There are few places in the world as shrouded in mystery and dangerous mystic as the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. Until recently, the highly privatized nation was closed to visitors and largely obscured from the outside world. But the newest incarnation of their divine leader, Kim Jong Un, has been surprisingly open towards tourism compared to his predecessors. It can still be a dangerous place for Westerners, especially Americans, but if you follow the rules and keep your head down, it can be a thrilling and altogether bizarre travel experience.
There is a lot of misinformation being served up to curious travelers from both inside and outside the walls of North Korea, which makes it hard to get any real insight into what it’s like over there. But here's what we do know:
North Korea doesn’t issue visas like the rest of the world. In fact, the U.S. government won't help any American get there. As a result, visas must be acquired by applying at the DRPK embassy in Beijing. Before departing you will need to ensure Pyongyang has sent confirmation of your visa. If you arrive without one, you will get arrested. But that is only part one...
In order to visit, westerners must acquire a multiple entry visa for China so that you can both arrive and leave from there. That’s right, the only country with commercial flights into North Korea is China, and the only place to get a North Korean visa is at the DRPK Embassy in China.
Staying Out of Trouble
The government in North Korea is so fundamentally different than the rest of the world, it's easy to make simple mistakes as a foreigner. The rules are insanely strict, however, for the most part, they do want you there (just on their terms). In fact, they welcomed 100,000 visitors in 2014 and hope to attract 2 million by the year 2020. In the highly unfortunate circumstance you are detained, the United States would have no diplomatic way to get you out of the country — you’re straight up stuck.
Here's a quick list of tips to help you stay on the right side of the law:
- Follow the rules! According to accounts of previous foreign visitors to North Korea, the rules are made exceptionally clear from the start. Tourists are watched very closely. If you try to leave with even a mundane picture you weren’t suppose to take, it could be considered an act of espionage or hostility against the DPRK, and you will be detained.
- Tourists must show reverence to the supreme leaders. You are guests in their country, so you must hold your hosts in the highest regard. Basically, stay tight lipped about any and all opinions of North Korea's politics and/or leaders.
- Pictures must be taken with permission. This is a big one worth repeating. Always ask before taking a picture. Tour guides are generally friendly, non-military locals who can tell you what is and isn't allowed. For example, it is only permitted to take photos of an entire statue. But, if you snap a close-up or a face-shot, it will be deleted and you’ll likely get in trouble.
- Religious materials and contraceptives aren’t permitted whatsoever. Leave your condoms and bibles at home. This is very real: One of the Americans currently being detained simply left a English-Korean bible in a club and was never allowed to leave.
- As a tourist, you aren’t allowed to use the local currency. The ‘won’ is off limits to all foreigners. Instead, visitors must pay ineuros, yuan or even US dollars for purchases within North Korea. Don’t expect any shopping malls though. Tourists aren’t allowed in department stores, nor is there a lot of opportunity to buy anything aside from approved souvenirs.
- You MUST be part of a guided tour. That is the only legal way to visit North Korea — there’s no aimless hostel-bouncing here. All attractions and stops are extremely scheduled to ensure minimal interaction with the locals. There isn’t a lot of free time, although people who have visited say there are a few rare moments of independence.
North Korea is pressed right up against the farthest reaches of eastern Siberia. As such, its weather is relatively harsh year round with the summers getting a lot of rain. On average, rainfall in July is around 11 inches and 8 inches in August. The season is short, hot, humid and very wet, and winter is no cakewalk either. It's cold, clear and dry. No matter when you go, pack some warm clothes. If you plan on visiting during the summertime, you should definitely bring rain gear. That’s not to say that there aren’t some beautiful days, though. When the weather clears up, no matter what the season, the landscapes of North Korea are stunning.
Key Korean Phrases
Korean is an incredibly difficult language for Westerners to pickup. The subtleties and tonal variations require an experienced ear to understand. As such, it can take a long time to become proficient in the language. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn a couple key phrases before you go. Here are a few to practice:
- Hwangyong-hamnida - Welcome
- Annyeonghaseyo - Hello (informal)
- Annyeong-hashimnikka - Hello (formal)
- Sungham ee uttoke daesipnika? - What is your name?
- Mannaseo bangapseumnida - Pleased to meet you
- Moreugesseumnida - I understand
- Ige el mayo? - How much is this?
- Butakamnida - Please
- Kamsahamnida - Thank You