Several years ago, I went to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as part of a guided tour to see what it was really like. It was an absolutely eye-opening experience, which I’m going to be chronicling here the next few weeks, but before getting into that, I thought I’d answer some questions I frequently get asked about it.
“Isn’t it illegal for you to go? How did you get in?”
While the US State Department recommends against traveling there, it is not illegal for US Citizens to go to North Korea (or anywhere, now that the Cuba policy has changed). There are a handful of tour agencies authorized by the North Korean government, and you must go with one of them. I went with KTG tours and had a great time, but to be honest, there is not much difference between the tours given that the government has most of the say in what’s on the tour, and chooses the tour guides. I mostly chose this particular one because the dates worked well for me. If you do a Google search for North Korea tours, you should be able to find a variety of companies with different tour packages.
Note that if you are a journalist, it will be much more difficult to get in (though not impossible). If you are a South Korean citizen, you are not allowed to go. If you are only of South Korean descent, you are allowed to go, though you might face additional scrutiny.
“But will having a North Korea stamp in my passport ruin future travel for me?”
Your passport will not be stamped (though you might have to explain a quick stay in China).
“Will going there prevent my from getting Global Entry/make me lose Global Entry?”
Not as long as you’re honest. Though it’s unlikely they could have found out had I not, I was truthful about all the countries I had been to when applying for Global Entry, and was still approved.
“OK, so how do I go?”
If you’re a US citizen, you must fly in from Beijing. You are responsible for getting to Beijing; your tour package will include roundtrip airfare between Beijing and Pyongyang. Note that you cannot stay for more than 24 hours in China without a visa. If you are not a US citizen, you can take the train in from Dandong, China. Your tour group will also handle all North Korea visa requirements in advance.
“How much is it?”
My three-night, four-day tour was about $1200 excluding tips; if you want to go for longer, it can easily be several thousand. And this does not include airfare to Beijing.
“But what does that include?”
All of the essentials – lodging, transportation, food, admissions to everywhere. This does not include tips, alcoholic beverages, souvenirs, or a la carte special food orders (like dog meat).
“But why should I go? Is it for me?”
If you want to experience somewhere unlike nowhere else you’ve ever been to before, then yes. If you want to relax, then no. If you like traveling independently and doing your own thing, then no.
“But is it safe? What about all those people I see on TV they hold hostage?”
North Korea is unequivocally the safest place I have ever traveled to if you follow all the rules. The problem is that the rules are often very draconian and different from any where else you’ve ever been. Stay with your group at all times, don’t take pictures unless you’re allowed to, don’t criticize the government, don’t talk about religion, don’t bring in anything you’re supposed to, and so on. This will be drilled into your head before you get there, and when you get there, and will be very hard to forget.
On the plus side, you don’t have to worry about being a victim of any sort of crime – it’s the type of place where you could leave your wallet in the middle of the main square and it would be there the next day untouched. As is the case with most authoritarian governments, when punishments for even minor crimes are so horrendous, people tend not to commit them.
“But what about that American student I just saw on TV who got sentenced 15 years of hard labor?”
If you have a hard time following rules that are very explicitly conveyed to you, and/or you don’t see anything wrong with stealing, an authoritarian regime is probably not the place for you to be visiting.
“How’s the food?”
Some was very good, some was not very good. I would not recommend going solely for the food, as it is much easier to go to South Korea, and the food will be similar.
“Do I need to know Korean?”
No, both of your tour guides will know English. However, knowing a little bit of Korean (or going with someone who does) will make it more interesting.
“When’s the best time of year to go?”
While I did not get to see them, the annual Mass Games are quite a spectacle, and I have heard great things about going while they are occurring. Otherwise, keep in mind that North Korea is pretty far north (sharing even a small border with Russia), and it will get cold in winter.
“Will my cellphone work?”
No, unless you buy a North Korean sim card. I would not recommend putting anything from the North Korean government in your phone. There have been rumors of being able to obtain a signal from South Korea when near the DMZ.
“Will I have internet?”
“What should I do about money?”
The Euro, dollar, and RMB are all accepted there, though debit/credit cards are not.
“So what was it like?”