Credit: Wikipedia Commons

A tourist’s guide to North Korea

By Luke Kell

Things to see and do on a trip to the secretive country.

North Korea: a name associated with dictatorship, economic depression, bad haircuts, and the possibility of all-out nuclear war. But what about tourism? With half the world in lockdown, you probably can’t imagine why someone would go to one of the most dangerous countries of the 21st century. But if you find yourself drawn to the danger, or just want to see what the country’s really like, we have you covered with our five-step guide.  

  1. How to get there

So, you’ve decided the numerous government warnings and various horror stories don’t phase you, having now decided to see this mysterious land with your very own eyes. But how do you get there? You might be surprised to learn that it’s relatively easy. There are a few travel companies that regularly organise tours to North Korea, handling the entire process from accommodation to your VISA application. Tourists mean revenue, and the North Korean government is as keen as any to get tourists, and their money, into the country. VISAs are usually granted to most individuals without incident, with the only outright exception being journalists and South Korean citizens, who are routinely denied. Once you’re booked with a travel agency, you’ll travel to Beijing where you can either take a train across the border to Pyongyang or fly directly. 

  1.  Picking the right hotel

Finally, the moment has come. Having eagerly waited for your flights and VISA to be confirmed, you are at long last ready to look at the next stage of your trip: where you will be staying. The most famous hotel in North Korea is the island hotel: Yanggakdo International. Notorious for isolating tourists from the rest of the city below, the island sits in the middle of the Taedong River, which divides the city into east and west. While popular as one of the more luxurious hotels in the city (it’s roughly equivalent to a three-star western hotel), boasting a variety of facilities from a spa and swimming pool, to a casino and bowling alley, it’s commonly believed to be the only hotel for foreign nationals in Pyongyang. In reality, there are over 12  hotels to choose from, each varying drastically in price and accommodation standards to such an extent that most travel companies recommend just three to four of them. 

  1.  What’s Different?

So you’ve arrived in North Korea and are surprised to find that it seems more normal than you expected. Gravity works the same way, the lights come on, and there is food on the table. So what’s different? If you’re new to North Korean politics, then it might seem curious to learn that North Korea is actually a one-party state ruled by the party’s chairman: Kim Jong-Un. The Kim family has ruled the country since its creation in 1948, demanding absolute loyalty from their subjects. Their rule is so absolute that the government abandoned the western calendar system in favour of their own Juche calendar, beginning on the date that Kim-Il-Sung, the country’s founder, was born. Starting from 1912, Juche years increase by one with each year that passes, making 2020 Juche year 109. In a similar fashion (excuse the pun), Pyongyang is governed by strict outfit rules which are maintained by special volunteer “fashion police”. These rules include a list of acceptable haircuts, suits for men, and trousers for women.

  1. Seeing the Sights

So, your flights, VISA, and accommodation are sorted, and now you know a little more about North Korean culture. But what is there to actually see in North Korea? As you might have guessed from the previous paragraph, North Korean society is particularly concerned with respect for its leaders and the governing regime. So, as long as you are respectful, there isn’t really much of a limit to what you can do or see in the capital. While tour-guides are under strict instructions not to leave their tourists unattended, they regularly take requests and often include any local festivals or events in their itinerary. Pyongyang boasts a variety of monuments and spectacles similar to most other cities, including the Arch of Reunification and Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum, which regularly attracts tourists from China and the west. Despite what you may have heard, tourists are also free to engage with any of the locals they meet at sites or festivals. Although, due to the ruling ideology, most of the inhabitants are withdrawn and cautious of drawing attention to themselves by nature, being reluctant to engage with foreigners on a cultural basis rather than because of any specific law. Moreover, whilst Pyongyang is often seen as the glorious capital surrounded by country-wide poverty reminiscent of something from the Hunger Games, tours do actually extend beyond Pyongyang. While the wealth of North Korea differs drastically to the splendour of Pyongyang, tours do operate to cities including Myohyangsan, Kaesong, the ancient capital of Korea, and even the demilitarised zone (DMZ). Tour guides respond openly about the challenges the country is facing and are keen to answer all questions you may have.

  1. What not to do

Despite all that’s mentioned above, visiting North Korea still comes with inherent risks. While predominantly safe, seemingly insignificant things, or things that would be normal in other countries, such as straying from your tour group or taking a poster as a souvenir, are strictly forbidden. In January 2016, Otto Warmbier – a student from America – was arrested and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment with hard labour for attempting to steal a propaganda poster. He suffered a severe neurological injury from an unconfirmed cause shortly after his sentencing, and slipped into a coma. North Korean authorities did not disclose this until June 2017 and he was released back to America that month, where he died six days after his return. With almost no outside accessibility, there is very little home governments can do to protect their citizens accused of violating one of North Korea’s many laws. Punishments are largely at the government’s discretion with few regulations, so even the smallest offense could have huge repercussions. Simply criticising North Korea or its leadership is cause for arrest, making your review on TripAdvisor better left until your departure. 

Ultimately, travelling through North Korea is fraught with obstacles that carry severe penalties. But with careful attention to the local customs and respect for local authorities, thousands of tourists enjoy perfectly “normal” trips to North Korea every year. Currently, however, North Korea has suspended all tourism activity in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19, but the Hermit Kingdom will undoubtedly reopen for business the second the world receives the all-clear. Perhaps after reading this article you’re even tempted to try it yourself one day, or maybe you’d be quite content with a trip that better appeals to your instincts of self-preservation. Either way, we hope that this article has answered your questions about tourism in North Korea, or at least reaffirmed your reasons for sticking to Europe for your next holiday abroad.


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