Are you thinking of traveling to North Korea but unsure of how to make it happen? Start by reading this North Korea travel guide.
I’ve visited North Korea, or officially, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) twice: once in 2015 (Pyongyang / DMZ + Kaesong / Mount Kumgang / Wonsan) and once in 2018 (Rason). However, I rarely brag about visiting North Korea because it isn’t a place I would encourage just anyone to visit. It’s not relaxing or enjoyable. It’s…mentally challenging, to say the least.
You should not travel to North Korea unless you’re willing to consider a perspective different from what mainstream western media tells you. Your experience of North Korea hinges on how you frame it, and it’s vital that you go with an open mind. In fact, I believe I had an easier time digesting and understanding my North Korea travel experiences because of my East Asian heritage, but still I’m struggling to put them all in words.
People who learn that I’ve traveled to North Korea always ask the same questions about how they can do it too, so I finally decided to write this guide to answer all the questions (and bust all the myths). If there’s something you want to know that’s not mentioned here, please leave a comment and I’ll reply!
Can anyone travel to North Korea?
There’s a misconception that it’s almost impossible to visit North Korea when in fact, almost anyone can go to North Korea (except South Korean citizens). Even US citizens were previously able to go but following the high-profile case of Otto Warmbier, the US Department of State has for now banned citizens from traveling to North Korea.
While almost anyone can visit North Korea for tourism, you do not get to go around North Korea freely. You must join a tour, and only travel agencies approved by the North Korean government can organize tours to North Korea. Many of these tours have itineraries covering the same state-designated destinations and attractions.
Throughout your visit, you will be accompanied by at least two North Korean guides from the state-owned tourism bureaus such as KITC (Korea International Travel Company). They are the only North Koreans you’ll interact with extensively for the entire length of your stay.
But you’re not allowed to take photos, right?
Photography is definitely allowed in North Korea, as you can see from this post and others on this site. There are indeed some restrictions: you’re not allowed to take photos of military buildings and vehicles, soldiers in uniform, buildings under construction, or monuments undergoing maintenance. You will be cautioned not to crop any photos of the Great Leader (Kim Il Sung) or Dear Leader (Kim Jong Il). If you try to take a photo when it’s prohibited, your guides will stop you.
The North Korean government is extremely conscious of its image, and it’s understandable if you think about it. After all, photos of North Korea are often used by western media to paint the country in a negative light. The guides I’ve met know all too well how their country is perceived, and that likely reinforces what they’ve learned: to have great pride in what they’ve been able to achieve despite a lack of resources.
Is it very expensive to visit North Korea?
I find that North Korea tour costs are similar to any group adventure tour with accommodation, transport, and meals included. Expect a 5-night tour to cost around 1,200-1,700 euro with return Beijing-Pyongyang flights (entry/exit by rail should be cheaper). This does not include drinking water or tips and gratuities.
When choosing from North Korea travel operators, it’s more important to check their reputation and see what unique itineraries they offer.
Which tour operators would you recommend?
As with other East Asian countries, mutual trust and relationships are deeply rooted in the culture and a trusted North Korea tour company/agent will have latitude to offer more special tours. Koryo Tours and Juche Travel both have a good track record and in-depth knowledge to help you plan your trip (I’m not affiliated with either company).
Your North Korea tour company should guide you through the logistics of your trip, handle visa processing for you, and inform you on all the latest rules and regulations. That brings us to the most important question:
Is it safe to travel to North Korea?
You’re always looked after by guides, food is clean and tasty, and you’re unlikely to become a victim of crime. So yes, it’s safe to travel to North Korea, as long as you follow the rules.
I know what you’re thinking: that the North Korean tourism rules are meant to restrict tourists’ freedom and paint a false picture of the country. Whether you agree with this or not, you need to respect the rules and local laws of any place you visit. Some North Korea tourism rules include:
- Camera lenses beyond a certain zoom level are not allowed.
- Your passport will be kept by your guides upon arrival and returned at departure.
- All devices (mobile phones, cameras, laptops) will be inspected upon entry and exit to/from North Korea. Make sure your phone does not contain any religious or politically sensitive content (e.g. remove Bible apps, existing photos, etc.)
- You must pay respects when visiting statues of North Korea’s leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, or other national monuments.
- Be respectful to guides. Do not ask provocative questions or argue against their narrative.
- You are allowed to talk to locals, but they are very wary of foreigners and most do not speak English or other foreign languages.
- Do not bring any magazines or religious material into North Korea.
- Most North Korea tour companies will allow you to blog about your experience, but journalists are not allowed to visit as tourists or sell stories/images to news publications unless you receive special permission.
Not following the rules means you risk getting yourself, the tour company, and possibly even your North Korean guides in trouble. However, as long as you play by the rules, you’ll be able to glean quite a bit of knowledge beyond what you’re shown or told.
Isn’t it unethical to support the North Korean regime through our tourism?
Discussion about safety when traveling to North Korea inevitably lead to moral concerns about supporting the DPRK regime through tourism. Even if you disagree with how the country is governed, visiting in person is the best way to understand North Korea’s nuances and complexities. Think of it this way: your moral obligation, if any, is to learn as much as possible to make it worth the trip.
Reading up on a place before visiting is always a plus, but for travel to North Korea it’s absolutely essential. I’d recommend you go beyond US news articles and add the following 8 books to your reading list. Want more? Check out this extensive selection of books about North Korea.
Certain “bestsellers” have been excluded from this list as they’re known to be overly dramatized or disrespect/risk the safety of ordinary people in North Korea. For news and analysis, NK News and 38 North are good places to start (but are by no means the only sources).
What will I get to see and experience in North Korea?
Lots of people sneer at North Korea tours, claiming that everything you’ll see is staged or even that all the people in the city are actors. While you’ll come across scenes that are more of performances, I can reassure you the people and buildings are real.
A typical first-time visit to North Korea will includes standard sights in Pyongyang, the DMZ, Kaesong, and some UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the tombs of ancient Korean kings.
How much do things cost in North Korea?
While most North Korea tours include accommodation and three meals a day, you’re expected to buy your own bottled water, snacks, and any out-of-pocket expenses such as riding the Pyongyang tram. Make sure you bring enough extra cash for souvenirs and tips.
The official exchange rate when I visited was US$1 : 100 North Korean won, but if you get to shop at a Pyongyang department store you’ll find a far more favorable exchange rate.
Staying connected in North Korea
More on North Korea
If you haven’t lived in the pre-Internet age, be prepared to feel extremely isolated in North Korea as most tourists will not have any connectivity to the rest of the world. Although data SIM cards are available, they’re prohibitively expensive. If you have to call home, you can make international calls from the lobby at hotels like Yanggakdo Hotel. When I visited in 2015, calls cost US$5/minute.
Another cool activity is to send home postcards that you’ve purchased at souvenir shops. North Korean postal services will mail out your postcards to any international address, with the exception of some countries (definitely not the US or South Korea). It can take weeks or months to get delivered, but it’ll be a great gift when your friends receive it.
What else would you like to know about visiting North Korea?