRK and the Supreme Leader with utmost respect and care. There are restrictions on how you may take photos of statues/ images of the President Kim Il Sung, General Kim Jong Il and Marshal Kim Jong Un, basically meaning any images must be well framed and set without any lens flare.
Tour cost generally includes all meals, accomodation, transport from China, transport within the DPRK and the wages of the tour guides/ drivers. You will need extra cash for souvenirs (you’ll definitely want to go all out with this!) or extra snacks/ drinks. Tourists cannot use the local currency, and as such stores accept Euros, Chinese Yuan or US Dollars. Euros are preferred, however the rates vary between stores, and RMB or USD can sometimes be better. Tour operators recommend using Euros.
You’re able to take as many photos and videos as you like, so long as your guides permit you to. Photos of military personnel are prohibited. It is likely that customs will look through your camera on departure. You are permitted to use the photos on social media/ personal blogs, but not on professional sites for financial gain.
You can bring in your mobile phone, however there is no internet/ roaming connection in the country for foreign phone carriers. Whilst you can purchase an international SIM card to make phone calls and access the internet, there is a very high cost associated with this. Alternatively, take a break from the internet for a few days and enjoy the country. Hotels do have international landlines to make phone calls for about €5 per minute.
Finally, it is advisable to bring some basic medicines for stomach troubles, as the change of food can occasionally have an effect. Having some torch (the one on your phone will suffice) is also recommended, as short power outages are common.
7. Go on the tour!
Most tours begin with a pre-tour briefing the day of or the day before departure from Beijing/ Dandong, where the tour operators will provide your visas and tickets, and give you any last-minute information. After that, it is straight onto the plane/ train, and in a matter of hours, you’ll be in the most interesting country on the planet.
It’s sure to be something unforgettable, and something you will remember forever. Whilst it certainly isn’t for everyone, any keen traveller or adventurer should certainly experience this at least once in their lifetime. Do everything by the rules, and you’ll have no troubles at all.