North Korea — Overview
Better known internationally as North Korea, the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea came into being at the end of WWII via the Soviet Union’s occupation of the northern half of the peninsula. Prior to this time, the country shared the same impressively long and distinguished history and culture as its southern neighbor although, since the division in 1948, it’s been mostly a closed state. If you're curious, it is possible to visit through a large number of government-sanctioned tour agencies, but you will not be allowed to travel alone and you must stay on their set itinerary.
North Korea is slowly opening it's doors to visitors, and a vacation here is unlike a holiday anywhere else in the world. Tourism areas are strictly designated and photography is generally discouraged unless it shows the country and the government in a positive light. There’s a surprising amount of recreational activities, including a somewhat tame amusement park. Places to visit include Heaven Lake on the Chinese border, volcanic Baekdu Mountain, Mount Myohyang, the capital of Pyongyang with its unique monuments to Communism and dynastic leaders, the demilitarized zone on the border with South Korea, and the lost-in-time, mountainous countryside.
North Korea is like no other destination on the planet in that you’re not free to explore or interact with the locals. However, a visit here is unique as it gives insight into a social system which basically went out of style with the fall of the Soviet Union. North Koreans are as friendly as they are allowed to be, but are aware that they must be positive about their lives and their leaders. Travel broadens the mind, and the amazing experiences travelers have in North Korea rarely make it into the mainstream media, although they’re great for breaking down barriers and communicating with those living in this closed society.
Your North Korean tour package will include hotels and destinations chosen by your designated agency, so you won’t be troubled with an excess of gawking tourists, as only about 1,500 Westerners visit the country every year. Numbers of Chinese and Asian visitors are higher, but the number still palls in comparison to countries on the rest of the continent. Be aware though, since it is a more exclusive trip, the cost of Western-standard accommodations is extremely high. Your guide will be keep you out of trouble by advising you on what not to say or do, especially since if you criticize the regime, they may be held responsible.
Much of North Korea is off limits to visitors, although new destinations are being regularly added, and travelers must be accompanied by their guides on all trips, whether by train, air or private vehicle. Your itinerary must be approved with the local authorities before you arrive, and onward transportation will be arranged in advance. Air Koryo offers domestic flights to a few airports around the country, and the main rail route connecting to China has dedicated tourist cars. Most transportation is by minibus provided by your tour agency and arranged in advance.
- The massive crater lake topping the extinct, sacred Mount Paekdu volcano
- Pyongyang for its pomp, propaganda and huge statue of Great Leader Kim il Sung
- Pristine, unspoiled Mount Myohyang with its waterfalls, virgin forests and shrine holding thousands of gifts to Kim il Sung
- Kim il Sung Square in Pyongyang for the socialist-turned-traditional Korean Grand People’s Study House Library
- The Tomb of Tan’Gun, an ancient mythical leader considered to be the ancestor of Kim il Sung
- Eerie Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where Kim il Sung lies in an embalmed state
- Panmunjeom, the demilitarized no-man’s-land on the South Korean border where US and North Korean troops still face off daily
- Pyongyang Circus for its stunning acrobatic displays and lack of animals
- Pyongyang War Museum for its unique version of the Korean War