So, you want to go to North Korea? I don’t blame you. It’s a truly unique place and going there is an experience you’ll never forget. Going to North Korea is far easier than you’d think, and below I’ll outline how to go there. In a subsequent post, I’ll explain what you can expect when visiting North Korea. What the people are like, what the restrictions are, what the guides are like, etc.
I went to North Korea in June 2016 with Koryo Tours and base my answers on my experience and what I learned while I was there.
1. Decide if going is right for you
There are distinct differences in visiting North Korea compared to other countries, differences that may mean you should steer clear of visiting. If you are a journalist, you should not try to sneak in as a tourist. If you plan on preaching any kind of religion, pick almost any other country to visit. Apart from those two important requirements, another is that freedom of movement is not allowed. You will be on a guided tour whether you go as an individual or a group, so if not being able to walk down the street by yourself really bothers you then you probably shouldn’t go. On the other hand, if you go with curiosity and an open mind, there are few places on earth as interesting as North Korea.
2. Independent or group tour?
While you can move about freely in most countries as a tourist, in North Korea you will be accompanied by North Korean guides. There is no such thing as independent travel there. However, you can go on an individual tour. Tour companies generally provide a list of places to go and attractions to see along with how many days you want to stay, and a customized individual tour can be done. Otherwise, a few tour companies organize group tours throughout the year at affordable prices.
3. When should I go?
North Korea has drastic differences in temperature from summer to winter. Summer can be hot and wet while winter can be bitterly cold. Take this into consideration as you decide when to go. The Pyongyang Marathon attracts many foreign tourists, but at various times of the year you can time visits to coincide with national holidays like Liberation Day or National Day.
4. What to see and do?
North Korea is a world leader in monuments, and there is no shortage of them to see. There are museums about the war as well as other aspects of history. You can take a helicopter ride over Pyongyang, buy books with unique takes on history or philosophy, visit beaches and see the mountainous peninsula’s tallest peak, and experience a society completely different from your own. Of course, the demilitarized zone is a unique experience, and no visit to North Korea would be complete without a visit. Some tour companies run specialized tours based around a particular interest like architecture, aviation, and film (The Pyongyang International Film Festival). There is far more to see and do than you’d think!
5. Do I need a visa and will the be placed in my passport?
Yes, you need a visa. Your tour agency will get it for you in Beijing. The visa comes in the form of a little booklet, so no, there will be no evidence of your visit to North Korea in your passport.
6. Where would I stay?
Most international visitors stay in the Yanggakdo International Hotel. It’s located on an island in the Taedong River. While the hotel won’t win any awards, it is more than adequate for a short stay. Generators ensure a stable supply of electricity, breakfast in the morning caters to both Western and Asian tastes, and you can make international phone calls. The beds were comfortable and international channels are available on the TV.
7. Can I share a room with a member of the opposite sex? Same sex?
8. At home I am a leader in my faith, or I regularly preach my faith. Can I still go?
Yes. Just keep your religious opinions to yourself and do not proselytize.
9. How do I decide which tour company to go with?
I did my homework by writing most of the tour agencies that cater to Western visitors. All were responsive by email and full of useful information. In my case, though I am not a journalist and this article is not journalism, two of the companies flat out told me they wouldn’t take me. One even said that they were sure my visa wouldn’t be approved. I chose to go with the company that has been running these tours the longest, and who I perceived to be the most professional.
10. Can I go if I’m a South Korean citizen?
You can’t visit North Korea on a South Korean passport. Unless you are a dual citizen and visit on your other passport, you can’t visit.