This trip was taken in February of 2019.
For years North Korea has captured the imagination of people from around the globe, due to the limited access for foreigners and its complete absence from the world wide web, cementing its spot as one of the most mysterious countries on Earth.
Numerous theories and ideas have sprung up and evolved around this small east-Asian nation, ranging from feasible to right out ridiculous.
As far as some people are concerned, everything is possible, and nothing is too out of the ordinary regarding the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).
YOU CAN'T VISIT THE DPRK
To put it simple: yes, it is possible to visit North Korea (I am talking about actually visiting the country, not just crossing the DMZ from South Korea), like any other nation on Earth!
There are two exemptions, however.
The North Korean visa regime allows citizens from all countries to visit, except nationals of neighbouring South Korea.
In the past, even South Koreans were able to travel to specifically designated areas in the DPRK, however after a South Korean tourist got accidently shot dead in 2008 and political tensions between the two countries, all tours were suspended from 2010 onwards.
The other exceptional case are citizens of the United States.
Interestingly, North Korea allows Americans to obtain a tourist visa, however, there is a travel ban for North Korea issued by the American government.
In addition, most, if not all, Western travel companies, running tours in the DPRK, are no longer taking Americans on their tours, as a precaution after the Otto Warmbier incident.
For Americans still interested in visiting this fascinating country, there are a couple of options:
- Americans possessing a dual citizenship have the easiest way to travel
to North Korea. Just use your second passport, instead of your American.
- A second option is to book with a Chinese tour operator. As far as I know, they should take U.S. citizens. You can still do this with an American passport, as it won’t get stamped, when entering the DPRK. Instead, you will receive a blue travel document (as seen below). If you are not bombarding your social media with photos of your visit, no one will ever know, you even went. Make sure to check, if there will be an English-speaking guide though, otherwise you’ll miss out on a lot, if you can’t speak Mandarin!
- I personally wouldn’t recommend it, but if you are just interested in cheaply checking North Korea of your travel list or you have exhausted all alternatives to no avail, you can book a DMZ tour from South Korea, allowing you to step inside the famous blue barracks and cross the border there.
As mentioned before, all other nationalities shouldn’t have any troubles obtaining a tourist visa for North Korea.
In fact, it might very well be one of the easiest visas to get in general!
Tourism in the DPRK is strictly regulated by the ruling party, hence, you must take a guided tour, when visiting the country.
While this obviously has a lot of drawbacks, especially when looking for an unfiltered travel experience, it helps tremendously with the visa process, as the tour company will completely sort it out for you!
NORTH KOREANS CAN'T LEAVE THEIR COUNTRY
Like every other aspect of North Korean life, travel is very much controlled by the central government, which is why it is near impossible for ordinary citizens to leave the country.
Obtaining a passport can take years and might cost one’s lifesavings. Good ties to the ruling party or hefty bribes are a requirement.
As so often is the case, there are exceptions to that rule, however.
Besides government officials, passports are first and foremost issued to workers, being sent abroad to supply North Korea with hard currency. It is suspected that the DPRK makes millions yearly by deducting a “loyalty fee” from these workers’ wages.
Interestingly, North Korean workers can be found all around the globe, from shady operations such as logging camps in Siberia and constructions sides in Poland, to openly conducted ventures such as the Pyongyang restaurant chain, which has locations all over Asia, from Jakarta in Indonesia to Moscow in Russia.
Athletes and students seem to be able to leave the country, as well, certainly bound to specific conditions.
On our train journey back from Dandong to Beijing, we met a group of North Korean students, suggesting some sort of student exchange program between China and the DPRK.
Finally, we have to talk about the Sino-Korean border area.
There not only seems to be a lively exchange of various commodities across the Yalu River, but of people, as well.
Supposedly hundreds of North Koreans are regularly crossing the river back and forth to work in China, bringing hard currency into North Korea.
Together with thousands of North Koreans, who fled the DPRK because of devastating famines in the 1990s and early 2000s, however, rather for economic than ideological reasons, they provide a significant income stream for the DPRK.
Due to that reason, while officially prohibited by the government, it is silently accepted as both the North Koreans and the ruling party benefit.
THE PYONGYANG METRO HAS ONLY TWO STATIONS
Interestingly, one of the more prominent conspiracies about North Korea evolved around the metro in the capital of Pyongyang.
For years, visitors to the DPRK could only use the metro for a single station.
Obviously, people started to question the reason behind it and quickly came up with a solution.
In their mind, the Pyongyang metro did not only have just two stations, between which the train ran, but all the North Koreans on it had to be actors, as well, installed by the government to give the illusion of a functioning underground railway system, when there actually wasn’t one.
According to them, the whole metro was a big scam, only constructed to convey the idea of a developed nation and to serve the North Korean propaganda.
Fast forward to 2010 and supporters of this theory might have been greatly disappointed to find out, that tourists were now permitted on six stations.
In 2014, the rest of the metro stations were finally opened for visitors.
There are two metro lines, with a total of 16 stations, running beneath the city since 1973 and 1978 respectively.
