A note on travel insurance: While we can’t offer travel insurance policies for North Korea, we strongly encourage travelers to find a travel insurer. Some tour operators might organise this for you, but in case they do not, research carefully. You may not have access to medical care and other essential services while in North Korea.
Since the end of the Korean war in 1953, the Korean Peninsula has been divided by a demilitarised zone (DMZ), separating the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea, DPKR) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).
Despite a peace agreement, the two Koreas are still technically at war and relations remain tense despite the inter-Korean summit in April 2018 when North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un met with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in in the joint security area. This was the first time since the Korean War that a North Korean leader had set foot in South Korea.
North Korea (DPRK) is a communist state; so it's safe to assume that you will be under surveillance. North Korean government security personnel may closely monitor the activities and conversations of visitors. Hotel rooms and phones may be monitored however if a local authority wants to know something, they will generally ask.
Not much is known about North Korea's internal politics due to the country's reclusive nature. Although the internet is available to visitors, and some international TV is available in hotels used by visitors, that access may be curtailed in a crisis. Situations such as internal political instability, protests and/or a rise in tensions on the Korean Peninsula could occur, which means you may get little or no information about this from the local media or authorities.
This is a country were total obedience to the state is the norm. There is no "dissension" in North Korea, and travelers must abide by this if they intend to travel there.
Tourism in North Korea is unlike anything you will have experienced. Travel throughout the country is mostly done via guided tour with international and local guides. It’s a good way to meet other travelers and being in a guided tour can be useful should you need any help.
If you choose not to travel with a tour group, you will still need the services of a local guide, and won’t be able to leave your hotel, sightsee or travel on public transport without one. Defying these regulations will result in punishment for you and your guide.
It’s important to note that not all countries have consular presence or an embassy in North Korea so if you are not prepared to accept limitations on your movements and behavior don’t travel to North Korea as diplomatic assistance may be limited or non-existent.
The following items are prohibited in North Korea:
Contrary to popular belief, you can bring in your laptop, tablet, camera and cell phone. Even though telecommunications are tightly controlled in North Korea, you can purchase a local SIM to make and receive calls, SMS, MMS and surf the net however the rates are high and your calls may be monitored.
To enter North Korea, most visitors will arrive from China and must have a visa to enter. This must be obtained prior to arrival (it’s best to have your tour finalised at least a month in advance, this gives some space in case of delays.) Tour groups specialising in North Korea travel will be able help you sort through the quagmire of complex and ever-changing regulations.
There are some nationalities that aren’t permitted entry to North Korea including South Koreans and Malaysians. In 2017, the US government announced that its citizens were banned from entering North Korea. This ban has been extended to 31 August 2019.
When you arrive in North Korea, your guide will take your passport and keep it. This is just a routine procedure. Make sure your passport looks decent and is valid.
DPRK border officials will sometimes confiscate visitors' cell phones upon arrival, returning the phone only upon departure.
Always follow the rules of your tour as failing to do so can place you and your guide at risk. He/she will be subjected to severe penalties, for assisting your "espionage".
You can talk to local people but the language barrier and lack of freedom of speech can stifle conversation. Locals can also be unsure of visitors. Tour companies make efforts for travelers to experience the local culture and interact with locals.
If you happen to be in North Korea during a national day or festival event, locals tend to be more at ease. Like in any culture, celebration, good food and beverages always help break the ice.
Most, if not all, tour groups are asked to solemnly bow and lay flowers on one or two occasions in front of statues of Kim Il Sung when visiting monuments of national importance. Always act in a respectful manner around images or monuments of the North Korean leader and keep any negative thoughts or opinions to yourself.
It's a criminal offense in North Korea to show disrespect to the country's current and former leaders. Anyone violating the laws of North Korea, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned.
It's also a good idea to avoid talking about politics and religion.
Any unauthorized activities can and will be seen as an attempt at espionage.
If you travel unescorted, authorities will see these actions as attempted espionage. Always stay with a guide and never do anything to draw attention to yourself by local authorities.
International visitors are not allowed to use the local currency (North Korean Won) so bring Euros or Chinese Yuan. Experienced North Korea tour operator Young Pioneer Tours recommends the Yuan as it’s the easiest to get change from. Some places will also accept USD however it’s best to check with your tour guide before exchanging. As there are no ATMs or foreign exchange bureaus in North Korea, you will need to bring enough cash for your entire trip and make sure the bills are clean and new.
Don’t take photos unless you have permission to do so. North Korean government authorities may view taking unauthorized pictures as espionage, and could confiscate cameras, film and/or detain the photographer. This includes photographs of airports, government buildings, military infrastructure, transport hubs or anything which isn’t considered a tourism location.
Photographing scenes of poverty or other situations that may cause a negative impression of the DPRK may also result in confiscation.
Ask permission from your guide before taking photographs in the DPRK, including of officials, soldiers or other people.
Drones are definitely a no-go.
While same sex relationships aren’t illegal in North Korea, authorities generally don’t accept them. It’s important for LGBTQ travelers to remain discreet at all times.
You are unlikely to be affected by any serious crime in North Korea, whether you are traveling in a tour group or independently with a guide. The worst you can expect is petty theft, particularly at Pyongyang airport and in local markets. As always, you should exercise care, be aware of your surroundings and ensure personal belongings are secure. Just because your movements are tightly choreographed doesn’t mean you should get too complacent.
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