Each station has its own revolutionary theme and is lavishly decorated with marble columns, brass murals, colourful mosaics and chandeliers, comparable to other ex-soviet countries.
They also function as protective bunkers for the capital’s population, with some reaching depths of more than 100 metres.
At the moment, the wo lines exclusively run through the Western part of the city, due to a deadly accident in 1971. During the constructions of a tunnel beneath the Taedong-gang River, apparently more than a hundred workers lost their lives, which prompted the officials to halt the building process.
Whatever the intentions of the North Korean government were, to confine access to the metro, it served as a brilliant marketing tool in the long run.
The generated secrecy, enhanced by conspiracy theories on the web, has led to a downright craze, culminating in special Pyongyang Metro tours, that will take visitors to every single station in the North Korean capital.
ALL THE NORTH KOREANS ARE ACTORS
There will always be those people, who have to take it one step further than anyone else.
While the metro conspiracy is definitely creative, it pales in comparison to the next one.
It is so ridiculously over the top, that it, without a doubt, takes my number one spot on this list.
There are people on the internet, who want you to believe that every single North Korean, you’ll meet during your travels in the DPRK, is an actor!
Yeah, that’s right. The farmer ploughing the field. An actor. The soldier riding a bike. An actor. The young lady on the metro commuting to work. An actor.
They are convinced that, everything is staged and that a visit to the DPRK is a sole mirage, hiding the “real” North Korea.
I get it.
The secretive nature of the country, the all-encompassing control of the government, and the overall lack of information leave a lot of room for interpretations and build the perfect breeding ground for such theories.
Of course, the North Korean government uses these tours for propaganda purposes, to portray a, let’s say, modified picture of the country, where human right issues, famine and repression do not exist.
However, that doesn’t mean that everything you see is fake!
Admittedly, I don’t have proof, that it isn’t the case, but seriously, do you think the North Korean government, or any government for that matter, is capable of coordinating the movements of hundreds, if not thousands, of its citizens daily, just to bamboozle a couple of tourists?
Honestly, if that is the case, kudos to them, because that would be a feat and a half.
Now that I say this though, that North Korean gentleman, selling balloons and offering souvenir photos in front of a painted canvas depicting the Pyongyang skyline, seemed kind of fishy in retrospect…
BREAKING THE LAW WILL LAND YOU IN JAIL
Against common believe, breaking the rules as a tourist in North Korea, won’t land you in jail automatically.
Now, having said that, I strongly advise you to adhere to the law, while inside the country!
Rules and laws might differ greatly to your home country!
What might seem insignificant for a Westerner (like folding a newspaper/banknote with Kim Jong-un’s face on it), could have severe consequences in the DPRK!
Do not push your luck!
There are certain rules you must follow as a tourist, including:
- Do not criticise either the ruling party or the state ideology
- Never make fun of their current or previous leaders
These two are definitely the most important ones. Breaking these is no trivial offense and will have grave consequences!
According to our guides from YPT, most other more serious misdemeanours will either put you under house arrest for the remainder of your visit or cut your trip short and see you boarding the next train or plane back to China.
However, do not worry too much about breaking the rules unintentionally. Your guides will give you a detailed briefing beforehand.
In addition, breaking the law might not only have repercussions for you but your North Korean guides, as well!
So, for their sake and yours, don’t fuck things up! It is not only your life that might be affected, so be a mindful traveller.
In any way, always remember that the DPRK is not your typical tourist destination, so don’t act like it is!
CUSTOMS ARE ONE OF THE TOUGHEST IN THE WORLD
One would think that North Korea, so wary of foreign influence it is restricting the movement of visitors, should have extremely rigid customs, as well.
Scouring the internet for information, the picture painted of the North Korean border crossing doesn’t surprise.
Meticulous luggage inspections, a very thorough search of memory cards and phones (for pictures you shouldn’t have taken e.g. photos of military personnel, people doing hard labour, etc.), and a long list of things, which you are under no circumstances allowed to bring to the DPRK, do not sound like a walk in the park.
Well, as you may expect at this point, this is only partly true.
While all the above might have been the norm a few years back, things seem to have changed quite a bit.
Traveling with Young Pioneer Tours (YPT), one of the most tenured companies regarding tourism in North Korea, probably came in handy, as well, as they have very good ties, due to their longstanding ventures into this isolated nation.
After booking the tour, we were given a very detailed, yet not particularly long list of prohibited items, which included:
- religious texts (the Bible, the Koran, etc.)
- books on North Korea
- specific camera lenses with a high focal length
As long as you stick to the list given to you by the tour operator, you will be absolutely fine!
If you are still in doubt whether you can bring certain things or not, just get in contact with the company and they will clarify it for you.
The customs itself were way more relaxed than I anticipated.
In my train compartment, they only checked the hand luggage, looking for religious texts, as well as guidebooks on the DPRK. In total, only a handful of suitcases and backpacks were searched.
They also registered all our electronic devices. Upon departure, they crosschecked the amount, to make sure we didn’t (accidentally or purposely) leave any inside the country.
Furthermore, they did check some cameras before we crossed back into China, however, only on a sample basis.